Memoirs by rock ’n’ roll stars are a dime a dozen these days. That’s great for those of us who devour them, but the more of them we read, the more we realize that these books fall generally into one of two boxes. There are books that give us revelatory information on how our favorite albums or songs were created and read as if they were written by someone who can actually write (few and far between); and then there are those that sound like someone related a bunch of anecdotes into a tape recorder, had someone transcribe them, and then gently edit them into a semi-cohesive “book.” A Spy in the House of Loud by CHRIS STAMEY, luckily, mostly falls into that first box.
Stamey, one of the founding members of the late ’70s indie band The dB’s, somewhat misleadingly subtitled his book New York Songs and Stories. True, the North Carolinian guitarist/songwriter spent a good portion of this memoir in NYC, chasing down his muse by witnessing and creating music by and with people as diverse as Television, R.E.M., Alex Chilton and more. But his college town upbringing in Chapel Hill plays a pretty big part in his story, too. I’m guessing the New York appellation was more of a marketing decision than one of “accuracy in reporting.” Whatever.
What I like about A Spy in the House of Loud is the nice mix of stories – the Chapel Hill scene of the ’60s, how he met fellow dB’s Peter Holsapple, Will Rigby and Gene Holder, his work with legend Mitch Easter – and his personal takes on songwriting, music theory and record production. Stamey started recording his early bands’ rehearsals on rudimentary reel-to-reel decks, figuring out ways to overdub and create sounds by overriding or rejigging his recorders, at least until the venerable (and semi-affordable) TEAC 4-track decks came out. The way he tells it, though, he was always equally as interested in the technology of how songs were recorded as he was in how the instruments used on them were played and how those songs were written in the first place. The author actually takes a few minor detours in the book by dissecting what he thinks is the crux of the biscuit on songs he didn’t even write (and some he did), so-called “Jukebox” mini-chapters that talk about R.E.M.’s “Radio Free Europe” as well as, for instance, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “The Message,” the first crossover rap song (written about life in NYC in the early ’80s). His descriptions give us a unique look at how all of these disciplines interconnect to create the records and CDs we’ve been listening to all of our lives.
A Spy in the House of Loud has a generous selection of photos, most from Stamey’s or his fellow musicians’ archives, and a reasonable discography and footnotes at the end. My only nitpick – besides the subtitle one – is that he sometimes comes across as stuffy and intellectual, typically when discussing advanced music theory. Maybe that’s me being bugged that I don’t know music theory as well as he does, but I prefer the passages discussing the basic writing and recording of the songs, the musicians he created them with, and the glimpse of what the climates for creating music were like in ’60s Chapel Hill and ’70s/’80s NYC. That being said, Chris Stamey has written a book that reads like it was written by someone who can actually write. And by a musician, even!
3/5 (University of Texas Press, Austin, 2018)