I have yet to find a way to immerse myself in the comics medium to the degree necessary to provide quality contextual criticism without simultaneously diving into the excrement that is comics industry politics. I tell myself this is the way of things, that looking critically at a finished sausage means looking critically at the way in which it was made and trying to figure out just how delicious it has to be to warrant the daily backstrokes through the shit swimming pool that is the comics industry. I’m still reading comics, and if you follow me on Twitter, you know I clearly still have thoughts on them. But a 140-character tweet is more like dipping my toe into the mess and then going back about my business; it’s not the same as writing a review.
But a week ago I received a thick padded envelope from Nobrow. I wasn’t expecting any review copies from them, especially considering that I abandoned my reviews on the last two I received – Vacancy and Golemchik – after some of my favorite critics managed to say all I wanted to say about those comics, but after hooking my finger under the lip of the envelope and tearing it open, I a note from Tucker Stone fell out. It read “This feels like something Loser City would like.”
I reached into the envelope and grabbed hold of a pretty thick hardcover, unsheathing it to reveal a golden yellow and red tome. It was backwards, and I was greeted with this introduction:
Flipping it over, I found myself holding Ricardo Cavolo’s 101 Artists to Listen to Before You Die, featuring a few dozen miniature portraits of influential musicians from the last 400 years. This is very much a book that we would appreciate here at Loser City, but still I let it sit on my coffee table for a week before doing anything more than flipping through the pages. It’s not a comic, so I wouldn’t need to wade through the mess that is the comics industry in talking about it critically, but I haven’t written much criticism in the last few months, I told myself. I’m starting an MFA program to study poetry and don’t have the time to knock out a review of this book, as intriguing as it is. Maybe I’ll mail it off to Nick and see if he wants to say something about it; music is more Nick’s thing, anyway. It does have a really strange style, though; maybe I’ll just read a couple as I take a break from other reading and writing, see which of my favorite musicians made this list of 101 essentials.
Before I knew it, I was staring at the back cover of 101 Artists to Listen to Before You Die again. This time, I had gone from number one (Bach) to the final entry (Chief Keef), and I was left with one conclusion: this is an essential text for appreciators of music or art, i.e. anyone worth knowing.
Cavolo opens with the requisite disclaimer that comes with a book like this. He is not a music journalist or historian, nor is he a musician (not for lack of trying). He is, like most of us, an appreciator of music who uses the works of these 101 musicians to get through his life in one way or another. This book is a diary, letting it bridge the gap between something like a Rolling Stone list and an autobiographical comic to become something unique. The introduction, like the rest of the diary, is hand-written, offering up a much more personal feel. Cavolo insists that this is just one path for a music appreciator, encouraging readers to draw mustaches on the artists they do not like or to slip their own pages into the book, between his. This kind of friendly and personal attitude makes it very easy to see where he is coming from with his choices and making it silly to even ask the question that inevitably comes with most lists of this type “where is [insert favorite musician or group here]?”
Each entry features a stylized portrait of the musician or group as well as a few select illustrations to accompany each page of text. While the cover of 101 Artists to Listen to Before You Die is on fire, covered with bold reds and golden yellows, Cavolo’s interior palette choices are filled with blue suits, purple mountains, night skies black but for a blanket of stars. His simple yet elegant linework is reminiscent of John Porcellino or Lilli Carré, giving each musician a unique look despite the minimalist approach.
Every portrait, from Bach to Chief Keef, is unified with distinctive red nose and cheeks, but Cavolo does more than simply illustrate these musicians in his own style. He embraces a kind of synesthesia, converting the emotions and themes of the music into the art. While this creativity – with recurring images of six-eyed beasts, demons, and ghosts – is often at play in the backgrounds and in the sketches accompanying his lyric essays, it’s most prominent in what I would call the portraits’ facial tattoos. Elliott Smith sports his trademark cracked heart on one cheek as well as a veritable stream of tears on the other, and each of the Beatles has a beetle on their right cheek as well as a different element on their left (a lightbulb, heart, diamond ring, and leaf). Jay-Z appropriately sports a crown on his forehead while Kanye has a set of wings on the forehead and a volcano erupting from his chest.
Cavolo’s diary would be an interesting art book without the the text that accompanies each of the 101 entries, but the miniature essays read like projections straight from his consciousness explaining what these bands and musicians mean to him and why. While he claims not to be a music journalist, music journalism could learn a thing or two from Cavolo, who unashamedly says things like “They’ve been and still are so much a part of me that I get embarrassed when other people listen to Weezer because I feel like they are seeing me naked, exactly as I am” and “He is class, the Frank Sinatra of rap. Elegant, cultured, and with an above average savoir faire. It can be raining and his suit won’t get either wet or creased; he’s perfect” about Mos Def. I could go on, but I don’t want to spoil the reading experience. Cavolo has a way with words that puts him in the realm of the poets, putting pen to page and delivering a level of sincerity that is desperately needed in a world filled with artifice.
I saw a few copies of 101 Artists to Listen to Before You Die at my local comic shop last week, so you should be able to find it wherever good books are sold (you can also order directly from Nobrow). And if you appreciate art or music, it belongs on your shelf.