Fans of books and popular music and books about popular music rejoice! This autumn has brought a hardy cornucopia swirling internally with thickly-compiled treasures of criticism, history, comics, discographies, and lunatic yet lucid theories about what we talk about when we talk about rocking. I have personally never been as excited about a season such as 2011’s, and below is only a smattering of what I’ll be scribing upon as we sail into the holly-days.
Rock and roll is probably some alien conspiracy. It did to pop music what Melville did to literature with Moby-Dick, squishing NYC street rhythms from African ex-slaves and Northern European indentured servants, the novelty and insight of then-current women’s devotional bibles (a personal interpretation of scripture, which was kind of a no-no for anyone, especially the ladies), and a mystical subtext about impending world imperialism, into a foam-huffing ode to the (really big) one that got away.
SoCal’s Gilbert Hernandez (artist here, punk rocker, Heavy Metal/Marvel & DC fan) and NY’s Peter Bagge (writer here, loved Crumb, played drums, drew grunge) design an alternative dimension for alternative music in their graphic novel Yeah!, one that includes the spazzy siren call and pratfalls of teenage girls and the twitchy slapstick of music business screw-ups from other galaxies. Originally a comic pamphlet in the late 90s, these two secret masters of rock fandom and mavericks of cartooning show zest-finesse and feisty satire chronicling the lives lived on the margins of collaborated garage bomp in a series of outrageous stories that could only be true in the music world they’ve personally known (save an other worldly bass-plucking tentacle or vile interspecies PR agent or two).
Yes, your sad bastard bed-sit pals may like the occasional emo indie, or metal mates dig four color spatter-hack splash pages pumped out by the primary publishing companies, but for tales of lived-in working class musician lives slipping in and out of other dimensions as often as they comb an idyllic vinyl bin superstore, get to know the channel zero Bagge and Hernandez will turn your set to. I am on the fence on wishing it had been reprinted in its original colored version; but tipping gently into appreciating its B&W beauty (inside the book), as it seems more DIY that way.
There are some music journalists I have a fondness for due to their abilities in keeping things moving through a narrative while keeping the text dense with delicious and possibly dangerous details. Denise Sullivan is responsible for Keep On Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip-Hop, and I would have added it to my collection based on the topic touched upon as well as the possible rare delights it riffs on. But the real selling point of this extraordinary political history though popular music isn’t how she adds narrative substance to subliminally awesome aesthetics around parties hosted by Black Panthers to riot grrrls, it’s the really focused lines of dialogue revealed regarding music released and how scenes sprung up around it (and also vice vera.) The dialectic back and forth she gives how the Panthers regarded the meaning of Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” (wherein Huey Newton thinks black culture is being described as a geek culture by the white freak who wishes to experience it vicariously; Bobby Seale confesses they pumped it loud while putting out their underground newspaper and arranging protests; even their security guys loved its cold, creepy, call to the counter culture) is better rock write than most you’ll get off the newsstand this year.
So if you think the topic is going to be too sociologically niche-bound, just flip to where she describes how Jewish lesbian-feminist punk-folksinger Phranc set up the Folk Hoot Nights nights at the Whiskey, fusing together political, punk, gay, and roots music scenes into a commonality that was always implied by the existence of those of us floating between those scenes, but never before brought together. (And also football-kicking cowpunk into what you’ll hear in Ballard and in most shows on KEXP most nights this week.) It’s a bracing read just for understanding how she put herself out there demanding bullies to “Take Off Your Swastika” and this put in motion an elemental desire in underground rock to champion the underdog, and turn down the narcs.
Those are two examples of why Sullivan’s tight, terrific book is crucial, and her assertions on progressive aspects of hip-hop are fundamental for anyone pursuing that cause in any form of text. Makes me want to start booking clubs and fomenting revolution!
Okay, I admit, Flying Saucers Rock ‘N’ Roll: Conversations with Unjustly Obscure Rock ‘n’ Soul Eccentrics is the book I probably read the quickest of all the brassy, mighty batch I’ve been poring though. Editor Jake Austen tantalized me with the original drafts of these superb character studies in odd artistic success and commercial car wreckage in the delightful pages of his fanzine Roctober. This is the inevitable, awesome result of many years of chasing down crazy ass stories about weirdos who had the most heart or who made the strangest noise, envisioned and collected and from the guy who wrote that brilliant book about poker and that great story about KISS in HEEB Magazine.
Yes, Austen is a working man’s scribe, and hires the same to help him out with his inky and comicy mag, and their stories don’t need a character-driven persona to tell them; fan though I am of Neil Strauss, Austen’s own unique taste simply put him in a realm with front-line freaks and geeks in various music scenes and he is a crisply talented word-weaver to deliver their adventures for them (and us). (And celebrity doesn’t really have much to do with it.) So these are not awkward oral histories, but full fleshed-out articles with legendary headcases and cultural bellwethers, some you may go in with a bias against, others you might be a fan of now, and find yourself challenged and astonished by the tales they tell via Austen and his passionate and knowledged contributors.
Highlights: If this book blows up, it might be because of the stellar, sinewy interviews with and deep details of the artists David Allan Coe (masked superhero C&W outsider balladeer with a couple killings in his puzzling past and a whole lot of really offensive songs you can pick up on cassette at truck stops due to to his improbably mainstream fanbase) and Zory Zenith, analyzed and rhapsodized and defended and more by Jonathan Poletti in “Zolar X: Rock Tragedy.” (Zolar X was a good glam-punk band that were reissued by Alternative Tentacles a couple of years back; think butcher than Jobriath, more kitschy and less inspired than Be Bop Deluxe.) Zory is in jail, which is probably a good place for a guy like him to be, even if he’s ‘born again’; Coe is adored by many for probably the wrong reasons, reasons that have all to do with how real skid-lurchers who have fucked with the world and designed their own grid have often give back a wonderfully skewed service to society.
These are spiritual abcesses-and-all, divinely nuanced odysseys of people wrenching music out of bains beaten down by abuse, hearts broken relentlessly by the world, with lots of victims and fans and sometimes they’re the same. You don’t see these kinds of stories in the glossy magazines because they’re about the psychic grist for the music business empire; the workers who triumph or fall apart due to an internal pressure to find recognition in the world and evade their own damaged fates.
For those who want lighter fare or have a more simple taste for exoticism, there’s plenty in this gorgeously designed and illustrated trade paperback too. Made up and/or forgotten genres, Amenian novelty-grooves, proto punk godfathers like the Good Rats and The Fast, who you will be amazed that you knew so little about. You might find your next musical obsession in Flying Saucers, or you might find all these folks nuts. Me, I’m happy with both responses at the same time. (Props to Duke University for putting this out at the same time with Chuck Eddy’s anthology which I hyped here last round -- that’s a pretty heady one-two punch of pure pop scribe love with lots of humor and craft to dig into.)
Every now and then I really wonder who my favorite rock band is, and often I can’t deny an asbolute love for D.O.A. that carries very little ambivalence in the decision. They came along inventing hardcore for all the right reasons even if the masses often did something pretty shitty with it. Strong minds in strong players who made absolutely thrilling and exciting rock and roll live and on records like Triumph of the Ignoroids, Hardcore ’81, the essential North American punk document Bloodied But Unbowed, and later on Live Free Or Die and Talk - Action = 0. They’re almost too good to be true; and since their origins in Vancouver in 1978, they hardly ever stop (no matter what the line up).
Lead singer Joe Keithley is like a widescreen montage of my favorite men of action -- part Joe Strummer, part Phil Ochs, part John Wayne (if he was a lefty), all Joe Keithley. If you were an average American punk fan you may have missed out on their records due to the weak reporting skills of our corporate-sponsored cog scribes at the glossies. But their music can still catch you up in a mad burst of rebellion, sudden political cohesion, and community-building unity; and very importantly they really do work as a “blues” music for a poor white punk like me -- they kick the bottle out of my hand and make me want to call a friend and see how they are, or do some more writing of my own, or lift some weights.
Talk - Action = 0, the book, is a glorious, enormous, adoring tour programme of D.O.A.’s never-ending punk rock blitz, filled with beautiful flyers for legendary shows, great photos of the band that all seem necessary for capturing for the ages, and tons of good vibes and jostling yarns. I could have used a few more anecdotes, but Keithley already used many of them in his really great autobio a few years back, I Shithead. I think that’s in print and if you really have missed this Yankee version of Stiff Little Fingers and Canadian dub of the Ramones, buy both and savor the flavor. D.O.A. literally put on at least four or five of my top ten favorite live shows since I started seeing live music in 1979; and Live Free Or Die (from 2004) gets played around here as much as the first Clash album. Highly recommended. Love these guys and hope they bash them chords forever.
There’s a reason why the rockabilly revival was just two whiskey shots away from the crowd at CBGB’s or the Masque or around the wrong corner from the wrong leather-soaked squat in London. A croon, a guitar squeal, a big beat backing up a brute sneer or a broken heart, rockabilly aesthetics are the past the punks wanted to partially re-make into the future. The undeniable joy and verve of Presley’s, Jerry Lee Lewis’s, and Johnny Cash’s Sun Records, the first rock label I ever had a fetish for, seemed frozen in ice through the “cool years” of hippie hoaxes and dirty cosmpolitans. Sid covering Eddie Cochran wasn’t the same as Sid covering Sinatra; he loved ‘em both, but one he did with reverence while the other one was more than a bit ironic.
Rockabilly: The Twang Heard ‘Round The World: The Illustrated History is a bad-ass rebel-lair coffee-table buzz, but with plenty of muscle mass underneath its black leather jacket. Of all the books on this list, it’s probably the most universal as a gift -- I don’t know if I want to know anyone who wouldn’t want to own its pleasures. (Any Roy Orbison, Wanda Jackson, or Gene Vincent haters out there? No, I didn’t think so.) And there are plenty of sagas full of thrills, pills, and Gibsons and Caddies to peer at and pore over -- snappily edited by Michael Dregni, it sweeps rockabilly past its virgin Vanilla Coke prime and into the more raunchy recent realms of The Cramps and Rev. Horton Heat. Blessings to Voyageur Press for making books that make true fans drool, which are sweet looking enough to give to parents and friends and look truly generous, even when you use those visits as the perfect time to catch up on some really grand reading.