Saturday, March 17, 2018

Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground - Michael Azerrad (2001)

Published in the waning years of nu-metal and the TRL teen pop revolution, and shortly before the NYC rock renaissance, Our Band Could Be Your Life charts the progression of 13 legendary, lesser-known bands in the US in the 80's. It's one of my favorite books and I hadn't read it since the mid-2000's. A lot of it was memorable, a couple minor paragraphs revealed themselves anew, and overall it cemented itself into its rightful position on the Best Books list. [Ed.-Or maybe not?]

It is pretty much impossible to write a thorough review of this book without skirting over a few of the bands, so it will be the subject of one of our first (and hopefully not only) podcast episodes. For now, it will suffice to mention a few quotable paragraphs and briefly run through the subjects.

Black Flag

Greg Ginn founded Black Flag in the late 70's and they cycled through a few different singers until Henry Rollins emerged and recorded their landmark debut LP Damaged. Damaged is definitely in the top 100 albums of all time and is frequently cited as the essential hardcore document...I'll just excerpt it:

"Released in January '82, Damaged is a key hardcore document, perhaps the key hardcore document.  It boiled over with rage on several fronts: police harassment, materialism, alcohol abuse, the stultifying effects of consumer culture, and, on just about every track on the album, a particularly virulent strain of self-lacerating angst--all against a savage, brutal backdrop that welded apoplectic punk rock to the anomie of dark Seventies metal like Black Sabbath." (33)

Ginn and Rollins are polarizing figures but time has been more kind to Rollins. Ginn has reformed Black Flag and released an execrable comeback. Even though What terrible, it's still worth hearing. Ginn is a guitar virtuoso, probably the 2nd most iconic featured in the book after J. Mascis.  His best work is in the past, but there are still moments on the new album where he unloads that same vicious squall. 

Ginn also founded SST records which is probably the only entity that pops up in every single chapter. Apparently, he is kind of an asshole. Regrettably, Henry Rollins cannot bring himself to sing with them again, because it would undoubtedly be one of the best reunion shows out there. Rollins is loaded and has become an almost saintly figure. Everybody loves him now but he was definitely an asshole too at one point, as this chapter conveys. Ginn probably comes off more sympathetically back in 2000.

The Minutemen

The Minutemen are the 2nd weirdest band profiled in terms of sound. They're not a punk band, but they are. They're a jazz band with really short songs. They are pretty out there. Their philosophy is righteous, however, and they cut inspiring historical figures. D. Boon unfortunately left us all far too long ago in an accident that appears to have been unnecessary and preventable, but what a mark he left on this world. Mike Watt continues on with their legend and retains cache as one of the leading elder statesmen (dinosaurs?) of the scene. Of course he later played with the Stooges and Iggy is the ultimate dinosaur (after the Rolling Stones front duo). 

Double Nickels on the Dime is another SST classic album. It's not as tight as Damaged though. The Minutemen probably have some of the best lyrics of any of these bands but they also have the most threadbare sound. That may be intentional. They're not one of my favorites but they're worth a listen. "This Ain't No Picnic" is amazing, as are at least a dozen others. It's also very amusing to hear their first couple albums when they do like 10 songs in 7 minutes (Paranoid Time or The Punch Line, see "Fanatics" off the latter).

Mission of Burma

Founded in the late 1970s by the same trio that would never shift (their "fourth member" Martin Swope would eventually get replaced by Bob Weston), this band came out of Boston and was never "big." They're noteworthy in that when their story ends in this book, basically no one still knows who they are--a final tour stop in Chicago yields an audience of six. 

And yet they were one of the very first to reform, almost immediately after the publication of this book (some 17 years after their demise due to Roger Miller's hearing loss). They are Next Level, but I think their post-2000's albums are weaker than their first two (Signals, Calls and Marches and Vs. are pretty much impossible to top, in their defense). They're not the most interesting personalities. Roger Miller had tinnitus and Clint Conley had a slight drinking problem and Peter Prescott just seemed rambunctious.  Azerrad refers to Prescott screaming like a "traumatized drill sergeant." (106) This is not the only time he compares a punk vocalist to a drill sergeant, but there's a different adjective the second time.  Conley's comments on how he doesn't like talking about his own lyrics are most interesting.  But overall this is just kind of an encyclopedia entry about a band that more people should hear and know.

Minor Threat

Re-reading this book led me to revisit a lot of this music, and Minor Threat's first two 7''s (15 songs) are, I think, perfect. Damian Abraham recently commented that the Bad Brains were "uncoverable" (because no band could do a better version of their songs) and maybe that's the case for Minor Threat, but it doesn't stop me from wanting to start my own tribute band, Mid-Age Threat. 

Ian Mackaye reappears in the Fugazi chapter, but that is probably the least necessary in this book because the whole story is here. Fugazi is about doing things their own way. Minor Threat is about DC hardcore and straight edge. Also, "Straight Edge" is awesome.

Husker Du

When I first read this book, Husker Du were one of the bands that I hadn't heard, that I got turned onto, and that I loved instantly. Zen Arcade is another classic SST album (actually released on the exact same day as Double Nickels). They were heavily referenced in Try, which I had read in Fall 2003, and I came to them with some expectation of their grandeur. 

They're 1/2 of the Minneapolis scene detailed here (I would say 1/3 but Prince is only mentioned in an aside or two). They're the less accessible, more serious and visionary band of the two. I liked them a lot more before but I kind of got worn out after a while. Also Michael Azerrad wrote Bob Mould's memoir with him so this chapter sort of eventually became it's own book.  

Sadly, Grant Hart died last year, so there cannot be an actual reunion, but it seemed like there was plenty of time to do one, and who knows why they didn't. Maybe Bob Mould was like, "just see us solo, we'll play a few old hits." His new stuff is very good in its own way too, and his band can execute the old ones well too, but it's just not the same.  I hadn't heard "Eight Miles High" or "Sorry Somehow" until after I read Mould's book and my life is more complete because of them.

The Replacements 

The other Minneapolis 1/2 is probably the most accessible band in the book (or "most mainstream-sounding"). Not the case for their early work, but Azerrad notably gets off the train when they go major.  I'm reading Trouble Boys right now so I'll have more to say about the Replacements later. Suffice to say this is a good quick primer on them. An argument can be made that all of their work, save perhaps their last two albums, is almost perfect (in a very imperfect way). Let it Be is classic, but for me, "Kids Don't Follow" is their best song. 

Sonic Youth

Here we get to one of my favorite bands of all time. Admittedly, I haven't listened to them very much since their demise, and I had plenty of material to explore in the post on Kim Gordon's memoir, Girl in a Band. Who would know what the future had in store for SY back in 2000?

No one! They hit a low point with NYC Ghosts and Flowers and only went up from there, eventually imploding in divorce and sad vibes. THEY COULD STILL GET BACK TOGETHER, but I don't think anyone would find that necessary. I saw them more than any other of the bands featured here, and they played enough shows over their 30-year history to satisfy most of the listening public.

This is actually one of the most boring chapters because none of them have drug problems and though they are avant-garde and outre and experimental and no-wave and "pigfuck," this does not always translate into a compelling story. I think an argument can be made that they're "boring" musically also. Anybody who has seen them live knows that seeing them drone on a feedback jam for 10 or 30 minutes is essentially witnessing experimental free jazz-induced aural torture. Yet their power cannot be denied and they will always be one of my favorite bands, as well as one of the greatest of all time.

Butthole Surfers

Not really sure what to say about this group.  I got Locust Abortion Technician on something of a whim a long time ago, and it's okay.  They're more of a performance art experiment than a rock band.  Musicianship sounds rudimentary, and seems to take a backseat to the lyrics and overall message of the sensory experience conveyed by the songs.  They really do seem more like a traveling circus or freak-show than an indie band, and this chapter is consequently an outlier.  It is undoubtedly the most outrageous part of the book, and occasionally compelling.  

It seems like drugs are a pretty essential accoutrement to consumption of the Butthole Surfers music.  Moreover, like many of the bands in this book, their full majesty may only be adequately understood by those that saw them live.  Without getting too deeply into their personal mythologies, Gibby Haynes is their front man and his professional situation imbues their narrative with a sharp philosophical bent:

"'I can't believe we lived through that,' Leary [co-founder] continues.  'Man, I'll tell you what, I'm glad to be alive--it kind of seemed like we were in a constant state of suicide the whole time.  It wasn't like, "Gee, we're going to become successful and make a lot of money."  It was more like, "Man, we're going to have a lot of fun before the end comes and we all hit the can." I didn't think there was any way out.'
They were eventually reduced to scavenging for cans and bottles so they could turn them in for the nickel deposit.  It was quite a comedown for Haynes, who was all set to be a successful accountant just a couple of years before.  One day some prankster ran up and kicked all the bottles out of Haynes's bag.  'Gibby and the rest of us were on our knees, scurrying to collect the bottles again,' says Coffey [drummer].  'And I looked in Gibby's eyes, and he was about to cry.  It was just so pitiful--this big, strong guy like Gibby being reduced to tears because here he was on the streets of New York, groveling for bottles.  But good god, we needed those bottles.'" (287)

They do go on to command a pretty sizable fee for their concerts, and it is amazing they are one of the bands whose latter history is not covered because they got signed to a major label.  They're a curiosity for sure, and we all probably need a good dose of them given how "safe" so much artistic expression has become in recent years.

Big Black

Along with the Butthole Surfers, Big Black explored dark lyrical territory with an added dose of meanness.  Musically, however, they are much more listenable.  Big Black is basically Steve Albini, who is an island unto himself.  It is also Santiago Durango, who played in Naked Raygun and later went to law school and now works as an appellate defender in Ottawa, IL (once I used his name as a pseudonym for a legal writing assignment).  Jeff Pezzati and Dave Riley each did stints on bass. "Roland" (the drum machine) supplied the beat.  Notably this is the only Chicago band in the book.  

Most people know Albini without knowing they know Albini by virtue of the albums he's produced for other bands over the past 30 years.  The rest of us know him for his way with words and the sound he can wring out of his guitar.  I never got into Big Black until I had a friend play me his vinyl copy of AtomizerAtomizer is probably universally-recognized as their high watermark, but it's far from accessible.  Their first EP, Lungs, is weaker, but if you listen to Pigpile, their posthumous live album, the songs are given a new life.  Pigpile is probably their most accessible release and serves as a kind of greatest hits collection.  Its versions of "Passing Complexion" and "Cables" are highlights.

I saw Big Black play four songs back in September 2006, I think, at the Touch and Go block party.  They played last, and then segued straight into a Shellac set.  I don't remember much about it.  I go through periods of rediscovering old bands I used to like.  This happened with me for Shellac in 2014 when they came out with Dude Incredible.  I think a lot of the characters from this book have changed over the years, not just from the early 80's to 2000, but also from 2000 to 2018.  Albini is just as intimidating as ever, but he seems to have toned it down.  He still clearly does not care if you like him or not, but appears less outwardly confrontational.  He and his wife do amazing work for the homeless.  If I had to point to examples of lives well-lived, his would be up there. 

For what it's worth, of the book Albini said, "It was written by a guy who wasn't there when any of it happened.  I naturally think Azerrad's perspective is skewed by hype, publicity, and reputation, and he swallows some pretty burnished bullshit regarding motives for various embarrassing episodes.  A lot of what he says sounds like mistaken critical perspective to me, but that's inevitable given the sentences I typed right there.  It's never taken well when somebody tries to school a monkey about bananas."    

Dinosaur Jr

This is one of the few bands I knew pretty well going into the first reading.  They are just J. Mascis, Lou Barlow and Murph (Lou Barlow gets fired after Bug and Azerrad skirts over pretty much everything after Green Mind).  Lou Barlow started Sebadoh pretty early on, and they had their own impressive run of albums, but they were not exactly primed for arena rock in the same way as Dinosaur.  I saw Sebadoh in 2004 at Maxwell's and interviewed Lou Barlow for an imaginary zine that I would never put out and I asked him about reforming Dinosaur and he said they had a friend that was trying to make it happen.  SO I KNEW.  It didn't happen for another year or so, but I would get to see them at Lollapalooza in 2005 and several other times over the next ten years.  

I thought this was a kind of boring chapter on previous readings, but this time it struck me for the inter-band tension.  In view of their reformation, the anecdotes seem almost quaint.  Dinosaur stand out musically in this book because of J. Mascis and his guitar pedals: 

"And after Dinosaur's tour, a whole wave of English groups, dubbed 'shoegazer bands,' sprang up in their wake, playing folk chords through phalanxes of effects pedals to make swirling, deafening music; they uniformly adopted a nonchalant demeanor and paid lip service to Neil Young and Dinosaur Jr." (366)

I think My Bloody Valentine had been formed around the same time as Dinosaur, but their sound did evolve, and it is not unlikely that Dinosaur were an influence.  Mascis is the #1 guitarist featured in the book (and there are many great guitarists in this book).  You're Living All Over Me is classic, and Bug is pretty good, but Mascis admitted that it was the album he was least happy with.  Now, everybody says their later albums are good (Pitchfork has gone 8.4 on Beyond, 8.5 on Farm, 7.9 on I Bet on Sky, and 7.5 on Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not) and while I agree they are good, I don't think they're quite as good as those two.  I think they are better than their debut, but they're not better than Where You BeenI think they're on par with Green Mind and Without a Sound and Hand It Over.  Then again, Barlow's presence as a songwriter elevates them into higher territory.

It's also worth noting that they are featured in The Year Punk Broke, but post-Barlow.  Their two songs were always the highlight for me.


Somehow I hadn't realized that Guy Picciotto had another band besides Fugazi and Rites of Spring.  This reading turned me onto the pleasant curiosity that was Happy Go Licky.  Apart from that, it was much of the same, and not much of a revelation for a person who owned the Instrument DVD.  Fugazi certainly belong in this category, yet this chapter seems about half as long as most of the others, probably because we already know all about Ian Mackaye.  It seems to end rather abruptly.  Most of the chapters end when the band signs a major label deal or break up.  Fugazi released their last album in 2001, and there may or may not have been intimations of that experienced by Azerrad during his interviews (it feels like there were not).  This is the way the chapter ends:

"Despite the alternative gold rush, Fugazi didn't release a follow-up to Steady Diet of Nothing until June '93, when they released In on the Kill Taker, which actually made the lower rungs of the Billboard Top 200 album chart.  
Although Fugazi's legend grew even larger in the Nineties, Brendan Canty feels the band's early days tell its truest story.  'People might look at us and think we're this icon,' he says, 'but at the time there was just a couple hundred people coming to the shows and it wasn't huge and nothing had potential.  It was just important to do it.  And the fact that we all wanted to go on the road and work as hard as possible, and that we were able to, is in itself its own success story.  It doesn't necessarily have to be about getting anywhere, but about getting through the process of fulfilling your own possibilities.'" (409-410)

Way to skirt over Red Medicine, End Hits, and the current state of the band (The Argument) as of 2000.  Okay, this is definitely one of the best books, but that doesn't mean I don't have criticisms, or think maybe the writing's a little clunky at times and it's purely in the Best Books category just because it's a bunch of great anecdotes.  It reads like it should be an oral history.  Azerrad's exposition is often stark and humorous.  Sometimes he sounds like an imitation Lester Bangs when describing the particular feeling a certain song can make.  At times, these are perfectly on point.  Take this description of the guitar sound in Black Flag's "Depression":

"The songs took fleeting but intense feelings and impulses and exploded them into entire all-consuming realities.  So when Ginn wrote a chorus like 'Depression's got a hold of me / Depression's gonna kill me,' it sounded like the whole world was going to end.  'That was Black Flag: when you lose your shit,' says Rollins.  The music was the same way--blitzkrieg assaults so completely overwhelming, so consuming and intense that for the duration of the song, it's hard to imagine ever listening to anything else."  (33)

Other times, they sound obtuse, such as this description of Flip Your Wig:

"Except for the two instrumentals tacked on to the end, every song sounds like a hit in some alternate world where the rivers run with an equal mixture of battery acid and honey." (189)

What?  I digress.  Anyways, late era Fugazi is great.  Still this gives the feeling that they're a boring band that didn't really change because they're pretty much all stable, upstanding, principled and sober individuals.  

I wrote a paper in college for a Writing about Popular Music class about Ian Mackaye and Calvin Johnson and read it out loud to the class.  They all seemed to like it (it drew from material in Our Band Could Be Your Life and other things in its bibliography).  However, one or two of them suggested that Ian Mackaye was no longer straight edge, that he had allowed himself to drink alcohol.  It's pretty amazing that we still don't really know.  Ian Mackaye and Guy Picciotto today are mysterious figures that have laid low, though I believe the Evens are still active and Guy has been spotted at a Washington Wizards game.  Everyone wants them to play together again (even if it was just like what the Replacements did), and it feels almost a little bit cruel, like they don't want to capitalize, or they think it's boring and regressive to play old songs.  Maybe there's another reason.  In any case, they are notable in that they stopped pretty much when the book was published and haven't done anything since.  Almost every other band had some sort of life after 2001.  The Fugazi Live series of bootlegs perhaps counts.       


Mudhoney might as well be considered a chapter on Sub-Pop.  This chapter is as much (or more) about Sub-Pop as it is the band.  Mudhoney is Mark Arm and Steve Turner, and others.  The chapter starts off being about Green River.  A lot of people talk about Green River because Jeff Ament was in it and later in Pearl Jam.  Mudhoney is framed as the precursor to Nirvana.  

The chapter is as much about Mark Arm and Steven Turner as it is Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman.  Actually the most dramatic moments involve the label and not the band.  They are treated as the sort of flagship Sub Pop band.  There is high drama in their relationship:

"'I remember seeing Steve the next day and trying to talk to him and being so at the end of my rope that I broke down and started crying,' says Pavitt.  'What hurt me more than anything was that he felt like I didn't respect him.  I didn't care if they went to a major--whatever.  But the fact that he would misread what I was trying to communicate...I was simply trying to be honest.  It was such a low point for me, just standing there crying in front of this guy.  I just said, "I'm sorry"'" (450)

At the end, Mark Arm remarks that Mudhoney may be regarded as a footnote in history.  They're probably the only band in the book that has remained active all this time.  The Lucky Ones is one of the earliest posts on this blog.   So perhaps that estimation has changed as their longevity has shown, yet they are still probably best known for "Touch Me I'm Sick."  In an interview a couple years ago, when asked how it felt to have inspired a generation of up-and-coming bands, Arm replied, "I think it would be presumptuous of me to claim that we inspired anyone."

Beat Happening

The last band in the book is one of the strangest and most influential.  Beat Happening is Calvin Johnson, Heather Lewis and Bret Lunsford.  This chapter is mostly about Johnson and K Records.  They have a lot in common with Dischord, but their bands tend to have more of a twee sound.  None of them really knew how to play their instruments very well and they rarely rehearsed.  

I used to listen to Beat Happening a lot and I don't as much anymore.  Johnson's style is confrontational and magnetic.  I was luckily able to see him once solo in a showcase of K bands.  I think I bought a copy of a Halo Benders album from Phil Elverum.

Because Beat Happening prove that you just need passion to start a band, not talent, they are one of the most inspiring bands featured.  Several of their songs are sung acapella, and Johnson once recorded an album of a bunch of random people around Olympia, WA singing.  Their musical skills were rudimentary, yet they managed to record several classic albums that became increasingly complex.  By the end of their run at You Turn Me On in 1992, they hit a musical peak and sound almost like masters of their style.

So that's it.  I really love this book.  However, I just finished reading Trouble Boys.  That is going on the Best Books list.  This took Azerrad three years of nonstop work.  Trouble Boys took Bob Mehr eight years, though he must have been doing other things too.  This is more of an overview than a deep dive, and it will be as educational to most readers as it will be entertaining.


Friday, February 16, 2018

Cat's Cradle - Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1963)

The second entry in The Vonnegut Project (following Slaughterhouse-Five) is Cat's Cradle. It is being presented in its relatively unedited format (though I have agonized over the e's from judgements/judgemental), including our nominations for the third entry, which will be Breakfast of Champions.

EMILY: Reading CC was certainly different than reading SF. CC was published six years before SF, and, while there are certain similarities between the two texts (primarily in terms of how the protagonist witnesses catastrophic events without being particularly moved or changed by them), CC feels like an earlier work, without Vonnegut’s essential focus on humanism and humor. I remember loving CC when I read it nearly twenty years ago, but this time it felt difficult, unsettling. The rampant sexism and moderate racism felt more pronounced during our current moment of awareness, and although I appreciate the way Vonnegut consistently dealt with larger questions -- the firebombing of Dresden; the global danger posed by particularly destructive weapons -- after rereading SF, CC feels like a less mature work. I wonder if it would have been published today. I don’t mean to come down so hard on CC. There are moments that I love. Bokonon is, of course, fantastic. And there’s that certain moodiness Vonnegut always has, the ability to pass broad judgements on humanity’s absurdity that made me feel good when I was 15 and still make me feel good today. I don’t think we spend enough time discussing how foolish and judgemental and awful people (especially people from the United States) often are, and when Vonnegut writes sweeping statements like, “The highest possible form of treason is to say that Americans aren’t loved wherever they go, whatever they do,” and, “Americans are forever searching for love in forms it never takes, in places it can never be. It must have something to do with the vanished frontier,” it still paints me with a smug, knowing smile (Chapters 45 and 44, respectively).

But some of his other statements, particularly about women or individuals who aren’t white or who are physically different, are problematic, to use the current term. All the “girls” who work for Dr. Asa Breed, vice president in charge of the research laboratory of the General Forge and Foundry Company, are painted horribly (“I’m dumber than an eight-year-old,” mourned Miss Pefko, a secretary, when she doesn’t understand a concept, and Dr. Breed patronizingly declares that the girls in the typing pool “serve science… even though they may not understand a word of it. God bless them, every one!” chapters 15 and 17). There’s also descriptions of “a small and ancient Negro” (chapter 28) and “beautiful Mona,” a blonde “Negress,” and, of course, poor Newton Hoenikker, a midget who has to constantly be reminded of his small stature.

Overall, this book is a warning against the dangerous power of ice-nine, which turns any liquid instantaneously into ice that won’t melt until temperatures reach 140-some degrees. Immediately deadly and vastly destructive, CC’s unnamed protagonist witnesses the end of the world when a small sliver of ice-nine contacts water (via the corpse of someone it already killed) off the small island (essentially a banana republic, though with neither the resources nor the political capital to make it worth controlling) where he’s recently taken control (the commentary on thinly-veiled Caribbean island life warrants addressing at another time). Ice-nine is a clear stand-in for nuclear weapons, and CC is clearly an anti-nuclear book. It’s useful to note that the Cuban missile crisis happened in October 1962, roughly a year before CC was published, and KV seems to use CC to respond to these ongoing global threats. Ice-nine is destructive, awful, and created by the father of the atom bomb, but its threat is surprisingly less than nuclear energy, since the protagonist and a few select others somehow survive the freezing of the earth’s waters -- though, perhaps, the effects will last longer. (Maybe global warming finally has an upside?) It’s also a book clearly written by a scientist, in which Vonnegut draws upon his years of study to influence the construction of his narrative. (The description of how water molecules stack upon each other like cannonballs in front of a courthouse is particularly charming, in my opinion.)

Despite this valiant purpose, however, CC still seems to fall flat. Vonnegut’s protagonists rarely grow as people; they are acted upon, but rarely act in turn. They’re witnesses, vehicles through which Vonnegut can express his feelings about nuclear war, or World War II, or human stupidity in general. But they’re rarely fully-fledged novelistic characters, in the sense that we witness them grow and change and evolve. They simply witness, Vonnegut inserts his trademark witty commentary, and that’s that. While that’s not a terrible model for a book (let’s face it, I ate this shit up when I was a teen), it doesn’t work as well for me anymore. It was enough for me then because I felt like I needed to hear that wry commentary about people being dumb and Americans being crazy. But now that I’m navigating my thirties, I want to see the interior of people too, rather than just comments from an observant outsider.

Overall, I was less impressed with CC on the second reading, unlike SF which rose in my esteem. But one of the best parts of Vonnegut’s work is that the reading is quick, especially for a book like CC which is written in micro-chapters. So I look forward to our next assignment, and seeing where the third book in our project stands.

JACK: There have not been many times that I have had occasion to say this, but at this juncture I must respond to Emily that I respectfully disagree.

Cat's Cradle, for me, for whatever reason, was my favorite Vonnegut novel, and likely still is. It is better than S-F. Unlike S-F, there is actually a plot. Also unlike S-F, the book is comprised of micro-chapters, which makes it easy to recall when and where major plot points occur.

Maybe Emily's criticism is that this book is all plot and no character, but it seems like she's really harping on the supposed racism and misogyny unwittingly conveyed. While I agree some moments are "problematic," I don't believe that Vonnegut intended to lazily expose his own prejudices (I am reminded of another dear friend who queried whether Nabokov was a "sick man" because he wrote Lolita). Like Breakfast of Champions, the stray comments on race (or, here, on female submissiveness/scientific ineptitude) may be shockingly raw, but they reflect the era. I mean fuck Emily, didn't society really only get taken to task for being shitty towards women in late 2017, a year after our collective misogyny put a megalomaniac (among many other appellations) in our highest position of power? Criticizing Vonnegut's portrayal of the female employees of the foundry company is like criticizing Mad Men because all the secretaries (minus major characters Peggy/Joan/Megan) can only type or connect phone calls. We all wish Vonnegut was a progressive saint but this is not meant to be a socially responsible novel. I would add that later on, Vonnegut's work did seem to take on an implicit air of social responsibility, but Cat's Cradle is more comedic science fiction than pointed political satire.

Apart from what I feel is a nitpicky criticism, I can't argue with how the book made Emily feel. I do want to argue that the micro-chapters MAKE the book. There are about 130 itemized chapters, each with a brief title. Sometimes, these are just pure, classic Vonnegut.

I would argue that the book has an incredibly strong first half, and that the second half sort of collapses under its own weight and conceit. Even so, this is a great book!

"Call me Jonah.  My parents did, or nearly did.  They called me John." 

So it begins.  It's a call back to Moby Dick (which I haven't read and probably should one day). Then, we never hear the name again. What does the narrator actually do? Is he a reporter? In a way, this framing mechanism is at the heart of why I believe this is such a successful novel, and why Citizen Kane is such a successful film. That is, the investigation: what is rosebud? What is ice-nine?

Emily brilliantly observes that this is likely an allegory for nuclear weapons and the Cuban missile crisis. But is San Lorenzo a stand-in for Cuba? I don't think so, though there is definitely talk about its communist bent (and the defiantly anti-communist spirit of the American people circa height of cold war).

I do want to ask, regarding the lack of character development: what Vonnegut novel truly does have fully-fledged characters that change and grow?

I wasn't alive and neither was Emily (though she is better equipped to draw such conclusions as an historian) and while I appreciate the interpretation, looking at the book this way sort of ruins it for me. I mean, I know it's a simple story and there's not much there that doesn't feel like anything more than thinly-veiled satire, but it's a story about the apocalypse or the end of the world or the fate of humanity as a whole and it feels Profound in the childish sort of way that Vonnegut sometimes projects perfectly. No, the book isn't as perfect as I remember it being, but it does have an ending to rival S-F. And while it may have come 6 years before (making Vonnegut about 40 at the time of writing?), S-F only feels like a more "mature" work because the characters are not all caricatures (to put it simply). Even with its flaws, I still love this book and think it should be read by everyone.

Nominations for next book:
-Mother Night
-Sirens of Titan
-Hocus Pocus
-Deadeye Dick
-Jailbird or Player Piano worth reading? (2 I haven’t read)

EMILY: I think Jack makes a ton of really excellent points and I also think it’s really fun when we disagree. This project is so great! My vote for the next book is Bluebeard, Timequake, or Breakfast of Champions, even though I think that was once nominated and then we took it off the table. I want to put it back on! Put it back on the table like the breakfast of champions it is!

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Grass Roots: the Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America - Emily Dufton (2017)

Full Disclosure: Emily Dufton is my friend and personal confidante, and she has been a contributor to Flying Houses over the past 5 years.  The things I have to say in this review may be different from the things other people have to say.  However, I am planning to do a podcast for this blog, for all of the things that are probably not prudent to print, or might be more entertaining in an audible format, and Emily is slated to be my first guest.  So due to that, I will try to avoid too many personal tangents.

I would not have read a book about the history of marijuana activism, truthfully, if Emily had not written it.  However, I would read absolutely anything she wrote, because she brings an intensity to the written word that I find lacking in others.  What Emily says matters, or what Emily says matters, matters.  I never read High Times.  I won't go into personal tangents here, as I said, but in carrying around this book, with its inescapable giant cannabis leaf on the cover, you sort of brand yourself.  This is precisely what makes Grass Roots so special, because it's about that.  It is about the nether region between pro-marijuana and anti-marijuana activists.  It is so rare in this day and age to read something and not feel like it is beholden to its ideologues.  

I enjoy reading history books, but they are often daunting in their length and predisposed towards excessive tangents.  Emily sticks close to the facts here, starting in the late 1960's and ending in present day, with crucial developments to the story and her theory occurring constantly.  Apparently Jeff Sessions has done something regressive lately.

At the heart of it, this book is really about NORML, and the Parent Movement.  Emily's portraits of Keith Stroup and Keith Schuchard, the respective leaders of each, are lovingly rendered.  Side note: it is too perfect that Marsha Mannatt Schuhard happens to go by Keith--how do you get Keith from that?

Take for example this brief description of Stroup after he went to work for Ralph Nader:

"Consumer advocacy was only one part of the equation, however.  The most important shift that occurred during Stroup's tenture with the National Commission on Product Safety was his transformation into a regular marijuana smoker.  There Stroup befriended Larry Schott, a fellow Midwesterner and heavy smoker who was serving as the commission's chief investigator.  As two of only a handful of staff members who weren't from the moneyed eastern elite, Schott and Stroup bonded immediately and began visiting each other regularly, getting high and going to see the Beatles' Yellow Submarine.  The rest of Nader's staff was experimenting with the drug as well.  While Nader was a straight arrow, Stroup, Schott, and the other commission members were not, and smoking together on the weekends 'created a bond among us,' Stroup remembered.  'We were fellow stoners daring to travel to new places in our minds.  We felt as if we were pushing the levels of our consciousness, and experiencing new realities.'" (35)

Grass Roots is also a story of Presidents, from Nixon through Obama.  It tells of how a congressional study (the Shafer Commission) found that it had less harmful effects than presupposed ("the drug's 'relative potential for harm to the vast majority of individual users and its actual impact on society does not justify a social policy designed to seek out and firmly punish those who use it.'" (54)), and was shunned by Nixon, who effectively ended Vietnam and started the War on Drugs.  Most of the book, however, centers around President Carter and President Reagan. 

Under Carter, marijuana was effectively decriminalized, until the so-called downfall of Peter Bourne.  This chapter is probably the highlight of the book for me.  There were three images that were indelible to me in this book.  One of them is the scene of the NORML Christmas party where Peter Bourne, a senior-level member (Special Assistant to the President for Drug Abuse) of the Carter administration, allegedly used drugs.  However, it was this turn of phrase that I remembered best:

"Bourne tried to defend himself, to no avail.  In an interview with the Washington Post the day after the accusations aired, Bourne denied that he had ever used cocaine.  'I won't say that I've never used marijuana,' he said, 'but not since I've been on this job.  It's just not my style.  I use alcohol.'  In another interview, with the Associated Press, Bourne said that pot and coke were 'everywhere' at the NORML Christmas party, but 'No, no, I was not snorting cocaine.'  He tried to cool the mounting pressure by agreeing to take a leave of absence and abandon his role as drug adviser, while staying on as a White House staff member.  But as articles kept criticizing Bourne for everything from his alleged drug use to putting on European airs, Bourne recognized that he couldn't remove himself from the scandal he had created.  Hoping to spare the president some heat, Bourne officially resigned from the White House on July 20, 1978, eight months after the fateful Christmas party with Keith Stroup." (116)

Earlier in the book, however, this was the first ridiculous image that struck me, of an infamous smoke-in:

"According to Norman Mailer, who attended the rally and wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning 'nonfiction novel' The Armies of the Night about the event, Hoffman, Rubin, and Sanders planned to smoke marijuana and then 'encircle the Pentagon with twelve hundred men in order to form a ring of exorcism sufficiently powerful to raise the Pentagon three hundred feet.  In the air the Pentagon would then, went the presumption, turn orange and vibrate until all evil emissions had fled.'  As people sang and grasped hands, Sanders would call upon Zeus and Anubis, the god of the dead, to 'raise the Pentagon from its destiny and preserve it,' forcing its inhabitants to end the war and bring peace to America and Vietnam." (23)

From this early focus on the rising use of marijuana in the hippie-era, the book shifts to the backlash against it from parents in the late 1970's.  As noted, Emily's ability to write sympathetically from the perspective of the Parent Movement should be lauded.  However, one does not really feel too badly for them.  They do seem to be more "careerist" than any of the pro-marijuana activists.  And it feels cheapened because their whole career is based on being against something.  Still, their concerns are valid, with respect to head shops and the shameless marketing of pot-smoking toys to children and teens.  And most people seem to be in agreement that they should just be restricted to over 18, but instead it became the sort of linchpin on which the national attitude towards marijuana shifted.  It hits its apotheosis in the Reagan era, and Emily's account of how Nancy Reagan hijacked the Just Say No campaign is part of the sequence of events that make up the third indelible image:

"On April 2, 1982, Reagan traveled to Atlanta, where she addressed over 600 cheering fans at the fourth annual PRIDE Southeast Drug Conference.  Bolstered by grants from ACTION, it was the group's largest and most spectacular meeting yet.  Three days of adolescent drug abuse prevention activities were interspersed with student groups performing musical acts, movies, and grand buffets.  There were also celebrity guests.  Standing alongside actress Melissa Gilbert (star of television's Little House on the Prairie) and Dr. Gabriel Nahas, Reagan commended the movement's work.  'I'm very happy to be here among all you concerned parents,' she said, 'because, while drugs have cast a dark shadow in recent years, the parent movement has been a light in the window--it shines with hope and progress.'  Even as she stood next to actors and scientists, however, the first lady was the meeting's true star.  After her speech, the journalist Michael Massing reported, 'members of the audience hoisted her on their shoulders and carried her around the hall as if she had just scored the winning touchdown of a football game." (153-154)

These moments epitomize the book for me.  I've said pretty much all I am going to say, without spoiling anything further (though the book is history and effectively cannot be "spoiled," the depth of Emily's research often yields a surprise).  Soon after this, we will be publishing the second entry in The Vonnegut Project, and I hope to speak to her further about Grass Roots in an interview of sorts.  I would point out the one tiny small criticism I have--which is that, in perhaps three or four instances, certain events are referred to as if previously unmentioned--but I doubt this will bother or faze anyone else.  I only noticed what I thought was one typo--in a transcription from a judicial opinion--and even that may be an incorrect observation.  In short, Grass Roots establishes Emily as one of the premiere writers and thinkers of our generation.  I have always considered her that, and now perhaps the greater public will too.    


Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Sellout - Paul Beatty (2015)

This is going to be a tough one to review.  I had never heard of Paul Beatty before hearing him as a guest on the WTF podcast.  That was how I first heard of The Sellout, though apparently it won the Man Booker Prize in 2016 (this was a pretty big deal as Beatty was the first American writer to win it, but George Saunders followed suit last year [Ed. Later I listened to a podcast that mentioned it was only opened up to Americans in 2014]).  An unfortunate result of winning such an award is the question on the minds of subsequent readers: did it deserve to win?  In the case of previous winners, Disgrace (J.M. Coetzee) and Midnight's Children (Salman Rushdie), I thought so.  Remains of the Day (2017 Nobel winner Kazuo Ishiguro) is on my list of future reads.

I can't think of any books off the top of my head that were published in 2015 that I thought were better, but I hesitate to add it to the Best Books list for reasons that will no doubt be difficult to articulate.  Elements of the novel are great.  The writing is lyrical and casually profound.  However, this is not so much a novel as a manifesto.  The story is quite incidental to the ideas expressed therein.  There is kind of a good story involved though, but it is not really fleshed out.  The narrator (Me) notices that his hometown, Dickens (an enclave in south central L.A.), has been removed from the map.  He attempts to redraw the boundaries and put the city back on the map.  He achieves his goal, but the novel is barely about that.  It's more about how he takes on Hominy, who is a former member of the Little Rascals, as his slave.  Hominy is a caricature out of a minstrel show.  In fact, many of the same themes are explored in Bamboozled.  This is a better book than that was a movie, but great performances by Damon Wayans and Michael Rapaport.  I digress.

The novel opens with Me v. the United States of America, 09-2606 before oral argument at the Supreme Court.  It is immediately apparent that we are not in the real world when notice of his case arrives in a letter from the Court proclaiming, "Congratulations, you may already be a winner!" He is also smoking a bowl in the courtroom waiting for his case to be called.  He is basically charged with violating the 13th amendment.  This is one of the larger framing narratives, but I don't think it is really about that.

I would describe this book as incredibly poetic.  At times, it goes off for a dazzling page or two, or for a particularly gut-punching paragraph.  I don't really think it's noteworthy for the plot.  It's more the language, the cultural reference points, the whole mood of the presentation, that make it special.  It also becomes incredibly wacky and hilarious (Foy Cheshire's The Pejorative Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Young Protege, White Brother Huckleberry Finn, as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit and other works).

I remembered this part bothering me though:

"And in ten years, through countless California cruelties and slights against the blacks, the poor, the people of color, like Propositions 8 and 187, the disappearance of social welfare, David Cronenberg's Crash, and Dave Eggers's do-gooder condescension, I hadn't spoken a single word." (95)

I mean, this just bothers me because he specifies that it's the Cronenberg Crash and not the Paul Haggis one about race relations in L.A. which seems a lot more appropriate but maybe I need to re-watch that movie about crashing cars and achieving climax.  And I'm not sure whether he is referring to AHWOSG or What is the What or Eggers in general.  Maybe I'm just being nitpicky.  He's referring to ten years passing of him going to the meetings of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, a group formerly spearheaded by his father before he meets his untimely end (this happens relatively early in the novel, so I don't think that's too much of a spoiler).  Foy Cheshire often speaks at the meetings.  These are usually great scenes.  There are vividly drawn, memorable characters, such as Foy, King Cuz, and Hominy (as outrageous as he seems).  This is one of the few narrative tropes that work.  However, I don't buy the climax.

Today, I typed out some notes to myself in an e-mail from my phone, over the course of about 30 minutes.  I am going to edit it and leave in the parts that deserve comment.

-Too many n-words.

Then again, this is kind of a "definitive" novel on racism, so may be justified.  

-Wins man Booker due to political bent. Not a good story.  Nothing feel good about it, nothing realistic...though it is super real.

This is hitting repeatedly on my theme of the storytelling element.  I don't mean that it's a bad story.  There is something feel good about it, it has a pretty happy ending.  

-Fantastic prose style though. Very talented writer with "controversial" ideas. Shock value important to book...moments of sensitivity are great, but the jarring juxtaposition detracts. Invisible Man sequel?

I don't know if shock value is important to the book, but sometimes the gags from Little Rascals episodes with Hominy feel like overkill.  I guess that is why it is labeled a satire.  I think this is the best phrase from my notes: jarring juxtaposition.  Sometimes these scenes are just so hardcore racist that when the novel pulls back and goes into one of its relatively rare moments of tenderness, it feels refreshing.  You can see I was being very critical in my notes.  Invisible Man sequel is interesting, because I never finished Invisible ManPerhaps I only made this comparison because of the nameless narrator but it feels like a spiritual forbear.

-Self evident truths and stereotypes, extremely self aware, self conscious. A lot to talk about. Good book club selection, not good for white people to discuss, no way to act like they know what they're talking about. 

This sort of speaks for itself, but I feel seriously awkward writing this review.  I've removed the comparison to Get Out.  That is something else entirely.  That is both a critical and commercial success.  The Sellout is a critical success, and arguably a commercial one, but not on the same level.  I would say that I enjoyed Get Out very much, but that I thought the story kind of ripped off Being John Malkovich.  I've also removed stuff about BLM, though I do think this could be a kind flagship novel for the movement.  Granted, you would want a novel that delves into the horror and tragedy of an unjustified killing, rather than the more farcical portrayal here.          

Little rascals stuff, apocryphal? Black history in film is often regrettable but book focuses overwhelmingly on negative, nothing about how society has progressed.

This was a weird element of it.  Like, Hominy is probably not based on an actual person, but there are a couple people he could be?  In any case, I don't think many people still watch The Little Rascals, though I could be completely wrong.  But it would be interesting to fact-check any of the re-tellings of episodes of the show and sight-gags from it.

Open mic/comedy connection and WTF, Beatty as stand up comic? Slam poetry like.  Confederacy of Dunces as predecessor along with IM? Baldwin...Coates.

This was basically a reference to the episode of WTF that introduced me to Beatty.  Unfortunately I wasn't able to re-listen to it, but I did listen to a couple other ones briefly that had interviews with Beatty.  I don't think he performed stand up comedy ever or necessarily at open mics except to read poetry.  I recently heard an episode with Ta-Nehisi Coates, and his book Between the World and Me has been something I've been meaning to pick up.  He talked a lot about James Baldwin.  I forget which writers Beatty referenced as influential but he seemed to have a pretty broad palate.  I mentioned Confederacy of Dunces because there is a lot in this novel that reminds me of that, in the way the climaxes occur.  And just in general the way they're both satires.  They're obviously about very different characters and very different themes, but the picaresque and absurd qualities to each seem related.  I definitely think The Sellout can be put in a similar category to Confederacy.  That is something that I didn't love as much as I thought I might, but would probably speak to me in a different way at my age and social position (lol).

Farming in LA? Race riot history. (Future reference: grade A-, best books are only A+) OJ, Obama, Condoleezza, Colin Powell, Cosby, Jazz (?), Gangs, black Chinese food.

Having a farm in L.A. isn't that weird except for the desert climate.  There are probably a couple references to the L.A. race riots, but I would imagine there to be a couple more, regarding Dickens actual situation in the city.  There is not the same discussion of Brentwood and OJ as in The Rise, The Fall and The Rise but it probably comes up once.  For future reference, only books considered an A+ will be named to the Best Books list.  This is probably an A-.  But see below.  

But also Kafka. Again jarring juxtaposition but craftsmanship undeniable. Ideas are muddled but seems to be about why society keeps black people in a box...and how it keeps all races in their own box (except white who are privileged tho they can't dance)

I would excerpt the reference to Letters to Milena (why not Letters to Felice?!) but I'm wary of this going on too long.  I hope nobody takes this last sentence too seriously.  

Recommended, glad I read, but not something I would say everyone has to read asap. Tide has shifted from BLM to metoo. What is the next social movement? Should focus on economy, new-occupy, COL too high, no way for us to survive. End discrimination/patriarchy/old guard powermongers, when do we hit end stage communism? Art is about bringing people together, deepening understanding, open up worldviews, teaching us to be kinder to each other. This book is both a success and failure, however, white people that read it will probably decrease net racism. Narrators identity is fragmented (hates himself in some ways), psychologist father experiments entertaining and silly but also make clearest point in novel about ingrained prejudice. Grew up in Winnetka, so white, so was HS, so was college [Ed. though both were diverse], only learned about AA in law school, always considered u of m to be backwards until understanding benefits of diversity (thinking from different angles on same project), society more "woke" (terrible word) but people too quick to judge and assume other viewpoints invalid (i.e. anyone that has nostalgia for past). The past is sordid and there is nothing truly pure or good or perfect about anything and it's naive for people to pretend that certain people are "good" or "bad" and we don't believe that people have the capacity to change. End result is society more egalitarian but when will we ever be able to say that the playing field has been leveled? The book does its own small part to make the world a better place and is not likely to be read by anyone that will take it the wrong way but it ends up being more divisive than necessary. Avoid pandering to white audience but book arguably would have been better with stronger aspect very interesting and segregation still rampant , see Chicago, so relevance is there and will likely still be there in 50 years. Integration is getting closer and hopefully will be realized. 50 years since MLK assassination, 2018 could be the year racist police practices are stopped. 2 times in my life i probably would have been arrested if not white--how do we ensure that people are treated fairly?

too many ideas in this review, which shows the value of the book.

Briefly, this social commentary may be unwanted.  It contains some personal history that is perhaps best not discussed in a review of this book, but some other time.  Basically talking here about where I grew up and the extent to which I've lived in "diverse" communities.  I don't think we're living in the same world as we did before, race and ethnicity are less the target of discrimination than social class and citizenship (given the current administration).  The community of Dickens is likely one that would be the target of discrimination (getting taken off the map is something that a lot of people would probably like to do for Englewood to transcend its reputation).  I don't really understand the whole prank the narrator pulls about a fancy "white" private school opening up in the area.  

Then I go into more vague stuff that is critical of the tone of the conversations surrounding popular culture. 


Yeah that was a pretty unhinged raw feeling there.  How about a passage from the book:

"Godard approached filmmaking as criticism, the same way Marpessa approached bus driving, but in any case, I thought Laura Jane had a point.  Whatever Jewish people supposedly look like, from Barbra Streisand to the nominally Jewish-ish Whoopie Goldberg, you never see people in commercials that look 'Jewish,' just as you never see black people that come off as 'urban' and hence 'scary,' or handsome Asian men, or dark-skinned Latinos.  I'm sure those groups spend a disproportionate amount of their incomes on shit they don't need.  And, of course, in the idyllic world of television advertisement, homosexuals are mythical beings, but you see more ads featuring unicorns and leprechauns than you do gay men and women.  And maybe nonthreatening African-American actors are overrepresented on television.  Their master's degrees from the Yale School of Drama and Shakespearean training having gone to waste, as they stand around barbecue pits delivering lines like 'Prithee, homeboy.  Forsooth, thou knowest that Budweiser is the King of Beers.  Uneasy lies the frothy head that wears the crown.'  But if you really think about it, the only thing you absolutely never see in car commercials isn't Jewish people, homosexuals, or urban Negroes, it's traffic." (139)

Boom.  Let me revise my grade from A- to A for this novel.  It's on the cusp of Best Books and I think it deserves to have won the Booker Prize (or at least to be nominated) even though I still feel the tone of the novel is kind of weird and is not really about the plot but more the passages like the above.  It's an incredible book and I recommend it with the caveat that it is likely to be a bumpy ride for most.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Rise, The Fall and the Rise - Brix Smith-Start (2016)

I started listening to Turned Out a Punk, Damien Abraham's podcast, sometime this fall.  An entire post should be written about the podcast but suffice to say, Brix Smith was one of the first guests that I wanted to hear.  Her episode probably made me want to read this book.  I'm very glad that I did.  While it is not a perfect book and will not make the Best Books list, parts of it are so incredible that make it worthwhile.  I could not agree with Abraham that it was the best book I had read that year.  It was however, extremely entertaining and highly readable, at times.  As a huge fan of the Fall going back about 14 years, it was a totally amazing experience. On both the podcast, and in this book, Brix references being classmates with Donna Tartt and Bret Easton Ellis at Bennington College in the early 80's.  She does not aim for the heights of The Goldfinch, but sometimes lapses into Ellis-styled prose.  That is, her life could be one of his novels, particularly with the ending in the fashion industry.  What she ends up doing is completely her own.  It may not generally be as artful, but I personally found that I could identify with Brix very closely.  We are all Brix Smith, or Brix Smith is all of us.

I re-listened to the episode today, and forgot the two other Bennington classmates she mentioned--Jonathan Lethem and Jill Eisenstadt.  Apart from that there is not much else to mention--you can listen to the podcast yourself.  I will note that Brix has one of most unique accents I have heard--British valley girl.  She was born in L.A. and spent her childhood there, and splitting time between there and Chicago in her teen years.  She now lives in England.

The stuff about Chicago is fantastic.  On the podcast, Brix mentions that her first concert was at this outdoor venue outside of Chicago, where people have picnics, Rav-en-ia, where she saw the Carpenters and Neil Sedaka on a double bill.  Having recently seen Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons with my family at Ravinia, I found it touching.

Most notably, there is the story of where and when she met Mark E. Smith:

"On Saturday 23 April 1983, Lisa and I paid the $6 ticket price and entered through the front doors of Cabaret Metro, 3730 North Clark Street." (144)

This was within a week of my birth, not very far away, so I have one more reason to feel connected to the band and this book.

Brix writes compelling stories through the first 75% of the book.  In truth I lost some interest after she left the Fall, and it was briefly exciting when she rejoined for a couple years in the mid-90's.  The opening of the book confused me--it's an account of her grandmother seemingly losing it behind the wheel and driving from the Disneyland parking lot through the main gates and into the park before plunging into the lagoon at the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride.  I thought it was real, but Brix later reveals it to be a dream.  I wonder how many other people have that reaction.  It seems like it could have happened, because so much of the rest of her life has been crazy that anything seems possible.  Her stories about her father are both hilarious and horrifying.  There are so many things I would excerpt from this book it's not even funny.  On that note, I should perhaps vault it into Best Books territory, but I think it is instructive to compare it to the other recent female rock musician memoirs that I've read.

If pressed, I have to say that it is better than both Kim Gordon's Girl in a Band and Carrie Brownstein's Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl.  Both are excellent books.  All three of these books are fantastic and totally worth reading, but Brix's is the heaviest.  To be sure, Kim Gordon's account of the dissolution of her relationship with her husband and bandmate, Thurston Moore, is the most powerful piece of writing in the bunch.  This is not to say that Carrie Brownstein's account of the dissolution of her romantic relationship with bandmate Corin Tucker is weak.  In fact, Brix's account of the dissolution of her relationship with husband and bandmate, Mark E. Smith, is the least evocative, in part due to the inscrutability of the man it involves.  Now I love Mark E. Smith but this book definitely sheds some light on him in an unflattering fashion.  It feels fair, though, because there are also moments of extreme vulnerability, humanity, and cuteness.

There are some parts of this book that are tough to read.  Yet even during the most atrocious moment, Brix offers some levity and resists victimization.  As I said, there are many quotable excerpts in this book, so I have to include one about Mark E. Smith that almost made me want to start crying:

"One night, a few months later, there was a knock at the front door of my apartment.  I opened the door to find Mark E. Smith standing there.  He was drunk and held a half-empty bottle of whiskey.  He begged me to let him in, and was in a state.  He told me he had made a mistake leaving me.  I let him in and tried to calm him down.  He asked if he could sleep over.  He was emotional.  I was torn.  Part of me was happy he'd come to his senses and realised what he'd lost in leaving me.  The other part of me was cold and shut down.  After having experienced the attentions and kindness of other men, I was no longer attracted to him.
But still, I felt connected to him.  That would never go away.  He had been my soulmate.  The songs we wrote together would forever be a testament to that.  I allowed him to sleep over, in my bed.  I made it patently clear he was not to touch me.  As he lay next to me, I felt sad.  The next morning, it would be years before I ever saw him again." (267-268)

The stories of the songs were surprising.  It always seems like the Fall are singing about conspiracies or manifestos but in truth are just slices of life.  For example, Brix writes about her sleeping problems and reliance on pills in "US 80s-90s":

"My mother's pills came in the prescription bottle with her name on it.  When we landed in Boston, immigration singled us out to be searched --this happened often, being in a rock group; when we came through carrying guitars and music gear we set off internal klaxons inside officials' heads; we practically had stickers on our foreheads saying 'Search me' -- and the customs officials were aggressively questioning us about the prescription pills not in our name.  This experience led us to write our version of a hip-hop track, 'US 80s-90s': 'Had a run-in with Boston immigration/to my name they had an aversion/Nervous droplets due to sleeping tablets....'  In the airport the signs would read, 'Welcome to the United States of America', but we would always get tormented by security and feel like we were entering a police state.  In the song Mark proclaims, 'I am the original white (big shot) rapper', and it's not hyperbole." (222)

She writes often about "Hotel Bloedel" and "LA."  She seems to consider these her best songs.  She wrote a lot of great songs with the band and I think most people consider the "Brix era" to be the second-greatest period in the Fall's catalog (behind the Hex Enduction Hour era).  Certainly she brought the band in a more accessible direction.  Other noteworthy song inspirations include "Carry Bag Man" (about how Mark E. Smith likes to carry around his stuff in plastic bags).  Actually, her causal dismissal of The Frenz Experiment (the last album she would record before re-joining the band as his ex-wife) is worth capture:

"'Carry Bag Man' is fine, and chugs along, but is a phoned-in effort from Mark, a song about how he likes to carry plastic bags.  'Get a Hotel' is just annoying.  'The Steak Place' is boring and conjures images of gross food, the kind of restaurant that might have photos of the food on their menu.  The most annoying song I ever had to play on was 'Oswald Defence Lawyer.'  I think it was the worst song we'd done since I'd joined the band.  It was interminable, and when we played it live I watched the audience switch off.  It makes me cringe today, just thinking about it.  I was expected to really belt it out, but it just sounds irritating and grating: 'Oswald Defense Lawyer embraces the scruffed corpse of Mark Twain.'  It was cool to name-check Twain, though." (238-239)

Brix writes a fair amount about her post-Fall band, Adult Net, and I was dismayed not to be able to find anything on Spotify or Amazon Music.  I would definitely have listened to The Honey Tangle if I could.  Maybe Brix realizes that streaming services will net her approximately zero and that her fans will seek out old copies of the album.  Or likely it's the record label's fault.

I don't want to give away too many details about the book but can say briefly that Brix's parents divorced when she was young and her mother moved to Chicago and she moved around in fairly fancy places with her father in L.A.  There is more than a fair share of celebrity name-dropping in this book.  It's not always totally necessary, but if I was writing my memoir, I would totally do the same thing.  It's the tangents that usually end up being memorable, such as the story of her professional soccer player friend who soils himself on the field and fakes an injury, or the friend at her bachelorette party with a crazy party trick. 

She goes back from her father in L.A. to her mother in Chicago multiple times through her teen years.  She does not have kind things to say about Chicago, but her account of working at Marshall Field's in the Loop was especially charming (sometimes I like to reflect on the significance of being in the same place as another person in recorded history).  She meets Mark E. Smith at Smart Bar after seeing the Fall in concert at the Metro.  What happens is the definition of a whirlwind romance and is completely insane and showcases the true spontaneity of Brix.  She quickly decides to move to England, move in with Mark, and get married.  She becomes a member of the Fall and stays with them for another four years.  This will be the highlight for the majority of readers.  However, Brix's life outside the Fall is arguably more interesting.  For example, her section about being an aspiring-actress-waitress in L.A after being left by Mark and effectively kicked out of the band is especially compelling.  She meets Nigel, a classical violinist, who is apparently quite a sensation, and is led into a different world, seemingly a little more refined but no less debaucherous.  In fact, I'm sorry, but I have to give a snippet of her encounter with Courtney Love, who invites her to audition for Hole:

"....But as I went to sleep, I had a sixth sense that something was wrong.  A bad feeling.  Something was burning.  I got up, out of bed and rushed to Courtney's room and pushed open the door to the master bedroom.  In her room, she had a selection of candles and incense burning.  Two sticks of incense had fallen over and caught fire.  The carpet was aflame and I caught it just in time.  Had I been five minutes later I dread to think what would have happened.  I put out the fire by smothering it with a blanket and stamping on it.  Courtney was in bed, slumped over her computer.  I fleetingly clocked that she had been mid-conversation with Billy Corgan, of The Smashing Pumpkins.
She said, 'Get into bed, sleep on Kurt's side.'  So I did.  It was really weird, but I felt honoured to be asked to sleep there, in her bed, on his side.  Courtney was warm and kind.  I feel she's often misunderstood.  She is a complex person, as we all are.  At times she has been her own worst enemy, but when you get down to it there is kindness and warmth to her, that is not often talked about." (362)

She then proceeds to talk about how Courtney turned her onto Rohypnol, in one of the more outrageous habits detailed in the book.  Later on, she rejoins the Fall briefly, and then meets her current husband, who then opens a fashion store with her in London.  She also co-stars briefly in a reality series, Gok's Fashion Fix, which sounds like it would be amazing to see.  She has an amazing kitchen and is in love with her pugs.

That is pretty much the whole story, but Brix's mysticism is also worth noting.  She seems to have some sort of otherworldly presence.  One could easily write off her ramblings as hippie-ish, vaguely drugged out, but the realities she has known are so insane that I am inclined to believe her if she says she believes in ghosts.  The precognitive powers of Mark E. Smith are also referenced poignantly, in a story I had read before, about the origins of the song, "Disney's Dream Debased."  The story is that she had taken Mark E. Smith with her to Disneyland and they got in line for the Matterhorn and while waiting he said he didn't like the ride, that it was evil, and that he didn't want to go on it.  They rode it anyways and left.  A few minutes later, there was a commotion in the area, and Disneyland employees came out from hidden elevators and Disney characters tried to distract parkgoers' attention from the Matterhorn.  It came out that a woman was killed when she fell out of her car at the unloading zone onto the track, and the next car could not be stopped from dismembering her.  It's a horrifying story and it would be interesting to know what became of the incident legally, whether Disney has publicly acknowledged that it occurred.

There is another truly insane story about Disneyworld (Brix always goes to Disneyland, but goes to Disneyworld for the first time in her late 20's or early 30's) and how Mickey Mouse may or may not be trying to ask her on a date or hook up with her.  This story appears to be in there solely to detail the breakdown of Brix's mind at the time (it is a weirdly hallucinogenic chapter), but she later brings it full circle when she becomes one of the very few to get Mickey Mouse to appear at an event for her fashion store.  Her comment on the usual gender of the person wearing the Mickey Mouse costume is poignant. 

I could go on a lot longer and pick out more passages, but I think I've said pretty much everything I wanted to say about this.  It's a great book, but it occasionally feels like Brix is going through the motions, telling the story because she has to and not necessarily because she wants to.  The grammar is correct and proper, but the writing is not especially complex and definitely devolves into purple prose at times.  However, I would want any friend of mine to read it, regardless of whether they liked the Fall or not.  I think it would make a great movie--"Scenes from Brix" or something, like Moonlight and three different periods in her life.  Not everyone wants to sell the movie rights to their life, but really, you would do it if you could, wouldn't you?