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Short Takes

By Kate Tuttle
Globe Correspondent / July 24, 2011

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THE CHITLIN’ CIRCUIT: And the Road to Rock ’N’ Roll
By Preston Lauterbach
Norton, 352 pp., illustrated, $26.95

The history of rock ’n’ roll is often told as a perfect example of the American melting pot - black blues plus white country music - but music writer Preston Lauterbach’s rollicking, radiant new book plumbs the music’s deep black roots, providing an important historical corrective. Rock ’n’ roll didn’t begin with Elvis or Bill Haley. Instead, it bubbled up from the urban dance halls and rural roadhouses; created by bands working the line between jazz and blues; backed by a network of promoters, journalists, and businessmen Lauterbach calls “gamblers (capitalists if you prefer)’’; and adored by people who had gone from country to city just one or two generations after going from slave to free.

Lauterbach spins the tale with enormous vitality and it’s terribly fun to read. He masterfully explains the complex logistics of the entertainment industry, and studs the book with fascinating, little-known characters like promoters Don Robey and club impresario Denver Ferguson, as well as fresh, revealing portraits of more familiar figures, such as Little Richard. The book’s heart and soul, though, is in its depiction of a now-lost culture of touring bands who made a virtue of necessity, bunking with black families when Southern motels refused them rooms, adapting from a big-band sound to smaller, tighter, vocalist-led groups when World War II gas rationing forced them from buses into cars. The book ends with Al Green, a fitting inheritor of that great, sexy mixture of blues, jazz, and gospel, and the reader will finish with an overwhelming urge to turn up the volume.

PIGEON ENGLISH
By Stephen Kelman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 288 pages, $24

A recent arrival to London from Ghana, Harrison Opuku, age 11, is smart, sensitive, devout, and curious. He loves his family, especially baby Agnes, who remains in Africa with the family’s father and grandmother; he even loves his big sister, Lydia, with whom he exchanges profane and hilarious insults - their verbal jousting has a giddy energy that both cloaks and reveals their loving connection. When another boy in their housing project is found stabbed to death, the tragedy joins an already effervescent mix of Harri’s obsessions: superheroes, the afterlife, the mysteries of sex, local slang and the importance of learning it, how to avoid the tough boy gang that controls the playground, and the wish to communicate with the neighborhood pigeons. His exuberance extends to the most mundane triumphs, as when he learns how to take off his school uniform necktie without untying it: “Now I’ll never have to tie my tie my whole life. I beat the tie at his own game!’’

Harrison is simply a gem, and his voice powers a lovely debut novel by Stephen Kelman, himself a product of London’s housing projects. As Harri and one of his friends try to solve the boy’s murder, Kelman achieves a balance of humor and suspense that place “Pigeon English’’ in a category beyond genre. Both the pigeons and the immigrant project dwellers are often invisible or scorned by what passes for polite society; this work of deep sympathy and imagination could change that.

AN ANATOMY OF ADDICTION: Sigmund Freud,
William Halsted, and the Miracle Drug Cocaine

By Howard Markel
Pantheon, 352 pp., $28.95)

Nobody knows whether Sigmund Freud and William Halsted ever met, though both studied in Vienna at the same time (American physicians often made a pilgrimage to the Teutonic epicenter of medicine), decades before Freud revolutionized psychiatry and Halsted helped found both Johns Hopkins Hospital and American medical education. But the two shared at least one thing: cocaine. Each published an important paper on the drug, Freud in 1884 and Halsted in 1885, the latter, according to author Howard Markel, featuring “prose so disjointed, hyperactive, and overwrought that it was almost certainly written under the influence.” They weren’t alone; a New York Times article in 1884 reported on “the cocaine craze sweeping the medical profession.” Then legal and widely available, cocaine had fans in high places, from Arthur Conan Doyle (whose Sherlock Holmes was a favorite of Freud’s) to H.G. Wells.

An indifferent student, Halsted found his calling as a surgeon (once removing his mother’s gallbladder, operating on the family’s kitchen table, assisted by his father and siblings), only to nearly lose it to cocaine addiction. By 1886 he had committed himself to an asylum, among the first patients to do so for cocaine addiction. His treatment included doses of morphine, another addiction he battled most of his life. Freud’s cocaine habit took a slower course, perhaps because he snorted rather than injected the drug, but he was still powerfully affected by it - to the extent that some claim it affected his innovations in talk therapy. In this witty, wide-ranging book, Markel, a physician and medical historian, won’t go that far he but does vouch for cocaine’s centrality to both doctors’ stories. At the start of their careers, each “fully expected cocaine to be the wonder drug” of their day, yet in the end the one transformation it could claim was “the invention of the modern addict,” of which both were examples.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.