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Highway 61 Revisited: The Tangled Roots of American Jazz, Blues, Rock & Country Music by Gene Santoro

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Gene Santoro’s Highway 61 Revisited, a collection of pieces on jazz, folk, rock, etc., is not a great memoir, but it contains the kernel of one. In “Electric Blues Revival,” for example, Santoro poignantly recalls his teenage years as an omnivorous music geek growing up in New York. Of the Blues Project, a kind of prototypical jam band, Santoro writes, “[H]earing this stuff now, a good quarter-century since I last listened to any of it, I have to admit I still love it and hate it, often at exactly the same time.”

Santoro’s adult revisitations of icons such as Dylan and Springsteen are similarly revelatory; in his moving account of a 1996 solo performance by the Boss, Santoro conveys the Herculean challenge of making political pop: “We listen as [Springsteen] quotes Carlos Fuentes about California being part of Mexico…. But we don’t love it the way we love ‘Thunder Road.'”

If the whole book were this impassioned, Highway 61 would undoubtedly rank as a minor classic, but Santoro devotes too much space to detached criticism (e.g. the closing section on “Possible Futures” of jazz) and rote cultural lore (e.g. the chapters on Louis Armstrong and Chet Baker). Some critics, like Gary Giddins, shine when they dispense with sentiment, but Santoro is at his best when he’s leading with his heart.