Part of my real-life job is buying books for a university book store and as such I am a voracious reader. For me reading and music are mutually exclusive, although usually not at the same time. I love it when a book comes across my desk that I relate to so closely I wish I had written it.
So it goes with Ray Robertson’s Lives of the Poets (With Guitars). But before I get into it let me tell you a bit about Ray.
Ray is first and foremost a novelist. He has written seven novels including Home Movies, Heroes, Moody Food, and I Was There The Night He Died, as well as a number of non-fiction titles. He is also a contributing book reviewer at the Globe and Mail. There are a couple of common threads that run through Ray’s writing; the tragic, creative, troubled figure and music. Music is always a central theme in his books, the main protagonist in Moody Food is loosely based on a Gram Parsons/Brian Wilson type personality and the book is peppered with names like Hank Williams, George Jones and Patsy Cline.
Ray, like all of us here, is a music lover. In the introduction to Lives of the Poets he drops a quote from novelist/poet Berthold Auerbach: “Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” I think most of us can relate to that sentiment. Like Brad Delp once crooned, “I turned on some music to start my day. I lost myself in a familiar song. I closed my eyes and I slipped away”. It happens to me daily.
I’ve always found that certain musicians are very much like writers and writers a lot like musicians. If I think about my go-to writers and musicians there are parallels. Nick Cave and Cormac McCarthy, Kent Haruf and Bruce Springsteen, David Mitchell and David Bowie. Lyrically these musicians can tell a story and have the built-in ability to use music to add to the emotional impact.
For Lives of the Poets (With Guitars) Ray took his inspiration from Samuel Johnson’s 1779 love letter to poetry: Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets; tweaked the title a bit to add guitars and set out to give us portraits of some of the most extraordinary musicians of our time. Featured here are essays on 13 genre defining (or defying depending on how you look at it) musicians: Gene Clark, Ronnie Lane, The Ramones, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Townes Van Zandt, Little Richard, Alan Wilson, Willie P. Bennett, Gram Parsons, Hound Dog Taylor, Paul Siebel, Willis Alan Ramsey, and John Hartford.
Throughout history there is no shortage of stories about the creative tragic romantic figure. Whether artist, poet, writer, musician, actor, many creative geniuses have died young, wasted opportunities with substance abuse, followed bad advice, struggled with mental illness or all of the above. Not all of the 13 artists Ray documents led tortured lives or died young, but they were all certainly coming at their craft from outside of the perimeter. Ray deftly documents the successes and struggles of each artist but also gives some perspective on why we all need to revisit their music.
Reading Lives of the Poets (With Guitars) is like hanging out at Championship Vinyl with Rob, Dick, and Barry. I am looking forward to part two, and three, and four…..
Ray was kind enough to provide his picks for each of these artists and we’ve built a little playlist for you to dip into.