In Lives Of The Poets (With Guitars): 13 Outsiders Who Changed Modern Music, author Ray Robertson rescues relatively unsung heroes from obscurity and elevates them to a status normally reserved for gurus and sages. With in-depth knowledge of each artist’s major contributions, as well as their equally intriguing but lesser known works, Robertson searches for the soul of the individuals in question.
Chapter One tells the tragic tale of Gene Clark, the Byrd who flew too far. Clark wrote some of the group’s most memorable hits, including “Eight Miles High,” but would leave due to a fear of flying, anxiety and depression. He recorded several solo albums, such as 1968’s The Fantastic Expedition Of Dillard & Clark and No Other, which were valued for their innovation but have since faded from memory. Ultimately undone by success, Clark received royalties well over $100,000 thanks in large part to Tom Petty’s cover of “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better,” the unfortunate result being able to afford a massive binge of crack cocaine. Clark had already contracted throat cancer and used his new found wealth to imbibe until he died of massive heart failure.
Similar misfortunes befall subsequent subjects including Ronnie Lane, the Ramones, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Townes Van Zandt, Little Richard, Alan Wilson, Willie P. Bennet, Gram Parsons, Hound Dog Taylor, Paul Siebel/Willis Alan Ramsey and John Hartford. Only Little Richard remains, and while he is the best known name on the list, Robertson writes with an urgency that reminds the reader of Richard’s role in pushing the evolution of American pop music and as an unparalleled cultural icon.
“Real rock and roll is metaphysical skin popping masquerading as unadulterated id music – shameless, feral, timeless. Real rock and roll makes you do things tonight you won’t believe you actually did tomorrow morning. If it’s not dangerous, it’s not the real thing. And in spite of sixty years of artistically degenerative dilution, wanton trivializing commercialization, and simple overexposure, the best of Little Richard’s music remains dangerous.”
Robertson’s style aspires to the flair and flamboyance of the characters upon whom he has turned his attention and ultimately aims to discover the essence of each individual. His description of Gram Parsons goes beyond the superficial.
“Clothes may not make the man, but they are a fairly reliable indication of what the man underneath is up to. And if the man in question is attired in a white silk jacket and equally iridescent bell bottoms emblazoned with artfully embroidered depictions of poppies, marijuana leaves, LSD cubes, plenty of Seconal and Tuinal tablets, a naked woman, and a flaming red cross, surrounded by radiating shafts of blue-and-gold scarlet flames, chances are he’d made up his mind for trouble, both for himself and whoever he happens to come into contact with.”
At times, Robertson employs heady quotes from classical philosophers to make his point. He describes Paul Siebel’s “Prayer Song” as follows.
“If Kierkegaard had been an agnostic with pantheistic sympathies and with a superior sense of rhythm, this is what he would have come up with.”
Robertson’s writing is strongest when illustrating the social significance of idiosyncratic elan. “…without bump-and-grind gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, rock and roll as we know it likely wouldn’t sound the way it does or even have been born when it was. Gospel music is theodicy in song, the world made better, or made to go away, or made into another, kinder, happier, more-just place where, winged or not, we come to know for certain all of the things we ordinarily only merely-flimsily-believe.”
Ultimately, Robertson toils for a higher purpose: to reveal the transcendent, enduring qualities of the artist and their importance to society. He establishes his intentions in the introduction: “One wants to convey in words what it is that makes for a musically-transformed, more-alive human being.” With this collection of essays on 13 remarkable figures, Robertson leaves no doubt about the success of his endeavor.