Thursday, February 26, 2009

In my last post I put forward my list for the best books ever published about rock music. Since a list only says so much, I'm going write at greater length about some of the titles on the list in this and upcoming posts.

To start, some thoughts about Charles Shaar Murray's great book on Jimi Hendrix, Crosstown Traffic. This one's a logical place to start, since I just got through teaching it in my rock history course at Smith. It also holds a special place in my own intellectual development, for reasons I'll explain below. I don't know if it's my absolute favorite rock book of all time but it's certain up there in the top 5.

For those who don't know, Murray is a British critic who has been publishing since the 1960s. When he first came on the scene as a journalist he was something of a boy wonder, still a teenager but with a lot of musical knowledge and an especial interest in varieties of black music. As far as I know, he got his start with Oz magazine, a great oddball publication that also featured a lot of early writing by Germaine Greer, but really rose to prominence when he joined the staff of New Musical Express in the early 1970s, where he wrote some great articles on Bowie, Alice Cooper and a host of other rock luminaries of the time.

I didn't know all of this when I first read Crosstown Traffic. At that time, I was in my first or second year of graduate school at University of North Carolina, Chapel (somewhere around 1990 or '91; the book was published in '89), was working on a master's thesis on - get this - representations of masculinity in 1970s pornographic film. Nice work if you can get it, huh? But doing research on porn was getting tiresome – after watching something like forty films in the span of a month or two I couldn’t see pursuing this much further – and I was looking for a different topic to write about for my dissertation.

Music had long been my abiding passion at that point, and I’d done some music research as an undergrad, having written an honor’s thesis on Ornette Coleman, pioneer of free jazz. I was reading around, brainstorming, trying to grasp onto a topic that I thought could hold my interest for the next several years.

Somewhere amidst all this, I picked up a copy of Crosstown Traffic at the campus bookstore. I’d read books on Hendrix before – most notably David Henderson’s great bio, ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky – but even just looking at Murray’s book in the bookstore it seemed different. This was clearly not just a bio. It was more an attempt to interpret Hendrix and his place in the cultural history of the 1960s. I was hooked.

Murray’s book is so good because it’s one of the few books out there that successfully takes a single figure and uses him to recast the whole history of twentieth century popular music. Through Murray’s eyes and ears, Hendrix becomes a key figure in sorting through a wide range of compelling issues: the lingering significance of the 1960s and battles over the meaning of that decade in the years that followed; the difference between expressions of masculinity among black bluesmen and white rockers; the overarching importance of race in the history of rock and popular music; and the importance of the electric guitar as perhaps the major musical instrument of the twentieth century.

Murray also writes about Hendrix’s music really well, making a powerful case in the book’s final three chapters for the ways in which Hendrix is tied to the three major strains of black music running through the 1960s – blues, soul, and jazz. In Crosstown Traffic Hendrix comes across as not just a great innovator but a great musical synthesist, who assembled a complex hybrid African American identity through a roving musical imagination.

When I read Crosstown Traffic, it opened the way for me to think about the music I loved in a new light. Murray invested Hendrix with the larger cultural significance I knew he had but had not yet developed the vocabulary for expressing. From there, it was just a few steps further before I decided to embark on my dissertation on the history of the electric guitar, which later became my first book, Instruments of Desire.

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