G. Bruce Boyer has had, without debate, the greatest career in men’s fashion journalism. For those of you new to Ivy and this site, Mr. Boyer’s resume’ reads something like this: Fashion Editor/GQ. Fashion Editor/Esquire. Fashion Editor/Town & Country. Eight books before RIFFS. Graduate and Masters Degree in English Literature. He also gets my vote for best dressed man of his generation.
Remember when Jordan played baseball? This could have been that. The greatest men’s fashion writer of all time who built a career writing about what he saw and what things looked like now writing a book about the only art you cannot see.
He frames the book this way: “As I have little awareness, temperamental inclination, nor training in the formal language of professional music criticism – driving the discourse, the right signifiers, strategic uses of theory, and other professional jargon – my goal is to capture the experience and emotions of hearing the music the first time around.”
That may be an underestimation. About halfway through the book, he is talking about Sinatra and his acting and singing, and he writes: “Jazz, like acting, presents an unending and continuous series of possibilities for the performer, even when the lines are set in something a hard as tradition. In music you can rush the beat, or let it pass you and catch up to it. Pull up short on a syllable or drag it out. Lay back and glide over the phrase light and easy, or stomp on it. Enjamb the lines or leave lots o space around each one. Push an extra phrase or two between the beat, or simply let the beat go by and pick up the next one. Even add a word or two or phrase to fill up a space. It’s a matter of emphasis, and every jazz singer avails him or herself of these choices, these interpretive devices in forming a recognizable style.”
One does not write that paragraph without, ahem, an awareness. So… bona fides established.
Think of the music you like. Doesn’t matter what kind it is. Other than Indigenous, the music you like has evolved from another genre of music. And as with all evolution, there are moments. The first time a cell splits in two. Moments that define everything that comes after that.
For music, the period from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960’s in America was fraught with such moments. Singular artists bending genres and styling in a fireworks display of twists and turns, all of which landed us on the glorious menu of options we have today for what we listen to.
And thus we have a perfect storm. Two decades of emergence and an observer with the ears and the chops and the soul to capture the period in a jar at night so we can see it.
The book is part musical memoir, but Boyer is too self aware to let the work sink solely into that (although you wish he would tell more of those stories too).
For those of you who love history, Boyer knows his stuff and shares enough of it (“What is the difference between Rock and Rock’n’Roll?” he asks up front then answers himself with a historical examination.) Boyer then briskly walks us through the gospel/early rock’n’roll unfolding.
With a less than 20 page yet comprehensive historical foundation, Boyer starts to let fly, and you feel the passion and the joy immediately. “It was a warm early summer Friday evening at a YMCA dance in 1957 that I first heard the wild growling voice and pummeling piano of Jerry Lee Lewis,” Boyer writes, and just that like, you are there with him. On the Rev. Gary Davis: “But a musician preacher may have been what he was meant to be … because he could play the hell out of his old Gibson guitar.” On Johnny Hartman: “John Coltrane’s favorite singer was Johnny Hartman, one of the smoothest cats with the warmest voice who ever sang. It’s a great puzzle as to why Hartmann wasn’t more known in his own time and why he’s still not more known today. He was as good as any of them, better than most.”
And so forth. RIFFS is a cookbook that actually gives you taste in your mouth. Boyer’s voice, as distinctive as Billie Holiday’s (his one an a half page walkthrough of Holiday doing “Downhearted Blues” is as good as the song itself) is the perfect instrument to keep the book away from nostalgia and into appreciation. He adroitly goes deep diving into those two decades without a negative comment on where music is now.
About good actors we say, “I could watch him/her read a phone book.” About Boyer I say, “I could read Boyer writing about a doughnut.” Thankfully, he chose to present an era musically, and it all works.
Finally, this. The book is laden, and I mean laden, with song and album suggestions for you. There is even, at the end of the book, a music list to accompany each chapter. Buy the book, but have Spotify or whatever you use close at hand. I was only about 20 minutes into RIFFS when I started thinking, “Oh, I gotta hear that,” and listened before I kept reading. It is a great way to enjoy RIFFS.