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book review

Left to right, Dee Dee, Johnny, Joey and Marky Ramone, of the iconic punk band the Ramones, discussed in Ray Robertson’s new book.

In the arts, obscurity is a hell of a thing.

For the prolific, talented creator, to be exceptional but unheralded is often the result of bad luck and poor timing ("missed opportunities," so to speak) or, within a more hardened, self-possessed personality, a general indifference toward conventional and external measures of success.

But for the admirer, obscurity is a crime that essentially warrants vigilante justice. That some great artist might languish while the general population misses out on his or her genius is intolerable to the fan, who becomes increasingly fervent about spreading the word. It's a mission, really, turning other people on to stuff you think is cool.

That motivation to highlight lesser-known visionaries and possibly even convert unsuspecting new fans to wonderful albums is at the heart of Ray Robertson's insightful and excellent new book, Lives of the Poets (with Guitars), about "thirteen outsiders who changed modern music."

He takes his title and structure from Samuel Johnson's Lives of The Most Eminent English Poets, a catalogue of short biographies and appraisals of 18th-century poets. The subjects of Robertson's relatively short critical assessments and biographical overviews are Gene Clark (of the Byrds), Ronnie Lane (of the Small Faces), Ramones, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Townes Van Zandt, Little Richard, Alan Wilson (of Canned Heat), Willie P. Bennett, Gram Parsons, Hound Dog Taylor, Paul Siebel, Willis Alan Ramsay and John Hartford.

As suggested earlier, Robertson is delving into these artists and their work because he feels they haven't received their proper due. That doesn't necessarily mean they aren't famous; indeed, Little Richard is still, one would hope, well known for being a founding father of rock 'n' roll and, love or loathe them, the Ramones are iconic for essentially starting the punk sound. It's also fair to say that Parsons – who hung out with and inspired the Rolling Stones – and Van Zandt are legendary among music fans and frequently mentioned as idols for younger country and folk musicians who've closely studied the form.

But, generally, Robertson is right to argue that everyone featured in his book is not taken as seriously as they should be. And although it's an exercise partly borne of frustration with music fans sleeping on people who stirred some deep passion within him, Robertson isn't afraid to shine a light on the faults, eccentricities and curious circumstances of every single one of his subjects.

We learn that Tharpe, a black woman marrying gospel and secular music with her powerful voice while also shredding on electric guitar, was prone to marrying terrible men and also appeared to simultaneously maintain a relationship with a woman. None of these things were "normal" or set her on a conventional path to fortune and fame.

Alan Wilson was the musical visionary behind Canned Heat who – beyond penning their best-known song, 1968's Going Up the Country – was a true blues scholar who helped salvage the life and career of the great bluesman Son House. He was also a dishevelled, socially inept young man who never bathed and suffered great existential angst and psychological episodes that led to his premature and somewhat suspicious death.

In some cases, there are salacious details thrown into the mix (did Buddy Holly really instigate an impromptu three-way with Little Richard? Did Hound Dog Taylor really shoot a band mate after jokes about sleeping with each others' wives crossed the line?) and Robertson's personal, colourful writing is highly entertaining. But the book truly is an exploration of the tension between artistry, survival, and motivation from the perspective of an ardent fan.

On some level, Robertson's book is a form of vicarious ownership. Few of these stories have totally happy endings; even survivors such as Siebel and Ramsey are curios for exhibiting such brief sparks of ingenuity. But for Robertson, who chose his subjects personally and wasn't attempting some grand, inclusive overview of music, it's clear he needed to figure these people out and determine why they aren't as big a deal to the rest of the world as they probably should be.

In the end, he finds that obscurity is a two-way street. His cast of characters here are flawed and as ambivalent about life and work as anyone can be, and they achieve and sabotage their own success in kind.

And yet, as long as their best records exist in some form or another, pockets of people will always discover them and judge them on their own merits. As Robertson discovers, lives are inconsistent and they always shall be. But when they leave behind great artifacts, they're more likely to be remembered for the right reasons.

Vish Khanna is a journalist and broadcaster who hosts the Kreative Kontrol with Vish Khanna podcast.