- Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions: 1983 and 1984—Duane Tudahl
- Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of an American Troubadour—Rickie Lee Jones
- What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition—Emma Dabiri
- Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals—Saidiya Hartman
- The Mere Wife—Maria Dahvana Headley
- Beowulf: A New Translation—Maria Dahvana Headley
- London War Notes: 1939–1945—Mollie Panter-Downes
- Prince: The Man and His Music—Matt Thorne
“I slipped through school with a B average in spite of not being able to read very well,” says Rickie Lee Jones in Last Chance Texaco, her gripping, lovely memoir. “I could read but I could not concentrate.” It’s a confession one suspects crops up in a million autobiographies by people who work in entertainment. Ozzy Osbourne probably wasn’t a focused reader in school, and it’s hard to imagine Elvis sitting in a well-lit corner flogging himself through Huckleberry Finn. What is remarkable, however, is that this admission occurs on page 167 of a 350-page book about a life that began in the mid-1950s and a career that began in the late 1970s. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, You must be joking. I love Rickie Lee Jones, but I’m not reading seven volumes about her. But it’s not like that. The pages leading up to her assessment of her high school career are thrilling, funny, scary, sad, packed full of life and extraordinary characters. It becomes very clear that these moments and these people are responsible for her career, her lyrics, even her sound, and you don’t really need to know what mics she used, or what the record company did wrong with the promotion of the ninth album. She describes the genesis and success of her first two albums in detail and with fresh excitement, but they are the culmination of something, not the beginning.
Her grandfather was Peg Leg Jones, a vaudeville entertainer who could do a flip from a standing start, despite his eponymous disability; her mother was brought up in an orphanage; her father had gone off to seek his permanently elusive fortune when he was just shy of fourteen, and fought in World War II. He was sixty-three when he died—“younger than I am now but older than anyone in his family had ever been,” a heartbreakingly simple description of life on the American margins. Rickie Lee’s sister Janet was a handful who ended up in a home for wayward teenagers, and her brother, like her grandfather and also her uncle, lost his leg in an accident. Her mother and father fought, made up, moved, moved again. “What were they running from? Well, they ran from cities, houses, and eventually themselves, but they never got away from their difficult childhoods or their love for each other.” (I wonder, by the way, what the geography of England has done to our artists? The English have bad luck and grinding poverty and explosive marriages, too, of course, but we don’t have anywhere to run, really. I mean, you can keep moving and moving, but you can never move very far, and you can never escape the weather, or the architecture, or the culture. You have to move in your mind rather than in your pickup truck.) Trouble was heading for Rickie Lee. There was just too much heartbreak, poverty, chaos, and impermanence to avoid it. Rather than sit around and wait for it to arrive, Rickie Lee went out to head it off at the pass.
In 1970, she hitchhiked up to Big Sur from Long Beach, California, where her family was trying and exhausting their luck. She lived in a cave for a while with a bunch of hippies, but then she and a new friend decided to go and see Jimi Hendrix at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. Mind duly blown, she returned to the cave, only to find that the cave dwellers were moving on. They vowed to reconvene in a little town in Canada for July 4. Rickie got there, but only one of the cave crowd had bothered. She decided to travel back to the US with a guy who was crossing the border to buy pot. She was arrested and jailed, initially with adult criminals who were “howling like banshees.” This happened when she was fifteen years old. All this takes up the tenth chapter of her book; it would occupy seven hundred pages of mine. Such are the terrifying twists and turns of the drama, and the immediacy and detail of the scenes, that one can occasionally be tricked into thinking one is reading a novel, and into making guesses about the eventual outcome of this young woman’s life. I didn’t have much hope for her celebrating her sixteenth birthday, let alone her sixtieth.
Studded throughout the book, like gleaming clues to a happy ending, are references to music, in particular the music that provided the singular jazz-folk-Broadway-rock-soul stew of her first album. She sees West Side Story at the movie theater as a little kid and is thunderstruck. She teaches herself Bob Dylan’s “House of the Risin’ Sun” and Barbra Streisand’s “People” (“Musically, I was ‘Barbra Dylan,’ a collage of all I had heard”). She hears and is spooked by Dr. John while high during her Canadian adventure. And, perhaps most importantly, she comes across Laura Nyro, “not like anything else evolving out of the 1960s, as if the singer of the Shangri-Las had been raised by Leonard Bernstein.” She had found her person, the one most creative people need to complete a metamorphosis. “Somehow, the moment I fell in love with Laura I loved myself just a little more. I believe an invisible cord came out of me and attached itself to Laura Nyro that summer. Or vice versa.” As a portrait of the artist as a young woman, this book could not be any more enthralling or fun to read. Her troubles are not behind her, of course, once she has found her calling: the account of her breakup with Tom Waits, who walked away when he found out she was using heroin, is particularly piercing. You feel it, presumably because the author still does. Her first little album of covers was titled Girl at Her Volcano, a lovely way of describing influence. But many volcanoes have the capacity to blister the skin.
I don’t know what Rickie Lee Jones means to you. She means a lot to me. Those two first albums are perfect, I think, and sound even better to me now—as if they were somehow newly minted, but the ambition, the voice, the arrangements, and the songwriting seem like greater achievements, after the forty years I’ve spent listening to things that aren’t quite as good. I was in my early twenties when I first heard them, and I thought great albums would come along every few weeks. Rickie Lee was a pretty cool role model for me too. If I am not the worst man in the world—and I can think of at least seven off the top of my head whom I’d like to think I’m better than—then she is one of the women who helped drop me down the list. Jones spends some time describing the terror and the joy of being on Saturday Night Live, her first TV appearance, right when her first record came out. You can watch a grainy, hissy video of it on YouTube, and I recommend you do: she’s note-perfect, rocking her trademark beret, happy, apparently full of confidence, and ready to burn down the world. The band swings and the audience adores her. It’s impossible not to be moved by it, once you’ve spent a couple hundred pages discovering how she got there. I loved this as much as I loved Dylan’s Chronicles and Patti Smith’s Just Kids.
What white person wouldn’t want to read a book called What White People Can Do Next, in the current climate? I am being flippant, regretfully. Both you and I can think of a ton of white people who wouldn’t want to read it and aren’t going to, and even those who follow the smart young academic Emma Dabiri on Twitter became unhappy when they heard about her book. “Before the book was even written, I had ‘white’ people tweeting me to tell me how offensive the title is.” (We’ll get to the quote marks around the word white.) Dabiri is not, as you may have guessed, a “white” person, and although the idea that a disastrously well-meaning “white” person might have written a book called What White People Can Do Next is comical, it’s not entirely beyond the realm of possibility, judging from some of the encounters Dabiri describes in the book. After she took part in a public discussion on Afrofuturism, the blues, trap music, and ancestral veneration, a woman approached her to express her disappointment that there had been no mention of “allyship”; in other words, what’s the point of Black people if they’re not prepared to talk about white liberals and their willingness to help?
There is so much in these 150 pages that I found useful. In the chapter titled “Interrogate Whiteness,” Dabiri asks us to let go of the whole notion of “whiteness.” White people, as she points out, are “a relatively modern invention.” What does Tucker Carlson really have in common with a Caucasian man in Flint, Michigan, who hasn’t worked for ten years, or with a fisherman in England whose livelihood has been destroyed by the unintended but calamitous results of Brexit? They really have very little white privilege to check. Those of you who have seen Judas and the Black Messiah will recall Black Panther Fred Hampton’s smart, successful attempts to form a “rainbow coalition” among impoverished and aggrieved residents of all races. As the poet and cultural theorist Fred Moten said, “This shit is killing you, too.” And Dabiri is withering in her critique of the tendency of well-meaning whites to slip into the white savior lane: “Black people do not need charity, benevolence or indeed guilt…. As such, allyship appeals to a desire to help a ‘victim,’ constituting a reification of the power imbalance.” There is so much I want to quote; maybe you should just read it. If you need any further persuasion, Dabiri calls the anthropologist Margaret Mead a “Karen,” and provides a toe-curlingly unreflective Mead quote to prove her point.
I separated Last Chance Texaco from Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions because I wanted to give the impression that I am a rounded individual and not just a relentless music nerd. Fuck it, I am a rounded individual, when it comes to reading, at least, but a Rickie Lee book and a Prince book? Come on. What’s a rounded individual supposed to do, apart from raise his hands in surrender and promise to read more nineteenth-century fiction in the near future? I would recommend Last Chance Texaco even if you have never heard the author’s music, but I don’t think Duane Tudahl would really mind if I told you that if you don’t love Prince, then this isn’t the book for you. Tudahl’s book is a day-by-day account of Prince’s work in the studio between the beginning of January 1983 and the end of December 1984, during which period he became a global superstar. There are a ton of interviews with some of the people who were there with him—band members, the long-suffering and fascinating engineer Susan Rogers (now—and you probably saw this coming—a professor, after earning a doctorate in music cognition and psychoacoustics). Prince being Prince, Stakhanovite hard work, imagination, and lubriciousness are never very far away: the recording made on December 31, 1983, and January 1, 1984 (Happy New Year, Susan Rogers!), involved both the oud and the riq, an Arabic tambourine. The song was called “We Can Fuck,” and it featured the sound of Prince’s friend Jill Jones in the throes of orgasm. That’s a lot of the oeuvre in a nutshell.
Those of you who checked out the expanded Purple Rain a few years back already know that he recorded much more than he needed for the album. But he was also making albums at the same time for Vanity 6 (who were replaced by Apollonia 6), the Time, Jill Jones, Sheila E. and the Family, and occasional tracks for Sheena Easton. His creativity and output were staggering. Oh, and “making albums” means writing them, producing them, and playing most of the instruments for them. This could lead to friction, especially with the Time, who in the movie were the big-shot band that the Prince character was trying to surpass. In real life, and even though the Time was a proper band rather than a collection of Prince sock puppets, Prince took over and sacked a few of the band members who he felt were ill-disciplined. The truth was, as becomes clear in Tudahl’s book, he was more talented than everyone he played with. He was a better drummer, guitarist, keyboard player, and singer than anyone who might find themselves in the studio with him. That kind of talent is always going to spell trouble.
This isn’t a gossipy book, nor does it try to decode Prince or tell us what he means. It is an attempt to discover his art through the truth of its creation, and that makes it invaluable and unique, certainly in the field of music writing, and rare in all arts writing. Tudahl intends to write books about the next few albums in this golden run, and I’ll be there waiting for them.
I read a novel this month, too, a good one, and it isn’t about music. It is about love and marriage and adulthood and all the things I am just as interested in as music. But I seem to have run out of space, and I will have to write about it next time.