Highlife Lowdown

Two excellent books, one by Boston rocker Jen Trynin, plumb the insides of the worlds of jazz and rock ‘n’ roll.

“Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing” by David Yaffe (Princeton University Press); “Everything I’m Cracked Up To Be: A Rock & Roll Fairy Tale” by Jen Trynin (Harcourt).

By Milo Miles

These two books on music, jazz and rock and roll take on tasks that very rarely succeed on the page, yet both are triumphs. They could only have been written within the past decade or two, when jazz has become a solid institution (fighting fossilization) and rock and roll has become a respectable career (fighting irrelevance).

In “Facinating Rhythm,” David Yaffe meditates on and explores every kind of writing about jazz but criticism. He considers the uses and abuses of jazz as a metaphor, as a genre of music, and an outlook on life in a range of literary works — novels, poems, autobiographies. Jen Trynin’s “Everything I ‘m Cracked Up To Be” recounts her mid-90s shot at the world of big-time pop music, but not with the usual sordid tales of tortured artists and toxic habits. Against long odds, she makes her turn at stardom into a journey of the heart and, well, a crash course in the ways and personalities of the music business and the entertainment industry.

Early on, Yaffe makes a halfhearted stab at defining what draws together such diverse artists as J.D. Salinger, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Hart Crane, and Miles Davis and Billie Holiday and their ghostwriters. But he should simply confess these are authors and books that have provoked surprising and fresh thoughts as he read them and listened to the jazz they evoked. That’s enough to set off fascinating rhythms by itself.

Ellison and his hero — guiding trickster spirit, really — Louis Armstrong turn up all over “Fascinating Rhythm,” in places expected and unexpected, much like Ellison’s celebrated fictional character, Invisible Man. And, like the players and the writers who incorporate them, the characters can’t decide if they’re at home in the penthouse but need the whorehouse, or the other way around. In Yaffe’s view, Ellison does the best job of resolving these conflicting spheres: “Ellison provided a bridge between literary modernism and the jazz canon with the publication of “Invisible Man,” which achieved instant status as a modernist classic and made people listen when Ellison argued that Louis Armstrong was as modern as T. S. Eliot.”

The flipside is Norman Mailer, whose obnoxious quip “jazz is orgasm” comes in for repeated abuse. The music may have provoked that response in Norman , but Yaffe says that has nothing to do with the sounds themselves. “For Mailer, [Thelonious] Monk was hip in the way that homicide and rape were hip: the music was transgressive, dangerous, linked to drugs and outlaw behavior. To demystify its origins, or complicate it or subject it to analytical scrutiny would have made it less hip.” Yaffe also argues persuasively that the persistent intertwining of black and Jewish identity has been much more problematic in prose — with the prissy and heavy-handed primitivism metaphors of J.D. Salinger, for example — than it has in the music — by working jazz changes on the chords of Irving Berling and the Gershwins.

In fact, Yaffe insists music is ahead of print most of the time. The popular-jazz heyday of Ellington, Armstrong and Basie that Ellison claimed for modernism was 20 years in the past when “Invisible Man” was published. With his pinched and patronizing outlook, Ellison had no use for Charlie Parker’s bebop or Miles Davis’s cool. For a novelist, he was a boundless pathfinder; as a jazz canonizer, he was a reactionary. What was sexy in a story was old hat on the stage.

Even in books about their own lives, jazz players know working the streets beats out working on scales. Yaffe notes that the autobiographies of Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus and Miles Davis, all either ghostwritten or exaggerated for effect and unreliable in any case, inject the stars into the pimp-and-whores system, literally. But why not? What Yaffe calls “pimpology,” with its current connection to hip-hop culture, has proven to be a more enduring and potent signal of the jazz life than drug addictions. Again, the sounds exceed the words. Mingus may have failed to become as big a sexual-athlete mack daddy as Iceberg Slim, but Billie Holiday could make the ravages of her life into more than a potboiler gimmick with her searing rendition, late in her career, of “Love for Sale.”

Jen Trynin tries a different, though not unrelated, tactic: she makes you fall in love with her right away. Virtually all rock-career autobiographies are inarticulate, appalling or remote. But Trynin charms you into going all the way to the last page with her by the second time she describes her failure to escape the “Sunday-through-Wednesday-night-folk/acoustic-chick-band wasteland” as going “Back on couch. Pizza. Reruns.”

Her quick fling with the almost-famous set is easily summarized. She went electric, formed a trio. Put out her album, “Cockamamie,” on her own Squint label. Got some local buzz, hired a good lawyer, fell into a bidding war with several major labels (Liz Phair had made the world not only safe but hungry for explicit, tuff-but-introspective rock gals). Signed with Warner Brothers, got the album out. It failed to live up to expectations, her manager started staying away and Warner Brothers continued to quiver in corporate turmoil.

Trynin begins to have trouble remembering who she is, if she likes doing this, starts drinking too much and getting too romantically familiar with her bassist. Everybody hits a wall, the bassman quits. Trynin got one more chance with a second album, which was all but ignored by the label, and then everything guttered out. She married her boyfriend and had a kid. Still gigs some times.

Near the end, she runs into her lawyer and asks him what he thinks really happened to her first album. The lawyer, whom she calls “Neil Krakow,” has been as straight with her as anyone and his assessment feels about right: ” … probably just bad timing. The changing of the guard at The Company [Warner Bros]. Danny Goldberg [interim head of the label] leaving. How the Goo Goo Dolls had that surprise hit over the summer, which took Warners’ eye off me. And, of course, the Alanis Morrissette thing. ‘She’s on Madonna’s label, and Madonna is Warners’ cash cow,’ says Neil. ‘They gotta look out for her wants. And Morrissette’s song took off. And for women, you know, especially in rock, it’s still just a little … unfair, I guess you could say.'”

This points up an aspect of “Everything I’m Cracked Up To Be” that will be both a treat and a frustration for readers, especially Boston-area readers. Trynin changes some names and blurs some identities, but not others. Who is that band, do you think? Oh, I know what club that is! Are you supposed to know who that person is? What matters much more is that Jen Trynin is undisguised — her writing and narrative ring clear with veracity and vitality. She moves fast, keeps her eye on the subject and shows line after line that she’s a caustic and witty artist. Hers is not a sad story, because as the curtain came down on her full-time career, she wasn’t sure the falling-down-stairs of pop stardom suited her well.

If they got around to writing autobiography, an earlier generation of rock performers would shine the light onstage, backstage and in the sack. They would never imagine anybody would be interested in the “industry” ins and outs, even if they could articulate them, which they probably could not. Trynin learns as she goes along, but is a quicker student and more prepped than most, and damned if she doesn’t make the art of the pop-music deal sound kinda glamorous as well as sleazy.

“Everything I’m Cracked Up To Be” makes an excellent compliment to the career overview of Semisonic’s drummer, Jacob Slichter, “So you Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star.” Still, Trynin has the advantage of being a more intimate, more appealing soul. Her book has affected me in a way I’m sure she hopes it does others. Her albums went right by me a decade ago. Now I’m going to track them down and listen again.

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