By B. Simm
CALGARY — On North American shores, writing about music and its cultural spin-offs has largely been defined by the snarky authority of Pitchfork and trash-talkin’ teardowns of VICE giving birth to the new, new cool. Whereas those writing for music publications in Britain, although still cheeky, offer far more in the way of literary craft, storytelling and historical insight compared to the brash Americans.
Ray Robertson, a Canadian novelist, aligns himself closer to the British tradition reinforcing that smart, lively prose and a bit of wit goes a long, marvellous way. In his recent book, Lives of the Poets (with Guitars), Robertson wades into the world of musicians who weren’t chart-bustin’ household names, but still possessed remarkable talents turning out genuine gold-nugget recordings. One part of Lives of the Poets is a record guide revealing these undiscovered treasures, the other is Robertson’s gift of spewing out stories that simply shame most rock ‘n’ roll writers into the hacks they really are. We caught up with Robertson to take us on a tour of his journey writing the book.
BeatRoute: Obviously you’re a avid music fan, listener and collector of records. You make the all too correct observation that “our favourite musicians are as close to real-life magicians as most of us will ever know.” What were some of the first records you owned and ones that you have kept listening to (in addition to those artists you wrote about) that had that magic?
Ray Robertson: I grew up in a small town in Southwestern Ontario in the ‘70s and ‘80s, so unless you were lucky enough to have a cool older sister or brother with a great record collection, finding out where the world kept all of the good stuff was no easy task. The first record I bought with my own money was Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. The coolest I ever felt while buying a record was handing a copy of The Velvet Underground’s first album over the counter to the store clerk. Neil Young is about the only survivor from my teenage record pile.
BR: The tagline to the book is “Thirteen Outsiders Who Changed Modern Music”… The Ramones certainly reinvented and revolutionized rock ‘n’ roll, but most of the other artists you selected their music is steeped in the tradition of blues, country, gospel and folk. In what ways, then, did some of these individuals alter and shape modern music?
RR: A guy like John Hartford was, yes, playing bluegrass when he recorded his Aereo-Plain LP, but it was bluegrass mixed up with, among other things, the Beatles, pot, and Beatnik poetry. Absolutely singular. Ronnie Lane created his own kind of music, too, as did Sister Rosetta Tharpe and her very loud electric guitar. The list goes on.
BR: When discussing the context of these particular artists and their contributions, on a few occasions you take a shot at some famous artists bringing up some actual details (e.g., David Crosby: the pushy, bratty rich kid; The Sex Pistols’ recording budget in the hundreds of thousands was hardly DIY punk). In doing, when you call these artists “outsiders” they’re really unsung heroes. Was that an impetus for writing the book as well: to help foster the recognition and credit they deserve?
RR: Exactly. What I mostly do is write novels, and all you can hope for when you publish one is that it’s the best possible book it could be. With Lives of the Poets, there was definitely an additional, proselytizing element: to expose the music of the artists in the book to more people. These musicians are all heroes of mine, so it felt almost like a duty to get their stories “right.”
BR: How much do you weigh in on the notion that the lives of these artists lived are largely responsible for art they produced? Is that primarily why you deemed them to be significant, because they had rich, intense, tragic, eccentric or weird lives in some fashion and, in turn, produced great art?
RR: You can’t separate the life from the work, ever. That’s very often the academic approach, but it’s a falsification of the artistic process, as any creator, whatever their field, knows. I vowed not to write about an artist unless they created a very special, unique body of work and their life story was not only fascinating but illustrative of some interesting theme. Like Little Richard: his music was exemplary, his artistic influence vast, his life and his music shaped to a great degree by his life-long inability to reconcile his homosexuality and his love of rock and roll with his fundamentalist Christian beliefs.
BR: When doing your research, did you unearth anything about an artist’s personal life, their work or professional history that was totally unexpected or you thought was profoundly unusual?
RR: Several people in the book came to understand what they wanted to do with their lives in same way: for the older ones, it was by seeing Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show; for the younger, it was going to the movies to watch A Hard Day’s Night.
BR: Outside these 13 chosen artists, is there anyone else you could have or wanted to add but didn’t make the cut? Who would they be, and for what main contribution?
RR: Well, there’ll eventually be a Lives of the Poets (with Guitars): Volume Two, but I’ve got a novel coming out next fall first, and then there’s another book of non-fiction, this time on death, that’ll be published after that. So I’ve got plenty of time to decide who to write about next. It’ll definitely include James Booker, Duster Bennett, and Mary McCaslin, though. I get excited just talking about it.
Wordfest presents Roots Poets and Heroes with Guitars: Ray Robertson with Holger Petersen Oct. 8 from 1:00 p.m. – 2:30 p.m. at the Glenbow Museum Theatre.AB, Alberta, books, Glenbow Museum, Lives of the Poets, Lives of the Poets (With Guitars), rock history books, Wordfest, Wordfest 2016