“Rock writing.” It’s an oxymoron, isn’t it? Rock is noisy, profane, communal; writing is silent, contemplative, and solitary. Writing about music, Elvis Costello once said, is like dancing about architecture. A good Costellian witticism — he has a point — but I doubt even he really believes it. Reading and writing are how we make sense of our experience, and music is no exception: if you care about rock’n’roll, sooner or later you’re going to end up reading about it.
Not that you would necessarily want to after perusing the music section of your local bookstore, at least up until two years ago. In October 2003, Continuum Books, a small academic publisher based jointly in London and New York, rolled out the opening salvo in their brilliant new 33 1/3 series. The idea behind the series is beautifully simple: one book, one author, one album. The result has been a slew — 23 to date — of compact paperback monographs, not much bigger than a CD case, each priced at a tidy $9.95. Each book bears a color reproduction of the album under discussion, the series logo, the album title and author in slim sans serif type, and nothing else. Taken individually, the 33 1/3 books are sleek, seductive little bombs. Taken collectively, they represent a fresh approach in what has become a tired genre.
The man behind 33 1/3 is David Barker, the Editorial Director of Continuum, who saw a niche that was not being filled by the usual big-publisher fare. “A lot of the books I browse in the bookshop are very predictable biographies of bands,” said Barker, speaking by telephone in a crisp British accent. “There’s so many different ways you can write about a great record, and that’s what I wanted to try to do with the series.” Barker was interested in getting a variety of perspectives, and he actively recruited an idiosyncratic roster of writers including Joe Pernice, Colin Meloy, Geoffrey Himes and Kim Cooper. “Let’s get different types of people of writing these,” Barker said of his approach. “Let’s have a few music journalists, let’s have a few musicians, let’s have a few academic professors, a few radio broadcasters, let’s just mix it up a little bit.” The result is a satisfyingly diverse group of authorial voices. You may not know exactly what you’re getting when you buy a 33 1/3 book, but it’s likely to be an unexpected perspective.
In addition, the authors are given unusual flexibility: each writer is free to take his own approach — however quirky — to the album he has chosen. As Franklin Bruno, the author of a great entry on Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces, put it, “Rock criticism is old enough, as a genre, that people are beginning to cast around for different strategies.” Some go for autobiographical or even fictional accounts of how the album fit into their lives, while others tend to rely on close analysis of the music. The former (Joe Pernice on the Smiths, Colin Meloy, of Decemberists fame, on the Replacements’ Let it Be) carry a focus and punch that make most contemporary memoirs seem soggy and trite by comparison. The latter offer a level of insight that has rarely been matched in rock literature. If you identified with the record store clerks in High Fidelity, if you file the Rock Snob’s Dictionary under nonfiction and not humor — in other words, if you’re one of millions of guys just like me — these books are your meat.
Bill Janowitz’s book on the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street is a prime example of the series’ methodology at its best. Here you have a record that is generally considered one of the two or three greatest rock’n’roll albums ever recorded, but nobody ever really explains why. Janowitz, whose day job used to be frontman for Boston indie-rockers Buffalo Tom, nails it. He details the recording process, especially the contributions of overlooked members such as guitarist Mick Taylor and session pianist Nicky Hopkins, with love and attention. He writes movingly, almost poetically, about the Stones’ synthesis of American blues, soul, and country idioms and how it made him feel as a teenaged punk-rocker to hear this music reimagined so richly. His understanding of the record’s sonic landscape — dark, messy, potent — is unparalleled. It may be the best book ever written on rock’n’roll.
Exile was probably a given, but the varied approaches encouraged by the 33 1/3’s editorial mandate correspond fittingly with the question of which albums get chosen. By and large, accepted canonical works do not interest Continuum’s stable. There’s only one Beatles and one Hendrix: you’ll look in vain for Clapton, the Who, the Band, the Doors, Van Morrison, the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers Band, and all the other soggy staples of FM classic rock radio. Most notably, there is not a single entry on Bob Dylan, who has inspired by a wide margin more shoddy bullshit writing than any single artist ever.
In other words, there’s a certain revisionist slant at play here: it’s a lost narrative of rock’n’roll, a story from the margins. “It is an interesting question in how obscure can you go with this series,” said Barker. In November, Continuum will publish Kim Cooper’s book on cult favorite Neutral Milk Hotel’s underground classic In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. ”She’s done a fantastic job with the book,” says Barker, “but that album has only sold 140,000 copies. I have no idea how many people even know about that record.”
This is not the kind of talk you will hear from the honchos at Random House or Time Warner. Which is why the 33 1/3 books are so refreshing: the sense of adventurousness, of play, of humor and romance and sweat and volume. Asking a bunch of fans to write about their favorite albums would be a dubious proposition if the fans in question weren’t generally such gifted writers. (“The kind of people who want to write a whole book about one album,” Bruno told me, a bit archly, “are not interested in doing slapdash jobs.”) But it’s not the technique or the pedigree that makes these books so appealing, it’s the passion. J. Niimi, for example, told me that he tracked down every extant R.E.M. recording — every bootleg, every import, every B-side — in preparation for writing his book about Murmur. Now that’s a fan, in the best possible sense of the word. All of the 33 1/3 authors share this evident joy in their subject, and it’s infectious — it cannot be faked. Which is true of rock’n’roll as well, if you think about it.