‘Pick Up the Pieces’ Is a Primer in Music as Cultural Memory

John Corbett's writing is often poetic in Pick Up the Pieces: Excursions in Seventies Music, with each essay being a resonant reflection on the music, artists, scenes, and memories seemingly etched deeply in his being.

Pick Up the Pieces: Excursions in Seventies Music
John Corbett
University of Chicago Press
Ma 2019

Pick Up the Pieces: Excursions in Seventies Music engages the reader with the intertwining threads of music criticism, cultural commentary, and memoir, none of which intrude on the others. Casting a chronological run through the ’70s, the book begins with a short essay on the Kinks’ “Lola”, which situates the song and its open secret among 11-year-old boys gathered around an older brother’s record player in a suburban bedroom. Songs become the soundtrack to the stories of author John Corbett‘s adolescence, while also punctuating his college years and more recent years, as music from the past floats up into the present. The narratives are always about the music first, but since music is both a visceral and social experience, the stories of Corbett’s life help readers understand the role that music plays in memory: recalling how we became the people we are.

In an essay about the O’Jays, Corbett pulls these threads together, reflecting on his one brief fistfight on the basketball court at his Quaker-run school to which he commuted 45-minutes by bus from an upscale suburb in Philadelphia. The bus rides were lengthy engagements in singing and dancing along with Philly soul. “The violence of the fight, the ugliness of the epithets, the glee in our dancing, the radiance of the song, its resonant lyrical twist, the magnitude of our appreciation, the depth of our ignorance, Wayne’s knuckles and smirk — all of these things converge in my memory.”

Corbett’s writing is often poetic, with each essay being a resonant reflection on the music, artists, scenes, and memories seemingly etched deeply in his being. Take, for example, this ecstatic reflection on Curtis Mayfield: “A beaming ray of light of a song with bubbling congas, a shuffling snare with snap and pop, and a funky string section, ‘Move On Up’ is so full of optimism it’s easy to get carried away writing about it.” He writes about popular artists and Grammy-winning albums with the same depth that he brings to lesser-known acts like the Art Ensemble of Chicago or Webster Lewis and the Post-Pop Space-Rock Be-Bop Gospel Tabernacle Chorus. What reader could resist dropping in on a band with a name like that? At times, however, Pick Up the Pieces is also gonzo poetry, as Corbett writes about Edgar Winter and Hocus Pocus embracing a kind of gonzo guitar playing that also praises Hunter Thompson and Lester Bangs.

Corbett also offers us an epistemology through music, in one essay encouraging the reader to adopt the Beginner’s Mind of Zen Buddhism as a way to discern music differently, to have a glimpse of unfettered joy from music that falls flat with you but someone else finds ecstatic. We should be curious, and embrace eclecticism like we did in the ’70s. Life lessons. Another glance at ’70s-era philosophy comes in Corbett’s recollection of working in a record store in 1979. After seeing a listing for “Brian Eno/Peter Schmidt, Oblique Strategies” on an inventory sheet, Corbett sought out the box that held not LPs or singles, but small boxes, each of which contained 123 cards inviting strategies for, fundamentally, doing what you do a bit differently. Oblique Strategies are seemingly more popular now than Ram Dass’s 1971 Be Here Now, as the cards are available as decks, websites, and Twitter accounts for easy access and personal reflection for motivation.

While the ’60s have been extensively studied and written about, the ’70s are only lately coming into vogue as an era whose history directly impacts the present: we need to talk about the difficult years too. Historian Andreas Killen picked an early year as pivotal in his book 1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol, and the Birth of Post-Sixties America (Bloomsbury 2006), and Corbett picks up on the broad impact of those events in his essays about 1974. In particular, the titular essay notes that Average White Band “didn’t need to be specific about what pieces they meant. It was the middle of the seventies. Things were going haywire. The American president was resigning. The United States was pulling out of Cambodia. Inflation in Britain was spiraling out of control. Ali beat Frazier in Manila. There were pieces everywhere. All around the world, there were plenty of broken things to keep up dancing and picking up, dancing and picking up.”

While forming a neat chronology, each of the essays stand alone, as their style sometimes indicates. There are a few listicles (“Count to ten and say ‘heavy metal'” introduces the ten-point essay on Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid”) and some rather abstract instances of performative writing, like the highly visual tribute to Suicide’s “Suicide”. Each song affects the author differently and is recalled differently from that which precedes or follows, true to form.

Pick Up the Pieces is rich in insight into the music industry. For example, Corbett reminds the reader that the “first half of the seventies brought the apex of the album as medium,” a fitting point of departure to recognize the importance of Joni Mitchell’s 1971 Blue. Later, under the banner of 1979, he offers a list of brief comments on forty-one different 45s, showing how the ’70s, to paraphrase Corbett, saw the transition from album-oriented radio and concept albums to music that was drawn more from the moment than the monolith.

The many essays that comprise this chronological record of music from the ’70s are a series of glimpses into music, artists, and cultural moments. Corbett encourages the reader’s interest in pursuing the topic further with a just-right balance of disclosure and opacity. He can’t tell the whole story in eight-or-so pages, but he can tell enough to create curiosity for both the music and the cultural history of the ’70s. Corbett reminds us that the music of the ’70s is not a collection of half-forgotten songs left drifting in the past. Rather, that music is an integral part of who he is, as the music we grow up with often becomes the music we grow old with as well.

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Want more? See this excerpt of Pick up the Pieces: Excursions in Seventies Music from University of Chicago Press published with PopMatters.