Category Archives: book

John Doe with Tom DeSavia • More Fun in the New World: The Unmaking and Legacy of LA Punk [Book]

If this kind of music biography/memoir was food I’d never go hungry. (I read a lot of ’em.) JOHN DOE and TOM DeSAVIA’s More Fun in the New World is the second of their pair of books on the Los Angeles punk scene of the late ’70s/early ’80s, and it’s full of the kind of anecdotes that at once astound and beg-to-be-believed that made their first book so good.

Credited to Doe, DeSavia “and Friends,” More Fun contains chapters by scenesters as varied as Doe and Billy Zoom (both of the awesome band, X), Henry Rollins (Black Flag and solo), Mike Ness (Social Distortion) and Jane Wiedlin and Charlotte Caffey (The Go-Go’s). All of these folks’ stories – as well as many more in the book – are worth reading and definitely highlight just what a wild and wonderful world was L.A. punk. Then there are chapters by non-musicians like actors and filmmakers Tim Robbins, W.T. Morgan and Allison Anders, and even people influenced by the scene like graphic artist Shepard Fairey and skateboarder Tony Hawk. You may ask, “What do these people have to do with L.A. punk?” and really, no one can blame you. I wondered the same thing upon picking up the book. Doe & DeSavia’s first book, Under the Big Black Sun (2016), featured a number of the same musicians but none of the “influenced-bys” that appear here in volume two. I guess they’re here to lend legitimacy to how influential the scene was but I really don’t think they’re necessary. That’s not to say they aren’t interesting – they are – but L.A.’s punk scene was populated by so many notable bands and characters that are still listened to and talked about that the scene’s legitimacy shouldn’t be in question. That, actually, may be why we do hear from musicians who weren’t exactly punk but who did contribute to the breadth of the scene (such as Fishbone and The Long Ryders).

Ultimately I think More Fun in the New World would have benefited from the stories of more of the town’s punk rockers. There’s no word from any of the Weirdos, The Dickies, Phast Phreddie & Thee Precisions, Top Jimmy & The Rhythm Pigs, The Screamers, or the Germs, or any of the lesser-known bands that populated all those gigs at the Masque, Madame Wong’s, Club Lingerie or any of the other dives that gave the scene places to happen. It is nice to hear some of the narrators update (in More Fun) what they were doing a few years earlier (as they detailed in Big Black Sun), so it’s not catastrophic that some of the characters make encore appearances here. It’s still a fantastic and quick read so it ought to satisfy your punk rock nutritional needs during this live music blackout.  — Marsh Gooch

3/5 (DaCapo Press, 2019)

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Juliana Hatfield • When I Grow Up – A Memoir [Book]

[This review was originally published 5/10/2010 on my old blog, Skratchdisc.]

JULIANA HATFIELD is best known as the wispy-voiced alternative rock gal who belted out “Spin the Bottle” and “My Sister” in the early ’90s. She’s been putting out records fairly steadily since then, but once her major label deal ran out of gas, she was on her own and her visibility lessened considerably. Still, she’s bravely released albums on various labels, including her own Ye Olde Records, and has consistently done her own thing. Yet Juliana had many demons to deal with over the years, and that’s what led her to pen When I Grow Up.

The memoir, published by Wiley last year, is a stark, unexaggerated look at her life touring to support her various solo releases (since her first band, Blake Babies), and details the issues she’s faced, from standard “boy issues” to deeper problems like anorexia and severe shyness. What’s best about this book is that Hatfield doesn’t hold anything back. One moment she’s supremely irritated by a pushy fan trying to get a picture, the next moment she’s lamenting a crappy hotel room, the next she’s trying to combat loneliness despite being surrounded by friends and fans. It’s not that she’s a bitch, it’s just that she’s only outgoing when she’s performing. So she doesn’t color anything overly rosy, and that doesn’t mean the book is a big downer, though about midway through I was starting to wonder when – or if – she was gonna find the light at the end of the tunnel. She does, finally, and by then you feel like you wish you knew her as just a person and not the woman sporting the SG onstage.

After not having heard any of her records for a decade or so, I felt like I really wanted to track down a few of her releases to pay a little more attention to what she’s actually saying. Though she does note somewhere in the book that words are just vehicles to drive the songs, as a songwriter myself, I can tell you that no matter how much the writer wants to chalk a song up to a silly idea or funny phrase someone spoke, there’s always something personal in there. When I Grow Up shows how a girl can become a woman without succumbing to the massive amount of BS thrown at her from birth.  — Marsh Gooch

4/5 (Wiley Books, 2010)

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David Kirby • Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ’N’ Roll [Book]

[RIP Little Richard, 1932-2020. This book review was originally published 1/23/2010 on Skratchdisc.]

I read way too many rock ’n’ roll biographies. I could be filling my head with interesting socio-political tomes (which I do read on occasion) or treatises on the latest thoughts on victims’ rights or whathaveyou, but instead I read typically badly-written stories of people who may or may not be remembered in another ten years for wielding their cigarette-burned axes all over the world with fellow drug-addled losers… Okay, maybe not all of them are that bad, but you know what I mean.

Well, anyway, I was given a nice gift certificate to a book store and I bought this here book, Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ’N’ Roll, by a real life professor of English, DAVID KIRBY. It’s a small thing, suitably decorated in a mid-2oth century pink cover design depicting our own Richard Penniman looking his straightest best, more than likely belting out “Tutti Frutti” or one of his other hits. In fact, Kirby’s main premise in this book is that that song is the most important in the history of rock, and based on his very erudite and quite humorous arguments, he may just be right. This book isn’t exactly a biography, though, because Kirby doesn’t present “just the facts, ma’m” like most do – he gives you basic facts ’n’ figures but he surrounds them with his very interesting anecdotes and observations of Macon, Georgia (where Richard was born), of the man’s bi/gay persuasion, of his lifelong swingin’ back ’n’ forth from absolutely primordial rock ’n’ roll screamer to good-boy churchgoer. Kirby, a prof at Florida State U., makes this such an entertaining and energizing read, you just gotta get out your 18 Greatest Hits CD (on Rhino) or any one of the other packages of Little Richard’s awesome songs and start boogieing right there on the floor in front of God and everybody.

And he doesn’t just pour on the fanboy kudos all over the place, either. Though Charles White’s bio on LR might be the one to get if you want a by-the-book biography (it ain’t a bad book either, I recall), David Kirby’s is the one to better show just what made this effeminate madman possibly the craziest, most outrageous shouter the world has ever known.  — Marsh Gooch

4/5 (Continuum Books, 2009)

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Hank Williams • Pictures from Life’s Other Side [Book/6CD Set]

Hey friend, did you say there’s a HANK WILLIAMS revival going on? Did I miss the memo? Well, there’s no need to print one out because Pictures from Life’s Other Side has just hit the stores and it’s the second big release in half a year celebrating ol’ Hank’s legacy. That’s close enough to a memo to me.

“The Man and His Music in Rare Photos and Recordings” is the tagline of this behemoth, which consists of a 272 page hardcover book (inside a nice slipcase) loaded with great photos and housing six CDs of the music Hank made for yet another syndicated radio program, this one sponsored by Mother’s Best Flour. There is a bountiful dozen dozen (144) songs here, many that Hank & His Drifting Cowboys or alter ego Luke The Drifter never recorded for MGM Records in the late 1940s-early 1950s. Before we get to the music, let’s talk about the book. It’s beautiful, with an exhaustive and exhilarating selection of photos – many never published – in both black and white and (a handful in) color. Some are staged, studio shots, some are fans’ photos of the star and those very fans. Even the familiar pictures are reproduced clearer than ever before. The book itself is so fancy that it’s even got a red ribbon attached so you can mark your place; I mean, there’s no way you’re gonna get through this tabletop book in one go! It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the book is worth the price alone.

As for the music on Pictures from Life’s Other Side, the songs were cut throughout 1951 in a recording studio, “live” with Hank Williams’ Drifting Cowboys current lineup. One of the things that makes this collection so cool is that, unlike on last year’s Health & Happiness Shows release (reviewed here), Hank and his band mates sound natural and off-the-cuff between songs. It’s a bit jarring when the banter is snipped off or quickly faded, but it does cut down on the hokey dialog that sometimes makes that other radio show release kinda corny. Many of Williams’s greatest hits are here, of course, but there are loads of not so obvious cuts, such as one version of “Dear Brother,” which Hank sings with his then-wife Audrey (I’ve noted how bad a singer she is before, most recently in that aforementioned review). On this particular take it’s like you’re listening to Hank & Audrey channeling thirty years into the future to John Doe & Exene Cervenka of punk band, X. I gotta say, though, that I’d much rather hear John & Exene sing “Los Angeles” than Hank & Audrey singing anything at all. (Maybe one day John & Exene will cut an album of Hank & Audrey hits! It’d be sorta like a second volume of X alter ego band The Knitters’ Poor Little Critter on the Road.)

Considering the hugeness of this Hank volume, you could likely find yourself on a lost highway going through Pictures from Life’s Other Side – I’ve only made it through the first three CDs and two quick runs through the book – and that means that the true fan will find lots to like about this massive book and music set. Cheryl Pawelski of Omnivore Recordings fame can again be thanked for producing yet another Hank Williams treat, and it’s Michael Graves who did the big job of restoring and remastering the music. (A host of others also should be thanked, including Hank historian Colin Escott, who assembled the book [and who wrote the definitive biography on our subject a few decades ago].) Three cheers for Hank Williams, his Drifting Cowboys, and the fans-in-high-places who keep the man’s fire stoked year after year. — Marsh Gooch

5/5 (BMG, 2020)

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Will Birch • Cruel to Be Kind: The Life and Music of Nick Lowe [Book]

Once a long haired hippie, later a spiky haired new waver and currently a white-pompadoured troubadour, NICK LOWE’s story is finally getting told. With WILL BIRCH’s new book, Cruel to Be Kind: The Life and Music of Nick Lowe, the Basher himself comes to life in all of his many guises.

Birch, himself a new wave musician (remember The Records?), is clearly a friend and fan of the man, and tells the stories even-handedly. Many of the tales are not those of a choir boy, though Lowe could sing and put on a show from an early age. Still, Nick was interviewed for the book – as were many of those who feature in his life, such as ex-wife Carlene Carter and musician Ry Cooder – and seems to be okay with letting the cards fall where they may.  Birch’s own personality eventually works its way into the narrative, but he’s not such a fanboy that it becomes a concern. The fact that the author really knows the world that his subject comes from adds immediacy and authenticity to the book.

What comes to light in Cruel to Be Kind is that Nick Lowe is a man who has matured over time. The rough but lovable edges of youth have been sanded down to a texture that is smooth to the touch but still retains the essence of what made the guy so interesting in the first place. Lowe, indeed, is “half a boy and half a man,” and that’s in the good, lovable way. Birch demonstrates it best when he talks about how Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” started out as a cynical look at the world (when it was written in the early ’70s and performed by Lowe’s band, Brinsley Schwarz), became an angry plea with Elvis Costello’s 1979 cover (produced by Lowe himself), and eventually a heartfelt, serious question when performed by the author today. That he frequently plays the song on tour with a bunch of musicians in Mexican wrestler masks (Los Straitjackets) underscores the comic genius at Nick’s core. He’s still the quintessential Jesus of Cool— Marsh Gooch

4/5 (Da Capo Press, hardcover, 2019)

#CruelToBeKind

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Arthur “Killer” Kane • I, Doll [Book]

[Edited version of a post originally published 2/18/2010 on Skratchdisc]

…Life and Death with the New York Dolls. Well, that’s what it’s about, all right. Told by ARTHUR “KILLER” KANE himself, this short read is full of all kinds of anecdotes—remembered or half-remembered—by someone who was there for all of it. I, Doll is told from 10-20 years of hindsight by the onetime New York Doll and later-on Mormon and star of his own documentary (New York Doll). Kane tells the stories in a very “I can remember it like it was yesterday” style, even when his memory fails him, due to age or, more likely, how stoned or drunk he was when the episode happened. And he doesn’t try to downplay anything, no matter how embarrassing it might be, so when he tells you the story about how all the Dolls were puking up Newcastle Brown Ale onstage in Birmingham in 1972 (pre record deal!), I’m sure he’s telling it like it is/was.

You don’t have to be a fan of the Dolls to enjoy this memoir (though if you’re not a fan, you’re no friend of mine!). Like The Dirt by Motley Crüe was about the Eighties, it is a fascinating view of what it was like in a rock band in the ’70s, pre-AIDS, pre-uptightness about sex, pre-major label slaughter of the lambs and their music, pre-everything that makes today’s rock ’n’ roll bands pale imitations of their punky, grungy, awesome forefathers.

I met Arthur in 2002 or 3 in Los Angeles at a gig my band shared with The Dogs in North Hollywood, and he was a very kind, subdued guy. At the time I wondered if that was his true personality, or if it was decades-ago ingestions and much more recent Book of Mormon teachings doing their thing on his 60-something year old body. My friend Loren assured me that that was Arthur. I wish I could have gotten to know him. Of course, not a week goes by that I don’t plop New York Dolls onto the turntable or into the CD player and crank it up, so in that sense I know Arthur, or at least his music.

By the way, on one very popular book ordering website, this book is noted as a “posthumous autobiography.” You mean Arthur wrote it AFTER he died? Wow! I knew the man was talented, but holy crap!
4/5 (Chicago Review Press, 2009)

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Chris Stamey • A Spy in the House of Loud [Book]

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)

 

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Mark Fisher • The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls [Book]

xtc bumper bookBefore the internet, “fanzines” were just about the only way us hardcore fans (“fan” + “[maga]zine” = fanzine) could stay on top of the latest info on our favorite bands. Limelight was an XTC fanzine edited and written by Mark Fisher. The self-published ’zine ran for over a decade, spanning nine issues and the metamorphosis from typewriter/rub-on letter layouts to more professional, early word processor (computer) layouts.

The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology collects ten years worth of these indie publications into one big book of memories and new information about the author’s favorite band, XTC. Though I wasn’t a subscriber to Fisher’s UK-based ’zine, I did subscribe to its Canadian counterpart, The Little Express. (I actually wrote a review for that one at some point in the early ’90s.)

In its 256 pages, Bumper Book reprises all of Limelight’s content, and includes brand new interviews with XTC members Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding, Dave Gregory and Terry Chambers along with remembrances by famous Brits that most of us Yanks probably wouldn’t have heard of (unless you know who Phill Jupitus and Joanna Neary are). Vintage pages (at left, below) are presented as they were originally done by Fisher, while the new content (at right) is laid out in a way our modern eyes will recognize and welcome.There’s a lot of interesting – if a bit lightweight – content here, with its word jumbles (“Complicated Games,” taking its name from an XTC song title), fan letters and most of all the gossipy stories on the band’s studio activities. Fisher must have gotten at least some of his info from the band or its management, as both Limelight and The Little Express were always noted in the credits of XTC’s albums. The fact that they are once again willing participants in the publication’s pages shows that Mark Fisher must have had the band’s approval both then and now.

Until XTC’s deluxe reissue of Black Sea comes out late this month – or while you’re taking in the Colin Moulding/Terry Chambers project, TC&I, which is out now – this compendium of XTC’s early hijinks ought to be a lot of fun.

The Bumper Book is available for £17.99 plus £5 international shipping. (As of this writing, that’s about $30 USD.) Look for reviews on both aforementioned XTC related releases in the near future!

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Barry Hutchinson • The Damned – The Chaos Years: An Unofficial Biography [Book]

Not many books have been written on THE DAMNED. Luckily, über fan BARRY HUTCHINSON has just published a deep dive into the first twenty years of punk’s greatest group. The Damned – The Chaos Years: An Unofficial Biography is an exhaustive look at the band’s beginnings, its exciting first few years and its slow descent before re-emerging in the early 2000s as mainstays of the movement’s first wave.

Hutchinson created the book from “exclusive interviews from all band members past and present,” and indeed there are quotes from founders Brian James, Captain Sensible, Dave Vanian and Rat Scabies, as well as just about every other guy or gal who’s ever played guitar, bass, keys or drums with the perpetually unstable band. At 400 some odd pages, you’ll be thrilled by the wealth of info covered by the author, as he seems to not only know of every anecdote worth describing (and maybe even a few that could have been skipped), but seems to have witnessed the anarchy, chaos and destruction firsthand. The author’s writing style is pretty raw – he’s clearly more of a fan than a professional writer – and the book does suffer some from that. But there’s no denying that this guy knows his subject matter and is definitely qualified to tell their story. Some of the quotes sound like they came from question-and-answer sessions submitted via email (something a pro editor could have tightened up), but that unfiltered presentation allows the various band members’ true characters to come through loud and clear. I contacted Barry via Facebook and he tells me that, because the book was published via Lulu’s “self-publishing” platform, he can revise the book pretty much at will. “The handy thing with print on demand,” he says, “means its fairly easy to do.”

If you’ve ever wanted a better look at the band than Carol Clerk’s The Damned: The Light at the End of the Tunnel provided (it was severely shortened to serve as more of a tie-in to a late ’80s compilation than a serious book), Hutchinson’s book is worth checking out. Not unlike Wes Orshoski’s documentary, Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead (which I reviewed in this blog; read it here), it’s a telling of The Damned’s story by someone who really does give a damn(ed).

3.5/5 (Lulu.com; order the book directly at this link)

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Crystal Zevon • I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon

Taking its title from one of WARREN ZEVON‘s greatest songs, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is a biography of one of rock’s smartest, funniest, hard-livin’est guys ever. Written/edited by Warren’s ex-wife, Crystal Zevon (whom he stayed sort of enamored with his entire life), this longish book from 2008 finally got into my hands long enough for me to read all the way through – and it’s all killer and no filler.

Zevon, best known for co-writing one of my favorite “novelty” songs of all time (“Werewolves of London”), was a California guy-genius who led a storied life of sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll, LOTS of alcohol and lots more sex. When he found out he was ill and near the end of his life he asked ex-wife Crystal to write the book because she knew all of his ups and downs – and he knew she’d do it right. In fact, he specifically told her not to leave anything out. And I don’t think she did! There are anecdotes in this book that few would put in their own autobiography, but which can’t hurt the man now that he’s gone.

To put it bluntly: Warren Zevon was too smart for his own good. Like the smarter dog breeds, the ones who get into trouble because they get bored easily, Zevon was always looking for something exciting to do. He was a great songwriter, an accomplished piano player (and apparently good on the guitar, too) – and he was his own worst enemy. He was a mean alcoholic. Even after he went through AA and successfully 12-stepped his way to sobriety, he still couldn’t help himself from being an asshole. And yet, you come out the back end of this book thinking he was one complicated motherfucker, yet a guy you couldn’t help but feel for despite all of his bullshit.

If you’re a fan of his music, there’s a lot to get out of this book. Everyone from early champion Jackson Browne to The Turtles’ Flo & Eddie to Bruce Springsteen, Paul Schaffer and a sackful of others weigh in on their recollections of writing, recording and touring with Zevon. But the bulk of the book, which is told in quotes from the people who knew him (interspersed with background info from the author), focuses on not so much the musician as the man. And that makes the story interesting for musicians and non-musicians alike.

Throughout I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead you’ll see what Warren Zevon put his family and friends through. It wasn’t easy being his friend (or relative), clearly, but he was certainly well-liked and -loved. I was especially moved by longtime co-writer Jorge Calderon’s reaction to the news (delivered to him by Zevon himself) that his on again, off again partner had mesothelioma. It’s a painful, touching moment that shows that perhaps only Crystal Zevon was qualified to “tell” her ex’s story. Knowing what to put in, what to leave out, and what needed to be told could only be done by someone who really knew her subject. She did, and she told his story without letting sentimentality get in the way. If you have any interest in Warren Zevon you won’t be let down by devoting some time to this book. I’m so glad I finally did.

3.5/5 (Ecco Books, 2007)

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