Buzzed Books #16 by John King
Mo’ Meta Blues by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
Memoir can be straightforward, once memoirists reveal their particular working premises, so as not to be seen as James Freying their mendacious way to the bank.
Autobiographies, however, are fraught with more philosophical problems than memoir. When David Sedaris writes a book of memoir essays, he is not promising the plumb the depths of the David Sedaris phenomenon. What we read in fact is the David Sedaris phenomenon. When we read an autobiography by a notable musician, on the other hand, the book is supposed to reveal their essence in ways that the phenomenon of their public body of work has not already done.
David Foster Wallace has written about this problem at length in his review of the tennis player Tracy Austin’s Beyond Center Court: My Story, a review that becomes a critique of the entire sports autobiography genre. Wallace argued that the quality that makes a superior athlete transcendent simultaneously makes such transcendence impossible to communicate. Self-consciousness about such perfection would mar the perfection.
My own thinking about the genre of autobiography has long been influenced by Groucho Marx. In 1959, he published Groucho and Me, the very title of which indicates an uneasiness of the identity politics assumed in an autobiography.
Early on, he makes this caveat emptor proclamation:
It is almost impossible to write a truthful autobiography. Maybe Proust, Gide and a few others did it, but mostly autobiographies take good care to conceal the author from the public. In nearly all cases, what the public finally buys is a discreet tome with the facts slightly concealed, full of hogwash and ambiguity.
Except in the case of professional writers, most of these untrue confessions are not even written by the man whose name is on the book jacket. Large letters will proclaim it to be THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF CHARLES W. MOONSTRUCK, and letters small enough to fit the head of a pin will whisper, “As told to Joe Flaimngo.” Joe Flamingo, the actual writer, is the drudge who has wasted two years of his life for a miserly stipend, setting down and embellishing the few halting words of Charles W. Moonstruck. When the book finally appears in print, Moonstruck struts all over town asking his friends (the few he has), “Did you read my book? … You know, I’ve never written a book before. … I had no idea writing was so easy!
Groucho and Me is actually a fine autobiography, but one that profoundly re-negotiates its relationship with the reader, since the character of Groucho Marx as known in 13 Marx Brothers movies would never sit down to write an entire book, or make any honest confessions at all.
The autobiography of artists might hold more promise than sports memoirs, since an artist in one medium might be empowered to translate that medium, and thus find a way to communicate the transcendence of their gifts in the arts.
That sense of re-negotiation of what an autobiography is happens to be key. A few years ago, I read Stephen Tyler’s Does the Noise in My Head Bother You? and found that, while my admiration for Aerosmith’s music hadn’t diminished, neither had it been greatly enhanced, either. Tyler recounts his adventures and misadventures, but the effect was a laundry list of happenstance, except for his rhapsodic description of his pre-Aerosmith years. Disgruntled with Tyler’s autobiography, Aerosmith’s lead guitarist, Joe Perry, has written his own called Rocks: My Life in and Out of Aerosmith. There are five human beings in that band. Who knows that the truth is? If we accept that even if each theoretical book is not a complete account, then five books would be a beginning to getting at the essence of Aerosmith’s mastery of rock music. I am not sure I love Aerosmith enough to read whatever succession of autobiographies might be necessary to compete with the best of their sound.
Aerosmith should have been content, perhaps, to let the music do the talking. The essence of what I feel listening to their music is overwhelmingly my own.
Ultimately, an autobiography has to be mostly about something else: the person we don’t really know. This subject may or may not coincide with the art we appreciate.
This is a long preamble for a review of Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove, by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Ben Greenman, with footnotes by Richard Nichols, the manager of The Roots, the hip hop band Questlove is the drummer for.
You can probably anticipate from this set-up that Mo’ Meta Blues is a book that seriously engages the paradoxes of autobiography. The cover image, a riff on Milton Glaser’s psychedelic designs of the 1960s, shows the silhouette of Questlove’s profile with colorful question marks and a single black power fist emanating from his afro.
There are sections in which Questlove reminisces.
There are sections in which Questlove offers commentary about his favorite albums over a decade, year by year.
There are sections when Ben Greenman interviews Questlove.
There are sections in which Ben Greenman writes emails to the book’s editor, Ben Greenberg, asking questions about the ultimate direction of the book one happens to be already holding in one’s hand.
In one section, Ben Greenman inteviews Rich Nichols.
& there are Rich’s footnote rebuttals below the text of some of Questlove’s reminiscences.
This feels intuitive rather than fragmentary as a reading experience.
Mo’ Meta Blues is a deconstruction of autobiography, but the material one reads an autobiography for is also there. Questlove writes about his musical upbringing in its historical and cultural context, and his own passions as a music nerd—from childhood to his middle-aged present—is Proustian in its richness. His lifelong obsession with pop and R&B music, especially Prince is something I find easy to connect to. As a heavy metal teen, I loved Prince as far back as Parade (despite my not quite loving the falsetto strutting of “Kiss”—I liked the other songs on Parade, especially “Boys and Girls”).
One irony is that Questlove’s idol, Prince, has said, “I don’t talk about the past,” which forms an epigraph for M’o Meta Blues. But Questlove’s engagement with his past is not a static thing to cling to, hence the meta- elements to punctuate the provisional, questioning nature of both his past and present.
Observing Questlove childhood in this way makes me feel closer to my own childhood. His own idiosyncrasies are either just like mine, or analogous to mine. Questlove writes,
I remember once, when I was a kid, hearing Johnny Winter singing “Tired of Tryin’” with Muddy Waters on guitar, on the Nothin’ but the Blues album, and hearinh him seing and liking what I heard and then looking at a picture of him on the album and double-taking, maybe triple-taking, and then wondering what it meant to be black (or white, or albino) and play black music (was it?). And was Johnny paying tribute to Muddy by playing a takeoff on “tired of Cryin’,” by Howlin’ Wolf, one of Muddy’s personal and professional rivals—and, while we’re on the subject, one of the most authentically black voices in the history of popular music? Except that the closest artist to him vocally was Captain Beefheart, one of the whitest—if by “white” you mean the kind of fractured art rock he was practicing—except that he was playing the blues, and the blues are black, except that he was white and the blues were his, so maybe there’s no color in it all all except the color you put there. The exceptions don’t prove the rule. They shame it. They banish it. In one of Beefheart’s songs, “Dirty Blue Gene,” he explains why black and white are never black-and-white: “The shiny beast of thought / If you got ears / You gotta listen.” You heard the man. You gotta listen.
Questlove’s way of listening both reminded me of and awakened my own passion for pop music. He knows so many of the deep cuts I know, and a lot of other musical roads I’ve never even been down, too.
His experience is about much more than being a sophisticated listener, though, as his own philosophies of music are explored in his own professional careers as a drummer and a music producer.
At first, the title of Mo Meta Blues seemed trite to me, lamely shoe-horning the prefix onto the title of Spike Lee’s fourth movie, Mo’ Better Blues. The title turns out not to be trite at all, since a scene from the movie is at the crux of the autobiography. The conversation between trumpeter and bandleader Bleek Gilliam (Denzel Washington) and sax-player Shadow Henderson (Wesley Snipes) is basically a Socratic dialogue on the dialectical relationship between audience, commerce, race, and art. This dialogue, I forgot, was sampled in the opening of The Roots’ fourth album, Things Fall Apart (the allusion to Achebe another postmodern thread here). Bleek wants to be high and mighty about the purity of traditional bebop while judging the lack of audiences for it circa 1990, and Shadow calls bullshit on such narcissism, saying artists need to play what people want to hear. Questlove seems to respect both points of view, and looks for some satisfying middle ground between isolationism and pandering. It’s not an easy road to take if one takes aesthetics seriously, passionately, and with love.
This standard was driven home for Questlove as a producer, when he and his studio collaborators outside of The Roots all played the latest tracks they were working on, and he played an early version of “Double Trouble”:
I played it, and I will never forget the feeling that came over the room, including me. It wasn’t that they didn’t hoot and holler like they had for the other songs. They did. But they didn’t mean it. I know the move people resort to when they’re not quite into a song: they keep a straight stare on their face and bob their head a bit, not saying anything, not making eye contact. That’s the sign of death. That’s what they all did me, and I felt humiliated. I was like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction: I will not be ignored! I went back into the studio that same night and gave that song a radical, extended facelift. I refused to sleep until I had that thing up and running.
I knew from then on that anything I did had to meet the standard of the room. It wasn’t enough to appeal to some unseen critics. I needed the artists around me to react with more than the straight-ahead, quiet-as-the-grave head bob.
Sounds like a great fiction workshop to me.
John King (Episode, well, all of them) is a podcaster, writer, and ferret wrangler.