"ALBUMS ARE LIKE NOVELS OR POEMS EXCEPT THAT YOU CAN LISTEN TO THEM IN THE DARK."
David Yaffe is a professor of humanities at Syracuse University. He was born in Dallas, TX on January 1, 1973 (when the #1 song was “You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon), and was saved from normal life at the Booker T. Washington High School for Performing and Visual Arts, where he acted in plays and played keybs in the jazz combo. His freshman year, Roy Hargrove was a senior and Erykah Badu was a sophomore. He continued avoiding normal life when he went to Sarah Lawrence College, where he studied literature and philosophy.
His sophomore year, he interned at The Village Voice, where he began his lifelong devotion to dying institutions, and he worked for Richard Goldstein, the widely acknowledged inventor of rock journalism. He began contributing articles at the age of 20. By the time he began his coursework in the Ph.D. program in English at the CUNY Graduate Center—where his teachers included Louis Menand, Morris Dickstein, Angus Fletcher, Wayne Koestenbaum, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and, at NYU, Harold Bloom —he was writing regularly for the Voice, then began contributing to The Nation,New York Magazine, The New York Times, and even a brutally edited “Talk of the Town” piece in the Tina Brown-era New Yorker. He also wrote for publications that died: Lingua Franca, Partisan Review, Mirabella, Civilization, Talk and, of course, theVoice. He did all this as an exploited adjunct at Hunter College, where he taught between 1997-2001, and where he still dreams he is teaching.
He was a Guest Faculty member at Sarah Lawrence in 2001-2002. All this freelancing and teaching began to lead to seriously not writing his dissertation, but then he quickly wrote it, exquisitely directed by Wayne Koestenbaum, and it was published by Princeton University Press as Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing
in 2005, which was nominated for the Lewis Lockwood Award in Musicology, with blurbs by Harold Bloom and Cornel West on the same back cover. Those who “read the articles” in Playboywould have discovered Alex Abramovich writing, "David Yaffe's Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writingprovides a brilliant account of the music's often overlooked influence on J.D. Salinger, Philip Roth and other lights of the literary firmament."
After receiving his Ph.D., Yaffe was hired by the Syracuse University English Department in 2005. After he was granted tenure in 2013, he was appointed as the Dean’s Fellow in the Humanities for two years, and since then, he has been a department of one. After arriving at Syracuse, his writings appeared in many venues, including The Nation, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Harper’s Magazine, Slate, The Oxford American, The Daily Beast, The Cambridge Companion to American Novelists and The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan. In the 2008-2009 academic year he was the Gould Faculty Fellow at Claremont McKenna College. Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknownwas published by Yale University Press in the “Icons of America” series in 2011.
In 2012, he, with Ruth Franklin, was awarded The Roger Shattuck Prize in Criticism. When Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, Yaffe was interviewed for an Atlantic Mediawebsite before he had his morning coffee, then found himself on a list of recommended “further reading” by the Nobel committee.
So far, it has been translated into German, Danish, Korean, and Chinese. Dan Chiasson, in The New Yorker, wrote, “Yaffe charts [Mitchell's] encounters with a sure hand, and is a brilliant analyst of how Mitchell’s songs are made.” Jo Livingstone, in The New Republic, called Reckless Daughter
“A vivid and dramatic book." David Browne, in Rolling Stone, wrote, "In prose that shifts between chatty, impressionistic and reportorial, Yaffe sympathetically traces the outline of the musician's life, from her childhood battle with polio through her life-threatening aneurysm in 2015. Working his way through her albums, he offers up detailed takes on recording sessions, song tidbits, even chord changes. . . Reckless Daughter looks at Mitchell's life through all sides now." Rachel Syme in The Nationcalled it “The best chronicle to date of Mitchell’s creative process and the specific way her songs were composed.” Jack Hamilton, inThe Atlantic, called Reckless Daughter “the best full-length treatment of Mitchell yet published . . . [Yaffe] pulls off the feat that has eluded so many of his predecessors: He forges an intimacy with Mitchell on her own, uncompromising terms by truly listening to her, as closely and as generously as she’s always deserved . . ." Amanda Petrusich, Staff Writer and music critic for The New Yorker, wrote, “David Yaffe is an artful and incisive critic who writes with such grace and clarity. With Reckless Daughter, he makes a figure as iconic as Joni Mitchell feel wholly new. This portrait is loaded with revelations, both spiritual and actual. I thought I understood something about Mitchell―the way her tough and tender songs move, her sweetness and rebellion―but Yaffe understands everything. What a book.”
Since the publication of Reckless Daughter, his writings have continued to appear in many publications, including The New York Review of Books, New York Magazine, Los Angeles Magazine, The Paris Review, and Tablet. He has talked about songwriting with some of the best, including Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams, Donald Fagen, and Lou Reed.
He continues to move that blinking cursor across the screen. Surprises await. Stay tuned.