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The One Book Music Lovers Have to Read

As a teenager, David Hajdu owned a large collection of “nearly unplayable” 45s that his mother acquired for him from the jukebox at the diner where she was a waitress. One of his favorites was Tommy James and the Shonells’ “Hanky Panky,” which he “treasured as the filthiest thing I had ever encountered.” Working as a music journalist three decades later, he had the chance to interview Romano Mussolini, the jazz pianist and son of Benito, who, he said, “had a standing order for Blackshirt troops to confiscate any 78 rpm records that they found in enemy encampments.” Il Duce “didn’t care for” the American swing music his troops were pilfering on his son’s behalf, but he was happy to pass the records along because “he knew they would give me happiness.”

On every page of this book there is something—a memory, an observation, a wry description—that will make music fans smile. I say “fans” because it is hard to imagine that anyone who doesn’t have opinions about Robert Crumb’s cover art for the second Big Brother and the Holding Company LP—an eyesore—or the relative merits of Judy Collins’s mid-’60s concept albums—they’re brilliant—will get very far. Part-history, part-criticism, part-memoir, Love for Sale is too familiarly written and discursively organized to be an overview of what, Hajdu, the music critic for the Nation and a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, reluctantly calls “popular music.” It is to a more conventionally authoritative all-purpose pop history what Odds & Sods is to Who’s Better, Who’s Best: digressive, self-indulgent, and vastly more amusing.

Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash / AP

Chronologically speaking, Love for Sale takes the reader from ragtime to Spotify by way of the Cotton Club, the advent of the transistor radio, and MTV. Drawing upon previously published material and his own life, Hajdu can move seamlessly from a discussion of Alan Lomax’s pioneering work on the history of American folk music to what Johnny Cash told him about “ol’ Gene” Autry in an interview in the early ’80s. By way of explaining the rough, compressed sound of Motown singles, he recounts the story of when Smokey Robinson, who insisted on a string section for “My Girl,” took a car ride with Berry Gordy and tuned the radio to a classical music station in order to demonstrate how dense orchestration sounded on AM stations. “Shiiit,” Gordy said after two minutes.

Piss-taking nastiness and contrarianism have been the hallmarks of rock criticism ever since it emerged as a genre of writing independent of industry-mag puff pieces and LP liner notes in the late ’60s. I cannot, off the top of my head, think of anything nice Robert Christgau has said about a record, but I can quote his dismissive review of Appetite for Destruction (“Axl is a sucker for dark romantic abstractions—he doesn’t love Night Train, he loves alcoholism”) almost word for word. Hajdu is no stranger to this sort of thing, but he is far more interested in conveying enthusiasm, which, after all, is what makes listeners rather than readers.

American jazz bandleader Paul Whiteman

American jazz bandleader Paul Whiteman / AP

This is a book full of unassailable verdicts and memorable quips. Paul Whiteman’s surname, Hajdu says, “was a comic descriptor worthy of Dickens.” Donovan’s “Epistle to Dipsy” is “a spacey jamble of pseudo-poetic images” that a teenaged Hajdu “studied in hopes of learning what it was like to take those drugs we were being warned against in health class.” “Yesterday” is overplayed; he would rather hear “Tell Me What You Say” because it is what he was playing on his tape deck in the car the first time he kissed a girl named Mary Jane. Punk “was narrowly defined, a formal art in a sphere where the standards were as rigid as those of, say, the early-music movement. At CBGB, three-chord, two-minute guitar-band songs became the new madrigals.” Guided By Voices lyrics are “great-sounding gibberish,” and the words to most Beatles tunes “mean nothing.” Listening to music with Spotify and iTunes “inhibits perseverance and impedes challenge.”

As a self-described “jazz fan who grew up on rock and roll,” Hajdu has a certain amount of critical distance from his subject matter. “Does popular music matter, really?” he asks early on in these pages. One of the few definitively positive claims he makes on its behalf is that it has helped to improve race relations in this country, which is undoubtedly true. We have certainly come a long way from the days when the Rev. Bernard Travaille could claim, in a sermon at a Baptist Church in Los Angeles, that “Rock ’n’ roll shows that morally we are not far removed from the Kenya tribesmen. We have nailed a thin veneer of culture over our character and the rock ’n’ roll has peeled off a portion to show what is underneath.”

Joan Baez

Joan Baez / AP

Unlike so many rock critics of his generation, Hajdu manages to avoid coming off as a fuddy-duddy without going out of his way to sound with it. In a book that rightly assumes familiarity on the reader’s part with everyone from Lena Horne to Joan Baez to the Sugarhill Gang, it is amusing to the see the team sued for plagiarism over “Blurred Lines” introduced as “the composer-lyricist Pharrell Williams and the rapper T.I.” He has no patience for AutoTune, which, he says, would have metamorphosed Billie Holiday’s voice into something with “all the soul of Siri.” In his final chapter, Hajdu talks about his reluctance to admit that he enjoys some of his son’s favorite music—Lorde’s “Royals,” Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood”—remembering how put out he had been as a teenager at the prospect of someone from an older generation liking “Ruby Tuesday,” an endearing testament to the frivolity and modest egotism that are essential to enjoying pop. In 250-some pages, Hajdu lost me only once, in the final paragraph of the book’s coda, when he confessed to streaming with pleasure the Rihanna-Kanye West-Paul McCartney collaboration “FourFiveSeconds.”

Love for Sale is a winsome and enjoyable read for anyone who doesn’t mind taking this silly thing of ours seriously.

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