Home Books Of Stars and Strings: A Biography of Sonny Greenwich by Mark Miller

Of Stars and Strings: A Biography of Sonny Greenwich by Mark Miller

Of Stars and Strings: A Biography of Sonny Greenwich by Mark Miller
Sonny Greenwich screen-grab from YouTube

But music does not live and grow old and decrepit in record-store bins or – as is sadly the case today – somewhere on a digital highway plundered at will by those who built it. Music is alive in the minds and hearts of the artist who creates it – in Sonny Greenwich’s heart, to be precise – and this is where Mr Miller goes to unpack it, to create – for the reader who may be at the beginning of his journey into the world of Sonny Greenwich – a palimpsest with which to listen to Mr Greenwich’s music and discover it for him or herself. This is, at the end of the day, the best way to learn about Mr Greenwich’s music. However, because the music itself may prove to be rather daunting Mr Miller’s book is probably one of the best places – if not the best place – to start. Mr Miller is meticulous in setting up the background to the story – for this is what he does for readers – of Mr Greenwich’s musical life. He digs deep into family history, which inevitably leads to Mr Greenwich’s coming to discover the instrument – the electric guitar – that would eventually dominate his world. From here Mr Miller plots – again with meticulous detail – a roadmap that the reader would delight in traversing, to discover what shaped Mr Greenwich’s signature sound. Here Mr Miller traverses the most difficult task of his book, which is to find the closest approximation of Mr Greenwich’s music – its harmonic and rhythmic conception, and the nature of its sound – to make the black dots that might have occupied staved paper breathe life into the words that inhabit the chapters of this book and eventually give wing to Mr Greenwich’s sound.

To this end Mr Miller is at pains to arrive at a literary approximation of what “this Greenwich” sound is and it is not until Chapter Seven – appropriately entitled “The space between my hands is God” – on [and from] page 75 onwards that we arrive at something that begins to put Mr Greenwich’s life and music into meaningful words. Far from putting the narrative at a disadvantage by waiting so long to unpack his thesis, the lengths to which Mr Miller would go to make a definitive statement about what he believes Sonny Greenwich’s musical universe to be is, in fact, the best reason why this book is essential to anyone who hopes to find a spot close enough to bask in the force of the musician and his art. Unpacking the ephemera of the music from amid the density of prosaic facts is something Mr Miller excels at. Questions such as: “Where does one put Sonny Greenwich in the universe of music?” or “What does one call his music?” and “How does one describe its sound?” are vexing to both the subject of a biography such as this – the musician, as well as the writer himself. This is especially true of someone such as Mr Greenwich, who is completely self-taught, reads little or no music at all and thus most significantly – has conceived of every note and phrase, melody and harmony by imagining – rather than “hearing” the sound in his head and heart before even a note has been sounded or played. Making sense of that itself is a supreme challenge.

The answers to those vexing questions, of course, lie in Mr Greenwich’s music itself. Taking up the challenge, Mr Miller develops his narrative in short chapters, often going back and forth in time as he follows the start and stop and start again of Mr Greenwich’s musical exploits. He is aided and abetted by painstaking research and he quotes frequently from observations made by the cognoscenti of the day – writers such as John Norris [and others including the often unnecessarily acidic Barry Tepperman] from Coda magazine. Mr Norris was perceptive in his performance reviews and on liner notes, but even he is often at a loss for words to describe the music, and like almost everyone else often referred to Mr Greenwich’s music as having the sound of “the Coltrane quartet” and using other epithet derived from John Coltrane [if not his very name; at worse, calling him “the Coltrane of the guitar”]. Mr Tepperman rarely fares better. The best approximation comes from Jack McCaffrey when he says: “the guitarist exhibits great drive; but the drive is directed, the fires are kept banked, the resulting intensity is searing. Great long, leaping lines full of jagged intervals crescendo into climaxes that leave the listener drained…” and later: “With his ballads, Greenwich creates a lyrical tranquility that is truly romantic and utterly devoid of sentimentality.” The truth of that review is affecting because Mr Greenwich’s playing generates so much heat that it is as if his music from his guitar seems to explode like nuclear blasts from the corona of the sun, with spurts of notes dissipating like vapours and gases that flow from our nearest star.

Mr Greenwich himself offers a number of clues about his music as he answers interviewers’ questions – including Mr Miller’s – but eventually all of them prove difficult to follow even for the musicians – such as Don Thompson – who were likely closer to him [Mr Greenwich] than anyone else. For instance Mr Greenwich often said his inspiration came from the legendary painter-poet Paul Klee. This is said to have sent Mr Thompson haring off to a museum to look at Mr Klee’s work: “As a matter of fact, on account of Sonny talking to me about Paul Klee, I went to an art gallery in New York where there was a Klee exhibition. I didn’t know Klee’s work at all. I figured ‘now I’ll finally understand what Sonny’s talking about.’ But I didn’t. I really couldn’t figure it out.” However, Mr Thompson, probably Mr Greenwich’s most frequent [and loyal] musical partner for decades does admit: “He really does know what he’s doing. Nothing happens by accident with Sonny. He knows exactly what he’s doing.” But if the sometimes linear flow of Mr Klee’s lines, which frequently flow into geometric shapes; the almost raw use of colour all of which meets in a collision of the macabre and gentle, the celestial and the terrestrial is any indication, then Mr Greenwich is begotten to no one more than he is to the great painter-poet.

Mr Miller, however, is right not to pursue any line of thought more than beyond a certain point. The reason is simple: Mr Greenwich’s music itself is an ongoing metamorphosing sonic patina. What the writer does do – something he always does with supreme mastery in all his books – is to pull several threads out from the diaphanous fabric that his subject has meticulously woven, either by chance or by design. In this case, that subject is Mr Greenwich, who is still evolving – and will continue to so until the music stops. Like all artists –great ones like Mr Greenwich – the meaning is in the proverbial madness, and which almost always manifests itself in what is being created on the day of, so to speak. So there is no way that anyone could put a finger on the pulse of Sonny Greenwich – not even Mr Greenwich himself, if it came to that. He may be an artist who taught himself the rudiments of an instrument like every other musician, but then, like the best of them, he opened himself to the universe of the music and allowed it to inhabit his senses, becoming as it did, a medium for the force of sound; a vessel into which it flowed – and continues to flow. And this is also what Mr Miller’s book Of Strings and Stars captures best. But then this is something that you might always expect Mr Miller to do. He is that kind of writer and biographer, worthy of a subject as mysterious, fascinating and timeless as Sonny Greenwich.

Published by – Mark Miller via Tellwell Talent
Pages – 321
Price – $33.46 CDN [hardcover] and $23.02 CDN [paperback]
ISBN – 978-0-2288-2778-8

Raul da Gama is a poet and essayist. He has published three collections of poetry, He studied at Trinity College of Music, London specialising in theory and piano, and he has a Masters in The Classics. He is an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep technical and historical understanding of music and literature.


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