Scribes Sounding Off: Eugene Robinson Brings It to Seattle… and Best Music Books of 2011

The next Scribes Sounding Off event sponsored by Infinite Productions will be held at The Comet in Seattle, where author/musician Eugene Robinson of Oxbow and David Yow of Scratch Acid/Jesus Lizard will do a Q&A, some spoken word, and more. It takes place on Saturday, December 17, from 6 – 8 p.m. at 922 E. Pike Street, and you will get a lot of lit bang for your five bucks at the door.

I have been a big fan of Robinson’s since reading his original article in VICE Magazine which became the 2007 book FIGHT (“everything you ever wanted to know about ass-kicking but were afraid you’d get your ass kicked for asking”). That glorious, full color, hardcover guide to street rumbles, jailhouse rock, soccer hooliganism, and how there’s nothing quite like breaking another man’s jaw, was dedicated by Mr. Robinson to all of his enemies: “Every single one of them. Without you none of this would have ever been possible.”

Robinson followed his literary debut with A Long Slow Screw, a deliciously depraved noir about a dystopian world where everyone is jacked up on the juices which push the world to fuck, fuck, fuck. As in ours, where we strike against and into each other, whatever. These books are perfect accompaniments to the Stagger Lee-like big man’s music with San Francisco band Oxbow, which will be playing with Seattle favorites (but from Austin, Texas) Scratch Acid at Neumos across the street later that same night on the 17th.

Oxbow and Scratch Acid perfectly epitomize the Black Flag-born, Swans-inspired, Big Black-scratching, real 80s underground rock that geezers like me think of when we actually hear the word “grunge” (imagine that). That is, semi-industrial guitar ooze and rant before it got twisted by a new wave of Led Zeppelin fans. Oxbow in particular reflects the gracious skills of its killer live frontman, whose baptized-in-blood boner poetry shrieks and startles all the senses when you take in his Jack Kirby New Gods build and Screw rap-slow bodybuilder grind. He’s liable to grab your head and pretend to put it in your ear Iggy-style when you get near the stage, but if you’re that far up front you probably wanted it. The visual power dynamics in concert would mean little if the music wasn’t so gorgeously brutal and spacious, elegant in restraint — no Wagnerian note excesses, all slow burning blues-Ur-punk.

Don’t miss this chance to chat with danger incarnate, as he explains his writing, fighting, and musical fireworks. Meanwhile, here’s my list of favorite books of 2011 below. Many of them have already been reviewed in this column, but now is the time for a proper wrap-up (including the rest):

Out of the Vinyl Deeps collects for the first time Ellen Willis’s Rock, Etc. columns for the New Yorker (beginning in 1968) and her other writings about popular music, which were as much cutting cultural theory as keen music criticism. Her delighted Proust-like ruminations on the Velvet Underground, informed and passionate scribing on soul and R&B, early suspicion of David Bowie’s intentions towards rock history, and liner notes on Lou Reed and Janis Joplin make this a must buy. This anthology also features essays by the New Yorker’s current popular music critic, Sasha Frere-Jones, and Best Music Writing series editor Daphne Carr and Rolling Stone’s Evie Nagy. (Read the original review here.)

Chuck Eddy’s anthology is the one I bought for others most this year. It’s so rich and deep in mutation theories, crucially humorous critical thinking, and pure imagination, it’s pure joy. As I sort-of originally reviewed it, “Rock And Roll Never Forgets is a shrewdly assorted assortment of tales rare and contrarian, fearless and contrarian, and always funny while being just a little bit against the grain.” “Chuck Eddy likes more music than just about any person I’ve ever known,” Chuck Klosterman begins the Foreword to the book, adding at the end, “He is not the other Chuck. I am the other Chuck.”

Kevin Avery superbly investigates, collects, and edits the strange, sad saga and richly inspiring creativity of one of the world’s first and greatest rock writers. Starting in folk fanzines, keeping Rolling Stone’s music coverage worth reading through its years of apex and compromise, and maintaining peer relations with folks like Clint Eastwood and Warren Zevon, this is the rock critic you want to learn how to write from. Compiled adroitly, and very hard to stop reading once you start, Everything Is an Afterthought is a biography about someone who burned brightly into that dark night, and described everything he thought or felt as he did so irresistibly. (Read the original review here.)

We’ll have a full review of this sweeping wide-screen 1973-1977 NYC music history coming up shortly, but if you’re a fan of early American punk, the dazzling formative days of disco, or any East Coast urban or eclectic music styles that throb and bounce to this day, please dig into Will Hermes’ Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years In New York That Changed Music Forever. Hermes was raised in Queens, listened to protest rock and dance music and everything else playing all around him, and panoramically traces developments in all genres, and artists from Steve Reich to Lou Reed, the New York Dolls to Blondie. The last music history I thought I needed, besides one on grunge, was another on the importance of NY rock and punk. The widened coverage here is outstanding, and is Willis-level in its connections to the culture of the time (love the chapter on the ’77 NY blackout). This is the most comprehensive one to own so far.

Music scholar and author of the Pretty Hate Machine 33 1/3 Daphne Carr has put together another filling cornucopia of music/culture commentary drawn from magazines, fanzines, websites, blogs, and other sources in Best Music Writing 2011. Guest editor Alex Ross (from the New Yorker, author of The Rest Is Noise, and Listen To This) helps to create with Carr a dynamic tension between elite forms and margins, gutter views and backstage observations. The Tehran piece is awesome, and so many genres are informatively and passionately covered. Like attending the Pop Conference in book form!

A mad game changer and a brilliant player, jazz demigod Papa Jo Jones could also examine his own life expertly, and this elegant and hilarious book lets the reader in on a world that seems outside of time. Recorded on hours of cassettes in 1977, this is the perfect glimpse into a fascinating, turbulent time just a few decades ago when artists like Ellington, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Jones himself were creating some of the very best American art in sound. It was all real: “The way we had to live? The way we had to live?” Glorious lit riffs that can’t be ignored.

My favorite Seattle music history books of the year. McMurray’s is brilliant curation of the underground forces in fanzines and cassettes and fliers and fucked up lives that led to the boom of alternative music in the early 90s. Armbuster’s thick and delightful city history is a necessary text for any music fan otherwise (regardless of region), and hugely enjoyable for all its tales of booming sounds, folky scenes, battles between bands, brawls between performers, etc., before and anywhere but in rock. You dug the movie Wheedle’s Groove? You’re going to really swing with this broader, longer history as well.

A superb oral history of MTV that truly does seem uncensored. You may not think you need a book about the (once) Music Television — but nostalgia may compel you to trace its history from ZZ Top using long-legged models to draw mainstream fans to their gritty bluesy rock; and how the makers of The Real World didn’t know it would take it all back down (and didn’t intend it to). Fascinating anecdotes involve a horrified but helpless Billy Squier watching his career crumble after one flouncy, tasteless attempt at glam crossover; the power of the cocaine, alcohol, other intoxicants (and Stevie Nicks slipping off a couch as a video was being shot); Run DMC kicking everyone’s ass and taking names; how the hell to make a video with the very street NWA; and the sagas of poor VJs being kept down, slapped around, and driven to heights they couldn’t handle. Coolest story: Kevin Seals, a Seattle guy who came with a duffel bag, made fun of the whole thing as it happened, and left laughing at it all by the end.

The Exegesis is the notebook of Philip K. Dick and deeply documents his desire to figure out how his life changed after the date “2-3-74”: Call it a wrestle gone awry with Gnosticism and more evangelical Christianity in his own mind, but others like rock critics Paul Williams (Crawdaddy)  and Greg Shaw (BOMP!) trusted that it was just as important as any of the dialectics in modern music made for youth cultures. Edited by Pamela Jackson and novelist Jonathan Lethem, most science fiction and rock fans may not be as enthused pouring over the raw data of Dick’s “postmodern visionary experience of the entire universe ‘transformed into information.’” But it’s a cosmic mystery that inspired the three novels of the VALIS trilogy, and if you need some killer inspiration for your own psychedelic gospel drone songs, this is the substance to ingest.

From the original review: “These are… 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.”

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