April Reading

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Here’s What I Read in April

I took advantage of my Spring Break this year to have an orgy of non-fiction, and I finished off two hefty volumes in the month of April. Both with birthday presents (thanks, Mom and Kelly!) Let’s get to it.
1. The Big Screen by David Thomson

This book is a massive, comprehensive look at the history of film. It begins with Eadweard Muybridge, the eccentric and creepy innovator of the first moving images, and ends with the extra-theatrical life of film in works such as The Sopranos. The book proceeds roughly chronologically, though it employs an unnecessary and confusing structure that makes you wonder if you are reading it correctly. Thomson tackles it all, paying particular attention to films that lie on the fringes of the causaual filmgoer’s knowledge. He spends a lot of time on silent films of all kinds (Sunrise is his favorite, and he dedicates too much attention to it) and the films of foreign directors such as Eisenstein and Renoir. 
Thomson certainly knows more about film than you do, and he knows it. His tone leans a little towards the snooty side, and though he writes about film (or “movie,” as he calls it) with passion and erudtion, I got the feeling that he didn’t particularly like the movies that are the reason for the existence of the book. He doesn’t seem to like Casablanca or Gone With the Wind, The Bicycle Thieves or A Clockwork Orange.  He did like Psycho, though, which was good. He also liked Vertigo, Blue Velvet, Sunrise, and, for some reason, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? 
I learned a lot from this book. Where Easy Riders, Raging Bulls made me load up my Netflix account with the greatest movies from the 1970s, The Big Screen has sent me searching for films from the 1950s (Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, In a Lonely Place, Brief Encounter) that have escaped my notice. But more importantly, Thomson reinforced what I already suspected about movies: that they don’t last forever, that they are fragile and temporary, that they are already less important than they once were or will ever be again, and that they won’t mean the same to you as they did when you were younger and the world was a more enchanting place.

2. Respect Yourself by Robert Gordon

I also finished Respect Yourself, Robert Gordon’s excellent new book about “Stax Records and the Soul Explosion.” Gordon is the lord protector of Memphis’ musical history and heritage (click here to see my thoughts on his 1995 book, It Came From Memphis, which includes a helpful comment from the man himself), and he has done an incredibly thorough job of researching the history of the Stax label.

This is the third book that I’ve read that addresses the rise and fall of Stax (the others being Soulsville, U.S.A.by Rob Bowman and Sweet Soul Music by Peter Guralnick, both excellent), and I felt that the first half of the book covered familiar ground. It’s an well-known story, but, Jesus, what a story it is! The way that Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton created an internationally-influential label out of a forgotten movie theater on the south side of Memphis and turned out so much amazing music is miraculous, and a miraculous thing to read–even for the third time.

The second half of the book, however, was more eye-opening. Gordon delves into the business blunders of the Al Bell era without blinking. There was violence, intimidation, foolish deals, misappropriation, payola, and graft taking place in the name of Stax, even as Isaac Hayes and Johnny Taylor were topping the charts. He pays particular attention to the shady business practices of Johnny Baylor, who used manipulation and strong-arm tactics to keep Stax records spinning in radio stations and record stores, but whose influence was a significant factor in the label’s demise.

Respect Yourself is often a heartbreaking book. Especially harrowing is the section concerning the death of Otis Redding and five of the Bar-Kays ensemble. There are plenty of villains in these pages–from Jerry Wexler to Union Planters to CBS records–and the anxiety that picks up at the midpoint of the story never relaxes until the miserable denouement, when Al Bell is led from the Stax studio at gunpoint.

Most impressively, though, Gordon couches the successes and failures of the label within the historical context of Memphis. In this way, Respect Yourself would appeal to anyone with an interest in twentieth-century history in general and the Civil Rights Era in particular. This one is not just for music buffs.

Highly recommended.

One thought on “April Reading

  1. Mavis Staples is just so damn adorable. Did you feel like the Gordon book laid a little more of the STAX demise on the admin there at the time than people normally do? Mismanagement, etc.?

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