This is the age of the musician’s biography, even if publishing has been taking the same hard blows as the music business. People certainly aren’t reading any less (even if it’s on a screen in their lap), and due to the unholy depths of music fandom, recent tomes by the leader of The Who, Neil Young, and others have been hitting the (New York Times bestseller) charts.
But what will the thoughtful, tasteful, less mainstream reader choose as the most inspiring and unique autobiography of the year? Probably How Music Works by David Byrne. The once-Talking Heads frontman describes his own fandom, not just for music, but for art, dance, the theater, and all aspects of performing and recording as he details the creation of his albums with that American punk/new wave band and all the projects on his own. Openly citing his inspirations from comrade Brian Eno and their long-lasting and revolutionary collaborations on the T. Heads middle-period albums and experiments (My Life In the Bush Of Ghosts), to how Sufjan Stevens awed him with all manner of performance arts on-stage during a live show he caught, Byrne explores what moves him. And he writes about it in such a way that it moves us. He is thrilled with the possibilities of the human voice, from monks to Valley Girls; he is fascinated by the happy accidents of musical miscegenation in Cuban and Haitian music; he even uses writer’s block as a way to open up to voices outside himself. Every roadblock becomes a hurdle to be more inspired to leap beyond, and he shows us how. If I was a musician or was buying a book for one, this would be the first on my list of holiday purchases. The cold irony of the title and cover (black on white Helvetica minimalism; literally seeming like a “how to” guide) might strike some as too flat, but a glance at its combination of ideas, data, reporting, and criticism quickly draws those truly interested in the topic inside.
The book has confused some readers and reviewers for focusing a lot on technology, such as the invention of recorded sound and the use of recording tape. But this is one of the rare times an innovative creator has not talked down to his own fans, instead pulling them into the studio with him to understand all the levels of creativity that go into making songs and full albums. You’ve been listening to certain records for years because many had decades of inspiration and experience put into them. Most of them are lasting this long as classics because they were made with such care and a sweep of talented input. Byrne is blunt about what he likes and doesn’t like about modern recording, and by his own catholic tastes encourages others to attempt more than just sound like just another collection of sounds happening at this moment in history.
Also edifying and challenging in many ways is the writing of Joe Carducci, whose tastes and marketing skills helped put many extraordinary albums from SST and other labels into your record collection. This is his first collection of essays, interviews, reviews, and biographies since his crucially influential Bible-length rant Rock and The Pop Narcotic, which Henry Rollins kept in print for many years through the 90s. (If you knew a smart guy in an intense underground band in the grunge era, who read about rock music at all and had books on the topic, they probably owned the critic-razzing, common notion-unsettling volume of nuanced rage.) Life Against Dementia was the name of an essay he contributed to Arthur Magazine’s first issue, and is more fully developed here. This is an outsider writer who has learned all of the music business and working artist inside tricks, and even if you don’t agree with his tastes about what rocks or doesn’t (I don’t, always), you may still find his theories and journalistic skills absorbing, penetrating, provocative, and illuminating. Carducci is a great antidote for those who think music writing is a way to fit into a scene or help market what’s currently happening as the way things ought to be. He has a deep love and knowledge of early rock, revolution rock, Krautrock, space rock, psyche, dub, real folk, and of course punk, as long as it kicks the base of the spine and inspires revelation. He reads anything and everything on politics and aesthetics and is intelligent enough to have a worthwhile opinion on all of it.
Content worth noting first in this exhaustive, thrilling collection include a wonderful history of outlaw folk in Oregon in the 1970s (a must read for rustic, indie freaks); connecting to his work at SST Records, wonderful tributes to The Minutemen, and a beautiful ode to gnarled-metal demigods Saint Vitus and the small triumphs and bitter tragedies within the band; clear-eyed assessments of Meat Puppets ll, Sadistic Mika Band, Tangerine Dream, and a ton of bands that needed a good shit-kicking. Carducci loves to pinpoint what you’re missing in the “music press” such as Rolling Stone and MTV, and lovingly theorizes on the films of Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, horror and violence in the movies. Also: Lyrics he’s written for bands, sports, “Metagaming of the System,” and more.
If previous books by Carducci seemed less cohesive or too scene-specific but you’ve enjoyed his literary vibrancy, raw perceptual energy, sophisticated yet street-level thinking, lack of fear for orthodox spiritual belief, etc., then this is the best book of his to own. It’s my personal favorite single author anthology of the year.
After two books from two very specific voices of experience and creativity we now come to a beautiful, tight, thick, comprehensive anthology that attempts to sweep through many voices of the contemporary milieus of punk (rock, politics, personal health, etc.). It’s from Microcosm, a much-respected Pacific NW publishing company that specializes in getting the punk rock word out whether it be through publication or distribution, and about government invasion on our personal lives as well as making cool stuff for each other. I’ve loved many zines and chapbooks they’ve gotten into my hands from various outlets, and really respect Joe Biel and his fellow editors, scribes, and contributors to the collective, but wasn’t sure if I could swallow another collection of underground mentors rhapsodizing on knitting your own zines, giving fuck all about production values when making a small film, or cracking jokes at an interviewer’s expense about inspirations and music creation. The past several I couldn’t bear to review here at the KEXP Blog, as it was books full of warmed-over, weary, coded talk about personal responsibility, alternate forms of enterprise, and paradoxically promoting individualism and community through doing, with not much thought to simple being. What I think of as timelessly counter-cultural, others think of as not kosher, and vice vera. Long afternoons lost to coffee or whiskey has burned me out to such topics.
Biel seems to be listening to what people were saying was needed for a more expansive primer, as Beyond The Music: How Punks Are Saving the World with DIY Ethics, Skills, & Values is useful for bringing in cutting new voices from margins, and unheard ones even from the straight world, and letting neophytes know what’s been available and what it means/what it meant. It is a superbly edited collection of manifestos in chat form, and includes many of the musicians who actually have something to say, as much as play. It’s not afraid to be controversial -- currently debated Ben Weasel is in here along with iconic Ian Mackaye -- which proves Biel knows enough about the history of punk to realize it’s a dialectic, not a set of commandments. I loved finding out more about journalists AC Newman and Aaron Smith, because even though you can find most of their writing easily in print and on the web, I had no idea how many inroads they were making whilst staying true to the DIY spirit. Certain voices, like Ann Elizabeth Moore and Al Burian, have been around for a while and have been heard plenty of times before, but they always have something fascinating to say and I never want to miss it. (Moore and Burian are sort of the Brian Eno and Joe Strummer of the modern punk scene when it comes to interviews; they actually know it’s an art form and use it as a platform for helping to get their ideas out there. Interviews don’t have to be mere self-promotion or propaganda.) Biel explores ethics with a variety of comrades and dare I say competitors like AK Press and PM Press, which brings even more of a refreshingly inclusive feel to the book. Labels, artists, and everyone from zine genius Robnoxious to working actor Brea Grant talk deeply and share openly within just a few short pages of opportunity.
My only criticism is that a couple of the subjects treated this opportunity by rote. “Oh, I am being asked about ‘the day’ or punk again, sigh.” Mackaye didn’t take this as an opportunity to reach out and talk to new punks; his responses are as dull as a Minor Threat or Fugazi concert never were. (Eno and Strummer, Ian -- think about it.) I know an artist is really digging into their substrate when they spill ideas over within the smallest of verbal opportunities. Beyond The Music might be a sweet-looking little volume, but it mostly speaks volumes from voices feeling the kick it over energy for what seems like the first time. I’d say it was a great stocking stuffer, but do punks believe in Santa Claus?