While no one can agree on who first came up with the saying that writing about music is like dancing about architecture—Frank Zappa? Laurie Anderson? Thelonious Monk? Martin Mull?—it doesn’t really matter anyway, because it’s wrong. Many good words have been devoted to music over the years by fans and critics and scholars and auteurs, and there’s no need to write any of it off just for the sake of a snarky bon mot.
If you’re so inclined, the staff at Pitchfork has put together an excellent list of their 60 Favorite Music Books. From the late great Lester Bangs up through last year’s surprise hit How to Wreck a Nice Beach, Dave Tompkins’ history of the vocoder, it’s a catalog of some of the best music writing over the past 40-odd years. The emphasis is on pop, but it also hits on jazz, classical, and experimental—something there for every taste. I wouldn’t have minded seeing Geoff Dyer’s weird jazz book But Beautiful on there, or Brother Ray, Ray Charles’ as-told-to memoir and possibly the only book written in dialect I’ve ever been able to stomach, but I have no complaints. It’s a great collection.
Other than the venerable Greil Marcus, the only author to appear twice on the Pitchfork list is Simon Reynolds, for his examinations of rave and techno culture and the postpunk movement. And now he has a new book out, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past. Over at The Second Pass, John Williams has an interview with Reynolds that reads like a good dinner conversation I wish I’d sat in on. Among other things, Reynolds touches on the ways that the excitement of new technology is superseding the excitement of new music, how the capital-F Future is so much less alluring these days, why sampling has it all over pastiche, and why my kid, at 19, was listening to exactly the same music I did when I was 19:
If I was 17 and faced either with the KCRW-style modern post-indie, which can get a bit prissy, or this bombastic club music on Top 40, I can easily feel the pull of the older music. There’s so much great stuff from that era, and it has a certain musicality, a hand-played quality, a freewheeling energy, that is absent in modern radio rock. It has the romance of rock’s storied glory days. And apparently that’s what a lot of young high school and college-age kids listen to 70 percent of the time: their parents’ music.
And at the end Reynolds recommends a few more music books that didn’t make the Pitchfork list, thus straining my wish list to its limits.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for books that aren’t about music but in fact are the music, take a look at Christophe Gowans’ Flickr set of albums reinterpreted as books. I especially like Blood on the Tracks done as a pulp novel, Purple Rain looking like airbrushed ’70s paperback sci-fi, and Pet Sounds reinterpreted as some kind of weird Japanese See-and-Say button book (via Spine Out). I hope he keeps adding to them… and if we’re already dancing about architecture, maybe he could take on More Songs About Buildings and Food?