Honoring the Hustlers of the Record Business

History Lesson

By Mark Oppenheimer

Published December 31, 2004, issue of December 31, 2004.
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Machers and Rockers: Chess Records And the Business of Rock & Roll

By Rich Cohen

W.W. Norton, 220 pages, $22.95.

* * *

I admire Rich Cohen’s writing, but I also admire his project. Cohen’s proj- ect, in all his books, is to talk about Jews neither poor nor rich. These Jews, they got out of the slums, but in school they never made the grade. They got thrown curveballs by life, had to be scrappy to survive, didn’t become doctors or lawyers, instead maybe barkeeps or petty thieves or old-school reporters and newspapermen (definitely not “journalists” or “writers”).

Cohen’s first book, “Tough Jews” (Simon & Schuster, 1998), tells the story of Jewish gangsters in the early 1920s and ’30s; it’s not the first book about the Jewish mob, nor the most scholarly (it doesn’t aim to be). But it’s definitely fun to read, and its romanticizing of some very bad people is, I confess, forgivable. “The Avengers” (Knopf, 2000) describes a group of Jewish resistance fighters during World War II, one of them Cohen’s cousin; they didn’t sign up to be extraordinary, but life called, and they answered. And the terrific “Lake Effect,” (Knopf) from 2002, is about middle-class kids in Glencoe, Ill., who don’t do much except stay out of trouble. One of the pack, the narrator himself, gets to Gotham and lands a job at The New Yorker, one thing leads to another, the rest is history.

“Lake Effect” is disingenuous in an artful way: It would have broken the spell entirely had Cohen mentioned that his father, Herb, the lovable schlemiel ambling about in bathrobe and slippers, is a best-selling author. But I find that omission entirely defensible. Like his hero, Joseph Mitchell, Cohen is committed to truth, not facts, and the truth is that Jewish men are not all Yalies, shtetl cobblers or sex-obsessed Portnoys. A lot of them are just guys, and those are the guys Cohen writes about.

“Machers and Rockers” is about a couple of those typical Yids made good. Phil and Leonard Chess, Polish immigrants coming up in Chicago, work their way from liquor store to nightclub to recording studio, where, by recording the same transplanted-Southern black musicians that Leonard has been booking in his club — like Muddy Waters, Etta James, Little Walter — they build the Chess label into perhaps the most influential record company ever. If no Muddy Waters, then no Eric Clapton; if no Chuck Berry, then no James Brown, no P-Funk, no Dr. Dre. It’s that simple.

Cohen’s short book is not musicology in the style of Robert Palmer’s “Deep Blues,” not cultural theory like LeRoi Jones’s “Blues People.” It’s not biography. It’s a highly partisan narrative of how Leonard and Phil Chess found their artists, loved them, protected them, screwed them out of royalties, bailed them out of jail, loved them some more. It’s Leonard Chess bribing disc jockeys to play records and driving around Mississippi scouting new talent. Cohen is frank about how Jewish businessmen — the Chesses and peers like Jerry Wexler and Hy Weiss — could both love and cheat their schvartzes (to use Cohen’s word, which here is the right word exactly).

Cohen’s enthusiasms will be familiar to readers of his other books. He loves Chicago, both its South Side and its suburbs; he cannot contain his glee over the fact that Leonard Chess moved his family to Glencoe, mere doorsteps from where Cohen grew up. He loves the hustler Jews, appreciates their lack of pretense and their honest embrace of the almighty dollar. He loves liquor and juke joints and rock ’n’ roll.

In “Lake Effect,” Cohen found his voice: simple, fond, sometimes lyrical. Here, he’s trying too hard, and the effort tells. Sun Records’s Sam Phillips is “a founding father who stands at the fork where Rock & Roll diverges from the Blues: Brigham Young coming into the valley of the Great Salt Lake” — not an apt simile, comparing Sam Phillips to a Mormon. Chicago “was a city on the make, a town with change in its pocket, a man with an afternoon to kill, and afternoon stretched into evening” — and the metaphors mixed like couples on the dance floor.

It’s a great story, this tale of sex, drugs, money and miscegenation, and all it needs is an author who trusts it and in whom we can trust. Too often, Cohen does not meet either requirement. He and the usually fine copy-editing team at W.W. Norton, have treated his manuscript carelessly, so that the book is strangely both a labor of love and an object of neglect. Should a reviewer have to point out that it’s A.J. Liebling, not Leibling? It’s Cincinnati, not Cincinatti; Muhammad Ali, not Mohammed Ali; it’s the J. Geils Band, not the J. Giles Band; it’s Megadeth, not Megadeath. I’m not the rock journalist here — Cohen is. Too often he writes as if his life’s work were an amateur diversion.

Sometimes, though, Cohen finds his mark, finds it as sure as the devil found Robert Johnson at the crossroads. “Leonard could not spot a song,” Cohen writes, “something he was criticized and mocked for, but he had a skill far more important: he could spot the man who could spot the song, woo him and hire him, and then, when the gift goes away, dump him like an aging wife. It was not music Leonard had a talent for — it was people. A bloodsucking skill because, if done right, it means, in a business sense, never growing old.”

And there we have it, don’t we? Cohen writing precisely and lovingly about the record business’s concatenation of music, money, love and treachery. Too often in these pages, Cohen’s storytelling is slack and overconfident; so well does he know the story that he tells it with a sense of arrogant entitlement. But when the book and the language work in concert, when Cohen’s skills rise to the challenge of his enthusiasm, this erratic, frustrating book really does sing, and that’s worth more than the price of admission.

Mark Oppenheimer is the author of “Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America,” to be published in May 2005 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He lives in New Haven, Conn., where he edits New Haven Advocate.

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