Flirtations with Chaos:
The Life and Work of Robert Palmer
“Don’t worry, I know everything”: That’s the way music critic Ira Robbins once described the tone of Bob Palmer’s writing to me. We both laughed when he said that, because his statement perfectly got at Palmer’s ability to mix erudition with ease, to reassure his readers with his confidence and command. But, despite the arrogance that remark might imply, Bob was never showy about his knowledge. In a style that blended elegance and hipster enthusiasm, he would travel deeper and deeper into his subject, bringing his readers along with him in the interest of turning them on to something he loved.
Bob is best known as the author of Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta, which was published in 1981 and is still in print. It remains essential reading for anyone interested in the indelible music that, drawing on its African roots, originated in the Delta, moved to Chicago, and made an inestimable contribution to the creation of rock & roll. In his conclusion to that book, Bob writes of the blues, “A literary and musical form … a fusion of music and poetry accomplished at a very high emotional temperature … these are different ways of describing the same thing. A gigantic field of feeling … that’s a way of describing something enduring, something that could be limitless. How much thought … can be hidden in a few short lines of poetry? How much history can be transmitted by pressure on a guitar string? The thought of generations, the history of every human being who’s ever felt the blues come down like showers of rain.”
The notion that “pressure on a guitar string,” the singular tone of a musician’s playing, could convey all that is important in human history lies at the center of Bob’s thinking, writing, and playing—at the center of his being, really. He was not a religious person in any traditional sense; he was probably closer to a pagan. But music was one of the means through which he sought transcendence. “For Bob, music was a religion,” says Robbie Robertson, the former guitarist and main songwriter in the Band, who knew Palmer for many years. “It would stream out of him in the same way that somebody would be trying to impress you with their knowledge of God.”
Anyone who read Bob’s work, and certainly anyone who knew him, was aware of the stunning range and depth of his musical passion. It wasn’t until I began working on this anthology, however, that I truly began to understand the extent of his achievement. Everyone I mentioned Bob to, of course, knew about his writing on the blues—but nearly everyone also had a recommendation from well beyond that world. As with so many great writers and thinkers, each person I spoke to seemed to have his or her own version of Bob Palmer and stories about the impact his work made on them.
Jazz devotees discussed his writing with the greatest respect. Fans of classic rock raved about his pieces on the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. Veterans of New York’s punk scene expressed deep gratitude for his vital support of that music in The New York Times and elsewhere. Avant-gardists talked about his pieces on Philip Glass, LaMonte Young, and Steve Reich. His writing about the Master Musicians of Jajouka excited interest in Moroccan music, and world music in general, nearly four decades ago, long before it became fashionable.
But more extraordinary than even how many different types of music Bob could write about compellingly was how multifaceted his knowledge was. No aspect of his understanding seemed to cancel out any other; in fact, in the rarest of gifts, each element of his comprehension enhanced the others. He was a musician himself, of course, but his writing about music was never insiderish or unnecessarily technical. The sheer physical sound of music was his great subject, but when he discussed lyrics, he did so with the sensitivity of a literary critic. He loved and believed in music’s mythic qualities, but that faith never compromised his grasp of the social and compositional components of musical creation.
Bob viewed music as a vehicle of transcendence but wrote and spoke colorfully about the nitty-gritty, down-to-earth contexts and larger-than-life personalities that gave it birth. It’s almost as if, if you read Bob, you didn’t need to read anyone else—his vision of music was so complete. Reviewing Deep Blues in The Nation, David A. Lusterman concluded that “at heart, it’s a book for anyone who ever wonders where music, any music, really comes from.” That understanding of music’s origins in the human spirit suffuses every word that Bob wrote.
This collection, then, attempts to convey the character and breadth of Bob’s achievement, a daunting task. It would be a foolish one as well, were it not for the ability of Bob’s writing to communicate in whatever context it appears. This could have been a rock collection or a punk collection or a blues collection, and, hopefully, such anthologies and others will follow. But to fully comprehend Bob’s magnificent gifts, I believe, you need to see them all on display. The array of musical subjects in this book is part of its very point.
As the scale of this book would suggest, Bob was extremely prolific. In addition to Deep Blues, he wrote a number of other books: Baby, That Was Rock and Roll: The Legendary Leiber and Stoller (1978); A Tale of Two Cities: Memphis Rock and New Orleans Roll (1979); Jerry Lee Lewis Rocks! (1981); The Rolling Stones (1983); and Rock & Roll: An Unruly History (1995). From 1981 until 1988, he was the chief pop music critic at The New York Times, the first person to hold that title, and he wrote for the Times for a number of years before and after that. He began writing for Rolling Stone in the early seventies—about jazz, blues, Moroccan music, soul, R&B, and, of course, rock & roll—and continued to do so as a contributing editor until his death. He wrote liner notes for dozens of releases, and his work appeared in virtually every music magazine—Down Beat, Crawdaddy, Guitar World, Musician, to cite just a few—that published while he was alive.
And he wasn’t exclusively a writer. After he left the Times and moved back to the South in 1987, he inspired Matthew Johnson, a blues obsessive, to launch Fat Possum Records in Oxford, Mississippi, where Bob was teaching at the University of Mississippi. Bob produced raw, unvarnished, and influential albums by Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside for the label and wrote liner notes to accompany them. He had previously brought national exposure to those two artists and a number of others from the north Mississippi hill country in the riveting 1993 documentary Deep Blues: A Musical Pilgrimage to the Crossroads, which he wrote and hosted and which Robert Mugge directed. He also wrote and codirected the documentary The World According to John Coltrane (1990).
Impressive as it is, that list does little to capture the texture or importance—the sheer impact—of Bob’s work. That’s because, whether in his books or in an overnight review, Bob had a way of getting readers to be as passionate about music as he was. He felt the music deeply and personally, and he made his readers feel it that way too.
Musician and music writer Ted Drozdowski said it best in the obituary he wrote for The Boston Phoenix when Bob died in 1997. “He was instantly funny, engaging, incisive, and inclusive,” Drozdowski wrote about his first meeting with Bob in 1992. “And thanks to his introductions, I was soon able to travel through the dusty backroads of Mississippi, learning about the blues in its birthland firsthand. In a way, he’d set me on that journey nearly a decade earlier when I’d found his book Deep Blues (Penguin). I was so charmed by his writing, his knowledge, and his obvious love for the music that I treated it as a Bible, reading each chapter and then buying every record it mentioned. It was a post-grad-level course. But it was nothing like the firsthand encounters with the music I’ve had in places like Holly Springs, Clarksdale, Greenville, and Rolling Fork. Those have been experiences that have changed my life and broadened my understanding of humanity and myself.
“How do you pay someone back for that? Especially when he’s gone.”
Many of Bob’s friends and family, and many of his readers, wondered about that, too, when Bob died. They all would agree, I hope, that a collection like this is one way to start repaying the debt, while making it possible for many more people to accept the invaluable gifts that Bob had to give.
The one quality that runs through every aspect of Bob’s relationship to music is his conviction that music provided a route of transcendence. I believe that, for him, that process began when music enabled him to transcend the enclosed, segregated white world of his upbringing in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the 1950s.
“I personally integrated in reverse all the black rhythm and blues shows that came to the auditorium in Little Rock starting when I was fifteen years old, and that was in 1960,” Bob told National Public Radio in 1995. “There were no integrated shows in Arkansas. I was the first white kid to start showing up at all the black shows. It was such a novelty that nobody thought to stop me, even though I was only fifteen years old and I was going into these places where people were drinking and pulling knives and all sorts of things, you know.
“But I was able to go in and to hear people like Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, all these great, great people,” he continued. “That really was what got me started in the music was going to those shows. I rarely missed one. By the time I was college age, there were several more local white kids going to these shows, but there was only me to begin with. And then when I was in college I was the only white musician in an otherwise all-black band that played around almost entirely in black joints. I had a real sort of involvement in black music and black culture that I really think was possible because I grew up in Arkansas at that particular time.”
No question, Bob was an undeniable product of the South of that era. The segregation that was meant to “protect” young white people like him from being infected by black culture—and the language of the early reporting on rock & roll and racial mixing was just that charged, if not worse—made it and the secret world surrounding it all the more alluring to him. Just as rock & roll itself was exploding on the national scene, Little Rock was the site of some of the most bitter integration battles in the South. To a bookish young man with a flair for rebellion, the hardness of the lines that were drawn must have made them all the more desirable to cross.
Writing decades later about the experiences crossing the racial divide that music made possible for him, Bob explained, “Basically a suburban kid, a music freak, and a loner, I now felt that I had penetrated some underground cult or secret society, one that somehow thrived in the shadows, out beyond the neat suburban plots and well-lit streets of familiar white-bread reality. Penetrated, but not like an anthropologist braving some primitive backwater. I had been accepted; whatever this new world signified, I was somehow part of it.”
There were even specific points of initiation. In his 1995 NPR interview, Bob declared that “everybody has that magic moment when the music rocked them for the first time.” That was typical of his belief that music could, indeed must, change lives. He was a rock & roll Paul on the road to boogie-woogie Damascus, and hearing the Coasters sing “Searchin’” and “Young Blood” transformed him forever. “I remember that coming on when I was about eleven or twelve years old,” he recalled of those songs. “I had been hearing pre–rock & roll popular music on the radio for a few years prior to that. I was very interested in music but I wasn’t that crazy about what was passing for pop music at the time.
“Then I heard ‘Searchin” by the Coasters and a little after that I heard Ray Charles, and that was the music that really turned me around… . I think it was really the quality of the voices. It was the fact that these black singers—there was all this grit in their voices, and these kinds of sounds like they were maybe ripping their vocal cords a little bit when they were singing. It seemed to convey so much emotion and energy and excitement, you know. Just the sound of the voices and the texture of the voices and the way that the voices blended together had a kind of harmony that was not conventional harmony—it was something else. Having heard very conventional harmony, you know, all my life, having never heard blues or even any really down-home country and western music, but just having heard that fifties white-bread pop, the first time I heard black voices and black rhythms, I was just floored. I probably never got over it.”
From those years on, Bob would view music through an uncompromising African-American lens. Having grown up where he grew up, having seen what he had seen, having visited the forbidden realms he visited, he would never be guilty of downplaying the contributions of black musicians in any genre of music he listened to, played, or covered. That would be the ultimate betrayal for him—one he was surrounded by in so much of the music press, just as he was surrounded by segregation in the South. In his view, it was just plain wrong. He knew the unruly history of rock & roll as well as anyone, and from that vantage figures like Ike Turner, Howlin’ Wolf, and Muddy Waters were as important, if not more so, than the likes of Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and Bob Dylan.
Some white musicians could earn his respect, but only if they shared his faith—and were willing to pay the price. This exchange between Bob and fellow white Southerner Jerry Lee Lewis says it all.
“I read awhile back that you believe you’re a sinner and going to hell for playing rock & roll,” I said. “Is that true?” Lewis looked me right in the eye. “Yep,” he said. “I know the right way. I was raised a good Christian. But I couldn’t make it… . Too weak, I guess.” But, I argued, why would playing rock & roll damn you to hell? Lewis looked at me as if I’d just asked an impossibly stupid question. “I can’t picture Jesus Christ,” he said evenly, “doin’ a whole lotta shakin’.”
Bob and I were close, but we rarely saw each other. Even though he had already well established his reputation, I hadn’t met or spoken with him until I became the editor of Rolling Stone’s record-review section in 1990. He hadn’t been doing much writing for the magazine, and he was among the first writers I sought to bring back into its pages.
The frequent and riveting telephone conversations I had with Bob in the editorial—and strangely intimate—relationship we struck up once prompted writer Daisann McLane to suggest that I write a story called “Calling Robert Palmer.” Bob had a great voice, a slow Arkansas drawl that he used as an effective counterbalance to his lambent intelligence. He would render the wildest ideas, the most impossible experiences, as if he were just whiling away the minutes until something genuinely interesting came to mind. You got the sense that, just as in his writing, he knew what he was doing with his cadences and enjoyed their lulling effect. Once we got the business at hand out of the way, Bob would, at my prompting, entertain me with stories about evenings spent at the Dakota with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, recording sessions with Keith Richards and Bono, juke-joint nights with menacing blues guitarist Junior Kimbrough, tours of New Orleans with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page.
There’s no question that, along with his command of music history and the passion that suffused his tastes, Bob won the respect of musicians because he was a musician himself. He played clarinet and saxophone in bands in Arkansas and Memphis, and later, after he moved north in 1967, in the Insect Trust, the eclectic quintet (plus innumerable sidemen) that released two prized albums, The Insect Trust (1969) and Hoboken Saturday Night (1970). In addition, he played with the visionary Ornette Coleman (on Coleman’s 1973 album Dancing in Your Head, among other times), and he wasn’t loathe to jam with some of his more famous subjects either. “He was one of those writers who had a very broad knowledge of all kinds of music, and he understood about the backgrounds of music. He understood about all the different strands that make up the popular music of America,” Mick Jagger said when I interviewed him for Bob’s obituary in Rolling Stone. “He respected it all, and was enthusiastic about it. And he wasn’t snobbish. He had a very good and interesting take on it all. His background and his love of blues and folk music was a great bond as far as musicians were concerned. That’s how I remember him. He would introduce you to all kinds of new things and old things—he was just very in touch with it.”
Jagger paused for a moment. “And he loved to come and jam and play the clarinet!” he continued. “That’s what he used to do. I remember him coming to the studio and listening to our new tracks or something, and then he’d go out and jam on a blues.”
Of course, Bob loved the Rolling Stones and wrote about them frequently, including in his book The Rolling Stones, excerpted here. He had also signed on to work with Jagger on his autobiography, a project that Jagger eventually decided he did not want to complete.
Bob also played clarinet on a track called “Silver and Gold” that Bono, Keith Richards, and Ron Wood recorded for Little Steven Van Zandt’s 1988 Artists United Against Apartheid album. In addition, he served as something of a consultant for the roots sound that Bono was seeking for the song. “When we were doing ‘Silver and Gold’ with Keith and Ronnie, it was a big weekend,” Bono recalled. “I’d just gotten back from Africa and ended up at this Artists Against Apartheid session in New York. This is before The Joshua Tree; actually, we were just getting into that.
“We kind of wrote [‘Silver and Gold’], recorded it, and did everything in about forty-eight hours. I got him to play clarinet on it. He’s on the track. It’s pretty free-form, so in the mix he’s not in it as much as he was on the day, but when he’s there, he’s there. He was kind of embarrassed about it all—‘Oh, you don’t really want me to play on this—take me out! Take me out!’
“I knew that I didn’t know much. I had to kind of go, ‘Is this the kind of thing you mean?’ I really was a student. I still am, but back then, I knew fuck-all about American music, but I was just naïve enough for that not to stop me. He’d go, ‘Yep, yep, yeah, you got it.’ I’m glad of that—he was the insurance policy! If he thought it was okay, we could put it out.”
Later, when U2 began to explore American music in earnest, Bob took the singer and U2 bassist Adam Clayton to guitarist Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint near Holly Springs, Mississippi, on a kind of educational road trip. “Deep Blues—that was it,” Bono recalled about the book that first developed his understanding of the blues. “Around about the time that we were starting our naïve journey into American roots music, Adam and I met up with him in Memphis, and we went out on a trip into the backwoods, where there was an illegal Sunday juke joint.
“We traveled way, way out,” Bono continued, “and everybody was drinking that moonshine stuff. It was like peach schnapps. Everybody was drinking moonshine, and it was extraordinary—like an IV introduction to the blues. He was like this übertutor. Hanging around with him was like doing a PhD in whatever subject he was interested in. I guess some people saw him as a kind of boho, but I saw him as this gentleman of the South. This academic kind of guy, who was the greatest introduction to the blues you could meet. And the more I got to know him, as eclectic as his taste in music was, he had this way of making it very accessible. I thought it was great that he was in The New York Times, because he could open up this world not just to music fans but to regular folks. He made me laugh. It was, like, from Sonic Youth to Rod Stewart! I just thought, this is great. He just didn’t see the world with the same kind of eyes. It was like, Is there a voice? Is there a tune? Is there a spirit here I hadn’t come across before?”
Robbie Robertson first met Palmer in Arkansas, where he spent considerable time in the early sixties as the teenage guitarist in Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. As a teenage sax player in Arkansas, Palmer had worked some of the same venues as the Hawks, and he recalled that they “were especially admired for their tough takes on the most intense black R&B of the day… . The Hawks also had a reputation for pill popping, whoring, and brawling that was second to none.” Bob later wrote about Robertson and the Band, once for a 1991 Rolling Stone interview, when he got together with Robertson in New Orleans, where Bob was living at the time.
“When we were in New Orleans talking, we would go out and drive around and go through some different neighborhoods, and it was great with him,” Robertson recalled. “How colorful his musical knowledge was from one ward to the next. You’d be driving and you’d go through the Thirteenth Ward or something, and he’d say, ‘Oh, this is the area where Chief Jolie taught the songs to the Meters, and eventually they hooked up and became the Wild Tchoupitoulas …’—it was just such rich knowledge. When you’re in New Orleans and you’re driving around doing that, it really hits you deeply, because it’s so colorful and right in front of your eyes.”
Bob’s breadth of tastes should not be misinterpreted as a lack of standards, or as a willingness to embrace whatever trend was making its way down the pike. And he did have certain blind spots—blind spots, that is, if you disagreed with him. Bob was a believer in authenticity, and, as a result, manufactured pop artists like Madonna, for example, were essentially meaningless to him. He viewed them as if he were an anthropologist who had discovered a ritual of some vague familiarity, but whose significance was not merely unknowable but not worth knowing.
Here is Bob’s response to Madonna’s first concert tour, in 1985, which he reviewed when it stopped at Radio City Music Hall in New York for three nights. “The Music Hall crowd, primed by the records and videos, shrieked delightedly when they first caught sight of Madonna, before she had sung a note,” Bob wrote. “They kept shrieking for every song, their Pavlovian responses suggesting the results of an experiment set up by behavioral psychologists in order to prove that Skinner was right after all.
“Because the fact of the matter,” he continued, “was that Madonna—backed by a competent but rather ordinary touring band—simply didn’t sing very well. Her intonation was atrocious; she sang sharp and she sang flat, and the combination of her unsure pitch and thin, quavery vocal timbre made the held notes at the end of her phrases sound like they were crawling off somewhere to die. In her higher range, she had a more attractive sound, with just a smattering of street-corner edginess to it. But this woman needs to see a good vocal coach before she attempts another tour. And one hopes that the next time she performs here, she will have learned not to toss tambourines into the air unless she’s going to be able to catch them.”
And much as he was an ardent supporter of punk, particularly its noisiest, most intellectually challenging, and most aesthetically brash manifestations, he disdained the Ramones as a one-joke band. Reviewing them in 1978, he wrote, “It is difficult to believe that people have formed serious intellectual attachments to the Ramones and consider their music great or even good rock & roll. Rock & roll music has always had room for passionate performers who intentionally circumscribed their range of expression in order to make a point; it has often been best when it was simplest. But the Ramones do not project passion, they play dumb in order to look cool. And they have circumscribed their music to such an extent that the only thing it effectively satirizes is itself. They are the kind of joke one tires of very rapidly.”
And even his Southern-bred modesty concealed a deep confidence. Bob never felt the need to assert his views aggressively because he was so certain they were true. Asked about his rigorously understated portrayal of Don Corleone in The Godfather, Marlon Brando observed that when you have real power you don’t have to shout. Bob must have believed that too.
“There was no doubt in my mind that Robert did feel like he had the best musical taste of anybody in the world,” Robbie Robertson said, laughing, “and that he was ninety percent right and everybody else was ninety percent wrong. He really felt like, ‘Listen, I’ve devoted more time and more love to this than anybody on the planet possibly can, so I have no competition here.’
“I think that everybody had a very unanimous feeling about him in his writing,” Robertson continued. “A love of music was more evident in him than in anybody I ever met. It was so obvious. It was a kind of god to him. And the fact that he had nineteen stories to go with every person or every piece of music that you could bring up was all the evidence you needed.”
In addition to sharpening his critical acumen, Bob’s understanding of musicians enabled him to assume an intimacy with them in interview situations that few journalists can muster. I recall being floored by this exchange with Eric Clapton in a 1985 Rolling Stone interview. Bob’s “question” about the sessions for Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (1970)—really more of an extended reverie—has to rank among the greatest interview gambits ever:
Palmer: The first time I ran into you was during those sessions at Criteria Recording Studios. There was a lot of dope around, especially heroin, and when I showed up, everyone was just spread out on the carpet, nodded out. Then you appeared in the doorway in an old brown leather jacket, with your hair slicked back like a greaser’s, looking like you hadn’t slept in days. You just looked around at the wreckage and said, to nobody in particular, “The boy stood on the burning deck/Whence all but he had fled.” And then you split.
Clapton: Yeah. We were staying in this hotel on the beach, and whatever drug you wanted, you could get it at the newsstand; the girl would just take your orders. We were on the up and the down, the girl and the boy, and the drink was usually Ripple or Gallo. Very heavy stuff. I remember Ahmet [Ertegun, chairman of Atlantic Records] arriving at some point, taking me aside and crying, saying he’d been through this shit with Ray [Charles], and he knew where this was gonna end, and could I stop now. I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, man. This is no problem.” And, of course, he was dead right.
Of course that conversation introduces another subject that, while damaging his life, likely enhanced Bob’s interactions with at least some musicians: his drug use. Bob believed in the ability of psychedelics to provide transcendent experiences, and it’s impossible to read his mesmerizing descriptions of his days among the Master Musicians of Jajouka in Morocco without realizing that such experiences were the very point of music for him.
But Bob also used heroin and cocaine, and somewhere along the way contracted the hepatitis C virus that eventually led to liver failure and his death in 1997. While it did not affect the quality of the work he produced, Bob’s drug use did sometimes affect his ability to meet deadlines. When he left his job at The New York Times and moved back down South in 1988, it was partly in the belief that, as Robbie Robertson put it, “in that part of the country there just wouldn’t be as many demons lurking around, tempting him.” Needless to say, that did not prove to be true. When people move, their demons tend to travel with them.
Eventually, Bob moved to New Orleans. When I once mentioned that he was living in New Orleans to his friend Townes Van Zandt, the singer shook his head and dropped his face in his hands. “Louisiana would kill a healthy man,” he said, finally. Singer-songwriter Eric Andersen once described to me a late-night scene of Bob and Townes embracing each other outside the New York club Tramps, each expressing the wish that they would live to see each other another day.
By the time I began editing Bob in 1990, the rap on him in the publishing world was that he was brilliant but “unreliable.” He never missed an important deadline for me, but he would disappear without notice for weeks at a time. He never discussed his drug use with me either—partly because I was a source of good work and income, and partly, I genuinely believe, out of a kind of respect. Still, there were some unmistakable hints. We were discussing his having hepatitis C one time when Bob was living in Little Rock. I asked if he was getting decent health care, and he explained that his physician was Dr. Nick—the infamous Dr. George Nichopoulos, who had supplied Elvis Presley with endless amounts of drugs.
“Dr. Nick is your doctor?” I asked, incredulous. “Well,” Bob said in his slowest drawl, “you can talk to Dr. Nick about a lot of things that you can’t talk to other doctors about.”
Robbie Robertson had a revealing—and darkly funny—exchange with Bob during their 1991 interview in New Orleans. “I remember when we were doing that interview, he really looked unhealthy to me,” Robertson recalled about Palmer. “And he behaved unhealthy as well. I was comparing him to the last time I had seen him, and there was something wrong. I thought it was drugs, which probably wasn’t far off.
“I remember kidding with him,” he continued. “We’d spent some time together and we were hanging out, and he was acting kind of strange and having physical problems. I remember saying to him, ‘You know something, Bob? You don’t look the part. You’ll always look like a bookworm to me. You don’t look like a junkie.’ And he kind of sniffled and blew his nose, and said, ‘Well, I’m from the William Burroughs school of junkies.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s right, there are some like that.’”
When Bob became seriously ill in 1997, many of the people who cared about and respected him—musicians, writers, editors, record-company executives, friends, loved ones—rallied to try to save his life. He didn’t have insurance and needed a liver transplant. He was deteriorating rapidly, and before he could even qualify for a transplant, his condition needed to be stabilized. He was flown from New Orleans to New York on a private plane, courtesy of one of his benefactors, and entered Westchester County Medical Center in Valhalla, New York. Then he waited.
In the meantime, friends organized fund-raisers and benefit concerts and tried to solicit donations for his operation. I called a number of artists’ managers myself and, in general, got surprisingly generous responses—surprising only because it’s typically so easy for such people to say no. In fairness, I came to understand how often they must get approached for help in situations like this, particularly in the U.S., which shamefully lacks a national health-care system.
I spoke to Bob a number of times while he was in the hospital. Initially his mood was upbeat and he seemed genuinely touched by the intense efforts being made on his behalf. Because he’d been relatively isolated from the music community since leaving the Times and moving South a decade earlier, he seemed to have grown unaware of the regard and affection people held for him.
When I visited Bob in the hospital, I was shocked at how much he’d deteriorated physically. It seemed unlikely to me that he could survive a transplant, even if a suitable liver became available. He did not last long afterward. He died while listening to Yoko Ono’s Rising.
A memorial service for Bob was hastily organized—to use the term loosely—in New York. It took place at Tramps, a Chelsea club that has since closed down, on the Sunday after his death. It’s always a bit strange to be in a club during off-hours. The daylight coming in from outside drains the room of its magic, the ordinariness of the environment—the tables, chairs, stained floor, lingering smells of detergent and alcohol—undeniably communicating a fall from the Eden of showtime into the dreariness of everyday. A late-November Sunday afternoon at Tramps epitomized such a moment. As a musician and a writer, Bob, I’m sure, experienced many of them.
The room was not nearly as full as it should have been, or as it surely would have been had more time been taken to plan the service and get the word out. But in its own shambling way the event captured something about Bob, who loved flirtations with chaos, both in music and in his life. I wrote something about him and read it, then somehow was drafted as the day’s emcee. That was difficult given that I had no idea who was there to speak, read, or play. Again, though, something about feeling so rudderless felt right.
“Bob showed me that writing about music and playing music could be the same thing,” said guitarist Lenny Kaye when he came to the stage. Then Kaye, Patti Smith, and guitarist Oliver Ray tore into a visceral musical tribute to Bob. “However fucked-up, transcendent, or humorous the next few minutes may be,” Smith said before she began to wail on clarinet and improvise verses based on Palmer’s writing, “Bob, it’s all for you.” Smith also expressed smiling gratitude to Bob as the only critic ever to praise her clarinet playing. A clarinetist himself, Bob was partial to anyone who attempted that instrument. Velvet Underground drummer Maureen Tucker and her band the Kropotkins also performed, as did New York guitarist Gary Lucas.
Everyone’s heart was in the right place, and the various appearances occasionally evoked this or that aspect of Bob and his writing. We were all in a daze and, essentially orderless, the event veered wildly in mood. The person who struck deepest, understandably, was Bob’s widow, JoBeth Briton, who bravely rose to speak. The room, of course, fell silent when she took the stage. She sat down in a chair, adjusted the microphone, and simply started talking. She spoke for a long time, at least as I remember it, and was utterly riveting. At once out of control and entirely in command, she careened through an associative reminiscence of their life together that was unlike anything I’ve ever heard. Intermittently she collapsed into tears. Her voice was ghostly, as if she were reporting from another harrowing world where she was searching, futilely, for her lost love. I’ve never heard anyone be so wracked by grief and able to remain articulate. The effect was devastating.
The headline on Bob’s obituary in Rolling Stone read AMERICA’S PRE-EMINENT MUSIC WRITER DEAD AT 52. He deserved that status, and deserves it still. Now what we have left of Bob is his incomparable work. That may well be where he created the best, most gripping version of himself. Without ever overwhelming his subjects, Bob inhabits these pieces fully. As he was dying, Bob came to understand how much his writing had meant to so many and was deeply moved by that knowledge. In gathering this collection, and having many conversations about Bob in the course of doing so, I was struck by how many people in so many different musical worlds revered him and all that he had done, all that he stood for. No doubt, reading any of these pieces will deliver a similar understanding to you.
New York City
© 2009 Robert Palmer