[Editor's Note: In honor of our 33 1/3 sale — buy two new (not used or sale) books from Continuum Books' 33 1/3 series, featuring critical writing on seminal albums, and get a third free — we're pleased to feature blog posts from some of the people behind the 33 1/3 series.]
1. George W. S. Trow, Within the Context of No Context
Trow, an essayist and occasional fiction writer who died last year, wrote this essay in 1980 — a meditation on television, American culture, the cult of celebrity, and where we are going and what we are doing in this particular handbasket. It's one of the most astonishing pieces of writing I've ever seen: not for its argument, as strong as it is, but for its sheer slashing style. Here's a little piece of it from its original appearance in The New Yorker (complete with charming extra hyphen in the title). I ripped off Trow's short-sections-with-headlines-that-sometimes-repeat trick outright for Live at the Apollo, and to make up for that, quoted a couple of lines from it, in a fairly inappropriate context — which seemed perversely appropriate.
2. Robert Christgau, Rock Albums of the '70s: A Critical Guide
I bought a used copy of this book in 1987 or so, and spent weeks poring over every page and memorizing the best bits. There are a few other writers who've managed to pull off music-criticism-as-art, but Christgau is almost alone in managing to encapsulate what he's actually hearing in a few lapidary words — he really cares about getting it right. See, for instance, this typical column from 1979, and note not only how dense and funny his prose is, but that he later went back and revised half of those reviews for the book. (While you're digging around Christgau's site, don't miss his dead-on, prescient and hilarious 188-word review of Nirvana's In Utero.) A few passages in Live at the Apollo are my wide-of-the-mark attempt to approximate the kind of compact analysis that's Christgau's specialty; I probably stole a few phrases and rhythms from him, too.
3. James Brown with Bruce Tucker, The Godfather of Soul
James Brown actually wrote (or dictated, or somehow took part in) two autobiographies. I've written about this at length before, but the short version is that this one — the first one, originally published in 1986 — is way, way, way better. It's a look into the brilliant, loopy mind of one of the 20th century's greatest musicians, and the prime source for an awful lot of my own book's information and speculation.
4. Jerome Rothenberg, ed., Technicians of the Sacred
You won't find any phrases from this one in Live at the Apollo — at least, I don't think you will. It's a brilliantly curated anthology of poetry from the global oral tradition and from the American avant-garde of the '60s and '70s, most of which smashes open the walls of what normally counts as "poetry." Does it have anything to do with James Brown's work? Only by analogy to the Godfather's hammer-blow reinvention of what counted as a "pop song." But the way I used it for writing my 33 1/3 book was the same way I use it for other work I do: opening it to a random selection and taking its inspiration to clear away creative blocks, in the same way one might use Brian Eno's "Oblique Strategies." There's always another way to use language, and this book has hundreds of the most thrilling examples I've ever seen on the page.
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Douglas Wolk is the author of 33 1/3: Live at the Apollo (Continuum, 2004) and Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean (Da Capo, 2007). He writes about comic books, pop music, technology and politics for magazines, newspapers and Web sites including Blender, Rolling Stone, Wired, the New York Times, The New Republic, Salon.com, and Publishers Weekly. He lives in Portland.
Books mentioned in this post
Douglas Wolk is the author of James Brown: Live at the Apollo (33 1/3 Series)