What is that you’re drinking? Is there at least some form of alcohol in there among the ice chips and fizzy water? Oh, OK. I get it. You just came back from the bathroom with friends. I guess that explains it. Well, what are you working on? Oh, an article about “open source.” That sounds painful. Get those checked out, man. Do some damage to your whole nervous system if they don’t heal up right. I mean bands, though -- hey, what are you doing? “Texting”? What the hell is that?! I’m trying to talk to you while you write to someone else? What the HELL!
Once upon a time, rock music was made by people who led absolutely weird, privileged, paranoid lives rarely running into fans. These rock stars would check with journalists writing about them for a reality check, and that writing was done by guys and gals who didn’t spend much time in cubicles, wrote their reports and criticisms out in shaky longhand coming out of some chemically induced fit or on the way into the DTs, and only used telephones late at night after the clubs closed to call ex-lovers to ask if they could come crash on their couches. (They were sometimes allowed to, depending on how amorous they still were towards the person living there, either way.)
This episode of SSO is in debt to the energy of the dinosaur-tenders, also known as the foot scribe, the venue vulture, the gal mistaken for a groupie, the guy mistaken for a roadie: the people who used to write the rock books. These are the best of those books about the big bands that have been recently published, mostly filled with reissued (but not rehashed) material drawn thick like wino blood at plasma centers of the music scene to be transfused into blogs for posterity.
The Beatles Vs. The Stones: Sound Opinions On The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Rivalry by Greg Kot & Jim DeRogatis (Quayside/Voyageur Press) is going to effect your average rock and roll fan like a cheeseburger, a six pack, and a rare Seeds LP would make Johnny Ramones’ afternoon. It’s a world of conversational fun, beautiful album cover art, rare film flyers and PR shots produced alongside a marvelously meandering conversation between Chicago Tribune’s legendary Kot and the Chicago Sun-Times’ adored DeRogatis, both authors of really good books, and hosts of the syndicated radio talk show Sound Opinions. Of which The Beatles Vs. The Stones feels like a huge transcription of a history-making night, with a topic you don’t want civilians getting in too deep with, but will spend hours ruminating on the “white album” vs. Exile On Main Street from (double LP throw down!). Seven other topics regarding this seminal battle are brought up, between all the glossy visuals, setting “the lads from Liverpool” against the bourgeois bad boys. (Bringing up the weirdest paradox in rock history -- the pop guys were the poor bastards, and the dirty, filthy purveyors of rhythm and noise were hardly street kids.) Producers, influences, how the guitarists in both bands compare, the effects of drugs and spirituality or the lack of same, and mad (deserved) love for both Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts, two drummers with Zen attitudes and the kind of laid back skills few drummers these days seem to want to possess (to our shared generational shame, and a lot of terrible music). Key question: “Would You Let Your Sister Go With A Rolling Stone?” (My own sister bit the ear off a Spokane cop once, so my opinion may vary with the more typical readership’s consensus.)
Speed-Speed-Speedfreak: A Fast History of Amphetamine by Mick Farren (Feral House): If you think your year end top ten lists don’t stink because you own the SECOND Lester Bangs anthology and have even read more Marcus than Lipstick Traces, you need to get on some Mick Farren. Farren’s PR bio is hilariously (and for this book, appropriately) brief: “Former lead singer of The Deviants and the author of more than forty books.” British-bard Farren was anthologized in the recent BOMP! collections (one of the best rock fanzines of all time, published by Greg Shaw), has edited science fiction fanzines, wrote a long running UK column for Trouser Press magazine, and I really like his biographies a ton (especially the Gene Vincent one). This book is about the perky little pills and powders that went into “Elvis Presley, the Hell’s Angels, Hunter S. Thompson, Truman Capote, The Beatles, Juday Garland, Hank Williams, Jack Kerouac, Johnny Cash, JFK, the Manson Family, and Adolf Hitler,” and Farren’s POV is both subterranean hipster-hipping you to it, both assessing its damage but also hardly advocating the drug war against it. Farren is a hipster in the absolute best sense of the term -- his conspiracy theories and demystification about MDMA and the horrible myths surrounding speed use make for a bracing rock and roll read. By a real rockandroller. And in a dandy package shaped just like a Black Beauty, I believe. Albert Brooks is probably right that you can’t make a meth head laugh, but this is the best present they’ll ever get from you, except for something else I don’t have to bother to mention.
Smartass: The Music Journalism of Joel Selvin (Snow Lion Graphics) is “the veteran San Francisco music critic in his own words.” Selvin is a worker, scribing out interviews with Merle Haggard, Tom Waits, the Grateful Dead, the Beach Boys, going around Sly Stone to get a great story, singing the praises and peeling back the layers of Rolling Stone’s mentor Ralph Gleason. Greil Marcus in his touching introduction admits he cannot believe the amount of sack Selvin had in thinking James Brown should be lucky enough to be interviewed by him; but that’s how you do these things, when you’re a real fan and a real pro. (I listened in to writers who interviewed Betty Davis over the phone when I was doing her PR to know how many bloody hacks there are out there; he has a point that good interviewing is something to feel lucky enough about, too.) More importantly, when they were in the Rock Bottom Remainders together, Marcus saw how much Selvin loved to sing, and it’s that in-it love for the music that comes through in many articles about bands I don’t really care that much about (but this is where I’d want to read about them). As Selvin instructs through his life-work, this is where you find your voice, getting on board with the San Francisco Chronicle for experience, later getting your work squeezed between porno advertisements and often chopped out for space considerations. You don’t have a big wide Internet out there with no one reading it, so what you have to say has to get the specific attention of the most people right away, and you would often get real, physical responses later. Selvin is a pop music man, and every city had at least one, and this book is a wonderful document of a guy throwing himself into a story. There are short, perfect reviews of essential albums (13th Floor Elevators, Sir Douglas Quintet, Janis Joplin) from the time they appeared and changed the molecular structure of rock music. And there’s a shit-ton of great stories here from . A perfect present for parents who still hit the record stores, and current up and coming music writers who need to learn the angles and tenacity of a city music reporter. Recommended.
U2 FAQ by John D. Luerssen (Backbeat Books) is noteworthy not so much as a sweeping assessment of the band’s history (especially the documentation of their recorded work), but in that it reveals all the strange little details of their passions and problems. Rigorous in background data like the Rough Guides but more chronological in flow, the FAQ series stacks a lot of things you need to know about a band with a lot of juicy bits you’d spend years tracking down from glossies, fanzines, journals, blogs, and other biographies. Starting with the band’s passion for Joy Division, Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen Jr. are documented through rare stories from themselves, producers Steve Lillywhite and Brian Eno, manager Paul McGuinness (“who thought the song ‘Stories For Boys’ was about masturbation”), with scraps of their career from collectors liberally sprinkled throughout. U2 started off as a mystery band to us American post-punks; the ‘boy’ imagery, the positive spiritual vibe matched with a dark, droning dub-rock feel, all of it was conflicting and it turns out, has always been for the band as well. (For example: Why was “Where The Streets Have No Name” such a hard song to record, while “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” such a spontaneous burst of creation? They seem so similar at the start of The Joshua Tree, and yet were crafted so drastically differently.) When I saw them on the Boy tour, and the American audiences loved them so much they often played the debut LP in its entirety twice through in one concert, we all kind of knew their place in pop music history would mushroom insanely. Author Luerssen is a “regular AOL Music/Spinner contributor” who has written for All Music Guide, Billboard, Rolling Stone, and scribed 2004’s River’s Edge: The Weezer Story. Bill Flanagan’s inside rants with the band will probably always be my favorite U2 writing, but FAQ doesn’t flinch on the nervous details and dark times the band members have gone through, and thus transcends more general music books of this type. A tight, affordable, well researched guide to U2.
AC/DC: High-Voltage Rock ‘N’ Roll: The Ultimate Illustrated History by Phil Sutcliffe (Quayside/Voyageur Press) is as capable and capacious, large and luxurious a top-of-the-stereo-lid book as The Beatles Vs. The Stones is, but this time out it’s for Aussie primal punk/hard rock heroes AC/DC. Like the Kot/DeRogatis volume, though, it’s written with class, too, by London-based MOJO’s own Phil Sutcliffe (whose dependable and always a sign of quality by-line has graced everywhere else from the Los Angeles Times to Blender as well). His history is less conversational but he pulls in lots of really good fellow scribes -- among them: Joe Bonomo (who wrote the superb Highway To Hell in the 33 1/3 series), fellow Brit big mag interviewers Ian Christe, Sylvie Simmons, and Andrew Earles -- to extensively side-bar and extrapolate on the band’s insouciant significance since their MC5-fueled origin in 1973. Note: THE PHOTOS AND ARTWORK ARE INSANE. A paroxysm of sweaty head-banging and a flurry of skinny boy legs scampering under a classic guitar on every page. Snarling yob-vox Brian Johnson swallowing a mic to find the bourbon bottle he actually accidentally swallowed down in the pit of his angry belly. Et al. This is not a little fact-finding book, but a hard and heavy hit on every album the Down Under grind-pop band’s ever put out, splashed with adoration over full color pages and costing three American tenners and a five. But if a hard rock or metal guy or gal is going to love this band, they’re going to crave one book that has all the chain-smoking and hamburger-hurling-in-the-tour-van war stories, every LP sequence analyzed, the controversial personnel changes chatted out, and the tale of the two brothers Angus and Malcolm Young told right. There have been many audio-based AC/DC tie-ins for this long-running rock machine, but this is the best literature and art book built around their badness so far. Highly recommended.
Touch & Go: The Complete Hardcore Punk Zine ‘79-83 by Tesco Vee and Dave Simpson, Edited by Steve Miller (Bazillion Points): “My God does this town stink!” one editorial begins. And thus rock write was reborn near Detroit. This is my final book review of the year, about a tome I probably cherished most. The writing isn’t great, and the fanzine artwork and ripped off photos are cool, but not rare or essential. Tesco Vee’s a mean-spirited little trickster and Touch & Go was a brilliant label born out of a bratty fanzine. It was 1979, and they were just as likely to dig Brit punk-funk as Bush Tetras from NYC. Pages are wasted here on covers with nothing but a big circle “A” on them. The reprinting runs off the pages, and most of the bands covered are not reported on effectively, and you probably haven’t heard of them (VKTMS, Honey Bane, The Bongos). BUT YOU NEED THIS. Every scene-inspiring publication needs a tribute like this, and most of the issues are here, and you can spend days wallowing in the basement noise and nerd rage and virgin rot and shit talking that spews out of these Xerox-reproduced pages of Being There. Probably my Book Of The Year, even if I didn’t appreciate it showing up at my parents at 4 AM to wake me up for spare change before we went up to the Ave to panhandle for cheap beer money at Pizza Pete’s and then end up at its ex-girlfriends’ gated apartment building screaming up at her window all afternoon even though we knew she was at work and then hitchhiking to a bitter-cold Veteran’s Hall show in the next town where a bunch of frat guys let us somehow spend the night and not killing us later after seeing four fucking radical bands we’ll never hear again even though we bought that seven inch from one and got the cassette from the other which were probably swept into the police station trash after the cops drove us to juvie. In the words of the Replacements, “Halle-fucking-lujah!” Or as they say in Detroit, “Shut the fuck up!”