[22 April 2007]
In The Boy Who Cried Freebird Mitch Myers drifts between musical genres and literary styles. With a nod to granddaddies of rock criticism Lester Bangs, Nick Toches, and Richard Meltzer, Myers has attempted an “allegorical commentary via playful, music-oriented vignettes.” While the overall affect is a persuasive treatise on America’s cultural relationship with rock music, the collection isn’t quite as seamless as it ought to be.
Rock oriented fables are spliced between long-form journalistic pieces focusing on a variety of genres such as folk, jazz, ambient, punk, and metal. Like Freebird, Chuck Klosterman IV, contains both fiction and nonfiction music writing, but the latter is divided neatly into “things that are true,” “things that might be true,” and “something that isn’t true at all.” The undifferentiated sections of Freebird can throw the reader off.
For example, in “The Steel-String Trilogy”, Myers strings together three pieces of writing about, as the name implies, steel string guitars. The first two pieces—profiles of guitarists John Fahey and Leo Kottke—are deft nonfiction profiles that encapsulate complicated people with great brevity. However, the third piece is a short story involving time travel and a hippie with an expansive collection of string instruments, including of course a steel-string guitar. Despite the obvious thematic linkage, it is halting to have text about real-life artists mashed against pieces that don’t always immediately identify themselves as fiction. Thankfully, at the back of the book Myers has included an appendix that informs the reader of which stories are fiction, what his nonfiction sources are, and if the story has run anywhere before.
Despite reading like a book set on random, Myers is a fantastic writer with a great ear for rhythm. His pieces on jazz have an implied swing beat built into the words, while his writing about hard rock is blunt and frenetic. In a piece about the relationship between Allen Ginsberg and Harry Smith he describes the latter as “a hermetic, neocelibate white-bread record collector/visual artist from Oregon with roots in freemasonry and an attraction to occultisms.” An appropriately rambling description if ever there was one.
A profile of rock critic Richard Meltzer says more about Meltzer the man and the entire enterprise of critiquing rock than its word count would indicate possible. Myers says of Meltzer’s most famous work, The Aesthetics of Rock, that it “provided abstract (and concrete) connections in wholesale and hallucinatory fashion.” He collects damning quotes about Meltzer from fellow rock critics and foes Griel Marcus and Robert Christgau and still convinces the reader that Meltzer is indispensable.
A highlight of the book is an interview with Daevid Allen, founder of psychedelic rock band Gong. Allen discloses an outrageous anecdote about Sherman Helmsley, TV’s George Jefferson, that’s too delightfully odd to spoil here. A few of the sharper pieces debuted on NPR’s All Things Considered including a winsome vignette about a subway performer, a curious interview with a glockenspiel player who has the inside scoop on Phil Spector and Tina Turner, and the fable of an plucky old jazzbo’s challenge to the present heyday of turntablists.
Every piece is about people interacting with music in some way. An old man explains Grand Funk Railroad to his grandkids. A group of precocious young boys decide to listen to British punk group the Mekons while enjoying a circle jerk. Myers sends his literary alter ego, Adam Coil, the titular boy who cried Freebird, on adventures—back in time to see the Grateful Dead in 1969, into a trance inspired by ambient music, and to a dorm room to listen to a $4,000 stereo and take bong hits. Myers captures the complexity of rock music’s roll in cultural communication—it’s importance in ceremony and ritual, establishment of communitas, and creation of life stories. He achieves something of an ethnography of rock ‘n’ roll using fables, well-chosen informants, and historical narratives.
Myers is coming at culture with the distinct bent of someone who came of age during the era of anthem rock, but a deep love for Blue Oyster Cult is not essential for enjoying Freebird. As Myers himself rightfully points out, rock geeks are finally cool. But he asks that he not be compared to John Cusack’s character in High Fidelity because “that dude wasted all his time organizing his collection in some kind of chronological order—everybody knows that you should file your albums by genre.” Fair enough.
Myers writes about musicians and listeners and their equally obsessive relationships with music because he is one of them. Despite the rapid-fire disorganization, Freebird welcomes rock geeks in with open arms and gives its readers a big hug.