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Punk Cliffs Notes

old punks web zine

Book Reviews, part II

The Philosophy Of Punk to Your Action World: Winners Are Losers With A New Attitude
+ TV Reviews

The Philosophy Of Punk - Craig O'Hara (book review) (AK Press): (special note: if you would like to quote from this review as a scholarly reference, please do so, as long as you follow standard footnote rules)

You gotta love hippie punks. They volunteer at food co-ops, distribute meals to the homeless and recycle pickle buckets into drums for people who can’t drum to save their lives. Anarchist hippie punks you gotta love less. Sure, they confront the National Front while others cower, but man are they a wet diaper full. Anarchy is the delusion the world needs neither laws nor government. Free of these evil influences everyone will do their own thing and all tension, hatred, fear and greed will fall away like broken chains. We’ll never get old and we'll never die. Of course this might require the forced re-education of all who don't agree. 1984 anyone? Anarchy is the biggest pipedream of any belief system, making communism look like supply-side capitalism in comparison. Anyone who believes the absence of laws, police and armies won't lead to a world like The Road Warrior (if not Hellraiser) should be treated as mentally defective. A D.C. anarchist zine recently wrote, "If there were no laws there would be no criminals". Eyes roll to the back of my head and the mind boggles. How then to classify rape? Tough love?

In this vein comes The Philosophy of Punk, by Craig O'Hara, the paperback edition of a Masters thesis written at Boston University. Anarchy punk is obviously Craig’s music and lifestyle of choice, so this paper was easy to research and write. I mean as much research as a few punk and anarchist fanzines, flyers and books, plus sitting outside punk shows talking with his fellow unwashed. I'm not an expert on punk but as I read The Philosophy of Punk I took notes, and my gripes are as long as the book itself.

O'Hara wrote this thesis knowing full well his teachers knew nothing about punk culture, otherwise they would have demanded more comprehensive research. He writes about punks as if they’re a new aboriginal tribe he alone has seen. Written at a purely high school level, the "facts" carry little authority. He writes, (pg. 3) "A ‘show’ is what punks call a concert. It is different from an average music concert because there is the goal of removing the audience/performer separation." He creates a non-existent punk mythology by suggesting a link between language and culture. The word "show" doesn't connote or denote any broken barriers. "Show" is used more often than "concert" but it means nothing in itself. Being only one syllable it's easier to say, but beyond that there's nothing in my dog-eared Punk Handbook on the use of "show". Then again, my edition is from '92.

(pg. 4) "Hardcore music is usually faster than the punk music of the 70s, but the ideas and people involved are virtually the same.” 70’s punk had nothing in common with hardcore, especially Craig’s PC hippie anarchy hardcore. 70’s punk was about drugs, garage and girl group nostalgia, sexual misadventure, cabaret-style decadence and general lowlife fun. UK punk was more political, but activism started small with Crass around 1978. The Clash were political but it was packaged with their Jackson Pollack-inspired drip paint clothing. Hardcore is mostly a white, middle class American endeavor children grow out of with time.

O'Hara writes he first got into punk in 1982 (the beginning of the Reagan era, a time when hardcore was very political in response to the dreaded right wing enemy). He blows off the ‘70s as irrelevant because both he and punk activism were barely existent. To O'Hara, punk is anarchy, activism, scene building and anti-racist, anti-sexist and pro-animal. Everything else may call itself punk (like oi) but (in whispered voice) it really isn't. That's the real point he's trying to make, and he does it very poorly.

(pg. 16) "The most frequently mentioned comparison between punk and a known art movement is Dada." He vaguely sites three studies to back this but it’s as random and irrelevant a guess as any, and not even worth making. Is all academia this lazy and contrived? (pg. 22) "Punk has incorrectly been labeled as simply one of these phases in which the rebellious person tries to show that she is different from her peers." Sorry, but statistically it’s so true it’s a Universal Truth. You don’t say “punk for life” unless you know and fear it isn’t. (pg. 23) "Rebellion is one of the few undeniable characteristics of punk." (pg. 24) You can say the same about greasers, metal dudes and indie film directors. 

I don't know where he comes up with these gems of ignorance: "As punk is now comprised of a clear majority of middle and service class whites instead of inner city working class or minorities..." (pg. 40) "New York's emerging Straight Edge scene who shared the same clubs and favorite bands as the skinheads." (pg. 48) "Fanzines are sold primarily through the mail." 

My favorite imagination stretch (and there's plenty of them) is where he asserts punk bands aren't in it for the money. (pg. 132) "This goes back to the beginning of punk when there were few people in the movement and the idea of making money from the music was ridiculous." Is he serious? ‘70s bands were desperate to sign with major labels and make as much as possible. This whole D.I.Y not-in-it-for-the-money deal started with Minor Threat, Crass and The Dead Kennedys. It’s a white, suburban rich kid fantasy that had nothing to do with the punk ‘70s.

The entire premise of The Philosophy Of Punk is flawed. Craig O'Hara is an anarchist who believes anarchists are the only real punks. If you don't think like he does you're not punk because punk is a pure belief in love, peace and anarchy. That's all well and good for an opinion piece in a high school newspaper, but this book is called The Philosophy Of Punk, not Craig's Punk World. Either he’s completely ignorant of punk history or he’s a bad liar. I think it’s a bit of both.

He states that if you don't agree with him you should write your own book. That’s all the world needs – thousands of ignorant two-bit ideologues writing bad history books. He knows painfully little about punk outside his own opinions and tries to cover for it by saying he doesn't care. He writes (pg. 10) "The time and birthplace of the punk movement is debatable. Either the New York scene of the late sixties/early seventies or the British punks of 1975-76 can be given the honor." If you don't know punk and rock n’ roll in general originated in the U.S. the last thing you should be doing is writing a book on music history.

The author's ambivalence towards violence is the most telling idiocy of the book. Hippie punks are by nature non-violent (as long as they get their way), but anarchist punks are all for destroying property in the name of The Struggle. O’Hara’s both for and against S.H.A.R.P. beating up nazi skins, but quickly regains his footing by giving two big thumbs up to vandalism and theft. He writes (pg. 59) "The fact that people loot stereos and televisions instead of food shows that they have been convinced that a better life is more money and more goods." Ignorance like this has to come from marxist pamphlets. People loot liquor and electronic stores because they’re criminals. They don’t think they’re smashing the state when they liberate VCRs and cases of vodka.

On pg. 77 O'Hara writes "If government forces disappeared today, there probably would be rioting, crime, murder, and destruction on a scale possibly greater than is presently occurring, but that would not be Anarchy." But golly, let's give it a chance, right Craig? The truth is that most people equate anarchy with violence and random mayhem because that’s what it offers in practice. Is Craig O'Hara naive or just very dumb? Either way he loses.

I'd love to know what grade Mr. O'Hara received for The Philosophy Of Punk. The writing and research blow. His facts are mere opinions backed by little more than statements of truthfulness. Did he fool his Review Board? Probably.

Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain (book review) (Grove Press): Uncensored? And how! Lou Reed is quoted using this pick-up line on a pretty boy at Max’s Kansas City, “Well, look, why don’t you come back to my hotel with me… and you can s—t in my mouth. How’d you like that?... Does that repulse you?... Well, I’ll put a plate over my face, then you can s—t on the plate. How’d you like that?” Yeesh! Everyone praises the Velvet Underground as the first band to sing about what was real, but like a theater critic once wrote, “Diarrhea is real too, but I shouldn’t have to pay money to see it!” Please Kill Me is a rogues gallery of degenerate sex fiends, sleazy groupies and pathetic junkies. These are also the founders of the American punk scene, so for better or worse this Punk Babylon is well worth reading even if it is depressing and shocking. Then again, most of you probably live for this.

The book is the result of old and new interviews with many of the original scenesters including Iggy Pop, Richard Hell, Wayne Kramer, Dee Dee and Joey Ramone, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry and Legs McNeil, one of the authors of this book. Legs was a founder of PUNK magazine and claims credit for coining the word in 1975. Writes Legs, “The word Punk seemed to sum up the thread that connected everything we liked - drunk, obnoxious, smart but not pretentious, absurd, funny, ironic, and things that appealed to the darker side…I thought the magazine should be for other f—k-ups like us. Kids who grew up believing only in the Three Stooges. Kids that had parties when their parents were away and destroyed the house. You know, kids that stole cars and had fun.”

And what fun they had! Richard Lloyd of Television remembers “I was in such an alcoholic state that I needed something to calm down my shakes. I needed to get away from alcohol. So I began to ask Terry to let me try some heroin.” Ron Asheton of The Stooges tells of Iggy’s first case of V.D. (A gift from Nico), “He came up to me and said, ‘Well, I think something’s wrong’... So he whips out his c--k, squeezes it, and green goo comes out. I said, ‘Buddy, you have the clap.” Maybe Minor Threat created straight-edge to create a balance in the punk universe.

Like all catty interview books, Please Kill Me is a Rashomon of egos, drug habit deceptions and personal vendettas. The NY scene started with the Velvet Underground, an integral part of Andy Warhol’s Factory; suicidal beautiful losers whose lives could be summed up by, “Look at me, I’m beautiful, glamorous, rich, and constantly stoned. I hate myself, but I loath you, darling. Kiss Kiss.” Wayne/Jayne County claims credit for David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust character. Malcolm McLaren, manager of The Sex Pistols (and for a short time the NY Dolls) for once says something insightful, “I was disappointed with the fact that much of their behavior (the American bands) was wasted energy - I didn’t think it even had any philosophical purpose. It was trashy energy, easily disposable energy, an energy that didn’t really bear any genuine point of view, except jealousy, which is so time wasting.”

About the UK punk bands someone says, “The thing that makes art interesting is when an artist has incredible pain or incredible rage. The New York bands were much more into their pain, while the English bands were much more into their rage. The Sex Pistols songs were written out of anger, whereas Johnny was writing songs because he was broken hearted over Sable…” Manager and record company rep Danny Fields says, “Malcolm’s strategy for the Pistols was the theory of chaos. It was out of control and had nothing to do with anything musical. It had to do with this phenomenon of terror that was coming over from England. They put safety pins in the queen’s nose and they would vomit and curse and say it’s the end of the world. I always say when the music moves from the music section to the front page of the newspaper, you’re in trouble.” I add that Malcolm did all this to sell ugly, overpriced clothing to negative-trenders.

Legs McNeil finds twisted romance in the lives of drunk and drugged out punk stars. If that’s your cup of piss, Please Kill Me is the best book ever. The decline and death of Johnny Thunders is detailed in all its junkie glory. The last chapters are about the death of the original NY punk scene and a good number of its participants, but you don’t get the feeling McNeil finds any bigger meaning to it all. He’s like the junkie who doesn’t know wrong or right, all he wants is his next fix. There are no moral lessons here, just stories. But, man, I couldn’t put this book down! 

Post Punk Diary 1980-1982, by George Gimarc (book review) (St. Martin's Griffin): The sequel to the world's best punk bathroom reader (Punk Diary 1970-1979) is available for $24.95 - pricey yet invaluable for both the elderly and the curious. The author was a DJ with a radio program called "The Rock And Roll Alternative", and while his show originated in the US, his focus was on UK punk, post-punk and new wave, which makes sense since Britain's music scene was a locomotive compared to America's unicycle with one flat tire. America produced the world's first jazz, R&B and punk bands, but the voracious British music press and buying public inspired the world in a way the American media and public had no interest in pursuing. American punk bands were always more appreciated in the UK than they were at home. Then again, XTC was appreciated more in the US than in the UK.

Post Punk Diary 1980-1982 deals with the post-punk period that saw the rise of hardcore and street punk, and the quick rise and fall of new wave as radio’s commercial alternative. Entries take the form of a diary, each day bringing a batch of 7"s, albums, press releases, promos, gossip and concerts into the lives of the reader. The handy index allows you to follow your favorite bands from conception to breakup, and the book is filled with album covers, concert posters, buttons and newspaper snippets.

As with the first book, this comes with a bonus CD filled with song and interview segments with bands like Devo, Gang Of Four, The Ramones and Elvis Costello. The CD often gets stolen, so check before you buy. George Gimarc the DJ comes across as your average Boss Jock playing the Boss Hits his Boss told him to play, but he had early access to all the greats and he's put together two fine books. He's milking his collection for cash, but these books are invaluable. 

Punk 365, by Holly George-Warren (book review): This photo book was a pleasant surprise and an absolute pleasure to read. I bought this two pound, $30 brick basically for the price of shipping while on a manic eBay spending spree, and I figured I’d look it over and either throw it at a truck or give it as a gift down the road. Punk 365 is a keeper not for the photos, which I get the point of instantly, but for the short yet informative and opinionated comments that appear to the left of each odd numbered page. It’s the kind of things I would write, if I could write more gooder.

Next time you’re at Borders read the short intro by Richard Hell. It’s all as good as this: “Punk is pretty funny. It’s like reality itself, as exemplified by the statement ‘This statement is a lie.’ It’s hard to be authentic.” The book is sectioned thusly: In The Beginning; East Coast USA; Across The Pond; Way Out West; Here, There, And Everywhere”; and Hardcore, but geography is less important than what band was photographed there. There’s a fair amount of repetition, especially with The Ramones, The Sex Pistols and The Clash, but in 365 pictures there’s a nice cross-section of bands from all related genres, and as I see the relevance of each to what’s loosely called Punk they get the ratios right. You could have 365 pictures of 365 bands but then the book loses its excellent timeline story aspect. The emphasis is safely in the late 70s and early 80s, but even hardcore as it’s practiced today was fully formed not long after the demise of the Sex Pistols.

I often only glanced at the pictures, even if only because I have a hard time shifting from left brain reading to right brain visual analysis. The writing is excellent, and I plowed through that learning and laughing more than I expected. They’re short passages filled with things to consider both on and between the lines. Here’s some nuggets:

Here, Sid Vicious stands outside the venue, the Taliesyn Ballroom – which has since been razzed and is now home to a Taco Bell.”

“Horribly, Sid’s mother dropped the urn containing her son’s ashes at Heathrow Airport, causing his remains to spill helter-skelter onto the floor.”

From Wayne Kramer’s ten tips for electric guitar players: “Plug the thing in. I’m no technical wiz, but I’ve noticed that electric things always work better plugged in.” “Wash your hands. You play better with clean hands.” “Always wear your coolest clothes onstage. It’s better to look good than feel good.”

Debby Harry sees a flier for an upcoming new zine called PUNK and thinks to herself “Here comes another s—ty group with an even s—tier name.”

Elvis Costello: “When I started, I swore to myself I’d always try to avoid songs about hotel rooms.”

Here’s the entire blurb for a pic labeled “Mosh Pit, 1980”. It’s thick with facts and commentary: “Hardcore polarized L.A.’s punk scene; though there was the occasional mixed bill featuring Black Flag, The Blasters, and Fear, fans eventually split into three camps: hardcore, roots rock, and Paisley Underground. The latter two’s audiences would overlap, but the former began attracting mainly the (very) young and (very) restless. The mosh pit at hardcore shows was not for those who did not want to risk a jackboot to the nose. ‘Punk was urban, hardcore was suburban,’ espoused Greg Shaw, whose Bomp record store, label, and fanzine had veered gradually toward power pop over the years. ‘Punk had been arty and conceptual, but then came the kids from the beach, boneheads who’d heard that punk was violence, but didn’t realize it was metaphorical violence.’ The Starwood, the site of the Gary Leonard photo, became a foundation of the mosh pit.”

Holly George-Warren could have made this a written history with pictures but her assignment was to put together one in a series of picture books, all with “365” in the title. She went above and beyond the call of poopie with Punk 365.


Punk: The Illustrated History Of A Music Revolution, by Andrian Boot and Chris Salewicz (book review) (Boxtree): Picture books pretty! No must think. Hurts brain. Pretty pictures...nice. It seems like within the same week a gaggle of punk photo collections hit the stores, as if there’s a demand for it. I don’t believe in art for arts sake. If there’s no reason for it, it’s a waste of time and money. Most of these books are crap anyway. This one had lots of words in it so I bought it. Maybe I learn something too.

This is good even though the layout is difficult to follow. Text is placed over dark splotches of random patterns, and it's hard to figure out where a paragraph continues on the next page. I guess the idea was to show the anarchy of punk also applies to graphic design. What I got from it was a migraine headache.

Once you get past the visual disorientation, Punk: The Illustrated History is for the most part (the last chapter stinks) a great book. It reads much better than it skims. What first seems to be a pretentious wordiness is actually a funny, opinionated and fact-filled writing style. Maybe it's just that I agree with most of their comments. They nail the New York Dolls as Rolling Stones clones. They point out that Johnny Rotten and Malcolm McLaren are both pathological lying egotists. Photos of Elvis Costello are given the following notation: "...a very angry young man beloved of those with some further education."

They nicely cover the early French punk scene that inspired the British movement, the importance of pub rock and glam, and how reggae turned punk into a political movement via The Clash. Unlike all other punk books I've read the authors plot punk's history on a time-line that acknowledges punk scenes around the world came together on their own at about the same time. Too many books provide a history of the movement that centers on one or two band as if the world revolved around them as they would the sun.

That said, the last chapter stinks. In a last minute effort to bring this history of the ‘77 movement into the here and now, they slap on references to Nirvana, Green Day, Rancid and The Offspring. They say grunge bands are "heirs to the spirit of punk". Really. Another moaner, "Nirvana became the inspiration for grunge". Even I know Grunge existed before then. And of course, "The Clash...also seemed at the core of the songs by Green Day". Ouch that’s so wrong! I bet the publisher made them throw that last one in.

Punk Productions: Unfinished Business, by Stacy Thompson (book review):Punk Productions is a series of essays by (Mr.) Stacy Thompson, whose areas of expertise can only be rewarded financially by the largesse of the American University system. Thompson’s teaching interests are marxism, psychoanalysis, film studies, and utopian studies – a line that runs from dementia to delusion. This book is an American update of the equally masturbatory Subculture, The Meaning Of Style, by Dick Hebdige. Thompson manipulates and fabricates punk history in economic/political terms using the jargon of theories formulated for an era over 160 years ago – which in practice has consistently led to suffering, fascism and genocide. Unfinished Business is laughable but not funny, and it’s a shame a mind as large as Mr. Thompson’s couldn’t be put to positive use, like solving crossword puzzles. Instead he practices educational pedophilia.

Marxism is a road to power utilized by intellectuals to manipulate the lower working classes and the poor into fits of rage to overthrow the existing, less intellectual power structures that own and run things. Marxists demand minorities be poor, uneducated, drugged, boozed and most importantly angry they’re not getting theirs, so they can be directed like a zombie army at the bidding of marxist intellectuals. Like Churchill said about socialism, the smiling face of communism, it’s a philosophy of failure, a creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy. Its only inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery. Thompson exercises the marxist imperative that all social sciences forward the goals of the proletariat. In this case, punk exists to destroy capitalism. The DIY scene exists to defy and destroy capitalism in the form of the six major record labels. Punks and their world exist in opposition to capitalism, even when they don’t or aren’t aware it’s their motivation. Follow me into a world of magic known as… Punk Productions: Unfinished Business.

A healthy portion of the book is unreadable if you’re not familiar with marxist concepts, which are wordy, esoteric and self-referential in order to appear consequential. By necessity I skimmed through most of the marxist phraseology, which had all the allure of NAMBLA’s rationalizations for child fricking. Buried in the book is a decent amount of accurate information on times and dates, so at least it has that, but the fun of the book is reading how he deliberately misrepresents certain scenes so they’ll fit his narrative. The ones he covers are New York, California, Washington DC, Hardcore, first wave Straight Edge, Riot Grrrl, and Lookout’s Pop-Punk. As a follower of the generally discredited field of psychoanalysis he also likes to pepper in stupidity from that branch of the talking cure. Most things in the book are dealt with in terms of “desire”.

He gets the 70s NY scene wrong, saying the CBGB’s scene was a desire to resist commercial labels and financial gain. Of the Ramones, who thought their competition for the airwaves was the Bay City Rollers, Thompson writes “The first Ramones album and the cost of its production spoke to punk’s desire to gain and democratize access to the means of production.” Occam’s Razor, that the simplest of two competing theories is usually correct, is mandatory for whacking through the weeds of this book. He intellectualizes things that don’t require it, and then manipulates that into validations for his proselytizing. Thompson pretends punks are mindful, willing participants in the narrative of seizing the means of production, opposing capitalism and not creating commodities. Pure BS. The NY scene was all about getting signed to a major and selling as many units as will sell. Everybody knows that. The Ramones were given very little time and money to record a record that didn’t need studio trickery and a lot of time to record. That’s all that was.

Of the early national HC scene he writes that “a supportive network of punk clubs existed that could resist the major labels to some degree by separating from them.” Punk clubs existed because local entrepreneurs took a chance on booking bands to play their clubs. Their separation from major labels was like saying a beer league team is separated from the NY Yankees. It’s a matter of scale, and besides, unless a punk band can sell enough records to make it worth their while a major has no interest in who plays the Sunday matinee at Stinky’s in Podunk, OR. Kids putting on shows the local VFW also isn’t marxism in action, it’s taking the initiative to make something happen. He does only marginally better on the UK scene as that one used marxist trappings in its presentations, and Jello Biafra’s yippie shtick is something Thompson can turn to for validation in what is mainly a work of interpretive fiction.

DC punks are going to love this – they’re gay. “I want to note that Straight Edge bears a desire for a community of mates and for homoerotic relations between men.” is bookended with “I want to argue that the participants in the DC scene understood their behavior was homosocial when in fact it was homoerotic.” He assigns Straight Edge’s “Don’t” list as rigid and universally followed, which is crap wrong. Then there’s the “scene’s strict policy on bodily fluids” that has something to do with AIDS, the line “although sexual intercourse was forbidden”, and that skinheads were attracted to DCHC “because of its fascination with moral and bodily purity.” The only new point I did pick up was the lyrical theme of the “friendship song”, which was in fact the underpinning of a lot of that music. Thanks Stace!

NY’s hardcore scene, which early on was second wave Straight Edge with even more built-in contradictions, is said to have had “mandatory vegetarianism”. Reeeeeally. He compares NYHC kids to “Parisian Wrestlers”, about as esoteric a comparison one can make. Was the NY scene gay too? Of course it was! “Such explicit attention to the male physique suggests at the very least the desire for a cultural zone in which male physicality and partial male nudity can be sensually enjoyed.”

Riot Grrrl is in his sweet spot as the founders of that scene basted for years in the marxist academia of Women’s Studies, where the repressed master gender writes manifestos and demand equality fairness revenge, one they can’t get by might and that really bugs the crap out of them. Occam’s Razor must be a samurai sword to cut through their armor of youthful militancy. When your main slogan is “Revolution Girl Style Now!” you can’t get pissed when the larger culture thinks you’re being cute. Wearing underwear outside your clothes either represents the apex of cultural belligerence or it means you’re wearing your underwear outside your clothes – like Madonna did in the 80s. I like Riot Grrrl music and always thought more power to ya if you want to DIY all the live long day, but talk about humorless, defensive, offended, dogmatic complainers who held their breaths and stamped their feet when anyone viewed them outside their reverential self-awareness. Why be gloomy? As a riot girl you’re educated, rich and white. The world’s your oyster. Cheer up.

Thompson says the Gilman Street Project was a pop-punk venue when it started, which fits his narrative but wasn’t true. He also pushes the Gilman club rules as being more than the window dressing it was. MMR czar Tim Yohannon must have had Occam’s Razor held to his neck when he admitted “for the most part the bands just wanted to make music. And for the most part people just wanted to be entertained.” He was explaining why his original plan of having bands volunteer at the center and help clean the toilets fell like a lead balloon.

That’s just Chapter One. Chapter Two is “Punk Aesthetics And The Poverty Of The Commodity”. It deals with anarcho-punk and Crass specifically. Chapter Three is “Punk Economics And The Shame Of Exchangeability, followed by Chapter Four, “Market Failure: Punk Economics, Early And Late and Chapter Five, “Screening Punk”. I’ve never felt the shame of exchangeability, but it sounds terrible, like psoriasis.

Here’s a weird quote: “Despite the New York and English punk scenes, the major labels still dominated the commercial music industry and financed the continuing myth of the singer-songwriter in Billy Joel, Kenny Rogers and Michael Jackson.” You mean the Dead Boys and the Sex Pistols didn’t bankrupt the music industry, and Billy Joel is a myth? If “Punks seize the means of production” was a drinking game we’d all be in a coma.

There’s a certain level of intellectualism that’s proportionate to a subject. Once crossed it’s all nonsense and becomes less about the subject and more about the writer’s agenda, which in Stacy Thompson’s case is the underpinnings of recent history’s most spectacular mass murders and shared misery. I’m no great intellect. I prefer the simple explanations of complex ideas. Hooray for smart people, but a beautiful mind is a terrible thing to waste on toilet droppings. Marxism is how smart people prove how dumb they are. Punk Productions only proves the thesis that the world’s filled with over-educated idiots, many who know more and more about less and less, until they know everything about nothing.

Punk '77: an inside look at the san francisco rock n' roll scene, by James Stark, (book review) (self-published): (First, a disclaimer: this review is based on my personal opinions on old punk scenes in general. I was not a part of San Francisco's scene so I don't write from first-hand knowledge. Maybe for those involved every band and show was super.)

Nostalgia for the ‘77 punk era runs high, but hopefully the trend has run its course. Maybe it revives itself every so often like a typical fashion cycle. It used to be morality, politics and cultural trends ran in twenty year cycles. Now with the media working at a feverish pace to stay new and fresh, pangs of nostalgia (real and imagined) come and go, dictated by disposable consumer culture.

1977 was the year the Sex Pistols and The Clash broke punk around the world as a threat to civil order. Punk existed years earlier but it was swept aside the moment Johnny Rotten sang "God Save The Queen" and a small island nation went ballistic. The American punk scene was fragmented, small and barely appreciated by the American press and public. American bands found more success and support in the UK than they did at home.

Punk 77 is a self-published, 95 page book of photographs and text relating to San Francisco's scene of the mid to late ‘70s. James Stark was the official photographer for local band Crime (and by extension the local scene), no major accomplishment because the bands were relatively unknown and broke, populated by art school types, students, beatniks, hippies and other assorted weirdos. It was like this pretty much in every city with claims to America's punk heritage. New York City was a major player because it was the nation's media and songwriting capital. Los Angeles drew attention as America's entertainment capital. Cities like Cleveland, Detroit and Akron were where punk grew on its own without help from the outside world. Iggy, Pere Ubu, Devo, The Dead Boys and the MC5 flew under the radar. Punk's art came from New York City, but it’s guts grew up in the industrial mid-west. San Francisco's scene produced The Avengers, The Dils, The Germs, Negative Trend, Crime and The Screamers, but it's important to remember most pre-hardcore bands weren't what the kids today would call hardcore. The SF scene was tied to the larger L.A. scene and was, according to this book, influenced by more popular bands that toured the city. SF holds the distinction of being the last stop on the Sex Pistols last tour.

Books like this prove the word “punk” is meaningless. Rock’s always been about rebellion. How Patti Smith's mythical poetry sung over Door's influenced psychedelia became punk is an accident of time and place. The NY Dolls were the Rolling Stones in drag. The MC5 recorded psychedelic hard rock. Maybe the punk label only applies to the subversive attitudes of band members and their followers. Maybe it was just the title bestowed by journalist Legs McNeil to any band he liked stuck. Maybe punk means nothing (like Art) because anyone can apply it to anything at any time. The early San Francisco punk scene was like any other city's underground rock scene - it consisted of a relatively small group who hung out and found clubs to play. As more famous bands played the city, new bands formed and others changed their styles. The many great pictures in the book show a fashion sense evenly mixed between new wave wackiness and Damned/Pistols brand of self-loathing and aggression. And like all other scenes, some of the bands were great, some were good, but most were average at best.

Punk 77 contains anecdotes and insights you can read into for days. Some are self-serving lies, others artistic pretentiousness. For the most part you get the impression the SF punks didn't as a whole kid themselves about the limitations of the genre, and maybe they didn't make more of it than it deserved. Tony and Chip Kinman of the Dils are quoted as saying, "One of the punk ideas was to destroy the idea of Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart, destroy the idea of the star. The way it turned out was you still had Mick and Rod, but you had them in your own neighborhood, which was worse in a way." The punk world needs more honest insights like this.

I wish there was more meat in the last chapter dealing with the dissolution of the original punk scene by the new hardcore generation. The calculated nihilism of the Sex Pistols, the political posturing of The Clash, the extreme speed and violence of hardcore and maybe especially slam dancing combined to destroy old punk that was often fun, creative and downright goofy. When the media saw punk as a violent threat to society, bored suburban kids imagined their own threat potential and flooded the closest punk scenes, ruining shows with random violence and stifling rules on clothes, hairstyles and attitudes.

Jeff Raphael of the Nuns says, "I think all the violence that was happening was by people outside of the scene, people from the suburbs. There was a lot of media propaganda about people losing eyes, and all that fighting and stuff. What I saw were people from the suburbs who wanted to get into fights, who wanted to break heads. They had nothing to do with the punk scene at all. They just wanted to create havoc and fugg people over." Hey, just like in Los Angeles!

From that point on punk became obsessed with defining itself by rules and purity tests. That's why you'll hear dimwits say the origins of punk are in anarchy. They just don't get it. Old punk was just rock. The more hardcore claims it's about something, the less something it proves to actually be. Real scenes happen outside of definitions anyway.

PUNK DIARY 1970-1979 (book review) - George Gimarc (St. Martin's Press) (1994): I can honestly say this is the most useful and fun book you'll ever find on old punk and new wave. Compiled in the form of a business diary, events are chronicled as they happened by George Gimarc, who for over fourteen years produced the radio program "The Rock and Roll Alternative".

The first entry from 1970 is on The Stooges, and the last in 1979 on Tom Robinson. Everything is covered, from record releases to band formations and breakups, live concert reviews and gossip from the trenches. With the help of the handy index you can follow the paths of your favorite groups as each event unfolds. Under X-Ray Spex the first entry reads "Polly sees the Pistols - July 3, '76". The last entry is "band splits up - Aug 7, '79". Along the way you learn more about the band than you thought possible in this format.

The writing style is informative, promotional and critical all at the same time. Punk books are often dogmatic and forced, written by rock journalists beating prose out of bands more famous by reputation than actual following. I suspect a number of diary entries have been updated to make them more complete, but the perspective is from a time when the music and bands were new. New Wave and punk were the same thing in the ‘70s, and this book should put to rest any claims otherwise.

There is too much information to read this cover to cover. Each listing is a link to another page as you trace the progress of bands, labels and personalities. Hundreds of bands you've never heard of are discussed, but if you read these listings you'll find names who went on to form other bands you do know. Talking about nostalgia, the ‘70s concert scene in the U.K. was a punk's dream. On the same night, Saturday, May 12th, 1979, you had to choose between Squeeze, Roxy Music, The Undertones, XTC, The Dickies, Holly and the Italians and The Jags. How many good shows come to your town in a month? A year?

Shoppers Alert: a CD comes with the book. Most copies I've seen are missing the disc. It contains private tapes and interviews The Ramones, XTC, The Damned, The Dead Boys, Gang of Four, The Beat and others. The disc alone is almost worth the price. Punk Diary 1970-1979 is a great book. Don't let the title fool you. This is a complete encyclopedia on the old days of punk, and more fun than a barrel of open punk pins.

Punk. The Definitive Record Of A Revolution, by Stephen Colegrave & Chris Sullivan (Book Review) (Thunder’s Mouth Press): Tipping the scales at 6.2 pounds, this is the weightiest punk book ever, maybe not intellectually but surely by volume. Retailing for $35 and clearance priced at $7.99, I was forced to carry this around for an hour wondering how they managed to cut lead slabs into thin, flexible slices. Also, at 12” x 11 ” x 1 ” this isn’t a book you throw in a bag and read on the bus. It’s a brick that demands to be placed on a flat solid surface. The thing also dares you read it since 99% of the text is composed of barely relevant quotes with chapter leads as hyperbolic as the Weekly World News, so what would make the perfect bathroom reader instead just takes up whatever space you give it, daring you to read it again at a later date. 

Punk is an ART BOOK in every sense of the capital letters. It does succeed well in that regard. Turn each page slowly and marvel at the dazzling parade of photographs and fonts in all shapes and sizes. It’s almost irrelevant what the words say because what this book is about is itself, with punk as the McGuffin. The combination of layout, text and image is designed to glory in style by documenting style in all its styles. I’m not a style junkie so I just look at Punk as a nice collection of images, and I appreciate the effort put into it. I know the original punk scene was fashion-obsessed but what I liked about punk in the ‘70s was the music itself. Some clothing choices came with it but I don’t take seriously the idea that punk style is as important as the music. Punk clothes and accessories have always been priced at the high end of the capitalist scale.

As a thing to look at and to keep on the shelf I love this book. I tried reading it but the first paragraph was so dumb on so many levels I gave up:

 In 1977 the dictionary defined punk as many things, but none of them were anything to do with a musical movement. All the definitions were uncompromisingly negative. This absence of acknowledgement at the peak of punk is indicative of its place in contemporary Britain. It was never a comfortable movement; it was not understood by most people over 21; it refused to conform or to conform itself to a musical trend. No wonder the dictionary tried to ignore it… 

Do I really need to dissect this? 1) Dictionaries don’t anticipate word usage, they only add them when time proves it warranted. Even a current slang dictionary would be a printing behind on something like this. Colegrave and Sullivan knew this when they wrote the book, but they’re making a dramatic point no matter how silly. 2) Punk was stuck to the music by the people involved in the music because of its negative connotations. Mostly it’s a juvenile delinquent reference but in NYC they liked to point out it’s slang for a male prostitute. 3) Maybe it wasn’t music for people over 21 but a lot of people over that age knew damn well what punk was about since it was only the latest manifestation of teenage belligerence. I myself have seen this cycle repeat and reinvent itself ad nauseum, and you can only shake your head when someone half your age acts like they know something you’re too old to understand. 4) The Ramones were the only band to do something so unheard of you can say they refused to conform. The rub was that these pinheads thought they were performing top-40 music. 5) The online Merriam-Webster dictionary lists “punk rock” as the 4th definition of the word “punk”. Here’s the definition: rock music marked by extreme and often deliberately offensive expressions of alienation and social discontent. Punk is ignored no more.

I can’t read quotes without first knowing who’s speaking, so for each one here I had to look below the quote and then look back up again. Doing this ten times on a page made me seasick. Relying on so many quotes is also lazy and screams of filler no matter how long it took to compile them. This being an ART BOOK I see each quote as a pop-art Batman graphic that jumps out and screams “BAP!”, “POW!”, “SKOOCH!!”  Punk covers 1975 to 1979 with a high concentration on UK bands, especially the Sex Pistols. You might not like who is included, excluded or not given enough attention, but Punk does cover a great many of the basics, and in that regard it’s a fair enough rendering of punk history.

The authors’ own written sections hit an eleven on the self-importance scale, much of it not warranted. Punk isn’t fully what it pretends to be, but it’s still decent. The book’s style and effort compensate for what it lacks otherwise, and coming from a guy repulsed by too much conscious style, that’s a compliment.

Ramones: An American Band, by Jim Bessman (in association with the Ramones) (book review) (St. Matrin's Press): This is an odd book. The author’s name is nowhere to be found on the cover, which might lead you to believe Jim Bessman acted only as ghostwriter, yet it’s written as a standard third-party band biography using random Ramones quotes. It’s not like I just discovered Jimmy Hoffa’s head in my bowling bag, but I make the point anyway.

The book is one, big fat fan-club kiss to the band, with its ever optimistic outlook and frequent abuse of the exclamation point (“Carly Simon said she was a Ramones fan when Joey and Marky performed at a Jerry Brown rally!”) and rabid hyperbole (“Everyone in the known universe loves the Ramones today. Indeed, they’re the Grateful Dead of punk rock!”). Each new album (the book came out after Mondo Bizarro) is the one everyone is sure will finally make the Ramones rich and famous. Their influence is immeasurable, yet they never did sell enough records to make them a runaway commercial success in an industry they wanted to rule. Always the bridesmaid but never the bride - that’s the story of the Ramones.

Bessman doesn’t pretend band members never had problems with drugs, but the issue is given little weight, and he happily passes on the band’s assertion that “5third & third” “dealt with a destitute ‘Nam vet they’d met who’d been reduced to hustling sex”. Dee Dee wrote that song about himself so while the book doesn’t completely sanitize the band, don’t expect any shocking revelations.

The Ramones are to punk history what Ford was to the automobile - they didn’t single-handedly invent it but their legacy exceeds that of any other. At CBGBs they were frequently billed with the Talking Heads, which made sense because both played minimalist dance music. The Ramones played bubblegum rock not unlike The Bay City Rollers (Joey thought the Rollers were their only competition), except they played as fast as they could, created an unprecedented wall of blazing guitar fuzz and wrote lyrics mirroring the daily concerns of Forest Hills, Queens cretins raised on TV, booze, drugs, comic books and bad horror movies.

While not technically talented as musicians the Ramones were surprisingly tight in the studio (or at least the studio musicians hired to help fill out their sound were), and had a thing for sleigh bells the same way the Clash did for police sirens. No matter how much the Ramones’ sound was augmented in the studio, though, played live each song was given the same raw, stripped down intensity. Ramones albums changed over the years, yet their live shows were stuck in 1976.

Where the stereotyped punk band only knows four chords, the Ramones knew only three. Once described as “Three chords, four leather jackets”, the Ramones looked and acted like The Three Stooges with Beatles mop-tops (the name Ramones is Beatles trivia). The ripped jeans, t-shirts, sneakers and haircuts were carefully planned uniforms each Ramone was required to wear. Joey and Johnny say these clothes were how they always dressed but Dee Dee hated that look. Prior to the Ramones, Joey played in a glam band and dressed to a lesser extent like one of the New York Dolls. I never fully accepted C. Jay as a Ramone because he looks too much like the heavy metal dude he admits to being (“I was a mega, mega Sabbath head”).

The first three Ramones albums (Ramones, Ramones Leave Home, Rocket To Russia) are their best, most of the songs written by the time Ramones came out in 1976. Subsequent albums grew away from the minimalist thrash that made them famous to a more direct Phil Spector influence. The Ramones wanted was to be loved, famous and rich. The Ramones, enforced mainly by Johnny, made decisions based on what they thought fans wanted. They were always a business, and though Joey and Johnny barely spoke to each other for years, when it came to business they were all business.

Why didn’t The Ramones break through on the radio? The answers are simple: 1) Lyrics like “Beat On The Brat” and “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue”, 2) They’re not pretty, and 3) The Sex Pistols soured the music industry on punk bands.

The ‘80s and ‘90s saw the Ramones touring and releasing material but they lost some appeal when hardcore broke with Fear, the Dead Kennedys and the Bad Brains (who took their name from a Ramones song). Old punk bands in general have less appeal to fans who prefer their stage heroes to be their own age.

Ramones: An American Band does a decent job of describing the band’s sound. They had “a simplicity that took sophistication to appreciate”. Ramones associate Arturo Vega said the band “reflected the American character in general - an almost childish, innocent aggression”. The Ramones worked within narrow parameters but created an impressive body of work. The Ramones became their own genre. Describing the Ramones’ sound is difficult because it’s hard to accurately define the essence of an aesthetic.

Again and again the book details the typical story of a Ramones fanatic: 1) Heard the album for the first time and thought it was a joke, 2) Listened to it again because it was there, 3) Slowly got the joke and realized something clever and vital was going on and 4) Hooked for life. This happened to me too. In 1976 I thought “Beat On The Brat” was horrible, but now I think the first three Ramones albums are perfect even though I don’t like the lyrics of “Beat On The Brat”.

Ramones: An American Band is not bad for a fan-club book, but since the band told the world it’s “Adios, Amigos” someone should write an exhaustive history. It’s the least we owe them.

Retro Hell: life in the 70s and 80s, from Afros to Zotz, by the editors of Ben Is Dead magazine (book review) (Back Bay): I can't stress how vital it is to keep good reading material next to where the Tidy Bowl man anchors his yacht. As technology enables fewer people to do more work in less time, those of us who do work are afforded scant opportunity for book learnin' and such. I'm lucky to even get lunch, and commute times here in L.A. are obscene (of course by this I mean bad obscene. Good obscene while commuting -- I wish!). Some days, visits to the men's conference room make up my only breaks. That's my time, baby, and I grab life by the short hairs by learning!

Retro Hell is listed in the Library Of Congress catalog as a dictionary, which may be true, but the book is too random and ill-researched to be authoritative. Barely researched if at all would be more accurate. Entries contain foggy memories of personal experience and some make no sense at all: "Soccer Team Names (from '75 to 82'). Some of the soccer teams I played on and names of some opposing teams: The Bionic Women, The Bionic Girls, The Asteroids, The Rolling Stones, The Moon Zappers, Space Invaders, Solid Goaled (darby)". Darby is the main editor of the Ben Is Dead zine, which folded a year ago. Ben Is Dead was a personal zine and possibly the best of its kind, but is this a reference book or a personality-cult inkblot test? It's cute that Nina writes Spit was "the cause of more fights between me and my sister than even Monopoly!", but what the hell is this game Spit? Is this a dictionary of culture or the cryptic memories of strangers?

Anything Bruce Elliot writes about seems to be nicely researched, and some memories are fun: "Hickeys: They were fun to give but a curse to receive. I wore turtlenecks to cover them up, even in the summer. And if my parents asked what the hell that was, the answer was always that the faithful curling iron burned me (again)." Still, it’s obvious how they put this book together - get everybody associated with Ben Is Dead to make a list of everything they remember from the ‘70s, use outside sources to add to the list and then pass around said list for further input. Darby has an entry for someone she calls "The Hip Hypnotist" who worked rooms in Reno and Vegas during her youth. Why isn't New Jersey's Uncle Floyd in here? He had a short-lived variety show after SNL. He had the Ramones on a few times and has been doing the adult/kiddie format for 25 years. Where's the entry for "The Coffee Achievers" - a bizarre ad campaign for an addictive stimulant that went something like "Coffee gives you the time to dream it... then you're ready to do it!”

It's not the end of the world. No matter how lazy this endeavor is (regardless of how many hours they put into it) there's still a load of good-natured nostalgia to be had in Retro Hell. And like with porn, sometimes you even learn something useful from it.

Rip It Up And Start Again, by Simon Reynolds (bookReview): Simon Reynolds’ Rip It Up And Start Again is an entertaining and well-researched look at UK-centric post-punk, which in the common narrative came about as the original UK ’77 movement of The Sex Pistols and The Clash rose and fell in the eyes of popular interest, like a half-ton bottlerocket with delusions of orbit. The second movement to come out of the narrowly-defined ’77 scene was second wave punk/Oi, detailed in Ian Glasper’s workmanlike Burning Britain: The History of UK Punk 1980-1984. Both fit the zeitgeist of their respective scenes - Burning Britain a simple narrative and Rip It Up And Start Again a self-congratulatory mental field day for over-educated idiots who know more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing. It’s food for thought, but for every worthwhile insight there’s a matching piece of absolute fugging bollocks.

Reynolds rewrites history to fit his story – asserting XTC was a post-punk band is a stretch. Some bands didn't want to be called new wave, I get that, but here new wave bands are recast as post-punk if it fits the bill. I give him credit for considering as many bands as he did, the amount of work he put in, and the convincing way he presents his history as reality. I also thank him for not being as overly dogmatic as this book, steeped in marxist theory so dense it reads like a cut-and-paste from shredded copies of Das Kapital and Mao’s Little Red Book. As a marxist critical theorist himself, Reynolds celebrates the paranoid egotistical musings of musicians high on drugs and the masturbatory mindset of the self-impressed, but thankfully he doesn’t keep out all information that proves his subjects are less than they insist they are - if not hysterical hypocrites. He doesn’t intend it, but by focusing on philosophical marxism he provides lessons on how and why it fails in practice. Bands creep along not by their manifestos and music, a money-losing proposition, but by members with rich parents, fake disability claims and welfare claims where there’s no intention to find work. Snark!

I’m the king of saying “punk” is a meaningless term, but it requires some guidelines, otherwise ballet is punk and hell adds another circle. My line in the sand is punk and Saturday Night Fever disco cannot exist in the same space. Reynolds insists the best post-punk was “The Sex Pistols meets Chic”, and never misses a chance to quote a musician saying disco’s super neat and the new punk rock. If a punk song embraces disco it is then a disco song, a truism just like all skins are punks but not all punks are skins. The book climaxes (pun intended) with Frankie Goes To Hollywood, the last paragraph squeezing out this toilet nugget, “On one level, Frankie can be seen as punk’s last blast.” Without a line in the sand you get statements like that. Frankie’s only accomplishment was having homo-phobic NYC ethnic stereotypes wearing shirts that read “Frankie Says Relax”. As in relax your sphincter, thank you very little.

Obsessed with permanent victim culture and capitalist imperialism, Reynolds dissertates on white and black music, which is not a big factor when talking about post-punk as heard by the listener. Gobs of post-punk bands were full of socio-political crap until they decided they'd rather be rich and famous, but how seriously fans took the manifestos of sub-basement rock stars is another thing. There was no headline in the White Music Press that screamed "Finally, Dance Music For White Folk!!" Listener prejudices are a factor, but post-punk offered sexual, asexual and spastic-colon dance music with lyrics you could either notice or not. I've never heard anyone talk about new wave, punk, or post-punk in terms of color. Maybe I've never lived in a world of pure theory. New Wave, what post-punk was called until the memo went out, and I mean good new wave before new romance turned it into pap, was mainly asexual white music, and either your body moved to it or it didn't. I spent my prime years dancing to asexual white new wave music, never realizing I was making a repressive political statement. Every time I said “Disco Sucks!” I was picturing John Travolta haircuts and Huckapoo shirts. Disco was for white people – just like punk. There was black music and white music, with reggae somewhere in the middle. When I heard funk I’d do the chicken neck move a few times and then give up, because what the hell do I know about funk? I may have been guilty of omissive thought crimes, just like Minor Threat said. Miso sorry.

Since I don’t want this to become a book report I’ll leave with bullet points. Rip It Up And Start Again took on a difficult subject and was the first to do so. It makes its points clearly and with enthusiasm. It builds up and isn’t afraid to tear down when the truth hurts. There’s a lot to learn and even more to consider. My gripes are mainly with glorifying disco, equating it with punk music, and by viewing the world through philosophical marxist theories – whose only virtue, in Churchill’s words, is “the equal sharing of misery.” The US version of the book is shortened, so get the UK edition for even more of the same. I read it at work and found a decent amount of referenced songs on YouTube, most with no video attached. That was very useful.

* The book strangely asserts a master plan to post-punk, as laughable as Malcolm McLaren claiming foresight. * Lyrics are given great weight, as if most people paid attention to them beyond their surface themes. Lyrics are first and foremost sounds, like a musical instrument.* For all the hype on PIL’s groundbreaking noisemaking they wouldn’t be remembered if not for the commercial hits “Public Image” and “This Is Not A Love Song”. * The book is a study of people who combine high intellect and idiot cretinism. * Bands are obsessed with symbolic gestures. * Bands claim they’ll only create sounds never heard before, which reminds me that band interviews are as useful as police interrogations. * The poverty vs. wealth and amateurishness vs. proficiency debates are a hoot. Bands claim to not seek wealth until the facade breaks down and they lust for it like crack whores. Musicians who string together a few true chords and bang the drums in a steady pattern “can play”. Stop the “can’t play” crap immediately. * “The desire to never repeat became as much of a trap as trying to repeat formulas the way some bands do.” * In retrospect everyone is a genius. * Malcolm McLaren asked for a punch in the nose on an hourly basis, and he probably still does. * Stupid quote from Mark Mothersbaugh: “Porn is important to the lower economic classes, simply because you can’t afford real sex.” * Reynolds makes a winning case comparing industrial music to psychedelia. * James Chance was the scat-free GG Allin of his time. * Good sections on the original new wave and ska scenes. *Describes Scritti Politti as “theory addled”. * San Fran’s Deaf Club was a real club for deaf people: “Presumably the patrons didn’t mind the music because they couldn’t hear it.” * Jah Wobble on PIL, “Four emotional cripples on four different drugs.” * Bad comparison of the B-52’s to Gang Of Four. Has them in a chapter on mutant funk. Misses they were a surf band. * Too much is made of “new” sounds from home-grown instruments and expensive machines that aren’t impressive once you hear them.. * Calls OMD “Increasingly pretentious”. Of all the bands in the book I’d say OMD were the least pretentious. * Good line from the Human League, “I remember smashing the phone after I was told ‘Don’t You Want Me’ had reached number one in America. It’s so much to live up to. And when you’re number one nobody really cares about you anymore. Everyone and their grandma knows about you, so no one wants to wear your badges anymore". * New Pop was straight-edge wimp pop. Reynolds writes about it like it was hardcore. * Writes “Wham! had the least invested in punk.“ Ya think?! * Killing Joke were the Sham 69 of their scene.

Rollerderby - The Book, by Lisa Crystal Carver (book review): Not really a book but a trade paperback compilation of stuff from the Rollerderby zine of the 1990s, Rollerderby- The Book has been for me the face book that’s launched a thousand ships, and by ships I mean poops. I’ve been reading this off and on (the toilet) for months, trying to make sense of it. I’m not a slightly crazed woman or a man who seeks out these types so I’m having a hard time making it past the high school creative writing project gone horribly wrong that is Rollerderby. I am a fan of Lisa Crystal Carver through her eminently quotable Drugs Are Nice, so I’m glad she’s moved on from the Id and Ego clusterfugg that was Rollerderby.

Lisa and her pals were far removed from the angry, entitled and vengeful victim culture warriors of Riot Grrrl, more like perpetual schoolgirls from (most likely) unfortunate upbringings escaping into twisted neverlands of princesses, unicorns, social cruelty and bad sex with men chosen for their lack of redeeming social value. These are women who wear sundresses in the dead of winter, are prone to hour-long giggle fits, who let menstrual blood drip down their legs as a fashion statement, and who know exactly how they’ve wound up in the back of a serial killer’s van. Rollerderby was written by people who self-destruct as much as they’re taken advantage of, which is only entertaining when you’re young enough to be considered desirable. I’d love to know what became of these characters.

Even though it’s obvious much of this is the product of spontaneous weirdness, Lisa threw everything against the wall to see what would stick with Rollerderby, making it one of the better personal zines. She came up with a manifesto for her own generation – Generation L, as random a list as there ever was - “No losers”, “All women wear makeup”, “Buy your parents some flowers and quit bugging them”, “Whiners get killed”, “No one uses that Valley girl/stoner boy accent, even as a joke. Speak like human beings”, “Angst is no more romantic than the common cold, and should be treated as such”, and “No sympathetic ears for ne’er do-wells. Failure comes from one source only: the one who fails. A mistake made once is experience; made three times it’s failure”.

The best interview is with GG Allin, whom she willingly made out with at one time later in his life, so here you know her taste in men. She bewilders him with questions like “I want to ask you about flowers and babies. Do you miss them there in prison?”, “What your ideal breakfast?”, “Do you know what your I.Q is?” and “How are your innards?”

I’m glad I’ve finally written this review so I can put Rollerderby – The Book away on a high shelf. As a zine it was goofy and interesting, as zines are to literature what humming is to singing. As a book it’s a bit indulgent to a hipster’s love of ironic dementia. The zine era is long gone, and in the short-attention, what’s-next world of today they might not even hold much nostalgia value. Not that I read every word of this book, but the only article not written by or to an unfocused personality was the one that starts “I’m sad Kurt’s dead because now I have to hear about him even more than when he was alive.”

Lisa sells her stuff on eBay and the bidding usually starts at 99 cents. She signed my copy. Cha-ching!

ROTTEN: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, by John Lydon - (book review): The story of The Sex Pistols is the great Rashomon of our punk times. Each band member, the manager and assorted hangers-on tell a different "true story" of a band that lasted long enough to smash the face of British music and open the punk floodgates in the United States. American bands created punk but The Sex Pistols made it a worldwide scandal, generating the media coverage needed to propel it as a popular movement. John Lydon's biography, Rotten, plays right into the Rashomon motif by mixing the author's own memories and opinions with sometime contradictory accounts by other players in the scene. Lydon is brutally honest about his own life and involvement with the Pistols, but this book does not answer the riddle of Johnny Rotten - is he a pathological liar, a true punk visionary or just an ass?

Rotten covers three major areas: John's formative years, The Sex Pistols era and his place in punk history. Each is covered in great detail and leaves contradictory impressions. John's family was dirt poor and his father aggressively detached. His mom was the greatest. The man who wrote "I'm probably a bastard since I am one by nature" loves his Mommy as much as Elvis loved his. He's made it his life's work to incite others yet he concludes "I've never seen anything solved by violence". Not only does Lydon take all the credit for the success of the Sex Pistols, he often cites himself as the source of all things punk.

Having read this book I can no longer compare the Sex Pistols with The Monkees - a triumph of packaging and marketing. The Pistols were a real band who rose and fell with the same intensity with which they pissed off others and destroyed themselves. Contrary to everything John Lydon says, the Sex Pistols would have been nothing without the contributions of Malcolm McLaren and Glen Matlock.

If you believe like I do that Sid Vicious was punk's village idiot, Rotten is an overflowing toilet of good stories. Deriving his name from a crazy hamster, Sid strangled cats for fun, cut himself with can lids and burned himself with cigarettes (the last also a James Dean habit). Also big into throwing glasses and whipping chains, Sid would fight anybody and usually lost. He couldn't and wasn't expected to play bass in the Pistols. He was there because he was John's friend and McLaren thought a total loser might be good for the band's image as agents of chaos. This was a punk joke on the audience that soon destroyed the band.

Rotten is a great book for anyone interested in early punk music and culture. It paints a vivid picture of working class life in England, where "either it's music, football, hooliganism, or boxing." Johnny Rotten is obviously intelligent and when he's not spewing sound-bites like a carnival barker his opinions are persuasive and well considered. One the other hand, if you spend every waking hour of your life making asshole comments and doing asshole things, then no matter what else you've accomplished you'd still be just an asshole. That's the bottom line on the institution we call Johnny Rotten - he's clever, influential, but in the end an asshole, and I'm sure Johnny wouldn't have it any other way.

Running With The Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music, by Robert Walser (book review) (Wesleyan University Press): The Intellectual Process, when applied to academia, is a two-sided coin. On one side it can be used to explain the world in measurable terms of science, psychology or any other set of theories and equations that bring order to chaos and reveal why things happen and people do and say the things they do and say. In other words, it's a fancy way of seeing what's in front of your eyes. On the other side, the Intellectual Process can be used as an excuse and rationalization for things not worthy of too much fancy thought. Heavy Metal isn't grist for any academic mill - because there's no underneath to the shallowness on top. I don't just say this because I don't like heavy metal, I say this because metal’s merits have always been defined by the brain-dead explanation "because it ROCKS!". I stopped asking metal fans what they like about their music after the fourth straight response of "It just rocks, man". It’s like trying to find out what's great about pudding, and the only answer you get is "It's pudding, dude, pudding (accompanied by air pudding spooning)"

Robert Walser, when he wrote this book in 1993, was Assistant Professor of Music at Dartmouth College. He holds doctorate degrees in musicology (the study of music, the effects of music in combination with other music, and music toxicology), and musical performance. He's played in jazz bands, polka bands, classical ensembles, symphony orchestras, and diddled the guitar in rock, country, world beat (defined as any music white people can't dance to) and heavy metal. In other words, he's a music whore. I think he wrote this book to 1) address the dearth of such scholarly study, 2) hopefully win tenure and not have to get a real job, and 3) because metal rocks!!!

For the record, pun crock has more than its share of idiots and idiot ideology, but, as Pee Wee Herman would say, everyone has a big 'but' but you can't let that stop you. Some kinds of punk at least have some redeeming qualities in offering some coherent social and political discourse. Punk makes some people dumber than they were before but it's also been a positive inspiration to improve yourself and the world around you. All heavy metal accomplishes is the chance for long-hairs to bang their heads.

In the intro, Walser states heavy metal is the single most successful and enduring musical genre of the last thirty years. Ok..... Then he claims the Ramones and Sex Pistols took heavy metal and made it into punk. Uh huh..... Dee Snider is quoted as saying "Heavy Metal is the only form of music that still retains the rebellious qualities of 50’s rock and roll. Sure.... What Walser does the rest of the time is defend metal as a legitimate form by not only comparing it to classical music, but by insisting it is modern classical music. Mostly what the book proves is that cultural anthropology is a joke. You can reinterpret metal lyrics all day in socio/political/economic terms but that still doesn't change what a writer for Musician Magazine in 1984 described as "...a transitional music, infusing dirtbags and worthless puds with the courage to grow up and be a dickhead." The author provides this very quote in order to dispute it, but he does a piss-poor job. I don't think the proof is in the music, no matter how many endless, jargon filled run-on sentences Walser strings together.

I picked up the book because it claimed to address the issue of gender in metal. Only rap is more hateful towards women. I’m fascinated by the idea that for such a macho (read homophobic) style of music, its stars have for the most part been ultra-effeminate if not flat-out transsexual. Walser's lofty defense of metal's 47 flavors of teenage misogyny just made me laugh.

Running With The Devil could have made its points just as well as a lengthy pamphlet. Instead it rambles on and on like a Senate filibuster for a cause nobody believes in but the speaker. If you like heavy metal, then good for you. I'm happy you like to rock, but please don't make it something it's not. They say history is written by the winners but in punk it's the losers who define the genre. Your worst hair bands sold more records than any great punk band ever did. This proves nothing. There are 100 wrong reasons and two right reasons for anyone to want to be punk. At least punk has those two reasons. A thousand years from now anthropologists will look back at punk and see a lot of good amongst the violence and bad fashions. They'll look at heavy metal and just see cross-dressers with guitar fetishes. 

Salad Days, by Charles Romalotti (book review) (Layman): I received this novel, steeped in personal history, after a few e-mails from the author, whom I can tell is sincere and energetic in his desire to succeed as a writer.  A lot of effort, heart and years went into creating this book, which from all indications is self-published through Layman Books, I would like to see Charles succeed. He's traveled the country a number of times promoting both his book and himself. It’s great hardcore’s been around for so long that novels about it are being written.......(pause)...... I wish Salad Days was better so I could say something nice about it as a finished product. The problems with the book go beyond simple editing, which it seemingly never received from the many people thanked in the Acknowledgments. The whole work needs to be erased and started over again. Everything about it is wrong, and I'm so sorry to have to say so.

I admit I haven't read a novel in at least a decade. For this zine I've read many books on music history and personally I prefer truth over fiction because I'd rather learn than escape. My college major was comparative literature but that was a long time ago. I know very well my own writing is in serious need of editing, which I can only do for myself long after I've finished writing something. It's very hard to edit your own work. Simple mistakes hide themselves from the conscious mind.

What's wrong with Salad Days? For starters it's written in the first person but stilted by formalities of the third person perspective. Instead of describing himself physically the author contrives a passage in front of a mirror where he looks at himself and describes what he sees in dispassionate detail, almost like an FBI report. Instead of writing what the main character Frank (the author by proxy) thinks, Romalotti uses dialogue, which has an almost contradictory set of rules. Instead of flowing first person perspective you have endless dialogue quotes only given tone by "I said, concerned", or "I professed boldly". There's something about how the intent of dialogue is laid out in this book that reminds me of minimal acting notations added to plays.

The author also tries too hard in his narrative to be poetically insightful. He piles similes on top of metaphors in a confusing mess that perpetuates Strunk and White's spinning in their graves. It's a bit too rchetypal Dashiell Hammett, Damon Runyon and Earnest Hemingway, and it doesn't add to the flow. Also, when I read something like "The snow covered the lawn like a bubble bath", I stop reading for a bit as I ponder what the hell that means.

The dialogue itself is full of simplistic declarations and slogans. "Why are you a vegetarian?" "Because I can be." "The music means everything to me. Without it, I'd be lost". Many short questions are inserted simply for Frank to knock them out of the park with a statement of purpose or dedication. In the first 21 pages I counted 29 references to specific punk bands, songs, places and publications. They come too fast and furious, as if Romalotti made a list of every single punk thing he likes and spaced them out evenly, no matter what. It's name-dropping that acts as product placement. Too many images at the same time are confusing, which makes it even more important to not visit the thesaurus as often as does Romalotti.

I'm going to say the most horrible thing about Salad Days, only because it's true. It is the positive punk equivalent of The Turner Diaries. It can only appeal to those pre-disposed to liking it regardless of how well it is written. The people giving it great reviews, printed on the back of the book, are log-rolling, which is an industry term for saying something nice for personal reasons. They're supporting the scene, a nice guy and the idea of punk novels. I can't blame them. They do what they can.

Charles Romalotti needs to learn or be guided to a basic understanding of how to write a novel. I know I can't write one, so spare me that line of sarcasm. He has a passion for writing and I applaud his effort. What he needs is to find someone who will take every page he writes, rip it apart and tell him what is right, what is wrong, and why. This needs to be done until the job is finished. There's only 150 pages of story in this 300 page book, and it was a very, very slow read. Charles needs to figure out why that is so if he wants to succeed. Good luck. I'm rooting for ya! 

Search & Destroy (book review) (RE search): Nostalgia has its price, in this case $19.95 for a reprint of the first six issues of Search & Destroy, a San Francisco-based cut & paste punk mag from '77 to '79. Bomp started earlier, but S&D and PUNK were the first to focus mainly on an American punk scene that existed in only a few cities (NY, LA, SF, Detroit and Cleveland quickly come to mind). The magazine took it's name from the Iggy and the Stooges song that opens 1973's Raw Power. Referring to the handy index Iggy also gets the most mention in these issues.

There's plenty of articles on media-famous bands like the Sex Pistols, The Ramones, the Clash and the Damned, but the articles are in-depth and interviews are conducted at a time when even the big names were relatively obscure. The mid-‘70s CBGBs scene is surprisingly given more than its due, considering S&D had no budget and was typed on an IBM Correcting Selectric II typewriter in a room above a SF bookstore. All the late ‘70s local bands are here too, like The Nuns, Crime, Weirdos, the Dils and the Mumps. To be honest a lot of these bands weren’t very good, but they were the scene back then so mostly I keep my mouth shut.

The book's index is a goldmine of insight on how bands saw themselves and their cultural roots. William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and even Surrealism are cited by bands as inspirations. The volume opens with a long interview with Jello Biafra on punk history. Jello is smart but also very paranoid. He knows punk history, but once politics is invoked, be it of record companies or Washington DC, the guy's convinced invisible spaceships under the control of Jerry Falwell follow him waiting for instructions from The Committee to assassinate him with what will only appear to be a stroke. 

Is this worth twenty bucks? There's a second volume for the same price so if you're thinking of buying this to be a good little punk historian you're really talking $40 - a collector's price. Because of the high cover price and higher level of esoterica I'd say pocket the cash and read a few articles every time you visit a bookstore. Borders and Tower seemingly don't care if you sit there all day like it was the library.

Classic Rock Albums: Never Mind The Bollocks - The Sex Pistols (book review): This focuses mainly on the demos and their place in the evolution of the Sex Pistols’ sound from live to studio. Pistols' soundman Dave Goodman recorded most of them, with Chris Spedding of "Motorbiking" recorded a few others. Chris Thomas, who produced both Roxy Music and the hated Pink Floyd, receives most of the credit for the studio album. Heylin lays out the dates and particulars of the demos with a lengthy precision that repeatedly shut down my mind. I really don't care if session three of the demo for Song X took place on a Tuesday, not a Wednesday as referenced in The Sex Pistols Diary Day By Day. If you're into forensics, the attention to detail will give you either a woody or a wetty.

The Great Question the book addresses is: What defines a band most, their live or studio sound? I’m a proponent of the studio sound, while many diehards prefer the raw feel of a live show captured in the studio. To me a live show and a studio album should have little in common besides professional presentation. A live show is a group dynamic of sights, sounds, smells and alcohol. A studio recording is about quality and technology; it's about striving for the most professional display of your skills. The heartbreakers and PJ Harvey demos were great, but most demos aren’t that interesting. Without professional studio albums bands with great live reputations wouldn't have made a dent. This was true especially with The Sex Pistols.

A bootleg albumof demos from the Goodman sessions, titled Spunk, was released a week before the official album. These are the tracks Malcolm claimed captured the band at their best. Bollocks I say, Bollocks! "No Feelings" moves along nicely but the rest sounds like tin cans and string compared to the deep richness of the studio album. Johnny's singing in the studio is clear and exact, exhibiting intelligence, control and vitriol. On the demos he's just spitting. Steve Jones' guitar work on the demos is incidental, whereas in the studio he insisted, to everyone's chagrin, on adding layers and layers of overdubs in homage to Phil Spector's wall of sound. Jones also played most of the bass tracks on the album, something the band preferred to keep a secret. The studio album has a sound big enough to fill a stadium, and I think that is its greatest accomplishment and the reason why it's considered one of the best rock albums of all time.

You'll learn a great deal about the recording process from this book. It's more proof that when it comes to the studio nobody has a clue what's going on. Many things are either made up on the spot or the result of accidents.

Classic Rock Albums: Never Mind The Bollocks - The Sex Pistols was one of a series of books that focus on seminal albums. Other books in the series cover The Beatles, Bowie, Cream, The Who and Nirvana. I found this at the close-out shop, and it's definitely worth the few bucks.

As a public service, below is a series of definitions for the word "Bollocks", which landed the Sex Pistols in court on a charge of obscenity. They won the case...

bollock  Verb. To reprimand. Noun. A testicle.
bollockbag Noun. The scrotum and testicles.
bollock-brain  Noun. Idiot, imbecile. Derog.
bollocking  Noun. A severe reprimand.
(the) bollocks Noun. The best, a thing or situation of excellence. Abb of 'dog's bollocks'.
bollocks (!)  Noun. 1. Testicles. S.e. until mid 1800s. 2. Rubbish, nonsense, drivel. E.g."That film was bollocks." Exclam. An expression of frustration, or defiance.* Also written as bollox.
bollocksed  Adj. 1. Worn out, ruined, tired. 2. Very intoxicated.  bollocks to that! Exclam. A defiant exclamation.

Shock Value, by John Waters (1981) (book review): Now the elder statesman of America's deviant film directors, John Waters is the greatest artist to come out of Baltimore since Edgar Allen Poe. Starting in the late ‘60s he brought together the creme of Baltimore's addicts, drag queens, and degenerate dropouts to make what can only be described as John Waters films. Obsessed with tabloid sensationalism, sexual misadventure, over the top acting and a deep need to offend, Waters' first book covers his life up till Desperate Living. My favorite chapters are about Baltimore, casting ugly people in films, and Edith Massey - the Egg Lady. The book opens with "To me, bad taste is what entertainment is all about. If someone vomits watching one of my films, it's like getting a standing ovation."

With Shock Value Waters created a new form of journalism - equally catty, informative, profane, profound, camp, snide and respectful. He's moral and amoral at the same time, counterculture and establishment in somehow equal measures. It must have something to do with being Catholic.

Shock Value is best read out loud in the same voice that narrates Pink Flamingos. If you've seen John Waters give a lecture, he quotes long passages from this book as if he just thought them up. He hasn't made a real John Waters film since Hairspray, but his books and the old films will be there forever, so enjoy. 

Patti Smith: An Unauthorized Biography, by Victor Bockris (book review) (Simon & Schuster): I'm not a big fan of poetry because it's the devil's playground of precious pretentiousness. Patti Smith's music is good but if I’m not in the mood I find it heavy, long and boring. Her old boyfriend Tom Verlaine's band Television also saps my energy like a sponge. So, I read a book on her life!  That's what I do for you, the kids. Because… I …care.

The unifying theme of every book I've read about the early NY scene is that most of the players were drug addicts, psychopaths or both. Patti Smith was (at least then) nuts. Only ambition, almost equally nutty friends and creative flair kept her from being a lower Manhattan bag lady arguing with pigeons. Patti's the poster child for the fine line between insanity and genius. Some also find a link between drugs and creativity. Patti was a doper too so she had the best of both worlds - insanity and drug dementia. From such influences legends are born.

Her fans and the NY literary community are protective of their goddess. You can tell by the negative reviews this book has received. Victor Bockris, who in the early ‘70s published the first collection of Patti's work and conducted a very early interview, is berated in one review for using quotes from previously published interviews. What?! This is a biography. Patti Smith didn't cooperate in the writing process. Bockris quoted from many interviews and articles. To say this book is illegitimate for that reason is a joke.

I also can’t trust anything Patti Smith says because she's crazy and full of herself. She name drops and compares herself to an endless babbling brook of historical and religious figures. She spews out stories, rationalizations and rants that frankly reek of dementia. There's no pattern, reason or logic to her insanity. All you can do is take it in and not believe a word. Bockris has written a number of books on music and literary figures of the NY scene. He's very fair and supportive of Patti Smith in his book, and whatever it is he's saying about Smith that her fans seem to hate is done with subtlety and lack of editorial comment. This is no Albert Goldman hatchet job. Victor Bockris is not Salman Rushdie and Patti Smith is not Islam.

Patti banged a virtual Who's Who of the ‘70s arts and music scene, including Robert Mapplethorpe, Jim Carroll, Todd Rungren, Tom Verlaine, Bob Dylan, Paul Simonon and moody alcoholic Fred "Sonic" Smith of the MC5, whom she married and nursed until his early death by misadventure. Patti's place in rock history as a feminist is shown to be a lie since she admitted she liked to be slapped around, and in marriage she became a parroting, subservient suburban housewife.

Patti Smith: An Unauthorized Biography is a good and fair book. If Patti Smith comes across as creepy and insane that's not the author's fault. It's the material he's working with that's to blame. And another thing, Arthur Rimbaud was a real asshole.

Stiff: The Story Of A Record Label (book review): This 1983 book on the storied UK label Stiff Records (Wiki here) was the holy grail for me, annoying me to no end always finding a book on MCA Records titled Stiffed in every used book store. Amazon sellers as of today list used copies from $46.93 up to $187.18. I was fortunate to buy one directly from the author, Bert Muirhead, on eBay, for I think around $15.00. He even signed my copy. Sweet!

At first I was disappointed it was a 112 pg. large format trade paperback of lists, pictures, and short descriptions instead of a real book book, but Muirhead packs in all relevant facts and commentary normally found in a hardcover, so in essence it's a fully authored book in an amusing, offbeat, organized and easily digested format perfect for bathroom reading and short attention spans. Like Mine.

Bypassing the usually history involving Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Graham Parker blah blah etc., the Stiff story began in 1976 with Dave Robinson and Andrew Jakeman borrowing 400 pounds from Lee Brilleaux of the pub rock band Dr. Feelgood. They released anything they liked or could be talked into, and benefited from the pliability of the UK music press and a home market comparable in size to Michigan. Their decisions ranged from brilliant to stunningly ineffectual but they tossed a wide net and promoted through its good name a variety of styles hitting on punk, hardcore, new wave, pub, power pop, regular pop, reggae, dub, and even odds & ends like World Cup anthems and the West End production of Oklahoma! They also abused their catalog numbering system in a manner similar to Factory Records.

The book starts with a two page label history and then has chapters on Singles, Albums, Artists, Family Trees, Demo Record Labels, a Stiff Quiz, Stiff Films, Chart Performances and a Checklist Of Singles. It repeats itself but doesn't overlap much as the formats and information differ. It helps greatly that the commentary is lively, funny and deadpan honest. Muirhead tells you who made it and who bombed, and when they bombed how it made everyone feel. Sadly there's no index.

As an example of how no punches are pulled here's how Lene Lovich's Flex LP is referenced: "The formula began to wear thin for Lene. The press flayed not only the album, but also Lene, and the Stiff backlash began... Lene went on a world tour after the album and on her return found herself forgotten in the UK, her position having been usurped by Toyah and Hazel O'Connor." He notes about Devo "Apparently the band are all more of less the same height and weight and wear the same shoe size", and comments that after Ian Dury's disappointing 1981 album Lord Upminster his career appears (then present tense) to be over. Muirhead writes "I suspect this is the end of the Ian Dury story. If he has the resilience to bounce back from the venets of the past couple of years then I shall be the first to admit I was wrong." He writes like a blogger, and the book overflows with his educated two cents on everything. Great stuff.

Stiff: The Story Of A Record Label more than lived up to the legendary status I had built it up to have in my mind. I'll now remove if from the bathroom and shelve it on my IKEA bookcase of honor, still free from germs as I always practice appropriate toilet reading protocol.
Politenessman taught me well, and to paraphrase my hero, "If this web page you are reading, 'tis a sign of your good breeding."

The Story Of Rock'N'Roll: The Year-By-Year Illustrated Chronicle (book review) (MBS): $1.99 close-out at Borders (Ca-Ching!!). The editor, Paul Du Noyer, writes in the Introduction, "Rock music began in many different places, has followed many different paths, and has arrived at many different destinations - simultaneously! ... A team of experienced writers, British and American, leads you through the maze of music from old-time jive, rockabilly and doo-wop, right up to ragga, rap, and grunge. Nothing happens in isolation. Everything overlaps and few things ever come out of nowhere. This book makes all the connections."

Is he ever right and is this a great book. My zine focuses on punk, hardcore and new wave - narrow categories to be sure, but in the timeline of music these are small pieces of a much larger puzzle. Punk is little more than a product of its influences. You don't have to like The Beatles, Elvis, Buddy Holly, The Rolling Stones, Jerry Lee Lewis, Coltrane, Dylan, Elton John or James Brown, but you're an ignorant dipwad if you think they've had no influence on your favorite punk band. Even hardcore didn't land in a spaceship - it's only one stop in the history of music. I recommend this book because it leans heavily toward punk and new wave. The book's snide attitude and easy-to-follow format make reading about bands you don't care for fun and informative.

The layout and tone of The Story Of Rock'N'Roll are reminiscent of Entertainment Weekly, a useful magazine for quickly keeping tabs on pop culture. Sidebars and smaller articles pinpoint personalities and events so succinctly and painlessly you wish every book were written this way. This book isn't just about rock - it also seamlessly incorporates film, politics and bad-taste pop culture -- the three square meals of any well-rounded deviant. While the text is fact-driven with only a slight hint of commentary, the book's many photographs are gems of mean-spirited whimsy. A 1970 photo is pointed to as "The Partridge Family and their amazing performing teeth. A television sensation." One from 1978 simply states "Blue Oyster Cult had The Jam as opening act. Why?"

Punk and new wave are covered in great detail. A typical paragraph from 1978, "The Damned split up; two months later they'll perform an equipment-trashing farewell gig at London's Rainbow Theatre then, in September, they'll play a reunion concert as Les Punks, with Motorhead's Lemmy on bass, allowing Captain Sensible to stand in on guitar for Brian James who cannot be lured back. They decide to reform permanently, but as James owns the name, they have to appear as the Doomed while they involve learned friends in getting their old moniker back. The Police dye their hair blond for an appearance in a US TV advert and gain an immediate new punk credibility..."

This edition ends with 1994 and a picture from Woodstock II with the comment "Disaster or Fiasco?" It just doesn't get any better than that. Highly recommended. 

Stranger Than Fiction: the life and times of Split Enz, by Mike Chunn (book review) (GP Publications): Split Enz was the biggest thing to come out of New Zealand until Peter Jackson directed The Lord Of the Rings. NZ is a country consisting of two larger islands and one smaller island, with cities given names like Whangarei and Invercargill, which might explain how Split Enz titled the same album both as Waiata and Corroboree. Split Enz’s career spanned from 1972 to 1985 but their fame peaked between 1979 and 1982 when they were a top new wave band. They began and ended an eccentric, progressive pop band, but for a while, both True Colours and Waiata made the band very popular. They rode high on the new wave but receded along with the trend and their own insistence on being quirky and non-commercial. They were going to reform for a Millennium eve concert with David Bowie, but that fell through.

Author Mike Chunn was Split Enz’s original bass player. He was gone by 1977 but he stayed good friends, and for this book he had access to everybody and everything Enz-related. Every stubbed toe and musical note is accounted for. Stranger Than Fiction is 272 pages of facts, figures, anecdotes and glossy paper that weighs a ton. Chunn writes like a fly on the wall but it doesn’t come off as contrived because these people are like family and they provided every conceivable help along the way. He writes in a florid style as whimsical as the band itself. Sometimes it’s nicely poetic while other times it’s a bit fey. With his engrossing stories and vivid images he almost novelizes the band’s history. The book’s layout is kookie, and sometimes the backgrounds are so distracting it’s difficult to read the words (many web pages suffer this same affliction).  

Split Enz sported a healthy number of members over the years, with Tim and Neil Finn in the lead. Neil later formed Crowded House, which at one point (in a reversal of sorts) had older brother Tim as a member. Split Enz began as boarding school friends who idolized The Beatles. The band's original name was "Split Ends", later changed to "Split Enz" to reflect New Zealand pride. Their early look of weird haircuts, weirder clothing and face painting is credited to Noel Crombie, who besides playing percussion and drums was a visual genius who designed album covers and stage sets. The book doesn't trace the styles back to the Italian "Comedia 'Del Arte", but that's the true origins of Split Enz's early look. As years went by the elaborate stage shows continued while the costuming and makeup was toned down. The band gave Noel's creations names like "The Zoots", "The Twits", "Black and Whites" and "The Clowns". Some people were turned off by the visual aspects of the band, but from the start Split Enz were obsessed with performance, which meant a full stage show. Stranger Than Fiction convincingly hints that the band's look may have inspired UK punk fashion trends to the point of being an original inspiration, up there with Richard Hell's safety pinned shirts and heroin chic hair.

The story of Split Enz is interesting yet typical: band forms, perfects their craft, gains local notoriety, suffers innumerable setbacks and forward movements toward fame, gets treated indifferently by record labels, hires and fires worthless managers and tour bookers, repeatedly tours to the point of mental and physical disorder, makes very little money for years, hits it big, gets swept up and away by the pressures and absurdities of fame, rides the crest of a popular musical movement, slowly fades, gets sick of the process, and then breaks up hoping for new starts. Split Enz were always well received in New Zealand and Australia. England appreciated their stage show. The United States only took notice when "I Got You"and True Colours hit in 1980. 1981's Waiata continued to thrill new wavers but the next year's Time And Tide, a step away from the expectation mill of hit singles, made little impression in a market that was moving towards post-punk and alternative.

Fans get pissy if you call the band new wave, but if not for the huge crest of interest in the style in 79-80 Split Enz would never have made it as far. True Colours and Waiata were simple affairs from a band that thrived on complication but they were good albums and put money in pockets that were empty for years. The pressure having to write hits on a regular basis may be more than most can handle, but Split Enz were able to do it for two albums. Maybe that's all they had in them. That's nothing to be ashamed of since they did well for themselves as both creative and popular artists.

Here's some fun facts from Stranger Than Fiction: When the band relocated to Australia, all but Phil Judd switched to using their middle name as their first. A highlight of their live shows was the playing of the spoons. Fans could buy Split Enz plastic spoons to play along with the band. An Atlanta look-alike contest had only one entrant. Tim Finn described their look as being "completely asexual". Their fan club, still active, is called "Frenz Of The Enz". They run web sites and await the second coming. The band didn't know one of their tours was called the "Take No Chances" tour until they saw it on a poster.

New Zealand is made to seem fairly Victorian in its settings and mindset. The band members are presented as very nice people who got along well. There's no drug benders or psychotic mishaps. The pressures did get to them, especially Tim Finn, but they're too well grounded to wind up in jackets with wrap-around sleeves. Stranger Than Fiction is a love letter to the band from a former member. The writing can be a touch pretentious but at least it's not gushing. There's not much dirt or trauma to report, so VH1 won't be doing a history of Split Enz in our lifetime.

Subculture: The Meaning of Style, by Dick Hebdige (book review) (Methuen & Co.): I bought this in 1979, and since then I’ve tried reading it every so often, but this less than 200 page book gives me a headache after two pages. It’s so academic and filled with leftist jargon, for all I know Hebdige made it all up like L. Ron Hubbard’s Dionetics. Chew on this sample, "This is not to say that semiotics was easily assimilable within the Cultural Studies project. Though Barthes shared the literary preoccupations of Hoggart and Williams, his work introduced a new Marxist 'problematic' which was alien to the British tradition of concerned and largely untheorized 'social commentary'". Ouch! There's puss oozing out of my ears! I was an English major in college and I know my way around a thesaurus, but this is from hell. People who write like this should leave the library every few months and see what's happening in the outside world. At the time, Hebdige was a research assistant at the Polytechnic of Wolverhampton. Their chess team was brutal.

Being from 1979 this was one of the first scholarly attempts to make sense of the punk revolution that had taken England by storm. He traces the flow of youth culture from the teds, mods, rockers, rastas, skins to the punks. Hebdige considers all these movements in stilted marxist terms where class and power assume the simple forms of Worker (good) and Boss (bad). Marxist theory is the study of oppression through economic and social controls. In practice it’s a genocidal death cult, but that’s another story. Applying marxism to punk in absolute terms is bankrupt because anyone can look back on history and define it any way they choose. The truth is that culture often only gestates at the peripheral edges of art and politics.

Malcolm McLaren talks of the Sex Pistols as if they were a determined part of a deep fascination with subversive culture, and that every concert and t-shirt was a designed piece of a formulated and executed plan to implement Chaos Theory. Bullcrapola. The carny sold overpriced clothing to insecure trendy people. He was asked to manage bands only because he was the most successful of the lot and he showed the ounce of drive and ambition missing all around him. He saw the Sex Pistols as a means to sell clothes. He was a businessman, and not a very good one either. That he let Sid Vicious join is proof he either didn't know or didn't care. Talk about revisionism! He wasn’t in control of anything.

Dick Hebdige is Malcolm's academic cousin, and his discourses on myths, icons and tribes are intellectual masturbation. It’s a series of guesses as to why people get into punk - some do it for the aggression, some for the fashion and others because they just relate to the music, the musicians and the fans. To frame it in pretentious academic terms is possibly giving it too much thought, and to view it all through the failed prism of marxism a mental and moral failure.

Sure, writers and political/artistic movements are a source of inspiration, but not to the level indicated in this book. Human motivations are often less intellectual than Hebdige wants us to believe. When the past is laid out in purely academic and philosophical terms, why look back on a time of your life when everything you did was fueled by hatred, booze and pills. In retrospect you too can be a frigging genius. 

The Boy Looked At Johnny: The Obituary Of Rock And Roll, by Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons (book review) (Faber and Faber): This was the first book on punk, written while the original UK ‘77 movement was breathing its last. A thin yet packed 94 pages, in the long run this is more a collection of articles on subjects like drugs, The Sex Pistols, gender, class and American punks. Lived rather than researched, the authors rip apart their enemies and fondle their heroes with wit, spit and more than a little s--t. Eventually their humor and venom wear thin, but while it lasts you'll never read a funnier or more insightful book on the earliest days of what we now call punk rock.

Let's start with great lines from the book. On Television's "Little Johnny Jewel": "The only people who bought it were New Yorkers who believed they were the reincarnation of French homosexual poets." On American bands: "...old and cold and still coming to terms with the fact that the sixties ran out on them." and "No American new wave band likes another - but they all have clean butts and a nasty taste in their mouths." On heavy metal: "...was brutality ham-fisted renderings of blues-based white rock - a totally moronic and downered wipe-out which complimented the Seventies teenage leisure activities of arson and alcoholism." On the in-crowd at the Roxy: "They were the type of people who hung out till closing time for fear of what might be said about them if they left."  

Burchill and Parsons call Malcolm McLaren a "curly clothes cutter", Bernie Rhodes "the lying printer", say Mick Jones "chanted stray battle-cries like a harassed housewife", called Television the "Lice Queens of Rock", Richard Hell a "toad-eyed bastard" and The Heartbreakers a "junkie band". On punk's evolution: "..started as a movement born out of NO FUN and ended as a product whose existence was NO THREAT." They refer to Rolling Stone magazine as the "Dope smoker's Reader's Digest". Here's a great line about the Bromley Contingent, the original Sex Pistols hangers-on: "a posse of unrepentant poseurs committed to attaining fame despite their paucity of any talent other than being noticed." It’s funny and all too true.

Here's what the authors do like: David Bowie (the king of glam), Jonathan Richman, Johnny Rotten, The Rezillos, Talking Heads, Tom Robinson, Poly Styrene, the "magnificent" Suzy Quattro, Blondie's first album, Joan Jett and Patty Smith, whose Horses they call the best debut album of all time. The book title comes from that same song. Most of all they love speed, as in the drug. To them it's the cure for oppressive capitalism and the common cold. Amphetamines are useful drugs that make you smarter, stronger and more alert. Both authors were heavy users of uppers at the time they wrote the book.

Here's some other names on Burchill & Parsons' hate list: the Ramones, the Damned, The Jam, The Stranglers, Lester Bangs, Nick Lowe, Ian Dury, Elvis Costello, all drugs not in the upper family, and Rastas ("the misogyny of the Rastafarians surpasses even that of Hitler's nazis"). There's a pattern of whom they like and dislike which runs along the lines of female and gay power. The nazis were known as big women haters? Here's another hysterical rant: "A guitar in the hands of a man boasts COCK - the same instrument in female hands therefore (to a warped mind) screams CASTRATION." Oh please. It sounds like the diaper load that comes out of professional man-hater Andrea Dworkin's fat mouth.

The Boy Looked At Johnny is a great combination of literary masturbation and dead-on rock history and criticism. Its tone is poetry-slam neo-beatnik. You have to read this slowly because each paragraph is filled with obscure mental images and cultural references. Like watching The Simpsons, knowing the references makes the experience that much richer. A lot of this would be childish sarcasm if it weren't so often on target. I don’t agree with everything. Back in ‘78 they're calling DEVO "old hippies"?

Julie Burchill later worked for newspapers and magazines, including Vanity Fair. Tony Parsons has written a few books. Both were still teenagers when they wrote this. Britain's first punk journalists were kids who knew the scene and knew how to write. The Boy Looked At Johnny was written as punk's obituary in 1978 - premature to say the least. They were young, dumb and full of speed but what they write is refreshingly candid and funny. Is this journalism? Not really, but it's some of the funniest and insightful words you'll ever read on the subject. 

They Died Too Young: Sid Vicious, by Tom Stockdale (book review) (Parragon): For a 74 page book only 4 1/4" by 3 1/4" this sure packs a wallop of information on The Sex Pistols and Sid Vicious, punk's uber-idiot turned dead teen idol. Whatever talent Sid had wasn't as a musician or human being, but as a loser in every category. Moron, blind follower, violent wimp, addict, fashion victim, sadist, pussy-whipped - yeah, Sid did it his way.

Born John Simon Ritchie on May 10, 1957, Sid's mom was a hippie drug addict who dragged little Simon around as she moved from one crash pad to the next. Considered mildly retarded by his friends, Sid was a glam fashion hag who worshipped Marc Bolan and David Bowie. He met Johnny Rotten in 1973 and followed the green-teethed one around like a puppy. An original follower of the early Sex Pistols, Malcolm McLaren's vehicle for selling overpriced clothes and sketchy leftist slogan politics, Sid drank too much and ate too much speed. He liked to hit people with chains and throw bottles when he thought nobody was looking. Tensions between Rotten and Glen Matlock, the band's only real songwriter, led to Sid's induction into the band. Unable to play bass, Matlock was snuck into the studio to record bass tracks for studio work.

Once introduced to Nancy Spungen - heroin addict, groupie whore and as unlikable as Sid was stupid, events wound down to their inevitable conclusion. Nancy was to Sid what Yoko was to John Lennon. The American tour was a disaster, Sid couldn't play, the band broke up, Sid attempted a solo career by imitating Johnny Rotten, he shot heroin, killed Nancy, went to jail, got out on bail and overdosed on more heroin brought by his mother. Upon his demise you could almost hear a toilet flush in Hell.

Why he's a hero is anyone's guess. If being a loser is a goal in itself, then here's your hero. The back of the book describes Sid as "Punk Pioneer and musical anarchist". He was neither, and if not being able to play your instrument is anarchy then I’m Gnome Crapsky. They Died Too Young is the name of a mini-series of big little books on folks like Marc Bolan, Kurt Cobain, Bruce Lee and Jimi Hendrix. Sid didn't die too young by any account, and I'm surprised he lived to be 22. Sid was a cretin, a moron and a talent-free zero. His death wasn't a loss to either punk or himself. I have a friend who would kill me if she ever knew how much I think Sid’s a putz. Please don’t tell her. 

This Ain't No Disco: The Story of CBGB, by Roman Kozak (book review) (Faber and Faber): This is the best and only book written about New York's legendary CBGBs nightclub. I doubt another book will be written since Roman Kozak covers the subject perfectly. Printed in 1988, it could use an update to cover the action of the interim years (a short chapter indeed). From 1976-83 Kozak was editor of the "Talent and Venues" section of Billboard magazine, and in that capacity he became a CBGB regular. This Ain't No Disco takes a journalistic approach to history, so there are many quotes and an objective fairness of reporting that considers competing sides of an issue. Kozak allows the narrative to be shaped fairly exclusively by those who made up the CBGBs scene. The straight reporting is a refreshing change from most punk histories which treat the subject matter on the level of the Kennedy Assassination.

What is CBGBs? It's a 350 person capacity scuzz bar in the Bowery, a scuzz part of lower Manhattan, next to the scuzzy Palace Hotel where bums sleep in their own puke. It has the general shape and feel of a cattle car, and often smells like one. The sound system and acoustics are the best. The letters "CBGB” stands for "Country, Bluegrass, Blues", while "OMFUG" officially means "Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers". Word has it it really means "Only Musicians F--k Ugly Girls". CBs was not the first NY club to feature punk bands but it's probably the most important.

Hilly Kristal owns CBGBs, and the line of him being a redneck tricked into letting Television turn the club into a punk bar is way off the mark. Hilly was himself a musician, DJ'd in the military, sang at Radio City Music Hall, booked national college tours, managed bands and tried other ventures like the CBGB Canteen and CBGB record label. Life took him from the NJ Jersey farm where he grew up and planted him as owner of a derelict bar in Manhattan. He thought country music would be the next big thing and chose that as the theme for his bar, originally "Hilly's On The Bowery". CBGBs opened in December, 1973. When Television talked Hilly into letting them play (The Miamis claim they performed there first), Hilly couldn’t care less because he had an open policy of letting just about anyone play as long as they might be able to draw a crowd. From the beginning there was poetry, folk, rock, performance art, dance and punk at CBs, and it was this laid-back attitude that allowed bands like Patti Smith, the Ramones, The Plasmatics, Talking Heads, Television, The Dead Boys, etc. to constantly work on their material.

Critic Robert Christgau says of punk and its attraction to rock critics of that era, "It seems to me that punk as a whole was a very aestheticized movement. They were very aesthetically-conscious people even if they took an anti-art stance. And the writers, most of us, it seems to me, had been waiting for something like this to happen for a long time. I think punk responded to some real mainstream assumptions of rock criticism, which were not mainstream assumptions of rock and roll. Rock critics are much more interested in rebellious music, in new music. They are much more interested, despite what people say, in short catchy songs with a hard beat. I know people think of rock criticism as a wimp profession, when in fact most of the great critics really liked, and were really weaned on pre-Beatles stuff, and they really liked the approach of the 50s. And punk is really not a recapitulation of the 50s at all, but in certain kinds of formal ways - its brevity, its attack - it is a modernization of that kind of idea." The early punks were art-types who saw what they did in the context of art. This interpretation cannot be applied to the ‘80s hardcore bands. The Dead Boys were the bridge between old punk and new hardcore.

This Ain't No Disco is filled with great stories and accurate, fair history. Anything you want to know is here, from the Hell's Angels, the competition with Max's that led to booking wars, and to the night a woman got caught with Stiv Bator's meat in her mouth. Connie Barrett, who managed a number of NY HC bands, says of the bands she deals with, "Music is a very hard business and hardcore started very much like a hippie thing. There are a lot of the same attitudes. Without beards, no hair. But the same attitudes. It's basically a love, peace, and tranquillity kind of thing, but the way it came out is that it's a "love, peace, or I'll kick your ass. Which is kind of 80s updated hippiedom. But it is becoming a business and losing a lot of its ideology."

It's a quick read at 133 pages and nothing is left out. Read it today! 

The Trouser Press Guide to '90s Rock, edited by Ira A. Robbins (book review) (Fireside): When I first leafed through this book I was pissed, as I'm sure you all were as my whims are the pulse of the nation. It's bad enough when some (y)(g)(b)(p)uppie assumes since I listen to punk I must also like Smashing Pumpkins and Beck - you know, since it's all alternative. It's even worse that a formerly cool book on punk and new wave seems to be saying the same thing. On top of that it appears editor Ira Robbins left out everything I like, putting in instead alterna-bands I've never heard of like Jacob's Mouse, Pale Saints and Compulsion. The Guide blows off the early careers of old bands they've been nice enough to even retain for this edition, as if it's irrelevant to today's music consumers.

It's not as bad as that, but why let reality get in the way of a good tantrum. The Trouser Press Guides have come out periodically since 1983. The Trouser Press was a fairly popular music magazine that covered the early NY punk scene pretty much as it happened. The 4th edition of the Guide came out in 1991 and it's a great resource for general punk and new wave info. On the internet the All-Music Guide and the Rough Guide are also good. In the preface of this latest ‘90s edition, Ira Robbins writes that this is a companion piece to the 4th edition, which makes sense but still, the end result is half-assed. Now I have to carry around two large books if I want to get the whole story on a band? Better to have called this latest edition The Trouser Press Guide to 90's Alternative, Hip Hop and World Music, and not deal at all with any band they're not going to discuss in full detail. Sure this new guide may fill in some gaps but I'm turned off seeing bands still around from the last guide tossed into the dumpster for crap I'd never listen to in twelve reincarnations.

Unless you're a ‘90s music kind of person there's not much here for you. The 4th edition is great but at $20 new it may not be worth it. Until something better comes along I'll stick with sources on the internet. 

Underboss: Sammy the Bull Gravano's Story of Life In The Mafia, by Peter Maas (book review) (Harper Collins): (year 2000 update: As proof you can never leave your past behind, Sammy and his family were picked up in Arizona for running the state's largest ecstacy ring, using steroid and white power-filled high school jocks as enforcers.)

I'm tired of reading about punk rockers and their degenerate lives, so I went back to the old standby of the mob book, so I could read about their degenerate lives. I've often wondered what the romance is with organized crime - I mean, these guys whack their friends on a regular basis, commit violent crimes against honest citizens, run drugs, extort cash, x, y, and z, but we still view these characters with awe, fear and maybe more than a little envy. Envy, I guess, of their ability to keep and gain control through fear and intimidation. This feeds into the common person's fantasies of invincibility and universal respect. When somebody screws you over it's nice to imagine thugs will have a little "talk" with the guy, and the next time you meet he'll grovel at your feet begging forgiveness, which you may or may not give.

Gangsters always held an appeal for the downtrodden but it wasn't until 1972's The Godfather that the Mafia took on an air of a romantic aristocracy. In real life, the mob is a scuzzy organization with no security and little money for most of the foot soldiers on the street. You read about big scores but you don't see these people living the high life. Vincent "The Chin" Gigante, leader of the Genovese crime family, has spent decades pretending to be insane, walking around the neighborhood in a cheap bathrobe and slippers, mumbling to telephone poles. He's not living the high life. John Gotti, "The Dapper Don", fronting himself as a plumbing parts salesman, flaunted his sizable mob income with flashy suits and ties, which went against everything the old Wise Guys taught. What's the point of having millions if you can't spend it? And what can you say about an organization that intentionally keeps most of its members poor and in constant fear for their lives?

Sammy Gravano, under Gotti, was the #2 man in the Gambino crime family when he "switched governments" and testified against his old associates. Underboss is a very readable book by Peter Maas, the author of two other great mafia books, The Valachi Papers and Serpico. A very fast read at 300 pages, Maas details Sammy's rise in organized crime in succinct detail, a nice change from having every event explained ad nauseam. It reads so quickly you know a sequel would be as easy as shaking down a developer for a contracting job.

Through many hours of interviews, Maas gets Sammy's perspective on his life in organized crime. A tough kid from The Neighborhood, Sammy ran with gangs and through hard work and reliability worked his way up the mafia corporate ladder. Sammy paints himself as a man of honor, which is a relative thing. He admits to nineteen murders, which means the actual count is much higher, and I'm sure he left out the many tales of sadistic violence that goes along with being a top collector and enforcer. Sammy Gravano is not a tough guy with a heart of gold but a brutal thug and murderer who carried out orders with cold efficiency. I'm happy he turned states evidence, only because Gotti was setting him up to take the fall, but nobody should consider this man a hero. The book ends with Sammy having his tattoos removed, the only one remaining a small head of Christ on his arm. Sammy jokes, "I guess God still wants me." Maybe Sammy is the best of the worst, but if God is willing to forgive the crimes, the murders and the sheer brutality of this man, you have to wonder what it takes to get into hell.

Underboss and Donnie Brasco: A True Story Of Murder, Madness, And The Mafia provide a service in that they paint a less glamorous, more accurate picture of life in the mob. Some other mafia books I've enjoyed are Wiseguy: Life In A Mafia Family, The Squad (which asserts J. Edgar Hoover was in cahoots with the Mob, and in exchange for denying the existence of organized crime he was fed the names of winning horses and also had the services of Mob hit men to wipe out social scum who evaded prosecution), and Contract On America: The Mafia Murder Of President John F. Kennedy, which will make you so paranoid you'll line your walls with tin foil. 

The Velvet Underground Companion: Four Decades Of Commentary, edited by Albin Zak III (book review) (Schirmer): Where does one begin to estimate the value of the Velvet Underground to the history of punk and what's been passing itself off as alternative since the late ‘70s. Are they that important? Yes, of course, but the pretentiousness of many of their followers makes giving them their full due an act of bitter begrudgery (look ma, I made up a word!). The Velvets knew how to build a great wall of fuzz but they weren't the first to do so. Phil Spector, British Invasion bands and many regional garage bands of the era all made an indelible impression on those who were to follow. The story of the Velvet Underground is one of a blending of avant-garde jazz, folk pop, beatnik urban romanticism, Eastern droning and the impact of Andy Warhol's sponsorship as a part of the floating freak show of glamour and art that was his life.

Their fame in the world of art comes from their association with Warhol's "Exploding Plastic Inevitable" multi-media show of loud music, projected images, flashing lights and strange people acting out kinks for the audience, be it fans or an unsuspecting annual meeting of psychiatrists. Warhol produced (a lie!) the first VU album that also bears his name on the cover. The Velvets did exist before and after Andy, but who knows if they'd be recorded or remembered if Mr. Snap-On-Hair didn't force Nico on the band and put his name behind them. When one talks of the VU's greatness you must ask if it's based on their music alone or their involvement in a hip scene that defined a generation.

In their day the Velvets played small clubs and their recordings were sparsely distributed. The recording quality of their first two albums left much to be desired, and it wasn't done on purpose. They had no idea how to record. The Velvets recorded four albums between 1967 and 1970. Loaded, Lou Reed's best effort to achieve commercial success, fell by the wayside as the band broke up for good. Doug Yule kept the name alive for the 1973 album Squeeze, but VU fans generally make believe that one never existed.

Their early sound is described in the book as "a combination of rock n' roll and Egyptian belly dance music", which isn't far off. John Cale saw the band as an extension of his earlier avant-garde work in atonal music structures heavily influenced by Eastern music. He thought the idea was to play basically one note for 45 minutes. Lou Reed was into that too, but at heart he was a pop artist - a professional pop songwriter for Pickwick in the ‘60s. Need an innocuous song about your favorite pair of shoes and need it by noon? Lou and others sat around and wrote songs on demand.

Cale's drones and Lou's rock’n’roll leanings created an artistic tension and competition that worked well for the band, as history has shown. Some VU fans think of the band as pure avant-garde when in reality they recorded a fair share of pop ditties. With Loaded Lou Reed proved he could write rock classics ("Sweet Jane", Rock & Roll"), but his artistic legacy will come from his association with Cale's viola, Mo Tucker's primitive percussion and Sterling Morrison's bass guitar.

The Velvet Underground Companion: Four Decades Of Commentary is a collection of interviews and endless essays written by VU fan club members, all in the line of "How the Velvet Underground changed my life", along with endless dissertations on things like how the third bridge of "Heroin" is the defining moment of all modern music. It’s the kind of writing that makes you wonder what drugs these people were on when they listened to “White Light/Light Heat” for three days straight without eating or sleeping.

This book is for fanatics only. In interviews Mo barely remembers she was in the band, Morrison is blunt and often pissed off as he looks back, and Lou is Lou is Lou. There are other books on the VU that tell a better story.

Here's some fun facts: Beatle's manager Brian Epstein wanted to manage the VU but he died before anything became of it; the VU played with the Grateful Dead a number of times in California; John Cale married fashion designer Betsey Johnson; and John Cale put guitar strings on his viola.

I own the original Velvet Underground albums in their original pressings, even the hated Squeeze LP. Don't take this review as a brush-off. I just don't get into the cult following they’ve built with all its self-conscious smugness. Throw on the wrong album and I can easily see a new listener wondering what's the big deal. The VU are many things to many people, but that makes it harder for the casual listener to understand what the legend is about. 

Volume: International Discography Of The New wave (book review) (One Ten Records): Just like it says on the back cover, this 1980-era international discography is a combination Schwann record catalog and Yellow Pages. 4,000 bands, 10,000 records, 1000 indie labels and 400 fanzines are catalogued and sometimes commented on. Under the Dead Kennedys it says "Jello ran for San Francisco mayor in '79 and came in fourth out of a field of ten. Campaign slogans included: 'There's always room for Jello' and 'A public official is only as good as his record'". Nothing is reviewed but this is a discography, not a review forum.

This is a really nice DIY effort using every resource they could find to put it together. Pages are littered with cool graphics from that era, and 100s of 45s in all their DIY glory are on display. With its lists of alternative radio stations, record stores, clubs and graphic ads for small labels and obscure artists, Volume paints a vivid picture of what was going on up till 1980. It's like reading old newspapers from your hometown except these are the bands that created punk and new wave. I've never heard of most of these bands. I sat here thinking of every obscure band I could think of and they were all listed. All the biggies and all the smallies all in one slender yet packed volume. I wonder if the threatened second volume ever came out.

I bought this for $12 plus shipping from It took them two months to find it but it was worth the wait.

Who's New Wave In Music: An Illustrated Encyclopedia 1976-1982 (The First Wave), by David Bianco (book review) (Pierian Press): This is a huge book, worthy of the oversized reference shelf in my local library where it collects dust. Large format, 400 pages, hardcover and printed on what feels like thin sheets of lead. Amazon and B&N sell it for $55, which it's not worth. Still, it's fun to thumb through whilst sampling the body odors of the homeless near you pretending they're reading.

Who’s New Wave In Music is a scholarly reference book written by a man who lives and breathes bibliography rules and the Dewey Decimal System. Some of David Bianco's other page-turners include Professional and Occupational Licensing Directory : A Descriptive Guide to State and Federal Licensing, Registration, and Certification Requirements and PR News Casebook : 1000 Public Relations Case Studies. His skill is compiling data into practical formats for research and reference purposes. Who's New Wave In Music compiles discographies and band info for 850 listings, plus a chronology of important dates, music terms, genres, sub-genres, bands that fit into each genre, record labels, zines and music stores. The chronology, glossary and list of genres are fun and educational, but the much cheaper Volume: International Discography Of The New wave is just as useful, if not more so, for everything else.

Both books list many bands but in no way are these lists definitive. The same can be said for the discographies. For every band you can document there was probably another that put out their own record and never rose above local obscurity or their parents' basement. Documenting the scene up till the Sex Pistols is likely an easy and quick task. The DIY explosion that followed makes a complete inventory of product near impossible. I know these books do their best but it's a little disappointing to look for your favorite obscure bands and come up empty. Yes, I do have the id of a child. I believe strongly in labeling genres of music, and this book, printed in 1985, has a great list, including Anglo Teen Pop, Atonal Electronic, Neo Mod and Thrash-Bang.. 

XTC Song Stories, by XTC and Neville Farmer (book review) (Hyperion): I'm trying to think of something more esoteric than a book delving into the lyrical meaning of XTC songs. Nope, nothing comes to mind. There's a fairly recent band biography I figured was the most in-depth analysis I'd ever see, but a major book on the inspiration for rare b-sides and nonesuch? What a koo-koo-krazy world we live in. Does XTC have that many core fans to support this printing? I guess so, or else Hyperion would have passed on the idea. Or maybe they dumb.

XTC: Quirky, jerky, clever, pastoral, silly, spunky and sometimes even punky. They've been around since the later ‘70s and their career is a lesson in the futility of genius. Or as it says in the prologue "The openness, the ordinariness, the laughter and the frustration that is XTC". Not everything they've recorded is great, or even good, but when they get it right XTC truly does rule the wasteland. Everything they recorded up to English Settlement is very good, yet the only notable album since has been Skylarking (since writing this they’ve also released the two great Apple Venus CDs), and that would have been another dull collection if not for producer Todd Rungren. Andy Partidge, the main force of the group, is insane. I mean literally. His anxiety attacks are legendary, but so is his benign megalomania. His mental ills and personality quirks may be the source of his best writing, but he unfortunately lacks insight into what songs are best for XTC in the marketplace.

And believe you me XTC wanted to be rich and famous. It's not artistic integrity that made Andy think "Wait Till Your Boat Goes Down" should be a single, it was bad judgment. For all the bile Andy throws at Rungren for making decisions on Skylarking, without Todd the album would have been as futile as Mummer. The tragedy of XTC is that Andy's insistence on always having it his way kept the band down as much as his creativity keeps it moving forward. Colin Moulding has written great songs but he's a bit subservient to Andy's will.

XTC Song Stories was written with Neville Farmer asking XTC questions about most of their album tracks. Often times they can’t really remember what a song is about, and Andy/Colin will conjecture on what might have been going through his mind at the time. This may seem odd since they wrote the song, but time fades memory. Here’s some factoids from the book:

1) The Rocky Horror Picture Show influenced White Music. 2) Barry Andrews thought XTC was a punk band. 3) Andy describes White Music as "Captain Beeheart meets the Archies". 4) When Andrews left, Thomas Dolby asked to join, Brian Eno also was interested, 5) Virgin records thought the horse on the cover of English Settlement was a duck. 6) Andy has been on Valium since childhood. 7) The clever cover sleeve for "Love On A Farmboy’s Wages" was a photograph of Andy’s wallet. 8) Andy sung "Extrovert" drunk. 9) The band rarely rehearsed new material, preferring figuring it out in the studio. 10) XTC went on strike against Virgin from 92-97, when they were finally released from their contract.

XTC Song Stories is nicely written and while the memories may be meandering they're at least interesting and informative. What you learn from this book that you won't find in a band history is how XTC approached studio recording. If you think they rehearsed, knew what they wanted and had control over the producers they hired, you would be wrong. I am not a musician and I just assumed the recording process was fairly cut and dry. In XTC's case, at least, the band went in with vague ideas of what they wanted, improvised with found objects and incidental acoustics, and the final sound mixing was sometimes left to the producer with XTC getting little say over the final product. At various times they felt absolutely helpless. Very odd indeed.

As an update to the book: XTC have found a small label to release their backlog of new material, some of it orchestral and some more rocking like Black Sea. We'll sea about that. Second guitarist Dave Gregory left the band, partly out of lack of work and partly due to Andy’s control problems. One day it will be just Andy, banging his head against the wall in sheer fright. Here's what the next XTC book should be called, The Great Rock and Roll Swindon. Thank you very much.

Your Action World: Winners Are Losers With A New Attitude, by David Byrne (book review) (Chronicle): Marshall McLuhan penned the immortal words “The medium is the message” for his 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. His predictions of a “global village” linked by mass media have come to pass, and even if the age of totalitarian corporate synergy is upon us, it’s neither Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World nor George Orwell’s 1984. Or is it? That might be the message of Your Action World, or it could be just an exercise in Byrne’s kitsch fetish for advertising slogans and corporate logos. There’s something kind-o-interesting on every page, and I appreciate how much work has gone into this, but Byrne’s been beating his obsession into the ground since Fred Flintstone popped his first zit. If any of Your Action World is a revelation to you, welcome to this planet we call Earth.

The publisher pimps the product with the usual hype: “In his latest book, writer, photographer, musician and former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne has created an extraordinary document and critique of the times we live in. Your Action World parodies the ‘inspirational’ promotional materials-including books, tapes, and corporate advertising-with which we are inundated daily. Byrne's impulse is to fight back, ‘to stem the tide of images and bullying texts that assault all of us, by building dikes and dams of my own images and texts. To understand the enemy I must become one with the enemy, I must be of one mind with the enemy. I must infect myself in order to be immunized.’ An intelligent, quirky document from one of our most innovative artists-with a cool debossed PVC cover and 4-color sticker-Your Action World will be the cult hit of the season.”

Well, I’m convinced, but your opinion might come down to what criteria you use to judge a creative work. If you belong to the school of “It calls itself ART therefore it is god”, you might spend the afternoon pondering two pages of bright color with the tiny white upside down words “Green=Benetton” printed in one corner. You might peel away 47 layers of meaning in static photographs of corporate campus street signage. Or, you can smack your forehead repeatedly while imagining what Byrne is really saying when he adds a cartoon speech balloon to a picture of a smiling baby that reads “Let me start with one major warning.” It comes across as a slide show, one I can imagine Byrne narrating in his own other-worldly way.

Or, you can call it a load of pretentious crap.

Post-modern ironic art limits itself little beyond dada images of advertising, public service materials and cheap syndicated TV shows. It’s a game of meta-perspective where you think you know what they don’t want you to know, they know you think you know what they don’t want you to know, you know they know you think they know what they don’t want you to know… It’s both reality and meaningless mental masturbation.

I like the book well enough since it was free to borrow from the library, but is it worth $30? What the hell do I know. Like Rodney Dangerfield says, to me class is when you’re in a room by yourself, you fart and say “excuse me.” Maybe a PVC-covered 14” X 11” art book on your coffee table is how you see yourself and want to be seen by others. Good for you for trying. If furniture garnish makes you happy, that’s super. Looking through the book again, I can appreciate the effort but I’m underwhelmed by the results.

Many people are sheep easily influenced by advertising and popular culture. You know that and I know that, but really, nobody forces anyone to drink Coke or wear Gap jeans. Top 40 radio sucks, so I don’t listen to it. MTV sucks, so I don’t watch it. If there’s nothing good on TV I turn the stupid thing off. Irony was once a secret weapon of the underground, but now it’s a formulaic sales tool of major corporations to co-opt Gen X, Y and Z, who laughably think themselves immune from manipulation.

Your Action World is filled with lots of pretty pictures and moot points. Same as it ever was, same as it ever was.  

Millennium (TV Series review): I watched all 67 episodes of Millennium, so damn right I'm going to tell you about it.

Watch All The Episodes Of Millennium Project began months ago, only on weekends and holidays. Millennium was X-Files' creator Chris Carter's first side project, the second the ill-fated for a reason The Lone Gunmen. Starring b-movie legend Lance Henriksen, Millennium started as one thing that couldn't last long as is, tentatively became like the X-Files and then settled into a whole new show with another star before the thing was put to rest.

Lance is obsessed with bringing back his Frank Black character, named after the lead singer of The Pixies, but while it was a neat show the character doesn't warrant another life. His "gift" of seeing what the killer sees was a visual gimmick that was cool until it stopped being cool, and aren't there enough profiler shows as it is?

Season One was "
Se7en: The Series". Each week featured a serial killer or somesuch while Frank Black saw horrific visions of bloody, screaming mayhem you wouldn't want to watch before bedtime. The season was good but each episode hit the same notes of depressing depravity while Frank's visions were a visual trick you can't base a show on for long. Then again David Banner could slowly turn into The Hulk twice a week for eternity for all I care.

Season Two was the best season. It delved into metaphysical issues, explored the internal workings of The Millennium Group and experimented with humor.
"Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me" was by far the best episode of the run.

Season Three was The Emma Hollis Show. The first few episodes had Frank as a supporting character. I liked Emma but am reminded of when Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish joined The X-Files while Mulder and Scully fulfilled contractual obligations. The plot-line became highly paranoid, The Millennium Group and the highly nuanced Peter Watt's character switching to pure evil. The Psych 101 dialogue also grated at times. CC Pounder's character turns bad and is arrested in "The Hand of St. Sebastian" but then is recast as an innocent victim of a different set of circumstances in "Skull and Bones". Did they think nobody remembered? They also reused character actors in different roles.

Megan Gallagher played Frank's wife and left after season two because her role didn't go much beyond looks of sympathy, empathy and concern. Brittany Tiplady as Frank's daughter won an award for her work in the harrowing
"Borrowed Time". She said of the third season "Millennium is still a lot of fun. My part this season is bigger and more involved. I don't spend a lot of my time sleeping anymore." The Lucy Butler character was great and super creepy while the Barry Baldwin character was just a prick.

The show ran from 96-99 so we never did find out if The Apocalypse took place or not on 1/1/2000. Millennium was a good series with some great episodes. It couldn't sustain what it started to be and never settled into a cohesive franchise. Oh well.

Millennium (TV review) (Fox): ( Update: The show was not picked up for the 99-00 season. It probably wouldn't have been renewed for a second season except as an appeasement to "X-Files" creator Chris Carter. The quality of the show varied greatly but when it worked it really worked.) (11-5-98 New Season Update: The format has reverted back to mirror the first season where Frank focuses on cases dealing with the complexity of the killer's mind. It’s similar to The Profiler but also more American Gothic. He's back with the FBI and works with a young FBI agent driven in her work as much as Frank Black is disturbed by his. The actress who played Frank's wife wanted out and I can't blame her since she mostly mimed an empty look of concern and confusion. She was killed off at the end of last season by a plague you were led to believe was killing all life on earth. In a complete re-writing of the show's history and a major lapse of internal logic, it seems the whole Millennium Group story was a lie and they're really an evil group determined to destroy the world. The X-Files has a shadow government and Millennium now has an evil shadow law enforcement agency. All the character development episodes are now a lie. Chris Carter is very good at what he does but he undermines his own credibility when he makes radical changes that go completely against the fiction he's already presented. How can the world be doomed at the end of last season and then this season the plague was only a small, isolated incident? And how can they have a Millennium Group agent die in a past season after being an evil betrayer of the "good" Millennium Group only to have her (dead) character referred to this season as a noble woman killed in a completely different way at the hands of the group. What, like nobody remembers the old episode? Science Fiction has to follow some rules of logic even if they are the invention of a crazed mind. Both of Chris Carter's shows fail in this regard, and fans must see it because they obsess about every detail. I really like Millennium and while it will never be as popular as The X-Files, with some fine-tuning it can be the better show.) (11-16-97: New season update -- the focus has shifted away from serial killers and Frank's family to the upcoming battle between Good & Evil in the coming Millenium, and how Frank Black fits into the picture. The first few episodes this year were average remakes of Cujo and The Bad Seed, but now the show is (for the better) concentrating on the secretive Millenium Group and the small tactical wars fought in the days before Armageddon. Last season's glimpses of the devil himself were great, and I hope they continue to show chilling visions of demons and angels. Each episode should take on epic proportions, with Frank being little more than a conduit into this world of supernatural gamesmanship.)

Millenium is most depressing TV show ever. Created by Chris Carter of The X-Files, this hour long weekly shock-drama explores humanity's capacity for pure evil, both from within and via Satan himself. Where in The X-Files aliens and government conspiracy are used to heighten paranoia over our inability to control our own lives, Millennium literally invokes the biblical prophecies of Armageddon and Apocalypse to heighten feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.

Lance Hendriksen, perfect as an android in Aliens, shows the same emotional range as Frank Black (named after the Pixies’ singer), a former FBI expert on serial-killers who's blessed/cursed with the ability to see vivid flashes of murder scenes after they occur. This keeps him on the edge of sanity while he works for The Millennium Group, a shadowy organization of ex-law enforcement who work with local police to help solve horrific ritual crimes. I doubt any real police force would allow outside investigators like Frank take over cases the way he does. Just once I'd like to see some cigar-chomping cop scream, "Who the fugg asked you?!"

Frank's 6th sense and years of experience allow him to know what the killer is thinking and what he might do next. He'll enter a room, pick up a slice of salami, "see" flashes of violence and blood, and then tell eight police detectives who've been working the crime scene "The killer licked and then slowly bit this deli meat after slicing the throat of the victim, cutting in a pattern exactly matching an ancient woodcut depicting Revelation 16. He's acting out a warning of our fate: flesh eating flesh...", at which point I'm waiting for the cops to all yell, "What the fugg are you talking about, and who the fugg are you anyway?!" 

The show believes in both demonic evil and the approaching end of the world. They should have named this series Apocalypse... NOW! Episodes alternate between crimes by evil people and acts by the big D himself, but it all leads to the same conclusion that the end times are a-coming. They try to keep you guessing if evil comes from either the forces of Satan or humanity left to itself, but in the writer’s minds the end results are probably the same.

For some strange reason I like this show. I wish someone, anyone would smile - even once. The closest you get is when someone raises the sides of their mouth like they suffer from gas. Millennium is so depressing it makes The X-Files look like Happy Days. I'm amazed Fox renewed this for next year, but like Seymour says to the people-eating Audrey Jr. as he's feeding it in The Little Shop Of Horrors, "Oh, well, I guess there's no accounting for people's tastes". 

The Antiques Roadshow (TV review) (PBS): Want to know how you can seem smarter? Read books, magazines and newspapers, watch documentaries and listen to talk radio. You don't need a PhD to be conversational; all you need to do is to keep up with what's going on around you. What's all this to do with a PBS show on antiques? Everything and nothing. Buried inside appraisals of old watches, lamps, knives, paintings, rugs, furniture and toys are factoids on history and culture that ask nothing more of you than to listen. I watch this show and am as dumbstruck as the old couple being told pappy's old watch is worth $200,000. Who the hell would pay $200,000 for a watch?! That's a whole week's pay, if not two.

As you all know, the best punk years are spent at The Salvation Army, Goodwill and garage sales (a great wacky second date idea). Most of it is garbage, but hey, that's your budget and the uglier the better. Haven't you ever fantasized about finding something valuable for a quarter under a pile of books? That's the thrill of The Antiques Roadshow. You watch as expert appraisers detail the particulars of an old plate or rug for a few teasing minutes before they say it’s worth $5,000 at auction. You start thinking you should be nicer to grandma from now on.

What's even more amazing is how much the appraisers know about these items. They consult with each other and conduct research on-line before going on camera with their comments, but some of the pros seemingly know everything about the companies that manufactured the goods, the techniques used, the materials, the artists, what symbols represent, and the styles of various regions and countries and years of manufacture. They're fortune tellers of junk who know all and see all.

Not everything is valuable. Which brings up the issue of what determines value, and is this valid or just loco? Until our commie masters take over and impose utopia on the proletariat, value is determined by supply and demand. But what would make anyone shell out $10,000 for an old Eskimo hunting helmet? What makes kids shell out their entire allowance for baseball cards? All I know is that I wish someone would buy my old comic books for what the price guide says they're worth.

Here's something even stranger. The world economy is based on the coveting of shiny gold rocks and clear shiny diamond rocks, which are then exchanged for sex.

 (As of Feb. 2007 there are still no episodes of Night Stand on DVD. If you hunt around the internet you can find a few episodes streaming. Oh I love this show. “Tesicles? ….that’s nuts!”)

Night Stand (TV review) (syndicated): Produced by Aaron Spelling and seen on 134 stations usually at 1:30 AM, Night Stand with Dick Dietrick is the dirtiest, weirdest and most dead-on accurate satire of tabloid talk shows you’ll ever see. I'm AMAZED this show has sponsors and hasn't been shut down by peasants with pitchforks. Hopefully ss all the morality prudes are fast asleep by the time this comes on. Each show has more dirty puns, malapropisms, double entendres and bad taste then you can shake your stick at. The show seems so real at times I'm sure many people tuning in have no idea it's fake.

Comic Timothy Stack stars as Dick (they beat every dick joke to death), who’s Phil Donohue as a complete dimwit. Each week's guests are talented unknown actors and the audience is from off the street and may have no idea what's going on.

On a recent show about one woman's efforts to close down seedy businesses in her neighborhood, the massage parlor madam comes on to prove she's running a legit business. About her business she says, "My customers come in with stiff joints and go away happy." Demonstrating her massage skills she first straddles Dick (Dietrick) and asks, "You're not a cop, are you?"

You have to see it to believe it. If you love bad sex puns like I do this is the best show on TV. Somehow find this show in your area and set your VCR on stun. Like they say on Night Stand, "Everybody needs a little Dick every once in a while!"

The Upright Citizens Brigade (TV review) (Comedy Central): This show makes me uncomfortable, and not in a good way either. The ideas behind the sketches are often brilliant and the execution is perfect, but mostly what comes across is an unflinchingly mean-spirited approach to comedy. This may represent the best of cutting-edge sketch comedy but most audiences prefer to see even just a tiny bit of humanity mixed in with humor at the expense of others. The Upright Citizens Brigade are great, but their material can be hard to take.

The four comics of NY's (formerly Chicago) Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) improv troupe play characters in episodes that either move around barely related ideas (the more the better) to full thirty minutes sketches (The Little Donny Foundation episode lost steam after three minutes). The ideas were probably developed during improv but the show is definitely scripted. The very funny pilot episode managed to tie various story lines together and I was led to believe UCB might be more genius than I suspected from their appearances on the Conan O'Brien show. Amy Poehler has a recurring bit as Andy's geeky teenage sister Stacy. She's very good - they're all very good - I just think they take their uncomfortable comedy to the point of alienating a large enough audience to warrant even a cable television show. The UCB is bringing back the tradition of guerrilla theater where audience members are literally punched in the stomach on the way to their seats as an orientation to the play to be performed on stage.

In comedy you can get away with cruelty if the audience knows you yourself are not a cruel person. Even the most non-PC comedy works if it's presented intelligently in the context of a performed art. Watching this show I only see one dimension to their personalities - comedy as warfare. This may be somehow pure but it doesn't bode well for the future of the show. Besides the TV show, UCB performs in clubs and teach improv classes ("Level 2: Introduction to long form improvisation: Recruits will study advanced scene work, long form and the Harold. Other skills include demolition's training, weapons proficiency, and how to do a spit take.") Their shtick is cultural subversion but with their outfits and jetpacks they look like Devo on a similar budget.

My favorite sketch is called "Ass Pennies" and how they give one man incredible confidence in dealing with others. After years of shoving pennies up his ass and later using them as spare change, his confidence comes from knowing every person he deals with has probably at one time held a penny that came from his ass. I also loved the bit with the boy who could only say "shut up" and "hit me". 

(Long off the air but it was great. Jimmy Kimmel got his start here)

Win Ben Stein’s Money (TV review) (Comedy Central): The last time I had access to cable television was in 1978. I can’t imagine spending money for something that’s otherwise free. Sure, much of what I watch with my rabbit ears scrambles around like porno channels, but I don’t watch enough to make cable worthwhile. I’m not one of those Kill Your TV wackos either, but - I was fortunate enough to catch my new favorite show, Win Ben Stein’s Money, on Comedy Central. On the surface it’s a game show but it’s really an excuse for Ben Stein and sidekick Jimmy Kimmel to insult the contestants and zing the funniest puns since Bullwinkle was shot and hung above the bar at McGinty’s Pub.

Ben Stein has been in moves, from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Wonder Years, to recent Visine commercials. He looks like Droopy the Dog and talks in a hysterical monotone that turns irony into a contact sport. Ben loosens up a bit on Win Ben Stein’s Money to keep things rolling at a fair clip, but he knows his bread is buttered with his deadpan delivery. Ben describes himself as "a monotone person wrapped around a shrieking one trying to get out." Any smile or motion from Ben takes on exponential proportions. Since Ben is himself a contestant for 2/3 of the show, sidekick Jimmy does a fine job reading questions and insulting contestants, all of whom are trying to win what would otherwise be Ben Stein’s money. I doubt Ben opens his wallet when a contestant wins, but it’s a good excuse for direct verbal attacks on his adversaries, all of whom are game for the funniest insults I’ve heard in years.

The game itself is in three parts: 1) Three contestants answer questions on various topics in a neo-Jeopardy format, 2) the lowest scoring contestant leaves and Ben Stein himself becomes a contestant, 3) Ben and the highest scoring contestant are placed in sound-proof booths to answer the same ten questions in sixty seconds. All standard game show stuff, but MAN is this funny! In one episode Ben is introduced as “Pimp-Daddy, Notorious B.E.N.”, and at the end of the last round he’s always given an 11th question like “Have you ever been spanked by a Marine?”, which is great because Ben has been so busy concentrating on real questions that the fake ones rattle him. To assure you he hasn’t been given the answers beforehand, Ben will say something like “I swear on Richard Simmon’s afro.”  The best are the punny topics used for the cash questions. Here’s my favorites from the last two episodes I watched:

“Passing Gas Can Be Historical”, “Pots and Japans”, “I Work In A Hump-Free Work Environment”, “Chocolate Up To Experience”, “Now You Museum, Now You Don’t”, “Who, What, Where, Wyoming”, “That’s All Water Under The Gate”, and “Franco, My Dear, I Don’t Give A Damn”.

Ben Stein is a former law professor, hippie, Nixon speech writer, Wall Street Journal columnist, and is as well read in pop culture as he is law and economics. He’s hard to beat in the brains dept., and this show is hard to beat for low-key intellectual mayhem.

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