#8 – Moody Food, by Ray Robertson

I didn’t like the music in this book. This may sound like a piddling thing, but it’s not, really. Ray Robertson writes ecstatically about music, with a gift that’s difficult to match outside of Rolling Stone‘s better moments, and like all such writing, it can make you hear the music in new ways. Or if you’re particularly musically literate (as I am—I couldn’t tell you how much music I have all totaled, but there’s about 54 days of continuous, no-repeat listening on my hard drive, and that doesn’t even begin to touch my CD collection, which hit 500 albums before I finished high school) it can make you want to shake the writer out of his blind stupidity. Or it can do both.

I can’t say I care much for country music. A long, long time ago, there was no such thing. There was just American folk music, what people like to call “roots” music nowadays, and it was a mealy patois of backwoods English doggerel, vaudeville, and slave lament. Then in 1912 a man named Hart Wand, who oddly enough was white, published a song probably written years earlier, called “Dallas Blues,” and from that moment on there was the Blues, the rawest, saddest, sweetest sound mankind has ever produced, and there was everything else. A lot of the very early stuff was jug and fiddle and washboard music, but through some musical mitosis a line was drawn; on the white side was Country, and on the black side was Blues. They drifted apart, bluesmen picking up a sophistication worthy of their first real baby, Jazz, and country folk leaning heavily towards a decidedly unsophisticated twang. The two cells bumped into each other once or twice over the years, the one time Country giving birth to its greatest child, Bluegrass, and later the Blues had its second baby, and they called it Rock and Roll. Blues laid low for a while, but its children went out into the world and conquered. Country music died, only to be brought back from the dead in 1954 for the exclusive use of Mr. Johnny Cash. Everything else that calls itself Country Music is the result of stray electrons coursing through nerves that don’t yet know the brain won’t be taking any more calls. Some of it is beautiful in that plastic-bag-in-the-wind American Beauty kind of way, but mostly it’s sad. But Rock and Roll and Bluegrass and all the various other spawn of that 1912 break are a promiscuous bunch, and they’ve been fucking like rabbits in the meantime, giving us Funk and Soul and Alt Country and Indie Rock and Neo Folk and Hard House and Deep Funk and even the likes of Autechre and Lady Gaga. If you know how to listen, you can trace it all back to 1912. I sound like a total music snob, but then, I kinda am.

Given all that, it should come as no surprise that I had some issues with Ray Robertson lavishing his substantial gift, his ability to write about music the way A.S. Byatt writes about art, how she can make you see painting and colours as though you’d gone through life with your eyes sewn shut, on 1966 and a fast-and-loose Gram Parsons analog. As a character, a person inhabiting that time and that place, Thomas Graham just works. He’s absurd and over the top and paranoid and charismatic in the right way for his time, and though his disciples are few, they are completely his, when even a year earlier or later, they could not have been. But his music! I just can’t buy that The Duckhead Secret Society are making something worth all that fuss.

Which is not to say that there isn’t any good music in Moody Food. There’s lots, and some of it is even Country, and when Ray Robertson taps into that, it’s golden. But when Graham hears Sgt. Pepper and accuses Bill of tipping off the Beatles to the Duckhead sound, I stop taking all that gushing seriously. Sgt. Pepper is a great album, it really, really is. It’s just not all that deep. As complex, sophisticated, and just plain old good as it is, very little of the Beatles oeuvre actually goes that far beyond the surface. When Robertson writes about Hank Williams or Arthur Crudup, though, he’s talking about a simpler music that reaches all the way back, past what our smart monkey brains can understand, to our lizard brain, still ticking over like some ancient diesel engine, powerful, insistent, but dumb. That’s the place Graham comes close to touching with the Dream of Pines material. The Interstellar North American Music isn’t anything close to that; it’s a coked-out fantasy, a fever dream, and while Robertson’s ecstasy is more about Bill and Thomas’ decline into, well, into something drug-fueled and horrible, it seems almost a shame to waste it on so much delusion.

Waste is maybe the wrong word. Moody Food was damned near impossible for me to put down because there was so much life in it. It takes place more than a decade before I was born, so it’s not a period I feel much connection with or any nostalgia for, and I certainly can’t tell you if Robertson’s depiction was all that accurate. I can tell you that it feels right. I can tell you that I enjoyed the hell out of the book, in large part because I had such a desire to fight with Robertson over the music. The best parts of a book aren’t always the things that you find beautiful, but can instead be the things that provoke you, that make you want to argue with the text and the writer. Those are often the things that bring me the most pleasure, and I could see myself spending many an hour, drink in hand, having a spirited back and forth about music with Robertson—or any one of his characters. Moody Food is probably the closest I’m going to come, at least until I get around to Gently Down the Stream.

Moody Food was my third selection for Canada Reads: Independently, and my ninth selection for the Third Canadian Book Challenge. Next up is The Jade Peony, by Wayson Choy.


Writer. Editor. Critic.

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