Scribes Sounding Off: Going Book Berserk 101

I used to teach a workshop in “street level” (DIY) rock journalism at Seattle’s wonderful literary resource the Richard Hugo House, and like many other self-taught reviewing rabble, I always recommended finding writing you love first and figuring out why you enjoy it so much. Because the works of those writers are actually your best bet to inspire and train you to articulate your own (hopefully widely and deeply informed) opinions about music. The old mockery “dancing about architecture” can easily be mocked meaningless by the truth that, hey, it’s actually really fun to dance about architecture if you’re a good dancer and the design plans are excellent source material.

The reason I haven’t done a SSO column on KEXP Blog for awhile is there has simply been too much great stuff to read. I was engulfed in it all and didn’t know where to begin. I was simply reading my ass off! This installment should have come out at the beginning of the summer as a list of the very best things to read whilst you’re sipping a beverage and listening to some tunes in your late night living room. But since a couple of these beautiful books are not out yet, it turns out this will be the perfect time to hype the whole lot of ‘em.

I was a bit wary that Rob Sheffield’s follow up to his deeply touching autobiography about sharing music with his late partner, Love Is A Mix Tape: Life And Loss, One Song At A Time, was another memoir still based on a one song schema detailing his past. But Sheffield’s wise and succinct observations in Rolling Stone should have kept me from being tight-ass about the formula; it works wonders for a guy who grew up with a wanderlust in both great music (the Stones’ essential “She’s So Cold”; Haysi Fantaysee’s audaciously trashy but keen “Shiny, Shiny”), great lands (Spain), and great relationships (richly detailed through the association with important tracks to his life here). Talking To Girls About Duran Duran: One Young Man’s Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut (Dutton) is a more-than-satisfactory prequel to the devastating Love Is A Mix Tape, and should be on the shopping list of both humor fans (some of the funniest writing you’ll read about growing up in the 80s anywhere) and those who seek the best in mainstream music history. Don’t let that latter compliment delude you into thinking there aren’t underground discoveries to be made here though; within the confessional tales and yucks about Flock of Seagulls and Lita Ford, the secret that most 80s rock fans tended to be at least aware of stuff on MTV besides “120 Minutes” (the excellent ‘college rock’ program that helped to inspire the ‘alternative nation’ of the 90s). Sheffield has surprising things to say about a lot of music you may take for granted, too. The answer is also found in the fact that more than one Husker Du fan I knew loved The Time, and that Miracle Legion were among many great artists to record at Paisley Park. The 80s may have been the last decade in which you could be into the secretly famous and enthusiastically connected to what was in the national top ten at the same time.

Some early hype for what is probably going to be my favorite rock book of the year, Marcus Gray’s Route 19 Revisited: The Clash And London Calling (Soft Skull). Set to be released on October 1st in the States, and already getting lots of dazed praise in the UK, this follow up to the author’s already extended, OCD-researched, chatty but eloquent fan letter to the “only band that matters” Last Gang in Town (in several versions) — and is just absolutely fucking crazy-brilliant. Super-loaded with touring band semi-loads of details about the 1979 moment of evolution in punk, American myths, world-wide music, literary and filmic inspirations, and collaborative and caustic personal relationships that somehow coalesced into the immortally top shelf London Calling, it is a 33 1/3 volume amped to the synapses with detail-spinning steroids. Every song on the delicious double LP is tracked down for root meanings, genre connections, guest stars and commentary, and it goes on for miles. When it’s time to scribe on “The Right Profile” we get an excellent summation of the career of Montgomery Clift, as well as the reason Strummer spat out that one line near the end as if he was apoplectic (always wondered about that, loved it though) — he was mocking mad producer Guy Stevens for criticizing his (often described as) “ham-fisted vocals” from earlier in the recording sessions. “Rudie Can’t Fail” inspires a dizzying discussion of the band’s competition with The Specials, who probably got their mod look from Clash bassist Paul Simonon (did you know that?), and challenged the band to write a definitive “Rudie” song for the new ska kids. That song’s history with the Clash-starring movie “Rude Boy” is also great, focusing on the real life parallels between Ray who is the central protagonist and Ray the real life fuck up, inspiring the line “drinking Brew for breakfast” (Special Brew, an ubiquitous UK beer for punk first meals of the day). The “freewheelin’ Vanilla (demo) sessions” are discussed excitedly before they ever get into the studio with Stevens, the variations in deciding which approach on the world-shaking title track and how “Brand New Cadillac” was done in a single take is described and debated, and et al. Good Lord, this goes on and on, and if you don’t think you love it, just try a few pages and find out why you’ve never been able to put London Calling properly away in the collection — it’s always right there in that small stack by the speakers, isn’t it? Well, now you have THE book to put right there at the bedside, or on top of the stacks with spines you never crack. Like LC itself, you might be going through a few copies of this one. Seriously.

Fellow “word-slingers” (ha) often ask me where else they can find good criticism of other mediums, that might inspire their observations and analysis of contemporary sounds. I am not one for many of the academic titles (though I have a few of those to recommend soon as well, picked up at this year’s EMP Pop Con), in popular music or otherwise, but there is some very enjoyable and edifying work being done at the dailies, in entertainment magazines, fanzines, and on the web that isn’t about new music. The Best American Comics Criticism, edited by Ben Schwartz (Fantagraphics), is a fascinating collection of assertion, appraisals, debate, reconsiderations, and recollections about comics. This thick, superbly-selected anthology features extremely well informed, exceptional voices like Douglas Wolk on the delightfully dark aesthetics of the terrain in the works of Frank Miller (Sin City) and Will Eisner (The Spirit), a hilarious rip on the neurosis and negativity of the beloved Spider-Man by HATE comics creator Peter Bagge (worth price of admission alone), viciously witty Eightball comics creator Daniel Clowes chatting with mythology-infusing semi-fantasy author Jonathan Lethem, and conversations between whip-smart Comics Journal founder Gary Groth and underground dazzler Kim Deitch and manga-genius Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Author Rick Moody also reviews David B.’s psychologically compelling, meta-political Epileptic, and even Alan Moore (Watchmen, V For Vendetta) extrapolates lovingly but tersely on Steve Ditko as an influence. With a fantastically rendered cover by Drew Friedman (spot the critic!), this is a huge assortment of fantastic writing about a field that has had many parallels with and tendrils in rock and pop. If you’re yearning to own a non-music comics book of criticism that isn’t something from the academe yet still creates an alternate world of popular culture magic to teach how to rail and rave and expose and detail, The Best American Comics Criticism is the book to buy.

That should keep you in happy reading for the rest of the summer. Also: Soft Skull is starting to put out their own volumes of film criticism like the Continuum series on music; pre-order the first, They Live! now, because I’m going to be discussing it next time. See you in September!

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One Comment

  1. waj
    Posted September 7, 2010 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    Just finished re.reading ‘Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records’, which looks like it’s already due for a revision, considering Spoon, She & Him, & Arcade Fire’s year, and to top it off, a very strong Superchunk record, that gives lie to the original bittersweet ending.

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