Reviewed by Christopher Zoukis
Speaking of August Kleinzahler – and even if we weren’t, we should be – did you know that Kleinzahler is not only a humdinger of a poet, but also a dilly of a musicologist? The man who wrote Sleeping It Off in Rapid City also wrote Music: I – LXXIV.
Music is about likes and dislikes. Specifically, what Kleinzahler likes and dislikes as far as music is concerned. Music is also about personalities. The personalities, or lack thereof, of the music makers, and, at the same time, the personality and delightful eccentricities of Kleinzahler himself, who is sui generis.
The first essay in Music provides the reader with a taste of what’s to come. Entitled simply ‘Music I’, it’s about Liberace, who, the reader is informed, was born Wladziu Valentino Liberace. A musical prodigy, Liberace not only had a photographic memory, he was also – very obviously – gay. And as Kleinzahler puts it, “He was outrageously gay and campy and funny when homosexuality didn’t even seem to exist in the United States. In short, he was being very, very bad and getting away with it.”
Kleinzahler goes on to point out how popular Liberace was. “More people watched his show than I Love Lucy or Dragnet.”
From there, the book herks and jerks its way through a vast array of the most unusual of suspects. People such as Darius Milhaud, Betsy Jolas, and Kevin Fryer, who started out in life making furniture. Making furniture is boring, so Fryer began constructing harpsichords. Fryer now has his own studio in San Francisco. Anyone desiring the best harpsichord money can buy goes to see Mr. Fryer.
Roy Fisher, Joe Sullivan, Brian Eno, Otto Klemperer, Rudy Van Gelder, Tom Waits, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash, Ike and Tina Turner, Little Willie John, Spade Cooley, Mick Jagger, and Beethoven all come under Kleinzahler’s colorful musical inquisition, along with a host of others.
Much (and who) of what Kleinzahler waxes eloquent about, many readers have never heard of. All the more reason to read it. It’s like walking into a See’s Candy Shop for the first time. Just because you’ve never heard of most of the confections doesn’t they don’t taste like Heaven wrapped in chocolate.
Somewhere in there, about two-thirds of the way into the book, Kleinzahler devotes a few sections to Phil and Leonard Chess. Fresh from Poland, the Chess brothers arrived in Chicago in 1937. They had a knack for making money, going into the liquor business. Soon, the brothers had a string of “stores and taverns, with the most successful outlets in the black part of town.” One of those places was the Macomba Lounge.
Of the Macomba Lounge, Kleinzahler writes, “The Macomba was not a fern bar.” What it was, was a dive. A dive with great music. And that’s when and where Muddy Waters came onto the scene. It’s a fascinating story, worth the cost of the book all by itself. And Kleinzahler relates it in his supremely inimitable style.
Great stuff! Not only does Kleinzahler provide musical commentary, but he isn’t afraid to toss in some off-the-cuff social commentary. Which explains why Kleinzahler’s prose is so much fun to read. Kleinzahler is extremely opinionated, as are most people in their secret hearts. Only most people don’t want to come across as narrow-minded, so they keep their mouths shut. Unlike most people, Kleinzahler expresses his opinions with a breezy insouciance that’s like a sip of ice-cold beer on a hot afternoon. Just what the doctor ordered!
And so is Music: I – LXXIV. It’s a book written in an erudite-corn-pone-down-to-earth style by a man who does not drive a Sport Utility Vehicle, and who has been described as scholar, poet, and wastrel in equal parts.
What more could one ask for?