IF YOU credit one of the many myths to come out of New Orleans, it's just 100 years since Buddy Bolden and his pals first played what we might label "jazz". Another legend (spread by critics) claims that, after an elastically-defined Golden Age, things have gone downhill ever since. Here, Philip Larkin became the most notorious decline-and-fall merchant; the scattered jazz pieces collected in Reference Back (Univ. of Hull Press, pounds 19.95) showcase his entertaining grumpiness about post- Bop modernism, and his loving appreciation of the music it replaced.
"Declinism" can crop up in the strangest places. With tongue only partly located in cheek, the singer-composer Joe Jackson asserts that, after the ragtime virtuosi of the 1900s, "it's possible to see the whole history of popular music in the 20th century as one of steady decline". Jackson first emerged in the mixed-up aftermath of Punk as a restless, adventurous songwriter - for which he caught "some fairly heavy flak" from fundamentalist critics, as the indispensable, better-than-ever second edition of Rock: The Rough Guide (Penguin, pounds 17.99) reminds us. His winning memoir of a musical apprenticeship, A Cure for Gravity (Anchor, pounds 9.99), disproves his own thesis with its shrewdness and sensitivity. This is one of the finest personal accounts of pop life in Britain.
No one could deny the conspicuous decline of Elvis Aaron Presley. In Last Train to Memphis, Peter Guralnick took the kid from Tupelo to the peak of his late-Fifties fame; now Careless Love (Little, Brown, pounds 19.99) traces the King's pitiable descent, or slo-mo suicide. But this gripping biography reaches back beyond all cheap hindsight. It portrays a generous, gifted soul wrecked by the most toxic strains of celebrity ever to invade an innocent host.
Presley, the white boy who sounded black, burned fast and died young. Veteran blues maestro John Lee Hooker has wryly watched his music plundered and packaged for half a century and more. In Boogie Man (Viking, pounds 17.99), Charles Shaar Murray puts this dogged odyssey into the wider frame of "the American 20th century", just as he did so well with Jimi Hendrix in Crosstown Traffic. …