Most music writing is so formulaic and dull that encountering good examples of the genre carries a jolt of freshness and pleasure. Rowell’s central strategy is to nose up to some weird instrument or character — advocates of the Swiss hang, a super-rare percussion-like instrument, or the aging members of a club devoted solely to the preservation of the Hammond B-3 organ — and then give it a full, thoughtful, journalistically impeccable treatment, leavened by touches of dry wit.
This is not a new trick — John McPhee and David Foster Wallace, among many others, have mined this vein profitably — but not often is it executed with such brio, and with such empathy and attention to detail. To be a culture reporter at all is to be something of a social anthropologist, able to penetrate alien tribes and decode their ways for the education of the reader.
And these particular tribes have eccentricity to spare. Rowell gets to know a man named Bill Allen, who describes his 122-piece kit as “one of the biggest drum sets in the world.” Allen has schizophrenia and plays his enormous kit almost exclusively alone, in the confines of a storage unit outside Baltimore — “marvelous bedlam,” Rowell calls it, “played against the steady metronome of Bill’s heart.”
Rowell executes his tour guide role especially well in “Into the Darkness,” a foray into the world of grindcore — a mutant strain of heavy metal that is all speed, volume and violence. “When Scott and Brian’s jam came abruptly to an end,” he writes of his first introduction to the genre, “I had the sensation of being slapped on both sides of the head.”
He attends a three-day gathering called Deathfest, wearing a shirt and tie and carrying a notebook; a suspicious metalhead wonders aloud if he is a narc. Rowell is introduced to a metal “band that used guinea pigs for the vocals. I said I didn’t even know what sounds guinea pigs made. ‘It’s like a weeping,’ ” his interlocutor explains.
Not least of Rowell’s charms is his unapologetic love for the progressive rock band Yes, whose fans’ campaign for the band to make the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is detailed in “Going for the One.” I myself grew up firmly between the twin poles of heartland American rock and punk, and I ardently loathed prog rock — which Rowell describes, accurately, as “a cross between a circus and a house party at Liberace’s.” It would be nifty to report here that Rowell’s advocacy of what he calls “a symphonic form of rock music that had never been heard before” has caused me to reevaluate my abhorrence of Yes, but regrettably, I cannot; even his eloquence has limits, apparently.
Yes fandom aside, Rowell’s book is a peerless seminar in long-form journalism; the fellow writer or aspirant critic can only marvel at his command of his métier. Each story begins with Rowell setting a hook in the reader as deftly as a fisherman. An indelible lead is inevitably followed by a crafty switch in perspective and a judicious sprinkling of historical context, eventually winding up with a wry, often poignant denouement. All of this is delivered in prose as clear and lively as good conversation.
Rowell treats his subjects seriously, as people worthy of having their stories told, which endows them with dignity — and there is nothing poignant in quite the same way as a misfit being treated with dignity. Beneath Rowell’s cool journalistic facade beats the heart of a romantic. He writes of “CanJoe” John VanArsdall, inventor of a distinctive but sonically limited homemade instrument called the canjoe, that VanArsdall “was selling himself and the instrument, absolutely, but he also was selling something larger — the idea that you, anyone, could make music, too.”
And the humor and sadness of the last essay in the book vaults it into the realm of truly great music writing. A tour journal called “Two for the Show,” the piece finds Rowell accompanying his boyhood friend Bob Funck, a scuffling 51-year-old singer-songwriter, on a low-rent tour of various third-string music venues across the Northeast. This Dantean trek through the outskirts of semiprofessional music finds Funck playing for a plate of food or a few bucks, in front of noisy drunks or even no one at all.
Yet Rowell pays his friend the priceless compliment of chronicling this desolate journey as respectfully as if it were a U2 tour. He is tough but fair in his descriptions, noting that Funck’s vocals at times “felt close to grating” and ruling that one less-than-successful composition “bordered on cheap novelty, a throwaway.”
We’re left with the image of these two boyhood friends, now grown men, feeling “like middle schoolers again, the way we laughed in our beds once we’d turned out the lights,” reminiscing about the songs they’d played and the music they loved. “In music the distance between sorrow and joy can be surprisingly narrow,” Rowell writes. This book finds that narrow distance and sings there, sweetly.
Wherever the Sound Takes You
Heroics and Heartbreak in Music Making
By David Rowell
234 pp. $22.50