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Aaron Gilbreath
Aaron Gilbreath has written essays and articles for Harper's, The New York Times, Kenyon Review, The Dublin Review, Brick, Paris Review, The Threepenny Review, and Saveur. He's the author of This Is: Essays on Jazz, the personal essay Everything We Don't Know, and the forthcoming book Through the San Joaquin Valley: The Heart of California. @AaronGilbreath

Cryin’, Dyin’, or Goin’ Somewhere: A Country Music Reading List

Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

There’s an old chestnut that says the older you get, the more you like country music. Even if you don’t relate to the guitar twang or the singers’ white rural experience, age lets you relate to the stories of struggle, heartbreak, and loss.

My dad raised me on old jazz and country, and his talented pianist brother Rick played country music professionally, from the dive bars of Phoenix, Arizona to Waylon Jennings’ touring band. Dad’s family were rural people from Oklahoma farms who moved to rural Arizona, then to the city. No matter how long he lived in Phoenix, he never lost his love of country humor or oration. Dad always said: People in country songs are either cryin’, dyin’, or goin’ somewhere. He also told an old joke: What happens when you play a country song backwards? You get your horse back, you get your wife back, you get your job back, and you sober up.

Bob Wills & his Texas Playboys were his favorite because they had the danceable, upbeat rhythm of jazz, but Dad loved different types of country. He didn’t like Johnny Cash, though. Cash didn’t swing. I’ve always owned old country albums, including Johnny Cash. My rock ‘n’ roll and jazz albums just got more play until time proved the old wisdom. Dad’s been sick for a few years. The blue chords of jazz resonate with me more than the saddest country ballad, but as I lose him in stages, and as I’ve labored and lost through the years, I’ve reached that age where I relate to country’s heartbreak more than I would like.

Country is a rich tradition that deserves an equally rich literary tradition. Collected here are some of my favorite stories that explore and celebrate it. Too many of my favorites do not appear online, like David Eason’s Oxford American “That Same Lonesome Blood,” about singer Steve Young, Barry Mazor’s “Make Me Wanna Holler: Loretta Lynn” from No Depression, and John Biguenet’s “The DeZurik Sisters: Two farm girls who yodeled their way to the Grand Ole Opry.” You can find them in copies of Da Capo’s Best Music Writing anthologies. The online pieces here should leave you shopping for copies.

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Constant Sorrow” (David Gates, The New Yorker, August 13, 2001)

Ralph Stanley was one of the architects of Bluegrass whose band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, revolutionized American vernacular music and took them all the way to Carnegie Hall. Born in southwestern Virginia, the legendary banjo picker still lived out there at age 74 when David Gates profiled him. Gates is a journalist and novelist who used to work for Newsweek, but he’s also a skilled country musician who can stay up jamming into the wee hours. I briefly played drums with his Bennington College country band one semester, and he’s as lively a musician as he is brilliant a music writer. For this story, Gates accompanied Stanley on a tour and joined him at services at Hale Creek Primitive Baptist Church. It’s a fascinating read from a person who loves country music so deeply he wants to understand it from the inside.

A Lone Star State of Mind” (Mitch Myers, Magnet, September 24, 2002)

Texas multi-instrumentalist Doug Sahm was a legend during his 50-year recording career, and he remains a legend now, long after he died. Hailing from San Antonio, Sahm embodied Texas’ multicultural identity, playing everything from fiddle to steel guitar, and honky-tonk to Cajun to 60s psychedelic music. He’s known as a country musician, but his interests and abilities make him more of an American mutt, spanning genre, and bigger than Texas. Writer Mitch Myers untangles the myth from the musician, and finds good reason for the self-destructive Sahm’s enduring stature. Sahm was what Myers beautifully describes as a “redneck-hippie“ and “fast-talking cosmic cowboy,“ back when country musicians could have more fluid identities than the modern, stifling big hat/American flag/pickup truck strictures. Sahm’s body of work is all over the place, and Myers worked hard to make sense of it all. “In a world where American music martyrs like Townes Van Zandt and Gram Parsons command respect in terms of comprehensive reissues,“ he writes, “there’s no retrospective boxed set being planned for Sahm.“ This story led me to Sahm’s music, which I’m still discovering.

Imagining the Delmore Brothers” (William Gay, Oxford American, April, 2003)

Those who love Southern literature know Tennesse’s William Gay as a singular gothic novelist and short story writer. He published his first book at age 57. I’ve read his collection I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down multiple times, and I rarely do that. Thankfully he wrote nonfiction about music for the Oxford American, which he rarely did. His 2000 music piece “Sitting on Top of the World“ is not online, but his essay “Imaging the Delmore Brothers“ is equally fine work that imbues the musical past with life, and includes a surprising family connection to these musicians.

There was a great deal of Southern music recorded in the ’20s and early ’30s, until the Depression threw the skids to it. There were string bands beyond counting, and in Mississippi everyone seemed to have a guitar, and the blues seemed to be seeping out of the earth itself. This early Southern music had a common ancestry: endlessly recycled lines of poetry that had become a sort of archetype, or a code you could decipher with a guitar and a little skill.

The Delmores fused all these elements and brought something new to the mix—a tight, sweet harmony that had never been recorded before.

A long time ago I asked my mother, “What were they like back then?“

“Well,“ she said, “they were just nice soft-spoken country boys. Except when they played music. Then it was like they were…taken over or something.“

Sex, Heartbreak and Blue Suede” (Robbie Fulks, GQ, July 2003)

When Chicago musician Robbie Fulks got invited to play at Nashville’s venerated Grand Ole Opry, the Carnegie Hall of country, he couldn’t figure out why. A self-described “pop-punk-hillbilly obscurity,“ he uses the opportunity to tell the Opry’s story, how this sacred institution shaped American music, diverged from modern mass-market country, and why its culture of authenticity and respect still matters. This is a fun, on-the-ground story about a place whose history is alive and kicking.

LMPC via Getty Images

Push Play” (Chris Dennis, Guernica, April 6, 2020)

Dolly Parton is pure country but bigger than country, because she is bigger than life, and yet, you can’t talk about country music without talking about her. And are more sides to her career and influence than a hundred stories can contain. In this personal essay, one young man looks at his past tastes to explore the role Parton played in his ideas of masculinity and difficult coming out. “I think part of my magic, if I have any at all,” Parton once said, “is that I look totally fake but am so totally real.”

Living with Dolly Parton” (Jessica Wilkerson, Longreads, October 16, 2018)

Parton’s music and persona are easy to love, but they are not always easy to love publically, and as our tastes change with time, we often see our favorite musicians’ flaws. Like Chris Dennis in Guernica, professor Jessica Wilkerson reconciles with Parton and her own past fandom, asking difficult questions in this very probing piece: “I needed to confront Dolly Parton’s blinding, dazzling whiteness.“

Dolly Parton was one of two women I learned to admire growing up in East Tennessee. The other was Pat Summitt, head coach of the Lady Volunteers, the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team. One flamboyantly female, the other a masculine woman. Both were arguably the best at what they did, had fantastic origins stories of hardscrabble lives in rural Tennessee, and told us that with enough grit and determination, we could succeed. Queer kids and nerdy girls, effeminate boys and boyish girls who desired something more than home took comfort in their boundary crossing. From these women they learned that they too could strike out on their own while maintaining both their authenticity and ties to home.

This would be a trio of Parton stories, but Kimberly Chun’s excellent “Touched by a Woman: Dolly Parton Sings ’bout Peace, Love & Understanding” in Creative Loafing is not online, but it deserves a shout out, because it’s fantastic.

Willie Nelson at 70” (Gene Santoro, The Nation, October 30, 2003)

Lots of legends aren’t on this list: George Jones, Patsy Cline, Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff. As with Dolly Parton, you can’t talk country without talking Willie Nelson. I’ve put these three Nelson stories in chronological order, to see him age, though in a sense, Nelson always seemed old to me. The country-stoner legend marked his milestone birthday with the two-CD The Essential Willie Nelson. Musician and critic Gene Santoro took the occassion to assess Nelson’s career, his appeal, and his enduring legacy. This is what the best reviews do: start small and go large, from a timely peg to a timeless exploration. An Austin-based source told Santoro: “Willie is the Buddha. He’s also a duet whore.” “In terms of consistent quality,“ Santoro writes, “he’s right, but Nelson’s duets, which have included outings with Charles, Cash and Dylan as well as U2 and Julio Iglesias, if nothing else do reveal Nelson’s prismatic musical curiosity.“

All Roads Lead to Willie Nelson” (Patrick Doyle, Rolling Stone, September 4, 2014)

The life story of the country music great, now 81. “Over the course of 30 interviews with his friends, family and band members, a lot of the same words come up – generous, charismatic, loyal and, as Keith Richards has said, ‘a bit of a mystery.‘”

The ranch and surrounding area are known to locals as Willie World. Nelson also owns Pedernales Cut-N-Putt, a nine-hole course you can see from his house. Next to that is a recording studio, and condos for friends, family and longtime crew members. Poodie’s Hilltop Roadhouse, a burger joint full of old Nelson posters and stage props, opened by his late stage manager Poodie Locke, is down the road on Highway 71; Nelson has been known to drop by for a surprise set. Drive to downtown Austin, and you’ll find the new Willie Nelson statue on Willie Nelson Boulevard.

With his youngest kids, Lukas and Micah, grown up and out of the house, Nelson spends his rare nontouring days driving around, listening to his Sirius XM station, Willie’s Roadhouse, sometimes going off-roading and carving out paths. “I’ve thought I was going to die a few times with him in the truck,” says his daughter Paula. “He’s like a kid, doing the whole cowboys-and-Indians thing. It’s his playground.”

Trigger” (Michael Hall, Texas Monthly, January 21, 2013)

Since buying it in a Nashville guitar shop in 1969, Willie Nelson has played the same Martin N-20 classical guitar. He named it Trigger. “Trigger’s like me,” Nelson told reporter Michael Hall. “Old and beat-up.”

Willie became the guitarist he is by playing this instrument, which he has worn and shaped with his own hands, working his very personality into the wood until it sounds like no other guitar on earth. Most nylon-stringed guitars have a rich, round tone, and they are difficult to tell apart. Trigger is so distinctive—low tones that thump like they have mud on them, high ones that chime like glass—that you can hear one or two notes on the radio and know immediately whom you’re listening to.

No guitar is as beloved—or as famed. On Trigger’s face you can see the topography of modern music, the countless hours Willie has spent playing country, blues, jazz, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, swing, folk, reggae, thirties pop, forties pop, and eighties pop. Trigger was there at the very beginning of outlaw country. He was there at the first Farm Aid. And he was there when Willie serenaded President Jimmy Carter. He has shared stage and studio with Ray Charles and Bob Dylan. He has hung from Willie’s neck as tens of thousands of fans sang along to “Whiskey River.” And he has sat in Willie’s lap as Willie comforted friends, such as the time the two of them played “Healing Hands of Time” to Darrell and Edith Royal in their home after their daughter’s death, and then again nine years later after their son’s death.

Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton backstage at the 53rd annual CMA Awards, 2019. Robby Klein/Getty Images for CMA

Come Here My Song” (Aaron Gilbreath, Longreads, June 11, 2015)

The first story I ever wrote for Longreads was about country music. It uses a night at Trout’s, the last original honky-tonk in California’s rural San Joaquin Valley, to explore the unique sound and origins of California country music, particularly Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. I’d traveled to Bakersfield to do some reporting for a book about the region, and I started my two-week reporting trip at Trout’s. Instead of living country music history, I found a tightknit, fun-loving community of karaoke singers who revealed as much about this evolving region as it did about country.

Branded Man” (Andy McLenon and Grant Alden, No Depression, November 1, 2003)

Speaking of Bakersfield: When you sing ”Let’s go to Luckenbach, Texas, with Waylon and Willie and the boys,” let’s never forgot Merle Haggard. Yeah yeah, this song’s not about him, but country wouldn’t be country without him. For No Depression, the magazine that celebrated outlaw and underground country, two writers celebrated California’s rural poet, the son of cotton pickers, who brought a lot of poetry and rebellion to country, and made California a place for serious country music, as much as others had made it a place for pop songs and folk tunes. Here writers Andy McLenon and Grant Alden make a serious case that, in their words, ”Merle Haggard is our greatest living singer and songwriter. Country singer and songwriter, if you must limit him. Just do not argue the point.” Take that, Waylon and Willie.

For Women Musicians, Maybelle Carter Set The Standard And Broke The Mold” (Tift Merritt, NPR, August 13, 2019)

“If Maybelle Carter — mother of country music, without whom country and rock and roll guitar would not exist — can’t make the great guitar player list, how can women musicians expect to be seen at all?”

Despite her many decades in the business and so many records sold, Maybelle Carter hardly received any honors during the peak of her career. Today, decades later, many, many more women are on the road; I imagine that would make Maybelle deeply happy. Women managers, women running production, sound and lights, women booking venues, women playing bass, women drummers, women rocking, women raising children on the road: We are Maybelle’s spiritual granddaughters. In the next 20 years, we will continue to bloom in music. But more and more, the world listens to music without context, without credits — no players, no provenance, no lineage — despite that information being readily accessible to us all. Social media allows everyone their own center stage; self-aggrandizing without depth perception — without a deeper sense of context in the present or in the history that has come before us — is an accepted way of moving through the world. This makes it even more essential to note how deeply the work of Maybelle Carter contributed to the music that follows her — for both women and men. Acknowledgement for the work of women — seen and unseen— is the only way to push this story forward for the daughters to come.

The Story of Country Music’s Great Song Writing Duo” (Dylan Jones, Longreads, September 2, 2019)

Every genre has its iconic songs. Country has countless. One of them is called ”Wichita Lineman.” Although the title suggests football, the lineman in this song worked on electric lines along a highway. Written and recorded by Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell, this is one of the most iconic songs of the 20th century, surprising as that sounds, and author Dylan Jones wanted to understand why, and how it came into being. The book he wrote about the song, Wichita Lineman, tells an incredible story of hard work, musical brilliance, and pure luck. We ran an excerpt.

A Genre of Myths: A Jazz Reading List

Tommy Potter, Charlie Parker, and Max Roach performing. William Gottlieb/Redferns

I am a jazz devotee, the kind with shelves of jazz books and photos of John Coltrane and Charlie Parker in his home office. Because I love music so much, I want to understand where it came from, and learn about the people who made it.

What is jazz? “It can be said that the entire story of jazz is actually a story about what can urgently be passed down to someone else before a person expires,” Hanif Abdurraqib writes in his book Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes on A Tribe Called Quest. “Jazz was created by a people obsessed with their survival in a time that did not want them to survive, and so it is a genre of myths—of fantasy and dreaming, of drumming on whatever you must and making noise in any way you can, before the ability to make noise is taken from you, or until the noise is an echo in your own head that won’t rest.”

Jazz is a uniquely American creation. People all over the world play it, and no matter how many talented white musicians play it, it was created and primarily redefined by Americans of color. Jazz is music that cannot be separated from the racially divided country that produced its musicians.

“Put it this way,” Duke Ellington said. “Jazz is a good barometer of freedom… In its beginnings, the United States of America spawned certain ideals of freedom and independence through which, eventually, jazz was evolved, and the music is so free that many people say it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in this country.”

Like critic Gary Giddin’s arbitrary map of post-war jazz, this list collects just a few of my favorite stories — mostly about my favorite period of jazz, from Bop to Hard bop. You’ll find a lot of worthwhile jazz reading in collections by Whitney Balliett, in the anthology Living with Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings, and in Robert Gottlieb’s Reading Jazz: A Gathering of Autobiography, Reportage, and Criticism from 1919 to Now. James Baldwin’s short story ”Sonny’s Blues” is essential jazz fiction. Of course, you could write a huge list of must-read jazz books, though these are the stories that stay with me, or that handle jazz’s big names and issues exceptionally well. I’m sure I missed many things. But as Miles Davis said, “Do not fear mistakes.”

* * *

I Thought I heard Buddy Bolden Say” (Luc Sante, The Believer, November 1, 2004)

Sante’s short essay is two things: an etymology of the term “funky,” and a profile of mythic, 19th century New Orleans cornetist Buddy Bolden, whose song “Funky Butt” turned “funk” into a musical concept. One of the many important figures who helped create what we call jazz, Bolden was a respected improvisational player in his time. Unfortunately, no recordings of Bolden survive, and reliable historical details are hazy. We know that he was institutionalized and died young. Sante conjures Bolden from the haze, painting a vivid, living portrait of a musical mystery man and his era.

He starts with a location: the site of a demolished church that doubled as a dance hall where Bolden performed. “On Saturday nights,” Sante writes, “it was rented for dances which lasted until early light, so that the deacons must have put in a hard few hours every week washing up spilled beer and airing out the joint before the pious came flocking.” As a reader I have a bias for stories of lost or nearly lost people and things, but Sante’s voice and sideways way of telling this one is what ultimately stays with me. This piece seamlessly weaves scenes with conversational exposition. And the essay’s structure does what essays can do: start in one place and end in a very different place.

Our Lady of Sorrows” Francis Davis, The Atlantic, November, 2000)

No matter how much you love Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald, no one can deny that Billie Holiday remains one of jazz’s greatest singers. Along with her stirring music and delivery, she stands as a tragic symbol, “a victim,” as critic Francis Davis writes, “of both injustice and her own vices.” In this probing piece, he illuminates her artistic achievements and enduring stature by peering behind persistent stereotypes and listeners’ projections to see who Holiday truly was as a person and a singer. “The singer nicknamed ‘Lady Day’ or just ‘Lady’ has become an all-purpose Our Lady of Sorrows,” Davis writes, “embraced by many of her black listeners (and by many women and gay men) not just as a favorite performer but as a kind of patron saint. She touches such fans where they hurt, soothing their rage even while delivering a reminder of past humiliations and the potential for more.” Davis also wonders how she became so deeply connected to the idea of sadness. Part of the answer has to do with her masterpiece about racism and lynching, “Strange Fruit.” “If the story suggests that ‘Strange Fruit’ ultimately became a way for her to release her anger,” Davis writes, “it also suggests that her anger could be unfocused, her racial indignation mixed up with resentment at her mistreatment by the men in her life, her persecution by the law, and the public’s preference for blander female singers.”

“The Charlie Christian Story” (Ralph Ellison, Saturday Review, May 17, 1958)

Although famous for his 1952 novel Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison published many essays. This one is about pioneering electric guitarist Charlie Christian, whose scorching solos made too few appearances on record but whose small body of highly stylized work transformed amplified music. By a twist of fate, Ellison grew up with Christian in Oklahoma City. Unfortunately, Ellison’s essay is not online. You can read it in his book Shadow and Act. While you’re there, read his essay on Charlie Parker, too, “On Bird, Bird-Watching, and Jazz.” Ellison was a singular voice and his ideas created a lasting portrait of racism in America. Reading this essay makes me grateful he was so influenced by jazz.

You might not know Charlie Christian’s name, but when you hear an electric guitar, be it rock or jazz or Blues, you hear Christian. “Some of the most brilliant jazzmen made no records,” Ellison writes. “So at best the musical contributions of these local, unrecorded heroes of jazz are enjoyed by a few fellow musicians and by a few dancers who admire them and afford them the meager economic return which allows them to keep playing…” Christian almost became one of those lost local musicians, but thankfully, he ended up in Benny Goodman’s band and lived long enough to get some of his genius on record.

Bird-Watcher” (David Remnick, The New Yorker, May 12, 2008)

Charlie “Bird” Parker was one of the most influential musicians in history. An indisputable genius, he also suffered greatly, died at age 34, and left a vast body of work that people are still studying decades after his death in 1955. David Remnick profiled one of those hardcore Bird fans, Phil Schaap. The obsessive, detail-oriented Schaap had hosted the Parker-themed radio show “Bird Flight” for 27 years back in 2008. It was a show that fed a jazz fan’s curiosity while also testing their patience, or as Remnick put it, blurred “the line between exhaustive and exhausting.” Remnick doesn’t question Parker’s contribution or examine his music. He focuses on the way jazz completely shaped Schaap’s life and on his approach to his radio show. (Schaap was partially raised by jazz legends, including drummer Jo Jones, with whom he watched cartoons and played records.) Why does he play countless, poorly recorded, live renditions of Parker songs? Why does he pontificate on air for hours on historical minutia and the meanings of song titles and lost recordings? Because jazz obsessives like Schaap preserve the details of a musical history that increasingly few people care about. Ultimately, Remnick recognizes that Schaap’s invaluable cultural service goes beyond jazz, that “Schaap puts his frenzied memory and his obsessive attention to the arcane in the service of something important: the struggle of memory against forgetting—not just the forgetting of sublime music but forgetting in general.” Bird was one of a kind, and Schaap is, too.

The Grandest Duke” (Geoffrey O’Brien, The New York Review of Books, October 28, 2010)

Ostensibly a review of Harvey G. Cohen’s book Duke Ellington’s America, O’Brien’s essay expands to cover the grand scope of Ellington’s entire professional creative life. One of history’s greatest composers, Ellington was not strictly an American jazz composer. He was a visionary global artist, even though he was shaped by, and in return shaped, the racially segregated America he inhabited. Stanley Crouch, a respected poet, novelist, columnist, and provocative figure in jazz literature, called Ellington “the most American of Americans.” Ellington not only managed to succeed commercially in a divided nation, he succeed without compromising his artistic freedom, his musical vision, or his identity. Like the book it reviews, O’Brien’s essay goes beyond biography to examine how Ellington managed his career, his public image, and of course, his music, across decades of American life. “Reading Cohen’s book,” writes O’Brien, “we begin in one nation and end in quite a different one… Of many artists it can be said that deep cultural currents can be read through their work; much rarer are those who, like Ellington, worked so powerfully and subtly on those currents as to transform them.”

Black, Brown, and Beige” (Claudia Roth Pierpont, The New Yorker, May 10, 2010)

Miles Davis said, “At least one day out of the year all musicians should just put their instruments down, and give thanks to Duke Ellington.” Ellington’s range is so vast that he’s worth reading about twice here. Responding to Harvey G. Cohen’s book Duke Ellington’s America, biographer Claudia Roth Pierpont takes her examination of America’s Beethoven in a more particular direction than Geoffrey O’Brien did in his review. Drawing its title from Ellington’s unfinished piece “Black, Brown, and Beige,” Pierpont’s piece focuses on what Ellington’s career reveals about race in America. “Black, Brown, and Beige” was not well received. This stung Ellington especially hard, since the work celebrated Black history, following the many strands of Black culture from Africa to the United States. For insight, she follows Ellington’s long musical life back to its beginning:

“More than half a century after the Civil War, the most famous night club in New York was a mock plantation. The bandstand was a done up as a white-columned mansion, the backdrop painted with cotton brushes and slave quarters. And the racial fantasy extended well beyond décor: whites who came to Harlem to be entertained were not to be discomfited by the presence of non-entertaining Negroes. All the performers were black—or, in the case of the chorus girls, café au lait—and all the patrons white, if not by force of law then by force of the thugs at the door. …Ironically, it was the Cotton Club that allowed Ellington to expand his talents, by employing him to arrange and compose for a variety of dancers, singers, miscellaneous acts, entr’actes, and theatrical reviews.”

“What,” Pierpont asks, “was he thinking?” Meaning: how does Ellington’s early period square with his middle and later periods? It is a legitimate question about an artist whose work and reputation tried to transcend race in a world that would never let any artist of color remain unaffected by racial dynamics.

Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. Getty Images

“At the Five Spot” (Stanley Crouch, Considering Genius, 2006)

Crouch is a respected poet, novelist, columnist, and provocative figure in jazz literature. In 2003, JazzTimes fired him as a columnist for his article “Putting the White Man in Charge,” where he correctly argues that “white musicians who can play are too frequently elevated far beyond their abilities in order to allow white writers to make themselves feel more comfortable about being in the role of evaluating an art from which they feel substantially alienated.” Crouch did fine without that magazine. He’s opinionated. Some critics claim he has too narrow a set of aesthetic guidelines for what good jazz is. But he wrote the best book on Charlie Parker, called Kansas City Lightning, and his ideas about music, race, and history are brilliantly observed, finely articulated, and thought-provoking. I like my thoughts being provoked, just like I like my music to push me. In this book Considering Genius, Crouch writes many powerful, controversial jazz essays. “At the Five Spot” covers Thelonious Monk’s 1957 stint at the iconic Five Spot club in Manhattan, painting a portrait of this singular jazz composer and stylist at what is arguably his creative peak, and what makes him a genius. Originally written in 1977, the piece appears in his book Considering Genius.

Jazz and the White Critic” (Amiri Baraka, Down Beat, 1963)

Crouch and poet and critic Baraka had a contentious relationship, but after JazzTimes fired Crouch, Baraka defended Crouch’s right to his musical opinion, especially with music. Baraka examined jazz at a time when few Black critics were publishing essays about the music. He has written timeless, influential pieces about jazz and race in America, most notably “Jazz and the White Critic.” He challenged critics to quit examining the music without examining its musicians’ lived experience, treating the music as if it emerged sui generis, as a collection of sounds, when it was, as he writes, inseparable from “the attitude that produced it.” “The major flaw in this approach to Negro music is that it strips the music too ingenuously of its social and cultural intent. It seeks to define Jazz as an art (or a folk art) that has come out of no intelligent body of socio-cultural philosophy…” He begins the essay:

Most jazz critics have been white Americans, but most important jazz musicians have not been. This might seem a simple enough reality to most people, or at least a reality which can be readily explained in terms of the social and cultural history of American society. And it is obvious why there are only two or three fingers’ worth of Negro critics or writers on jazz, say, if one understands that until relatively recently those Negroes who could become critics, who would largely have to come from the black middle class, have simply not been interested in the music. Or at least jazz, for the black middle class, has only comparatively recently lost some of its stigma (though by no means is it yet as popular among them as any vapid musical product that comes sanctioned by the taste of the white majority). Jazz was collected among the numerous skeletons the middle-class black man kept locked in the closet of his psyche, along with watermelons and gin, and whose rattling caused him no end of misery and self-hatred. As one Howard University philosophy professor said to me when I was an undergraduate, “It’s fantastic how much bad taste the blues contain!“ But it is just this “bad taste“ that this Uncle spoke of that has been the one factor that has kept the best of Negro music from slipping sterilely into the echo chambers of middle-brow American culture. And to a great extent such “bad taste“ was kept extant in the music, blues or jazz, because the Negroes who were responsible for the best of the music were always aware of their identities as black Americans and really did not, themselves, desire to become vague, featureless, Americans as is usually the case with the Negro middle class.

Post-War Jazz: An Arbitrary Map” (Gary Giddins, Village Voice, June 4, 2002)

Gary Giddins has long been one of jazz’s most passionate and incisive authors — authoritative but approachable, rigorous but not academic. You see him speaking in many jazz documentaries. He wrote the Village Voice’s his “Weather Bird” column for years. In 2002, he decided to create what he called “an overview” of jazz records during the post-swing heyday of Bop, Hard bop, free, avant-guarde, and modern jazz, so he challenged himself: He would create a map by selecting a single jazz song for each year between 1945 and 2001. Just one song. Then he’d write a paragraph about each song — for 57 songs! That was a gargantuan undertaking that exhausted me just thinking about it, and “choosing,” he wrote, “was an exercise in frustration, even heartbreak.” Why subject himself to this? “I hoped to offer a purview that balanced achievement and innovation.”

He acknowledged his subjective map’s inherent flawsone and the many ways readers would disagree with his choices. (Only one song? The year 1957 alone produced countless jazz masterpieces!) “An infinite number of maps were possible,” he said, “all of them valid.” Instead of debating him, Giddins wrote, he invited readers to make their own selections to enjoy the process of revisiting the music. “For me,” he wrote, “the key reward was in exploring hundreds of records I hadn’t revisited in years. Some records that I expected to include no longer sounded as good; others I had previously neglected now filled me with admiration.” Reading this is fun. You can dip in and out for years, reading your favorite years or your favorite artists. And although I will never subject myself to the grueling process of mapping jazz’s years myself, I do appreciate the chance to listen closely to the music. That’s why anything like this matters.

Heroine” (David Hajdu, The New Republic, December 24, 2006)

Jazz has no shortage of brilliant, tragic figures. Sometimes their destructive behavior is inseparable from their body of work. Foremost among them was singer Anita O’Day. Many listeners called her the greatest of all jazz singers, but the substances that helped her swing also ensured she never reached the top like Ella Fitzgerald. Hadju explores how O’Day’s singular delivery, her whole approach, was unfortunately related to inebriation. Or in his words, he shows us “the error in defining her by either her substance abuse or her singing alone. The two were not inextricable; they were one.” Even short pieces like this make it clear why Hajdu has long been one of America’s foremost writers. “Her music was the manifesto of her devotion to kicks at all cost,” he writes. “Ecstatic, indulgent, risky, excessive, and volatile, it was drug music, improvised in a state of simulated euphoria and imagined immunity.”

O’Day has long been an artist more difficult to accept than she is to appreciate, because of the primacy of dope in her aesthetic. We like our junkies tragic, preferably taken before their time, like O’Day’s long-gone contemporaries Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday (or, in rock and roll, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain); and in their music we want to find the evidence of mad genius run wild (Parker) or gothic decay (Holiday). We know that heroin is an evil soul-killing venom, and that is pretty much all we want to know about it. We want to hear only about heroin’s inevitable betrayal, not about its seduction. We most certainly do not want to think that music as spirited and delightful as Anita O’Day’s work in her prime could be good because of its debt to heroin.

Another great O’Day piece is Matthew C. Duersten’s “The Moon Looks Down and Laughs,” from Flaunt Magazine. It isn’t online, but you can read it in Da Capo’s Best Music Writing 2002.

When Canadian Jazz Was Good” (Chantal Braganza, Maisonneuve. May 4, 2010)

Heard of Nelson Symonds? Me neither. The guitarist’s talents attracted the attention of B.B. King and Miles Davis. During a 1965 performance, John Coltrane told Symonds’ band “This is the best organ trio I’ve ever heard.” And yet Symonds only recorded one proper studio album as a leader and a few collaborations. His ouevre is mostly what writer Chantal Braganza calls “crude recordings that get shuffled around like playing cards.” Why didn’t Symonds tour, release more albums, and have a more visible career? Why, when jazz left Montreal, did he stay? This is a fascinating story of an overlooked talent who crossed paths with giants but never joined their ranks.

Those old enough to remember often cite Symonds’ nights at the Black Bottom as among the best of his career. Out-of-town acts—Miles Davis, John Coltrane—would drop by after their gigs to see what all the fuss was about. Once, at the end of Symonds’ set, Davis pulled him aside. “What’s your story, what you playin’?” he asked. “Hey man, I do what I can,” was Symonds’ answer. “I like it,” said Davis, but it’s hard to tell if Symonds did. He was constantly self-effacing about his licks, sometimes to his own detriment. Whenever friends asked him to record albums with them, they got the same response: “Man, I gotta practice. I’m not ready.” For the most part, Symonds wasn’t interested in any aspect of the business that didn’t take place in a smoky club.

Nica’s Story: The Life and Legend of the Jazz Baroness” (David Kastin, Popular Music and Society, August 21, 2006)

This is one of those academic pieces that doesn’t read like an academic piece. Unfortunately it’s behind a paywall, but any deeply researched story about the compassion and financial support of the Jazz Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter — whose name graces many mid-century jazz titles — is worth reading. Jazz would have much less music were it not for her support, and this profile does her contribution justice. Here is the abstract: “While a coterie of bebop loyalists keep alive a caricature of Pannonica de Koenigswarter that has been woven into some of the music’s most durable myths, she has, for the most part, been relegated to the dustbin of history. A closer look at Nica’s 40‐year reign as New York’s ‘Jazz Baroness,’ however, reveals an iconic figure whose extraordinary life was played out at the nexus of gender, race, and class during a particularly transformative period in American popular culture.”

Removing Beethoven’s Wig: A Classical Music Reading List

AP Photo/Capital City Weekly, James Brooks

I know as much about classical music as I do car mechanics, which is close to nothing, but I do know I like it. Not choruses. I’m not a fan of things like Bach’s choral works. And as much as I appreciate Mozart, his best work is too tempestuous for me. I prefer chillaxed baroque chamber music. I prefer Bach’s Orchestral Suites and Brandenburg Concertos. And Franz Schubert, Joseph Haydn, Felix Mendelssohn, Handel’s Water Music, “Pachelbel’s Canon,” and the kind of sprightly, buttoned-up small group sound that fits quiet workday mornings and cups of tea. If there’s anything I’m not, it’s buttoned-up, so my particular love of chamber music still surprises me. Bad Brains’ fast songs and Dead Moon’s gritty guitars sound like my spirit feels, but I’m a Gemini, and my opposite side is contemplative, calm, and still, suited to reggae, jazz piano trios, and Schubert’s Octets. I find that kind of classical soothing. Maybe it counteracts the blaring amplified guitar part of me. Whatever it does, I like it.

I first discovered classical music’s charms as an undergrad, during a period when Fugazi and instrumental surf music dominated my stereo. Cruising the listening stations at those chain mega-bookstores that thrived in the ’90s, with their stuffed rows of books, CDs, and bustling cafes, I found a few classical CDs that were well-reviewed and gave them a try. Where rock ‘n’ roll normally provided the soundtrack to my innumerable college road trips, the Brandenburg Concertos played on a certain winter trip to the mountains of southern California. It did not fit. Speeding along San Bernardino freeways, the charged up cellos made me feel like I was preparing to storm a castle. Driving in the forested mountains to hike old-growth pine forests, Bach’s music made it sound more like study time than bushwhacking time, but I liked the mood it provided, and I liked that the mood felt new. By the late ’90s, I’d grown tired of boot-stomping guitar bands and needed a break. As Fugazi sang in their song “Target”: “It’s cold outside and my hands are dry / Skin is cracked and I realize / That I hate the sound of guitars.” After a break, I came back to loud guitars, but I returned with more varied tastes and a diversified music collection that put Tchaikovsky albums next to ones by T. Rex and jazz trumpeter Thad Jones.

Classical music can seem so staid. It’s easy to imagine the kind of people who perform and listen to it being repressed, teetotalling stiffs who haven’t had sex, let alone a good buzz, for years. Blair Tindall’s book Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music proves that assumption wrong. Taking us inside this relatively insular subculture, which is lived backstage in concert halls, recitals, and academia, this insider’s portrait shows classical musicians who are as wild and deviant as rock ‘n’ rollers, and a subculture as dramatic as any other. As a young deviant myself, I was impressed. Her book, and the music, led me to read more about classical history and performance.

Here are a few interesting explorations of classical music history, practice, and performance that might help you hear the music, and think of its culture, differently, too.

* * *

Beethoven’s Kapow” (Justin Davidson, New York Magazine, March 17, 2010)

Classical music can seem so staid that you don’t associate it with shock or revolution, but Beethoven’s Third Symphony has continued to shock people since the composer first performed it in April of 1805. Writer Justin Davidson loves the piece, and keeps coming back to it.

 If I could crash any cultural event in history, it would be the night in April 1805 when a short man with a Kirk Douglas chin and a wrestler’s build stomped onto the stage of the Theater an der Wien in Vienna. Ludwig van Beethoven, 34 years old and already well along the way to deafness, swiveled to face a group of tense musicians and whipped them into playing a pair of fist-on-the-table E-flat major chords (blam! … blam!), followed by a quietly rocking cello melody. If I listen hard enough, I can almost transport myself into that stuffy, stuccoed room. I inhale the smells of damp wool and kerosene and feel the first, transformative shock of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the “Eroica,” as it exploded into the world.

But Davidson also recognizes the way shocking, profound art or ideas — things that were once revolutionary — grow familiar enough to be tame over time. “Beethoven toyed with expectations we do not have and dismantled conventions that no longer guide us,” writes Davidson. “As a result, the ‘Eroica,’ which emerged with such blinding energy that some of its first listeners thought its composer must be insane, sounds like settled wisdom to us.”

Why do we reenact these rituals of revolution when revolution is no longer at stake? How can an act of artistic radicalism retain the power to disturb after two centuries? What’s left when surprise has been neutralized and influence absorbed?

Strike With the Band” (Kate Wagner, The Baffler, September 3, 2019)

“The world of classical music is neither noble nor fair,” Wagner writes, “though its reputation says otherwise.” Wagner played violin since her parents first rented her one when she was 4. After accruing $44,000 of student loan debt and developing carpal tunnel in college, she quit music and switched careers. “Despite its reputation as being a pastime of the rich and cultured elite, classical musicianship is better understood as a job, a shitty job, and the people who do that job are workers just as exploited as any Teamster.” Her illuminating essay reveals the true story about low pay, limited job opportunities, and rented instruments, which is the story of “arts under capitalism, in a culture where the abandonment of government funding results in a void filled only by wealthy donors and bloodsucking companies.” In the process, her essay dismantles the fundamental American myth of meritocracy and access.

Classical music is cruel not because there are winners and losers, first chairs and second chairs, but because it lies about the fact that these winners and losers are chosen long before the first moment a young child picks up an instrument. It doesn’t matter if you study composition, devote years to an instrument, or simply have the desire to teach—either at the university level or in the public school system. If you come from a less-than-wealthy family, or from a place other than the wealthiest cities, the odds are stacked against you no matter how much you sacrifice, how hard you work, or, yes, how talented you are.

Twinkle, Twinkle, Vogel Staar” (Elena Passarello, Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2016)

Unlike parrots, Starlings do not repeat back what you sing to them, but they transmute, scramble, and modify your singing enough to give you a new view of it. When the young Mozart whistled at a caged starling in a Vienna shop, the way the bird sang it back changed how Mozart heard his song, and how he wrote, and he immediately bought the bird.

There is no other live-animal purchase in Mozart’s expense book, and no more handwritten melodies; no additional transactions were praised as schön! This is one of the very few things we even know about his purchasing habits. He’d only begun tracking his spending that year, and by late summer, Mozart had abandoned the practice and only used that notebook to steal random phrases of English. So this note of sale is special among the extant scraps from his life.

The purchase of this bird, Mozart’s “Vogel Staar,” marks a critical point for the classical period. At the end the of eighteenth century, tunes were never more sparkling or more kept, their composers obsessive over the rhetoric of sonata form: first establishing a theme, then creating tension through a new theme and key, then stretching it into a dizzying search for resolution, and finally finding the resolve in a rollicking coda. The formal understanding of this four-part structure permeated classical symphony, sonata, and concerto. By 1784, sonata form had imprinted itself on the listening culture enough to feel like instinct; Vienna audiences could rest comfortably in the run of classical forms as familiar—and thus enjoyable—narratives. And nobody played this cagey game more giddily than Mozart.

Claus Felix/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Darkness Invisible” (Wendy Lesser, The Threepenny Review, Winter 2011)

The Threepenny Penny review editor Wendy Lesser has written frequently about classical music. In 2010, she sat in a New York City concert hall in complete darkness for an hour, listening to a performance of Georg Friedrich Haas’ third string quartet. Listening was all the audience could do. “We were unable to see our hands before our faces, much less check our watches or glance at our companions,“ she wrote. It was an experiment: how did sensory deprivation change the listening experience? Would the experience have been different with music she’d previously heard?

Sitting in the dark at a concert is a way of being at once alone and in the company of others. As I explored my unusual and tourist feeling of privacy (stretching about in ways I would never do in a lit concert hall, yawning widely, tilting my head way back or lackadaisically from side to side, and repeatedly holding my hands in front of my face to see if they had become visible yet), I thought of D.W. Winecott’s notion about how the child learns to be alone in the presence of its mother – that is, the baby gets to test out being solitary and accompanied at the same time. I imagined I was enjoying this childish sensation immensely, and yet on some level I must have felt a bit of fear or anxiety too, as I realized during my wild head-tilts, when I discovered that the room was not actually completely dark. There were two rows very faint almost-lights barely visible in the ceiling, and another ghostly spot at the very back of the room – and this, strangely, filled me with the same kind of energetic hope that hostages and TV thrillers feel when they come up on a nail or some other sharp protrusion against which they can slowly fray away their binding ropes. But try as I might, I could not free myself from the darkness: I could never manage to see a thing, not even my pale hands waved directly in front of my face. Once, in a moment of casual listening such as one might do at a regular concert, I closed my eyes, and the shock when I opened them and perceived no difference at all with severe.

Apparition in the Woods” (Alex Ross, The New Yorker, July 9, 2007)

The story’s subhead “Rescuing Sibelius from silence” is vague and cryptic, but this is the story of Finland’s greatest composer, arguably what Ross calls its ”chief celebrity in any field.”

Composing music may be the loneliest of artistic pursuits. It is a laborious traversal of an imaginary landscape. Emerging from the process is an artwork in code, which other musicians must be persuaded to unravel. Nameless terrors creep into the limbo between composition and performance, during which the score sits mutely on the desk. Hans Pfitzner dramatized that moment of panic and doubt in “Palestrina,” his 1917 “musical legend” about the life of the Italian Renaissance master. The character of Palestrina speaks for colleagues across the centuries when he stops his work to cry, “What is the point of all this? Ach, what is it for?”

The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius may have asked that question once too often. The crisis point of his career arrived in the late 1920s and the early 30s, when he was being lionized as a new Beethoven in England and America, and dismissed as a purveyor of kitsch in the tastemaking European music centers, where atonality and other modern languages dominated the scene. The contrasts in the reception of his music, with its extremes of splendor and strangeness, matched the manic depressive extremes of his personality—an alcoholic oscillation between grandiosity and self-loathing. Sometimes he believed that he was in direct communication with the Almighty (“For an instant God opens the door and His orchestra plays the Fifth Symphony,” he wrote in a letter) and sometimes he felt worthless. In 1927, when he was sixty-one, he wrote in his diary, “Isolation and loneliness are driving me to despair….In order to survive, I have to have alcohol….I’m abused, alone, and all my real friends are dead. My prestige here at present is rock bottom. Impossible to work. If only there were a way out.”

Notes on Birdsong” (Olivia Giovetti, VAN Magazine, May 29, 2020)

Birds are among nature’s greatest musicians. “The 20th and 21st centuries teemed with birdsong quotations in music,“ Giovetti in an essay of surprising connections, “from Amy Beach’s “Hermit Thrush at Eve” to John Luther Adams’s “Canticles of the Holy Wind.” But the era has most closely been associated with Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). As a teenager in Aube, he began to notice the avian world.“ Humans have matched nature’s beauty with our own beautiful music and ugliness.

In the video of Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper in Central Park, this same shift takes place in Amy Cooper’s voice when she calls the police. It’s so uncanny it may as well have been part of a score.

“I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life,” she tells Christian as she dials. She repeats “African-American” twice with the dispatcher. When it seems like she needs to explain the situation a third time, her tone modulates from steady (although perhaps slightly heightened by adrenaline and stress) to screaming in shorter breaths: “I’m being threatened by a man in the Ramble, please send the cops immediately!”

“Strategic White Womanhood is a spectacle that permits the actual issue at hand to take a back seat to the emotions of the white woman, with the convenient effect that the status quo continues,” writes Ruby Hamad in her forthcoming book, White Tears/Brown Scars. “White women’s tears are fundamental to the success of whiteness. Their distress is a weapon that prevents people of colour from being able to assert themselves or effectively challenge white racism and alter the fundamental inequalities built into the system. Consequently, we all stay in the same place while whiteness reigns supreme, often unacknowledged and unnamed.”

Patrick Pleul/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

The Prodigy Complex” (Hartmut Welscher, VAN Magazine, October 6, 2016)

“Prodigies exist in every field,” Welscher writes. “But since the time of Leopold Mozart, who dragged his son through the drawing rooms of Europe’s nobility like a trained monkey, the prodigal youngster has become a familiar, peculiar trope in classical music hagiography.” What is it about the idea of in-born genius, of the gifted child destined for greatness, that captivates so many cultures? America in particular fails to empathize for the talented childhood whose lives permanently suffer from the way their parents and society use them as commodities. Welscher exposes the ethical dimensions of the prodigy complex, what he beautifully calls “the darker side of prodigy reception,” focusing on coverage the 10-year old composer Alma Deutscher received.

In a profile of Deutscher for Die Zeit, the well-known journalist Uwe Jean Heuser asks, “Who is this child who, at the age of 10, is capable of amazing an ambitious, knowledgeable audience?” Isn’t the real question: Who is this audience that allows itself to be amazed by a child? Is “ambitious” or “knowledgeable” really the right way to describe an audience that is satisfied by “poise and skill,” when it should expect communicated life experience, storytelling, expression? Are these qualities really so much harder to judge in musicians? As Solomon writes, “Musical prodigies are sometimes compared to child actors, but child actors portray children; no one pays to watch a six-year-old playing Hamlet.”

Symphony of Millions” (Alex Ross, The New Yorker, June 30, 2008)

So few people publish long stories about classical music that Alex Ross, The New Yorker’s music critic, appears in this list twice. Classical music, once such a provincial Western music, had taken up residence inside Communist China. “For the past fifteen or twenty years, classical music has been very à la mode in China,“ one accomplished composer told Ross. Ross visited Beijing to investigate if China was indeed the future of classical music. Ross found a classic music culture that reflected Communist China of that time: suppressed, well-polished and publicized in a self-serving propoganda-type way, and fraught with the tension between the freedom practitioners wanted and what little freedom they had.

For a musician on Long Yu’s level, politics is unavoidable. Since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, the Party has discouraged dissent not just by clamping down on rebellious voices but by handsomely rewarding those who play it safe. Richard Kraus, in his book The Party and the Arty in China, writes, “By 1982, the Party had given up trying to purge all dissident voices and opted instead for the strategy of urging all arts organizations to strive to earn money. “Those who work within the system may be expected to reach the stage where they can win prizes, obtain sinecures, hold illustrious posts, and we will paid for teaching. Artists end up censoring themselves – a habit ingrained in Chinese history. Behind the industrious façade is a fair degree of political anxiety. Reviews often read like press releases; indeed, I was told that concert organizations routinely pay journalist to provide favorable coverage. Critics feel pressure to deliver positive judgments, and, if they don’t, they may be reprimanded or hounded by colleagues. One critic I talked to got fed up and quit writing about music all together.

Crowd Control” (Wendy Lesser, The Threepenny Review, Spring 2008)

As with Ross, Lesser writes so well, and so distinctly, about classical music, that this list would be insincere not to include another piece.  Unfortunately, this one doesn’t appear online for free in full, but it’s too unique not to include. Watching an orchestra, you can’t miss the conductor, but it takes effort to truly see them. After watching one conductor, Simon Rattle, lead the Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in 2008, Lesser trained her lens on him to examine the conductor’s larger triumphs, challenges, and contribution to orchestral performance.

Whenever a conductor lifts his arms, points his fingers, or gestures with his head, he is actually controlling thousands of body parts. These include (among others) the right arms and left fingers of the string players, the hands and lungs of the woodwinds, the lips of the brass section, the writes of the percussionists, and the eyes and ears of all the musicians performing under him. But the body parts also include the eyes, ears, lungs, and hands of those of us out there in the audience; we too are watching his characteristic movements, listening for the notes, catching our breaths, bringing our palms together in applause. The control can never be perfect, in regard to either the bodies onstage or those off it, and that is a good thing, because robots can neither play nor appreciate music. But to the extent a conductor’s control approaches perfection, in a Zeno’s Paradox-like fashion, without ever getting there, we in the audience stand to benefit. Listening to the Berlin Philharmonic perform under Simon Rattle, one has a sense of what that near-perfection might sound like.

Smoking: A Legal Weed Reading List

AP Photo/Richard Vogel

It’s always 420 somewhere, especially here in Portland, Oregon, where a cannabis dispensary seems to stand on every other corner. I smell weed while biking with my daughter through quiet residential neighborhoods. I smell weed while driving with my windows closed. I smell it at the food carts and on the clothes of college students whose papers I used to help revise at Portland State University. Last year I was skating a park around 8 am one morning, and I smelled weed. No one was walking a dog. No one was playing Frisbee golf. I swear the squirrels must have been blazing in the trees. It’s easy to feel like I’m part of a small minority of Portlanders who don’t get stoned. But legal cannabis is more than easy stoner jokes and giggly good times. Legalization is decriminalization, and that’s a very important distinction in a nation that both disproportionately incarcerates people of color for minor offences and clings to an ineffective, military battle approach to the social and health challenge of addiction. Weed is far less harmful than heroin and alcohol, but it can still be harmful when habitual. And arrests have ended too many lives.

In 2016, to celebrate Pennsylvania becoming the 24th US state to legalize medical marijuana, Longreads editor Cheri Lucas Rowlands compiled a marijuana reading list, called Weed Reeds. This list is an extension of that, featuring stories that have come out since other states decriminalized recreational and medical cannabis, and since advocates have started reframing marijuana as cannabis. Still, as serious as legalization is, people still puff, puff, puff on porches, pass the pipe at picnics, and drop tincture in their beers to lighten backyard parties. Legal weed ain’t all science and medicine. It’s a huge lucrative industry, and that makes for dramatic stories, personalities, and trouble.

* * *

Grow Industry” (Nicholas Hune-Brown, The Walrus, March 12, 2013)

In 2013, when two U.S. states had legalized recreational marijuana, there were signs that Canada would end its nine-decade-long marijuana prohibition. People were wondering how to capitalize on this historic opportunity, to become, as The Walrus put it, ”the Seagrams of weed.”

There are certainly parallels. Like the marijuana ban today, the prohibition against alcohol—much stricter in the US than in Canada—did not eliminate the drug. It just created a grey market with shortcuts and loopholes, easily exploited if you were someone like Samuel Bronfman, a canny Canadian businessman who wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. The Bronfmans were hustlers, Russian Jewish immigrants who set up a string of “boozariums” along the Saskatchewan–North Dakota border, ferried alcohol across the Detroit River, and shipped it into the US aboard schooners. In 1928, they expanded their empire by purchasing Seagrams, the Montreal-based maker of such popular brands as Seven Crown. When Prohibition ended, they were in the perfect position to solidify their hold on the market, and Seagrams became the largest distilling business in the world.

Lavish Parties, Greedy Pols and Panic Rooms: How the ‘Apple of Pot’ Collapsed” (Ben Schreckinger and Mona Zhang, Politico, May 24, 2020)

The spectacular explosion of cannabis’ ambitious startup MedMen is a tale for the tech era. The company themselves couldn’t always figure out if they were a tech company or a cannabis company. They just knew they were rushing to capitalize on the lucrative opportunity presented by legal cannabis. They modeled their stores after the Apple Store. They published a glossy culture magazine called Ember that ran articles like “Is CBD the New Tylenol?” In an attempt to reach the masses and normalize cannabis consumption, they ran an expensive ad campaign where they’d cross out the word ‘stoner’ and replace that loaded term with words like ‘Grandmother.’ “One image,” the story says, “featured a uniformed police officer.”

This is the story of how the cannabis industry comes down from its high.

In some cases, vendors, unable to get cash for the product they have supplied to the company, have instead been taking payment in MedMen stock. As of mid-May, its stock price was down more than 95 percent from its late-2018 high, according to data from the Canadian Securities Exchange.

Normally, a business in such dire straits could seek federal bankruptcy protection. Because of weed’s legal status, that option is not open to MedMen.

MedMen was faring worse than most, but the rest of industry was also coming down hard from its high. There were too many entrepreneurs trying to blaze the same path as Bierman, competing for a pool of legal sales that was not growing fast enough, with too much regulatory uncertainty hanging over them. In the year leading up to March 21, the United States Marijuana Index, which tracks top cannabis stocks, fell by more than four-fifths.

Canada’s Saddest Grow-op: My Humiliating Adventures in Growing Marijuana” (Ian Brown, The Globe and Mail, May 19, 2019)

When one of The Globe and Mail editors suggested writer Ian Brown grow weed as an experiment, Brown borrowed a high tech, automated grow device called a Grobo and set his operation by his office desk. From the dizzying number of varietals to choose from to the sensitive environmental needs of the plants, there are many reasons professional grow cannabis. But could technology like Grobo really democratize and simplify cannabis production?

“I think people will come to love growing,” Mr. Dawson said as we neared the end of our factory tour. “But it’s a much more complex problem than we anticipated.” He was enthusiastic, but wary, because he knew the secret behind the popular misconception that cannabis is a weed anyone can grow anywhere. The truth is, growing good cannabis is way, way harder than it looks.

Eventually, we loaded the Grobo into the hatch of my car. I drove to Toronto and dollied the hulk up to my desk at work. I felt like a revolutionary. There it stood for three weeks while I tried to find something to grow in it.

Reefer Madness 2.0: What Marijuana Science Says, and Doesn’t Say” (Dave Levitan, Undark, January 21, 2019)

By now, many Americans are at least faintly aware of the comical mid-century progoganda waged against marijuana consumption, which included slogans like “The burning weed with its roots in Hell!“ The rhetoric has cooled, but myth and pseudoscience still shape many Americans’ view of cannabis use, and propoganda takes many forms. In this piece, Levitan takes a look at the untruths, fear-mongering, and logical fallacies that inform the case that the book Tell Your Children: The Truth about Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence makes against cannabis. He also indicts New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell for his piece, “Is Marijuana as Safe as We Think?” which, even when justified, is a modern sport in itself. “Combined,” Levitan writes, “these two works offer a master class in statistical malfeasance and a smorgasbord of logical fallacies and data-free fear-mongering that serve only to muddle an issue that, as experts point out, needs far more good-faith research.“ It must also be said that science is still trying to understand the way cannabis works on, and that weed is not harmless, even if it isn’t from HELL.

An important piece of Berenson’s argument is that rates of marijuana use have risen at around the same time as an increase in diagnoses of schizophrenia and other forms of psychosis. For example, separate studies from Finland and Denmark show an increase in such diagnoses in recent years. The authors of both studies wrote that the increases could be explained by changes to diagnostic criteria, as well as improved access to early interventions. In both cases, the authors do not rule out an actual change in incidence. But Berenson makes that possibility seem a firm reality, and that the rise in marijuana use is responsible. There is no real evidence that he’s right.

Berenson’s connection of marijuana to violence seems even more tenuous. He writes that violence has increased dramatically in four states that legalized marijuana in recent years: Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington. He notes that the number of violent crimes in those states has increased faster than the rest of the country between the years 2013 and 2017. On its face, he’s not wrong, but this is a great example of the liberties one can take with numbers.

Is Marijuana as Safe as We Think?” (Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker, January 7, 2019)

Medicaid, Marijuana And Me: An Ex-Opioid Addict’s Take On American Drug Denial” (Janet Burns, Forbes, February 18, 2018)

A journalist shares what her experience with prescription painkillers taught her about the value of decriminalization.

Current federal leaders have said repeatedly that cannabis is not a medicinal substance at all, just as members of many administrations did before them. In doing so, it seems, they chose to reject the clear definitions and determinations that have been agreed upon by a majority of medical experts and regular citizens in the U.S. and a growing number of nations around the world.

At the same time, the U.S. assigns more favorable legal status to around 50 different opioids than it does to cannabis or psilocybin mushrooms, all but a handful of which are manufactured prescription drugs (think “opium poppy straw”; heroin, originally a prescription drug, has been retired). As of last year, the U.S.was also producing more opioid prescriptions than it has residents. And according to recent statistics, another American dies from opioid abuse every 10 minutes.

Glass, Pie, Candle, Gun” (Sean Howe, Longreads, May 13, 2019)

Before he founded High Times, Tom Forcade was a renegade journalist willing to throw a pie — or a lawsuit — in the face of anyone restricting his constitutional freedoms.

Much as the underground press provided a forum for the New Left and counterculture of the 1960s, High Times served as the national message center for the 1970s movement to bring marijuana to the mainstream. During Forcade’s four years publishing the magazine and funding the marijuana lobby, possession of small amounts of cannabis was decriminalized in Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Oregon. The first Americans began receiving marijuana for a medical condition. High Times editorials from those days seem almost prophetic now: warning against the corporate interests that would descend upon legalized weed, and noting the ways in which international drug wars could serve as cover for imperialist adventures. (Forcade’s own extralegal activities have a legacy as well, but that information has mostly lurked in government agency records, in the memories of tight-lipped collaborators, and in the research files of my forthcoming book about him)

Down the Rabbit Hole: A Psychedelic Reading List

Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“On psychedelics,” Dr. John Halpern, head of the Laboratory for Integrative Psychiatry at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, told The New York Times Magazine, “you have an experience in which you feel there is something you are a part of, something else is out there that’s bigger than you, that there is a dazzling unity you belong to, that love is possible and all these realizations are imbued with deep meaning. I’m telling you that you’re not going to forget that six months from now.” That rings true to me.

For the record, I’m not encouraging anyone to take psychedelics. Powerful substances such as LSD, D.M.T., and psilocybin are not for everyone, and they are illegal. That said, these substances behave in the body very different than opioids, alcohol, and cocaine, and they offer what many people view as the possibility for enlightenment, for constructive personal revelations, and insight into the cosmos. The stories collected here offer insight into this idea.

Not long ago, residents of affluent Western countries began traveling to the jungles of South America to have profound psychedelic experiences with the hallucinogen ayahuasca. And workers in Silicon Valley started taking small doses of psilocybin and LSD, called microdoses, to enhance their work and creativity in tech. Tripping got trendy. It also received more scientific attention. As Lauren Slater wrote in her New York Times piece, a new generation of researchers are studying the therapeutic effects of psychedelic substances and their potential for treating everything from depression, alcoholism, and PTSD, to confronting our own mortality. These researchers have differentiated themselves from the questionable, Timothy Leary-style drug studies of the ’60s. It’s exciting to live in a time when scientists are taking a serious, objective look at the way psychedelics work on not only the human body, but the human experience. After the legalization of cannabis in many US states, activists are now working to legalize psilocybin mushrooms. Like all outlawed psychoactive substances, psychedelics come with a lot of cultural baggage. As governor of California, Ronald Reagan stated that “anyone that would engage or indulge in [LSD] is just a plain fool.”

For those who haven’t tripped and want to understand the experience, or those who want to relive past trips without having to fit new six-to-ten-hour journeys into their adult work and parenting schedules, this reading list is for you. For those who prefer to never to ingest psychedelic substances, these stories will take that trip so you don’t have to. It’s nice to travel into another dimension from the comfort of your own couch, especially now that COVID-19 keeps most of us indoors at home. Anyway, shelter-in-place isn’t the best time to trip. Psychedelics are better suited to nature, if not a camping trip then at least a city park. Apartments are too small. They smother the cosmic consciousness we’re trying to expand. Also, things get weird in familiar environments, especially familiar environments where family portraits hang above piles of dirty laundry that need washing. (Hi Mom, my face is melting!) Maybe the best trip now is one others have already taken. Either way, safe travels my friends. See you on the other side.

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The Drug of Choice for the Age of Kale” (Ariel Levy, The New Yorker, September 5, 2016)

The ancient South American hallucinogen ayahuasca has become America’s psychedelic drug du jour, with everyone from Baby Boomers and Millennials to the Silicon Valley set seeking its potent revelations about harmony and interspecies unity. To hear the plants speak, all you need is money and some strength of mind.

One at a time, we went into the front room to be smudged with sage on the wrestling mats by a woman in her sixties with the silver hair and beatific smile of a Latina Mrs. Claus. When she finished waving her smoking sage at me and said, “I hope you have a beautiful journey,” I was so moved by her radiant good will that I nearly burst into tears.

Once we were all smudged and back in our circle, Little Owl dimmed the lights. “You are the real shaman,” she said. “I am just your servant.”

When it was my turn to drink the little Dixie cup of muck she presented, I was stunned that divine consciousness—or really anything—could smell quite so foul: as if it had already been vomited up, by someone who’d been on a steady dieta of tar, bile, and fermented wood pulp. But I forced it down, and I was stoked. I was going to visit the swampland of my soul, make peace with death, and become one with the universe.

Tourists of Consciousness” (Jeff Warren, Maisonneuve, April 29, 2011)

Before The New Yorker spotted ayahuasca as a subject, the Canadian quarterly Maisonneuve covered the increasing popularity of hallucinogen tourisism. Jeff Warren’s reporting makes a fascinating companion to Ariel Levy’s above.

As if on cue, the Estonian psychologist, Alar, vomited into his bucket, setting off a domino effect of throaty purges around the room. Susan began humping the air. The Mountie groaned and raised his arm, as if to ward off an assailant. Someone else started barking. The Finnish professor—also in his sixties—came spinning in from the sidelines, hair shocked upwards in an Elvis-style pompadour, and pranced around Susan’s undulating body.

It was all too much. I struggled to my feet, teetered, and fell sideways over a chair. On my hands and knees I managed to crawl to the bathroom, where I was noisily ill. I spent the next two hours slumped next to the toilet, disappointed by my lack of visions, but also giggling at the whole bizarre circus. Behavioural reality, at least, was beginning to shift.

How Psychedelic Drugs Can Help Patients Face Death” (Lauren Slater, The New York Times Magazine, April 20, 2012)

Researchers are exploring whether certain drugs can help patients cope with fear of death. Pam Sakuda, who was given six to 14 months to live, was administered psilocybin — an active component of magic mushrooms.

Norbert Litzingerremembers picking up his wife from the medical center after her first session and seeing that this deeply distressed woman was now “glowing from the inside out.” Before Pam Sakuda died, she described her psilocybin experience on video: “I felt this lump of emotions welling up . . . almost like an entity,” Sakuda said, as she spoke straight into the camera. “I started to cry. . . . Everything was concentrated and came welling up and then . . . it started to dissipate, and I started to look at it differently. . . . I began to realize that all of this negative fear and guilt was such a hindrance . . . to making the most of and enjoying the healthy time that I’m having.” Sakuda went on to explain that, under the influence of the psilocybin, she came to a very visceral understanding that there was a present, a now, and that it was hers to have.

Turn On, Tune In, Drop by the Office” (Emma Hogan, 1843, August 31, 2017)

Emma Hogan reports that in Silicon Valley, microdosing LSD is the new “body-hacking” tool everyone from engineers to CEOs are using to boost productivity and creativity. Interestingly, while apparently everyone is doing it, users are reluctant to have their real names appear in print.

San Francisco appears to be at the epicentre of the new trend, just as it was during the original craze five decades ago. Tim Ferriss, an angel investor and author, claimed in 2015 in an interview with CNN that “the billionaires I know, almost without exception, use hallucinogens on a regular basis.” Few billionaires are as open about their usage as Ferriss suggests. Steve Jobs was an exception: he spoke frequently about how “taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life”. In Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography, the Apple CEO is quoted as joking that Microsoft would be a more original company if Bill Gates, its founder, had experienced psychedelics.

As Silicon Valley is a place full of people whose most fervent desire is to be Steve Jobs, individuals are gradually opening up about their usage – or talking about trying LSD for the first time. According to Chris Kantrowitz, the CEO of Gobbler, a cloud-storage company, and the head of a new fund investing in psychedelic research, people were refusing to talk about psychedelics as recently as three years ago. “It was very hush hush, even if they did it.” Now, in some circles, it seems hard to find someone who has never tried it.

The Trip Treatment” (Michael Pollan, The New Yorker, February 2, 2015)

Research into psychedelics has been demonized and shut down for decades. But recent psilocybin trials from Johns Hopkins and New York University are helping researchers reconsider the therapeutic potential of the drugs.

The Trippy Science of Psychedelic Studies” (Elitsa Dermendzhiyska, Elemental, August 22, 2019)

Psychedelic substances show great promise treating everything from cancer to depression, anxiety to alcoholism. To help understand this burgeoning field of inquiry, one writer participates in a study. Tripping taught her as much about the promises as the dangers of medical psychedelics.

The brain on psychedelics is not only susceptible to cues, but it also exaggerates their meanings. And here’s the problem with that: We can debate what’s real and what is an illusion, but we can’t ignore the power of the drugs, or the power of the people who administer them to us, and we can’t ignore our own vulnerability to both. This is what chills me.

The Plot to Turn On the World: The Leary/Ginsberg Acid Conspiracy” (Steve Silberman, PLoS/Maps.org, April 21, 2011)

As the public faces of the psychedelic revolution, Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg made a dynamic duo. The charming, boyish, Irish Harvard professor and the ecstatic, boldly gay, bearded Jersey bard became the de facto gurus of the movement they’d helped create — father figures for a generation of lysergic pilgrims who temporarily jettisoned their own fathers in their quest for renewable revelation. (Note that this piece, originally published at PLoS, is no longer available there. Some digging discovered it online at maps.org.)

A Psychedelic Murder Story” (John Paul Rathbone, Financial Times, June 19, 2015)

Ayahuasca tea has long played a religious role in Brazil, but did it also contribute to the brutal death of a celebrated Brazilian artist? A dark twist on the question for enlightenment.

There have been many other reports of mental and physical healing following ayahuasca ceremonies, as well as occasional stories of delusion, cultism and worse. Early last year, Henry Miller, a 19-year-old Briton, died after apparently taking part in a shamanic ayahuasca ritual in Colombia — a terrible accident which played in the British press as a cautionary tale of a gap-year adventure that went horribly wrong. And then there is Glauco’s story, largely unreported outside Brazil, although it is one of the most curious cases of them all.

Riding the Highs and Lows with My Mom” (Valentina Valentini, Longreads, August 21, 2019)

Valentina Valentini’s life-long role-reversal with her mother gets up-ended one psychedelic night in the Hollywood Hills, giving her the chance to become the daughter, once again.

She handed me the pipe. I politely refused. We went back to listening to the girl croon.

Not many minutes later I began to feel lightheaded. And warm. I knew it would get hot in that tiny room. My first thought was that I might be inhaling some second-hand smoke, therefore creating a bit of a contact high. I wasn’t altogether opposed to that, so I sat still a little while longer. Then my eyes started to feel heavy. Very heavy. I whispered to my mother that I was going to take a step outside and get some air. She seemed concerned, but only mildly. I assured her I’d be fine, snuck through the haphazard chairs with swaying wannabe hippies in them, and stepped out the shop door.

The Trip of a Lifetime” (Laura Miller, Slate, May 14, 2018)

In the context of some reads on psychedelic drugs, Laura Miller looks at Michael Pollan’s book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. In it, Pollan says that drugs such as psilocybin and LSD got a bad rap after some flawed scientific experimentation and images of burned-out, ’60s counter-culture hippies soured Americans on exploring the medical benefits these drugs might offer, suggesting that their mind-altering abilities might help free us from cognitive patterns that are holding us back.

If How to Change Your Mind furthers the popular acceptance of psychedelics as much as I suspect it will, it will be by capsizing the long association, dating from Leary’s time, between the drugs and young people. Pollan observes that the young have had less time to establish the cognitive patterns that psychedelics temporarily overturn. But “by middle age,” he writes, “the sway of habitual thinking over the operations of the mind is nearly absolute.” What he sought in his own trips was not communion with a higher consciousness so much as the opportunity to “renovate my everyday mental life.” He felt that the experience made him more emotionally open and appreciative of his relationships. Both Waldman and Lin report similar effects, even though Waldman never actually tripped. The promise of hyperlight travel, revolution, and spiritual transcendence be damned: If psychedelics can help cure the midlife crises of disaffected baby boomers and Gen Xers, then it’s only a matter of time until we’ll be able to pick them up with a prescription at our local pharmacy.

Tangled Up in Bob Stories: A Dylan Reading List

Bob Dylan playing on the Olympia stage, France, May 24, 1966, on his 25th birthday. Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Music legends from Tom Waits to Joni Mitchell immediately heard Dylan’s genius in songs like “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,“ but not me. It took me two decades to warm to Bob Dylan. It’s a common story. He’s one of those artists that people say will “grow on you,” or, in more patronizing terms: You’ll understand when you’re older. No young person wants to hear that, but people I knew in high school loved Dylan, so I gave him a try.

Compared to all the loud, cutting-edge guitar bands my friends and I listened to in the ’90s, like Bad Brains and Meat Puppets, Dylan seemed to belong to what my naive teenage mind characterized as ancient rock dinosaurs like The Rolling Stones and The Who: historically interesting but obsolete. I was in high school. Shows what I knew. Dylan and The Who were nothing alike. As cool as Dylan looked in old photos with his cigarette and sunglasses, folk music could not have seemed less cool. My friends and I skated and moshed in the pit. Acoustic guitar didn’t move me. Then I heard about Dylan’s legendary 1966 concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall, from the tour where he played controversial electric sets. As a die-hard fan of live recordings, a legendary rock show seemed a great place to start with Dylan.

In the early ’90s I found a bootleg CD of the Royal Albert Hall show at the record store next to my high school. Swingin’ Pig released it. I had other Swingin’ Pig bootlegs, so I trusted it as much as you can trust black market record labels. When I played the album at home, it left me cold. This was what people fawned over? “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”? Compared to power chords and fuzz petals, Dylan’s rock sounded tame. His nasally voice grated, so I shoved the CD in a box where my unloved albums went.

In college, I spotted the CD buried in a drawer. I wondered how it would sound now. Even as a more worldly college undergrad who listened to Miles Davis and twinkly New Zealand underground like The Clean, Dylan’s music still bored me, so it went back in the drawer. This was my pattern during my 20s and 30s. I’d play the CD every few years, dislike it, and squirrel it away. As big of an idiot as I was, something about Dylan demanded respect. He was too venerated to just throw his CD away. Albums are like that. Sometimes your favorites find you at the time in your life and you love them upon first listen. Sometimes they grow on you. Dylan also seemed like the kind of artist you needed in your collection, to provide variety and a sense of history, as well as something mainstream to compliment all the adolescent statement albums by Misfits and Slayer. So that album came with me to different states and through different stages of my life. Even when I didn’t enjoy listening to old music, I always appreciated music history.

Jacques Haillot/Apis/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

In 1999, my then-girlfriend wanted to see Paul Simon, Ringo Starr, and Bob Dylan play. I was all in, because I loved The Beatles and knew these legends could die at any minute. Ringo was eh. Simon was fun. Dylan blew me away. He came out in some kind of clean, country music suit, a big hat, and tore through a rocking set that was more honky-tonk than the rambling folk-rock I expected. I watched, enraptured. The set rolled like a train that never slowed at crossings. Turns out, he was touring for his best new album in ages, Time Out of Mind. Dylan’s performance completely changed my mind about him. I never laughed him off again. But the experience didn’t turn me into a devotee. I didn’t buy that double album, and when I played Royal Albert Hall 1966 again, I still heard no magic. When I met the woman who I fell for immediately in my late 30s, my musical taste had grown so broad that when she played me Dylan’s 1976 album Desire, I finally heard Dylan’s peculiar magic. “Hurricane” and “Isis” were masterpieces. How had Dylan sounded so different to the younger me? How could I not like this? When I went to play her my old live bootleg, the CD case was empty. My last girlfriend had lost it and forgotten to tell me. No problem. In the intervening years, Dylan had officially released a better-sounding version of the concert as part of his official Bootleg Series, so I bought that, and the circle was complete. Now I listen to his live 1966 acoustic performances of “Visions Of Johanna” and it gives me chills. One good thing about taking this long to come around is that his most familiar songs still sound fresh to me. That familiar acoustic strumming can still elicit tears. Turns out that the Royal Albert Hall show I had was actually recorded at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. It’s a famous show and famous error. At least the bootleggers got the year right.

Stories like this abound in Dylan lore and fan circles: stories of transformation, reinvention, and musical progress. Those themes define Dylan himself. He’s always changing, putting listeners and scholars off the trail, to keep us guessing about who he is, about songs’ meanings, and what he’ll do next. That’s one reason Dylan scholarship and journalism constitute their own body of literary work. Here are a few of my favorite Dylan stories, written by everyone from Ellen Willis to Greg Tate. You can appreciate these stories even if you don’t dig Dylan’s music. Maybe you’re curious about the man himself, or you enjoy hating someone enshrined by so much hype. Like Dylan’s music, these stories will be here if you find yourself ready for them, though remember, you don’t ever have to be ready. His voice can still be pretty annoying.

* * *

Dylan” (Ellen Willis, Cheetah, 1967)

It all starts here: the Dylan literary cannon, and Willis’ writing career. Sure, in 1961 Robert Shelton wrote about Dylan for The New York Times, but few people wrote about Dylan with such intelligence, electricity, and insight until Willis did. The Dylan cannon was still relatively small when his 1967 album Blonde on Blonde came out. The 7800-word exploration that Willis took five months to write set the proverbial bar, marking a literary high-point against which all subsequent Dylan pieces, even rock criticism itself, can be measured. Willis created Cheetah, and it proved to be the kind of smart scrappy magazine that published solid stories before quickly fading into obscurity after a year. It was of its time, but in that short time, it launched careers. After Willis’ Dylan piece published, a New Yorker writer convinced editor William Shawn to cover modern music, and said Willis was the person to do it. Based on the strength of this Dylan piece, Shawn hired her to be the magazine’s first pop music critic, and the rest of her life is history. Pick any paragraph and you’ll see why.

“His masks hidden by other masks, Dylan is the celebrity stalker’s ultimate antagonist,” Willis writes. “And in coming to terms with that world, he has forced us to come to terms with him.” Willis was an astute observer and listener. Long before Dylan’s knack for invention and reinvention became well-known parts of his appeal, she spotted the push and pull between his public and private lives, the artifice and the art, and how it reflected modern culture. “The tenacity of the modern publicity apparatus often makes artists’ personalities more familiar than their work, while its pervasiveness obscures the work of those who can’t or won’t be personalities.” That’s as true 50 years later. Cheetah closed the year after her piece came out, but she’d made the leap from obscurity to The New Yorker, where she applied her brilliance to iconic underground artists like the Velvet Underground and The New York Dolls, before turning her back on music and this phase of her writing life all-together.

A Trip to Hibbing High” (Greil Marcus, Daedalus, Spring 2007)

When he first saw Dylan perform with Joan Baez at an outdoor stage in 1963, Marcus was 18 years old, and Dylan seemed to have no age, no sense of origin or identity. Dylan only had two albums out at the time, and already, he exhibited a unique, sui generis aura. “When the show was over, I saw this person, whose name I hadn’t caught, crouching behind the tent,” Marcus wrote in the introduction of his book Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus, “so I went up to him.” This pivotal moment marked the beginning of Marcus’ writing career. He had witnessed one of the most influential musicians in history before his moment of emergence. This meeting also marked Marcus’ emergence. “Along with a lot of other things,” Marcus wrote, “becoming a Bob Dylan fan made me a writer.” Five years after that 1963 performance, Marcus published his first Dylan piece. He has since written enough about Dylan to literally fill books, but this piece always stood out because it addresses Dylan’s origins. To try to understand how childhood shaped Dylan’s genius, Marcus visited Hibbing High School, where Dylan graduated, and whose legend centers around the school’s striking architecture, lavish decoration, and creative influence. Speaking of origins: What’s the appeal of Dylan for Marcus? His answer could apply to many Dylan fans: “I don’t think about it, I just do it, or rather can’t help it.”

Climbing the enclosed stairway that followed the expanse of outdoor steps, we saw not a hint of graffiti, not a sign of deterioration in the intricate colored tile designs on the walls and the ceilings, in the curving woodwork. We gazed up at old-fashioned but still majestic murals depicting the history of Minnesota, with bold trappers surrounded by submissive Indians, huge trees and roaming animals, the forest and the emerging towns. It was strange, the pristine condition of the place. It spoke not for emptiness, for Hibbing High as a version of Pompeii High—though the school, with a capacity of over 2,000, was down to 600 students, up from four hundred only a few years before—and, somehow, you knew the state of the building didn’t speak for discipline. You could sense self-respect, passed down over the years.

We followed the empty corridors in search of the legendary auditorium. A custodian let us in, and told us the stories. Seating for 1,800, and stained glass everywhere, even in the form of blazing candles on the fire box. In large, gilded paintings in the back, the muses waited; they smiled over the proscenium arch, too, over a stage that, in imitation of thousands of years of ancestors, had the weight of immortality hammered into its boards. “No wonder he turned into Bob Dylan,” said a visitor the next day, when the bus tour stopped at the school, speaking of the talent show Dylan played here with his high-school band the Golden Chords. Anybody on that stage could see kingdoms waiting.

Tangled Up in Dylan” (Mark Jacobson, Rolling Stone, April 12, 2001)

Dylan has generated an entire field of study called Dylanology. Universities offer courses. Scholars publish books and discuss him everywhere from Inside Higher Education to The Wall Street Journal. Long before Dylan’s 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature generated an international discussion about whether his writing was even literature and why, as Richard F. Thomas’s book puts it, Bob Dylan matters, and fans knew the answer.

“If Shakespeare was in your midst, putting on shows at the Globe Theatre,” one Dylanologist tells fan and reporter Mark Jacobson, ”wouldn’t you feel the need to be there, to write down what happened in them?” Jacobson spends time with fanatics to address that question, and he studies the line between appreciation and fanaticism, scholar and obsessive. Dylan fanatics are people who have collected 20,000 live recordings. They’re people spend their time comparing differences in individual songs performances, who even want to clone Dylan’s DNA. “Rock is full of cults,” Jacobson writes as he goes down the rabbit hole, “but nothing—not collecting the Beatles, not documenting Elvis—rivals Dylanology.” What was the limit? Jacobson writes: “I was looking for the limit.” The problem, he discovers, is the issue of accessing Dylan himself.

Here’s the kind of photo that impressed me as a teenage Dylan hater. Blank Archives/Getty Images

Intelligence Data,” (Greg Tate, Village Voice, September 25, 2001)

Greg Tate is a musician and prose stylist whose love of music and critical eye earned him a title as one of “the Godfathers of hip-hop journalism,” but he writes widely about music and culture. As a staff writer for the Village Voice from 1987 to 2005, Tate covered enormous territory and built a unique body of work. Here he offers a fresh perspective on late-period Dylan, around the release of Love and Theft, Dylan’s follow up to the masterful album Time Out of Mind. Tate hears not only genius, but an “impact on a couple generations of visionary black bards has rarely been given its propers,“ from Curtis Mayfield and Tracy Chapman to Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley.

The codger’s got plenty kick left in him yet. Feel like a fightin rooster, feel better than I ever felt, but the Pennsylvania line’s in an awful mess, and the Denver road is about to melt. Plenty parables too. There may be no second acts in American life, but at 60, Dylan could care less. Like Miles Davis and his shadow, that asshole Pablo Picasso, Dylan has given us one long act to chew on, and one long song: a peerless and exquisite display of craft, nerve, and wit. His riddle-rhyming trail is marked by the silence, exile, and cunning of the hermetic populist—Joyce, Pynchon, Reed, Clinton. Occasional lapses of taste and crises of faith, periods of doubt, self-derision, and personal revival too. Rare among American artists, he shouldered the burden of a great and precocious gift. He crashed but did not burn out after the ’60s. Now contemporary evidence, a new release called “Love and Theft,” suggests that the poet of his generation is once again prophet of his age.

How I Changed My Mind About Bob Dylan” (Catherine Nichols, Jezebel, September 16, 2016)

Unlike me, Catherine Nichols loved Dylan the first time she heard him. She was 16 and driving in the car with her dad. He’d introduced her to a lot of good old American music, but Dylan’s song “felt like a searchlight had been switched on shining directly into my eyes, an almost unbearable sense of significance,” she writes. “That’s how I became the last person on the planet to discover that Bob Dylan is really, really, really good. Then she wonders why: “The mystery I’ve wondered about ever since: what’s so good about him.” Her essay is my favorite kind of music writing: personal and analytical, driven to examine both the music and the particular way it works on her as a listener.

When she looks at two versions of one song — Dylan’s version and the version by The Animals — you get a knockout taste of her crystalline vision and the poetry of her sentences. “The Animals’ version should feel more exciting — it has a bounding and rolling melody, Eric Burdon’s voice is stronger and clearer. He lets the song build; he works up to a big roar of sincere misery, vigor and regret. The Dylan version, on the other hand, is snarled virtually at a monotone. The chain that hobbles him is not his own hedonism but the hopelessness and despair he can’t escape. *And yet one track feels like a beloved teddy bear and the other like the touch of living skin. There’s more person in Dylan’s voice than anyone else’s; his voice transmutes the unnerving sensation of being wholly, troublingly alive.”

Although Dylan may have, as her father believed, taught “a generation of white boys with terse WWII-vet fathers how to connect to their own emotions,” Nichols didn’t initially find or need any lessons from Dylan. After she read his memoir, Chronicles Vol. 1, she found a musician with many literary talents who could offer her insight as a female writer.

Bob Dylan’s Secret Archive” (Ben Sisario, The New York Times, March, 6, 2016)

There are few things are as exciting to Dylan fans as the prospect of new unreleased material. More home demos. More vintage concert footage. Hope endures for a reason. Lost treasures still surface, like the previously unknown recording of Dylan playing Brandeis University in 1963, found in the basement of Rolling Stone magazine cofounder Ralph Gleason. And new footage from the reels D.A. Pennebaker shot on Dylan’s 1965 tour. Dylan has always been notoriously protective of his private life and his creative process, but for Dylanologists, who want to know how he creates, their dreams have come true.

For an estimated $15 to $20 million, the George Kaiser Family Foundation and the University of Tulsa purchased Dylan’s personal collection, which includes footage, written correspondence, film, and lyrics — 6,000 pieces in total — dating back to his formative years. This material will be displayed for the public, and for study, at the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Bob Dylan Center’s crown jewel: The notebooks that contain Dylan’s sketches for his album Blood on the Tracks. This was once the holy grail among fanatics, rumored but not confirmed. Now there are three. Why Tulsa? The connection to Woody Guthrie, Dylan’s early influence and an Oklahoma native. Also, opportunity: a respected archivist approached the George Kaiser Family Foundation and the University of Tulsa, and the Kaiser Foundation had the money. “Portland wasn’t always cool,” George B. Kaiser said. “Seattle wasn’t always cool.” Dylan could help revitalize Tulsa. It’s the motherload fans have waited for, and as The New York Times announced in 2016, “it is clear that the archives are deeper and more vast than even most Dylan experts could imagine, promising untold insight into the songwriter’s work.”

Bringing Some of It All Back Home” (Clive James, Cream, September 1972)

Cream was the loudest rock magazine of the 1970s. Based in Detroit, they covered the big names like Zeppelin and the ignored ones like the Stooges, and rereading this Cream piece, you can hear its time. It is a thorough, thoughtful examination of Dylan’s creativity and approach to songwriting. ”What Dylan has exhausted is not any kind of subject matter,” James writes, ”but a specific kind of approach to the song: the approach that relies on the indiscriminate imagination.” But this piece is also one of those very thinky, early rock pieces that examines the larger rock culture as much as Dylan. It’s fascinating to hear what people thought of his body of work in 1972, since he kept producing more music for decades, yet James can say that ”a critical estimate of Dylan comes within reach.” Ha! Dylan himself said it would take people 100 years to really appreciate his work. The clock keeps ticking.

Bob Dylan, the Wanderer” (Nat Hentoff, The New Yorker, October 24, 1964)

Nat Hentoff is largely known as a jazz writer, but in 1964, he profiled a young Bob Dylan. And it’s good. The subhead describes this early Dylan as “A fusion of Huck Finn and Woody Guthrie, the musician writes songs that sound drawn from oral history.“ Thankfully Dylan became so much more.

Dylan and the Nobel” (Gordon Ball, Oral Tradition, 2007)

Speaking of Dylanology: After Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, a slew of think pieces and scholarly articles debated the prize and Dylan’s work. Was it worthy? In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Evan R. Goldstein asked a deeper question: “Why are intellectuals so besotted with Dylan?” Long before Dylan won the prize, fans and scholars were making the case for the award. Scholar Gordon Ball specializes in Beat Generation literature, but he saw Dylan perform at his famous 1965 Newport Jazz Festival show, where Dylan shocked fans by first playing electric. “In 1996 I first wrote the Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy,“ Ball writes in the journal Oral Tradition, “nominating Dylan for its Prize in literature.“ To get a sense of what Dylan scholarship is like, this makes for an interesting read. “My point,“ Ball writes, “is rather modest: that poetry and music share time-honored ground, that the two arts are often bound closely together, and that Dylan’s great gifts may be appreciated within such a performative lineage. Poetry and music aren’t mutually exclusive.“

The Wanderer” (Alex Ross, The New Yorker, May 10, 1999)

Following Dylan on his now famous 1998 tour of Time Out of Mind, Alex Ross realizes how much the music matters more than the messenger, which is what the Dylanologist often miss.

Discussions of Dylan often boils down to that: “Please speak. Tells us what it means.” But does he need to? He had already given something away, during the ritual acoustic performance of “Tangled Up in Blue.” This dense little tale, which may be about two couples, one couple, or one couple plus an interloper, seems autobiographical: it’s easy to guess what Dylan might be thinking about when he sings, “When it all came crashing down, I became withdrawn / The only thing I knew how to do was keep on keeping on / Like a bird that flew . . .” See any number of ridiculous spectacles in Dylan’s life. But the lines that he shouted out with extra emphasis came at the end:

Me, I’m still on the road, heading for another joint

We always did feel the same, we just saw it from a different point

Of view

Tangled up in blue.

Suddenly the romance in questions seemed to be the long, stormy one between Dylan and his audience. Dylan is over there and the rest of us are over here, and we’re all seeing things from different points of view. And what is it that we’re looking for? Perhaps the thing that comes between him and us—the music.

Hearing Voices

AP Photo/Jaime Henry-White

Struggling with depression and shame over his bisexual identity, a young college student smokes an excessive amount of weed, trying, he thinks, to escape what ails him. Eventually, his visual and auditory hallucinations disrupted not only his college education, but his ability to live. In the gripping essay “Some Kind of Reality” for The Threepenny Review, Andre Bouyssounouse writes about how even after he stopped smoking pot, the voices grew so loud that he had to seek professional help. What begins as story of confusion, alienation, and what the author calls “stupefying depression and anxiety” becomes a chilling, detailed account of the mind turning on itself. It’s one of the most vivid accounts of psychosis I have read. As someone who struggled with the heavy psychological effects of cannabis dependence myself, back in college, Bouyssounouse’s story hit me hard. It also begs the question: Did the cannabis permanently awaken a latent condition, or would Bouyssounouse have heard the voices without his period of over-indulgence?

For that whole day, I carried on a dialogue with the voices, mumbling to my phone under my breath. There were two distinct voices: Sarah and Michelle. Michelle was the more practical and level-headed of the two. Andre, she said. There’s something wrong with Sarah. She’s obsessed with you, and I’m scared for both of you. I think she has a brain tumor or something. She stole your phone and she’s been listening to you for months. Ever since you got back from Santa Barbara. I heard Sarah: Give me the phone, you bitch. Andre, I want you to come over here right now. You hear that? Are you a man or what? Michelle begged me not to tell anyone. She’s my friend, Andre, I can’t let this get out. There’s something wrong and I’m trying to control her but I don’t know what to do anymore. Please don’t tell anyone about this. She’s a good person, there’s just something—something’s wrong…

The essay is behind the paywall, but you can purchase the essay in the Summer 2020 issue of The Threepenny Review.

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The Power and Business of Hip-Hop: A Reading List on an American Art Form

De La Soul, Posdnuos, Torhout/Werchter Festival, Werchter, Belgium, 1990. Gie Knaeps/Getty Images

Ever since Black and Latino Americans created hip-hop at south Bronx block parties during the 1970s, this highly original, uniquely American music has continued to evolve, while simultaneously taking root in countless countries throughout the world.

As cultural critic Harry Allen once said: “hip hop is the new jazz.” But like jazz, hip-hop is more than music. It’s a culture. “’Hip-hop,’ once a noun,“ Kelefa Sanneh wrote in The New Yorker, “has become an adjective, constantly invoked, if rarely defined; people talk about hip-hop fashion and hip-hop novels, hip-hop movies and hip-hop basketball. Like rock and roll in the nineteen-sixties, hip-hop is both a movement and a marketing ploy, and the word is used to describe almost anything that’s supposed to appeal to young people.“ Beyond marketing and corporatization, hip-hop culture has always included dance, rap, fashion, design, stretching language, reclaiming public spaces, and its creative, genre-spanning approach has allowed artists to represent their lives in a world that often ignores or misrepresents them. In the San Francisco Gate in 2003, Adam Mansbach, author of Go the F**k To Sleep described hip-hop culture as “assembled from spare parts, ingeniously and in public. Paint cans refitted with oven-cleaner nozzles transformed subway trains into mobile art galleries. Playgrounds and parks became nightclubs; turntables and records became instruments. Scraps of linoleum and cardboard became dance floors. Verbal and manual dexterity turned kids into stars, and today’s artists grew up listening to the first strains of the musical form.” As Jeff Chang, author of Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, put it, hip-hop culture is “naturally interdisciplinary” and composed of “mix signifiers, we break everything down to bits and bytes and rebuild something new.” I love the description.
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Life in the Chelsea Hotel During Pandemic

AP Photo/G. Paul Burnett

Writer Amanda Chemeche lives with her aging father in an apartment in New York City’s famous Chelsea Hotel. Everyone from Bob Dylan to Dylan Thomas to the Velvet Underground lived, stayed, jammed, and wrote songs there. Sid Viscious murdered his girlfriend Nancy Spungen there. Opened in 1884, rennovations began in 2011, but only 50 of the building’s 300 units are occupied. The building’s history is her history. “I spent time with Gabby and Viva Hoffman,” Chemeche writes in Popula, “Arthur Miller played with me and Dee Dee Ramone pelted me with quarters on Halloween nights when I dared to ring his doorbell for candy. The Hotel closed when I was 24 —which was when I learned the importance of safeguarding the histories of elderly people. When I learned how quickly they can disappear.” The pandemic has made life here stranger than it always was.

Empty apartments are marked by a red duct-tape X. Occupied units have plastic over their front doors to protect residents from the dust that construction kicks up. Outside, streets are quiet, businesses closed. “Suddenly,“ Chemeche writes, “the outside world matches the interior of the Chelsea.” But inside, paintings from her immigrant father’s 60-year career cover their unit’s walls. As COVID-19 ravages the City, she and her father keep their distance, mostly emailing to communicate. She fears for his life, and shelter-in-place has put her so close to the material artifacts of their lives that it both stings and soothes. Chemeche takes us inside her life with her father, and the other residents who protect their history, celebrate their city, and endure the worst of times.

Man-lai Liang, the former model turned event producer, is still here; so is Tony Notarberardino, the photographer whose brilliant collection of Chelsea Hotel portraits of residents, guest and staff capture the spirit of the building, in a mesmeric, otherworldly way. There’s the Rips family—a writer/lawyer father, an actress/model mother, and a daughter who wrote a book, Trying to Float, Coming of Age in the Chelsea Hotel, when she was only 17; Michelle Zalopany, whose rich charcoal drawings are like living photographs of the past; Rita Barros, the Portugese photographer, who’s decorated the outside door of her flat on the tenth floor, making it an illuminated, ever-expanding art installation.

And then there is my father, George Chemeche, an 87 year old, Iraqi-Israeli artist and author; according to him, he took the taxi from JFK to the Hotel and never left. Our flat is on the fourth floor. My bedroom has an ensuite bathroom. The bathroom is made of glass. Father built it to illuminate the whole flat—like an enormous lantern—through the rippled glass bricks that make up its walls. Nevermind that anyone hoping to use the loo will be put on display for all to see.

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India’s Journalistic Source of Narrative Nonfiction 

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First published in 1940, Caravan ceased operations in 1988 and was relaunched in 2010 by a new set of ambitious staffers as India’s only magazine dedicated to narrative journalism. For Virginia Quarterly Review, writer Maddy Crowell profiles the monthly magazine and its driven executive editor, Vinod Jose, who she describes as ”one of India’s more subversive journalists,” ”practically inseparable” from his journalism. She knows. She interned at Caravan six years ago. She explores the magazine’s unique identity, its history, and its inspiration.

For India’s young intellectuals, the magazine quickly became an essential venue, cutting an anomalous figure in a media environment rife with sensationalism and government flattery. “Caravan is this lonely but incredibly brave beacon in this unending toxic sewage, fake news, social media violence,” said Deb. “It has been going it alone as far as Delhi is concerned.” It was neither entirely a literary magazine nor a newsweekly nor just a book review, but a combination of all three in the form of a periodical that, as Mishra put it to me, “analyze[d] the news with adversarial politics.”

She also examines its future. Revisiting it in 2020, she finds a magazine facing dangerous challenges to its existence and freedom. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the powerful Hindu-nationalist organization, is building its New Dehli headquarters outside the magazine’s headquarters. Caravan and RSS have a tense adversarial relationship, partly due to the magazine’s frequent investigations into the organization, partly due to the magazine’s defense of Indian democracy. Threats of violence are taken seriously. ”Living under a constant, simmering threat is, for Jose, evidence that he’s doing something right as a journalist,” Crowell writes. The situation is worsening.

As tense as the atmosphere was for India’s free press following Modi’s first election, things have only worsened since. A number of editors claim to have been bullied by Modi loyalists seeking to remove online coverage that was critical of the BJP; newspapers that have published negative stories have been penalized financially, often through the loss of government-funded advertisements. At the same time, journalists at mainstream outlets have become ever more explicit, if not boastful, about their political connections. When Arun Jaitley, the BJP’s finance minister, died in August 2019, a reporter from one of India’s largest television channels, Times Now, tweeted: “I’ve lost my Guiding Light my mentor. Who will I call every morning now?”

Most sinister of all, the censorship of Modi’s critics has escalated into violence. Since he first came into office, twelve journalists have been killed because of their work, and at least nine have been imprisoned. In 2017, the prominent journalist and editor Gauri Lankesh was gunned down in the early evening in front of her estate in Bangalore. Lankesh, an outspoken feminist and human-rights activist famous for her left-wing tabloidesque attacks on Hindu-nationalist figures, was a close friend of Jose’s—the two had worked together covering contentious riots in Goa in 2005. Her death confirmed the seriousness of what Indian journalists were up against under the new regime. Not long after, a right-wing nationalist followed by Modi on Twitter posted: “One bitch dies a dog’s death all the puppies cry in the same tune.”

After Lankesh’s murder, Jose began implementing protocols for Caravan’s staff to follow: All communications are now handled on encrypted channels, such as ProtonMail or Signal (WhatsApp, he believes, is compromised in India), and reporters working on sensitive stories are instructed to be especially vigilant in protecting their sources. And yet, like almost everyone else I spoke with at Caravan, Jose wasn’t all that interested in talking about the government’s intimidation. “You can’t slow down your work just because something has happened. There are certain requirements of the job.” Rather, he was eager to know whether I’d been following their coverage of the mysterious death of Indian special-court judge Brijgopal Harkishan Loya (twenty-eight stories and counting), or whether I’d read their cover story about how the RSS had been systematically infiltrating India’s intellectual spaces.

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