Love for Sale: Pop Music in America by David Hajdu, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 307 pages, $27.
No, this is not just a standard history of “Pop Music in America.” This is a very personal and utterly wonderful book about the subject by the music critic of The Nation and the man who wrote the magisterial “Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn,” and the indispensable “The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America” and “Positively Fourth Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina.”
Here, for instance, is Hajdu interviewing one of his first subjects, folk legend Dave Van Ronk, upon whose couch Bob Dylan slept when he was first starting out. Van Ronk poured Captain Morgan over his ice cream while they listened to something from James Taylor’s third album. “Van Ronk coughed up a laugh. Von Ronk both laughed and coughed freely and the sounds were indistinguishable. He listened to the music on the radio for a minute and said ‘Bobby has a lot to answer for.” Hajdu observed Dylan’s music had more “fire” than Taylor to which Van Ronk replied “It’s hard to start a fire without the right equipment. ... Bobby makes it look too easy.”
Try this on for size: After his Strayhorn book appeared, Lena Horne called on Hajdu to help with a new record she was briefly coming out of semiretirement to make. She opted for “We’ll Be Together Again” over “I’ll Never Smile Again” because she thought that Sinatra’s version of the latter was definitive. “Joking, with a big wink implied, she called the young Sinatra ‘a better woman’ than she.” Here is a critic capable of saying that Elvis Presley was “At least as deserving of coronation as ‘The King of Rock and Roll’ as Benny Goodman had been to be called ‘The King of Swing’.
Both were much more qualified for their kingships than Irving Berlin had deserved to be promoted as ‘The Ragtime King.’ Presley made brilliant rock and roll and Goodman played first-rate swing” but Berlin wrote “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” not ragtime. It’s as idiosyncratic and vehemently personal a book as it is reliable, readable and enduringly important. One of the year’s best music books, along with Ratliff’s “Every Song Ever.”