Wednesday, March 02, 2005

An Unnecessary Book

I've just wasted two evenings of my life, evenings I could have spent improving my mind, with a book that's so bad that I'm mourning the trees it took to create it. Bad books are nothing new for me: I seem to come across them all the time. Just recently, I was in the English-book section of a local bookstore and picked up an 800-page sci-fi novel that only cost €5. I should have known it was crap, and it certainly was: a sort of space-opera of the sort I'd thought perished with A.E. van Vogt, bane of my sci-fi-reading teenage years.

But this was different. It came in a package my producer at Fresh Air had sent with a book I'd asked her to find me for a possible piece. She thought this one might interest me, and I thank her for that. Her instincts were certainly right, but it left me in despair.

It's called Machers and Rockers: Chess Records and the Business of Rock and Roll, and it's by Rich Cohen, whose book on Jewish gangsters, Tough Jews, I read a few years ago and liked. On the back are encomia from Larry King (a friend of Cohen's father) and Jann Wenner (Cohen's employer). And it's certainly a great idea. Phil and Leonard Chess were certainly tough Jews, immigrants from Poland (where their name was Cyzsz) who landed in Chicago, got into first the liquor business and then the nightclub business on the black South Side, and were smart enough to realize that there was money to be made with the music the schvartzes they served made. Once they got rolling, they lucked into Muddy Waters, who was in the ascendant as king of the Chicago blues, and, through him, they found others, such as Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Willie Dixon, John Brim, Koko Taylor, Jimmy Rogers, and many others. Then, a guitarist recommended by Muddy showed up at their door, a 19-year-old kid named Chuck Berry, and they suddenly found themselves helping to invent rock and roll. In this, as it developed, they sowed the seeds of their own destruction, although they had no way of knowing it at the time; as Cohen points out, they were only trying to make a buck, which is what they had always been trying to do.

There's a reason why Jews were so prominent in the independent record business after World War II, and the Chess brothers epitomize that reason: Jews were still marginal to America, and so, as they had in Hollywood, they found niches in marginal businesses. A lot of them worked in the black sections of America's cities, and they had something of a knowledge of what the black people who lived there wanted. Plus, making records was a business that, while high-risk, had a potentially high payoff, especially if you indulged in the time-honored tradition of stiffing your artists, a practice hardly limited to Jews: just ask Don Robey, or John Dolphin, or Jack Lauderdale, all black label owners (Duke/Peacock, Made In Hollywood/Dolphin, and Swingtime, respectively), all notorious ripoffs, if not outright gangsters. Like the junk business or the rag trade their fathers had plied, selling music to black people was a job no "respectable" person -- read WASP -- wanted.

Phil and Leonard became millionaires, and Chess second only to Atlantic in revenues as an indie. It's a compelling story, and it's been told in a book called Spinning Blues Into Gold, by Nadine Cohodas, a book I've never even seen.

Machers and Rockers is published by W.W. Norton's Atlas Books subsidiary in a series called Enterprise, which apparently profiles businesses: there's also a book on Ted Turner by Ken Auletta, and Tim Parks has one coming on the Medicis, which ought to be fun. So this isn't one of those quickie cut-and-paste operations like litter the rock-book landscape.

With a lineup that incudes Auletta and Parks, though, you'd think there was an editor who would take this stuff seriously, which is one reason this book is so appalling. Oh, sure, it starts off fine, with a chapter entitled "Today You Are A Man, Get Me a Drink," in which Cohen, in full gonzo mode, imagines the Bar Mitzvah of Marshall Chess, Leonard's son, and heir apparent to the label and all its workings. I know people who are still jealous of Marshall for having had the Flamingoes sing at his Bar Mitzvah. Hell, I'm jealous, and I'm not even Jewish! Cohen does a fine job of presenting the mix of people who were there: old Jews from the traditional life, particularly the merchants who ran shops on Maxwell Street on the South Side, where a flea-market flourished on weekends and young blues guys in search of a break would set up and entertain the shoppers. Then other folks from the record industry: DJs, distributors, competing label guys. And, behind them, the black folks who worked at Chess; not just the musicians, but people who ran the mail room and the packing room and pressed the records. It's a nice introduction for someone who doesn't know the business.

And, right there on page 17, five pages in, is the first mistake: Hy Weiss is identified as the founder of Bang Records, which didn't even exist in 1955, when Marshall Chess became a man in the eyes of his congregation. When it did exist, nearly a decade later, it was named for the initials of the four men who set it up: Bert Berns, Ahmet Ertegun, Neshui Ertegun and Gerald Wexler. Weiss, as any record collector could have told you, ran Old Town, New York's legendary doo-wop label. And yeah, he was probably there.

It doesn't get better. Cohen's so in love with the way he writes -- and he ought to be, it's a lot of fun, the voice of a classic tummler of the post-Lenny Bruce era spritzing on Jews and schvartzes and any other poor schmuck who gets in the way, reveling in the sleazy details of the record business -- that he's not overly concerned with either chronology or facts. The chronology is a judgement call: I would have found the story more dramatic if he'd unfolded it in its classic arc, the rags-to-riches one, ending with the Chess brothers millionaires but cheated out of their legacy, and Leonard's dramatic death: one more outrage foisted on him by the company that he'd sold the label to made him apoplectic, he jumped into his Cadillac and zoomed off, only to have a massive coronary and plow into a couple of parked cars.

But, like I said, that's a judgement call. The facts are a more serious problem. It's not just Hy Weiss: at one point Cohen lists the artists who were on Chess, and I've got news for him. Chess had a serious roster of talent, one which produced an amazing body of work: I have a 13-CD set here commemorating Chess' 50th anniversary and there's no fat. But Rich, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown was the rock on which Don Robey founded his empire: he never recorded for Chess. Yes, the Moonglows were on Chess, but no, Ben E. King, lead singer for the Drifters who later went solo, wasn't their lead singer. That was Harvey Fuqua, who mentored Marvin Gaye. I certainly wouldn't call Dale Hawkins a "crooner," nor would I use that word for primitive country bluesmen like Joe Hill Louis or Dr. Isaiah Ross, neither of whom recorded for Chess. Neither did another of your "crooners," Rufus Thomas, and certainly Bobby "Blue" Bland never did, although there you at least got the "crooner" part right. A key player at Chess was a former boxer and all-round utility musician named Elias McDaniel, who later recorded under the name Bo Diddley, and you managed to spell both of those names wrong. And, later on? GRT did make tape, true, but the cassette wasn't their invention: that was Phillips in Holland.

These are the sorts of mistakes that might be made by an enthusiast in conversation, or written in a fanzine by a teenager, but when a contributing editor of Rolling Stone enshrines them between hard covers, we expect them to be true. And nor have I cherry-picked a couple of howlers; every couple of pages a factual error or statement based on a faulty interpretation of data or an assertion of fact that can't be backed up appears.

And this pisses me off. Sure, some of you must be thinking. You're pissed off because you didn't get to write this book. And you're partially right: I bet Rich Cohen doesn't wake up at night with anxiety attacks because he's months and months behind in his rent, and I bet when he pitches ideas to magazines, they at least answer him. I bet the advance on this book would have paid off my back rent and paid off the people who have been kind enough to loan me money to fix my teeth and keep the electricity on. I know for a fact that Rich Cohen has an agent, and I bet that agent doesn't scoff at his ideas.

So yeah, I'm jealous that someone can take one part good idea, three parts padding, and two parts bullshit and get it published.

But there's also this: there just isn't that much space for books like this in the marketplace. Because of hackwork cut-and-paste jobs like the Brits churn out by the boxcar-full, it's harder and harder for serious books on popular music to get printed. Hell, it's harder and harder for books, period, to get printed. But at least the cut-and-pastes tend to be published by a couple of publishers, and the marketplace recognizes them as such. This is Norton, who also published The Rose and the Briar, a collection edited by Greil Marcus and Sean Willentz that came out last fall and has yet to be reviewed in the New York Times or the New York Review of Books and which has actual good writing and solid research (hey, there's a picture of Frankie, as in Frankie and Johnny!) by actual serious writers including me, goddammit! And they're publishing what purports to be a serious (if offhandedly written, not that I have any problem with that) look at an American cultural and business phenomenon, but reads like something written in a week with no more expenditure than a hefty bill at Starbuck's to keep the head of steam going.

Okay, I'm done. Just another day in the life of a writer. Maybe the other book is better.

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