As the title suggests, this is a wide-ranging exploration of the hold that music has on so many of us, from the esoteric instruments to which some devote their lives to the musicians who inspire loyal obsession long after their popular heydays.
This book is as much about Washington Post Magazine deputy editor Rowell (The Train of Small Mercies, 2010) and his musical passions (including a collection of percussion instruments from around the world) as it is about the ostensible subjects of each chapter. But by focusing so narrowly—e.g., on the “hang,” an obscure, expensive instrument in Switzerland, the popular rise and decline of the Hammond organ, or the cult appeal of musical aggression known as “grindcore”—the author offers revelations that seem universal, if often ineffable. Though the author is not a music critic—after all, he reveres Yes and other reviled prog rock acts—he has been a drummer since boyhood but apparently not a professional musician, and he offers no evidence that he is a particularly proficient one. He might best be described as a music geek who writes engaging features about idiosyncratic musical passions, including the Appalachian “canjoe,” a kind of single-string banjo made of a stick and a can that earned its maker an appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. Rowell also provides a fascinating account of the bipartisan political machinations that helped promote Yes for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It was led by the strategist for Rick Santorum’s presidential run, though Santorum, it turns out, is more of a Styx partisan. “The one thing we’ve absolutely sworn off is negative campaigning,” said the operative. “You’re not going to see any anti–Moody Blues ads.” Every story concerns music, but the heart of each is people—the ones who make the music or the instruments and the ones whose lives depend on it.
Readers who have had any sort of musical passion should find these stories compelling.