|Photo by Rick Malkin|
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With Backbeat, author Tony Scherman takes on a vast adventure that parallels many of this century's most crucial musical and cultural moments. Recounted almost exclusively via firsthand oral history, Palmer's tale unwinds with the easygoing flow of a between-sets reefer session out back of a New Orleans nightclub; his languorous, salty storytelling style, peppered with obscenities and some of the most unruly vernacular one will ever encounter ("She started flirtating" or "It got so quiet you could hear a mouse piss on cotton"), is thoroughly engaging, and by the book's end, the reader seems to be on an intimate basis with Palmer -- the greatest friend you may never actually meet.
Palmer's account of his early days in the Tremé, a French Quarteradjacent New Orleans district and one of the oldest black hoods in the nation, has a mesmerizing quality, introducing dozens of memorable characters: entertainers, musicians, dancers, midgets, hookers, pimps, all with nicknames like Snookums, Drag Nasty, Porkchops, Bo Weevil, Butsy and Tee-not (Palmer himself was known as Slack: "I always had loose pants in the back . . . used to have a flat butt, man, all the time"), most of whom were often involved in almost surreal escapades. Like Sidney Bechet's Treat It Gentle, another unbeatable New Orleans memoir, Backbeat conjures the Tremé with a sweaty, riveting sense of emotional reality. Born to a working stage entertainer, Palmer as an infant was often billeted backstage in a milk crate, and his days as a pre-adolescent tap dancer ("pretty as a little pimp") in blues singer Ida Cox's touring road show provide a rare insider's glimpse into the harsh life on the prewar black vaudeville circuit; his WWII service, where the ugly face of racism takes on an even more pronounced thrust than back in stone redneck Louisiana, is an unlikely adventure in and of itself.
But it's Palmer's musical career, of course, where the real meat is served. With his tap background enabling him to easily cross over into drumming, and GI Bill funding to cover his music-school tuition, the bebop-mad 22-year-old Palmer took to the jazz joints with natural aplomb, and in short order joined the studio band at Cosimo Matassa's fabled New Orleans studio, where, along with bandleader Dave Bartholomew and sax men Red Tyler and Lee Allen, Palmer soon inadvertently found himself inventing this shit. While Palmer loved his work as much as he did hanging out with the incredible array of players Matassa recorded, as a jazz man he also has a decidedly hard-nosed view of the nightclub performers on the New Orleans scene: "We avoided Ray Charles . . . all he wanted to do was his Nat Cole imitations . . . Joe Turner was a big, fat drunk . . . Professor Longhair? I never really thought of him as
anything special . . . Fats Domino, all his tunes was the same, and so simple. Too simple for me." When working with Guitar Slim, whose ultralong cord enabled him to leave the stage and walk out to the street while playing: "We'd unplug his amp. Come back in, we were playing bebop." (Slim offered to cut their throats. "Kind of a wild guy, Slim . . . looked like he meant it.")
These revelations about our pop legends come as somewhat of a shock, yet, coming from a die-hard jazzbo, they make perfect sense -- rock & roll (up to and including Springsteen, U2, Alanis) is nothing if not a celebration of the juvenile. But when it comes to a hard-rocking barbarian like Little Richard, even Palmer was bowled over: "'What the fuck is this?' Not who, what . . . Richard was so infectious and so unhiding with his flamboyancy, he sucked us right in . . . I never thought Richard was crazy, never thought he didn't know exactly what he was doing . . . Richard's music was exciting as a sumbitch." Significantly, the two remain good friends over 40 years later -- and without their meeting at Cosimo's, rock & roll as we know it might never have ignited at all.
PALMER, RECKLESS AND PASSIONATE (AND AL-ways high on weed), lived a life of action and color so arresting it's almost symphonic in scope. The chain of coincidence and alliance that placed him in the rock & roll driver's seat, and ultimately brought him to Los Angeles, is one of the great evolutionary fables of the age.
Scherman has done a fine job laying out the whole fabulous schmeer -- up to a point. His choice to give Palmer's voice the lead position is fitting, but there are problems. In the final chapter, the book seems to end, then jump back 20 years, end a second time, restart with the death of Palmer's second wife and then just spiral down to an enigmatic final quote. Then there are the "notes," which in essence are not notes at all but anecdotal material and miniature essays on background and history, the majority of which would have better served the reader if they had been inserted directly into the text. Scherman suggests they be read after the main body of the book; or it might be wise to soldier through them all before starting in, as the sheer length of most of the notes makes bird-dogging back and forth from chapter to corresponding note a momentum buster.
All in all, the flawed editing hardly detracts from what is a highly compelling tale. Backbeat reveals a great deal of previously unknown information, and is loaded with hysterically funny episodes (involving everyone from Pat Nixon to Angela Davis) as well as intensely personal and deeply touching moments. The best part, for Los Angeles residents, is that Palmer, although suffering from "a touch of emphysema," is still active, with a regular gig at Santa Monica's Rix Restaurant. If you can't make that scene, just visit the nearest juke box -- he's likely to be heard on about 90 percent of the selections.
BACKBEAT: Earl Palmer's Story | By TONY SCHERMAN Smithsonian Institution Press | 196 pages | $25 hardcover