Sunday, January 11, 2009

1 In 33 (And A Third)

This morning, David Barker, editor of Continuum’s 33 1/3 series of books on significant albums of the past forty years, posted the master list of proposals he received as a result of his latest call for books to be published in the series—all 597 of them. That’s 147 more than he received last time. Shows you what I know. I thought there would be fewer proposals this time, not more. Last time he received 450 proposals, and accepted about 20 of them: the odds of getting accepted were about 1 in 25. But his time, assuming about 20 or so are again accepted, the odds are . . . well, roughly 1 in 33.3. Perhaps that’s as it should be.

The list is remarkably diverse, which pleases the editor. And although they rescinded the “one book, one artist” rule for this round of proposals, he’s also pleased by the relatively few number of proposals on albums by artists already the subjects of books in the series. “I was really expecting a deluge of Dylan, Pink Floyd, Velvets, Smiths, Stones and Radiohead pitches,” Mr. Barker writes, but “Instead, we get Slint, Ween, and Britney….” This fact may suggest something about the demographic reading and hoping to write for the series, I'm not sure. But excluding the fifteen proposals for “Various Artists” compilations, the band with the greatest aggregate number of proposals is the Talking Heads (8), followed by Slint (7, all on 1991’s Spiderland), Liz Phair (5, all on 1993’s Exile in Guyville) and Ween (5). For my part, I was pleased to see this time around proposals on Van Morrison (Astral Weeks), the O’Jays (Back Stabbers), Phil Ochs, Public Image Ltd. (Metal Box), Scott Walker, The Specials, The Mekons, The Residents, Underworld, John Cale (Paris 1919) and The Zombies (Odessey & Oracle)—and someone, lo and behold, finally proposed a book on Elvis Presley! (The Moses figure to the 33 1/3 series—he enabled the series in the first place, but will never be a part of it.) There were some surprises: 10cc, Gene Clark, Dennis Wilson (Pacific Ocean Blue), the Electric Prunes (Mass in F Minor), and, of all things, Steppenwolf’s Steppenwolf Live. The choices for Bob Dylan albums were unusual as well, but there’s no way of knowing until you see the proposals, of course. And there were the usual number of obvious—too obvious—choices. The oddest proposal: Wilco, “Forthcoming 2009 album.” Isn't that a lot like calling dibs?

Unless the series turns itself over strictly to books about cult albums of the past two decades or so, the toughest nut to crack, in my opinion, is another book on The Beatles, although a few proposals were submitted this time (Beatles for Sale and The Beatles, aka “The White Album”). I say this not because a Beatles album is already the subject of a book in the series (Let It Be), and not because another book doesn’t need to be written about their albums. I say this because it will be hard to surpass Dave Marsh’s book, The Beatles’ Second Album (Rodale, 2007), a model text of how you go about writing about rock music. Not everyone shares my opinion about his book, of course (see the reader comments on Amazon’s website by clicking on the link), but for sheer passion about a subject, characterized by good writing based on solid research, it is hard to surpass. Essentially Marsh used the The Beatles’ Second Album as means to gauge the band’s immense impact not only on popular music, but American culture as well, and in that regard he succeeds admirably. He’s attempting something very difficult, which is, as he calls it, to bridge “a canyon of time,” attempting to invoke precisely what sort of musical and cultural revolution The Beatles’ initiated, using the band’s second American album to do it. I don’t think, as some have claimed, he’s trying to compete with the fine books on The Beatles by Bruce Spizer, but rather to attempt a colossal act of historical reconstruction. My memory of those times—and the significance of The Beatles—jibes with his. For instance, one insightful observation (out of many) Marsh makes is as follows:

One of the great discrepancies between living through Beatlemania and the way that Beatles history has been recorded is the small role that the rock ‘n’ roll haters play in the annals. As the tale is usually told, it’s as if there were a few days, maybe a couple months, during which general disapproval of the Beatles, individually and as a group, and of the music—theirs, what they drew upon, what they inspired—ran rampant. Then adults quite jovially saw the light and, with the release of “Michelle,” all became sweetness and a quick transformation took place to “All You Need Is Love.”

That’s not how it played out—not in my hometown, and not for anybody I’ve ever talked to who lived through it. (48)

It wasn’t like that in my hometown either, Dave. It wasn’t just about the music, as anyone who lived through those times perfectly well knows: it was cultural warfare: about politics, morals, race—it was about whether you were an American or not. Those four lads from Liverpool were perceived by some as a menace, out to corrupt American youth. Of course, it wasn’t just about The Beatles; I remember the days when buying a Dylan album was a transgressive act. But, I digress. My point is that some of the latest proposals have a tougher hill to climb than others, although I admire those who have chosen to take this more challenging and arduous route.

The editor of the 33 1/3 series, David Barker, is entertaining a plan to whittle the roughly six hundred proposals down to a final one hundred. While I hope my proposal is among those ultimately accepted, if it is not—as strange as it may sound—I hope it is cut in the initial round rather than remaining in limbo, as it were, among the final 100. Even if it were one of those final 100, it would, in fact, be no closer to the final goal, to be selected for publication, than it was at the beginning of the selection process.

Now the waiting starts. Whatever the result, I look forward to further books in the series, as the quality has been very high. Good luck to all.

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