Book Reviews, part I
And I Don't Want To Live This Life to Our Band Could Be Your Life
And I Don't Want To Live This Life - Deborah Spungen (Book review) (Ballantine): People read this book more than once. Someone at Amazon claims ten reads. I can see it since the ideas and opinions you come away with shift like moods in the PMS ward. Written by her mother, the story of Sex Pistols groupie and Sid Vicious punching bag Nancy Spungen is complex and emotional. This is punk's answer to The Bell Jar. Nobody disputes Nancy was a violent, nagging, manipulative, whiny, mean and often evil monster. The major issue raised by the book, unintentionally really, is who, if anyone, is to blame. Everyone has an explanation and excuse for the bad things they do, and while pointing to a bad childhood, drug addiction or mental problems may provide clues as to why a person acts the way they do, in the end we still have to deal with the end results.
Am I the victim if life leads me to punch you in the nose, or are you the victim because you've been punched in the nose? What can you blame on society or mental illness, as opposed to the individual? What defines mental illness, and can all bad behavior be blamed on negative past events or chemical imbalance? Is nobody then responsible for their actions, or in a messed up world are we all responsible for rising above our shortcomings (excluding of course the truly insane)? Deborah Spungen doesn't address these issues directly but to her credit she doesn't blur the reality that Nancy destroyed everyone and everything she touched, and wherever she went clouds of fear and hatred stormed down.
Nancy was born screwed. She entered the world with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, cutting oxygen to her brain. She was jaundiced and required a blood transfusion for a rare blood disorder where her blood type matched neither of her parents. She never received full testing but Nancy suffered neurological disorders and exhibited signs of classic schizophrenia. As a newborn she never stopped crying and screaming, as a toddler she attacked others and beat herself in the face, and as she grew older she experienced psychotic episodes that read like unfilmed scenes from The Bad Seed and The Exorcist. In one episode, Deborah finds pre-teen Nancy holding a paper bag over a high railing, the family cat inside. Nancy's in a trance and later has no memory of the event. Another time she frantically chases a babysitter with scissors. At age eleven Nancy attacked her mother with a hammer. Parts of And I Don’t Want To Live this Life are truly frightening.
Because young Nancy was prescribed Phenobarbital and Atarax to stop her from ripping herself to shreds in psychotic fits of violence, some blame Deborah for Nancy's descent into despair and heroin addiction. That's nonsense. Deborah did the best she could with a demon child beyond all reason and control. The mental health professionals she dealt with were either incompetent or unwilling to deal with Nancy. Because she was beyond help and went out of her way to be hated, every school and institution that would take her washed their hands and released her back to her family, who feared for their own safety and sanity.
Nancy hated life and life hated her back. She never kept friends. Her defining personality traits were a rampaging id, violent vindictiveness, paranoia and a strong desire to die that took hold at an early age. Nancy was intelligent (at eleven she was at college level at all subjects but math) and advanced very quickly in school - for as long as that lasted. At times she was lucid and caring, but too often she was plain evil. I don't know how else to sum it up. The first words her sister spoke were supposedly, "Nancy, leave me alone."
Can Nancy be held responsible for who she was? Did she have any control over her psychotic episodes? I really don't know. She was too normal for a life of institutionalization and too crazy to be on her own. Even in the punk world of psychos and kooks Nancy found her way to the top of the list of people to dislike and avoid. Like I say, everyone has an explanation for the horrible things they do to themselves and others. The guy breaking into my car to steal my leather jacket may have an equally sad tale to tell, but yes I'm going to break his head open if I can. That's reality, which is often unfair and unfortunate. You do the best you can and hopefully the house of cards you call your life doesn't fall down.
Nancy died in 1978 but her mother didn't write this book until 1982-83. In that time Deborah joined and formed the Philadelphia chapter of Parents Of Murdered Children, whose main functions are to lobby for victims rights and serve as a support group for families going through the same crisis. The Spungen's experiences with the press and the justice system are horrific tales of indifference and insensitivity. And I Don't Want To Live This Life was written as an extension of her work with this group, not to exploit the death of her daughter. Sid's ignorant hippie mum would have done that in a heartbeat. She brought Sid the dose of heroin he used to overdose. Nice.
The first mention of punk rock isn't until page 222. It's always interesting to read a civilian’s take on punk, even more so from a parent as far removed from that culture as Sid was to competence on the guitar. Deborah's commentaries on the scene are right on the mark, like when she writes, "Actually, I felt kind of sorry for him (Sid). He seemed like a victim of Malcolm McLaren's promotion machinery. For a brief time he'd been a star. Now he didn't know who or what he was. He seemed like a genuinely confused kid." Sid Vicious is defined correctly a psychotic man-child with passive-aggressive tendencies. To those who look at Sid & Nancy's relationship as a sadly beautiful love story from the gutter, remember that at one point Sid pulled one of Nancy's ears completely off. Can you imagine how much berserk mental and physical energy that requires? Two violent, self-hating losers find each other and fall in "love". That would be touching if it wasn’t pathetic.
There's so much going on in this book. I know enough time has passed reading this for you to once again surf the web with your other hand for porn, but here's something to consider. Deborah details what she calls her "fantasy" about Nancy's death. From a very early age she realized Nancy wouldn't live to see much past twenty. In her fantasy, Nancy dies peacefully from a drug overdose and the family goes about the mundane business of putting her to rest. The real life murder, media attention and upcoming trial destroyed the fantasy and Deborah is left with the horror that it will never end. If you don't read the entire book, this seems callous, yet there is a sad truth to the idea that in no way detracts from the fact she always loved her daughter, no matter how hard Nancy worked to not be loved.
Deborah believes Sid stabbed Nancy, but she's sure Nancy ordered him do it. Alex Cox's film Sid and Nancy is based partly on this book, and that idea is incorporated into the plot, along with the classic scene at the Spungen house. The Ramones wrote “And I Don't Want To Live This Life”, which never made it to the soundtrack but is still a great song.
And I Don’t Want To Live This Life is a great read that's very hard to put down. My only gripe is that Deborah Spungen repeatedly builds to the conclusion that Nancy is beyond all help and doomed to die. Once is great, twice confusing, and the fourth time over the top.
Bohemians: The Glamorous Outcasts, by Elizabeth Wilson (book review): If you could see the putz on the cover you would know why I want to kick him where the sun don’t shine. He’s a cartoonish bohemian. And by the by, you, Mr./Ms./Mrs. Punk, are bohemian too. You think you're living a life of art, danger and rebellion. You think your very existence somehow alters the world in your wake. You think people notice you because of who you are and what you represent, mostly the worst nightmare of boring, conforistsociety. You see the world as a mirror that reflects your image. You, my friend, deserve a kick.
There's a lot of good art and good artists, along with a lot of bad art and bad artists. What's really bad are bad artists who think they're good. The worst are bad artists who try to convince you they’re talented through hype and trend manipulation. Sadly, they often succeed since the bourgeoisie (boring non-artists) fall for the worst dog and pony shows of the art world. Artists know their racket is a scam, but they also realize they'd be nowhere if they couldn't convince you that a piece of rope nailed into a small piece of wood is very important art and worth every penny of $10,000.
Here's a parallel question regarding fashion. Expensive clothes are usually well made and last a long time, but in order to generate profits people must periodically be sold new and equally expensive fashions. My question is, what length of time, as defined by advertising and media, is the built-in obsolescence of fashion? In other words, people must be convinced they have to change their wardrobes what, every year? Every six months?
I wrote notes but left them in the book when I returned it. Oops. Excuse me for being more general than specific.
Bohemians: The Glorious Outcasts manages to be both gossipy and scholarly. The author is a professor of cultural studies at the University of North London who looks like Laurie Anderson. Her knowledge of the subject is wide and deep, and to her credit she admits bohemia is an ill-defined and self-serving myth. My interest extends only to the basic history of the movement since it is the basis for most alternative culture. The major players are worth noting but the book details the lives of too many people I don’t need to know about. Early 1800's Paris, Andy Warhol's Factory and the coffee house down the street reflect the same cycle of social climbing, back stabbing, gossip, manipulation, dementia, substance abuse and tribalism based on strict codes of exclusion. The only difference between freak and jock social circles are that they hate each other.
The original bohemians were seen as and fancied themselves romantic criminals like the gypsies, the name "bohemia" being the long extinct European homeland of the gypsy people. Lord Byron was probably the first bohemian as such, and he was also the inspiration for the physical description of Dracula in Bram Stoker's novel. Bohemes met in coffee houses and created social groups consisting of the rich, the artistic, the unbalanced, the sexually diverse, the very beautiful and the occasional obscenely ugly person who made people laugh and feel better about themselves. The dynamics of Warhols' scene were the same as the Paris scene 100 years earlier. Check out your local artsy coffee house. It won't be any different except for the lack of rich hangers on.
‘70s NY punk scene inspiration Paul Verlaine traded slaves in his later years, which makes me somehow happy because creeps like Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine (real name Tom Miller) admired him for his every obnoxious and boorish stunt. I wonder what they think of their boy now that he traded humans? Defend that, losers!
I like art and artists but dislike people who are full of themselves and who want you to worship in their cults of personality. To idolize the bohemian scene of any period is wrong, and Bohemians: The Glorious Outcasts is on one level self-congratulatory bullcrunky. Bohemians are basically defined by how screwed up they were and the art they created was often the result of the alleged genius that resides to the side of insanity and failure. All the talk about bohemianism being a rebellion against the bourgeoisie is nonsense as much as the anarchy punks at the mall represent a radical statement. Bohemians come from the middle class, sell their wares to the upper class and move back into the middle class if they don't expire first from death by misadventure. Bohemian culture existed before Paris. It existed anywhere and any time freaks, geeks and the sexually non-conforming got together to commiserate and collaborate. Paris was simply the first time people were able to mythologize themselves to a worldwide audience.
David Bowie Interview Picture Disc and Fully Illustrated Book - David Buckley (book/CD review) (MasterTone): 152 pages long and the same size as a CD, it’s not a bad deal for $7.99. There's a series of these books for artists from The Smiths to Bon Jovi. The author earned the doctorate for his Ph.D. on the subject of David Bowie. I envision his mother running down the street in her nightgown and floppy slippers screaming, "My son's a doctor! A doctor on David Bowie! Oh God, please kill me!!"
This is a very concise book on Bowie's recordings and performances, full of facts, gossip and personal opinions - like a Reader's Digest version of a similar 500 page book. A true Bowie fan at heart he criticizes the bad without being rude. On Bowie's cover of John Lennon's "Across The Universe" he writes, "..the song isn't particularly suited to Bowie's voice (or personality) and the overall result is unsatisfactory". I have no problem saying the cover version stinks, but nobody's paying to write a book for Bowie fans. As the author of a "cultural biography" on Bowie (my son the Doctor!), Buckley weaves in insightful comments on Bowie's influence on music, fashion, sexuality and culture in general without coming off as a smug, condescending, psycho-babble spouting egotist. That’s not a small accomplishment.
I agree with many of Buckley’s opinions, but when he describes "Let's Dance" as "possibly Bowie's greatest ever-single (if not song)" I'm torn between laughing and retching. Maybe "Fame" is as embarrassing, but he recorded that song in the middle of an ever-evolving career when alternative music followed wherever he led. "Let's Dance” signaled a massive sell-out at a time he seemed poised to simultaneously conquer the worlds of both avant-garde and mainstream music. This was a complete and unexpected reversal from all he accomplished on Scary Monsters, which was the culmination of all the right things he absorbed from working with Brian Eno.
The picture-disc CD contains an exclusive interview with Mr. Jones and only goes to prove David can be dull. Bowie is a genius, the most cultured man in music, but he doesn't express himself well in interviews. He gives short answers and doesn't pepper his comments with the insight and humor we expect from celebrities. Maybe this comes from too much exposure to tv talk shows and sound-bite driven music news clips, but I wish Bowie was more forthcoming and entertaining. In general this book is great and I love that so much information was nicely condensed into one small volume. Most 400 page books on music go on 200 pages too long.
The Business – Loud, Proud ‘N’ Punk, by Garry Fielding (book review) (S.T. Publishing): I’ve read magazine articles longer than this book but not all subjects require the long form treatment. Written by a former roadie, this huge pamphlet tells you everything you need to know about one of my favorite oi bands, at least up to 1996. The Business played their first gig in 1980, broke up here and there, and are now back for as long as singer Mickey Fitz can make a living. Fielding possesses the analytical skills of aerosol cheese but the lessons of the book are clear.
Lesson One: The UK Is A Dangerous Place. The level of casual violence at shows, sporting events, pubs and walking to the corner store for a dozen eggs is staggering. Group violence is common. Beating the crap out of everyone else and having the crap beaten out of you is a fact of life. Listen to the wrong music, go to the wrong school, follow the wrong team, live in the wrong neighborhood, go to the wrong church – no wonder the British have bad teeth, they’re constantly being punched in the mouth. In addition, stealing band equipment must be that country’s third most common job description, behind being on the dole and having a union job where nobody works. Civility is a facade to seduce the tourists and make the upper class feel superior.
Lesson Two: Embracing Skinhead Culture Was Oi’s Biggest Mistake. First wave UK punk bands were rock stars in their own right. The second wave bands were more real and the logical next phase. The Skinhead movement was an extension of the Mod movement of the ‘60s, and while it is true the earliest Skins were integrated and non-racist, by the late ‘70s skinhead culture was nearly swallowed whole by the pro-nazi National Front.
There are racist and non-racist skins, but to the world they’re all violent thugs. Sadly, SHARPS like to hurt people almost as much as nazi skins. Skinhead life revolves around violence. The working class pride angle works only to small degree. Sham 69’s courting of skinheads brought them a dedicated fan base that also destroyed them. The Business are not a skin band but they count many as followers. If you think the skinny snots who followed the Sex Pistols and Clash terrified the local gentry, imagine what the establishment thought of skinheads. Shows were canceled, police stopped gigs and in one horrific episode a club was firebombed by Asians. This real life event probably inspired the riot scene in Romper Stomper.
The Business, and all non-racist oi bands, would be better served by calling their music street punk and dropping all direct association with skins. Whatever noble history you may correctly attach to it has been tainted beyond repair by violence and hate.
Lesson Three: Bands And Record Labels Have Little Control Over The Records They Release. Poll 100 people (ouch!) and they’ll tell you that records sound pretty much how the bands want them. They can spend weeks or even months in the studio getting it right. The sad truth is that many bands have no idea how to record in a studio, and both labels and record producers pursue their own agendas that greatly influence the final product. Suburban Rebels was secretly remixed by Secret Records to muffle the guitars. The "Anywhere But Here" single was pressed incorrectly due to bad English to German instruction translations. If The Business didn't have bad luck they'd have no luck at all (gloom, despair and agony on me!).
Loud, Proud 'N' Punk is a decent way to waste a few minutes. On a lesser level the oi bands went through the same social and political ringers as the Sex Pistols before them. Here you'll also find a decent description of the problems surrounding the Strength Thru Oi! comp, whose original cover featured a picture of Nick Crane, a well known neo-nazi. Garry Bushell's excuse was that the original photographs of football Herbert (meaning nerd) Carlton Leech came out poorly so he quickly picked a blurred photo to fill the space. Bushell had to have known who Crane was and who was in the photo, especially since Garry was oi's biggest promoter at the time. The album title is also a mirror of the Aryan slogan "Strength Through Joy". Unintentional my arse! "Out In The Cold" is my favorite Business song, and it should be yours too
Buzzcocks: The Complete History, by Tony McGartland (book review) (IMP): More FBI surveillance file than band history, this book compiles every known factoid about the band into a daily diary devoid of drama, context and insight. Imagine Joe Friday filing this entry from June 28, 1976, "Buzzcocks play The Commercial Hotel, Stalybridge, a gig organized by themselves through Devoto's acquaintance with the owner, Mrs. Mately, whom they met whilst compiling the 'pub rock' listings for the New Manchester Review. This connection does not earn them an easy gig however - Devoto is booed off the stage for wearing green fluorescent socks and red slippers by the local crowd." All that's missing is Joe's dry definition of a gig, which only infuriates J. Edgar Hoover, looking eerily like Queen Victoria in his crushed velvet dress w/ matching bag and hat as he screams in rage over Pete Shelley's blatant homosapienality.
Buzzcocks: The Complete History is not a bad book, but except for the excellent chapter intros the thing's so dry it coughs dust. The format is lazy. McGartland amassed piles of dates, bibliographies, interviews and other kitchen sinks. Every sneeze, fart, demo reel and gig is accounted for. A lot of work went into researching this but instead of using his mind to collate it into an engaging narrative he used his computer to organize everything by date, basically printing out years worth of Day Planner files. It’s a book geared more toward actuaries than music fans.
The chapter intros are well written and very much on the mark, but McGartland is a blind Buzzcocks fanatic, which changes the tone from journalism to teenage crush. While discussing 1993's Trade Test Transmissions he writes, "Unfortunately, due to unforeseen distribution difficulties, this excellent album struggled to sell as well as it should have, and consequently did not chart." Did it ever occur to him that maybe nobody cared anymore about The Buzzcocks? Didn't they play to half empty halls when they broke up in 1981? Didn't they reform in the ‘90s to the notice of only a few? A whiff of Spinal Tap comes through, and I don't know if it's the band's or the writer's fault.
Any decent record review guide will give you many of the career highlights presented here. How the band formed literally in the wake of a Sex Pistols gig, how they put out punk's first indie EP, how they wrote great pop punk singles, Shelley's solo career, etc. Buzzcocks: The Complete History goes on to provide: a reprint of the TV review that gave the band its name ("It's The Buzz, Cock!"). Pete Shelley gave Joy Division their first stage name, "Stiff Kittens". Adam Ant may have been the first to form a band after seeing a Sex Pistols show. 999 tried being a synth pop band!
The makings of a good narrative are here but never explored. How they formed, the conditions that led to their indie EP, the violence at shows, how much and often band equipment is either stolen or destroyed ,road excesses, delusions of solo career grandeur, waning fan interest, canceled shows, Shelley's descent into disco hell and the band's reformation to a world that didn’t notice. Neither success story nor comedy nor tragedy, The Buzzcocks should have quit in their prime. They recorded many quality singles and are a very influential and important band.
Buzzcocks: The Complete History does the band a disservice by lacking perspective and irony. Is there no story to tell or is the writer incapable of telling the story?
The Comedy Bible: From Standup to Sitcom--the Comedy Writer's Ultimate "how to" Guide, by Judy Carter (book review) (Simon & Schuster): So you think you're funny, eh? The proof pudding is having a written piece accepted by a professional publication or getting up on stage in front of strangers and making them laugh with and not at you. Well, laughing at you is ok as long as at the same time you're not being pelted with rotten fruit. It's a factoid that people's greatest common fear is public speaking, and stand up comedy is the most stressful type of public speaking. Why are stand-up comics more insecure and stressed than the average person? It's their death wish. It's how they punish themselves. The funny makes them do it.
Judy Carter is a stand-up comic with decades of experience in clubs, colleges and corporate gigs. While not a household name she's carved a niche for herself and has taken to teaching people how to develop comedy personas, create and structure jokes and how to market themselves (with emphasis on networking). She has a company called Comedy Workshop Productions and a nice website at http://www.comedyworkshops.com. I read her last book, Stand-Up Comedy: The Book, and thought it was probably the best of what was available at the time. This new book is more comprehensive and strikes a nice balance between technical descriptions and lighthearted inspirations and admonishments. It's a starting point, not a know-all guide. You need to do comedy to get good at it. Any book on comedy is for inspiration and reference only.
Either you are capable of being funny or you are not. Judy brings this up late in the book but it should have been stated up front. I performed amateur stand-up for a few years and saw all kinds of talent, either fully developed, in the works or non-existent. You don't want to discourage people but every so often there would be someone with a genetic immunity to comedy, and as an act of kindness you wanted to do an intervention to get them to stop embarrassing themselves and you by association. Before spending time and money working on comedy it would be nice to know if you can actually be funny within your own lifetime.
The Comedy Bible encourages clean material and identifies a number of hack topics that should be avoided. Clean material gets you higher paying college, corporate and TV gigs, and the world doesn't need more airplane food jokes, but the truth is that funny is funny no matter what the subject matter. Inexperienced comics curse and scream to overcompensate, and hack subjects show a lack of initiative, so I can see the need to potty train before creating your poop masterpiece on relationships.
What makes a comic successful? You can only judge such things in retrospect since forecasting success in the performing arts is as inexact a science as the stock market. It could be looks, persona, timing, jokes, dumb luck or great connections. Professional comics are not necessarily funny but they do know their material back and forth, and they exert control over themselves and the audience. I've seen pros bomb but they don't crap their pants when heckled and they can fire off callbacks at will. Callbacks are jokes later in the act that recall an earlier joke or audience interaction. People love them and it shows you're capable of more than a laundry list of one liners.
For a while Judy stresses writing with Attitude, which I guess through her experience is how you teach developing a persona. I'm a persona guy from the get-go, maybe because I've seen too many amateurs express attitude poorly. Many jokes fail simply because the sentence structures are weak, and you can judge comedy for clarity in the same way an English teacher grades essays. Simple violations of grammar can ruin a joke's timing and logic. Setups (A) lead to punchlines (B), and most jokes follow a strict internal logic. Sometimes a setup is intentionally misleading, but it takes real skill to make misdirection jokes clever and not just silly. In general, the length of a setup depends on the strength of the punchline. That cookie better be damn tasty if you're waving it for so long in front of me. The natural urge is to write long setups is fine when coming up with jokes, but not good for performance. Write long and whittle down to only what you need.
I found the chapters on one person shows and tv sitcom writing interesting. They're not skills you can learn from a book but I loved the list of distinctive details you're supposed to glean from watching and researching shows you want to write spec scripts for, especially the format of the written script itself. The end chapters on networking, managers, agents and promoting yourself are reminders that selling yourself is a full time job. I did stand-up as a hobby, and while I understood it on an empathetic level, I thought people who wanted to travel the country alone, sleep in their cars and get paid in hamburgers were a little off.
It's important to write down funny things you say right after you say them, so have a pen and paper with you at all times. Tape recorders are ok but they're a hassle and you look stupid talking into a machine. Remember, what's funny to you today will most likely not be funny tomorrow, especially what you scribble down in the dark at 2AM. That's normal.
Organize funny ideas and phrases into categories. You never know when something you wrote six months ago will help stretch out a routine from last week.
If you go to an amateur comedy night and tell the comics you want to do stand-up, they'll keep you at a distance until you've gone up and performed yourself, no matter how much you might suck. Getting up there is your rite of passage.
The comedy I hate most is what I call Clapping Seal bits. That's when the audience feels compelled to applaud because you've learned to hiccup the alphabet backwards or are double jointed and can do something freaky with your arms.
I'm also not a fan of telling jokes based on funny things other people say. People ask me if I wrote comedy based on them or where we worked. My god no. My comedy comes to me while playing with words and thoughts, a process I consider organic. Otherwise my conversations would all be strained, as in I'm always looking for the funny in other people. That’s annoying for the other person and simply not polite.
Comedy books tell you to write material based on your own experiences, which often means you just so happen to be there when someone else says or does something funny. I like comedy to be original and not plagiarism orjournalism. Sam Kinison admittedly got a lot of material from what other people said, so maybe his name should have been "Scoop".
The Comedy Bible is a great book and I highly recommend it. I think as a writer it's helpful to read books like this on an ongoing basis. It forces you to constantly evaluate what you are doing, and while you may not agree with the books the added perspectives are vital because writing is a solitary act and self-delusion is your worst enema. Why yes, I am here all week. Goodnight, and try the veal!
Of Days - Two Decades Of Punk In The Nation's Capital
Dance Of Days is a decent enough book. It
tells stories well and covers as much as it can through the political
activist-colored glasses of the author, Mark Andersen. The book was co-written
(read cleaned up) by DC alt-journalism staple Mark Jenkins, who probably and
thankfully removed the tear-stained confessional aspects of Andersen's writing
that moistens the book's beginning and end.
The subtitle is misleading to some because it's not hugely comprehensive of every band and scene in DC, but Andersen was not a writer by trade but an active participant in the Dischord scene as an organizer for Positive Force, a DIY activist group. The book is slanted heavily towards politically correct assumptions of what is right and real, but in that regard its saving grace is Andersen's compulsion to point out the bad along with the good. To his credit, and in defiance of the rules of political activism, he insists on reporting the DC scene warts and all.
In the world of Dance Of Days, "meaning" is really important. Lyrics contain the answers to all life's problems and banging pickle buckets in the park across from the White House accomplishes a whole lot. Shows are remembered in perfect detail, and the right word or note creates synergies between band and audience as close to a religious experience as most are ever going to experience.
The major players of the scene are creative types full of the euphemism "contradictions". Ian MacKaye is ok even though he's pushy with ideas, and he's more violent than you'd imagine. The DC scene would rank up there with Passaic, NJ if not for him. Henry Rollins is pathologically hypocritical in everything he does and says. HR of Bad Brains is clinically insane.
It's safe to say Dance Of Days is not a history of the DC punk scene but a well researched set of remembrances of what one person found exciting and interesting. It's where you can read the line "They were trying to survive, searching for a tribe, for family, for fun" and maybe not puke. Maybe.
Cult Rockers, by Wayne Jancik and Tad Lathrop (book review) (Fireside): The cover reads "150 of the most controversial, distinctive, offbeat, intriguing, outrageous, and championed rock musicians of all time." The pieces are generally well written and informative but I'm a bit disappointed the authors didn't put more effort into it. Both have experience and should be able to write this in their sleep. Quotes and archived articles seem to have shaped the entries more than original outlines fleshed out by further research. The Zappa summary is passionate and in-depth while the review of The Fall is patched together with goo. What could have been an expansive, in-depth resource is just a cool book to read if you see your personal favorites listed.
I can't complain that much because some of my own nominees for cult status are included (The Feelies, XTC, The Residents, Ramones and Devo among others). What gets me is the feeling that 150 entries and the total number of pages may have been pre-ordained as enough for a book like this. Maybe the word "cult" isn't intended to include truly obscure bands like Tuxeedomoon and Dark Day because Cult Rockers is a mass-market book intended for a readership still for the most part huge fans on commercial, non-cult status music. For what it is, it's not bad, so feel free to borrow it from the library and keep it next to the toilet to help you pass the bowel movement... I mean time.
Disney: The Mouse Betrayed: Greed, Corruption and Children, by Peter and Rochelle Schweizer (book review) (Regnery): Don't you hate it when you’re prepared to love a book and it stinks? First, because it just plain stinks, and second beacuse you know a good book on the subject may be a long time coming because this one exists and stinks. Peter is a media fellow at the Hoover Institution (where that sucking sound is coming from) and his wife Rochelle a media consultant, often a self-defined job title. Together they've written a naive and hyperventilated account of the modern day Walt Disney Company. Disney must be hating the bad publicity but loving the fact this book was written by rank amateurs with the worldly experience of hill folk. The book may further inflame the religious right against godless Disney but it's so poorly written nobody with an independent mind will want to venture beyond the first few pages.
The book’s major flaw is an assumption that the history of Disney is a divide between the holy and pure era of Walt Disney and the corrupt, vile reign of Michael Eisner. They assume we see Walt's Disney as the embodiment of all that is good, decent and right in the world. That Disney under Walt was heaven on earth and that the new regime bears no resemblance to the old. It’s total nonsense. It's a fantasy shared by the simplest minds of social agenda conservatives.
To get the skinny on Walt, pick up Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince. It asserts Walter dunked his donuts in bourbon, treated women and minorities like garbage, spied for the FBI, paid minimum wages and was an all-around decent fellow. His vision of children's entertainment may have been appropriately moralistic for the time but he was no saint and not all of his employees shared his lack of humor or overbearing moralism. Dirty animation came out of the back doors of the studio during Walt's tenure, and maybe there's a few hidden prank stills in Sleeping Beauty the Schweizers might find troubling. The authors are blind to gossip like this because their book is little more than a collection of wake up calls to the evils of the new, very un-Walt-like Disney. They don't come out and say they're offended Christians but everything screams 700 Club. Walt's spinning in his grave (his head's in your grocer's freezer), but that's a by-product of fermentation.
The Disney Company is guilty of sleazy acts, don't get me wrong. Theft of intellectual property, goods made in sweatshops, control of local police, bad safety records -- I wish a better book was written on the subject. Equally bad to the authors is the acceptance of the gay community, adult themes of Miramax films and Hollywood Records, part ownership of a cable network that shows naughty films and how recent Disney cartoons are made to appeal to both kids and their parents. All the while they gaze back to the old days of Disney that exists partly as truth and partly as false nostalgia. As if there was never crime, pedophilia, intellectual theft or park guests injured when Walt was in charge. Who honestly believes that? The authors may not either but the hook of their book is bent firmly in that direction. Naive is not good when applied to works of non-fiction, and the authors of Disney: The Mouse Betrayed: Greed, Corruption and Children are very naive.
They're also not too bright when it comes to business in general and the music industry in particular. Eisner took over a company that desperately needed to diversify and profit from existing properties. Before 1984 Disney hadn't re-issued any of their classics on video. It was a goldmine left to rot in the old Disney mindset of theatrical re-releases every seven years or so. Warner Brothers was stuck in the same doldrums until recently when the brand was given a BIG marketing push. So what if Disney invested in ventures with adult material? It's not like they had Dumbo in ads for death metal bands. Disney has divisions that create children's programming and divisions that produce for adults. Is that too hard for the authors to understand? Is it somehow a sin because Walt wouldn't approve? Is Walt God or Man? Hollywood Records, a failure from the start, is given major page-time because it promotes satanic punk rock. They neither know nor care about the differences between punk and heavy metal. The only satanism in punk exists as a joke. When Danzig is called punk you know the world of definitions took a stiff one up the wazoo.
Back to the book review -- Book bad. Disney good and bad. Cookies good.
Drugs Are Nice: A Post-Punk Memoir,
Crystal Carver (book review): The poetic
Drugs Are Nice is one of the most interesting autobiographies you’ll ever
read. Snippets of memory are poetically detailed and both truths and feelings
are metaphysically explored to where you feel you’re directly in another
person’s mind – in this case the creator of the 90’s zine
Rollerderby, mother to Boyd Rice’s son, ex-wife of French scuzz artiste
Jean-Louis Costes, member of
Suckdog, ex-lover of Smog’s Bill Callahan, spit-swapper with GG
Allin, sex columnist to the
stars gutters and all-around kooky cut-up
Lisa Crystal Carver. There’s no reason to believe or disbelieve anything she
writes about. Her brutal honesty might be a fabrication. I have no reason
not to take her writings as factual in how she saw things, but by word and
action it’s also clear Lisa Carver might not be bound by normal conventions of
truth and sanity. She’s a victim of some circumstances but also seeks out her
demise in her choices of men, and along with being a willing participant in
marginal living she might also create and set off the fuses of the bombs that go
off all around her. It’s best to take it all at face value and try not to
place bets either way. Either way, it’s fascinating material.
As a guy I went more for the storytelling and less for the deep unravelings of feelings and personal motivation. There’s a loose narrative structure that doesn’t start from the beginning of any scene. The reader’s thrown into things while events are under way and you go in unclear yet attentive because something strange is always afoot. It takes time to get used to, but eventually it creates a disconnect you might suspect is how Lisa’s mind works. The only directors I can see making a film out of this are Jim Jarmusch or David Fincher. It’d be narrated up the wazoo, I know that much. I also know life offers endless opportunities for adventure when you’re young, pretty, fearless, sexually willing and possibly nuts. I hate to use the word “nuts” but this level of nonconformity to basic mental health standards isn’t normally a positive beyond being sadistically entertaining.
Lisa and her fellow travelers are victims of the past and not for a moment do they suppress the need to do unto others. Lisa’s father is a charismatic and manipulative career criminal while her mother is sickly and bitter. Lisa develops a feral intellect and a fearless curiosity to explore her outer limits and the sociopathic tendencies of dangerous types. In Suckdog she participates in performance art pieces that involve nudity, bodily fluids and harmless attacks on the audience, and her relationship with Boyd Rice, whose catalog goes from the unlistenable to the OK I’ll listen because there’s a gun at my head, is equally sad and pathetic. The truth eventually sinks in but she also thought GG Allin operated from some creative genius master plan. She toured with anti-art noise-meisters Psycodrama and met Anton LeVay, whom she labels a putz. It’s just me but I don’t understand being talented enough to create music but refusing to do anything but spewing random chaos. I’ve asked noise fans what they get out of it and what I get back is an admission that it takes their worst intentions for a run which sometimes that calms them down.
Drugs Are nice is addictive reading, with a distinctive insight into the mind of the author, who has a way with words for sure. Here’s some of my favorites:
She paces the apartment with the pills held before her in her open palm. Maybe she believes that fate requires a certain amount of suffering from each of us, and she wants to be sure her full amount is seen and recognized, so no one mistakenly gives her some more.
I stare at her and let my hate out of my eyes. I can’t wait to write all about her in my diary. At last she sees my hate. It punctures her; she sinks to the floor, defeated. She pulls me down into her lap, wraps her deflated arms around me. She’s sobbing and smiling and saying I’m her best friend and it’s me and her against the world and she changed her mind—I can stay up late and watch Jesus Christ, Superstar with her.
The thing he’s most proud of, my father says, is that he never beat me—though he often wanted to, badly. Still wants to, he lets me know. It will be easy for me, he predicts, to not hurt my kids; it’ll come naturally. He was the one to break a cycle that went back at least a hundred years, and probably much longer.
I’ve only seen one photo of him as a little boy. He had a goofy grin and a cowlick. When my father told me what happened to him, I pictured that goofy boy locked in his room for days at a time, or all in a pile at the bottom of some stairs, then getting leaned over in the ambulance by my grandfather whispering to him what “really happened,” and what’s going to happen to him next if he doesn’t remember it the right way.
The local punks rather formally rejected me, and the goths never laugh at my jokes. There’s not much chance of me making it in the real world, either. I don’t have even one skill, and I can’t take the thought of going to college to get one. I look for how to live in magazines.
In our youthful foolish love of the world we don’t know, both Rachel and I wish we had AIDS. We don’t really want AIDS—and since she’s a virgin and I’m a tease, and neither of us uses needles, our chances of getting it are quite low. What we want is for something to spread through us, to take us over, and that’s what diseases do. Being on stage despite my stage fright felt that way, and it was probably the most exhilarating moment of my life thus far.
Rachel distrusts my father—and my father, I know, is studying Rachel, searching for this new enemy’s weakness. And I worry that one of these days, the foes—one hot and young, one cold and old—will realize they could just skip the middleman (me), and run off together. All this tension adds a kind of frantic glee to every activity.
I’m surrounded by fatalists! By historians. I want to destroy history to make way for something that doesn’t yet exist! Rachel and Andrew are guardians, defenders, getting in my way. I don’t try to hurt Rachel, because I’m afraid of her, but I do hurt Andrew.
We manage to get a coffee house to let us perform on pacifist poets’ night. Five people show up, besides the pacifist poets on the bill. (I guess we’re the warmonger poets.) Jean Louis surprises everyone by coming out of the bathroom with an open umbrella with broken metal ribs duct-taped to his back, trailing black tissue paper, and a turkey baster for a penis. I wear just Christmas lights.
People who don’t really know me describe me as “oddly innocent,” “perpetually tipsy”—even “a half-wit.” But once they get close enough, they start wondering if I’m not some kind of monster—secretive, and hardened by ambition. Jean Louis, though, seems to like monsters. Still, he’s keeping his eye on me. He draws a really big eye on a piece of paper and tacks it up on my side of the bed, where it can watch me whenever he, reluctantly, falls asleep. I like the eye. I find it comforting. I’m suspicious of me too.
I discover in my post office box a booklet of GG’s prison poetry. It’s so dreadful! I always thought it was theatre—all his brutishness, from the bar brawls to the poor grammar—conceived by an elegant and vicious intelligence. I thought he played dumb brilliantly. After reading “Troubled Troubadour of Tomorrow,” however, I realize my dream-date is probably borderline retarded! I don’t know if my new perspective has completely killed my crush, or re-ignited it. After all, there is no question any more about one thing: GG is real.
I’m both disgusted and enthralled with the new, more Jean Louis Jean Louis I find in Paris. This Jean Louis is so unafraid and wild! He gets kicked out of his own, weekly Anarchist Radio Show for having a huge argument with the director about the moral value of a sandwich.
Maybe all the dumb-looking stuff we do is really smart. If it weren’t for my dumb problems (and his), we wouldn’t have created these shows, we wouldn’t always travel, we wouldn’t have so many funny stories to tell. Having an unfillable hole inside is a great catalyst. You’re always trying new things to fill it. People with holes look good! Look ready for action. But then sometimes you’re home alone, and there’s nothing new to try, and there the hole still is.
But I feel it’s worse to support such actions tacitly than it is to actually do it—because at least once you enter the world of violence, there are repercussions. You could go to jail, or get hurt yourself. And it’s clear: the victim at least knows you beat him, knows you were wrong. The witness, unlike the perpetrator, risks nothing, but allows everything.
The indie rock shows I’ve attended, everybody stands around with crossed arms and backpacks, indistinguishable from the three on stage (each band has three members), who sing mutteringly and moaningly, and not one person wears or does anything inappropriate. The whole thing is cryptic, and the opposite of me and Jean Louis: Indie rock is quiet, undecorated, unambitious and asexual, with nothing to prove. I think it’s a bad influence on the youth! It’s my suspicion that they mumble lyrics so no one can decipher their message—because there is no message!
There’s something quite exclusive about a relationship where one fears being poisoned and the other fears that she’s going to do the poisoning, and neither one calls the police or the hospital; neither leaves. We have an underwater sort of love: We can’t see or hear each other—or anything else—very clearly, but we wrap around one another like currents caressing seaweed. We can feel ourselves changing in slow motion.
I try to write not like a “good writer,” but like I’m telling something I can’t wait to tell to one person, who already knows everything about me and still likes me.
Matt looks like a witness. The nondescript person who is able to give ever every detail of a crime that happened right in front of him because the criminals didn’t even notice he was there.
He invites me over one time so he can draw on my feet and film it. I don’t know what he means by it, but it feels like he means something. He also asks me to drink syrup of Ipecac and throw up for him, and I do. I like to be asked to do things. I’m happy to help people make their bad dreams come true.
I find myself explaining the crazy people—who are too far gone to explain themselves—to the sane people, and explaining the sane people—who are actually much deeper than they appear, but are too uptight to transmit it—to the malcontents.
One young man invites me to his prom; another wants to have sex with me with “a chicken wig.” I’m tempted to take both of them up on their offers: I never went to my own prom; and I’d like to find out what a chicken wig is.
I once walked in on her pouring greedily over old photographs of Bill and me. I knew she was trying to discern the ways in which he and I were close—measuring them against her ways with him, making sure her present ownership completely cancelled out my past hold on Bill. Things have to be all hers. I’ve never required anything to be mine. I just move through things, and people.
Boyd is a great identity dance partner. He and I are human chess pieces. I act like a submissive girl, and he responds as if I am. Nobody wants to be the bad guy, because then everybody hates you. But if you want a complicated psychodrama, somebody has to play that role—and Boyd, for some reason, is willing. And he’s so good at it. He never lets on that it’s a game.
I love my crazy baby who kicks me hello night and day. “I will be your yesterday,” I tell him in the dark in my San Francisco room. “You are my tomorrow.”
Because Boyd is a minor celebrity, people passing through Denver often stop in to see if by chance he will be there, dressed in black, spinning incongruous beach party records alternating with white noise, shooting clever barbs into anyone who approaches him, and they love his insults—it’s like kissing the Blarney Stone and being grateful to come up with a mouthful of dirt.
Where does all the lust for cruelty come from, I wonder? Giving it and taking it. Maybe it’s just that we all do what we’re good at. Some people are good at building scary cages out of their anger and confusion; other people are good at moving into them.
Americans have forgotten what’s great about being American. It’s not our sensitivity. It’s our impatience, our changeability, our excitement, our openness, our cheer, our sexuality, our very crassness.
Wolf must think that if he could only speak, if he could make us understand how horrible this procedure is, then we would never do it to him again. But he just screams, and he can’t make his scream into anything that anyone around him will react to. I sweat horribly during the vacuuming. I see through his eyes; his tormentors are all calm, smiling people—and I’m helping them. The indignation he must feel!
I got you and your screwdriver set that you hold so carefully, and your walk so slow. I got you and your love of mold and moss and all things that smell bad, all things cracked, all things broken. I hope you’ll always be like that, even if it brings you nothing but trouble—loving, fervently, all that is unlovable. Being kind to the undeserving. Someday you’re going to speak for the less than handsome and the snuffling of the world, and you’ll be taken advantage of—and you’re a better man for it.
“She wasn’t supposed to hit you,” my father says again. It’s the voice of a betrayed man.
But from my current pit of abject failure, it’s pretty hard to feel scorn about someone else’s dream that will never come true. I can see now what I never understood before: my needy, un-heroic mother does have a certain grace. It’s the way she watches. The way she waits. It’s childlike, in the sweetest sense of the word. Despite everything that’s happened in her life, she still really thinks something’s going to happen next that’s so good, so wonderful. It doesn’t have to be big, and she doesn’t want to walk on anyone’s back to get it. She trusts that it’s coming to her for no reason, or for the reason that she’s good inside (like children believe that they’re good).
He had to sell his apartment to pay his lawyer, and he moved into his basement—but not before police came to his apartment in the middle of the night and trashed it, looking for evidence. He is very excited. It’s a paranoiac’s dream come true—what’s inside his head is finally matched by the outside.
I am glad of every strange way and person I chose, and I am grateful to my father for forcing me to choose. He taught me fear, and he taught me fearlessness. He taught me that being destroyed won’t destroy me. Destruction and loss are nothing to cower from. They’re a chance to begin anew. And yet, these are not lessons I want my son to learn. I don’t want him hunting down self-destruction because it’s the only way out he can see. Yes I survived it all. I became a more interesting person. In some ways. But there is still that hole in me.
EL SID: Saint Vicious- David Dalton (book review) (St. Martin’s Press): Did the booksellers of America bother to read this thing before flooding their stores with this crap? It’s not even a book about Sid Vicious, the dumbest rock star ever to wear the punk union label. It's about how gosh darn clever and literate the author is. David Dalton is the epitome of the Hipster Doofus. Beat jazz cadences and flagrantly pretentious art/history/politics/psychology/culture references get old quick, especially once you realize Sid is so rarely mentioned directly. It could be that Sid’s life was a big, fat zero, and not worthy of a full-length book, but I think this is just one big ego-fugg for the author.
The book starts well with a concise summation of Sid’s life and times: “Sid couldn’t play his instrument. He couldn’t sing, he was a mess. He was weedy, goofy, gullible, and psychopathic. Mindlessly violent. He was perfect. Even Elvis failed us in the end by becoming fat and pathetic, but not Sid. A nobody at seventeen, world famous at twenty, dead at twenty-one!” From here on in the book spends most of its pages with nonsense lines like, “Scaly aliens with skin problems and bad teeth scan the planet. Their hipnosity Geiger counters, pointed at the mid 1970s, crackle with static. Ha! Foolish earthlings stunned into immobility by Europap have become slaves of the palindromic ABBA. Swedroid replicants have hypnotized Earth cretins. Prepare to invade.” Yoinks!
This pretentiousness makes it hard to differentiate between fact, fiction and personal commentary. There’s also too much literary license taken. Since there’s little in the way of interviews with Sid the author seeds the book with fictional “diary entries" rife with British illiterate-class phonetic spellings: “Nancy gettin into Lydon’s face an’ee is poised to smack ‘er one. ‘Oh, don’t hit her,’ quoth I, ‘You mustn’t’. Nance an me is inseperable. Togevver we stand, togevver we nod awf.” My god is that horrible.
El Sid is the most annoying book I’ve read in ages. The art school posing literally forces you to skim through its short 223 pages screaming “Where’s the beef! Where’s the freakin’ beef!!” Dalton is good when analyzing the role of fashion and media in British society, but facts take a back seat to his endless flights of self-indulgence. For every insight like “In the beginning, punks would define themselves by what they hated, and what they hated constituted a considerable list”, the author spits out twenty gobs of nonsense like, “… (Sid was) so obsessed with the mythology of self-destruction that flagrant disregard for life and limb became routine.” Sid had a defective brain. There was no poetry or higher purpose to anything he did. Sid whipped chains at stranger’s heads and threw bottles across rooms. There is no mythology when it comes to Sid Vicious, only misplaced idol worship and nihilistic cheerleading. The mythology is an empty lie, and a harmful one at that.
To prepare for this book Dalton read eight books on British punk. He uses these sources only as reference points for his word-heavy ramblings. At the end of the book he seemingly runs out of tangential ideas and focuses nicely on the particulars of Nancy Spungen’s death and Sid’s quick decline into oblivion.
Sid’s probably not worthy of his own book. El Sid is no more than an exercise in the author’s stream of consciousness. If you like that kind of mental masturbation then by all means buy this. If you wait a few months you’ll be able to pick this up cheap as a remainder. David Dalton has also written books on James Dean, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Marianne Faithful, and The Grateful Dead. I anxiously await his treatise on Carrot Top.
Jane & Michael Stern's Encyclopedia Of Pop Culture and Encyclopedia Of Bad Taste (book review) (Harper Perennial): Nobody ever asks me questions like "Hey, what reading material do you keep by the crapper to fill your mind with knowledge whilst filling your crapper with poopies?" It’s why I have to bring things up myself. Lately it's been two books, the Encyclopedia of Pop Culture: An A to Z of Who's Who and What's What, from Aerobics and Bubble Gum to Valley Of The Dolls and The Encyclopedia Of Bad Taste. They’re the Who-What-When-Where-And-Why of America's favorite, flashiest, and funniest cultural extremes, from accordion music to zoot suites, extensively researched and filled with fun facts. They're similar in style but one's less tacky in content.
These would be novelty books if not for the reams of useful and timeless information they provide. Jane and Michael Stern are serious cultural anthropologists from the John Waters school of mondo. They comb through many source materials and don't write on any subject without first mastering it. Everything you read in a Stern article is backed by documentation.
They're baby boomers writing for fellow boomers, so you'll find pieces on both the Gabor sisters and heavy metal. Written in 1990 and 1992, I’m guessing they won't update either book because they show no interest in Gen X and Y cultures. Their latest books are on dogs and the great book concept titled Eat Your Way Across the USA; 500 Diners, Farmland Buffets, Lobster Shacks, Pie Places, and Other All-American Eateries. Below are samples of their work. Nobody gets the essence of the modern age like the Sterns. A crap just doesn't feel right without good book in hand:
Disney World: Disney is to fun what Velveeta is to cheese: pasteurized, processed, smooth, neat, bland, square, loved by children, and a world-renowned symbol of America's corporate genius. Walt Disney World, the company's theme park environment in Florida, is the biggest block of cheese ever packaged. Bob Guccione: Founder and publisher of Penthouse, Bob has been known for many gifts to world culture during his career, including exposed female labia in men's magazines; sexually explicit letters to the editor; a thriving sexual prosthetics and body-oil business; deposing the first black Miss America; and showing pictures of Jimmy Swaggart's favorite prostitute posing in the positions the Reverend enjoyed most. Mud Wresting: The Milwaukee Hustlers, the first team of professional lady mud wrestlers to tour the United States, were sent forth by Bruce Rosenbaum of the Rosenbaum Talent Agency in the early seventies. "It was all in good fun," Mr. Rosenbaum wistfully recalled about the origin of novelty wrestling in America. "But before we knew it, mud wrestling turned into a cheap sex show." Dinosaur Parks: Dinosaur parks are half-baked odes to prehistory, most of them created by roadside entrepreneurs who combine their enthusiasm for triceratops with audacious showmanship and a promise that visiting the park is educational. Tourists gleefully pay admission to gape at concrete, Styrofoam, or paper-mache statues of giant creatures in surroundings designed to recreate the ambiance of a million years B.B. Potato Chips: Potato Chips are to raw potatoes what "Jeopardy" is to serious scholarship; an addictive, ready-to-digest pop-culture variant of something that traditionally requires time and effort. There are many junk foods a person can snack on, but chips are the supreme emblem of this country's love affair with things that are convenient, greasy, bad for us and ever so much fun to eat. Jerry Lewis: What do people love about American pop culture? It is fun, bright, irreverent, irrepressible, unabashedly sentimental, sometimes brilliant, and almost always surprising. What do people dislike about American pop culture? It is loud, lowbrow, blasphemous, mawkish, sanctimonious, sometimes obscene, at times predictable, and almost always impolite. Jerry Lewis is all of the above. Fish Sticks: If you agree that the sight of a fish on a plate is repulsive, especially if it's still got its head or tail, then you understand the raison d'etre of fish sticks. A stick of fish, as opposed to a whole fish or part of one, eliminates so many of the gruesome problems of eating seafood: having to look at a dead animal or, even worse, eviscerate and scale it, then fillet it; worrying about chocking on fish bones; having hands that smell like fish; and disposing of the skeleton in a a place where the cat can't find it. Fish sticks also pretty much eliminate the other awful thing about fish: the taste. Those pleasant golden-crusted logs with snow-white insides have only the gentlest hint of fish flavor, which is easily disguised by a good dollop of sweet tarter sauce...
England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond, by Jon Savage (book review) (1992) (St. Martin's Press): Did I mention this book is long? About 600 pages long. Jon Savage presents a history of punk centered on the rise and fall of Malcolm McLaren , Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols. While exhaustingly complete and well argued, punk would have prospered nicely even without the Sex Pistols. Sure, the Pistols were an international scandal and inspired others to form bands, but so did the Ramones, Iggy Pop, The Heartbreakers and The NY Dolls. They grabbed acres of media attention but also dragged down the scene as they flushed themselves down the toilet. Rock has always been about rebellion and record companies are more than happy to exploit that as long as it makes money. Malcolm and the Pistols were such asses to deal with, especially after Sid joined the band, that otherwise amoral record labels turned against punk in general as not being worth the headaches. For a fact this hurt the Ramones, who all along wanted to be top-40 radio heroes.
The history of the Sex Pistols is not the history of punk itself but of how Malcolm and Johnny Rotten turned a garage band into a global sensation. Petty thief and sex fiend Steve Jones started the group in 1973 with drummer Paul Cook. Bassist Glen Matlock wrote the melodies that mattered. Rotten then added the hateful lyrics and detached spitefulness that defined the 77 UK punk movement. When Matlock was booted in favor of Sid Vicious the band gained a zero whose appetite for self-destruction wasn’t balanced by talent, as was the case with Dee Dee Ramone.
Malcolm McLaren's involvement as manager was a mixed blessing - on one hand he knew about style and rebellious cultural trends, but on a business level he didn't have a clue. For every story of masterful media and record company manipulation there's examples of Malcolm being completely nuts, especially his decision to have the Pistols play backwater hellholes on the ill-fated US tour. Malcolm and Lydon both claim exclusive credit for the Sex Pistols, and they’re two sides of the same pathological coin. They were full of stupendous anarchistic ideals yet turned sensitive coward at the first peep of trouble. Lydon was definitely the most important part of the band but he loses points for being a sanctimonious prick.
England's Dreaming traces punks’ roots to fashion trends, cultural movements like the Situationists and the socially threatening political movements anarchy and socialism. These are valid influences but few punks consciously abide by academic reasonings. Do most punks give much thought to the art and politics of music beyond the fact that it's somehow important? Probably not. Sure, punk speaks to the lives of punks, but being pissed off at the world didn't begin with punk. Why does a person choose punk over heavy metal or rap? I doubt it’s arcane socio-economic theories from the past.
Jon Savage did a great job detailing the career of the Sex Pistols and their influence on other bands and popular culture itself. I disagree on two points. He says punk didn't break in America until the mid-80s. Punk was dead in the mid 80s. Who is he referring to? What level of success are we talking about? At what point does success involve making crappy punk music and selling it to the masses as the next big thing? Also, in his rush to achieve closure, he writes that the Sex Pistols were the "heart" of punk and once they dissolved the heart was gone. O-tay…
The Clash were the heart anyway, but music exists as a timeline and isn’t totally dependent on one single band or event. To quote the book, "We weren't starting anything new, we were taking our favorite influences and playing with them." Punk is not perfect and omniscient. It's a form of music that carries with it heavy social and political baggage. Many punks are idiots because they see the music as little more than an opportunity to be jerks.
England’s Dreaming is a great book but I'm getting tired of attempts to make punk fit into a purely intellectual model. Most of the time punk is loud, pissed off music for loud, pissed off people. That still doesn’t define it exactly. It's a healthy release for some and a death ride for others. A good punk book, like punk itself, should be factual and not overly intellectual.
Everything Is Under Control: Conspiracies, Cults, and Cover Ups, by Robert Anton Wilson (book review) (Harper Perrenial): This book is a concise, well researched, funny and fairly objective encyclopedia of lunatic fringe groups and ideas, many still holding sway today. Not only do you get the skinny on the Illuminati, Freemasonry and Roswell, author Robert Wilson gives insight into the general nature of how conspiracies spread and cross-pollinate. The best quality of this work is that Wilson neither panders to the paranoid mind nor dismisses out of hand the possibility of real cover up and conspiracy. His sense of humor also (thankfully) keeps the subject matter in the realm of entertainment, not life-threatening hysteria. There is an entry which notes that Charlie Chaplin came in 4th place in a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest.
As the title implies, conspiracies revolve around feelings that reality is not as it seems and forces beyond our control manipulate people and institutions for their own gain. There are many levels of conspiracy, from parents keeping adoption a secret to shadowy groups of international (or even intergalactic) figures deciding the fate of nations. To me there are real and imagined conspiracies: those involving corporations, government or the mafia are real if you see corporations conspiring to make money and gain market share, governments conspiring against forces they feel will undermine their authority, and the mafia murdering, buying off and blackmailing those who stand in their way.
I would like the government to conspire to do everything it can to keep militant far right and far left groups weak, if not crush them entirely. What these lunatics call conspiracy I consider good preventive medicine. I’d also like to have NAMBLA, who exist to promote child rape, conspired against to the nth degree.
Then there are the purely imagined conspiracies that infect the minds of the mentally deficient, weak willed and socially retarded. Paranoia, when not the product of chemical imbalance, is the realm of the lonely, the discarded and those of low self-esteem and self-hatred. Who believes the nazi Holocaust never took place? Blindly hateful losers who have little control over their failed lives so they blame others. Who believes the Masons run the world? Fringe religious kooks who see a threat to their own plans of theological conquest. Groups like this ban The Wizard Of Oz because the characters learn the power to succeed can come from within. That God is not mentioned as the only source of all human potential is perceived as part of a secular conspiracy. God save us all from these people.
My favorite nutjob theory in the book is the "Nazi Hollow Earth Theory", which states that "The Earth is not only hollow but that we are living on the inside of it...The truth was that the universe consists of solid rock, we live inside its only cavity, and the lights we think of as stars and planets are the lights of other cities, also inside." I don't know if these guys like any other kind of cereal, but I know for sure they're Coocoo for Cocoa-Puffs.
Humans are alien bio-experiments, aliens live at the Earth's core, Ronald Reagan is a robot, LSD is illegal because it makes the mind too powerful and Castro is an American double-agent. It's all here, along with entries on hoaxes, scams and even the Church of the Sub-Genius, a cult led by "Bob" and the perfect inside joke only the dim-witted don't get. The impact of Orson Well's War of the Worlds is also placed in a timeline of conspiracy and hoax.
Do aliens exist? Are we under the control of secret societies? Did the Mafia kill JFK? Who the hell knows. I don't know and you don't know either, so shut up. If you tell me you do know I have to ask what you plan on doing with this dangerous knowledge. Are you going to run around in terror screaming "they" are against "us"? Are you going to stockpile ammo because Chinese communists on the Canadian border are about to swarm down on the USA? Are you doing this just to get attention? Do you think it's your mission to convince the world we're doomed, Doomed, DOOMED!? Calm…down.
I happen to believe the Mafia killed JFK. I don't scream at strangers about it. I don't huddle in a corner crying because of it. It's just a theory I believe. Do I think UFOs exist? Probably. That doesn't mean I'm selling everything I own and camping out outside Area 51. What Robert Wilson does is present conspiracies with just enough skepticism to let you know what he's presenting is only information. There's no need to alter your life in any way. Unlike some conspiracy buffs I've met who refuse to challenge other conspiracies in fear they themselves will come under attack, Wilson knows that lines of reality have to be drawn if possibly real conspiracies have a chance of being uncovered.
The last listing is for "ZOG", which stands for the "Zionist Occupied Government" that controls the US government on behalf of Jews. The book ends with Wilson commenting "I would like to live in a world where all the conspiracy theories are as absurd as this one." Amen brother.
PS: Every one and every thing is out to get you. See, you were right all along..... and now it's too late....or is it?....
The Factsheet Five ZINE READER: The Best Writing from the Underground World of Zines (book review) (Three Rivers Press):
Zines, zines, the printed drug, the more you read 'em, the more you feel smug. The more you feel smug, the superior you feel, so read your zines and think it's a big deal.
Here's my zine resume: I've been reading zines for twenty years. My collection is over five feet high and dates back to the ‘70s. I've been writing the Old Punks Web Zine for 5+ years as of 4/2004 and not only is it the world's largest punk web zine, it may be the largest non-commercial music site of any kind. Why isn't this impressive? Web zines are a breeze compared to print zines. I know nothing about graphics or layouts - I either scan or steal anything I need. It doesn't cost me anything to do my web zine because the space comes free with my monthly internet access. I don't even know HTML, so I give a world of credit to real zines like the ones highlighted in The Factsheet Five Zine Reader. Still, I don't think they're a revolution, and god love ‘em but zines don't possess the mystical qualities editor R. Seth Friedman assigns to them.
Zines are a self-congratulatory (when not in pure awe of itself) sub-culture that has produced many good works along with a Mount Everest of unreadable crap, which makes them no different from records, books, TV shows, movies, comic books, art, and even commercial magazines. The evolution of indie zines runs vaguely parallel to the underground comix movement of the late ‘60s. A product of hippie culture, the work of R. Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Bill Griffith and others really was a revolution in idea and execution. Anyone with access to a printing press (or who could afford to pay a printer) could make their own comic books, a very radical idea at the time and it made the Seduction Of The Innocent anti-comic book witch hunt of 1954 seem even more a hysterical overreaction. Today making a zine is as easy as missing the toilet at 3 AM.
Zines as a hipster trend hit its peak around 1997 when The Factsheet Five Zine Reader was printed. Mass media discovered the movement and explored it in varying degress until their audience could claim mastery of the general idea and then move on to the next zeitgeist du jour. Zines weren't new in 1997, just like the famous punk zines Search And Destroy and Punk weren't new to the world of music fandom in the ‘70s. What was new was how easy and cheaply computers and printers made publishing for any yutz with zine ambitions. People wrote and distributed their own writings starting back to the Fred and Wilma period. What differentiates modern zine culture is new technology and a concerted effort to create an actual zine culture. Now it’s about networking and advertising. Factsheet Five is the resource pool and advertising arm of the zine movement. It does both well and any criticisms I have of zine hysteria are not intended to put down R. Seth and his fine publication.
Friedman makes it sound as if zines exist in opposition to traditional print media when they either have little to do with each other or appear to not be different at all. They both involve words, pictures and graphics. Is Flipside or Punk Planet that much less a commercial magazine than Spin or Rolling Stone because they're DIY and have an earthier editorial stance? No. They both operate under the same basic business model with the major difference being scale.. Is Mother Jones a zine?
At this point I must mention conspiracy theory, the smug paranoia that along with confessional rambling, personal obsession and poetry comprise the gestalt of the zine movement. Zines present conspiracy as fact and then pretend corporate media is too afraid of their billionaire overlords to print these horrible truths, so it's up to brave zines to spread Truth to the lumpy proletariat and awake them from their tv-induced trance. I enjoy a good conspiracy theory as much as the next dimwit but I don't expect Time or Newsweek to give serious consideration to the idea that aliens killed Kennedy to prevent him from exposing their hidden fortress under the North Pole. Zines are playgrounds for hearsay and rumor. If Friedman believes zines print truths other media are afraid to print, is his only standard then that Zine=Truth? That's the same mindset that thinks the bible says it, I believe it, and that's that.
Taken from the informative Factsheet Five web site, this is how the zine process starts: "Making a zine is quite simple. Put your thoughts down on paper, paste in some cool graphix, photocopy and staple. Start small, just a few pieces of paper (4 to 8) and no more than 50 copies. Send one to us at Factsheet Five, send others to zines you like, give some to friends and would-be friends and keep 20 or 30 for potential orders."
I'm all for positive energy and zine scene unity, but why must so many trees die in the name of crap? Better to have the pulp made directly into toilet paper than serving the same purpose as a zine. Instead of encouraging the publication of just anything the party line should be that zines be about something, and before you print, here's what's minimally expected in terms of quality. It's not like in kindergarten where every finger painting is cheered as a work of genius to build self-esteem. Yeah, yeah, you have to start somewhere, but that start should be learning basic writing and layout skills. The goal for zine makers should be to aspire to create something worthy of print and not just throw buckets of paint against a canvas and call it art.
I don't mean to come down so hard on Friedman and zinesters. It's just that somebody has to point out that zines aren't the solution to all the world's problems. They're a creative hobby that sometimes winds up being a full time job. Some zines are great, some are good and most plain stink. The Factsheet Five Zine Reader is worth reading and it gives a nice cross-section of the kinds of writing and cartooning you'll find in the better zines.
Lesson #16a about zine writing: if you have nothing coherent to write about don't just begin scribbling to see what happens. I piss in your stream of consciousness. My favorite line from the book is "Bread is just raw toast". Finally, something we can all agree on.
Fish In A Barrel: Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds On Tour (book review) (2.13.61): There's a bazillion books filled with photographs of rock stars. As a rule I refuse to look at them. Photography can be art and educational but it can also be petty and trivial. It all depends on your level of interest I guess. Dorothea Lange's photographs of families escaping the Dust Bowl helped define modern documentary photography. Weegee and his shots of NYC lowlife culture of the ‘30s and ‘40s created an iconic, police blotter look. Then there's everybody's favorite nature boy Ansel Adams. These people’s works served a purpose. It showed beauty that must be preserved. It showed the plight of people in need. It shoved reality in our faces. What the hell does a photograph of a rock star do? Feed cults of personality? Distract you from more important things you should be doing? It's just music, regardless of how happy it makes you feel. It's way down the list of what's important.
Nick Cave is a nice person and his music is enjoyable. Still, is he worth a coffee table book of black and white photographs? His fans say yes while I say I guess so, if it makes you happy. Photographer Peter Milne, who comes across in the text as a pathological putz, captures Nick and The Bad Seeds late at night, early in the morning, drunk, bored, tired, smiling... is this supposed to be reality? art? truth? In normal conversation people make faces that, captured in single frame, make them look odd. Here's an attempt to capture that in every frame, and it’s not always pleasant or necessary.
Does Nick Cave make you feel all gooey inside? Can you linger on a picture of him like it's the Rosetta Stone of your own existence? If so, buy Fish In A Barrel. I bought a copy for 49 cents at Tower Records. That's why I picked it up, to write about how dumb books like this are, no matter what the price.
From The Velvets to The Voidoids: A Pre-Punk History For A Post-Punk World, by Clinton Heylin (Book review) (Penguin): I have few opinions I’d like to share with Generation X but they have an annoying tendency to pull back their heads, wave their palms and say “Whoa, too much information.” It’s their quaint and punch-worthy way of declaring they don’t care. While a great read, this 1993 book begs the question of who really cares anymore? I’m into punk history because it’s been my favorite music since the ‘70s but I know from listening to many of the bands discussed in this book that there’s not much for younger punks to get into.
Are Patti Smith, Television, Wayne County, The MC5, Pere Ubu, The Velvet Underground, Richard Hell, The Ramones, Rocket From The Tombs, The Dead Boys, Blondie, The Heartbreakers, Iggy & The Stooges, The Dictators, Suicide and The NY Dolls relevant to your average sixteen year old? The answer is a definite probably not.
Patti Smith was a self-centered poet. They say she mythologized herself - yeah, the Goddess of Pretentious Metaphor. Television, the first punk band to play CBGBs, recorded boring songs. Listen to Marquee Moon and try not to let your chin hit a table as you fall into the fetal position for a quick nap. Richard Hell was a poet whose music gravitated toward cabaret. His ripped shirts were a nod to the poet Arthur Rimbaud and not the result of a so-called punk (as in street smart) life. Hell’s sullen look came from years of drug abuse. Wayne/Jayne County’s sound was even more cabaret than Hell’s. The Dictators played cock pop. Blondie was a trash & vaudeville girl group. Rocket From The Tombs never even recorded. The NY Dolls were the Rolling Stones in loud drag. The Heartbreakers were a tougher version of The Dolls. Suicide is credited with influencing The Human League! The Stooges could sound like The Doors but Iggy Pop as fearless stage animal was the first real modern Punk. The MC5 played loud, hard psychedelic rock when they didn’t emulate The Grateful Dead on a fast day. The Velvet Underground were great proto-punks yet their contribution came mostly from their droning, atonal wall of sound, their street themes of sexual misadventure and other urban leisure pursuits, and the inspiration that if Lou Reed could get up on stage, anyone could. Or as Lenny Kaye points out, “They were the one group that proved you could scissor together the perverse side of art and the pop side of rock & roll.” Detroit, Cleveland, and New York were the top breeding grounds for the great American pre-punk bands
What American band had the most direct impact on modern punk and hardcore? The Ramones, with The Dead Boys and The Heartbreakers next. The old bands in this book were heavily influenced by avant-garde and free-form jazz, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Beefheart, old R&B and blues acts and garage bands featured on the original Nuggets compilation. American bands were also into The Beatles, Them, The Who, The Kinks, The Yardbirds and The Rolling Stones - all borrowing from earlier American R&B. The history of rock music is a story of the incestuous relationship between the US and UK scenes.
From The Velvets To The Voidoids is well written and an excellent historical resource. Clinton Heylin writes in a journalistic style seemingly devoid of personal opinion. As the author of books on Bob Dylan he finds more interest in the work of fellow street poets Smith, Verlaine and Hell, but otherwise he’s fair, honest and authoritative. All the participants in the early days are quoted at length, coming from articles and interviews in publications from Hit Parader to Search and Destroy. The bibliography is huge, and the index, CBGBs chronology, discography and Who’s Who make this book a real keeper.
Quotes from the book: Debbie Harry on the collapse of the Mercer Arts Center, “The Center was integrally linked to the Broadway Central Hotel, which had a glorious history but had now become a crumbling structure occupied by welfare recipients. It was so old and decrepit from years of people pissing on the floor and throwing up in the corner that it just caved in.” Blondie producer Mike Chapman, “If you can’t make hit singles you should f—k off and go chop meat somewhere.” Dee Dee Ramone on the Ramones: “We were glamorous when we started, almost like a glitter group. A lot of times, Joey would wear rubber clothes and John would wear vinyl clothes or silver pants. We used to look great, but then we fell into the leather-jacket-and-ripped-up jeans thing. I felt like a slob.”
America takes credit for creating punk, which it did in the bigger picture, but the fact remains US bands found more success in the UK than they ever did in the States, where “Punk was treated as some kind of malignancy in modern music.” England kept the fledgling American scene alive in the ‘70s long enough for The Sex Pistols and The Clash to break down the doors to everyone’s benefit (and demise too).
I don’t agree with everything in the book, especially Heylin’s claim that Bowie’s influence was detrimental to Iggy Pop. Raw Power was poorly mixed but it wasn’t on purpose and it was still a landmark album. Bowie rescued Iggy from himself and went out of his way to promote Ig’s career, touring with him and writing songs for his albums. If you think Iggy and Lou’s careers weren’t saved by David Bowie, you are flat out wrong.
Frozen Fire: The Story Of THE CARS, by Toby Goldstein with photos by Ebet Roberts (book review) (Contemporary): You have to love insta-books like this. Well, you don't have to, but it would be nice to pretend for the sake of this review. Contemporary Books Inc. doesn't exist anymore and their name suggests milking trends for quick cash. I imagine it operated out of a dingy office run by a sweaty fat bald guy his staff laughed at yet feared. I figure he stormed out of his office one day around 1985, his half-chewed unlit cheap cigar flapping away as he bellowed he needed a book yesterday on this goddam group The Cars his kid keeps yapping about. Everyone scattered like roaches and the next thing you know a thin sliver of a book packed with photos hits stores in time for Christmas.
It's a bittersweet memory to read a book like this because it reminds me of when new wave was ascending and I thought there would finally be songs I liked at clubs and on the radio. Oh yeah, that lasted a good few months. It's easy to laugh at stupid books on The Backstreet Boys and The Spice Girls, but back when there were books on Gary Numan and The Cars.
Frozen Fire is a surprisingly decent book from an author who had previously written major articles on the group. Only a handful of bands deserve more than this, one hundred pages of history filled out with photographs. The Cars were a successful band who helped usher the new wave genre into the mainstream, but their story isn't intriguing or eventful. New Wave, and I'm talking good new wave as opposed to the new romance crap that followed, was never intended to be unpopular like punk - it was a workable alternative to the mainstream crap that flooded the airwaves. There are a number of reasons why new wave failed to take, and in the long run it proved to be a fad, but for a while it felt pretty good to hear the GoGos, Gary Numan and Devo played on top-40 stations. I had my time in the sun, and now I’m forced to suffer in a storm of rap that drives me crazy.
The Cars wrote many catchy tunes but in the long run there's not a whole lot going on. I admire their minimalism and for a while The Cars recorded good radio fodder. I give them credit for being successful but whenever I listen to their greatest hits CDs I come away with the feeling I ate candy - tasty candy for sure but still full of empty calories. A winning quality is there and not there at the same time. The book reprint's Robert Cristgau's review of Candy-O: "Cold and thin, shiny and hypnotic, it's what they do best - rock and roll - this is definitely pop without a hint of cuteness." Their first album is reviewed: "The music combines the neurotic tensions of David Bowie, mock aloofness of Roxy Music, and crisp harmonies of Queen." That’s accurate and you can also throw in a Talking Heads comparison.
Even though the book flatters the band the author (thankfully) doesn't allow it to degenerate into a Teen Beat love-fest. He admits The Cars were the rare example of an American band that wasn't received well in the UK. This may have been due in part to their legendarily dull live shows. To put it mildly, their live shows were exercises in restraint. This is addressed throughout the book and even the title, Frozen Fire, is a direct comment on how stiff they were. Some hardliners hated The Cars because of their success, but they did a number of street-cred worthy things too. They built a recording studio in Boston used by many local bands, and Ric Ocasek worked with Romeo Void and hardcore legends the Bad Brains. On one tour they insisted Suicide open, and before their shows the PA system played The Velvet Underground and Kraftwerk. They hosted the tv show The Midnight Special on the condition that Iggy Pop, Suicide, M and Lene Lovich appear. Now that’s punk!
Not a bad little book and it’s everything you need to know about The Cars. I noted a grievous error that must addressed right now! Keyboardist Greg Hawkes is quoted as saying the classic "Niagra Falls" comedy bit was from the Three Stooges, when everyone knows it was Abbott and Costello. Get it right, people.
Glam!: Bowie, Bolan And The Glitter Rock Revolution, by Barney Hoskyns (book review) (Faber and Faber):
"You'll Have A Gay Old Time"
- Prehistoric Glam Anthem
"Gay? The guy craps diamonds!"
- A joke I wrote
This thin yet well-researched book came out (as it were) as a companion piece to the film Velvet Goldmine, whose director writes the book's forward. Todd Haynes sums it up pretty well when he notes glam was "a unique blending of underground American rock with a distinctly English brand of camp theatricality and gender bending." But just as Velvet Goldmine was homage to the director's memories of the prime of his young life, so too this book gets caught up in the author's personal experience and belief that music begins and ends with glam. 70's glam was a movement as much as punk was, and like punk it didn’t create itself. Hoskyn's assertion that glam was the nexus for everything exciting and new is the book's only real fault, and some of the follow up points are pure nonsense.
Glam! is a gay pride book, written bi, I mean by, and for, gays and bisexuals. When someone is gay, Hoskyns will note it, as in "Elektra's then closeted gay CEO David Geffen". It's a side note, a commentary and a proud revelation all in one. Hoskyns owns a huge collection of Glam albums and seems to know each song by heart, and he utilizes historical records with accuracy and efficiency, but man is it fun to read between the lines of his catty dislike for certain people while he fawns over others. Not being gay, or gay enough, is a crime in the author's eyes, and so is being unattractive. An association with Andy Warhol is a plus, and being super-duper pretty pops this guys' cork and earns Marc Bolan and Jobriath a ten on the boy-oy-oy-oing scale.
Popular music, regardless of the era, has always featured pretty boys. You can go back to the early 1800's with classical composer Franz Liszt and work your way up to Elvis Presley and Little Richard. Pick any point on the timeline and there will be pretty boys. Glam! asserts glam was a reaction against dinosaur and hippie rock. True, but cycles of rebellion happened a number of times before. People get tired of one extreme and move toward the other, only to eventually get bored with that. And anyway, hippies, punks, glammers and all arty countercultures are cut from the same Bohemian cloth. They're leisure activities for those with enough money and security to reinvent themselves. There's a great saying that goes "We're all born naked. The rest is drag." That's funny because it's true, but it doesn't apply to the poor in Calcutta, now does it?
Punk was partly a reaction against glam. The book implies punk comes directly from glam, which is partly true but also wishful thinking. Joey Ramone may have been in a glam band before forming The Ramones, but the leather jackets and ripped jeans represented youth gang culture to their fans, not butch male prostitutes (no wait, that was Dee Dee). Blondie was a retro girl group and The New York Dolls the Rolling Stones in drag, so one point for Hoskyns. Television were hippie junkie poets. Talking Heads were minimalist white funk. The Dead Boys carried on The Stooge's death trip while The Stooges were The Doors as Midwest psychopaths. Glam existed and people liked glam, but it wasn’t the alpha and beta of punk music.
In his quest to make glam the center of the universe the author writes The Ramones were a "Slade-Stooges hybrid", which must be during a few seconds of silence between songs. "Through Glam Punk came into being" is another line that falls flat. The best of the worst assertion made, and there’s no reason to attempt such a bizarre stretch, is that skinheads were the "forerunners of disco culture." How is that? "They were music consumers whose real stars were turntables." What tha', who tha', when tha', where tha' HELL did he get that from? If not for blacks, gays and jews popular culture wouldn't extend far beyond The Emergency Broadcast Signal. Hoskyns goes well out of his way to avoid crediting blacks for their contributions to pop culture, especially glam, and it’s slightly racist how he goes about it. The definition here of what makes a performer glam is not related to the music itself. It's about sexual orientation and cross-dressing.
David Bowie was by far the most talented and intelligent of the bunch. Sweet, Suzi Quatro and Slade played what I'll call "Cowbell Marching Teen Anthems". If you know the music you know what I mean.
I did enjoy reading Glam! and it's filled with everything you’d want and need to know about the music. There's both sweeping generalizations and sweet pieces of esoteric trivia. The histories are well researched and written. It's just the opinions that sometimes fail. I was heavily into Bowie, Lou Reed, The Kinks and others in the ‘ 70s. I never paid notice to any “gayness” in the lyrics or how much makeup a man was wearing. Glam spoke directly to the budding sexuality of Barney Hoskyns and he’s proud to be proud. I’m glad he’s glad. To me it was just music.
High On Rebellion: Inside The Underground At Max's Kansas City, by Yvonne Sewall-Ruskin (book review) (Thunder's Mouth Press): This book annoys me. All books like this annoy me. The glorification of snobbery, idiocy, people treating their friends like garbage, self-destruction and beautiful people getting together to be seen and obscene. This could have been a book about Studio 54. Max's Kansas City was the Studio 54 of its time. I don't care. I hate places where trendy fuggs wait in line for hours to maybe be allowed in, overcharged for weak drinks, and then be ignored by the in-crowd who stab each other in the back for laughs and social advancement.
Max's Kansas City is where The Velvet Underground performed, Wayne County spun records, Lou Reed asked strangers if they wanted to be pooped on, Patti Smith hung out to be near her art heroes, and where owner Mickey Ruskin created a possibly fake rivalry with CBGB's owner Hilly Kristal. It was that and so much more! In the ‘60s and ‘70s it was where the starving artist crowd gathered to meet and greet, specifically the Andy Warhol circus of beautiful losers. High On Rebellion, a series of short pieces and recollections from those who survived (!), is written with beautiful people in mind. The punk section at the end is tacked on like an old sock with rubber gloves which were then disinfected and burned.
Yvonne Sewall-Ruskin was the wife of the late Mickey Ruskin, and she put this book together both for the money and as a tribute to what must have been the golden era of her life, rubbing shoulders with Janis Joplin, Abby Hoffman, Jane Fonda, Philip Glass, Robert Mapplethorpe, Allen Ginsberg, Jim Morrison and Peter Max. This was the pre-AIDS era when free love and copious drug use were still quaintly bohemian. Many of the recollections involve addicts and the stupid things they do. Hooray for heroin. Page 162 features a picture of a mentally imbalanced drug user by the name of Andrea Feldman. Her rich parents stashed her away in a luxury Manhattan apartment and gave her enough money to go away, as it were. She did an act called "Showtime" where out of the blue she'd stand up on a dining room table at Max's, take off her clothes, and dance. This was a highlight, a fond memory at Max's? Sewall-Ruskin gushes "(Feldman) was also so electric, so immediate, so confronting... just like the era itself." No, ass, the woman was insane and even more so on narcotics. Her life ended when she walked off a tall building. Is that entertaining? Beautifully tragic? Should we take mental patients from hospitals and have them perform nightly for the freaks who enjoy a few laughs at the expense of the helpless and hopeless? Yvonne, you’re a deluded parasite.
The more I read about the people who inhabited the world of Max's the more I despised them and the less I cared about their mostly sad fates. Watch as I mock a gushing reader comment I found on amazon.com:
"I felt like I knew these people and since I have never been to Max's and now that it is gone it was alot of fun to see what it was like and sad at the same time because I wish I could of been there" -- Tonlo.
Tonlo, you worthless little fame-fister. First of all, if you were there they wouldn't have let you in the door to begin with. Even if you did get in they wouldn't let you near the VIP areas. And if you did manage to sneak in the back room, the regulars would avoid you like a leper until a bouncer arrived to toss your sorry ass in the street.
High On Rebellion isn’t badly written or put together, but I went from having a few neutral ideas on what Max’s Kansas City must have been like to having a really bad taste in my mouth.
I Need More, by Iggy Pop (book review) (2.13.61): I suspect Henry Rollins named his publishing company after his date of birth to make it easier for fans to know when to mail cards and gifts. I Need More is a random collection of transcribed anecdotes that while fun to read add up to little. It comes across as spoken word poetry delivered with the master planning of performance art (I typed that sarcastically). You only glean fleeting insight into Iggy’s personal history and association with The Stooges, so what the book does provide are windows into the mind of a punk legend.
Iggy Pop is an amoral psychopath in the true clinical sense. His is the soul of a wood nymph trapped in a Detroit scumbag's body. Acts of kindness carry the same weight as acts of violence and cruelty. Iggy reads the auras of strangers, sees the beauty of a fresh rose draped across a steaming pile of poo and looks for the best in every one and every thing. Yet, he has no loyalty of emotion and feels compelled to destroy himself in order to live. Ig’s a fascinating man who deserves and will one day get a great book written about him. I Need More is more a series of bound postcards.
Since I Need More is a bunch of random thoughts, let's go right to some quotes:
"I had this really weird room with a little balcony. I used to s--t on it, s--t on my little balcony and let it dry."
"’Don Cool’ was so dirty at all times, you not only saw the dirt but you smelled him a few feet away. I mean a really strong stench. It was an honest sweat mixed with the smell of distress and deprivation."
"I was very Zen at the time -- a complete health nut -- a peace loving Zen health nut who was into stabbing himself with drumsticks. Anyway, I was on the cover of Sixteen Magazine that month."
"And so I went there and saw Betsy. I never saw anything like that. She was very cute. She was the exact opposite physically of my wife-- blonde, white as snow. She was thirteen and she looked at me penetratingly. So I suppose you can figure out what happened next."
""They don't just say come to the fort. You can't do that, you have to go by way of the local designated private bus line. This is whatever firm that has secured the army contract for transport of inductees to God's cafeteria for food processing."
What can you learn from reading I Need More? Iggy was so smart as a child he turned off his mind and became what many thought retarded. He started the spitting-on-your-idol craze, the result of clogged nasal passages. He grew up in a trailer park. Iggy loves golf. Mostly, Iggy Pop is Id personified. He’s free spirited to the point of cruel indifference. The kind of guy you're better off meeting as opposed to knowing. He's an icon, a force of nature and a music commodity. Iggy Pop is best defined by simply saying he's Iggy Pop. How Zen is that?
I Need More is fleshed out with nice B&W photographs and assorted song lyrics. It’s a cut and paste job from the start but who cares, or as Iggy loves to end his thoughts, "La de da". It's Iggy, man! The world's forgotten boy. Iggy writes well but is no judge of his own place in the cosmos. He's too busy crashing headfirst all across the universe.
If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor, by Bruce Campbell (book review) (St. Martins):
"Okay, so at least you're interested enough to pick up this book and look inside. I think you and I are going to get along just fine."
Bruce Campbell is a god. You either know and love him, don't know him, or maybe you vaguely remember he appeared in a goofy western TV series and on both Xena and Hercules. I can't conceive of anyone not liking Bruce Campbell. It would be like saying orgasms are just ok. To understand his appeal you must compare Bruce to the great Hans Moeman short film "Man Getting Hit In Groin With Football". Bruce, like getting hit in the groin with a football, works on so many levels. He's handsome yet oddly so. He's sometimes suave but only as a caricature of himself. He's a solid state nerd who's also cool. He gives up the body for his art and would rather hang out with the crew. He can flip himself forward onto his back from a standing position. He answers his own e-mails. He produced and starred in the Evil Dead movies - the Royal Flush of this argument. You suspect Bruce would even hang out with you as long as you're not, as Bruce likes to say, a screwhead.. He's not what all actors are, he's what all actors should be. He's Bruce Campbell, and his book is the 399th best seller on Amazon.com!
"I once heard that Robert DeNiro lived with a steel-working family for six weeks in order to prepare for his role in The Deer Hunter. I've watched interviews with actors who tell wrenching stories of how hard it was to "shake" a character after filming was complete. That's all well and good, but ninety-nine percent of the time an actor is lucky to know what scene is being shot."
By his own admission Bruce isn't much of an actor and he's always ridiculed himself whenever the role called for him to emote. He's a game performer who'll do anything to get the shot. He's happy to be there, and whatever he does is great enough for me. His fate in this life seems that he'll never be famous, and Bruce has come to accept if not embrace that. At one point he'd just finished Evil Dead II, appeared on Knots Landing, and had Maniac Cop in the can, but he still had to take a graveyard shift security guard job to support his wife and new baby. Bruce with a Joe Job is just wrong.
Bruce mooches work through his associations with Sam Raimi and The Coen Brothers, and he gets referrals from those he's worked with in the past. Bruce is the kind of guy you want to have on your set. He's done it all in front and behind the camera, he'll give up the body, and everybody loves Bruce. He's either the best thing in a film or at least the candy center in that reel of crap you're watching. He's the Harry Dean Stanton of his generation. Listen to the side-splitting commentary tracks on the Evil Dead DVDs and you'll wish you were there next to Bruce laughing your ass off like you've known each other for years.
It helps to be a Bruce Campbell fan, but there's countless funny stories and valuable lessons for budding actors, directors and producers. Movie making is hell, and Bruce presents it in all its ulcerous glory without trying to crush anyone's dreams. You also get the feeling he'd gladly offer advice to anyone who asks, as long as they're not screwheads.
Bruce Campbell is a god. To think otherwise is heresy. He's written a book and you should read it.
In Cold Sweat: Interviews With Really Scary Musicians, by Thomas Wictor (book review) (Limelight): A fascinating book, In Cold Sweat is more than a collection of four long interviews. It's insight into the interview process itself from the perspective of the interviewer, in this case Thomas Wictor, a talented and funny freelance writer, bass player and contributor to Bass Player magazine. He's at the mercy of the unpredictable egos and psyches of those he interviews, and he's not afraid to show a lack of control, if not fear itself. Most interviews probably read the way they do here if correctly transcribed, but by the time they get edited for publication what you have left is simplistic Q&A content devoid of context. Not with In Cold Sweat, and it's what makes it a much better reading and learning experience.
The title is a play on words from Truman Capote's groundbreaking In Cold Blood, a book whose fame is derived from the author's innovative mingling of fact and novelization. Each of the interviews in In Cold Sweat is prefaced by a beautifully detailed introduction that sums up the artist's background, importance and the particulars of how the interview was set up and conducted. The intros are told as first person short stories, each packed with detail and wit. On meeting Devo's Jerry Casale, Wictor writes "The restaurant was very upscale, with a large rear patio and clouds of hovering waiters. In my T-shirt and jeans, I was not just out of place but caused the staff actual pain." Attempting to begin the formal interview itself, he notes "I decided that I was losing valuable material, so I fumbled my recorder out during one of his remarks. I knew I'd done it too abruptly, but I was tormented by a gnawing urge to flee. The waiters would simply not back off; my head was being scorched by a nearby gas heater; and the buttery, fishy pizza was so rich I was nauseated after the first bite. Also, I could tell that I was blabbering incontinently. Starting the interview was the only way to shut me up."
I love how Thomas Wictor writes. His clarity, brevity, insight and simple honesty are inspiring, as in more writers should be inspired to write at his level. Nothing is forced, especially the humor, which can kill a book good and dead. I imagine he would also do well writing plays.
The four musicians interviewed are Gene Simmons of KISS, Peter Hook of New Order and Joy Division, Jerry Casale of Devo and Scott Thunes of Frank Zappa fame. Thunes also recorded and toured with Fear. To sum up each person:
Gene Simmons is a misogynist and nihilist partly by nature and partly by professional design. He's well read and speaks clearly. It's surprising how attuned he is to marketing himself and working every angle to make more money. Here, in 1996, he's pushing the Gene Simmon's bass guitar. Later KISS marketed specialty funeral caskets. He's retained the aggression of his Middle Eastern upbringing and is deeply affected by what the Holocaust did to his family. He’s a very complicated man who makes a fortune selling cartoonish simplicity to idiots. Good for him.
Peter Hook is disinterested in his own fame and admits he can't tune his bass, can't play the songs he writes and can't sing and play at the same time. He sees the instrument as a means to an end and doesn't even consider himself a bass player. He makes a good point of saying "Never meet your heroes", which can sometimes lead to a disappointment that can ruin the music that made this person your hero in the first place. The interview ends with Wictor noting "As the perfect capper to the situation, Mr. Hook possessed an inexhaustible supply of intestinal gas, which he vented at ninety-second intervals. Between these eruptions, he unselfconsciously cleaned his nostrils with his fingers and deposited the findings on his socks. An article I read as part of my worthless preparation claimed that he'd urinated into a mug during one interview and tried to make someone drink it, so while we were together, I kept an eye on his socks and devised procedures for getting past him to the door." Meet your heroes, indeed, and I love how he refers to snot as "the findings".
Jerry Casale looks like Dave Thomas of Second City Television. It's obvious he was the driving force behind "De-Evolution" and religiously beat a fun gimmick into a tired dogma. He's a smart fellow but his nerdish rage might have tempered his impact. I think this quote is just damn funny: "I'm sure Mariah Carey in the end has a great instrument, her voice, with the dumbest fugging material I've ever heard. Wouldn't it be great to hear her sing a real fugging song?" You get the impression he has less to show for his work than he might or should. Casale is a lefty who learned bass on a right-handed instrument. As a result, his left-handed bass is strung upside down. He claims the robotic riff of "Satisfaction" was his attempt at a reggae beat.
Scott Thunes' interview is the longest, and even though he's the least well known his interview is the most fascinating in terms of personality assessment. Here's a guy who can't get along with other musicians, to say it mildly, yet he's always had girlfriends, friends, and now a loving wife. He's some kind of madman genius who can't conform his talent and can't stand conformity imposed on his art. He's his own worst enemy and it's hard to feel sorry for the guy. Yet you do, because deep down inside he wants to get along with everyone. He admits to being an ass one minute and then he's genuinely hurt that he's not liked. It's like his talent is the Jeckyll to his Hyde. His technical knowledge is astounding. He refers to himself in the third person and talks about his "personal voice" as if it's his invisible friend. He’s he's done some recording since this 1996 interview, and I'd love to know what he's up to today. Here's the guy Prozac was invented for. Thunes' wife designed the author's web site, which is at http://www.thomaswictor.com
I e-mailed the author asking why the title makes no reference to the fact the book is about bass players. His response was "I personally wanted to avoid referencing bass playing on the cover because I was afraid that the general public might have the same reaction as an unnamed record company executive when he was pitched a solo album by the late bass virtuoso Jaco Pastorius: 'A bass player album? What's next, an accordion player album?' I thought '"Really Scary Musicians' sounded better than 'Really Scary Bass Players.”
The pages of In Cold Sweat almost turn themselves, and it's nothing like any other set of interviews you've ever read. It's as much about the process of interviewing as it is about the results. I highly recommend this book.
I, Poophead: A Life In Punk, by Joey Keithley (book review): You can read this book on-line for free. The book’s obviously not called I, Poophead but I don’t spell out curse words. They get my site blocked and I also run a classy whore house. Which reminds me, the punchline to my favorite dirty joke is “Hey Lou, get the bucket. The dead chick’s full again!” I’m going to call Mr. Poophead “Joe” as Joey Ramone was the only man above the age of ten who could get away with calling himself Joey.
Keithley, he of
Sudden Death Records, formed his band in 1978 and toured more and harder
than any other punk musician of his generation.
is a 256 page marathon of tour dates, band members, associates, and
recording studios. It eventually gets numbing, becoming a flowchart of
A,B,C, and D drove 3,000 miles to E, where they played for 200 people
at F. A got drunk, took a swing at C and didn’t speak again until Q. B
is fired or quits the band after the benefit show for cause 3B. Kida
repeat for 256 pages. He must have kept a tour diary since the details
are so precise and Joe drank his way through it all. He claims the book
contains only 5% of his anecdotes, so you know he’s led a two-fisted,
double-flushing punk rock life. There’s no hygiene, money or fame
involved, but you do get to see the world on $2 a day, bathe in fast
food bathrooms, drink beer for meals and sleep with the
fishes mites and fleas. It’s not for me
but he’s led an interesting life so far. I need twelve conditions met
before I can sleep. Joe’s slept in mangy sleepy bags - on gravel - - in the
All punks of my generation know the first few DOA releases were vital listens and their compilation appearances a highlight. They peaked in 1984 with Bloodied But Unbowed, then followed with albums I barely noticed as I moved towards the newer and faster. I picked up 2008’s Northern Avenger and couldn’t resist snarking at how much it sounded like a parody of DOA and all political punk in general. I, Poophead is similarly shallow and clichéd. You also pick this up in interviews. There’s no depth to his opinions in the book and he reveals little about himself beyond the surface. Joe either lacks introspection or the ability to express it. What he does explain he does like he’s writing for an audience of young teenagers. I hear from a good source that Joe’s a nice person, but based on this book it’s possible to conclude he’s a textbook definition of the amoral personality. That’s being neutral about it. His professed love for the destructive anarchist personalities he labels “S—t Distributors” might make him a psychopath, which isn’t always a negative, but usually is.
Nobody does it, but for once I’d like to read a rip-roaring account of how the author loses a fight and gets his head bashed in, instead of it always being the other way around.
He tosses out “Revolution is constant” when he writes that Rampage left the band. You get more slogans than analysis from Mr. Keithley, be it “If you fight for a little you don’t get a lot” or the classic “Talk minus Action = Zero”. His politics aren’t explained beyond that he hates right wingers or that people need stuff, and he doesn’t see the hypocritical irony of saying a leftist group he supports has a “anti-war, anti-violence and resistance agenda.” The “resistance” part involves violence all the way up to especially including genocide. I don’t doubt at a certain level Joe cares about his causes but when you sleep with stalinists you wake up in the Killing Fields insisting it was mass suicide. It’s ironical that Joe played at an Anti-Canada concert while living on welfare instead of working. I also enjoyed Joe writing he hated bands with fake British accents when he himself did the same thing.
The introductory Author’s Note says only that substance abuse was rampant in DOA’s history, and that out of friendship he won’t go there. He does detail many alcohol-related incidents as there’d be little to write about otherwise. More exactly, the reader may have no idea why most people in the book are, oh, how can I put this indelicately, low class, white trash, petty criminal degenerates. This is standard with most punk books, so it’s not new or different. It’s like a Guy Ritchie movie where working and middle class people live in a microcosm of violence, theft, chemical obliteration and always doing the douche thing. Nazis cause trouble but are always forced back, bikers charge people to leave concerts, the police give regular beatings, theft is called “liberation”, trains and concert halls are rivers of urine, toilets literally top off with feces, a crazed, shirtless cocaine dealer runs babbling around the club he runs, destruction of property is entertainment – the list goes on. The reason why punk life in the US and Canada doesn’t get away with calling itself “REAL” is that most of its followers are white, come from the wide range of middle class and, most of all, had options. There’s much low-life culture in I, Poophead, which I enjoy to the point of remembering I should be grateful I’m not a zit on the ass of society and don’t rationalize my faults as anarchistic virtues.
Keithley’s writing style is compact and direct, relaying a lot of information in short spans. The comedy is stilted, as in “If I had paid for all the gum I chewed that weekend, the Wrigley family might have had enough dough to buy a decent team for Chicago years ago.” and “Trying to get our royalties was like trying to pull teeth from the jaws of a saber tooth tiger.” Rimjobshot! Comedy writing is hard so I don’t fault him for being corny, and in a half backhanded way it’s charming.
Beyond detailing the planes, trains and automobiles of touring in there’s almost no background on how shows are booked and if and how they made a living through music. Anecdotally it seems they only had twelve dollars to get five guys 1,000 miles away. How do they pull it off? From this book I did learn that Canada interred Japanese citizens during WWII and that someone in DOA put David Lee Roth in a headlock and demanded he do his signature yell.
Last Gang In Town: The Story And Myth Of The Clash - Marcus Gray (book review) (Henry Holt): Marcus Gray’s book on The Clash, punk’s first famously political band, tries too hard to transcend the material to make grand statements about punk as sociological and cultural phenomena. Much more serious than your typical band history (It looked like our boys were headed straight to the Top Of The Pops!!!), Gray sets out to paint an accurate picture of the bands and conditions that came together to create the ’74 -’77 UK punk scene. Choosing as his angle the ying /yang of Truth and Myth, he’s good at dissecting general punk myths but looses his rhetorical footing when he sets out to expose The Clash as a festering sewer of lies and deceptions. Why? Because there’s not much “there” there.
The Clash, The Sex Pistols, The Damned, The Stranglers and others were leaders of a small movement championed by a handful of young, sympathetic rock journalists looking to also advance their own careers. When the British tabloids overreacted to the threat of punk rock, especially the Sex Pistols curse-fest on Bill Grundy’s TV show, punk exploded out but was also doomed to implode. If not for their shock value the first wave UK punk bands might have continued playing to smaller crowds for more years than they did.
The big revelation is that The Clash were from middle class homes, in England meaning anyone who didn’t grow up eating from dumpsters and living in cardboard boxes. The Clash fabricated stories about their pasts to build street credibility, essential for any rebel music for disgruntled youth. Big deal. Did anyone believe Mick Jagger was a street fighting man and not an art school fop? Punk in the UK arose from at worst the working class. US punk history is the story of the bohemian middle class slumming it in the big city. Sure, punk’s often about having no money, nothing to do, a job you hate, unemployment, being oppressed…. but it’s all relative. You can be a millionaire and still believe there’s No Future.
The biggest lie about punk comes from within the scene itself, that to be really punk means to be C.H.U.D. (Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers) is “real”, and the more real you are the more punk you are. Absolute crap. GG Allin was the King of the C.H.U.D and Sid Vicious’ own friends considered him a loser. Drugs and idiocy made Sidney what he ultimately became, but he grew up in the same environment as his friends who went on to do better things, if at least to be not as pathetic.
Punk can be an attitude, a musical style, a way to dress and a way to think. It’s not worthy of MYTH cut in stone letters. That’s my major problem with Last Gang In Town. Marcus Gray gives The Clash a full Norman Mailer treatment. He’s so obsessed with myth he loses all sense of proportion. Here’s some facts: Mick Jones had long hair and played in cock-rock bands; Joe Strummer called himself Woody (as in Guthrie) and copied Bruce Springsteen; Paul Simonon didn’t know how to play bass but was brought on because of his looks and street credibility; The Clash were a political band that often didn’t know what they were talking about and towards the end sold out and recorded bad music. All true, interesting and insightful, but not a call to arms in a mythical war against myth. Bands have always been full of their own poop. You’d say a lot of dumb things too if you were interviewed hundreds of times and had to endlessly explain yourself to strangers. Ask Ian MacKaye to define Straight Edge…again.
Last Gang In Town is not a bad book as far as the history goes. There are many good stories and decent insights. The material doesn’t warrant the treatment it gets here. The Clash were no Watergate, and Marcus Gray sure isn’t Woodward and Bernstein.
Legend Of A Rock Star: The Last Testament Of Dee Dee Ramone (book review):
This was a project cut short by Dee Dee's death from a drug overdose on June 6,
2002. Lobotomy: Surviving the Ramones is the only Dee Dee book you need. This is
a collection of some road diaries and a ton-o-filler.
Dee Dee is surprisingly literate. Each chapter opens with a short copy of his original writing, proving the book wasn't ghost-written. He's an "honest" writer but also delusional (oops, artistic) so it's impossible to know what's real. This isn't a magical mystery tour but an often boring trek through the craphole clubs of Europe. For sure he didn't kill border police and bury their bodies in the snow. He recounts many conversations and it shines through constantly how people dealt with him like he was a huge flake and a pain in the ass.
The real value of this book is experiencing reality (or lack thereof) through the mind of a nut. I was constantly reminded of the scene of Psycho when Norman Bates sits in the police station and he's thinking:
"They know I can't move a finger and I want to just sit here and be quiet just in case they suspect me. They're probably watching me. Well, let them. Let them see what kind of a person I am. I'm not even going to swat that fly. I hope they are watching... they'll see. They'll see and they'll know, and they'll say, "Why, she wouldn't even harm a fly..."
Dee Dee doesn't whitewash his violent tendencies but he complains of being an endlessly giving person being drained by psychic parasites. His mind was all over the place and he was capable of anything.
Legend Of A Rock Star is sadly a dumping ground for everything the publisher could put together. It's a fun read but not essential. Here's a link to some Dee Dee artwork. These look a lot better than the work found in the book.
Lobotomy: Surviving The Ramones, Dee Dee Ramone with Veronica Kaufmann (book review) (Thunder’s Mouth): There’s three things you learn about Dee Dee Ramone Lobotomy: Surviving The Ramones - he had the mindset of a junkie, the personality of a cretin, and he was an excellent song-writer who could barely play his bass. The publisher calls this book a “temperance tract” and hopes to tap into alt.scum’s fascination with Charles Bukowski and the NY music/heroin scene of the 1970s.
It makes for disorienting reading because between the lines of this fascinating series of recollections is the truth that junkies lie pathologically and are in no position to remember events with reliable perspective. It reads more like a novel in diary form than an autobiography. Part or all of it may be true, but Dee Dee’s endless revelations of addiction, paranoia and cretinism make it difficult to care or believe. Dee Dee may have been clean and sober when the book came out but his personality remains that of a junkie. He overdosed in 2002. I love the Ramones and I love the songs Dee Dee wrote for them. That being said…
A cretin is loosely characterized by idiocy, vulgarity and insensitivity. A cretin is the city slicker cousin of the country side-show geek who bites the heads off live chickens. The Ramones were all cretins to some degree. For that matter, many of the central figures of the ‘70s US punk scene were cretins. Johnny threw broken televisions off apartment buildings to scare passersby. Joey pissed in people’s drinks and laughed as they drank. Marky, the strongest and most violent, manifested the slow burn of his drinking, drugs and mental imbalance by pulling down his pants and squawking as “Chicken Beak Boy”.
Dee Dee in Lobotomy presents himself as a cowardly patsy with wild fantasies of stabbing anyone who pisses him off. I don’t think he’s making excuses, it’s more like giving explanations that produce very little sympathy. He’s not sorry about anything, which contradicts the slight twelve-step program vibe of the book. I take it as the pathology of the junkie mentality. Of such things are not heroes usually made, but this is punk rock, so GG Allin is god.
Dee Dee’s role in the Ramones was to write songs and keep ‘em coming. He diddled on a two-string acoustic guitar and then Johnny made sense of it for the band to follow. Even though he wrote many of the songs, the entire band shared credit. On one level he was ripped off and yet he was like a gifted caveman with limited capacity on his own to turn his ideas into music. Johnny Thunders swiped writing credit for “Chinese Rocks”. He says Johnny and Joey hated him. Maybe they did, and maybe they just hated everybody.
Dee Dde had an ongoing love-hate relationship with the band, always holding out hope he would be asked to play again after he left. Johnny and Joey didn’t want to deal with Dee Dee but they desperately needed his songs. It might have been a matter of shaking his hand and punching him in the stomach at the same time, or it might have been asking of him the only reliable contribution he could make to the cause. I wouldn’t trust any of the Ramones to write an accurate account of the band’s history. I believe Dee Dee was treated like a chump, and also that he was a chump to begin with.
Dee Dee’s writing is very direct and not without thoughtful insight. He writes “People who join a band like the Ramones don’t come from stable backgrounds. Punk rock comes from angry kids who feel like being creative.” The sentiment would be inspiring, except it’s followed by “I guess that’s why members of the Ramones were known to throw TV sets from the roofs of apartment buildings at people below on the street. We had a special hatred for old ladies pushing their carts full of groceries home from the supermarkets.” That’s nuts and presenting the act as liberating made the movie Times Square a farce. Targeting old ladies is indefensible. We need to expect something productive from our heroes, and not targeting old ladies with projectile TV sets would be a good start.
The book opens with blunt statements that set a distinctive tone of directness both confessional and brutally honest: “What I understand now is that I wasted a lot of effort worrying about nothing. Probably because I felt like nothing. My parents were horrible. Their lives were complete chaos and they blamed it all on me. My mother was a drunken nut job, prone to emotional outbursts, where she would go spinning around the apartment beating her fists in the air, or falling down and hammering the floor with them so as to let everyone know that she was tough and not to f-k with her. She called herself Tony, which is about as silly as me calling myself Dee Dee, when you think about it. I had a weak, selfish drunk for a father, who was somehow like Connie (Dee Dee’s insane prostitute girlfriend) too, and somehow like the person I became.”
What makes Lobotomy a good read are observations like “It (CBGBs) didn’t seem as glamorous as Max’s or the Mercer Arts Center. When we loaded in for the soundcheck, we had to watch out for rat, mice and dog s-t on the floor. It was the pits. Especially Hilly Kristal, a big fat guy, who ran the place and apparently never bathed. His wife, Karen Kristal, managed CBGBs and hated the Ramones more than she hated CBGBs. It was very aggravating and very unfriendly. As soon as you walked in off the street, the smell of fermenting beer was so powerful that it made you want to walk out backward. They didn’t have any toilets, so the audience just pissed where they stood.”
Some people hate how this book was written. I think Veronica Kaufmann did a wonderful job organizing the thoughts of a total screw-up whose crude talents yielded incredible results. The Ramones were the first and best modern punk band, and the voices and anger in Dee Dee’s head were their clay.
Lobotomy has also been re-released under the title Poison Heart. The introduction by Legs McNeil is hackwork. I like this book and I’ll read it again in a few years. Dee Dee was being as honest and fair as a junkie can be. It falls short in some ways but in it he doesn’t pursue an agenda or drown in hatred and self-pity. Take the book for what it is and enjoy.
Make The Music Go Bang!: The Early L.A. Punk Scene, edited by Don Snowden, photographs by Gary Leonard (book review) (St. Martin's Griffin): Sad to say but I lost interest half way through because the book often reads like first person spoken word pieces, and my tolerance for beatnik foolishness is limited. I was hoping to learn more about the early ‘80s Hollywood-based punk scene, but instead this book consists of eleven impression pieces and is only as authoritative as the vague memories and personal prejudices of those involved. The photographs are swell but their value is more filler than content. Seeing a few hundred more shots of punks being punky on top of the three billion I've already seen doesn't add anything substantive to the experience. This isn't a bad book if you enjoy the subject but it's nostalgia from people I don't know much about (and didn't learn much about by reading this book).
The book’s introduction makes a point that its "not a definitive facts-and-figures-and-dates history or explain-the-meaning-of-it-all sociocultural look at the late seventies/early-eighties L.A. scene....it's a dozen individual perspectives on what happened in Los Angeles during that nebulous time period. Lock the twelve of us into a room and odds are we wouldn't reach any definitive consensus on what was, why it was, who it was, or even precisely when it was." I assume I'm supposed to be as ignorant about the L.A. scene after reading this book as I was before. I wish Make The Music Go Bang! was more informative but what really struck me was how little effort was put into it by the various contributors. You get the sense some of them scribbled things down the night before it was due to the editor, like it was homework. Objectivity in these matters is never assured but I expected more research and thoughtful commentary - not random and nearly forgotten memories from someone’s nutty youth.
Here's some of the skinny on the old Hollywood scene: bands, shows and clubs came and went as the drunk, stoned and vandalizing punks quickly wore out their welcomes. Some of these goofballs had talent while others stunk up the room in the name of performance art. The in-crowd of this scene was relatively small and not overly inclusive, though it seems heavy drug use and binge drinking made a positive impression. Kristie McKenna writes, "I suddenly realized I was a member of a weird, unfriendly secret club (the punk scene could not be accused of friendliness)". Rodney Bingenheimer of KROQ played a major role in the L.A. scene by relentlessly promoting bands on his radio program. The underground music and arts scenes worked together closely. The original scene, maybe best personified by X, was helped down the road to oblivion by legions of suburban jock-punks (the Orange County Reich) who flooded the shows to enjoy the sport of random violence.
Contributors to the book were: Fred Patterson, Kristine McKenna, Keith Morris, Brendan Mullen, Chris Morris, Louis Perez, Don Maller, Pleasant Gehman, Don Snowden, Claude Bessy and Exene Cervenkova. Brendan Mullen's chapter is by far the best, and it wasn't even written for Make The Music Go Bang!
My lasting impression from reading Make The Music Go Bang! is that, yes, a book of that title does exist. If you like photographs and foggy personal recollections of a time and place you were most probably not a part of, read this book. You won't learn much but at least you'll be able to say you read a book on the subject.
Man Enough To Be A Woman, By Jayne County with Rupert Smith (book review) (Serpent's Tail): Dick Dietrick, the greatest fake talk show host in fake talk show history, summed it up best when he pondered "Testicles?... that's nuts!!" This is the autobiography of Wayne/Jayne County, no relation to Walter/Wendy Carlos. I call him "Wayne Jayne", which I'll abbreviate as "W/J". His birth name was Wayne Rogers, not to be confused with sensitive guy #2 on M.A.S.H. Writer Rupert Smith is credited with a "with", but it's more a "as told to", but it’s better than being an uncredited ghost writer.
W/J is remembered as one of the original characters of the ‘70s NYC club scene, and for the night he broke Handsome Dick Manitoba's collarbone with a microphone stand at CBGBs. Arty farty (Homer Simpson demands "less arty, more farty!") Andy Warhol fans know W/J as a featured performer in a number of Factory-sponsored absurdist plays, the most famous being Pork, whose script contains verbatim transcriptions of private telephone conversations between Warhol insider Tony Ingrassia and the legion of beautiful losers who hung around Warhol. Very catty, hateful and hurtful, but more on that later. The transsexual community might only think of W/J as an old southern queen with a nosejob who still pees standing up. Man Enough To Be A Woman was written with these three groups of potential readers in mind.
W/J was born in 1947 and grew up in Dallas, Georgia, a town with "11,000 people and one red light." It was literally a case of living barefoot in a shack in the back by the railroad track, a pot-bellied stove inside and the toilet on the back porch. W/J always knew he was a woman and didn't go far to hide it. Surprisingly the locals didn't give him much of a hard time.
Reading W/J's stories you'd think 80% of all supposedly straight men are gay or bi-curious. When he grew older and relocated to Atlanta he picked up the local sport of "Wrecking", which involves dressing up in full screaming queen regalia and getting into strangers faces. This would appear to be a concerted effort to get beaten up, but County says they escaped pretty much untouched. He does note that when a transvestite or beatnik got arrested the police gave them haircuts.
If Man Enough To Be A Woman were to be made into a film, it would be like Forrest Gump in that W/J is in all the right places at the right times, interacting with Warhol, The Clash, Bowie, Blondie, Rod Stewart, Chrissie Hynde, The Kinks, The Sex Pistols, Johnny Thunders, The Police, Patti Smith, the NY Dolls, Leee Black Childs, Nico, John Lennon and enough famous transsexuals and transvestites to keep Las Vegas stage shows humming for decades. County participated in the Stonewall Riots and lived in both Berlin and England at pivotal times. In some ways, W/J's career ran parallel with that of Divine, Baltimore's favorite cross-dressing big gal.
The stories W/J tells are at times hilarious, insightful, and uncomfortable. The Max's crowd, the Warholians, the queens of the street - they treat each other like garbage yet cling to each other out of desperation. They make it their jobs to undermine their so-called friends, and at Max's, like Studio 54 (and your own local hangout I'm sure), everyone's terrified to leave the room because of vicious gossip and backstabbing. W/J admits to some pretty loony stuff - like pouring a bucket of excrement on the innocent girlfriend of a man he was also in love with, and trying to throw him out of a van on the highway. A lot of drugs are involved so rationality often took a back seat to paranoia and hallucinations. He also admits to periods of daily prostitution.
The book details how the fans and music industry wavered in their assessments of W/J, in line with how close he came to becoming a woman. At various points he goes on and off estrogen treatments, and the more he looks and dresses like a woman the more freaked out people become. The punks liked W/J when he was a trashy version of the NY Dolls, but a man growing real breasts was their line in the sand. County was courted by major labels but had a hard time getting records released, probably because the industry feared he'd have a doctor make his "outie" and "innie". Many artists flirted with bisexuality but it's all fun and games until someone loses their pool balls and stick.
W/J wants to take too much credit for trends and the careers of others. He implies Bowie created his glam look and bi-sexual persona directly from watching W/J in action, and W/J also takes bows for the ‘70s punk look. Who knows if this is true, but W/J didn't create cross-dressing, cabaret, rock n' roll or cheap stage prosthetics either. It's one thing to say you're an influence, but another to say you started it all.
As far as I know, W/J is still around doing showcases whenever a promoter calls with a paying gig. Man Enough To Be A Woman is a very interesting book that provides insights into worlds most of us know little about. It isn't easy being a woman born in a man's body, and I don't envy the personal journey of gender realization that leads so many to self-hatred, drug addiction and suicide.
One of W/J's 70's backup bands were called The Backstreet Boys.
The Money And The Power: The Making Of Las Vegas and Its Hold On America, by Sally Denton & Roger Morris, (book review) (Knopf): To the millions of tourists who pass through every year fully expecting to lose their children’s college fund, Las Vegas is a fascinating place, an adult Disney theme park in the middle of abso-fugg-lutely nowhere. You can lose the rent money in the same basic windowless room encased in a shell fabricated to look like a castle, Paris, ancient Rome, New York or a pyramid. You can sit next to a bum playing slots at the 7-11, an old woman on a fixed income at the supermarket or with other lost weekenders waiting for a plane at the airport (last chance for bankruptcy!). It's the magic kingdom for people expecting a lot more fun and adventure than they actually get. Slot players look so damn miserable and listless, like they're being punished. Table players at least seem like they're having fun as they lose their retirement money. Most gamblers you see in Vegas trudge from casino to casino looking for the fun they're supposed to be having because "It's Vegas, baby!" It's really not there. Besides gambling there's nothing in Vegas you can't find in most cities, which might be why so many tourists look like they rode in by wagon from Appalachia. Topless and drag queen revues do well at the casinos. Go figure.
This is the Las Vegas as experienced by tourists. Everyone knows modern Las Vegas was founded by organized crime and might still be run by The Mob behind fronts of legitimate business. Tourists want to think they're rubbing shoulders with gangsters when in Vegas (baby!), but that doesn't happen and rarely did happen unless you did something you really shouldn’t have. I bring this up because The Money And The Power is a beautifully researched treatise on conspiracy theories that have shaped Las Vegas history as a nexus for criminal, political, religious and civic corruption. Still, it's more an interesting history than a wake-up call to humanity. If the idea of intertwined corruption at every level of life is new to you, welcome to Earth. Enjoy your visit.
Government, religion, media, culture, business, education, organized crime and the short attention span of an easily influenced general population co-exist to create the American way of life. You can't read The Money And The Power and not feel everyone's corrupt. Not everyone is, but many are, and not everyone is totally beholden to their associations. A system of checks and balances exists, and that's the nature of my only complaint with the book. The authors create a wagon wheel of connections with The Mafia in the center, surrounded by labor unions, politicians, law enforcement, banks, newspapers, businesses, religious institutions and the citizens of Nevada. The truth is that law enforcement, politicians and the media help defeat organized crime with some regularity. The mafia buys influence but it doesn't always win. Everyone has their own power base and agenda. It's not as simple as saying the mafia owns everyone. Joe Kennedy was mob all the way but his son Bobby worked hard to dismantle organized crime. Was it sincere or only directed against certain types of organized crime? Only the conspiracy theorists know for sure.
Time and again it's asserted the most evil player is J Edgar Hoover. The mob blackmailed Hoover for being the ugliest Mary in DC, yet they feared his power. Hoover had the resources and political muscle to shut down organized crime, but he didn't. The mob had pictures and also fed him names of winning horses. They had it over each other the whole time and the losers were the American people. Hoover suppressed inquiries into flagrant crimes by the mob and even denied their existence. Organized crime has and will always exist, but it might not have played such a major part in recent history without the complicity of J. Edgar.
The Money And The Power is well worth reading. Las Vegas isn't the most important mob city in America, but it's fun to see how the authors try to make it seem that way for the sake of their book's dramatic importance.
Neighborhood Threat: On Tour With Iggy Pop, by Alvin Gibbs (book review) (Britannia Press): $2.98 at Borders and worth every penny. $3 would have been too much. Trees died so this book could live. I don't know what's worse - the poor writing or that there's so little on Iggy himself. Author Alvin Gibbs spent four years with the UK Subs yet he looks like a Duran Duran roadie, and for all his drug and drink swagger his writing style is polite and courteous. If you're a hired guitar like Gibbs you'd better have loads of dirt to dish on Iggy. He doesn't because 1) Iggy is clean and sober (for Iggy), B) I doubt he had much access to Pop during the seven months of the "Instinct" tour, and lastly) Gibbs, ever in need of a gig, isn't dumb enough to burn his bridges by penning a scorching tell-all. If you're a Alvin Gibbs fanatic this tour diary will stop your heart. If it's Iggy you're looking for he's pretty much the Godot we're all waiting for.
Check out the odd writing style: "A wall of humanity without faces stretching from the front of the stage up into the gods and surrounding us on all sides. A deafening sound as we stepped onto the boards with guitars at the ready and Iggy gesturing the audience to stand and prepare to receive." The hyperbole and alternating American and British slang throughout the 138 page book scream for wholesale editing.
Road stories of note: Backstage in Madison, Wisconsin, a jock shouts to Iggy "Where did you get that wig from, freak?!", to which Ig knocks the guy flat with a right hook and stands over him daring him to flinch. Iggy may be a skinny 5'6" but he's a tough mother. GG Allin was a pussy.
In San Diego a member of Jesus and Mary Chain mockingly rubs a lit cigarette into Iggy's specially constructed synthetic stage flooring after being warned to put out his smoke by one of Iggy's crew. For his troubles he gets knocked on his ass. I can only guess what Iggy would have done.
Iggy snorts a little coke, various band members get laid and stoned, and some hotels are definitely better than others. Yawn.
This isn't the worst book but it should have been co-written by a pro. One day Iggy will get his due with a massive biography and a major motion picture recounting his shockingly interesting life and career. Iggy is a great writer himself and would make an excellent spoken word artist. He would surely blow away Rollins and Biafra, two lightweights with celebrity but no real verbal talent.
924 Gilman... The Story So Far - (Book review): This thick yet shallow tome is a collection of short essays extracted like teeth by editor Brian Edge from the memories of Gilman Street regulars olde and neu. To get it done Edge interviewed half of the 78 contributors, and I read into the consistent tone that Edge re-wrote most of it. 924 Gilman is fleshed out with photos, newsletters, flyers and newspaper clippings, but it’s less of a history than a pile of “What I Did On My Punky Summer Vacation” papers assigned to a class filled with kids you’d hire to appear in a remake of Suburbia. If teachers can grade papers like this all year without developing serious cases of mental carpal-tunnel they 'ain't getting paid enough. At best it’s young adult literature that fails on every level except offering information that contradicts most of its intentions.
The spirit and purpose of 924 Gilman is found in the book’s opening paragraph: “Gilman changes people’s lives. It gives them inspiration; it gives them hope. It’s what holds some people together when life is tearing them apart. It shows them that there are things in the world to care about, to take responsibility for. It instills in them the sense that some things do matter, and perhaps most importantly, that they themselves matter, especially those who’ve been told they would never amount to anything. How does Gilman do this? Simply by providing an opportunity that people can run with, or not, as they choose to. It is, after all, only a building. But it’s the people that take advantage of this opportunity that have made Gilman special, magical. These people are what this book is about.” Change Gilman to names of summer camps and you can say the same about Meatballs and Hot Wet American Summer. I’m glad for anyone who underwent a magical transformation at Gilman, but the US is filled with the Gilmans of a paper route, a circle of good friends, fast food jobs and community centers galore. That’s what Gilman is, a community center run by teenagers supervised by older teens and twenty-somethings. Conceived as Timmy Yo’s Kommie Kidz Klub, it’s stayed open due to luck, a forgiving landlord with no standards, an endless parade of volunteers and the largesse of The People’s Republic Of Berkeley, who most likely shed no tears when DiCon Fiberoptics left town after endless disputes with Gilman, leaving 400 people without jobs. Gilman Street is Lord Of The Flies with as much introspective honesty as the Soviet Union.
The back cover sports a photo of a man smirking while pointing to the “No Drugs” line on the Gilman rules chart that greets all visitors: “No racism, no sexism, no homophobia, no drugs, no alcohol, no violence.” Contributors admit to sexism at every corner, rivers of alcohol, needles of heroin, and violence? Boy Howdy is there carnage! It’s the self-imposed death sentence that defines most punk scenes. Skinheads play the role of zombies a la Day Of The Dead. Racism and homophobia aren't addressed either way. Gilman is more proof than you need that high school never ends. Pretty much everything it claims to be is mostly only true as a goal. Considering that punk scenes overflow with suburban rejects from dysfunctional homes, when people do wrong they do so spectacularly. Also proving that hell is other people, a number of writers admit that working at Gilman made them angry and mean. As they say at 924, “Gilman eats its own”.
Meetings devolve into the dictatorship of the proletariat where some animals are more equal than others. A meeting is stopped so another meeting can be formed to vote on the original meeting taking a vote. The loudest and angriest PC politics win arguments, but people themselves don’t change, so they’re mainly empty decrees. Sometimes the book is a study of passive vs. aggressive personalities.
Stupidity On The March! “People think they named the freeway exit after the club!” “The whole space stood as a threat by example.” On drinking in an all-ages venue: “When you’re enforcing the city’s rules inside the club, then it proves you are being the same as them.” On why someone dropped out of college: “UCB seemed like thirty thousand kids all stepping on each other to get ahead.” Who the hell in college CAN you step on to get ahead?! Gilman shut down for a short time after about two years and was taken over by new sponsors who called themselves The Alternative Music Foundation. Here’s a laugher: “Violence was a carryover from the previous operation.” Jane G. wrote she loved the MaximumRockNRoll letters section “because it was such an open democratic forum.” I guess you have to know MRR to know why that’s a scream. Then there’s Timmy Yo’s original decree that bands would never be announced. People would show up for the Gilman experience and hey, there’s a band playing over there! Sweet! He also came up with the idea that bands couldn’t play unless they volunteered at the club. Tim’s lead balloons crashed and burned, but at least he tried!
Some other tidbits: A few dozen kids lived at Gilman as a squat. A band was once beaten up on stage for posting sexist show flyers. One manager let a prostitute use the club to turn tricks. Shows were stopped and instant meetings held when something needed to be addressed by the committee during a show. The binding job on my copy was horrible. The pages fell out like playing cards. I must remember not to buy books like this that are not the product of accumulated research.
The Road With The Ramones – (Book
review): Hopefully this is the last book
I'll ever read that's composed mostly of quotes. It's a lazy way to write and a
lazy way to read. It's not writing, it's editing. I could do it, so that's how I
know no skill is required.
2003's On The Road With The Ramones was compiled by Frank Meyer with direct assistance from Monte Melnick, the Ramone's tour manager for their entire career, from pre and post. It ends just before Johnny dies but covers Joey and Dee Dee's deaths pretty well. Always the diplomat, Monte doesn't slash and burn but he can't help but be truthful, and he doesn't need to anyway since everyone else is cutting each other to ribbons as usual.
This is my fifth Ramones book so I know the story fairly well. I forgot that Bruce Spingsteen wrote "Hungry Heart" for the Ramones but was turned down. I also didn't know the first three albums, the trifecta of greatness, were written in the same period and recorded in chronological order for reasons only known to Johnny. I found most of it to be pretty damn interesting so I'd recommend the book to anyone with even a passing interest.
What Monte refreshingly brings to On The Road With The Ramones is an aura of believability since the band members have axes to grind and fish to fry. Tommy might be a reliable source but he didn't live it every day for the whole run like Monte. The books' worth it just to read the anecdotes of Joey's obsessive compulsive disorder. Touching down in the UK he flips out because he HAS TO fly back to NY and touch something, anything, at the airport. Poor Monte.
The Other Hollywood
, by Legs McNeil (book review) and Wonderland (movie review):
Legs McNeil, author of the classic anecdotal punk history
Please Kill Me, fails with the same format
The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History Of The
Porn Film Industry. The amazon reviewers couldn't put this down, even
though with one hand it does get heavy after a while, but by pg. 150 I really
wanted to stop. It's a limited and self-limiting lazy mess.
The format of Please Kill Me was innovative, easy to read and I thought never intended to be all-inclusive. It's small quotes arranged to tell stories. The Other Hollywood pretends to be definitive but is limited to the quotes they could get and the drips and drabs format that interrupts itself repeatedly, sometimes with unrelated stories. When it works well you have various players gossiping and contradicting each other. When it doesn't, the layout and stoytelling just look dumb.
The book bogs down in uninteresting story lines (the personal lives of undercover agents) and endless recitations of porn people treating each other and themselves like garbage. The book's 600 pages. A good book on the subject could be 1,000 but this one tells only 250's worth. It took 7 years for Legs to find a publisher. The problem probably was the book and not the subject matter. A much better read is Tales Of Times Square.
Wonderland was a theatrical release that should have been a made-for-cable movie. I imagine the sell was Boogie Nights meets Helter Skelter. It's about John Holmes and his involvement in the Wonderland Avenue murders, not exactly the stuff of blockbusters. Val Kilmer is great as John and for such a small film the cast is impressive. There's a lot of method acting and visually the film is washed in a burning heat that doesn't exist here in Los Angeles except way inland. It's ok but also a whole lot of nothing on a very obscure piece of local history. In an effort to not have John Holmes be a totally contemptible character, they leave out that he constantly beat up his girlfriend Dawn and repeatedly forced her into street prostitution, at one time even enslaving her in a brothel. Sweet guy.
Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From The American Indie Underground 1981-1991, by Michael Azerrad (book review) (Little Brown & Co.): Isn't that a sad title? That a band could actually be your life? Did you not have a life before a band became yours, and if the band that is your life tells you to drink the Kool-Aid, would you?
This is a book as well written and researched as it is full of its own need to be important. It repeatedly screams to the rafters about meaning, youth culture and the indie scene as if it was an organic and spontaneous creation that generated itself from thin air to challenge evil corporate record companies and their cronies in the radio business, who keep the nation docile by force feeding them top 40 crap, as if for no other reason than to thwart the good elves in the indie scene tree. While I'm generally sympathetic to the moans, groans, rashes and farts of the scene I know a diaper load of nonsense when I step into it. I enjoy books that start with a novel premise and then use facts to build up to stunning conclusions. Not all non-fiction has to be free of commentary and personal style. If I took drugs maybe I could even figure out what the hell Lester Bangs was talking about. Our Band Could Be Your Life succeeds as journalism when it sticks to facts and quotes. It fails when it attempts to draw conclusions about the meaning and importance of indie music to both those involved and the larger culture.
For brevity I'll bunch together Black Flag and Minor Threat with Mudhoney and Dinosaur Jr. under the term "indie", which, by the way, was forced onto punk by college hipsters who somehow see connecting lines between Big Black and The Violent Femmes. I never asked Black Flag to become a sludge metal band. I thought Husker Du's Warehouse: Songs And Stories sucked inky squid poop. Having written a book about Nirvana, the author approaches this book with the notion that Nirvana's 1991 Nevermind was the culmination of all things punk. That was a non-event that happily passed by all the punks I knew back in 1991, but now I'm told it was my defining moment? Alrighty then!
Punk didn't create itself from string and spit, it came out of existing garage rock and mainstream influences. I'll wager in the 1830s there were snotty powdered-wig punks who saw Franz Liszt perform and thought "Dude, I want to score with hot babes too. I think I'll start an orchestra!" Fanzines existed before punk made them fashionable. Garage bands could always play to an audience, even if it was only a few friends in the basement.
I don't know when mainstream radio turned into a black hole of nothingness but in the ‘70s, when punk supposedly rose up to offer alternatives to dinosaur rock bands and soft rock, a number of cool radio stations in major markets allowed DJs to play at least some of their own selections. Maybe not in Iowa, but those are the breaks when you live in a state with one zip code. Also, great bands came out in the evil ‘70s, and no band was more influential to the scene than the Rolling Stones, one of the supposedly obsolete fossils punk was to replace. Crap, every punk guitar player worshipped Keith Richards.
Our Band Could Be Your Life is a book for the choir who think everything they're into is very special and deserves to be recognized as such. It's a validation for whatever superiority or paranoia you're supposed to carry for the unheralded bands nobody but you understands. The book is written with awe and respect to elicit awe and respect for the idea that indie music is the most important thing to happen to culture since Elvis curled his lip like Sid Vicious.
What allowed the modern indie scene to exist as both a real thing and this mythical beast the book implies is: 1) Easier access to xerox machines and computer software started and professionalized the zine movement 2) The Buzzcocks discovered that anyone can get their record pressed. Dischord took that and ran like hell. 3) The growth of college radio in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s when formats were wide open. I did a show in ‘79 you could only receive if your radio was plugged into the electrical grid at the University Of Tampa. Even the Taliban are more advanced. 4) Mom and Pop punk record stores and concert halls opened in large and smallcities, which reflected some actual results from the DIY code of the HardCore generation, and 5) The "scandal" of the Sex Pistols created a media sensation that put punk on the map for anyone looking for something new like that, or just something new.
Do It Yourself is the motto of the indie scene. I first heard of DIY in 1978 when Peter Gabriel wrote a song about it. Many bands are DIY because they have no choice, while others deliberately avoid major labels, who in the big picture are both good and evil. They're big companies with big staffs, budgets and expectations. The difference in scale of what breaks even for an indie and a major is exponential. Majors search for bands who will sell in the millions and they panic over any move an artist makes that can impact the bottom line. Majors can suck as much as indies can suck. They just do it on a larger scale. Indie bands who sign with majors don't always put out bad records - many just run out of good material by the time they do. The term "sell-out" is lobbed out all the time, and one of the useful lessons of the book is to show every HardCore rich kid who judges the scene purity of others how tough it really is living in a smelly van, eating food off the plates of others and feeling lucky to get paid enough so you can get to the next gig in Buttplug, AZ for an adoring crowd of four fans and three locals with no place else to go.
My favorite paranoid assumption, expressed and implied often, is that major labels conspire to keep bands like Black Flag, The Replacements and Mudhoney off the radio because, if people hear them, they'll drop their Fleetwood Macs and Garth Brooks to become indie lifers. Most people enjoy their popular music and don't want you to save them from a life of boring music consumption. To most folks, music is wallpaper and they think people who make bands their lives have too much free time on their hands (which they usually do). I've also heard majors will sign indie bands to destroy their careers. Major labels would sign your uncle's kazoo band if they thought it would sell a million units. They've tried to exploit the indie scene but usually have no idea what to do with these bands once they have them. Maybe the biggest problem are young A&R people who like indie bands and want them to sign with their major label employers. Once they get signed, the people above them micromanage the bands to death, and maybe couldn’t care less about new talent with limited prior success. It's a people and attention span problem, not a UFO conspiracy. Bands need to be smart and put out good records, be it with indies or majors. It's up to bands to know what they want and to read the freakin’ contracts before they sign.
Our Band Could Be Your Life dissects the indie scene by focusing on thirteen bands. Azarrad freely mixes good research with beautifully articulated and yet sometimes completely wrong commentary on what it all means. Here is a limited sampling of my notes and comments, which are all so great you'll write home to mother:
Black Flag: The "SST" in Greg Ginn's SST Records stands for "Solid State Tuners", the name of the ham radio supply mail order business Ginn started at age twelve; When asked why the band didn't try to stop violence at shows, Chuck Dukowski says "Do we have the right to act as leaders, to tell people how to act?" Why doesn't he just come out and say he doesn’t care? The only difference sometimes between punk and heavy metal is that punks at least pretend to think instead of just grunt; The author is very impressed with Black Flag lyrics, which to me never went beyond "I hate myself, I hate you, I'm gonna explode!"; Black Flag became a sludge metal band halfway through their run, and they lost many fans. The author laughably attempts to explain this away by calling the music "challenging" and belittling the minds of those who preferred the old loud fast rules material.
The Minutemen: Mike Watt - "That Seventies stuff, the Journey, Boston, Foreigner stuff, it was lame. If it weren't for those types of bands we never would have had the nerve to be a band. But I guess you need bad things to make good things. It's like farming - if you want to grow a good crop, you need a lot of manure"; To give you a sense of scale in the punk biz - "Paranoid Time sold out its 300 copy pressing, so Ginn invited them to make another record"; Influences - The Pop Group, Capt. Beefheart and Wire; The band politics came from Credence Clearwater Revival; To make a point of some or any kind, the author comes up with many statements of rabid hyperbole like "America was in nothing if not a catatonic state through the Eighties, and the Minutemen's music - all angular stops and starts, challenging lyrics, and blink-and-you-missed-'em songs - was a metaphor for the kind of alertness required to fight back against the encroaching mediocrity"; At a show in Austin, someone threw a bag of vomit at the band? What kind of mind even conceives of doing that?; And then there's a story (that goes without comment by the author) that on the road D. Boon taped the bottom of his pants legs tight against his legs and crapped his pants for three days because of a bad case of diarrhea? Don't people get institutionalized for that?; The section on D. Boon's death is well worth reading.
Mission Of Burma: Oh what a great band they were in their day; The book details nicely why Boston was such a great punk rock city around 1980; Band member Martin Swope manipulated tape noises at the sound board during shows and never appeared on stage while the rest played; It's a pity they played so many shows on the road to just a handful of people. Buy all their old material and don’t stop listening until you understand why they’re so important. They were the first true indie band.
Minor Threat: Is Azerrad being funny when he writes of their music "And it had a beat they could dance to"?; Ian says the direct inspiration for the Straight Edge movement was Ted Nugent (the sober madman); The Bad Brains influenced Minor Threat, but could someone tell me if they were the actual first hardcore band to play as fast as they did, or was in The Middle Class?; The issue of violence is a big contradiction with Minor Threat and their crew. They beat up people in what Ian terms self-defense, like how SHARP skinheads not only fought nazi skins but beat up others just for kicks. The DC SXE kids rode up to NY a few times (the FEAR taping on SNL was a major incident) and made a very bad impression as violent thugs; Here's a quote-o-crap "Since we weren't allowed to legally drink we said 'Fine, we don't want to', just to piss the lawmakers off." Not drinking makes politicians mad?; The book does a great job detailing SXE as it was conceived and perceived by the punks. Seems the rest of the band didn't agree with Ian's militancy on the issue: What helped break up the band, besides the internal politics, was a desire by everyone but Ian to become more like U2!
Husker Du: My favorite band for a few albums until the slow slide to oblivion beginning with Flip Your Wig; It's written that the Everything Falls Apart 12" "alienated much of hardcore segment of their audience." Who, the fifteen people who heard Land Speed Record, whose sound can best be described as static?; Greg Norton on why their songs were based on melodies "I don't tend to walk down the street whistling hardcore"; Norton on the scene purists, "Basically, they were going 'Be different, be different. Be like us or we'll kill you'"; Competition and mistrust between Bob Mould and Grant Hart made Warehouse a double album. Now I know to spread the blame equally for that album; Their SST output was great.
The Replacements: Paul Stark - "The alcohol and the drug use back in the Eighties is almost a statement". Uh, yeah.
Sonic Youth: An object lesson on the importance of networking and being nice to people in order to get back the same in return; Thurston Moore was greatly impressed by Minor Threat as a band and an impetus for a community; The author asserts Sonic Youth's no wave take on "ugly beauty" can be traced back partly to the Sex Pistols.
The Butthole Surfers: The freaks from The Hills Have Eyes formed a band and made a lot of noise.
Big Black: Big Black was a great band with many not so great songs. Steve Albini - "The greatest thing about punk rock for me, as an outsider, was that the concept that you had to allowed in was no longer valid. You could be operating in a vacuum, you could be as fugged up an individual as you cared to be, and if you did something of worth, all these external conditions were immaterial"; The books says Albini was so unpopular in high school when he broke his leg in a motorcycle accident he received several phone calls from "jocks and rednecks" expressing great delight at his suffering. This is a great intro to the eternal question "Is Steve Albini as asshole?" It's one thing to be unpopular, but for people to call you in the hospital to laugh at your pain? He's called by band mate Dave Riley "a prick, but a benevolent and ultimately decent-kind-of-guy prick." Albini has a lot of integrity and has done a great deal for many in support of a scene he loves, but over the years he's gone out of his way to piss people off. Maybe he's the Rimbaud of his generation - the Uberdick as genius. But really, was it really worth the self-destructive impulse to name his follow-up band "Rapeman"?
Dinosaur Jr.: I fell asleep during this chapter. Did I miss anything?
Fugazi: People wept at Rites Of Spring shows. ‘Nuff said; Guy Picciotto is either deep or just deep into his own thought process. He could get his points across in fewer words; Assholes kicked out of Fugazi shows for being violent are handed back their $5 admission directly by the band; I love their crowd control methods of rational insults, and the road stories here are great; Azerrad is so full of crap when he writes that Washington DC was a cultural wasteland in 1988, and also when he notes "That steadfast reluctance to sell out won vast amounts of respect from fellow musicians. Everyone from Joan Jett to Eddie Vedder paid lip service to the band's integrity even as they conducted their own careers in ways that Fugazi never would. Publicly declaring respect for Fugazi, then was at best a way of sublimating guilt." That's the worst set of assumptions and assertions I've come across in a long time. Sublimating guilt?! Oh please...
Mudhoney: I have a strict policy against bands named after Russ Meyer films.
Beat Happening: Calvin Johnson got off his ass and created a thriving local scene and a neat record label through shear force of personality, and regardless of how cute it is or how cute he thinks he is, I salute him. I like lo-fi bands.
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