‘T BONE BURNETT A LIFE IN PURSUIT’ BY LLOYD SACHS (BOOK REVIEW)
December 1, 2016 by Doug Collette
Lloyd Sachs adopts just the right tone in his book on the life and times of eccentric genius T Bone Burnett. Writing A Life in Pursuit, the author remains ever cognizant of his subject’s idiosyncratic tendencies in both his personal life and his work. And, also knowing full well Burnett’s penchant for high-minded philosophical declarations, the author maintains a healthy detachment from the topics under discussion even with regular insertions of his own his well-considered opinions.
As a result Sachs’ book flows from the very start and maintains an infectious readable quality virtually throughout. His plain-spoken language acts as a catalyst to personal and artistic elements in discussion, directly or indirectly about Burnett, such as his taste(s) in recordings of his own and other artists. Thus, Sachs generates an indiscernibly fast pace through T Bone’s formative years, where he was equally enamored of roots music and the Beatles, to apocryphal phases right up to nearly modern times. Burnett’s period in Bob Dylan’s ‘Rolling Thunder Review, for instance, comes along before the reader realizes how much ground Sachs has covered.
There is a stall of sorts, however, as the author moves through the busy period where Burnett alternates efforts to generate momentum as a recording artist under his own name while producing others to essentially pay the bills. As with his own records, particularly early in his career, T Bone often opts to collaborate with those like (eventual) wife Sam Phillips or the singular Joe Henry, both of whom who are either on the outs with a label or choosing an obviously esoteric artistic path in an almost willful decision to maintain aesthetic purity at the sacrifice of commercial success. Kindred spirits indeed!
During this segment of A Life in Pursuit, the title takes on a new meaning or at least lends itself to a more broad interpretation. It’s almost as if the phrase reverses itself and, instead of T- Bone Burnett in pursuit, he is in fact the one being pursued, whether by his own personal demons, the hell-hounds of blues lore or, as he might himself consider, predators in the form of business leaders within the industries he chooses to work. It’s perhaps a reflection of Lloyd Sachs’ affinity with his subject that his immersion (and subsequent dissections) of Burnett’s work, such as The True False Identity, mirrors his subject’s devotion to his art and craft. But an extended interval of chapters, perhaps not coincidentally, appearing around “Hit Man,” consists of little more than record reviews, albeit discerning ones: Sachs is notably up to date in not only placing the albums in proper artistic perspective, but he also takes time to notes which titles have been reissued on CD since their original vinyl release.
By the time A Life in Pursuit is over, it might be difficult for more than a few readers to find T Bone Burnett a sympathetic figure. His doubts about his own worth as a recording artist sound hollow in the wake of his prodigious success as a producer–the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou? Is just the first in a string of them–while his his disdain for the marketplace sounds particularly disingenuous when he engages in a bitter dismissal of the internet as a means of circulating music; there’s no doubting his well-schooled value judgment of sound quality, but it’s somewhat telling, particularly in the divergent perceptions of him as a collaborator, that his own pursuit of high fidelity in the form of CODE, comes to a quick and abrupt end.
At this juncture in the book, via lofty statements about the nature of art in society vis a vis commerce, Lloyd Sachs almost, but not quite, becomes an apologist for T Bone In fact, as he recounts Burnett’s series cinematic collaborations, it’s almost as if the writer is campaigning on behalf of his subject. With just cursory review of the cumulative effect of all he’s recounted of Burnett’s work to this point, neither he nor T Bone have anything to be embarrassed about—in purely objective terms, quite the contrary.
So, bringing in a string of references to movie history and literary allusions seems, at best, a stretch of the objectivity of this pedigreed contributor to Rolling Stone and Downbeat, among other highly-regarded publications. At worst, it’s a stance of pure pretension, but that’s no greater a blemish than some minor factual errors within the two-hundred sixty pages: the thought arises, again, that the author’s mirroring his subject’s eclectic interests and passions. In that light, Lloyd Sachs’ take Burnett’s work on soundtracks might rightly be interpreted as the latter’s own self-styled movie cum music projects, where he is producer, director and participant, with a cast of his own choosing and a script molded from his choices of material.
Very early in A Life in Pursuit, Lloyd Sachs mentions of Kris Kristofferson as means of introducing musician/composer Stephen Bruton as a long-time creative partner of T Bone Burnett’s and by the time the author concludes his account of his subject’s ‘non-career,’ some lines from another song by the writer of “Me and Bobby McGee,” (“The Pilgrim – Chapter 33,”) seem to accurately encapsulate the subject of this contemporary biography: ‘he’s a walking contradiction… partly truth and partly fiction…’ Whether or not T Bone Burnett ever resolves (at least some of) his contradictions, beginning with full authorization to Sachs for an updated version of this book, would seem to be fodder ripe for an updated edition.