David Byrne has always had a devoted audience that skews to the intellectual. Sytze Steenstraâ€™s Song and Circumstance: The Work of David Byrne from Talking Heads to Present (Continuum) is a book that will engage even the most informed fans of his work. Steenstra teaches at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, and his book is very much a scholarly pursuit. Byrneâ€™s entire artistic output is consideredâ€”as a musician, visual artist, filmmaker, producer and label headâ€”starting with his early years as a Rhode Island School of Design dropout drawn to New Yorkâ€™s downtown art scene.
Steenstra begins by mapping Byrneâ€™s formative influences, which went well beyond music to include subjects like cybernetics (a passion Byrne would later discover he shared with Brian Eno), the Art & Language movement, the psychoanalytical work of Carl Jung, and the comparative mythology of Joseph Campbell. Byrne seems to have studied these ideas with the intensity of a devoted graduate student at the same time he was hanging out at places like CBGBs and the Kitchen. Itâ€™s surprising how consciously and successfully Byrne incorporated these ideas into early recordings like My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Without the benefits of hindsight, it was a strange mix of theory and musical ideas that seems unlikely at best, but now we know better. Byrne even went so far as to include a bibliography with the press materials for Remain in Light, intended to help interviewers understand the work. It was probably the first and last time most rock writers found themselves considering works like African Rhythm and African Sensibility: Aesthetics and Social Action in African Musical Idioms and A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction.
Byrne was always interested in foreign cultures, and his curiosity increased as the Talking Heads became more successful. After their last record, rather than go on a tour that promised to make everyone substantial money, Byrne decided to travel to Brazil to make a documentary on the CandomblÃ© religion. In one of the best chapters, â€œRock Star and Ethnographer,â€ Seenstra looks at Byrneâ€™s complex relationship with world musicâ€”a term Byrne dislikes. The Talking Heads were both praised and disparaged by critics for the heavy foreign musical influences (especially African), a dynamic that intensified with Byrne’s solo records like Rei Momo, which was an exploration in Latin music. Steenstra offers a nuanced take on issues of race, legitimacy and authenticity raised by Byrneâ€™s work, including his role as head of the Luaka Bop label. It can be heavy reading at times, and there is a lot of scholarly thought to absorb, but Seenstraâ€™s book is well worth it for the fascinating insights it offers into Byrneâ€™s work.
Rohan Kriwaczek hijacks the tone and style of academic writing (and leaves the rest) in his strange and clever On the Many Deaths of Amanda Palmer: And the Many Crimes of Tobias James (Overlook). First, a few facts. Amanda Palmer is a solo artist and one half of the former duo Dresden Dolls. She has a small but devoted audience. And sheâ€™s not dead. So, what is this book? It purports to be a study of a collection of tributes by fans posted online following the unsolved murder of Palmer. These tributes showed an unusual set of shared literary traits which led Kriwaczek and others to study them and conclude they formed a genre in their own right, eventually named palmeresque.
From there things get complex. A first edition of the book is confiscated by the Boston Police Department before its release. A second edition is made public with many sections blacked out. A mysterious man named Tobias James whose photo looks suspiciously like Kriwaczek is a suspect in Palmerâ€™s death. Itâ€™s all pretty bizarre, gothic and fanciful, like Palmerâ€™s music, which youâ€™re probably either going to really like or not like at all. Thereâ€™s no doubt Palmer fans will love the bookâ€”itâ€™s actually a tribute by Palmer to her fans disguised as a tribute by her fans to Palmer.
I was drawn to the book more by the concept than the subject. And Kriwaczek (and whoever-the-hell-else actually wrote this) does do an admirable job of taking the traditional book in new directions. Itâ€™s not clear if the palmeresques included in the book were actually written by Palmer fans. You can visit www.amandapalmertrust.com to submit your own palmeresque, and who knows, maybe itâ€™ll make it into a third edition. The bookâ€™s conclusion feels open-ended, as if a future life online is in store.
Kriwaczekâ€™s writing is best described as invented history, and he takes the ruse well beyond this single book. He is also the author of An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin. Kriwaczek the writerâ€”his biography and even praise for his booksâ€”is also at least a partial invention. He uses just enough facts, or references to actual events, to make it hard to know when heâ€™s making something upâ€”without going to your computer every few minutes to fact-check. The introduction of On the Many Deaths of Amanda Palmer, by a professor Richard D. Davenport, explains the study of doxithanotology. A google search for â€œdoxithanotologyâ€ yields one hitâ€”on the Amanda Palmer Trust website. For every faux scientific conclusion, some of which can be quite funny, Kriwaczek still manages some inspired thinking about real issues like the slippery nature of the Internet and relationships between artists and their fans.
Here are some other notable music books that have been published this spring or will be out this summer. Nelson George revisits his earlier writing and uses the pivotal album to examine Jacksonâ€™s life, career and death in Thriller: The Musical Life of Michael Jackson (DaCapo Press). Tom Nolan reveals the great clarinetist and one of jazzâ€™s most enigmatic figures in Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake: The Life of Artie Shaw (W.W. Norton). For those who still believe Metallicaâ€™s best record was Kill â€˜Em Allâ€”Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir (HarperCollins). Brandon LaBelle applies urban studies and the study of popular culture to debates over issues like noise pollution in Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life; and David Toop looks at the entire spectrum of sound, including its darker roles as an invader in our lives in Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener (both Continuum). In Punk Slash! Musicals: Tracking Slip-Sync on Film (University of Texas Press), David Laderman takes a critical look at films like Syd and Nancy that are Hollywood representations of punk. New titles in the 33 1/3 series: Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back by Christopher Weingarten; Nine Inch Nailsâ€™ Pretty Hate Machine by Daphne Carr; Pavementâ€™s Wowee Zowee by Bryan Charles; AC/DCâ€™s Highway to Hell by Joe Bonomo; and Van Dyke Parksâ€™ Song Cycle by Richard Henderson (all Continuum). Richard Williams looks at the record and the man that broke modal jazz to the masses in The Blue Moment: Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and the Remaking of Modern Music (W.W. Norton). Marvin D. Sterling explores the Japanese fascination with Jamaican musical culture in Babylon East: Performing Dancehall, Roots Reggae, and Rastafari in Japan (Duke University Press). Tony Oâ€™Neill, former member of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, continues his literary career with a new novel, Sick City (Harper Perennial), and as co-author with Cherie Currie of Neon Angel: A Memoir of The Runaways (HarperCollins/ It Books). Midnight at the Barrelhouse: The Johnny Otis Story (University of Minnesota Press) by George Lipsitz is a biography of the musician, producer and father of Shuggie. True Hip-Hop (Mark Batty Publisher) features the photography of Mike Schreiber. Jason Hartley proposes a seemingly earnest (you decide) theory for why artistic genius seems to fade with age in The Advanced Genius Theory: Are They Out of Their Minds or Ahead of Their Time? (Simon and Schuster). Randy Schmidt goes beyond bad anorexia clichÃ©s in Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter (Chicago Review Press). Fred Goodman offers an insiderâ€™s perspective on an industry in flux in Fortune’s Fool: Edgar Bronfman, Jr., Warner Music, and an Industry in Crisis (Simon & Schuster).
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