Last month, as I was checking out Rock & Roll Icons at the Albany Institute of History and Art, I kept thinking about this one book that had come across my desk several months ago. Not unlike the exhibition, which was really focused on the photographer’s (Patrick Harbron) point of view, this collection of essays was a sort of memoir-driven mixed tape on musicians who had inspired, infuriated, and intrigued the author.
Lives of the Poets (with Guitars) by Toronto-based author Ray Robertson came out in the spring of 2016 by Biblioasis in Canada. This wasn’t Robertson’s first time on stage–he’d previously published seven novels and two essay collections, and he’s earned a reputation as an insightful and engaging writer with a biting wit. In the book’s introduction, he notes that music always seemed to find a way into his writing, and as such, he long had “a desire to one day drop the fictional veil and directly espouse and explore, at length, the lives of some of the musicians who have so deeply enriched” his own life. Using Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets (1777) as a model and strategy, Robertson set out to investigate the life story of “thirteen outsiders who changed modern music.” The result is an idiosyncratic collection of essays on musicians as varied as Sister Rosetta Thorpe, Alan Wilson, and The Ramones. Yet, they were chosen by the author because they met three criteria–they were based in American roots music, they were under-appreciated in their time, and their life stories were “as compelling as the best fiction” (see also: infused with moral quandaries).
There’s much to like about this book, but it’s real strength is in Robertson’s voice, which bobs and weaves throughout each essay, and his construction of each musician’s character arc. At times, it reads like well-drawn character sketches with great conflict, tension, explosive revelations, highs and lows. These are well-known musicians after all, and many of them come complete with apocryphal tales and anecdotes. Robertson notes, “my advertising, or–let’s be honest at the outset–my proselytizing, is more that of an avid, if critical enthusiast than that of a detached historian.” The proselytizing is an entrance into the essays, but it is also interesting reading, especially when Robertson injects his own views and comments into the narrative. One brief example is when he mentions The Ramone’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. “Although all rational people can agree that such an institution should not exist,” he writes. His asides, especially when they relate to the music business, are entertaining and fitting given the content.
As far as the essays, I have a few favorites. Certainly, I was engrossed by the essays on Little Richard and Townes van Zandt, who by all accounts, both had extraordinary, tumultuous lives. I read and re-read the essays on Gene Clark and Gram Parsons too. In each piece, Robertson digs deep into the songs, albums, and career arc of each musician, but more intriguingly, he builds an emotional arc that pulls the reader into the story. Often, I was left thinking about these “characters” and their lives, and yes, I was repeatedly sent to my laptop to search for songs that I’d let slip my mind, such as Gene Clark’s “Strength of Strings” or about a dozen songs by Townes van Zandt.
Biblioasis, an award-winning indie press based in Windsor, Ontario, is committed to publishing some of the best writing in the world in beautifully crafted editions. Lives of the Poets (with Guitars) is a sharp trade paperback with a red and black cover that will catch any music lover’s eye. Biblioasis designed a nice package, but Robertson’s irreverent voice, his character-driven storytelling abilities, and his personal indebtedness to the lucky thirteen make the collection work. This isn’t a history lesson tethered to research–it’s a novelist’s exploration of pioneers and the high drama of their lives. If you love blues, alt-country, roots-based rock, this book belongs on your shelf, next to your Greil Marcus, Will Hermes, and Chuck Klosterman. Or perhaps, as the cover suggests, it belongs next to your collection of vinyl.