Books that rock

Books that rock

Punk, hair metal, indie and hip-hop in literature

By Matthew Singer 06/01/2006

The field of pop music literature is a bit of a dodgy one, what with the preponderance of shitty unauthorized biographies, even shittier autobiographies by artists who have no business going anywhere near a word processor and long-winded dissertations comparing, say, Pearl Jam’s Ten to the works of Sophocles.

But, of course, there are those books that do their job: putting the music in a context that enhances the enjoyment of it. Here are some of them.

Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain (Grove Press, 1996); We’ve Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk, Marc Spitz & Brendan Mullen (Three Rivers Press, 2001)

Much ink — too much, probably — has been spilled in the name of punk, that brief flashpoint in the rock timeline that people still can’t stop talking about some 30 years later. It came and went so quickly and left behind such a huge crater that a lot of what has been written about it in retrospect amounts to a load of nostalgic hooey. Getting the story straight from the horse’s filthy, diseased mouth doesn’t really change the situation — but it does make the mythologizing way more entertaining. And you won’t find a more colorful band of miscreants this side of Tod Browning’s Freaks than the talking heads featured in these two invaluable documents (and only a few of them were actually Talking Heads). Please Kill Me came first, and although it professes to present the “oral history of punk,” period, its focus is steadily on New York and its sister city, Detroit. So you can see where onetime scenesters Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain are going with this. It’s a tale as frightening as it is exhilarating, full of drugs, sex, sex and drugs, sex for drugs (the Ramones’ “53rd & 3rd” ain’t fiction) and, occasionally, music, with a quick stopover across the pond to give some of the contributors a chance to rip their English counterparts as a bunch of sissified poseurs. In an effort to counteract all that East Coast chauvinism, Spi writer Marc Spitz and Brendan Mullen, owner of seminal L.A. punk club the Masque, gathered up California’s surviving punks and let them narrate We’ve Got The Neutron Bomb, with Jim Morrison as spiritual forefather, X as the guiding light, Darby Crash as the tragic figure and sleazebag svengali Kim Fowley as the embodiment of Hollywood’s debauched soul. Both are essential reads.

Also recommended: It’s not an oral history, but Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming offers the British side of things in rigorous detail. And with Rip It Up & Start Again: Post-Punk 1978-1984, author Simon Reynolds makes the argument that everyone who came afterward was bolder, brasher and more adventurous than those celebrated antiheroes of 1977. He may be right. 

Fargo Rock City, Chuck Klosterman (Scribner, 2001)

Chuck Klosterman slept beneath a pentagram for most of his teenage life. He did so while sporting a “Richie Cunningham haircut” and growing up in Wyndmere, North Dakota, a town where the hottest local dispute in the 1980s centered around which kind of tractor was the superior model. This is his story. Part memoir, part critical analysis, all page-turningly hilarious, Fargo Rock City reevaluates the lasting worth of the most ridiculed period in recent pop history, the Hair Metal Era, through the memories of a too-smart kid from rural America whose cultural awakening came via Motley Crue’s Shout at the Devil. Today, Klosterman is famous for waxing intellectual about cereal, Pamela Anderson and The Real World in such highbrow publications as Esquire and GQ. But his career left the launching pad with this headbanging opus, in which he compares Axl Rose to Kurt Cobain and Bono, attempts to define the difference between “heavy” and “hard” in the rock lexicon, describes the debate over the merits of keyboards as “the Roe v. Wade of ’80s metal,” and recalls spending years pretending to hate Poison despite having slow-danced to “Talk Dirty To Me” at his hometown’s centennial. Enough time has passed for hair metal to achieve a kitschy sort of respect, but Klosterman isn’t interested in being what he calls an “Ironic Hipster Contrarian.” Although it is maddeningly funny, the book is genuine in its desire to convince the world that all those poofy follicles, tight pants and songs about sex and partying actually mattered, if only to one short-haired farm boy with a Motley Crue sticker plastered to his headboard.

Psychotic Reactions & Carburetor Dung (Alfred A. Knopf, 1987; edited by Greil Marcus); Mainlines, Blood Feasts & Bad Taste (Anchor Books, 2003; edited by John Morthland), Lester Bangs

Lester Bangs is the only rock critic whom musicians truly accepted as one of their own. It’s no wonder: He lived like them and he died like them, overdosing on pills at age 33. Most importantly, he wrote as they played. His wildly energetic prose reads unlike any other contemporary writer, much less a music critic: Words seemed to spill straight from his brain onto the page in the wonderful cacophony of an Ornette Coleman sax solo or a Captain Beefheart tune. He was, in some ways, a rock ’n’ roll Hunter Thompson, thrusting himself into the middle of every story. And he wasn’t above starting a concert review with a totally Gonzo introduction like, “I decided it would be a real fun idea to get fucked up on drugs and go see Tangerine Dream.” Psychotic Reactions, compiled by “the Dean of Rock Journalism,” Greil Marcus, five years after Bangs’ death in 1982, collects arguably his best stuff, including a series of Creem articles detailing his bizarre love-hate relationship with his idol, Lou Reed. The more recent Mainlines picks up the rest and adds some unpublished early ramblings to the canon. A highlight of the set: “My Night of Ecstasy with the J. Geils Band,” from Psychotic Reactions, in which Bangs recounts with great enthusiasm the time he joined the titular group onstage and bashed away at the instrument on which he was a virtuoso — his typewriter.

Also recommended: Let It Blurt: The Life & Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic, by Chicago Sun-Times critic Jim DeRogatis, pries the man out from behind all that brilliant literature and finds a guy who was every bit as passionate as he appeared in print — but far more insecure.

Hip Hop America, Nelson George (Penguin Books, 1998)

Writer Nelson George was born in rap’s cradle of civilization — Brooklyn, N.Y. — and came of age as a journalist just as the first emcees, DJs, breakers and graffiti artists began crawling out of the primordial soup — in this case, the parks, rec centers and block parties across the five boroughs circa the mid-1970s. He’s been charting their evolution ever since. Hip Hop America is not a simple linear history, though. It’s an examination of hip-hop as an ongoing sociological phenomenon. When the culture left urban street corners and grew into the biggest pop movement of the late 20th century, it impacted everything, from the way shoes and malt liquor are marketed to the drug trade, basketball and, of course, racial politics. George manages to cover the scope of hip-hop’s influence with scholarly intelligence, a conversational tone and refreshing objectivity. In one of the book’s most intriguing chapters, the author uses a dispute he once had with the Fat Boys’ Caucasian manager as a springboard to discussing the contrary notion that visionary white record executives did more to nurture rap in its infancy than the black music establishment, who were just as confused by it as suburban parents were when they started hearing it come from their kids’ bedrooms. It’s a fair, balanced and fascinating perspective from someone who knows his shizzle. 

Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991, Michael Azzerad (Little, Brown & Co., 2001)

The title of Michael Azzerad’s chronicle of the American indie rock scene of the 1980s comes from a song by punk’s working class heroes, the Minutemen, and there probably hasn’t been a single phrase ever scrawled more evocative of the spirit that surged through the era Azzerad writes about than Our Band Could Be Your Life. As punk flamed out at the end of the ’70s, a generation not quite old enough to have participated in the initial wave salvaged its remains for principles they could turn into a working philosophy. The 13 bands profiled in the book are entirely dissimilar from one another musically, yet they’re linked by an overarching ideology: If that ugly-looking burnout over there can do it, why the hell can’t I? Our Band is a testament to an amazingly vital decade in the history of independent music, when a small core of dedicated twentysomethings in different parts of the country created a vibrant, nationwide infrastructure of labels, zines and clubs without corporate help and long before the Internet made it easy. It’s inspiring just reading about how Ian McKaye managed to keep the cost of Dischord Records’ albums down by using the same stash of discarded stationery for 10 years. Or, to a lesser extent, how Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers somehow placed his genitals on a suitcase that was shortly thereafter touched by Jimmy Carter … it’s a long story.

Also recommended: Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana, also by Azzerad, in which the indie underground grows up, moves out, gets a job and, ultimately, blows its brains out.

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