Da Capo Best Music Writing 2003
Edited by Matt Groening & Paul Bresnick (Da Capo Press)
Four volumes into its annual roundup of pop music writing, Da Capo appears uncertain how to top the terrifically varied 2001 and 2002 entries. Guest editor Matt Groening seems a slightly odd choice, and at just under 300 pages, his contribution to the series is neither long nor diverse enough to avoid feeling like something of a letdown. Still, Groening makes some fine choices, rescuing a number of terrific pieces from recycling-bin obscurity: Lynn Hirschberg reports on the manufacture of a (failed) teen-pop phenom; The Onion skewers indie rock insularity; and Gary Giddins offers a detailed year-by-year map of postwar jazz. I often found myself reading on despite a disinterest in the stories’ subjects—surely the hallmark of good journalism—for example, Terry McDermott’s blow-by-blow history (choose your own pun) of gangsta-rap pioneers N.W.A. Elvis Costello’s recent Vanity Fair snippet, matching each hour of the day with its ideal musical accompaniment, is the perfect bon-bon to bring this banquet—or, at least, really good buffet— to a close.
Best of all, though, are four selections concerning the preservation of roots music: Jay McInerney relates the late-in-life rediscovery of bluesman R.L. Burnside; Michael Hall tells us how archivist Mack McCormick rescued Robert Johnson from obscurity—and got robbed of the credit; Michael Corcoran delves into the story of obscure gospel shouter Washington Phillips, discovering everything we thought we knew about him was wrong; and Philip Gourevitch offers us a glimpse into the truly unusual soul of James Brown (an amazing man, whether you like “Hot Pants” or not). The importance of such writing—about the past that trembles on the very edge of living memory—can hardly be overstated. Why does anyone write, except to stop time?