A Canadian novelist illuminates the lives and careers of musicians he loves in a dozen critical essays.
Though Robertson (I Was There the Night He Died, 2014, etc.) may not be as well-known to American music fans as most of the cult favorites he celebrates here, he brings a good ear and plenty of critical insight to essays aimed at helping readers discover new favorites or hear more familiar music from a fresh perspective. The book features an eclectic selection of artists, from the much-beloved (Little Richard, the Ramones) to the legendary and seminal (Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Gram Parsons) to the truly obscure (fellow Canadian Willie P. Bennett). The author writes that the book proceeds from his desire “to drop the fictional veil and deeply espouse and explore, at length, the lives of some musicians who have so deeply enriched my own life.” Most of these musicians were personally troubled and plagued by bad professional luck, even those who were initially part of successful bands—e.g., the Byrds’ Gene Clark, the Faces’ Ronnie Lane, and Canned Heat’s Alan Wilson. As with similar collections by Peter Guralnick, Nick Tosches, and others, the aim here is to elevate the profiles of musicians that have moved the author most. Most of them are now dead, many way too young. One pitfall of Robertson’s enthusiasm is his tendency to overstate the case, claiming that the best songs of Willie T. Bennett were “as good as any of the best stuff that John Prine or Guy Clark or even Townes Van Zandt were writing back then.” In general, though, the author’s aim is true and his devotion, sincere.
Despite the title adapted from Samuel Johnson and the occasional reference to Aristotle or Kierkegaard, Robertson does not strain to justify the music as poetry in this solid collection of essays.