Unfortunately, by the time that Robert Palmer (the writer, not the "Addicted to Love" guy) died from liver failure complications in 1997, his fierce brand of music journalism had been six feet under for years. Palmer was part of a loose cadre of scribes like Cameron Crowe, Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, Peter Guralnick, Timothy White, Ben Fong-Torres and Robert Christgau. Pecking out their lengthy pieces on manual typewriters, these writers were passionate about music and the people who made it, and lucky enough to enjoy generous and unfettered access to the artists they were writing about. Think about this. For a piece on John Lennon and Yoko Ono's 1980 musical reemergence, Palmer spent days and nights with the pair in the studio, on the town and in their home. Today, a young Palmer would be lucky to get a 20-minute phoner (with a publicist listening in on the other line) or an even more brief sit-down, one of scores of general feature writers in an assembly-line interview process. Edited by his friend and Rolling Stone colleague Anthony DeCurtis, Blues & Chaos is a fine sampling of some of Palmer's best writing over the course of three decades, including essays, interviews, reviews, liner notes, and feature pieces.
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His breadth of knowledge is peerless, and the extent of his interests is wide: jazz, classic rock, R&B, worldbeat, fringe music and, of course, blues (Palmer's book Deep Blues is still perhaps the finest meditation on the music). Disparate figures from Charley Patton and Ornette Coleman to Mick Jagger and Elvis Costello all populate the pages. Perhaps Palmer's work was elevated because he innately understood musicians both for their positive creativity (Palmer played clarinet and sax) and their pitfalls (for his substance addictions, including heroin). Interviews with Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Jerry Lee Lewis (in which cousin Mickey Gilley makes a cameo, arguing with the Killer about the meaning of Biblical verses), and a history of the early days of the Band are standout pieces. And as with any anthology, the reader will probably pick and choose what to read based on their own interests (for Get Lit, the articles on the Master Musicians of Jaouka, while a personal passion for Palmer, come off a bit limited). Of local interest, Palmer quotes music historian Alan Lomax positing the theory that the blues came from Texas, not the Mississippi Delta, and offers a brief guide to Texas blues. A piece on Lightnin' Hopkins opens with the Houston native evenly telling a concert promoter, "I want my money." It's nice to have a compendium of Palmer with Blues & Chaos, though it would be better for his influence on music journalism to prevail in current times. Then again, do we really want a 6,000-word meditation on the life and thoughts of John Mayer or Fergie? Scribner, 480 pp., $30.