Robert Palmer
Rock & Roll: An Unruly History

Pinky and index finger extended like devil's horns, the flickering flame of a Bic lighter raised high, a concertgoer pays mute tribute to rock music. Little do most people know that this stereotypical gesture has roots in the Bacchanalian festivals of the ancient Greeks, who struck a similar pose as they were swept into a rapture of music, dancing, and fornicating. Such illuminative trivia is typical of Rock & Roll: An Unruly History by former Rolling Stone writer and New York Times critic Robert Palmer, published as the companion volume to the recent PBS/BBC 10-part television special.

Palmer's rigorous scholarship yields fascinating insights into the origins of rock. He offers a lengthy discussion on the call-and-response schematic of Afro-Cuban drumming and its vital influence on the highly rhythmic black gospel music of the Southern U.S., then argues that the fusion of gospel with swing jazz was integral to the complicated birth of what we now consider rock. He also posits that rock is not an American phenomenon but a global one, with roots in eighth-century Arabic trance that are every bit as important as the advent of the electric guitar.

Palmer rounds out the study with special attention to the American backlash against psychedelic rockers like Pink Floyd (see the Velvet Underground and the Stooges), giving the U.S. proper credit for catalyzing the redemocratization of rock, but he admits that this intention would not be fully realized until the Sex Pistols. With reggae, hip hop, and industrial lumped into the last 10 pages of the book, it's clear that, as far as Palmer is concerned, late-'70s punk is the most recent development of any enduring importance.

It is precisely this lopsided selectivity that makes Rock & Roll both a maddening and gripping narrative. Still, at least Palmer avoids the pitfalls of other rock historians who ambitiously attempt to summarize the genre's history from start to finish but wind up delivering a superficial, unenlightening compendium. As if to compensate for his omissions, Palmer includes blurblike snippets of information that run across the tops of the pages. With plenty of eye-catching photos and a reader-friendly structure, Palmer's magnum opus offers an absorbing read for both the casual rock fan and the ardent student of music.

— Andrew Lentz

Photography by Charles Peterson
Screaming Life: A Chronicle of the Seattle Music Scene

The bands that participated in the fledgling hard-rock scene of the Pacific Northwest, circa 1990, shared an affinity for superlatives. Album titles like Louder Than Love and Superfuzz Bigmuff reflected volume and mass, while a “Mother Love Bone” was an erection to shame all others. One group, Nirvana, named itself after the highest (and most unattainable) state of human bliss. Likewise, in one form or another, most of the groups of the Seattle contingent did eventually achieve bigness. Some, inevitably, have become ballooning caricatures of themselves, while others have left their legacies to do the ballooning, as they so often do.

Despite its overblown title, Screaming Life, a collection of images by Sub Pop's regular photographer, Charles Peterson, re-creates a day when the Seattle “scene” was still quite small. With each yearbook shot of once-local bands supporting each other's shows or helping stuff record sleeves in Sub Pop's bathroom/storage space, the very process of rock stardom is refreshingly demystified.

The sort of tome you might have pitched as a book report in the seventh grade, Screaming Life includes 18 pages of text followed by a whole mess of pictures. Nirvana biographer Michael Azerrad opens with an essayish assessment of the Seattle movement, smartly linking Peterson's poetically thrashy photographs to the music they accompanied on album sleeves (“It was like Peterson was shooting with a fuzzbox on his lens,” he writes). Pages are not numbered in the slim volume; at $35 you get about three pages to the dollar. The book does come with a bonus, however — a CD of prototypical Seattle sounds, including Nirvana's standout “Negative Creep” and other early cuts by the Screaming Trees, Pearl Jam precursor Green River, and more.

Given its like-minded subject matter, the book could use more surprises like Peterson's bittersweet photo of the late urban poet Steven Jesse Bernstein. Still, Screaming Life does a nice job of capturing an era that already seems hazy. In Peterson's notes for the CD, he writes, “I would never do it again; I also would never trade those days for any others.”

— James Sullivan

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