Lives of the Poets (with Guitars)

Thirteen Outsiders Who Changed Music

“The days of poets moping around castle steps wearing black capes is over. The poets of today are amplified.” -LEONARD COHEN

Picking up where Samuel Johnson left off more than two centuries ago, Ray Robertson’s Lives of the Poets (with Guitars) offers up an amplified gathering of thirteen portraits of rock & roll, blues, folk, and alt-country’s most inimitable artists. Irreverent and riotous, Robertson explores the “greater or lesser heat” with which each musician shaped their genre, while offering absorbing insight into their often tumultuous lives.

Includes essays on Gene Clark, Ronnie Lane, The Ramones, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Townes Van Zandt, Little Richard, Alan Wilson, Willie P. Bennett, Gram Parsons, Hound Dog Taylor, Paul Siebel, Willis Alan Ramsey, and John Hartford.

Read a Q&A with Ray at Beatroute!

Praise for Lives of the Poets

There’s much to like about this book, but its real strength is in Robertson’s voice, which bobs and weaves throughout each essay, and his construction of each musician’s character arc. At times, it reads like well-drawn character sketches with great conflict, tension, explosive revelations, highs and lows . . . Robertson’s irreverent voice, his character-driven storytelling abilities, and his personal indebtedness to the lucky thirteen make the collection work. This isn’t a history lesson tethered to research-it’s a novelist’s exploration of pioneers and the high drama of their lives.
William Belcher

The Alt

On North American shores, writing about music and its cultural spin-offs has largely been defined by the snarky authority of Pitchfork and trash-talkin’ teardowns of VICE giving birth to the new, new cool. Whereas those writing for music publications in Britain, although still cheeky, offer far more in the way of literary craft, storytelling and historical insight compared to the brash Americans. Ray Robertson, a Canadian novelist, aligns himself closer to the British tradition reinforcing that smart, lively prose and a bit of wit goes a long, marvellous way. In his recent book, Lives of the Poets (with Guitars), Robertson wades into the world of musicians who weren’t chart-bustin’ household names, but still possessed remarkable talents turning out genuine gold-nugget recordings. One part of Lives of the Poets is a record guide revealing these undiscovered treasures, the other is Robertson’s gift of spewing out stories that simply shame most rock ‘n’ roll writers into the hacks they really are.
Beat Route

Ultimately, Robertson toils for a higher purpose: to reveal the transcendent, enduring qualities of the artist and their importance to society. He establishes his intentions in the introduction: “One wants to convey in words what it is that makes for a musically-transformed, more-alive human being.” With this collection of essays on 13 remarkable figures, Robertson leaves no doubt about the success of his endeavor.”

Elmore Magazine

The achievement of his book is that it directs fans and novices alike toward the myriad joys offered up by its subjects, while also prodding us to think and feel more deeply about the other poets with guitars–or boom boxes or turntables – who lie beyond these pages.
Quill & Quire

Lives of the Poets (with Guitars) should come with a warning label: May cause significant increase of spending on music. Readers are strongly advised to avoid record stores within 72 hours of reading. There is much to love and admire about Lives of the Poets (with Guitars). Robertson brings a discerning ear and keen passion, a sly sense of humour and a deep sense of philosophical questioning to each of these pieces. [It] is a powerful book and one to which music fans are likely to often return. It’s not just that it serves as an introduction (and shopping list) for artists with whom one might be unfamiliar; the passion and intensity Robertson brings to his listening will likely have readers looking at their own record collections in a new light, the familiar suddenly new again.

Toronto Star

When he describes the art and craft of these 13 artists . . . you can hear the tender vocals, the searing guitars, every one of their creative idiosyncrasies. And you can feel Robertson’s passion for the material in every word . . . he’s done meticulous research to learn their life stories and delve into their personal pedcadillos . . . boy, can he write.

NOW Magazine

Ray Robertson knows what he likes. He also knows how to pull the reader deep within what he likes, giving his words the same vibrant tones as the music and personalities they describe. Whether the artisthe’s profiling is an acknowledged legend or barely even a cult figure, his passion for their work and their stories is overwhelming. And really, anyone who can bring the guitar tunes of Alan Wilson and Paul Siebel not only into my life but into such sharp focus has done a tremendous service.

Jonathan Woollen

Politics & Prose (Washington, DC)

[A] smart, amusing and compelling collection . . . Robertson’s writing style walks the line between the scholarly approach of Robert Christgau of Village Voice and Rolling Stone fame – the self-proclaimed dean of American rock critics – and that of Lester Bangs (Rolling Stone, Creem, etc.) who rivalled Hunter S. Thompson in terms of opinionated and decadent balls-to-the-wall journalism. Robertson likes to drop frequent F-bombs to remind us that this is no ordinary academic subject, but he never seems to lose track of the idea his readers are looking for facts and intelligent arguments. He’s a genuine rock ‘n’ roll enthusiast who knows his stuff, and reading Lives of the Poets (With Guitars) is almost like having a buddy who works in a record store sit you down and say, “OK, it’s time you got schooled about who has really been important in writing music.

Winnipeg Free Press

Ray Robertson’s insightful and excellent new book . . . is an exploration of the tension between artistry, survival, and motivation. Robertson’s personal, colourful writing is highly entertaining.

Globe and Mail

Robertson has a fine way with words, bringing to bear an insightful mind and a wide-ranging set of influences and perspectives . . . He brings his subjects alive with all their flaws and human foibles and makes the reader interested in delving deeper into both their stories and music . . . Ray Robertson has done music fans a service by bringing us this fine study of thirteen ground-breaking talents.

Barry Hammond

Penguin Eggs: Canada's Folk, Roots, and World Music Magazine

Although Robertson may not be as well-known to American music fans as most of the cult favorites he celebrates here, he brings a good ear and plenty of critical insight to essays aimed at helping readers discover new favorites or hear more familiar music from a fresh perspective.

Kirkus Reviews

In his introduction, author Ray Robertson mentions a quote from another writer, novelist Berthold Auerbach, stating, “Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” It is an apt description of Robertson’s efforts to enlighten readers on musicians and songwriters that captivated his imagination. Crossing a number of musical genres, Robertson is often effusive in his praise, but consistently provides stirring rationale for the strong emotional impact that each artist elicits with their music . . . Robertson offers the whole picture, warts and all. In doing so, he honors the music of artists who have enriched his life – and opens the door for his readers to experience the same magic.

Blues Blast Magazine

Novels about rock and roll bands usually fall in a great big heap when the writer tries to describe the music. I’m happy to be corrected on this one. Please drench me in the names of credible rock and roll novels. I can think of three. The Doubleman is one, Paul Quarrington’s Whale Music is another. The final and greatest of all is Ray Robertson’s 2002 novel, Moody Food. [He] uses his considerable storytelling abilities [in Lives of the Poets (with Guitars)]” to give his music a cohesive frame. This would be insupportable if the music wasn’t described with such clarity and detail. I could hear these albums as I read. That’s impressive.

Architecture Boogie

Not all of the 13 artists Ray documents led tortured lives or died young, but they were all certainly coming at their craft from outside of the perimeter. Ray deftly documents the successes and struggles of each artist but also gives some perspective on why we all need to revisit their music.
53rd and Third

Ray Robertson’s Lives of the Poets (With Guitars) takes a deep look at his personal pantheon of blues, country, and alt-folk artists for this idiosyncratic continuation of Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. Robertson splits his accounts between each artist’s personal lives, historical context, and musical contributions for a work that newcomers and long-term fans can enjoy alike.

Molly Odintz, BookPeople (Austin, TX)

Robertson has clearly been moved by the likes of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Alan Wilson of Canned Heat and John Hartford and would like nothing more than to turn you on to the music he loves. And, after all, what good is poetry if it doesn’t stir the emotion to share with someone, anyone?

UTNE Reader