by Chris Estey
This week in literature-friendly, music-loving Seattle we have two legendary rock writers, Gillian G. Gaar and Richie Unterberger, making public appearances for their brand new tomes: The Rough Guide to Nirvana and White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day, respectively.
Gillian Gaar has informed and entertained local and national rock fans for years by freelancing for The Rocket tabloid (among many other publications), and has had a huge influence on national women writers in the music scene with books such as She’s A Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll. She wrote the 33 1/3 volume on Nirvana’s In Utero (one of the most well researched and balanced of the Continuum series) and knows enough about the band to have been consultant on their With The Lights Out box set.
When a record company brings in a critic to help put together an in-depth, luxurious anthology for an artist/group, they’re usually the kind of people that can tell you EVERYTHING about them. I think Everett True’s and Charles R. Cross’s books on Nirvana are both fantastic in their own ways, but The Rough Guide to Nirvana (Rough Guide/Penguin) is both the clearest gateway book for a history of the band’s music, social significance, and private struggles -- and perhaps the most necessary. Kurt Cobain is only part of the story here (albeit a big part), and the insider’s care with which she describes what excitement and changes Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl went through as well with the band seems far more tied to the collective nature of Nirvana than on a specific speculation on the destructive nature of celebrity.
Garr is a tenaciously coherent reporter with a fan’s desire to scurry together every wild and weird detail about what she loves, and tends to report multiple viewpoints on any topic or situation. Here, for example, you will find the tightest and funniest anecdote on the Cobain Vs. Axl Rose incident at the MTV Music Awards; richly focused sidebars on “Grunge hype,” “Nirvana’s UK TV shows,” “The lost videos,” and the very appreciated “Unreleased tracks”; and a killer assessment of all the musicians’ releases, before and after and in and out of Nirvana. It is the best Nirvana (and related) record guide there is, and simply adds to the exact reporting and disturbing revelations of True’s and Cross’s books, without repeating the information from either.
Do we really need another Nirvana book? Yes, if it’s in this “Rough Guide” format, which through maddening editorial skill on the part of the author condenses everything meaningful about the band into one sweet, dense study. But a similar question could easily be asked about the Velvet Underground, a band I’m even more personally fond of, but just as bored with reading about.
I have been a fan of Richie Unterberger‘s for many years, relishing his must-have volumes on marginal pop music artists Urban Spacemen & Wayfaring Strangers: Overlooked Innovators & Eccentric Visionaries of 60s Rock, and Unknown Legends of Rock ‘n’ Roll. But I wasn’t so thrilled with the idea of an immense and intense chronology of everything related to the band, since it seemed that previous works like All Yesterday’s Parties (an anthology of contemporaneous rock write on the Velvet Underground) seemed to be scraping the bottom of the barrel a little. Now comes (here it comes, yeah yeah, here it comes) White Light/White Heat (Genuine Jawbone) and it is fucking beautiful and just wipes out most of the other books about the band in terms of depth and relevance.
A ginormous, elegant, exhaustive extrapolation of intimate moments and many years in the lives of Reed, Cale, Tucker, Nico, and the others, it is like a “Extreme Expanded Rough Guide,” hitting VU significance day by day for years on end, in the 60s till just recent times. It draws on all the books you may know of and/or read, and tons of fanzines, long forgotten record reviews in regional press, and very rare quotes you’ll be amazed to encounter for the first time. There are new interviews too, and every barnstorming show and b-side decision is put under the microscope. The photos of the band alone in this coffee table extravaganza are many most have never seen before (Moe Tucker in particular comes more into visual focus, and I want to frame several shots of her from here), but along with the cherished recording trivia we now we have years of barbed wire assessments and tender losses to gorge our passion for the VU with. This is THE Velvet Underground book, kids, bar none.
Seattle-based Gillian Gaar will be doing two public appearances promoting The Rough Guide to Nirvana -- today, Tuesday, June 23, at Capitol Hill’s Bailey/Coy Books (7 to 9 PM, 414 Broadway E.), and then a signing party at Feedback Lounge, in West Seattle on June 25, from 7 to 9 pm. From the PR: “Books will be for sale (courtesy of Bailey/Coy), and this establishment comes equipped with a full bar and pinball machines. Feedback is located at 6451 California Ave SW, 206 453 3259. This event is 21-and-over!” Gaar is very charming and knows how to party, so don’t expect any academic standoffishness. Come hang out with the local scribes and their friends!
Unterberger is making a rare Pacific NW appearance on Wednesday, June 24, to talk about the mammoth Day-By-Day. It’s slated for 6:30 PM at the downtown Central Library (located on 1000 Fourth Avenue). This would be a good time to bring your coveted editions of Turn! Turn! Turn! or Eight Miles High to get signed -- and he might have a copy of his VU masterpiece to show off too.