I’ve wondered a lot what the first book in the series would be like, to the extent that I’ve been avoiding reading it. The first six 33 1/3s came out close together in October 2003, so it’s not like Warren Zanes was alone in writing his before the series existed. He did get the inaugural slot, though, and it’s tempting to think of it as setting the tone for the ones to follow.
It does, in a sense, in setting a wide horizon of possibility: “This is not a book about a record. Sorry.” Instead, it’s a book about Zanes trying to understand why Dusty in Memphis held such significance for him, hearing it first in 1985 as a teenager on tour with his band. He describes complexity as a defining element of the album, with the songs exploring a darker type aspect of love than Springfield’s previous songs.
Stanley Booth, who wrote the album’s liner notes, appears in the first chapter. Zanes sketches out Booth’s character and goes vivid and descriptive in describing his encounters with him. Booth is back in Georgia but Zanes compares him to Memphis, a place he lived in and observed closely for years. Dusty appears as framing, but the main interest is in building layers on myth, detail and associations.
The second chapter centres on Jerry Wexler, who signed Dusty Springfield to Atlantic Records and produced Dusty in Memphis. More conjuring, and then a series of phone conversations. Wexler describes Springfield as a worshipper of the black music of the South in the 1950s and 1960s, wanting to be part of the music and its environment, and drawn to Wexler because he was in the thick of it. The beginning’s not promising for Springfield and Wexler, with Zanes quoting Wexler’s description of bringing her 80 carefully chosen songs and having them all rejected, and then, having nothing new on hand for their second meeting, bringing 20 of the same songs to full approval.
There’s a consideration later of criticisms of Wexler, as a man making money bringing the South up north and looking for music “so good it don’t sound paid for”, with Zanes noting that exploitation is a part of the story but any story about music in the South focusing only on the exploitation narrative is one-dimensional. It fits in smoothly, flowing into a long discussion of authenticity. Two chapters later, the book returns to Springfield and her myth - make-up, illusion, a stage name - as it was born in the South, and the construction of identity. Comparing Springfield to the realist aesthetic of Alan Lomax, Norman Mailer and Pete Seeger, Zanes notes that she incorporates the fantastic, the journey of the imagination that comes along with the journey to the South.
In between, there’s Zanes and his imaginary South, illustrated by a story of peeping in windows with friends as a kid and watching a new neighbour from Tennessee undress, embodying the lore they knew and its untamed, intoxicating draw. Describing Springfield earlier as someone troubled who has freedom in an imaginary elsewhere, Zanes writes, “I felt like I was hearing from someone who shared my favourite elsewhere.”
The final piece is a transcript of an interview with Stanley Booth, running roughly along the same lines as Zanes’ comments throughout the book, and closing with, “having been a guest at all the best Memphis jails, I’d say it is possible to get at the South directly. But I don’t recommend it.”
There’s coherence to the breadth of the book and though the approach is personal, it’s accompanied by considered, informed supporting arguments and a rich prose style. It’s not an introduction to the songs, nor does it document the recording and production, but it has the quality shared by all of my favourite books in the series: it enhances the album the next time you listen to it. That seems like a pretty great opener.
In case you’ve been so busy imagining your fantasy 33 1/3 entry that you missed the announcement, Bloomsbury will have a call for proposals for the series open from 19th March to 30th April. Lots to think about.