Book Review: Aaron Cohen’s “Move On Up: Chicago Soul Music And Black Cultural Power”

The soul music that Chicago sold to the rest of the nation beginning in the late 1950s was more than a cavalcade of rapidly evolving, irresistibly grooving tunes. It was a both a soundtrack and a motor for empowerment. This is the case that Aaron Cohen, who has written for the Chicago Tribune, Downbeat and contributed a volume about Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace to the 33 1/3 series, makes in Move On Up.

An academic as well as a journalist, Cohen presents his argument with a balance of rigorous research and affection for the music that makes this book both enjoyable and edifying. He interviewed more than 100 subjects, many of them people who not only made the music, but made marks upon the city’s commerce and politics. There’s Jerry Butler, who was in the Impressions with Curtis Mayfield and later became a Cook County commissioner, and Gene Chandler, who came up with “The Duke Of Earl” when he was a teenager and was still having hits at the height of disco. There’s Phil Cohran, an early associate of Sun Ra who went on to co-found the Association For The Advancement Of Creative Musicians and co-lead the Afro-Arts Theatre, where Chaka Khan learned about the avant-garde and herbalism. 

You can’t talk about music and the middle of the 20th century without discussing race. Racial boundaries obliged people like James Mack, who might have been composing symphonies, to arrange strings for pop songs, and the music was better for it. Cohen shows how musicians and producers including Terry Callier, Baby Huey, the Rotary Connection and Charles Stepney, while operating in one of the U.S.’s more dedicatedly segregated cities, appropriated elements of folk music, Gregorian chant, 20th century classical music and acid rock, making songs that drew power and appeal from their hybrid qualities.

Cohen explores the deep and complicated connections between performers, street gangs, the Black Panthers and the Nation Of Islam. He goes broad, showing how the African-American musical community got behind the movement that elected Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor. And he goes micro, telling the story of a teenager named Vince Lawrence who got beat up by a cop’s son in the Bridgeport, then took the money offered if he dropped charges to buy his first synthesizer and help develop house music. And Cohen shows how the development of Chicago’s soul music is also a story of African-American entrepreneurship. Musicians, producers, and label proprietors were all eager to buy in, often in order to get out of limiting circumstances. 

—Bill Meyer

Check out a Spotify playlist curated by Cohen:

Book Review: Joe Pernice’s “It Feels So Good When I Stop”

PerniceBook175bIt is perfectly fitting, and almost expected, that Joe Pernice would bring a long work of fiction into the world. The songs he has written for his pop band The Pernice Brothers are filled with vivid storylines and pointillist details. And Pernice has already proven his mettle as a fine fiction writer with his installment in the 33 1/3 book series, which used The Smiths’ Meat Is Murder as a jumping off point for a beautifully crafted coming of age tale. But whereas his first literary effort was wrapped up in the swirling emotions and hormones of high school, his novel moves to the next stage of development: the slow slide toward adulthood. In many respects, Pernice trods a well-worn path covered by countless novels and films that have focused on emotionally stunted, artistically inclined young men as they fumble through a series of events that leaves them changed people at the end. What saves It Feels So Good When I Stop is how he veers off this path with regularity, giving us a variety of wholly original scenarios that lead to a conclusion that, in keeping with his protagonist’s shiftless attitude toward the world, leaves many loose ends untied. The protagonist is a nameless 25-year-old male who has retreated to a small town in Cape Cod with little ambition other than to avoid both his uncertain future and Jocelyn, the woman he married a few weeks’ prior to the book’s opening scenes. Their tempestuous relationship is threaded through the story, letting the reader bounce back to the key moments and quick-witted banter and forward again to his shuffling attempts to get by while hiding out in a gutted home owned by his brother-in-law. As you would expect, the story follows Pernice’s character as the layers of self-interest and ego are slowly peeled away, thanks to his begrudging involvement in the life of his young nephew (a toddler that he ends up watching on behalf of his brother-in-law) and by a strange, yet emotionally affecting relationship with Marie, a middle-aged wannabe filmmaker who hires him to help her finish a work that will help her come to terms with the death of her own young son. It is compelling enough to read as this unnamed gent slowly matures, but I found the sections devoted to his past to be much more engaging. The credit for this is wholly Pernice’s as he captured the hyperaware, self-indulgent voice of this character perfectly. He’s the type of character who has to let you know what record was on the turntable on a particular day because that is all that really matters to him. He’d much prefer to pick apart the careers of Todd Rundgren or Nick Drake instead of parsing out his feelings. The only parts that didn’t ring true were the fulcrum of the story: his relationship with Jocelyn. There was little in the book to really make sense of what she found attractive in him, apart from maybe his ability to give as good as he got in their hyper realistic conversations. Those bits of banter felt strange in a book otherwise filled with honest and real dialogue. The witty back and forths between Jocelyn and the narrator glare from the page as if dropped in from a screenplay Pernice was working on in another window. But with so much else to shout about in the book, it’s easy to gloss over those moments and get caught back up in the rest of the sharp narrative that Pernice has constructed. It’s the novel as CD—you just need to skip over the plodding songs to get to the tracks you can sing along with. [Riverhead]

—Robert Ham

Book Review: David Berman’s “The Portable February”

portablefebruary200Though he’s best known for fronting the late, great Silver Jews, sardonic, cerebral country rock isn’t David Berman’s only talent. He’s also a celebrated poet (see 1996’s dry Actual Air) and cartoonist whose drawings have popped up in the margins of The Baffler and adorned art-gallery walls. The Portable February (Drag City), his first published collection of illustrations, suggests that inkwell Berman isn’t far removed from plectrum Berman; the instruments of creation may differ, but the same bitterly amused tone suffuses both endeavors. February‘s 90-plus doodles range from crushingly obvious (the protester holding a sign reading “giants” enclosed by a circle with a line drawn through it, as a giant boot approaches from above) to gleefully inane sketches titled, perhaps, to impart meaning (“The World We Had,” “Irrational 15th Century Battle Scenes”) to oblique cartoons that demand serious interpretive input from the reader. What finally emerges is a bit droll New Yorker, a bit other-dimensional The Far Side and a bit psycho-social Steven, all at once: the anonymous “A Place In New Jersey” wearing its sketchiness all too literally; one animal remarking to another “Premise? I got premise,” when there’s no premise to speak of; a menagerie of rings and trophies; a raving, distended portrait captioned “If you were New Wave in Cincinnati in 1983, I probably haunted you occasionally.” February‘s genius lies in how its rudimentary squiggles manage to haunt again and again, each time in a slightly new way.

—Raymond Cummings

Crime Stories: George Pelecanos’ “Drama City” and “The Turnaround”

Don’t be afraid of the raised lettering on the book jacket; a well-written crime-fiction novel deserves to be treated as high art. MAGNET’s Andrew Earles surveys the modern landscape of hard-boiled detective stories and tales of noir-colored underworlds



Drama City / The Turnaround
Why are these two George Pelecanos books saved for last? 2005’s Drama City and 2008’s The Turnaround don’t dance with my obsessive-compulsive tendency to stuff artistic endeavors in categories based on common denominators. They are by no means weak contenders or conspicuous oddballs. Kindred spirits with The Night Gardener (a book that I happen to be a little more enamored with), these are departures from the crime-fiction norm in much the same way: Drama City (the title slang for Washington, D.C.) and The Turnaround contain crime without abiding by the A-to-B mystery-solving journey.

The great yardstick of “going straight” crime fiction is Eddie Bunker’s 1976 novel No Beast So Fierce (adapted to the screen two years later as the Dustin Hoffman vehicle Straight Time). Drama City is a worthy companion piece, with much more going on. For one, don’t expect a dire circumstantial spiral to derail the protagonist (ex-con Lorenzo Brown). There are challenges and the distinct risk of lapsing, though Brown, a Humane Society animal cop, faces danger from outside forces stronger than any internal conflict. The book deals with urban dog fighting, a festering cultural sore so powerfully loathsome that, if dwelled upon, can siphon any hope for basic human decency. The book’s co-star is Brown’s probation officer, a walking tragedy and one of Pelecanos’ better character studies.

Pelecanos has said that writing a book per year has caused confusion and conflict as to where he’s headed next. 2007 was the first year since 1999 that didn’t have a new Pelecanos title. Who does he think he is? Charles Portis? Pynchon? Fred Exley? Get it together, George! What’s next? Wandering your vast estate in a tattered bathrobe, using your millions to buy up every Mustang II in existence so the roads will no longer be tainted with their presence? Just do like James Patterson: Have your wife draw little shreds of paper out of a whirling PowerBall machine four times a year. “Alex Cross + Homeland Security + Rap Music + New Love Interest – Old Friend = Revenge Fantasy w/ Topicality” Nope, don’t like that one, draw another. “Cross + U.F.O. Kooks + Assassination of ‘Ooga Danktrillian’ (our first black president) + The Reverse of Global Warming + Navy Seals – Old Friend = Bigger Advance if Written in Two Months.” That’s more like it!

The Turnaround arrived in 2008 and is based on a real event: a violent—and in one character’s case, fatal—attack that occurred in early ’70s. White teenage race-baiting lights the fuse and things go horribly wrong in this partial period piece. Pelecanos constructs a largely fictional back story and subsequent aftermath around the incident. The Turnaround speaks volumes about life after prison, the war in Iraq, race and gentrification without defaulting to self-righteous preaching, even when three out of those four issues are known Pelecanos pet peeves.

Pelecanos has edited two short fiction collections, to which he also contributed stories: D.C. Noir (2006, part of Akashic’s fantastic Noir series) and The Best American Mystery Stories 2008. Both are good samplings, as is his contribution to 2003’s fantastic Men From Boys, edited by John Harvey. Compared to some contemporaries, Pelecanos has had few short stories published, though there’s no question as to how his fiction is best enjoyed.

This concludes our weeklong look at Pelecanos’ work. His new book, The Way Home, is due May 12.

On Monday, Pelecanos made MAGNET a mix tape; check it out here.

In 2001, Pelecanos interviewed ex-Dream Syndicate frontman Steve Wynn for us; read it here. They got along so well that four years later, they wrote a song together (“Cindy It Was Always You,” from Wynn’s…tick…tick…tick) and also performed once in a live setting, with Wynn providing instrumental backing to Pelecanos reading from 2006’s The Night Gardener. (Download “The Night Gardener”)

Crime Stories: George Pelecanos’ “Shoedog” and “The Night Gardener”

Don’t be afraid of the raised lettering on the book jacket; a well-written crime-fiction novel deserves to be treated as high art. MAGNET’s Andrew Earles surveys the modern landscape of hard-boiled detective stories and tales of noir-colored underworlds



Shoedog / The Night Gardner
George Pelecanos has written four stand-alone books, three in the past five years. 1994’s Shoedog and 2006’s The Night Gardener are Pelecanos opposites that I’ve grouped together based on flimsy criteria: If readers want to start with a non-series, then why not pick one of the strongest two? And if the uninitiated are not only new to Pelecanos but new to crime fiction, The Night Gardener will go down smooth.

Published in the space between Nick’s Trip and Down By The River Where The Dead Men Go (both volumes in Pelecanos’ Nick Stefanos series), Shoedog recalls the classic noir trick of keeping the reader transfixed when a dead-end or unsavory conclusion becomes imminent shortly after the story commences. To this day, you can’t go wrong with a well-written drifter, and Shoedog protagonist Constantine is one of the best. Most people find drifters to be infinitely readable (more so in a bad economy). The urge may be tiny or dormant, but deep down inside every drone chained to a soul-shredding day job, every person who pays rent or a mortgage and every spouse buried under a relationship of convenience and repetition, lies an escapist’s longing to be free of any ties, to be able to pick up and leave in good or bad times. People enjoy seeing the world through migratory eyes.

Constantine is no Jack Reacher (the absurdly indestructible drifter’s drifter created by superstar mystery writer Lee Child) or transient action figure. He has the requisite stoicism of a cautious man living off the grid, with an almost childlike naivete toward potentially deadly factors of the crime lifestyle. Like Stefanos, Constantine has a certain music taste and various irresponsible habits (including poor judgment in the pursuit of women), but Constantine is too much of a don’t-give-a-fuck badass to be troubled with steady employment or prolonged residency. His involvement in a double robbery (of liquor stores) is prefaced by little to no hesitation, like it’s a welcome break in the monotony of town-hopping. The heists are planned by Grimes, a wealthy man who puts together robberies as a hobby. Constantine is a driver, and the impromptu crew is peopled with men that owe Grimes money. In true noir style, the job stinks from a mile off, so after the crew is shrunk exponentially by Grimes’ malevolent motive, the finale finds Constantine in revenge mode and predictably weakened by the wrong woman.

Many prominent crime writers wisely take advantage of a research perk peculiar to their profession: riding with cops. Pelecanos did this as research for several novels before he wrote uniformed protagonists. Funny, then, that The Night Gardener best achieves Pelecanos’ goal of writing outside the crime-fiction genre. It’s an amalgam of police procedural and Pete Dexter character study, with the serial-killer element downgraded to a subtle subplot. Another writer that comes to mind is the overlooked Andrew Coburn, who also writes character development as something more than a reluctantly mandated glue connecting scenes of action. The Night Gardener is politely aggressive in spurts and dismal throughout, but it never shucks hope and heart.

Tomorrow’s installment: Pelecanos’ Drama City and The Turnaround.

On Monday, Pelecanos made MAGNET a mix tape; check it out here.

In 2001, Pelecanos interviewed ex-Dream Syndicate frontman Steve Wynn for us; read it here. They got along so well that four years later, they wrote a song together (“Cindy It Was Always You,” from Wynn’s…tick…tick…tick) and also performed once in a live setting, with Wynn providing instrumental backing to Pelecanos reading from 2006’s The Night Gardener. (Download “The Night Gardener”)