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Monday, March 29, 2010

Little Richard Deserves Better

David Kirby’s biography without merit

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After reading David Kirby’s Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll (Continuum), it’s clear that Little Richard is in need of a quality biography. The only other book, Charles White’s The Life and Times of LittleRichard, is out of date and lacking in scholarly detail. And Kirby’s Little Richard is a disaster, a shockingly wretched book. But we need to learn from its devastating failure. Kirby’s project is part of an unacceptable wave of books by literary people who like music but know nothing about it and, instead, tell us about themselves—specifically their childhood.

Kirby, a professor of English, has written the most misleading book imaginable. His prose is bizarrely cutesy, scattered and rather like a teenager’s diary, driven by emotive hysteria. Quotations from Wikipedia abound, and the author’s comparison of Richard to Tarzan is merely one of the mindless attempts at pseudo-originality. Little Richard and the birth of rock are subjects that deserve honest study instead of dishonest sensationalism without scholastic merit. Little Richard is not in this book. The birth of rock ’n’ roll is not in this book. A more honest title would have been Professor David Kirby Tells Us About His Adolescent Fantasies Regarding Greil Marcus.

Yes, the book is essentially a pathetic tribute to Marcus and, in particular, Marcus’ expertly crafted text, The Old, Weird America. After describing his own text as a car, Kirby devotedly opines: “And that’s just the chassis. The design is by Greil Marcus, the rock critic who shows you how much you can get out of music.” The difference between them is that Marcus tells the secret history of Americana and Kirby tells us his own.

Little Richard is filled with references to Marcus’ canon, his insights, and ultimately serves as a fan letter to the great critic, completely eliminating anything substantial about Little Richard and actually redesigning (without imagination or substantive research) the birth of rock ’n’ roll.

The intent of this review is not to say much more about a pitiful book by a piteous author, except to note that the author’s report of having had lunch one time in Little Richard’s hometown hardly serves to say that one has eaten in the old, weird America of Marcus’ book or has joined the same cultural community as Little Richard. It is never proven or even clear why Little Richard would be in Marcus’ textual song milieu, so well defined in Marcus’ important book; actually, Richard would not belong there at all, so the basic cultural premise is simply incorrect.

Before leaving this book, though, one must take note that the author doesn’t understand the difference between rock ’n’ roll in the 1950s and what came out of it in the ’60s. He equates the important though nonsensical lyrics of Little Richard with the literary, lyrical intent of Bob Dylan. “Similarly, the lyrics are…the least important element of a song.” This is “proven” by discussing Dylan, with material from Dylan’s interviews only, never his songs, noting: “Even when he’s making sense, he doesn’t.” So “Like a Rolling Stone” correlates to Little Richard’s “A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop, a-lop-bam-boom.” There is a rambling series of disconnected comments about art that come and go from the text, with references ranging from the Sibyl of Cumae to Richard Wagner with lots of Freud thrown in for, well, maybe the possibility that the author needs psychotherapy instead of a book deal.

Rock criticism seems to attract academicians in many areas, most notably in English, who write books not from due diligence but from undue indulgence. The horror of the matter is that rock criticism was founded and given credence by quality academicians in the field of literature—though not ones who write like failed poets seeking to craft memoirs, fictions, about what this music meant to them when they were younger.

We are seeing so many important books on the birth and development of rock ’n’ roll music, and there should be more. Little Richard is still waiting for one, as are so many artists who worked within oral tradition music to elevate it to the cultural prominence it enjoys. Critics such as Clinton Heylin, Michael Gray, Christopher Ricks, to name but a few, and the enduring, properly considered Greil Marcus, make serious contributions and cannot be blamed for letting fools into wisdom’s domain. But another one got in.

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