Boogaloo: The Quintessence of American Popular Music
By Arthur Kempton
Pantheon, 468 pp., $27.50
An "educational consultant" and frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, Arthur Kempton offers an ambitious if not quite successful addition to the scores of tomes on American music history with Boogaloo: The Quintessence of American Popular Music, a cumbersome, rambling survey of soul music that's decent as history and social commentary but too stuffy and pretentious as music criticism.
Despite a title that implies an argument or celebration, Boogaloo isn't driven by any overarching or compelling thesis. Rather, it merely jumps between a handful of figures whom Kempton presumably finds particularly fascinating -- gospel pioneer Thomas Dorsey, soul legend Sam Cooke, and label impresarios Berry Gordy (Motown) and Suge Knight (Death Row).
Kempton's overacademic air is a killer. The use of the word "quintessence" in the subtitle and the odd insistence that "boogaloo" is "the synonym of choice among the cognoscenti for rhythm and blues" are telling: Kempton's self-styled membership in the "cognoscenti" makes him a writer who seems too far above much of his subject matter to write about it. Boogaloo rarely discusses music itself in any detail, and Kempton exposes his limitations and odd biases when he insists on putting quotes around the word "song" in reference to an N.W.A. track. (Kempton has a few decent things to say about hip-hop as culture but doesn't seem to understand the form as art at all.) On the subject of Sam Cooke's lovely standard "You Send Me," he writes: "But how a fairy tale spun of such trifling stuff as 'You Send Me' ever came true is not easy to figure. However wistful and innocent it contrived to be -- and sweetly sung -- the song itself justified the official culture's disdain for the quality of music being sold to children."
"Justified the official culture's disdain"? Does this guy even like pop music?
Kempton's hip-hop chapter covers the Suge Knight/Death Row saga and gangster rap in general so single-mindedly that it only reinforces the wrongheaded notion among most nonfans that that's all hip-hop is, which must be why Publishers Weekly singled out that section of this book for praise.
Kempton is better on the music business and pretty good on broader cultural history, such as explaining how the centrality of the church in "Aframerican" life is rooted in the institution as a sole sphere of freedom and control during the slavery era, writing that Africans in America "made a faith of their own out of a religion they were taught."
Along the way, there are plenty of nuggets of worthwhile information or analysis -- Bessie Smith making Columbia Records a million dollars and herself less than $30,000; James Brown's Live at the Apollo as a crucial example of how the "private conversations" among African Americans could be sold to a white audience -- but not so much that any reader wouldn't be better off in other hands.
The Stax story told in the book's middle section is better told by Peter Guralnick and Rob Bowman, and Nelson George's The Death of Rhythm and Blues is a much better book on the same subject. -- Chris Herrington
The deadline date for submissions to the Best of Memphis Anthology Contest, sponsored by the Memphis Writers Co-op, has been extended due to the recent power outages throughout the city. That new and final deadline is Saturday, August 16th. Once a year, the co-op plans to produce an anthology of the best fiction -- literary fiction, science fiction, historical fantasy, horror, what have you -- and poetry. The anthology is open to area residents and expatriates who once lived within a hundred-mile radius of the city. However, works must contain an obvious link to Memphis or the region, whether it be in the past, present, or future. Fiction is limited to 10,000 words; poetry, to 60 lines. Mail entries to Memphis Writers Co-op Anthology, 3125 S. Mendenhall, PMB 353, Memphis 38115. Selected authors will be notified October 31st. For full guidelines, go to http://tog.20m.com/anthology.htm. n
Over Your Dead Body
Say hello to the dearly departed.
Say your heart has stopped beating. Your brain waves have gone "poof!" You are dead. But even without the religious implications -- heaven, hell, reincarnation -- this may not be the end, my friend. You may no longer have your health, but you've still got your corpse.
Enter Mary Roach, author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (Norton). The book, Roach carefully notes in her introduction, is not about dying, which is sad, but about the dead body, which can be bizarrely entertaining. That point out of the way, Roach begins rolling out the one-liners while running through the past and present of corpses.
Foremost, the dead body has been used for research. Human bodies were once used by the auto industry -- strapped into a car seat then torpedoed into a wall -- before crash-test dummies could be accurately designed. Today, young medical students studying anatomy still use them to stick and prod. Hearts and eyes and other organs are lifted from the artificially breathing to be inserted into someone still breathing whose own hearts and eyes and other organs have failed. Dressed or nude or partially both, corpses are placed in a field face-down or on their backs or sides under leaves or flat-out in the sun at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville. (The idea is to learn as much as possible about decomposition.)
Learning, too, was the aim when a scientist stuffed a dead body with Thanksgiving dinner to see how much a stomach can hold. (It burst at a gallon.) Ditto for the doctors of the 1800s who studied how long the brain can function without an active blood supply. (Decapitated heads courtesy of the guillotine.) More weird science came in ancient claims of miracle cures from the proper application of blood, fat, newborn man-child spittle, whatever, for a variety of ailments, including leprosy, joint pain, and baldness.
Roach revels in her taboo topic, though she's more naughty than morbid. Case in point: in the first chapter, when, at a plastic-surgery seminar, Roach encounters a series of heads each in its own roasting pan. Who, she asks the seminar's coordinator, cuts off the head? "Yvonne," answers the coordinator. Yvonne appears, brusquely questions the author's credentials, leaves to check said credentials, and returns still suspicious. According to Roach, "My end of the conversation takes place entirely in my head and consists of a single repeated line. You cut off heads. You cut off heads. You cut off heads." (Emphasis the author's.)
And so Stiff goes, a somewhat bratty take, but an informative one, on the dearly departed. -- Susan Ellis