Robert Palmer—not to be confused with the “Simply Irresistible” guy—was one of rock writing’s true giants. Palmer, who died at age 52 in 1997, was a clarinetist and saxophonist (he played with Ornette Coleman and Bono, among others) and ethnomusicology professor for the University of Mississippi. He was also a journalist, a historian, the first rock critic for The New York Times (from 1981 to 1988), and the consultant for PBS’ 1995 TV special Rock & Roll. He wrote about rock’s roots—going back through the blues to slave songs and African chants—with an easy precision, rendering complex historical patterns compulsively readable.
Though he documented blues and rock for Rolling Stone through the ’70s in addition to his Times stint, and later produced blues records for Mississippi’s Fat Possum label, Palmer’s real heyday as a writer may have been during the early ’90s, when he got to stretch out plenty in his truest form, the box-set liner-notes historical essay. Blues & Chaos: The Music Writing Of Robert Palmer, the first comprehensive overview of Palmer’s music writing, can seem a little staid on a glance-through, but after sampling something like Palmer’s casually erudite, fearsomely knowledgeable summations of Bo Diddley (from The Chess Box) or Ray Charles (from The Birth Of Soul), it’s difficult to stop. The Diddley essay in particular is one of the most heroic music pieces ever written, an invigorating dive into the many streams that flow through Diddley’s music, from playground games to African ring shouts. With The Chess Box now available only as a download, the book’s inclusion of the essay is all the more welcome.
There are quibbles to be had with the book’s selection. It’s a bit too heavy on later Rolling Stone reviews (not surprising, since the book’s compiler, Anthony DeCurtis, edited many of them when they first appeared in the magazine), and some of the Times inclusions seem like a rote checklist of classic rock, such as write-ups on Lou Reed, Elvis Costello, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono. (A couple of the latter are restated better in the notes, also included here, from the latter’s Onobox.) Palmer’s great notes from The Sky Is Crying: The History Of Elmore James (itself a revelation, much like the Diddley box) would have been nice, too. But there’s so much good writing here that these remain just quibbles.