Unstrung: Rants and Stories of a Noise Guitarist by Marc Ribot

Review by George Yatchisin

Brilliant guitarist that not enough people know by name Marc Ribot has written his first book, Unstrung: Rants and Stories of a Noise Guitarist, and all those scary words in the title are meant to warn you. Not very many pages in, while eulogizing Derek Bailey (yet another level of obscure guitarist deep), Ribot writes: “The palpable fear of beginning from, of returning to…silence/nothing…is an expression of the fear that the sounds you make won’t compare favorably with the silence which preceded/follows it. This in turn represents a deeper fear. In music, too, silence may equal death. The suspicion that both are preferable, and all this implies, is among the oldest of terrors.”

Unstrung, a slim-ish collection of short-ish pieces, risks those silences frequently. No one who knows Ribot’s brilliant bursts of guitar should be surprised—he helped Tom Waits craft his singular junkyard sound in the 1980s, but has also ranged far and wide, accompanying artists from Allison Krauss to John Zorn. He can skronk with the downtown New York scene (the book in some ways is a love-hate letter to the LES—Lower East Side) or be at the heart of T Bone Burnett’s alt-Americana universe (check out his playing on Burnett’s “Tear This Building Down” to catch him at his most attractively angular).

You will learn a lot about music here, especially in the book’s first quarter, and even more if you can play and not just listen, like this decidedly unmusical reviewer. Much of that prose is in response to those he honors, including his teenage guitar teacher Frantz Casseus—turns out the great Haitian classical player was friends with his aunt and uncle (ah, New York City)—the late, lamented Robert Quine, and the visionary producer Hal Willner. That quick Quine essay, letting us know the two particularly bonded owning the same “horrible distortion pedal” called the Buzz Box, features a phrase that not only sums up Quine’s goal, but much of Ribot’s, too, “to cut a wound in the numb skin of pop.”

That we want music to move us, even if that means some pain, well, it’s easy to respond, “Of course, that’s just cliché.” But then think about 98.7% of music, particularly pop; it’s safe, similar, sold out. Ribot plays, and writes, as a wound cutter. The book is infused with his left politics—he’s long been at the forefront of musicians fighting to get musicians actually, you know, paid—fighting the good fight against YouTube and the rest. The book also includes the liner notes from his album Songs of Resistance 1942-2018, a stirring set of just that, a musical howl-lament in the age of Trump featuring guests like Waits, Syd Straw, Steve Earle, Meshell Ndegeocello, and more. There he writes, “I have a lot of friends who think that any kind of politics is uncool. I appreciate the sentiment, but we need to get over it, roll up our sleeves, and get our hands dirty if we’re going to survive this thing.”

The arc of the book moves from these more direct musical essays, although even those kick off with one titled “Distortion and Lies,” to pieces that read more like flash fiction (the third section is titled “Film (Mis)Treatments,” actually). Often it seems surviving the thing is out of the question in these Twilight Zone-like tales that pack the punch of postmodern Aesop’s fables. Take “The Man with the Fun Job,” about a musician who has an actually successful, happy life (this is a fiction, remember), but when Hollywood comes around, they deeply desire to make the story fit the usual rock biopic, complete with drugs, divorce, and death. The rock star’s wife won’t have it, the true story gets made, and crowds everyone scream at the unfairness. A revolution happens. It might not be the right kind.

Economy, so key to his guitar playing, is essential to his writing, too. Everything is whittled down for maximum effect. In particular each sound is sensory sharp; for instance, here’s his description of taking apart his daughter’s IKEA loft bed: “Once freed of its mattress, the frame made reverb-y metallic sounds, like a David Van Tieghem percussion piece, or the score to one of your beloved horror movies.” So much of Ribot is about yoking these two artistic poles and catching the electric charge between like a Wimshurst machine.

And, like one of his solos (go back and listen to his sterling slash-and-shimmer work on Rain Dogs as you will still be amazed), he will leave you wishing for more. Even given the penultimate piece in the book, a rant of negation called “The Activist (or, Twistin’ Time is Here).” It’s a kind of kaddish, fitting as he had recorded with Allen Ginsberg, and just one part of it sings like this: “I don’t accept e-flat minor, trichords, major 3rds, perfect 5ths, or any note above the barline. I don’t accept boxed ears hooked noses split lips black eyes or any features below the hairline. I don’t accept hooks lines sinkers or crabs on either side of the waterline.”

In Ribot’s fearless playing and equally acerbic prose, silence has a mighty fight on its hands.