While it is quite true that Continuum Books publishes an abnormally large collection of titles on Pope Benedict XVI (aka Joseph “Harry Potter is Satan’s Spawn But Adolf Was Okay When I Was a Kid” Ratzinger), I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention their 33 1/3 series. If you thought that Nick Hornby’s solipsistic (and, one might argue, somnabulistic) Songbook was the high watermark of literary musical musings, then you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The work here is as passionate as Hornby’s, but it cuts across a more nuanced latitude: something that goes beyond Pitchfork-style snark or a particularly plodding personal essay about how an individual song or album is meaningful to the writer.
Depending upon the writer and the level of scholarship (others might say obsession, but then music lovers are often as febrile as literature lovers), the contributors here go out of their way to put songs and albums into a larger context, with telling details of David Bowie’s coke-fueled paranoia during the Low sessions or framing Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea within the larger context of the highly influential Elephant 6 collective.
Continuum was kind enough to send me a sampler. And one has to marvel at how even within this modest collection (surely not intended for me to peruse like this), innocuous deconstruction turns into something a little more cheeky and meaningful in the process. Here’s Geoffrey Himes, for example, writing about Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”:
“Born in the USA”: the phrase was so pithy and evocative that all he had to do was repeat it four times and he had his chorus. In its ability to sound like both a sentence of doom and a hopeful declaration of optimism, it was infinitely better than “You died in Vietnam.” But the song’s music ws still wrong; the verses were still too wordy, and the story didn’t quite cohere.
And Himes is just getting started. Only a few pages later, he’s enunciated the song’s narrative and meaning, put it into the context of Springsteen’s career, and dwelled upon its almost serendipitious recording history. (Jon Landau dismissed the demo as one of Springsteen’s “lesser songs” and when the E Street Band got together, the song was more improvised than one would suspect.)
Other books in the series include Andy Miller riffing on the great underrated Kinks album, The Village Green Preservation Society, Allan Moore on Aqualung, John Cavanagh on Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Ben Sisario on the Pixies’ Doolittle and a book of interviews with DJ Shadow on Endtroducing.
And speaking of music, I should also note that I was recently sucked in by Michael Nesmith’s Elephant Parts, a 1981 direct-to-video compilation of Nesmith videos and comedy sketches — including a game-show spoof called “Name That Drug” and a foreign film scene performed in gibberish (with subtitles to boot). I’ve no idea how this endearing little film fell off the cultural radar. Elephant Parts, produced roughly around the same period that Nesmith was sowing the early seeds for MTV (for better or for worse), is one of those rare offerings that is simultaneously subversive and innocuous.