I read a great book this past week, Peter Terzian's collection Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums That Changed Their Lives. I've been looking forward to this book ever since I first heard about it, and it well lived up to expectations. Only a handful of the albums written about here play any significant role in my own internal discography, so it is perhaps not surprising that two of the essays I liked best are both on albums that matter to me also: Benjamin Kunkel's "Still Ill" (The Smiths, The Queen Is Dead) and Colm Toibin's "Three Weeks in the Summer" (Joni Mitchell, Blue). (The first of these two in particular is an unmissably good pieces of writing!) I also liked pieces by Sheila Heti, Martha Southgate and Peter Terzian for reasons that had nothing to do with the albums they described.
But the real standout here for me is an odder and more unusual piece that struck me as absolutely and divinely sublime, to the point that I have just Amazoned its uncanny subject American Primitive, Vol. II: Pre-War Revenants (1897-1939). I've been a huge fan of John Jeremiah Sullivan ever since I read his book Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter's Son, and this essay is basically the thing I magically most wanted to read in the world without at all knowing it yet!
Check out this paragraph:
In what is surely a trustworthy mark of obscurantist cred, one of the sides on Pre-War Revenants was discovered at a flea market in Nashville by the person who engineered the collection, Chris King, the guy who actually signs for delivery of the reinforced wooden boxes, put together with drywall screws and capable of withstanding an auto collision, in which most 78s arrive for projects like these. The collectors trust King; he's a major collector himself (owner, as it happens, of the second-best of three known copies of "Last Kind Words Blues") and an acknowledged savant when it comes to excavating and reconstructing sonic information from the wrecked grooves of pre-war disc recordings. I interviewed him a couple of years ago. A perk of magazine journalism is you can call up fascinating strangers and ask them questions on absolutely no pretext. King, like Fahey, graduated with degrees in religion and philosophy. He described "junking" that rare 78 in Tennessee, the Two Poor Boys' "Old Hen Cackle," which lay atop a stack of 45s on a table in the open sun. It was brown. In the heat, it had warped, he said, "into the shape of a soup bowl." At the bottom of the bowl he could read the word perfect: that's a short-lived hillbilly label. "Brown Perfects" are precious. He took it home and placed it outside between two panes of clear glass--collector's wisdom, handed down--and allowed the heat of the sun and the slight pressure of the glass's gravity slowly to press it flat again, to where he could play it. Now he could begin finding out what it rememberedThe next two paragraphs are equally good - the volume is worth picking up for this piece alone (and you really do have to read that Smiths essay!).
Here's a playlist Peter did recently for the Paper Cuts blog at the Times.
(And here's a bonus link which I missed at the time, Lee Child's earlier installment in the same series! Much of it doesn't particularly catch my eye, but check out this description of why Child thinks of Pink Floyd's "Money" when he writes the action scenes in a Jack Reacher novel: "The lyric is O.K., but what I really like is the time signature change between the saxophone solo and the guitar solo — at that point, we really get down to it, and that’s a feeling I try to replicate whenever I start a major set-piece scene. Like saying: You want action? Try this." It is no surprise that this fellow is such a genius of light reading....)