Friday, June 1, 2012

Devil Sent the Rain by Tom Piazza

Devil Sent the Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America
by Tom Piazza

Because I am a huge music fan who does not write music, I am fascinated by the process. I love knowing musicians' work habits, everything from songwriting inspiration to rehearsal schedules. The ones who know what they are doing and do it really well, I want to solve part of that mystery. I understand that what goes on inside a creative person's head can never be fully articulated, but sometimes good writers get close. Some writers speak the language of music better than others, and have a way of getting those musician to open up so that we can all better understand their work. Tom Piazza is one of those writers, and while I don't always agree with him completely, his enthusiasm and intellect is both exemplary and contagious.

Collected from various publications like the Oxford American, Washington Post, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Devil Sent the Rain features essays, interviews and various other bits of Piazza's writing, primarily about music, but also about his much beloved home, New Orleans. The pieces are both pre- and post-Hurricane Katrina, and the understandable shift in tone flows well from beginning to end. Also included are his thoughts on selected literature, and his idolization-turned-friendship with Norman Mailer. Throughout, Piazza examines how all these different outlets connect us to one another, and what certain works of art mark an important time in our history. His ability to look at the big picture is outstanding, but he is also able to focus on the interior life.

Probably my favorite portion of the book is his 1997 interview with Jimmy Martin, the screw-loose, independent, self-proclaimed "King of Bluegrass." Martin died from bladder cancer in 2005, but when Piazza met him, he was still as wily as ever. Though it seemed that everyone from the old-school, George Jones-era of country all had a Jimmy Martin story, Piazza wondered why Martin wasn't better known, given his considerable talent. Despite his reputation as a hard drinker and a sometimes violent man, he was also a hard worker, something he liked to talk about at length:

[Martin:] "Business should be business. If you're going to make a living at it. […] My band don't know what it is to rehearse. If they get out there the night before I do, or stay a night after, they might jam out there and play everything in the world, but there's no rehearsin'. Nothin' serious. You can't go into a job just laughin' and having fun and expect to show what you're doing. If you're driving a bulldozer you're liable to run over something. You've got to have your mind down to the business. And I've been told this many times: 'You just take your music too serious.' I don't see how you could be too serious about somethin' that's gonna feed your family and make you a living for the rest of your life. I don't see as you could get too serious about that.

A man that don't wanta get serious about somethin', he don't wanta get good. Am I right?"

Another bone of contention with Martin is that he's never been invited to play at the Grand Ole Opry. Yes, he knows everyone there, and he hangs around backstage, but he doesn't know why he's never been included. The Opry is, of course, the official seal of approval in country music. Still, he decides that he and Piazza are going to attend together, and Piazza tries to not appear giddy with excitement.

His hair is neat and he is wearing black slacks, a fire-engine-red shirt buttoned at the neck and white leather boots with little multicolored jewels sewn on.

"Wait a minute, now," he says. He gets a black Western jacket out of the closet and puts it on, then a clip-on tie, white leather with little tassels at the bottom. "All right, hold on," he says, and from a chair in the corner he grabs a white straw cowboy hat with feathers arranged as a hat band.

"How do I look?" he says, now, presenting himself to me. "Huh?"

"You look great," I tell him. I'm not lying. Getting dressed up for these guys is a form of warfare, total plumage warfare,, and Martin hasn't been a pro for forty-eight years for nothing.

I love it. Even though I'm not really a modern country fan, I have respect for a lot of the old stuff, and I do love the showmanship and shininess of their Opry outfits. The women did the same — big hair, rhinestones, the whole bit — but the men might have been more over the top. "Plumage warfare" is an excellent way to describe it. You'll just have to read the book to know how the visit turns out.

Also really great are the four different pieces written for Bob Dylan. The first comes from his 1997 Kennedy Center Honors ceremony; the second for the DVD booklet notes to The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan Live at the Newport Folk Festival, 1963-1965; the third accompanies Gotta Serve Somebody, a Dylan gospel song cover album; the fourth, part of Studio A: The Bob Dylan Reader, in which Piazza examines the solo albums that led to Dylan's creative revival in the 90s. I'm not even a massive Dylan fan – let's be real, you gotta own more than the handful of the albums I do to be considered “massive” – but good music writing is good music writing. Piazza examines both Dylan's creative direction and the cultural direction of the world at large. The last piece was written post-9/11, but pre-Katrina, so there's a certain amount of unintentional foreshadowing in reading his dissatisfaction with the “disaster” of the Bush administration. I found this bit particularly interesting:

America... Meaning what, again? […] Something so internally contradictory is, of course, a target for every kind of projection. The mind has trouble accepting such intense contradictions within the same entity. Their presence creates a profound anxiety. Learning to accept them is a discipline.

Is it because the culture as a whole contains such extremes of good and bad that there is such a pull to identify with only one vein or corner of the culture?

To identify with the culture itself means identifying with a high level of tension among the elements. It means identifying with the tension itself.

What does this have to do with Bob Dylan? Consider the various evolutions he's undergone throughout his career --- the acoustic-only folk, the switch to electric, the gospel songs, the attraction to “absolute claims” and yet also being “extremely wary of them.” Piazza's point is that contradiction within one person's urgent claims is a very American thing. I don't know if it's uniquely American, since it seems to me that any human, regardless of nationality, is capable of contradiction. But perhaps talking about it publicly is? I don't know, since my perspective is skewed by having only lived in America. I suppose the irony in that statement is that, by making it, it is also an “urgent claim.”

Art interprets either current culture or the way culture is headed, but of course, it is also very personal. That's not to say that everyone depicts autobiographical experiences, but it is personal in that the artist in question is interested in a subject in a way that only they can be. For instance, I've never been in a band, but I've written about it. I've never been a professional ballerina, but I've written about it. Apart from specific plot elements, personal themes such as love, loss and pride can be explored in a way that reflects both public and private life. We are products of our own culture, and we all connect in different ways.

People like to make generalizations about artists, but you really can't. […] But it is probably true that most people who are artists as we tend to mean that word have very contradictory needs and impulses and that their work is among other things a way of mediating between opposite forces in their own nature.

Artists attempt to make sense of their personal tension.

Piazza himself has his own personal tension as a resident of New Orleans. “Katrina exposed something rotten at the root,” he writes. “The federally built levees were weak as a wino's teeth, and the governmental response to their failure was worse than inept.” Because he wrote a book called Why New Orleans Matters, he suddenly found himself on the news-talk circuit, discussing that inept response and the city's future. Somewhat predictably, readers/viewers who glaringly missed the point started responding. There were letters calling for making New Orleans a “museum town” – in other words, making it a shiny existence of architecture and boutique eateries, and well, those pesky poor of the Ninth Ward are just shit out of luck and should just move somewhere else. Isn't that generous? Piazza's response is more well-reasoned than I would have been, calling the suggestion “nauseating and despicable.”

But the point is that being poor and born into a partly hostile environment with diminished opportunity does not disqualify anyone from being a complex human being with a connection to their home and neighborhood, and not just a figure in a set of statistics.

Because the paperback I read was a PS edition, there is additional material in the back, including an interesting conversation between Piazza and his editor, Cal Morgan, as well as a 'Further Listening and Reading' list. We know I'm a fan of playlists, and this one provides a handy guide to all the material referenced throughout the book. Unfortunately, Gillian Welch is the only featured, named woman in this list, and one of the few mentioned throughout the book. The 'why' of this is a discussion bigger than this review, but “Desperate America” and the blues are not exclusively the domains of men. I'm not necessarily faulting Piazza for the noticeable lack of women in his book because I'm not privy to his editorial process, but I am recognizing the institutionalized dismissal of women throughout the history of media --- in journalism, music or otherwise. I'm not expecting Piazza to have some sort of great insight to the female experience, but I wonder if there were not-included interviews with women that would have also fit within the scope of the book?

Despite that flaw, Devil Sent the Rain is an excellent book. One does not have to be a big fan of the blues or “rural” music to find value within its pages, for Piazza writes in an informative way that's moving and honest. We can hear these artists' voices, and we hear their concerns.


Full Disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year.

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