Robert Palmer, 1945–1997
No one wrote better about the music of rock and roll than Robert Palmer, who died of liver failure November 20 at 52. His specialty was the r&b of the ’40s and ’50s, which he came up on as a teenaged saxophonist-clarinetist in Little Rock and studied for the rest of his life. But his passions were myriad. He was an early adept of world musics from India to Morocco to Jamaica. He loved Jerry Lee Lewis and Yoko Ono, Ornette Coleman and the Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop and Sonic Youth, James Brown and LaMonte Young–anything that stretched limits, blasted convention, promised the transcendence he longed for. Deep Blues, 1981’s simultaneously scholarly, speculative, critical, and reportorial account of the Mississippi Delta and its diaspora, is considered the best book ever written on a staggeringly well-mined subject.
Still, the r&b writing has no parallel. Palmer made it his mission to listen to everything in the genre and listen hard. Reread ”The Church of the Sonic Guitar” in his classic, well-named Rock & Roll: An Unruly History, which traces the innovations of the Velvet Underground back to Ike Turner and Guitar Slim. Or pull out his groundbreaking notes to Bo Diddley’s Chess box, which establishes Ellas McDaniel not just as the master of a whole uncatalogued profusion of beats, but as a songwriter, bandleader, sonic architect, and encyclopedia of African American culture. Palmer, who long regarded himself as a musician first and who was a principal of the Insect Trust’s great lost hippie album, Hoboken Saturday Night, as well as an important blues producer for Fat Possum, was not initially a graceful stylist. But by the time he began his seven-year stint as Times rock critic in 1981, he was describing untamed music with an easy colloquial clarity that rarely resorted to the technical terminology he understood perfectly well. Rather than valorizing harmony and structure, he focused on sound and rhythm, which he knew to be the musical stuff of rock and roll–and also believed were the keys to the universe.
Palmer was always a man of the edge. The son of a hard-drinking schoolteacher who played bar piano at night and who also died way too young, he made his own entrance into roadhouse culture at 15 and never got over its aura of Dionysian desperation. This is no figure of speech. In Rock & Roll: An Unruly History’s ”Delinquents of Heaven, Hoodlums From Hell,” Palmer identifies rock as a Dionysian religion, equates drug use with Dionysian mask wearing, and avers imperturbably that though rock’s ”rate of attrition remains high,” ”the survivors…must never forget [their] glorious Dionysian heritage.” Palmer lived this catechism, and he died it–given what he put through his body, it is more accurate to say that he failed his liver than that his liver failed him. He had much more to tell us–just for starters, his mammoth researches into Little Richard’s rhythm sections have yet to see print. Without his faith, one he shared with many vital musicians, he wouldn’t have acquired his knowledge. But as much as we will miss him, admiring secularists will continue to believe that there are points of choice between burning out and fading away, and that Robert Palmer’s coreligionists are capable of finding them.