Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Robert Palmer

1945-1997

By Ted Drozdowski

DECEMBER 1, 1997:  Popular music has never had a better friend than Robert Palmer, the critic and musician who died last Thursday, November 20. He loved it -- absolutely and in all forms: rock, blues, noise, jazz, North African trance, punk, country, heavy metal. He had very high standards and could be a stern reviewer, but a particularly greasy tumble of notes from the Mississippi bluesman Junior Kimbrough or the buzz of the Ramones slicing through a high-impact version of "Blitzkrieg Bop" were equally likely to light him up and elicit his approving, lightly drawled "wow."

Palmer, who was 52, died while awaiting a liver transplant in the Westchester County Medical Center in Valhalla, New York, where he'd been since mid September. He'd wrestled with liver and kidney ailments since the late '80s.

Nonetheless, that hardly seemed to slow him down. In the early '90s he began producing albums for the Fat Possum label (out of Oxford, Mississippi) that were immediately embraced for their authentic juke-joint sound. Those CDs established ongoing international careers for the elder Mississippi hill-country bluesmen R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. Palmer was the main consultant for the definitive 1995 10-part PBS documentary Rock & Roll, and he authored a companion book, Rock & Roll: An Unruly History, on the Harmony imprint that was even better. He wrote actively for a number of publications, including Live! (for which he was a columnist), Rolling Stone, and Guitar World. He also contributed occasionally to the Boston Phoenix in recent years.

Palmer was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, and was playing saxophone and clarinet in juke joints as soon as he was old enough to get away with it. In 1966 he helped found the Memphis Country Blues Festival. That was the first of the now-popular major annual events that acknowledge the music's cultural gifts within its Southern homeland. By then, he was writing about music with a clear-eyed, plainspoken erudition that allowed him to explain prickly concepts (say, Ornette Coleman's harmolodic theory, or the relationship between the Moroccan master musicians and John Coltrane) in language anyone could understand. His gift for translating music into English led him to the New York Times, where in 1981 he become its first full-time popular-music critic.

He held that job until 1988, establishing a reputation as perhaps the finest music journalist in America. He also taught courses at Brooklyn College, Yale, Carnegie Mellon, and Bowdoin College. He was the writer and music director of the documentary films The World According to John Coltrane and Deep Blues. And he authored five books between 1978 and '83, on topics ranging from the formative influence of Memphis and New Orleans musicians on rock and roll to a biography of the Rolling Stones.

In the shadow of illness, Palmer left the New York Times to return south. In Memphis he began working on the film Deep Blues and started playing music again. Any night of the week could find him in a hole-in-the-wall dive honking gut-bucket blues or wailing free improv. Then he moved on to New Orleans, where he resided just outside the French Quarter until his final hospitalization. He shared that home with his equally brilliant wife and collaborator, JoBeth Briton, a talented writer whose love and care prolonged his life.

Bob's work made a profound impact not only on the people it informed, but on our culture. It was Palmer who took Rolling Stones co-founder Brian Jones to meet the Master Musicians of Joujouka. Their subsequent Jones-produced album was the first so-called world-music recording made for a pop audience. Bob was also the only music critic to record with Ornette Coleman (on 1977's Dancing in Your Head on A&M). As a player/composer, his work in the late-'60s avant-garage blues band Insect Trust (who made albums for Capitol and Atlantic) influenced Patti Smith and other members of New York's punk intelligentsia -- whom Bob then championed in his writing.

I met Bob in 1992, in the post-release media hustle of the Robert Mugge-directed Deep Blues. We almost immediately became friends. He was instantly funny, engaging, incisive, and inclusive. And thanks to his introductions, I was soon able to travel through the dusty backroads of Mississippi, learning about the blues in its birthland first hand. 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 first-hand 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.


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