Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

The Übertutor of American Music

A new anthology surveys the work of revered critic Robert Palmer

Robert Palmer was a musician’s music critic. Despite his occasional spitball (such as calling Bruce Springsteen’s persona “calculated” and “pretentious”), he was admired by many performers, largely because of his extraordinary knowledge of pop music. Bono called Palmer an “übertutor” of American music, and Mick Jagger noted his general erudition: “He would introduce you to all kinds of new things and old things—he was just very in touch with it.” But Palmer brought more than intellect to his work. Blues & Chaos, a collection of Palmer’s writings from the 1970s until his death in 1997, reveals why he was able to pronounce from his lofty critic’s perch at The New York Times and Rolling Stone, yet retain credibility and good will with so many artists. Quite simply, he loved the music they created, and he believed passionately in its importance.

Like most people who write about music, Palmer was a musician himself, a clarinet and saxophone player who recorded a couple of albums in the late sixties with a psychedelic fusion group called Insect Trust. He turned his attention primarily to writing in the mid-seventies, becoming chief popular music critic for the Times in 1981, but he continued to play sporadically over the years, and in the 1990s he produced blues recordings for the Mississippi-based Fat Possum label.

The Arkansas-born Palmer had a deep affinity for the blues. Though he cast a wide net as a critic, writing about everything from the New York punk scene to Moroccan G’naoua music, he was an acknowledged authority on Southern blues, which he regarded as the wellspring of much of 20th century popular music. His 1981 book, Deep Blues, is still a key text for anyone interested in the genre. He left New York in 1988 to return to the South, where he spent time in Memphis and New Orleans, promoted little-known blues artists, collaborated on documentaries about blues and rock, and taught ethnomusicology at the University of Mississippi. All the while, he continued to write, often for Rolling Stone.

Palmer produced an enormous body of articles and reviews, as well as a sizable number of liner notes for recordings. Blues & Chaos is not a comprehensive collection of his work, but rather a selection of pieces that spans his impressive range of interests. Editor Anthony DeCurtis has organized the anthology by topic, which allows readers to experience Palmer coming at a subject from many angles. For example, the section devoted to the blues includes Palmer’s classic 1978 profile of Muddy Waters for Rolling Stone; liner notes for All Night Long, a 1993 CD by Junior Kimbrough & the Soul Blues Boys; and one of his last pieces, “Why I Wear My Mojo Hand,” a short, mystical, funny essay for The Oxford American. There are some unexpected pieces scattered through the collection, including a long interview with William Burroughs, but taken as a whole, Blues & Chaos is an insider’s survey of late-twentieth-century American music.

Palmer was a versatile writer who seemed to do everything well, but his gifts are especially obvious in his artist profiles. He had a knack for conveying the genius of some pretty eccentric characters, and he managed to fly high with his prose while still doing solid reporting. In a 1972 article about jazz innovator Ornette Coleman, Palmer compared Coleman’s conversational style to his music, writing that it “manifests the same thought pattern, circling around the theme, moving far afield, returning to the starting point when you least expect it, and moving away again, progressing by variations of feelings and ideas, balanced like Humpty Dumpty on the edge of the void, the hole in the middle of space and time.” He then proved his point by turning over a big chunk of the article to Coleman, allowing him to speak in long, uninterrupted paragraphs.

Palmer always seemed to know when to step back and let his subject talk. His 1979 Rolling Stone piece, “The Devil and Jerry Lee Lewis” opens with Lewis holding forth: “I am the toughest son of a bitch that ever shat out of a meat ass.” No clever words from a journalist could have provided a better introduction to Lewis’s unique combination of grandiosity and self-loathing.

As good as Palmer was at capturing the personalities of the music world, he was perhaps even more adept at exploring the technical aspects of music in language that anyone can understand. Whether explaining modal jazz or discussing the tonal nuances of Indian music, Palmer kept it simple. Here he describes exactly how Muddy Waters transcends the basic blues structure to create his unmistakable sound: “But if you listen carefully to Muddy, or to any other really deep blues singer, you find that he systematically sings the third, and, especially, the fifth notes of the scale infinitesimally flatter or sharper, depending on where in the line the pitches fall and on the feelings he’s trying to convey.”

If there’s a single element that runs through all Palmer’s work, it is an unwavering faith in the cultural importance of the music he wrote about. He never apologizes for being a critic of pop music, never assumes second place in line behind the European classical tradition. The blues, in particular, he described as “sacred,” by which he meant that the music touched its listeners spiritually as well as sensually, that it was a means of transcendence. Such a stirring of the soul seems to be what Palmer was looking for in all his musical explorations. In the liner notes for a 1997 re-release of Miles Davis’s classic Kind of Blue, Palmer wrote, “If we keep listening to it, again and again, throughout a lifetime—well, maybe that’s because we sense that there’s still something more, something not yet heard. Or maybe we just like paying periodic visits to heaven.” Those lines could have been his credo.