November 2, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Carlo Rotella's new essay collection Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories crisply explores the origins and intersection of craft and art in a diverse batch of settings that range from the world of boxing to a jazz fantasy camp.
Elif Batuman wrote of the book:
"It's a tremendous pleasure to tour America with Carlo Rotella, whose essays take us from a Slovenian-Cleveland-style polka club in Chicago, to a 'jazz fantasy camp' in upstate New York, to the Las Vegas mall where Floyd Mayweather Jr. is getting a pedicure. Full of sharp dialogue, true to the ideals of craft and adventure, this essay collection reads like a great road novel."
In his own words, here is Carlo Rotella's Book Notes music playlist for his essay collection, Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories:
There's a lot of music in this book. Some of the pieces in it are directly about blues, polka, duranguense, or jazz. The pieces that are about something else—fighting, running a movie studio or a megachurch, fear of clowns, genre fiction, and my old neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, to name a half-dozen something elses—are all infused with music in one way or another. Boxers, for instance, obsess over choosing a theme song to accompany their ritual prefight march to the ring. Writers, as these Book Notes essays make clear, have been known to do something similar, if less public.
The book's title comes from a piece I wrote about a week I spent at jazz fantasy camp. I learned a lot there not only about people who go around all day with music in their heads (a tribe I belong to) but also about teaching and learning. One of the most important lessons about improvisation taught at this camp was that the music you wish you could play is inside the music you can already play, not out there somewhere in an undiscovered realm of genius. Teachers urged their pupils to strip down their playing to its essence, rather than cluttering the soundscape with rote licks and ever-faster noodling. That turns out to be broadly applicable advice.
One of the book's main themes is that creative work begins to have human import, to take recognizable signifying form, to the extent that it's constrained by the conditions in which it's made: how you learn to play, who you learn from, how you do or don't make a living at it, what your talent and training do and don't allow, all the ways in which an inchoate inspiration takes shape as it's poured into the vessels of possibility made available to you. Nobody just plays, in a vacuum; nobody just fights, or writes, or turns himself into a Canadian horror clown (they exist; it's in the book). You come to a craft in a time and place and in some kind of company, and there's often a story in that journey.
These blues stalwarts exemplify two different kinds of virtuosity. Guy's guitar playing has always given the impression that he chafes at the limits imposed by blues form and would happily vault the genre fence and ramble in the fields of noise beyond. He won fame and influence by rattling the bars of the genre as a sideman and then as a guitar hero. Magic Slim, on the other hand, has produced a major body of work by coloring entirely inside the lines as they were defined in the long-elapsed golden age of Chicago blues. Everybody plays shuffles; Magic Slim and the Teardrops play them right.
I convinced a magazine to send me to Chicago to seek out music other than the blues I grew up on, and ended up writing a piece on polka—not just the old Eastern European styles but also their first cousins in contemporary Mexican music, which is of course full of polkas and waltzes. The pasito duranguense played by Grupo Montéz and others is a frantic banda style that sounds as if it's being played by a many-handed giant who's drinking champagne and spinning around in circles. I also found my way to punk polka, the premier local exponents of which are the Polkaholics, a party band that combines jet-engine guitar, cheerful inattention to niceties of vocal pitch, and serious commitment to polka tradition. Wally! is their Tommy, a rock opera about the life of Li'l Wally Jagiello, the Muddy Waters of the rough-and-ready polka subgenre known as "honky style."
Charles Farrell, Hope Springs Eternal
The best piece of boxing-inspired art I know of. Farrell, a formidable out-pianist, kept his incoming phone messages from his years as a boxing manager and later fashioned them into the core of this suite. He and the saxophonist Evan Parker carry on a spare, searching conversation that flows over, behind, and around the answering-machine messages and a deeper sonic background, a staticky wallpaper of looped phone noise from which emerge imprecations and invocations. The messages, each a little poem in its own right, come in from wiseguys calling to make propositions (and, later, threats) and from fighters who plead for a bout, pathetically modest sums of money, or just some understanding. "Please look out for me," says a heavyweight who once fought Mike Tyson in the street. "Charles, don't leave me in the cold like this. Help me out, man, let's get this thing together. . .You said you was wrong, I said I was wrong, I know I fucked up. . .Charles, please, return my call." The piano calls back—too late, of course, but it says what Charles would have said were he not obliged by fight-world logic to look out for number one. It's enough to break your heart, but what you won't find anywhere in this piece is sentimentality.
William DeVaughn, "Be Thankful for What You've Got"
Led Zeppelin, "The Ocean"
There are a handful of essays in the book about growing up on the South Side in the 1970s. Mainstream pop music, as I encountered it at the time, took the form of two looming monoliths: arena rock and the soul-funk combine. Until I was about twelve, I was satisfied to pick and choose from among what they offered. Then I got old enough to start looking for options, one of which was blues, which felt connected to the monoliths but also separate enough and human-scaled enough, as a local scene, to qualify as a more sustaining alternative. But I did notice, once I settled into the sanctuary of Buddy Guy's Checkerboard Lounge, that bluesy soul singers like DeVaughn and builders of crunching pentatonic rock grooves like Jimmy Page had been there before me, figuratively speaking, and taken notes.
The Louvin Brothers, "The Knoxville Girl"
Merle Haggard, "Misery and Gin"
I don't listen to music while I'm actually writing, but I make a point of listening and playing during breaks. (Added bonus: bending guitar notes counteracts the strain that typing can put on the wrists and hands.) Country music, in particular, feels as if it feeds my writing faculties. Its tradition of songcraft offers thousands of rich models of strong feeling delivered in a compact, sturdy package. The Louvins' murder ballad, a classic of chicken-fried noir, is a pearl of narrative concision, conjuring a storm of guilt and rage with just a few lines and the brothers' trademark blood-harmony. When the intertwined voices of the Good Louvin and the Bad One sing the phrase "a town we all know well," it makes you feel somehow complicit in the crime. Finally, I include Haggard's majestic barroom weeper "Misery and Gin" in tribute to my daughters, who have been Merle fans from the crib onward. For years they thought the chorus went, "Here I am again, mixing misery and gym."
Carlo Rotella and Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories links:
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