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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : Opinionated Survey on Popular Music Rocks 'N' Rolls : THE RISE AND FALL OF POPULAR MUSIC by Donald Clarke ; St. Martin's Press $35, 608 pages

March 22, 1995|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Pop music chronicler Donald Clarke is cranky, opinionated, slow to praise and quick to condemn many of the glittery icons of rock 'n' roll--and that's exactly what makes his new book, "The Rise and Fall of Popular Music," such a trip.

"What most people think of as popular music is dominated by technology and chosen for us by lawyers and accountants who seem to be tone-deaf," he rags and rages. "Today's pop-rock is a paradigm of a society that has no values."

Clarke himself, I hasten to point out, has some very strong values. He praises authenticity and integrity in music. He wants music to be fun, but he listens for deeper and darker resonance in pop songs and the people who compose and perform them. Perhaps the most revealing sentence in the book is Clarke's comment on the linkage between pop music and radio play--a curious juxtaposition of high spirits and high purpose.

"Listening to music on the radio was fun in the 1940s in the USA," he writes. "By 1953 it was not much fun anymore; in the late 1950s for awhile it seemed to be fun again, but nowadays serious music fans . . . no longer bother to listen to the radio much."

Significantly, "Rise and Fall" follows Clarke's long labor on "The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music," a gargantuan and yet constricting task that forced Clarke into the role of collecting, refining and presenting data in short bursts of prose. In the new book, he opens up on the same target with a Gatling gun of highly subjective and strongly held opinion.

Still, Clarke is no mere opinion-peddler. He knows his stuff and he can write with equal authority on the very first extant song in English, the metamorphosis of ragtime into what we recognize as jazz, or the flowering of Tin Pan Alley during the "golden age of songwriting."

What Clarke likes best and praises most is African American music, starting with minstrelsy in the early 19th Century and continuing through the gritty rhythm-and-blues music that was taken up by white rock musicians and turned into homogenized hit singles in the '60s.

"The history of modern popular music," he sums up, "may be seen as the repeated rescuing of a moribund scene by the music of Afro Americans." But the rescue has the look of rapine. Clarke reminds us that the practice of stealing music from black songwriters and singers for exploitation in the popular culture is nothing new in American history.

"Let one of them, in the swamps of Carolina, compose a new song, and it no sooner reaches the ear of a white amateur, than it . . . spreads to the utmost bounds of Anglo-Saxondom," wrote one journalist all the way back in 1845.

"Meanwhile, the poor author digs away with his hoe, utterly ignorant of his greatness."

Out of the gumbo of American music that Clarke describes so expertly and in such passionate detail--jazz and swing and blues, "race" music and "hillbilly" music, Broadway and Big Band and Tin Pan Alley--emerges something new and irresistible, the musical form that we sometimes call rock 'n' roll and the star-making machinery that is dedicated to manufacturing and marketing it.

More than half of Clarke's book is devoted to pop music of the last 50 years, and yet that's where his biggest disappointments are to be found.

"The music of the British Invasion represented a climax of a decade of pop jingles," he writes of the much-hyped musical revolution of the 1960s. "The Beatles did it better than anyone, and should have been the end of it, instead of inspiring generations of imitators."

My own litmus test of Clarke's--or anyone's--musical taste is his opinion of Van Morrison, and Clarke won me over: "He became a giant," Clarke writes of Morrison, "one of the few troubadours to compare with Bob Dylan."

Of course, it hardly matters whether you agree with Clarke, and the book is all the more provocative when we come across some dismissive remark or surly value judgment that strikes us as hopelessly wrongheaded. What really counts is the sheer passion that he brings to the book. "Music has always been the most important thing in the world to me," Clarke unabashedly declares, and anyone who feels the same way is likely to agree that "The Rise and Fall of Popular Music" is exactly the kind of rave-up that a book about rock 'n' roll ought to be.

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