When it comes to music journalism, the late Robert Palmer is in a class all by himself. He was the first pop music critic of The New York Times as well as the author of Deep Blues and a contributor to publications such as Rolling Stone and Penthouse. His liner notes have graced recordings by Miles Davis, Ray Charles and Led Zeppelin. And throughout his extraordinary career Palmer has interviewed many musical legends such as Eric Clapton, John Lennon, David Bowie and Muddy Waters.
Palmer died in 1997 at age 52 but left a great legacy of music writing behind him. He wrote about nearly every musical style: rock, pop, soul punk, blues, jazz, world music and the avant garde.Now his work has been compiled into a superb anthology edited by Rolling Stone contributor Anthony DeCurtis titled appropriately Blues & Chaos. Hopefully this collection will spark renewed interest and appreciation of Palmer’s writings. (Full disclosure: I was involved in the research aspect of the book five years ago as an unpaid intern).
DeCurtis does a great job is showcasing the spectrum of the writer’s musical knowledge in Blues and Chaos. The book is divided into several chapters, each devoted mostly to a style of music Palmer tackled. Some of these segments include early rock and roll, jazz, the blues (profiles of Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins), punk, classic rock and John Lennon (a New York Times interview Palmer had done with Lennon just a month before the former Beatle’s murder on Dec. 8, 1980). In addition to covering popular figures, Palmer also gave a voice for artists or music that may have been not widely-known, such as bluesman Robert Pete Williams or the pop group the ‘5’ Royales.
Nothing was ever off limits to Palmer, who himself was also a musician. In his introduction DeCurtis references Ira Robbins’ assessment of Palmer’s own music writing: ‘Don’t worry, I know everything,’ and that is so apt. For example, his Q&A’s, like the one he did with Eric Clapton in 1985, are amazing because they read like casual and thoughtful conversations. While his writing is scholarly, Palmer never lost sight of what the story should really about—the music and the artist behind it.
The types of artists and music he covered would seem out of character in today’s mainstream publications—for example, you probably won’t find that many jazz reviews currently in Penthouse, nor would you have a lengthy piece about Morocco (where he has previously traveled) in Rolling Stone. That’s the amount of freedom and influence Palmer had back then or perhaps it’s more of how music journalism has changed.
So for music fans and students of excellent arts writing, Blues & Chaos is required reading. It’s a wonderful tribute to a man who was not only a great journalist and critic but a huge music enthusiast first.