Books by Steve Waksman

Released: Jan. 1, 2000

Cultural historian Waksman (Kennedy School of Government, Harvard) debuts with an engrossing reconstruction of a rarely acknowledged 'secret history—: the role of the electric guitar in shaping contemporary commercial-music culture. Waksman is interested in both the instrument's artistic-technological evolution and its emergence as a signifier of sexual potency and of youth-culture profitability. Though pure technology is not neglected here, Waksman focuses on a disparate gallery of personalities—Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Jimmy Page—who were key players in this progression, as well as on the hardscrabble environments that nurtured this ragged-sounding music, from the early permutations of Nashville's —Music Row— to the intense nightclub competitions of the 1950s Chicago blues scene. Waksman knits his history together by drawing surprising connections, such as the —accidental— crossovers between early guitar innovators like Depression-era bluesman Charlie Christian and both country maverick Chet Atkins, —Mister Guitar——whose playing tactics were, like Christian's, rooted in more obscure 'swing— styles—and Les Paul, arguably the single individual most closely associated with the modernized electric guitar. Paul's chapter is poignant, evoking first a youthful American archetype as a restlessly ambitious tinkerer, and eventually an equally domestic archetype he embodied along with his 1950s collaborator/then-wife Mary Ford. Later chapters trace the inevitable mutations of these masculine guitar-oriented pop archetypes. Shrewdly, Waksman focuses on Jimi Hendrix; Detroit's —revolutionary— punk/noise-rock precursors, the MC5; and Led Zeppelin, eclectic experimenters who were also the progenitors of the bombastic, ultracommercial —cock rock— mode. Throughout, Waksman plays to both ax-heads and bookworms, so that prickly issues of race, sexuality, appropriation, commodification, and technical authorship are also addressed in this perceptive and overdue narrative of a singularly American machine. (23 halftones) Read full book review >