The legendary blues scholar Robert Palmer died at the age of 52 the other day. He had a bad liver and was waiting for a transplant. I'm not sure if it came from something congenital or from substance abuse. In either case, it is a terrible loss.
The NY Times hired Palmer to be their first-ever rock critic in the 1960s. Along with Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh and Robert Christgau, Palmer defined the standards for serious rock criticism. Palmer was always more tuned into blues-based rock than his colleagues and was ecstatic when new Rolling Stone records appeared. It is almost impossible to imagine, but 30 years ago Mick Jagger was considered to be pushing the envelope.
His first love was the blues, however, and he eventually returned to his native south and began a new career as a curator, scholar and record producer. He wrote "Deep Blues", a definitive study of the Delta style and made a documentary with the same title. I am not sure if it is on video, but it is just wonderful. The film consists of Palmer wandering about the Mississippi delta, near Clarksdale, and chatting with local blues musicians who then play a number or two. One of the things about the film that is astonishing is that it reveals that the blues are music that people dance to on Saturday night and not just what are played at college music festivals. The musicians featured in the movie record for the Fat Possum label which Palmer helped to start, among them the great guitar player Frank Kimbrough.
Palmer's greatest accomplishment was producing the Robert Johnson collection for Columbia records. Johnson not only was the most important influence over virtually every great musician coming out of Mississippi, including Muddy Waters, he was also a semi-mythical figure who has been the subject of poems and plays. Shot and killed in his twenties over a love triangle, the lyrics of his songs have a searing quality 60 years after they were recorded. When you hear Robert Johnson sing "Sittin' here wonderin' whether a matchbox can hold my soul", it will never sound quite the same way as when it comes out of the mouth of Dan Ackroyd or John Belushi. Robert Palmer did more than anybody to turn people on to the real thing.
Although I never met Palmer, we had friends in common. I was living in Hoboken in 1967 when Palmer moved into my apartment a month or so after I split for Manhattan. He and a guy on the top floor named Luke Faust would form a band called Insect Trust that made just two records that rock cognoscenti speak about in hushed, reverential terms nowadays. It was a mixture of rock and jazz that anticipated Steely Dan but was ten times hipper. The first album was called "Hoboken Saturday Night" and on the cover was a drawing done by Luke Faust of the view of our back alley. In the next building was a character named Manus Pinkwater, who eventually became Daniel Pinkwater of NPR and children's book fame.
Another character was Hans Kary, one of Luke Faust's pals, who was selling LSD when I first met him in 1966. And good stuff it was. Kary joined the Hare Krishna sect a year later after he discovered that he got higher chanting than he did from acid. I had just joined a rival cult, the Trotskyist movement, and Hans and I didn't have that much to speak about after that. About ten years ago I read "Monkey on a Stick", a book about the Hare Krishnas written by a NY Times reporter. I was surprised to learn that Kary had become one of the top leaders of the Hare Krishnas shortly after leaving Hoboken. Like many people at the top, had become a cocaine dealer in the 1980s to finance construction of the cult's headquarters in West Virginia, where some lurid murders were to take place. Hans must have considered himself a spiritual person, however. He took an M-16 and went on a shooting spree in Berkeley, California one night. The targets were the showroom windows of luxury car dealers who Hans regarded as materialistic. Somehow, like everything else that happened with all these 1960s madmen, it makes perfect sense in its own way. Like Socialist Workers Party presidential candidate Peter Camejo having become a millionaire stockbroker after getting thrown out of the Trotskyist cult in 1980.
I found out about Palmer's illness just the other week when Michael Yates, his son and I were at a Mississippi blues concert on the upper west side. The emcee said that Palmer was in the hospital and needed financial support, so I sent in $25. The concert itself encapsulated exactly what Palmer believed in. It featured a fife-and-drum band from Mississippi, a form of music that predated the blues and which is performed at picnics and barbecues in the countryside. The fife player was 89 years old and his grandchildren played the drums. His great-grandchild took a turn playing the fife and she knocked the audience out.
One of the misconceptions of the 1960s radicalization was that it was an assault on everything American. It was actually an assault on everything that was wrong with America, which had to do with imperialist war and racism most of all. People like Robert Palmer understood what was right about America and lived to spread the word about the delta blues, one of the great civilizing achievements of African-American people on this backward nation.