Biographies of musicians are often indistinguishable from extended fan letters, so it’s always nice when authors are upfront about their enthusiasms. In the introduction to his new essay collection, Lives of the Poets (with Guitars), novelist Ray Robertson acknowledges that objectivity is not going to be one of his guiding principles. Instead, he’s chosen to spotlight 13 musicians – actually, 12 individuals and one four-piece punk group – who comprise his own private canon of essential artists.
After duly invoking George Orwell on the perils of “wide sympathies” (though without also noting the pleasures of eclecticism), Robertson explains he’s “made no effort to be exhaustive, inclusive, or representative” in his selections. This is why a collection made up of tragic narratives about mercurial singer-songwriters who mostly came to bad ends doesn’t include Kurt Cobain or Biggie Smalls or Amy Winehouse. Robertson is well within his rights to wax ecstatic about whichever artists he pleases, and his knowledge of rock history runs deep, even within the relatively narrow boundaries he’s set for himself. But it also means that Lives of the Poets (with Guitars) is a book with a particularly selective appeal – an artifact that reaches out specifically to roots, blues, and gospel aficionados.
The first essay here is also the best: a stirring appreciation of Byrds co-founder Gene Clark that hones in on his innovative brilliance while demonstrating how closely his melancholy melodies and lyrics mirrored his often miserable life. “People who can’t drink milk are called lactose intolerant, and people who shouldn’t dabble in consciousness-mining psychedelics are called Gene Clark,” writes Robertson, establishing the double-edged empathy that he takes as a guiding critical principle. His excitement about his subjects’ accomplishments is always juxtaposed with a clear-eyed view of their failings. Thus, he’s able to frame Clark as a giant in his field – worthy of comparisons to the Beatles and, um, Friederich Nietzsche – while also characterizing him as a fuck-up who unceremoniously drank himself to death at age 47.
This basic story arc – a gifted introvert gets turned inside out by fame, fortune, and genius – repeats itself in different iterations and variations throughout Lives of the Poets (with Guitars). If Robertson carries through on his promise to give us “a taste of [his taste],” he also reveals that his palette salivates for bittersweet flavourings. He’s drawn to the ragged majesty of Townes Van Zandt (“it’s sad to watch beautiful things turn ugly”) and the crazed self-abasement of Gram Parsons, who expired three weeks shy of qualifying for inclusion in the notorious 27 Club (musicians – such as Cobain, Winehouse, and Jimi Hendrix – who flamed out at age 27). He happily luxuriates in the divided consciousness of saintly sinner Little Richard and the fractious dynamics of the Ramones, whose gradually relinquished punk principles didn’t result in better vibes between them.
These are all familiar stories, and while Robertson backs them up with persuasive research and analysis, hardcore fans will probably know most of them by heart. Fortunately, the author has a few curveballs – or maybe screwballs – in his arsenal, like the Canadian singer Willie P. Bennett, whose chapter does triple duty as an introduction to an obscure but potent songwriter; a snapshot of Toronto’s folk scene in the 1980s; and a personal reflection by the author on a rare moment of literal connection with one of his musical heroes.
“One of the things I wanted to do when I left home for university and Toronto was go to an actual folk club and see an actual folk singer,” Robertson recalls. One night in 1985, at the Free Times Café, he encountered Bennett, a gentle virtuoso slinging homemade tapes who kept trying and failing to truly penetrate an industry that, by the time the 1990s rolled around, had passed him by. Robertson’s affection for a man he not only admired but knew is palpable and affecting, and his casual placement of Bennett in the company of so many late greats is an example of effective, strategic critical calculation.
Concluding with a section on the late American bluegrass master John Hartford – a comparatively benign figure who lived happily and was undone by disease rather than self-destruction – Robertson clarifies his book’s true subject: the transporting euphoria of great music, and the fact that “happiness isn’t a big enough word” to express what this entails. The term he settles on is “joy.” The achievement of his book is that it directs fans and novices alike toward the myriad joys offered up by its subjects, while also prodding us to think and feel more deeply about the other poets with guitars – or boom boxes or turntables – who lie beyond these pages, in our own personal pantheons.