In the literary genre of the essay, I can think of no better practitioner than the late Stephen Jay Gould, who combined effortlessly his encyclopedic knowledge of and exuberant passion for evolutionary biology with those he had in classical music, history, fine art and baseball. Who else but Gould could write a provocative scientific paper with his friend and colleague evolutionary geneticist Richard Lewontin entitled "The Spandrels of San Marco", evoking these cathedral supports as a metaphor in a most memorable appeal to their fellow biologists to think more critically about the origins and subsequent usage of traits by organisms? Who else but Gould could recollect singing the Berlioz Requiem with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood as part of an opening prelude for a most erudite discussion on the evolution of the mammalian ear in his essay "An Earful of Jaw" (published originally in Natural History magazine and later republished in the essay collection entitled "Eight Little Piggies: Reflections in Natural History")? Gould wrote his essays as his primary means of educating the public on the scientific truth of biological evolution in brisk, vigorous prose replete with ample instances of wit and graceful style, transferring his knowledge and enthusiasm into exquisite gems of literary art. Like Gould, Rick Moody has an inordinate fondness and passion for music, which he conveys in his first collection of essays, "On Celestial Music And Other Adventures in Listening", but readers may find Moody's thoughts not nearly as edifying as Gould's were, and frankly, at times, even bewildering.
Moody's debut essay collection is a smorgasbord of literary treats, with some worthy of comparison with Gould's best. One of these is his brilliant "Against Cool", which traces the literary evolution of the word from its post World War II association with the "cool jazz movement" to its somewhat contemporary debasement as a generic term of assent, as widely misused as the word "neat" (which Moody also rails against, oddly echoing the same caustic sentiment toward "neat" that I had heard from Frank McCourt while studying creative writing with him at New York City's nerdy Stuyvesant High School somewhere back in the dim Paleozoic Era of my youth.). Equally commendable are his autobiographical homage to dancer and musician Meredith Monk ("On Meredith Monk") and his elegy to Christian music ("How to be a Christian Artist") in which his defense of Christian spirituality and faith-based music reads as his defensive reaction to the harsh, almost fanatical, militant Atheism expressed by the likes of the late Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins (who became Gould's rival as the foremost science writer of our time specializing in biology). So too are his compelling celebration of the band Magnetic Fields' album "69 Love Songs" ("Thirty-One Love Songs") which succeeds as an exceptionally glowing tribute to Magnetic Fields musician and composer Stephin Merritt, his "fan letter" on behalf of the alternative jazz/contemporary music band "The Lounge Lizards" and his history of the rock band "The Who" as seen through the prism of guitarist Pete Townshend's personal and artistic troubles ("The Pete Townshend Fragments"), and another history, this time of the avant garde rock band "Velvet Underground", focusing on the artistic and personal relationships between contemporary composer John Cale and rock musician Lou Reed ("The New York Underground, 1965 - 1988"). I also like a lot the title essay ("On Celestial Music and Other Listening Pleasures") which, in a surprisingly terse manner, explores the spiritual side of his musical passions as part of a persuasive argument - though one that I'm not sure is successful - that links the music of Otis Redding with those of John Cage, other "serious" contemporary music and Afro-American funk. Another of my "guilty pleasures" - to borrow Moody's title for another of his essays - is the concluding essay, "Europe, Forsake Your Drum Machines!", his spirited tirade against the usage of drum machines in European electronic and rock music, which also works as his homage to the great German band "Kraftwerk".
The rest of Moody's essays, while demonstrative of his prodigious talent as a writer, and possessed with merit in their own right, do not quite rise to the high literary standard I've expected from essay writers after spending my youth and early adulthood devouring everything Stephen Jay Gould ever wrote. In one notable instance, Moody alludes to still current controversial thinking in evolutionary biology with regards to the tempo and mode of evolution in his history of the alternative country rock band Wilco "Five Songs (By Wilco)" with an opening paragraph riffing on the word "evolution" and its significance in biology that is so superficial in its content and meaning that it will not only leave readers bewildered, but may also encourage other literary critics to take offensive aim at Moody's literary pretensions, in much the same way that some criticized Moody's excellent blend of literary analysis and memoir, "The Black Veil", which I believe should be remembered and celebrated for its own literary virtues, and are ones worthy of favorable comparison with those in Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes". And yet, the relative banality of some of the other essays should not distract the reader from the literary wealth present in Moody's debut essay collection; if nothing else, they demonstrate why he is passionate about the music he believes in and why he should still be regarded as the finest American writer of my generation.