guterman.clips.booth

I wrote this for the Boston Globe in 1992. It's not 100-percent terrible. I'm reprinting it with no changes or fixes.

A ROCK JOURNALIST'S MEMPHIS SOUL STEW

Author: By Jimmy Guterman

Date: 03/15/1992 Page: B43
Section: BOOKS

  • BOOK REVIEW / POPULAR CULTURE
    RYTHM OIL
    A Journey Through the Music of the American South. By Stanley Booth. Pantheon. 254 pp. Illustrated. $22.

    Music critic Jimmy Guterman's most recent book, his fourth, is "Rockin' My Life Away."
  • Stanley Booth's first book about rock 'n' roll's tragic implications, ''Dance With the Devil," was an amazing document of a world falling apart, a close-up yet wide-angle chronicle of the Rolling Stones' 1969 American tour that celebrated the promise and chronicled the demise of the 1960s. "Dance With the Devil" details the countdown to the Altamont Speedway fiasco (a Stones fan was killed by a Hell's Angel security guard during a free concert), yet the book was as much about Booth as it was about Keith Richards and his troupe of gifted misfits.

    The new "Rythm Oil," a collection of Booth's finest magazine work over three decades, takes a similar first-person approach. This usually dooms entertainment journalists, who confuse their proximity to culturally significant folk with validation of their own importance. But as with the best New Journalists, Booth reverses the equation: Because his subject is how deeply performers touch him, his work stays close to them.

    Throughout "Rythm Oil," Booth emphasizes his joy at being part of the music he loves -- singing with Al Green in his office, or listening to Otis Redding cut "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay" days before his death. Booth proudly notes that Memphis bluesman Furry Lewis liked to point at him and pronounce, "Me and him just like brothers." He even claims partial responsibility for Elvis' comeback TV special -- Booth's wild essay for Esquire, "Situation Report: Elvis in Memphis, 1967," had detailed Presley's personal and professional complacency with delight and disgust. Knowing that one's work can influence one's icons makes them more human, but no less worthy.

    Despite the subtitle, "A Journey Through the Music of the American South," Booth always lands back in Memphis. The brief autobiographical passages that introduce each of these 20 essays document his love affair with the city's music and his abhorrence of the city's historic racism. Booth identifies "rythm oil" as a drug indigenous to downtown Memphis, and the likening of his attachment to Memphis music to the pull of a drug is weighty enough to carry the book. As the de facto capital of the Mississippi Delta, Memphis gave birth to Sun and Stax, the two greatest independent labels in the history of American popular music, but the city never gave its greatest advertisements their due: Furry Lewis, for example, made his living sweeping streets, prompting one of the book's most startling remembrances of life on the margins: "One day, back when Hoover was president, I was driving my cart down Beale Street and I seen a rat, sitting on top of a garbage can, eating a onion, crying."

    Booth is drawn to performers who operate proudly as outsiders. (The exception to this is Elvis, but then the King broke every rule imaginable.) The essays here on Keith Richards, country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons and Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips shout with the freedom Booth hears in their music and their troubled lives. So do his profiles of great musicians gone clinically insane (Stax sideman C. F. Freeman 3d, jazz pianist Phineas Newborn Jr.). Booth sees many of his subjects in "Rythm Oil" in heroic proportions and demands that we do so. But if he's working on a self-consciously mythic level (most lugubriously in a fiction that attempts to understand the Robert Johnson legend), he's also down-to-earth when appropriate, as in his essay on B. B. King, when he steps back and lets the blues giant tell his story unfettered.

    A tale of one man's journey, "Rythm Oil" makes no pretense at being a comprehensive look at its subject -- any book about Memphis music that barely notes Jerry Lee Lewis and doesn't even mention James Carr or O. V. Wright has significant gaps. And one hopes that in future works Booth will more directly connect Memphis' brutal tradition of racism with its barrier-breaking music. Most writers who have attempted to explore the buried cultures that gave birth to the blues and soul have used methods reminiscent of Studs Terkel. Booth is much closer to the fiction of Shelby Foote and even Faulkner, and his elevated style gives him a rhetorical distance that emphasizes his spiritual closeness to his material. Throughout "Rythm Oil," Booth challenges himself and his readers to be worthy of the material he unearths, making this an indispensable volume for anyone who cares about American popular music or its most crucial city.

     

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