New in Books
Best Music Writing 2007
Edited by Robert Christgau
(Da Capo) $15.95.
33 1/3 Greatest Hits, Vol. 2
Edited by David Barker
Musical compilations come in many forms. At best, there's the thoughtfully sequenced, carefully selected mixtape given for the sole purpose of exposing the listener to great music. At worst, there's the sampler, a teaser advertisement for a label or stable of artists, made with the intent of selling the artists' full-lengths. (Somewhere in between is the DJ mix and the tribute compilation.) Best Music Writing 2007, then, is like that mixtape; 33 1/3 Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 is a sampler.
Fired Village Voice music editor and "Dean of American Rock Critics" Robert Christgau edits Da Capo's Best Music Writing 2007, and it's tempting to read the editorial appointment of such an old-school heavy as a jab against certain forces in music criticism—the corporate homogenization of alt-weeklies (hi, New Times!) or even the rapid rise of new media such as Pitchfork. But Christgau makes his intentions pretty plain, and they're not political, just editorial: "So to be perfectly clear I'll yell a little: I wanted the best writing. THE BEST WRITING."
The obvious highlight here is Jonathan Lethem's "Being James Brown," originally published in Rolling Stone, in which Lethem (Brown hilariously calls him "Mr. Rolling Stone") gets a rare glimpse inside the "hardest-working band in show business" shortly before Brown's death. Lethem digs deep into his subject, revealing Brown as absurd tyrant, perpetually wounded hustler, and supernatural entertainment machine. Also outstanding is Rob Harvilla's "Spankmaster and Servant," in which the Pitchforker and Christgau's replacement at the Voice (see, no politics here) manages an assessment of probably mentally ill rapper Kool Keith that's simultaneously gaping-mouthed and clear-eyed. Also good are Dave Simpson's attempt to track down the many axed ax-men and -women of the Fall (entitled "Excuse Me, Weren't You in the Fall?") and Chris Ryan's satirical, all-caps ("THIS BEING SOME WEB 2.0 SHIT") take on Jay-Z's out-of-retirement, midlife, CEO rap. What makes all of these pieces fine examples of BEST WRITING is that you don't need to know about or even like their subjects to enjoy reading them (although Ryan's references get a little oblique).
Presumably, 33 1/3 Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 is also looking for the best music writing, but it has a narrower field to draw from: installments 21 through 40 of the 33 1/3 series. Each book in the series examines a single album by a different artist, but each writer tackles the task differently, ranging from oral history to interview to effusive rant. As advertisements for the complete books, these 20 selections are compelling; taken on their own, they can seem frustratingly incomplete. Matthew Stearns's caffeine-and-cigarettes-fueled rave for Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation's magic liminal spaces and life-altering "scariness" is just building up steam when it abruptly crashes into its own endnotes. The excerpt of Ben Sisario's book on Pixies' Doolittle begins with enormous promise—a road trip with Black Francis!—but it ends before even getting around to the Doolittle recording sessions.
Even at full length, the 33 1/3 series' tightly framed focus and track-by-track, session-by-session detail caters to the musical obsessive in a way that the selections in Best Music Writing don't. So it's more tempting to skip around, bypassing less familiar artists. And when a selection does pique interest, it's over too soon. Which means that, just as Best Music Writing succeeds as a self-contained mix, Greatest Hits succeeds as a sampler, inspiring the reader to seek out the series' individual editions. ERIC GRANDY
The Fox and the Flies: The Secret Life of a Grotesque Master Criminal
by Charles Van Onselen
(Walker & Company) $34.95.
In the late 1800s, a creeped-out jewel thief, loan shark, gunrunner, pimp, and possible serial killer tried to keep ahead of the law by hopping steamships out of London, New York, and Cape Town. Joseph Lis, aka Joseph Silver, set up his rip-offs and procurement operations in gambling dens, poolrooms, and cigar stores across four continents, including a brothel floating down the African coast and a casa de tolerancia in Rio de Janeiro. A debonair master criminal, Silver had fine suits, starched collar shirts, a felt hat, a fob watch, and a handsome face slightly pockmarked by secondary syphilis.
Although he had an edge as one of the first global criminals, and at times even conned the police with his brazen duplicity, Silver still spent about nine years in jail in various stretches over his 30-year life of crime, from his teenage years until he disappeared during the First World War. During the war Silver left New York and returned to his hometown in Poland, where he was arrested with several accomplices by an occupying Austrian force. Sentenced to death for theft and espionage, it is not known whether the sentence was carried out. But likely Silver dangled on a rope or was shot since he was never heard from again after 1918.
Enter our detective, a century later. Charles Van Onselen, a social historian at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, has meticulously reconstructed Silver's life using a variety of sources, including newspaper accounts and police dossiers, among them the records from a stretch up the river in New York's Sing Sing prison. Silver did two years in the big house on third-degree burglary, but later he also beat a police bribery rap with the help of a high-priced attorney. Van Onselen says Silver learned a crucial lesson from that con: "There was no limit to what a good, well-connected lawyer could achieve."
Van Onselen worked on the book on and off for over 20 years. At 607 pages, The Fox and the Flies beautifully illustrates how an academic can hit his zenith through an obsession with a minor character who, with a little help from a cunning historian, emerges as a major player. In this case the player turns out to be a man who, Van Onselen says, left "a lasting presence on the Western imagination." In the last two chapters of the book, Van Onselen makes the (shaky) case that Joseph Silver was none other than Jack the Ripper. He points out that throughout his adult life Silver consistently took great pains to conceal the fact he lived in London's East End in 1888 when the notorious serial killer was disemboweling prostitutes—the class of women Silver exploited, loathed, and at times threatened with death if they did not pay him "protection" money. Van Onselen lists a dozen verifiable facts to make his case, and asks: "What then are you, members of history's jury, to make of this case?" BOB ARMSTRONG