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Thursday, July 22, 2004 08:40 am

Paging Elvis and other rock & roll fantasies

Take a Walk on the Dark Side: Rock and Roll Myths, Legends, and Curses By R. Gary Patterson, Fireside Books, 2004, 304 pages, $14

Did King James I commission Shakespeare to translate the Psalms for the now-famous version of the Bible? A case is made for that transaction in R. Gary Patterson's new book about rock & roll. If you're wondering what Shakespeare has to do with rock & roll -- or, for that matter, where Faust, Shelley, Hawthorne, and Paganini fit into what has been called the devil's music -- you need to Take a Walk on the Dark Side. Patterson, who also penned The Walrus Was Paul and Hellhounds on Their Trail, is encyclopedic in his knowledge of the music that wouldn't die (despite what Don McLean had to say in "American Pie").

In Dark Side, Patterson focuses on the myths, legends, and curses surrounding the sound. The result is a mixed bag, and I'll give you the bad news first: The author hangs much of the book's importance on the ironic circumstances of various musicians' lives and deaths. Making a classic literary blunder, however, he fails to understand the meaning of the word "irony." Something is ironic when what happens is not what was expected to occur. The death of teen star Eddie Cochran in a car wreck after Cochran recorded a song about Buddy Holly's early demise in a plane crash is not ironic -- creepy, maybe, but not ironic. An editor using spell-check could have changed every "ironic" to "coincidental" and produced a better book. And as long as I'm nitpicking, I'll add that Patterson could have excised 95 percent of the exclamation marks and added an index.

The good news is, the book will entertain anyone who's ever used a turntable to play Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" backward or who has a penchant for trivia. Readers of this book who participate in trivia contests, should they be asked how the Gin Blossoms got their name, will know the correct answer. (The group took the name from a caption, under a picture of W.C. Fields in Kenneth Anger's book Hollywood Babylon II, describing the hard-drinking comic's bulbous red nose as having a case of the "gin blossoms.") It was refreshing to read about performers who are actually older than I am (although, I must admit, most of them are dead now) and gratifying to know that, unlike some younger readers, I did not need Patterson's phonetic guide to the pronunciation of "Lynyrd Skynyrd."

The book begins at that famous crossroads in Clarksdale, Miss., where blues legend Robert Johnson purportedly sold his soul to Satan in return for his musical skills, and takes us up to Kurt Cobain. In between we learn about every big-name rock & roller and how he or she brushed up against the forces of darkness. Especially riveting are the book's passages about Aleister Crowley and Anton LaVey, two spooky dudes whose ties to the occult attracted many rock musicians and whose practices influenced the music. Perhaps the best thing about Take a Walk on the Dark Side is that it will make you want to get out your old records and, in the immortal words of Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd, "turn it up!"


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