by Marc Ribot (Music 781.66 Ribot)
Marc Ribot is one of those guitarists that many people may not know by name, but they’ve probably heard him play. He’s been featured on over 500 recordings, including those by artists like Tom Waits, Marianne Faithfull, Elvis Costello, John Mellancamp, Neko Case, Diana Krall, David Sandborn, Laurie Anderson, and many, many more. For those who do know him by name, he’s led his own bands and solo projects for years as well, crisscrossing many genres of music but always with a lot of soul and a sense of joy and adventure. His very personal yet inclusive approach to the guitar takes him between pop music albums, modern avant-garde works, and all kinds of roots and Americana-based musical forms with ease. And he’s just published his first book, a collection mostly of short essays about his life and music. The book is called , and you can borrow it from the Polley Music Library.
is an extremely approachable book, and you don’t need to be a musician to follow what’s happening here. Ribot’s style of delivery has similarities to his guitar work: he is direct, he isn’t afraid to let readers peek behind the curtain that often divides artists from their audiences, and he knows how to paint a picture without exhausting every color at his disposal. Novelist Lynne Tillman tells us a bit about Marc Ribot as a writer and thinker in her thoughtful introduction, and then Ribot immediately invites us inside his world with an insightful essay about using guitar amplifiers at high volumes. There are so many memorable observations about the electric guitar and music more broadly in the seven pages of this essay that it feels like its own song, ready to be played back again and again to look for more insight.
The book is divided into four parts, and this first part focuses on music the most. There are discussions of musicians’ rights in the era of streaming music, the difficulties of perceiving rhythms from different musical traditions, and heartfelt remembrances of musicians who have recently departed. Of note, two musicians so eulogized here are the first victims of the COVID-19 pandemic that I’ve seen mentioned in new books: bassist Henry Grimes and producer Hal Willner.
This leaves us three more parts of to explore that are more about life experiences: living in New York and watching it change over time, life on the road, childhood memories. There are some music-related scenarios that crop up, of course, but these are fundamentally glimpses at the human experience. Then we get into pieces of short fiction in parts III and IV. In Part III, they’re all called “Film (Mis)Treatments — short, mostly humorous ideas for short films. In Part IV, we have more general short fiction, sometimes very short, approaching flash fiction territory, incorporating the occasional memory from Ribot’s life but presented in fictional form. These are of varying quality, and they move by quickly — if you’re not digging one, you’re only a page or two away from the next. One of these in particular really stuck with me, “The Man With the Fun Job,” which tells the story of an average, moderately successful musician whose life story might look pretty dramatic if told from slightly embellished angles, but in reality is pretty simple, modest and satisfying.
I didn’t go into this book with a lot of expectations, other than having read a couple of Ribot’s musically-focused essays before—that opening essay about loud amplifiers, for example, was first published in the debut edition of John Zorn’s Arcana series of books back in 2001. And I must admit to being a little surprised at first that so much of the book focused on non-musical subject matter. One can’t help but suspect that the pandemic conditions of 2020, the lack of recording sessions happening and the standstill in musical tours, might have led to collecting this material into a single volume. I’m sure that otherwise many parts of this book would have remained strewn about between various magazines, anthologies, and unpublished pieces. But upon sitting with it for a while, I’m glad an opportunity presented itself to collect these writings as a book. The contents are a little mixed up and not altogether stylistically coherent, veering from nonfiction to fiction and back again in a way that folks don’t often behave in print. But in music, that sort of thing is more common, and the coherence of a project comes more from the voices playing the music than the particular stylistic context they’re dressed in at a given moment. And this book is musical in the same rough-and-tumble way as much of Ribot’s music, with an immediately recognizable voice.
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