Deep listening

From Little Rock to CBGB's and Morocco with Robert Palmer

The thrill of an anthology of the late Robert Palmer's work is a far cry from the years-ago thrill of watching for his byline, wondering what he was up to — or out to lunch with — now. When he wrote about something you were already onto, he was likely to take you out into the deep waters of the subject, find connections of which you were unaware. Could be in Rolling Stone or The New York Times or Penthouse. Could be he'd be writing about the Afro-Cuban clave beat underpinning of Bo Diddley's chunk-chunk-a-chunk-chunkchunk rhythm guitar. Could be he'd connect dots between Miles Davis' Kind of Blue and Terry Riley's minimalist classic "In C," or the production of the Band's Music from Big Pink to classic-era Stax. Could be an account of time with Jerry Lee Lewis, painting "The Killer" as a character as wild as his image — and then some.

But many times you could count on Palmer to turn you on to something really new. Like a jazz answer to Sgt. Pepper's in Carla Bley's Escalator Over the Hill, or The Nonesuch World Explorer, including field recordings of the Indonesian "Monkey Chant," 100 guys chanting the syllable "chak" in accelerating, trance-inducing, rhythmic permutations. Or Joy Division or Sonic Youth or X.

Of the wave of music writers who arrived in the late 1960s and 1970s, Palmer's writing couldn't compete with the untethered mania of Lester Bangs or the lit-crit Americana canvas of Greil Marcus, to name two contemporaries. But Palmer's combination of depth and breadth may be unequaled, and that no doubt contributed to the engaged conversations he was able to have with musicians from Philip Glass to Muddy Waters, Dexter Gordon to John and Yoko.

On the downside, while his observations are consistently insightful, his prose can be utilitarian and even a tad didactic, cobbled with instructions to "remember this" or "keep in mind that ..."; his ambitious Downbeat piece "What is American Music" comes across as a flow-chart impersonating an essay, with verbal arrows and asterisks for figures from Stephen Foster to John Cage to Charlie Christian. But he could rise to poetry, as in his classic book Deep Blues (a "post-grad-level course" in the topic, one obit writer observed) and as he does at times here. For instance, here's how he recounts the arrival of Robbie Robertson, later to be guitarist in the Band, in Helena, Ark., home of the group's drummer-to-be, Levon Helm:

Levon's dad, a cotton farmer, told tales that made them split their sides laughing, and his mother cooked food that made them split their sides eating. Later, with Levon at the wheel, Robbie had a look at the town. There were black folks everywhere — he could remember seeing only a few in his entire life — and even the white folk talked like them, in a thick, rolling Afro-English that came out as heavy and sweet as molasses but could turn acrid and turpentine if your accent or behavior were strange.

More important, though, Palmer had an ear for the poetry of his subjects. "This is the troublest world," the bluesman Robert Pete Williams tells him, packing all his weariness into a twisted adjective.

And although Palmer was more given to his passions than what he held in contempt, he didn't mince words for music that failed him. As editor Anthony DeCurtis notes in his introduction, Palmer had little patience for the Ramones ("play dumb in order to look cool"), Madonna live ("needs to see a good vocal coach") or Springsteen ("calculated, pretentious, only sporadically convincing"). And while his allegiance to a sort of improvisatory jazz vitalism identifies the wild heart of music, history hardly backs his '70s judgment in "The Dominion of the Black Musician" that Keith Jarrett is "irrelevant to the ongoing evolution of jazz."

The articles, book excerpts and liner notes collected here cover the gamut of Palmer's interests, including chapters sampling his writings on blues, rock 'n' roll pioneers, classic rock, soul and R&B (can't forget the "5" Royales), punk, world music, minimalism and jazz, plus chapters covering John Lennon and Yoko Ono, pilgrimages to meet the hereditary master musicians of Jajouka in Morocco, and "big picture" pieces trying to establish the true breadth of American music and define the difference between rock 'n' roll and rock. And still the book might have been longer than its nearly 500 pages, and could have really used a roundup of another 100 or so Palmer-recommended discs, books and videos.

DeCurtis gives the reader some idea of Palmer's life arc: a white teen growing up in Little Rock, Ark., in the 1950s, who crossed the line into an all-black world of R&B; a young horn player who crossed paths in the South with Robbie Robertson and the others in the Hawks (later to become the Band), then moved to New York where he became a member of the eclectic rock group Insect Trust (fondly remembered for, among other things, setting Thomas Pynchon to music). The music journalism followed, including books about the blues, rock, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Stones, not to mention work on several music documentaries and as a producer for Fat Possum records. Drug troubles followed as well, heroin and coke, eventually leading to the Hep C and his death in 1997 at 52.

A daughter, Augusta Palmer*, from the first of his four marriages, put together the movie The Hand of Fatima about his life, focusing on his Moroccan sojourns. It opened to mixed reviews last year, but the positive ones suggest it captures a life in thrall of music. Whether the film pulls it off or not, you can be thankful for these reports on what he heard — and the way they make you want to hear music for yourself.

*The original version of this article said the film was put together by Augusta Palmer and one of Robert Palmer's ex-wives. Augusta Palmer wrote in an e-mail: "The film was "put together" (written, conceived, edited, shot, financed, directed) by me, with the assistance of my editor & co-producer Chris Arnold (who also happens to be my husband) and a capable crew. ... I have great respect and love for all of my dad's wives, but the praise or the blame for the film rests with me." Ex-wife, Debra Rae Cohen, however, Augusta wrote, "appears on screen more than my father's other wives."

W. Kim Heron is the editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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