A music journalist surveys more than a half-century of popular music.
Coleman (The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss, 2013) has endured severe hearing loss since 2007, but that hasn’t dampened his appreciation of popular music. Here, he takes readers on his personal journey through the songs that have influenced him, most of them from his formative years in the 1960s and ’70s. As with any work of nonfiction based on opinion, many of the author’s statements are bound to raise eyebrows. Jazz lovers will share his appreciation of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” but many may bristle at his claim that every jazz recording since then “only counts really as an afterthought or further meditation,” which is a little like saying that no director has made a great film since Citizen Kane. Of Aretha Franklin, Coleman writes, “no voice in any musical style has ever cleaved as closely to the spirit of ecstasy and its close associate, rapture.” Franklin’s genius is beyond dispute, but opera and jazz fans might counter with Jessye Norman, Maria Callas, Billie Holiday, and other equally rapturous performers. The author begins one chapter by stating that it would have been a shame if the Cuban missile crisis had destroyed the world because that would have meant “[n]o Beatles, no Stones, no Animals or Yardbirds or Kinks or Small Faces or Led Zeppelin”—and, ultimately, no Taylor Swift. Well, yes, but one could be forgiven for thinking that other losses might have been more catastrophic. Even readers who disagree with Coleman’s opinions, however, will appreciate his passion, and he makes many astute observations, as when he writes that the Rolling Stones’ output “was never a music of intimate connection but an animated description of life as it is lived on the edge of its own times.”
Pleasure in music, writes Coleman, “is arguably the most complicated pleasure there is.” This book proves the truth of that statement.