The Dude: "It's like what Lenin says! You look for the person who will benefit, and, uh ... um ..."
Donny: "I am the walrus."
Readers may be familiar with Willis' feminist writings and work (she founded the influential Redstockings with Shulamith Firestone) in the 1970s, but she was also one of the earliest and greatest American rock critics. Out of the Vinyl Deeps collects her best pieces from her time as pop critic from The New Yorker during the time when Dylan, The Velvet Undergound, and The Rolling Stones ruled the intellectual imagination as well as the world. Any serious student or fan of rock n' roll should have this book; her essay on attempting to reconcile The Sex Pistols' nihilism with her socially just conscience is essential reading.
My absolute literary hero is James Baldwin, and my absolute favorite of his is Giovanni's Room. Written while an expatriate in Paris, this story is about the love affair between an American man, engaged to an aristocratic woman, and a poor Italian waiter in a French gay bar. Poverty, displacement, gender roles, and sexuality are all discussed in Baldwin's surgical insight. Rightly celebrated as a cultural critic (Nobody Knows My Name and The Fire Next Time are Buy on Sight level for this reviewer) his fiction has been overlooked. This slim volume is one to which I've often returned in the fifteen years since I first read it.
Marcus has a very idiosyncratic sense of rock n' roll. He's less interested in the linear history of the form than in how its irreducible spirit seems unstuck in time; how a standard-issue doo-wop song from the fifties gets transformed by Amy Winehouse, "as if the song had waited fifty years for its singer." Marcus was one of the first rock critics for Rolling Stone, and as such much of his writing draws from the well-mined continuum between Delta Blues and Woodstock. But his chapter on an abstract piece of piercing gutitar feedback is lucid and moving. A sensational book.
This deeply humane novel sounds more unwieldy than it actually is. The plot centers around a loner who has invented a purposefully obscure mail-only role playing game. Though this is Darnielle's first novel, he's spent the last fifteen years or so being the best lyricist working in indie-rock. Fans of his band The Mountain Goats may be surprised at the cool, clinical language of his fiction; it owes far more to Joan Didion than the wild pulpy slogans of his music. But they will recognize his eternal sympathy for the marginalized and the misunderstood, even - indeed, especially - when they careen towards self-destruction. Brilliant and touching.
Dear shopper: you may think you are looking at the greatest gag-gift of all time, especially if you’re shopping for the hoity-toity music snob in your life (“what do you get for the person who hates everything?”). You should still buy it, but know the joke might be on you: Wilson’s book is a provocative and fearless examination of taste; a shot across the bow at the self-serious rock-critic who guards the citadel of the (typically male) Canonical Rock Artist; a convincing demand that pop music, for all its seeming frivolity, is made by professionals who take it seriously and should, in turn, be taken seriously. Best of all, you can rest assured that “My Heart Will Go On” is still lousy on its own merits. Not only is this the best installment of the 33 1/3 series but it’s one of the finest pieces of pop criticism ever written.
Robert Peace overcame the Newark slums of his youth to get a full scholarship to Yale. Eight years later he was shot to death in his basement as a result of his drug dealing. What happened? Peace, like many after college (including this book's author, his Yale roommate), was somewhere between “adrift” and “finding himself” throughout his twenties. Unlike many, he did so in extremely violent and impoverished conditions. Jeff Hobbs' triumph here is that he gives Peace a degree of agency over his own life; the reader is as likely to wonder how society could ignore someone so gifted as they are baffled that someone so smart could be so stupid. It’s the work of someone who knew the man well, and Peace seemed like a good man to know.