YOU CALL IT MADNESS: The Sensuous Song of the Croon

By Lenny Kaye. Villard. 499 pp. $25.95

On the evening of Sept. 2, 1934, singer Russ Columbo was visiting a friend, portrait photographer Lansing Brown. Brown was absentmindedly playing with the thumb hammer of an antique pistol on his desk while holding an unlit match between his fingers. Struck by the hammer, the match sparked, and gunpowder that had concealed a ball in the barrel fired. The ball ricocheted off a table and entered Columbo's left eye. He died hours later. His ailing mother was not told. Until her death 10 years later, family members read to her letters purportedly written by Russ, recounting his international triumphs.

On the big screen or in a novel, this story would strain credulity at every turn. Yet every word is true. So one can understand the urge to place Columbo's life at the center of a broader treatment of the times and careers of himself, contemporaries Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee, and those who crossed their paths. Rock critic Lenny Kaye, the author of You Call It Madness, brought interesting credentials to his task: He was the lead guitarist for the Patti Smith Group and a pioneer of psychedelic music in the 1970s. His fondness for the popular culture of the 1920s and '30s was spurred by listening to Rich Conaty's deservedly long-running music program "The Big Broadcast" on Fordham's University's WFUV-FM.

Crooners' increased popularity in the early '30s was spurred by an unprecedented fusion of technological progress and economic collapse. In 1925, major record companies had begun to adopt the Western Electric process of making records, which brought microphones into widespread use for the first time. By enabling higher fidelity recordings, the microphone made possible a greater intimacy between the artist and listener. No longer needing to shout into an acoustic horn, singers took advantage of the microphone's sensitivity to project an intimate, sexually charged ballad style. "Crooning" was coined as a term of derision to describe the pallid and high-pitched sentimentality of Rudy Vallee and other early exemplars of this kind of singing. When CBS launched Bing Crosby on network radio in September 1931, crooning secured its legitimate place in mainstream popular music. Columbo followed the Crosby model so closely that some radio listeners reported difficulty in telling them apart.

If the microphone created the crooner, the Depression put him in the catbird seat. Musical preferences changed amid the national gloom. Fewer listeners were in the mood for jazz and hot dance music; some regarded it as emblematic of the careless '20s. Crooners -- and the women who specialized in "torch" singing -- seized the day. Their records sold well at a time when phonograph records had become an expensive luxury and overall sales had fallen precipitously.

For those among us who want awareness of the star performers of these years to extend beyond crossword puzzles, it is better to have an imperfect work than none, so long as people's curiosity is whetted to seek out more. Unfortunately, that's not ensured here. Kaye's book is a hybrid of fiction and history, written under the stylistic influence of his collaborations with Smith and Allen Ginsberg. Discursive half-sentences and faintly intelligible metaphors course through the book. While Kaye's impressionistic approach seems poetic at times, more often it seems forced, as when Columbo's manager, songwriter Con Conrad, aspires to "a hunk" of the moon's "pie-in-the-sky green cheesecake." Whether this sort of stylistic overlay works is a matter of taste, but it interferes with getting an authentic sense of late 1920s and early '30s America.

Kaye's knowledge across the entire spectrum of popular culture is encyclopedic, but it becomes his greatest liability. One trail leads to another and another, no matter how tenuous the association. Beyond that, there are parentheticals that seem endless and of little relevance. Kaye loads a few pages describing the effort by Conrad to trump up a romance between Columbo and Greta Garbo with offhand, barely conceptualized references to John Gilbert, Rouben Mamoulian, Ina Claire, Cecil Beaton, bandleader Eddy Duchin and his wife, Marjorie Oelrichs. The story of how Columbo's family shielded his mother from his death gives rise to a chapter tracing mother songs from Civil War times to Eminem, and Columbo's fleeting appearance in the movie "Moulin Rouge" (1934) triggers a discussion of every subsequent movie of that title. Kaye exhibits a frustrating lack of common sense about how to be authoritative without looking like a showoff.

The closing pages -- essays about Crosby's later career and Rudy Vallee's descent in his sunset years into an oddly endearing narcissism -- are poignant, and a final discussion tracing the crooners' successors to modern times takes an interesting path. But getting there may prove to be a journey as arduous as Columbo's was short.

Frederick Turner recently did something comparable to Kaye's book by novelizing the life of the comparably doomed cornetist Bix Beiderbecke in his 1929 (2003). Whatever stomachache it gave to the notoriously fussy and unforgiving jazz cognoscenti, Turner's book effectively used internal monologues to take us plausibly inside Bix's head. In contrast, no matter whose internal world Kaye is presenting, it never feels as if we're anywhere but inside his head. That's a worthy place, but spending 400 pages there can be tiring.

The similarity in their voices has led to speculation that Columbo was the only one of Bing Crosby's peers who might have challenged his domination of radio, recordings and the movies during the 1930s and '40s. It would never have happened. Columbo was not the instinctual entertainer that Crosby was, or as versatile a singer. Nor would the handsome Columbo's resemblance to '20s heartthrob Rudolph Valentino have ever endeared him to so many as did Crosby's floppy ears and regular-guy looks and demeanor. At the time of his death, Columbo was trailing further and further behind while Crosby, a pallbearer at the funeral, never looked back. *

Rob Bamberger is the host of "Hot Jazz Saturday Night," heard locally on WAMU (88.5 FM) and internationally on NPR Worldwide.

Singer Russ Columbo