How in the world could it be possible to write a book about ‘70s music?
How in the world could it be possible to write a book about ‘70s music? Maybe a book about ‘70s soul or ‘70s rock or ‘70s jazz—that could work. But how to take up all the music in a single decade, much less a decade that had a little bit of everything? This was, after all, the epoch that gave birth to heavy metal and disco and hip-hop and punk, at least in their more recognizable forms. It would seem a Sisyphean endeavor to take up all of these in a single tome. Critic, curator, musician and overall polymath John Corbett, author of the equally ambitious and equally readable A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation, heroically manages this difficult task by providing a deeply personal take on the decade’s tunes, one rooted in his own memories and interactions.
The 78 essays that constitute Pick Up the Pieces: Excursions in Seventies Music are less about the music of the ‘70s and more about his music of the ‘70s. It’s an inviting approach that takes us back in time to a bygone era of Fleetwood Mac mixtape-fueled drunken nights, hippie art teachers with experimental pedagogies and more wild hair styles than even the most epic Tim Burton film could contain. It helps that Corbett resided in three different locations during the decade: Virginia Beach, Philadelphia and Iowa City. From his tales about each of these locales, we get a sense of urban, suburban and rural music-listening realities.
Pick Up the Pieces emphasizes that music is the nucleus of Corbett’s own history. He lived the decade—which began when he was six and concluded when he was 17—through its songs, albums and concerts. It was present in his first experiences with romance, booze, fighting, drugs and heartbreak. To Corbett’s family and friends, many of whom we meet as we journey throughout the book, melodies may have seemed mere background noise, but the way Corbett describes his past puts the music front and center. The essays carefully and passionately delineate the way these songs sounded—and the way they still sound to attentive listeners. He waxes rhapsodic about the squeaky drum pedal in James Brown’s “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine,” the double-time bass drum near the end of Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” the hermetic qualities of Joe McPhee’s sax on Tenor…the list goes on and on, each piece characterized by admirable acumen.
Corbett doesn’t let the sounds of the seventies limit his prose, however. An essay about one album takes him to an anecdote about a tangentially related artist, and from there he recounts a conversation with a friend or an interview with a key figure from the period. It becomes clear—from essays like those on Richard Hell and the Voidoids’ Blank Generation and Gal Costa’s Índia—that Corbett has had the privilege of forming relationships with some famous or once-famous musicians, who have also been impressed by his curation and writing.
Along the way, readers get a number of fascinating observations that take us beyond how the music sounds into a broader field of implications, like the potential for Lou Reed’s gender-play to garner a gay following or the reasons that a bunch of white kids from Philly loved the O’Jays. As part of this process, Corbett acknowledges that he is writing from the limits of his white, heterosexual masculinity and takes on a complementary self-deprecating stance. This tactic has its limits: he reproduces some of the era’s shortcomings when describing his desire to “cop a feel,” for instance, or when he suggests that genius and vile behavior necessarily go hand-in-hand. It’s also worth noting that the book’s essays about female artists and musicians are few and far between.
On the other hand, Pick Up the Pieces is meant to spark heated arguments. Corbett wants you to get fired up over his observations regarding the secret of Captain Beefheart’s singing, the vitality of jazz in the ‘70s, the importance of the acid western, the theatricality of Queen’s music or the idea that it’s frustration rather than necessity that’s the mother of invention. Even the book’s anthology structure sets up a number of “but what about” responses. One might well ask, “But what about Isaac Hayes? What about Minnie Riperton? Why Joni Mitchell’s Blue over Court and Spark or Hejira?”
Ultimately, the book encourages us to pick up the pieces of our own ‘70s–or our own ‘90s or whatever decade brings us as much joy and inspiration as the ‘70s does for Corbett. Pick Up the Pieces challenges us to attempt an understanding of an era’s crazy contradictions and to do so through putting on an album, preferably with friends, and letting its sounds tangle around us as we live. If only we could all describe our experiences—with music and with everything else—as perceptively as Corbett does.