Saturday, June 16, 2018

Unwifeable - Mandy Stadtmiller (2018)

Unwifeable is a memoir by Mandy Stadtmiller.  Stadtmiller was a recent guest on the WTF podcast.  I probably would not have read the book if I had not heard the episode. The episode effectively functions as a preview of all the most shocking moments in the book, and is a tour de force.  I highly recommend either listening to that episode or reading this book.

I would describe Unwifeable as post-chick lit.  It's still chick-lit, but with an edge of insanity.  It's about basically trying to find Mr. Right at age 30 and beyond, post-divorce.  Stadtmiller cuts a striking figure, and achieves a sort of grandeur in her commitment to fearlessly revealing all of the sketchy details of her romantic life.  She made her living as the weekly writer of a column about dating in the New York Post.  She writes of how she learned to develop boundaries in who she wrote about--her family didn't like when she wrote about them.  The only part of this book that feels a little underdeveloped is the story of what happened in her marriage, which is perhaps out of respect for her ex-husband.

There is a ton of gossip in this book that will satiate basically anyone, though it takes a certain person to want to read it.  There has always been a literary tradition of writing about one's romantic life, but few will do it without the disguise of fiction.  There is something pure and beautiful about writing truthfully on the subject of how fucked up of a person you are, and how you have tried to be better, and Stadtmiller deserves praise for many sections of the book.  She is, however, shameless about name-dropping, and sometimes her funny secret stories about celebrities tend to cheapen the proceedings.  Still it's very amusing to read about her dates with Aaron Sorkin and Keith Olbermann and her pseudo-romances with Moby and Hannibal Buress.  Perhaps the book will be adapted and Andy Dick, Gerard Butler, Courtney Love, Marc Maron, Joy Behar, and John Mayer can all play themselves in Player-like cameos.

There was, however, one glaring typo:

"'Mandy, you are a Kashmir Sapphire,' he writes, 'The famous sapphires of Kashmir are mined from a remote region high in the Great Himalayan mountains of northwestern India.  Lying at an elevation of approximately 150,000 feet.  These sapphires are so beautiful and rare.  Today with the exception of estate sales, fine Kashmir sapphires are virtually unobtainable, mute testimony of the degree to which they are coveted.  They are often categorized as a conundrum gem.  They form an exclusive class of its own.  And once they are cut, they make a beautiful jewel.'" (187)

Perhaps because this is such a beautiful passage, the typo feels more unforgivable.  I did look it up because I started to doubt my knowledge that the highest point on earth is Mt. Everest and that is somewhere just over 27,000 feet.  There is no place at 150,000 feet but the ionosphere.  It should be 15,000.  This, however, is an e-mail from a friend of hers, so perhaps the mistake was preserved.

Around halfway through the book, she references a movement preaching brutal honesty as its core, after being assigned a story on it:

"The piece is ostensibly about a new TV show centered around the concept, and will include an interview with the founder of the movement, Brad Blanton, and then a first-person documentation of my attempts to be 'radically honest.'
But it is Brad Blanton who blows my mind.
I talk to him on the phone, and he is unlike anyone I've ever interviewed.  He will literally tell you anything you want to know--including if he wants to have sex with your sister, the fact that he's let a dog lick peanut butter off his balls, even how much money he makes.  This is the theory of radical honesty.  He calls 'withholding' the most pernicious form of lying.  That is when you try to abide by the mores of polite society by not saying things like that you want to fuck someone's sister.
'Whenever something occurs in the world, there's always what occurred and then there is the story about what occurred, and then there is the meaning made out of the story about what occurred,' he tells me in explaining why most communication--filled with all of its half-truths, twisted perceptions, and withholdings--is so problematic. 'Most people stay lost in the meaning made out of the story.'
It's true.
I don't think about reality: 'I got divorced.' I think about the story I tell about it: 'My ex-husband betrayed me.'  And the meaning I attach to that: 'I am unlovable.  I am unwifeable.  I am a failure.  I am not worth it.'
Brad also forced me to look at some painful truths about my own anger and discomfort.  He tells me that you should just say what you are thinking about someone.  I tell him that I hate when strangers start talking to me about my height.
'So if someone says, "God, you look tall," do you get offended by it still?' he asks me.
'I don't get annoyed,' I say, 'It's just boring.'
'Well, boredom is anger and you haven't expressed your anger sufficiently to all those people who ask you about being tall,' he says.  'You still have a lot of resentment about people--and probably some resentment about being tall.  So when someone says, 'What's it like being so tall?' just say, 'Fuck you!  Eat shit and die!  And I resent you for saying I'm so tall."'
I crack up.  'Then I would appear like this easily hurt social leper,' I say.
Then he reveals the real key, the real magic of what he is preaching.
'You're worried about how you would appear, see?' he says.  'That's what you think your identity is.  It doesn't matter how you appear.  You'll appear differently in another half a minute anyway because people's registry of how you appear changes very dynamically.  For a while, you appear to be a leper of some sort, and a little while later you'll appear to be someone who's very brave and willing to talk about things honestly.  Later on, you'll appear as a kind of person to be trusted because you're not going to be withholding.'" (150-151)

This story most likely informs Stadtmiller's r'aison d'etre, which is, reveal everything in the hopes of helping others with what you've learned along the way.  In this case, she goes on to freak out at a department store clerk for her "shitty attitude."  Apart from this immediate implementation of radical honesty, the entirety of the book is an exercise in the practice, and is all the more worthwhile because of it.

Now only because we've also recently reviewed a memoir that included a Courtney Love anecdote, some excerpt must be included from the section detailing Stadtmiller's friendship with Love, and the ultimate redemption she appears to be experiencing in the culture.  As a student of bankruptcy law, however, I must include what I consider another typo:

"'I'm broke, Courtney,' I say. 'That's why I'm basically stuck at the Post, even if I wanted to leave.  Because I need the paycheck.  I'm barely surviving in New York.  I'm even thinking about doing bankruptcy.'
'Do Chapter 7 if you do it,' she says, without missing a beat.  'Chapter 11 is so pedestrian.'
I have no idea what this means, but she's got a bunch of gold records on the wall, so I'll take her word for it.
'You know, I used to be really broke when I was young,' she says.  'But then I started chanting 'Nam-myoho-renge-kyo,' and within two months I had two million dollars.  I'm serious.  Don't fuck around.  It's the only thing that really works.  Here, let's chant.'" (244-245)

Now it's possible that Courtney Love is referring to actual Chapter 11 business reorganization bankruptcy as pedestrian, but I believe she meant to say Chapter 13.  Granted she does have substantial business holdings but I would not characterize Chapter 11 as pedestrian.

There is not much else I think I can say about this book.  I wrote a note to myself to find an excerpt about "crazy impulses" but that is basically what this entire book is about, also: going through crazy impulses in your 30's and trying to find a piece of stability in this life.  In this case the story has a happy ending, and Stadtmiller appears to have moved her life in a more positive direction.  Yet how can we end reviews of memoirs?  The story is not over and life continues after the memoir.  The book is written in a very conversational tone and its 300 pages flow swiftly.  It will not necessarily go down in history as a classic of the genre but I have to believe that most people will find the majority of it entertaining, and perhaps even eye-opening.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

The House of Broken Angels - Luis Alberto Urrea (2018)

The House of Broken Angels is another one of the last several books to be recommended via the New York Times Book Review podcast.  One week, they discussed the novel in the segment about what they were currently reading.  The next week, they had Urrea on as a guest.  The novel sounded intriguing enough so I decided to check it out.  Was it good?  Yes.  Will it make the Best Books list?  No.  Would I recommend it?  Yes.  I have to say yes.  I was about to say "sort of" or "maybe" but I remembered how I was going to compare it to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao favorably.  It is somewhere between that and One Hundred Years of SolitudeIt is not as stylish as either, but it is more reader-friendly than both.

After the book, Urrea adds an author's note which says that while this story is not 100% true, perhaps 95% is true.  There are no Angels, but it does appear to be based off the occasion of his mother's funeral and the last birthday of his dying brother.  It would seem like Little Angel is his stand-in, and Big Angel is his older brother.  

Big Angel and Little Angel are actually named Miguel and Gabriel, I think, but they also say that their father forgot that he had already used the name.  In any case, Big Angel is about 70 or so and dying of cancer.  He is certainly the main character along with Little Angel.  

There is also Perla (his wife), Minnie (his daughter), Cesar (his brother), Lalo (his son), and to an extent other family members La Gloriosa (sister-in-law, mother to Guillermo, who was killed alongside Braulio), Braulio (oldest son, who has a ghostly presence in the novel), Don Antonio (father, who appears as an actual ghost near the beginning of the novel), Marco (Cesar's son), Giovanni (Lalo's son), Ookie (neighbor, who appears to be developmentally disabled), Mama America (mother), Mary-Lu (sister-in-law) and other husbands and wives.  At times it feels like every character has to have "their section" and the novel lapses into a sort of mock-ironic limited third-person perspective.  While the reader is reminded of certain details at several different points, it is still difficult to summarize the overall thrust of the characters' arcs.  Suffice to say, it is about Big Angel gathering everybody together at his house for his birthday party.  Even though it feels a little contrived, there is a great climax at the end of the novel, and there are other shorter, wittier parts, such as the jokes Big Angel tells to his grand-kids.  

The strongest element of the novel are the phrases in italics, sprinkled seemingly randomly throughout, meant to itemize his gratitudes:

"rain" (85)
cilantro" (64)
"Blade Runner
more time
more time
more" (231)

This is also probably the first book to reference Guardians of the Galaxy and the deaths of Bowie and Prince.  It is very "of the moment" and its legacy value is, therefore, diminished.  This is not always the case, at least in the example of the output of "the brat pack." Yet they wrote about what was young and hip in a way that Urrea only seems to caricature.  While this is a very good book, it is by no means perfect.  The writing is good and solid, even while the dialogue tends to feel padded, or like it doesn't tend to advance character or plot.  In this case the sin is forgivable.

There is a lot of sexual material in the book, yet most of it seems rather plain and hackneyed, and alternative lifestyles tend to be dispatched for shock value and knee-jerk disgust.  Then again this is a novel about a patriarch and a family that tends to start birthing children at a young age.  One vague plot hole that seems inadequately explored is daughter Minnie's status as a grandmother.  I could be totally wrong about this but I swear it was mentioned just once and never exactly spelled out.  I did find this:

"Minnie's oldest son was a sailor and told her that in Portland there was some kind of voodoo donut shop.  Like, you could bu a coffin full of donuts.  Crazy hippies.  The boys on his ship were all tweaked about bacon-wrapped maple bars.  She wished she could get some of those.  Her man would love them."  (106-107)

Other criticisms may be leveled at this novel, and while it is far from perfect, it is beautifully orchestrated, and crystallizes a narrative structure that feels unique.  Surely something similar to the "party novel" has been done, yet I cannot recall any at the moment.  In this case, a big family reunion, with the narrator flitting between characters like a butterfly.  Aside from that, it is often profound, concerned as it is with the Important subject matter that is death and dying:

 "Big Angel was turning seventy.  It seemed very old to him.  At the same time, it felt far too young.  He had not intended to leave the party so soon.  'I have tried to be good,' he told his invisible interviewer.
His mother had made it to the edge of one hundred.  He had thought he'd at least make it that far.  In his mind, he was still a kid, yearning for laughter and a good book, adventures and one more albondigas soup cooked by Perla.  He wished he had gone to college.  He wished he had seen Paris.  He wished he had taken the time for a Caribbean cruise, because he secretly wanted to snorkel, and once he got well, he would go do that.  He was still planning to go see Seattle.  See what kind of life his baby brother had.  He suddenly realized he hadn't even gone to the north side of San Diego, to La Jolla, where all the rich gringos went to get suntans and diamonds.  He wished he had walked on the beach.  Why did he not have sand dollars and shells?  A sand dollar suddenly seemed like a very fine thing to have.  And he had forgotten to go to Disneyland.  He sat back in shock: he had been too busy to even go to the zoo.  He could have smacked his own forehead.  He didn't care about lions, tigers.  He wanted to see a rhinoceros.  He resolved to ask Minnie to buy him a good rhino figure.  Then wondered where he should put it.  By the bed.  Damned right.  He was a rhino.  He'd charge at death and knock the hell out of it.  Lalo had tattoos--maybe he'd get one too.  When he got better." (61-62)

Meditations on death tend to remind one not to take life for granted.  Certainly, it is often a miserable ride.  Yet there are also good parts and things to be thankful to have experienced.  It seems like most of the bad stuff happened to Big Angel in the early part of his life, and once he became a father, and lived with Perla as husband and wife, it was overwhelmingly a very happy one.  It could have been a better novel, I think, but he seemed to have lived his life well, if his goal was to heavily populate his birthday death party with family.  Not all of us would like to have the same life as Big Angel, yet few of us could hope to have so much to look back and smile upon.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Philip Roth - 1933 - 2018

2 giants in 2 weeks, in their mid-to-late 80's. I don't write obituaries for everyone, but I try to write them when I think I can speak properly to their import. In the case of Tom Wolfe, I wasn't familiar enough with his oeuvre to say anything of substance. The New York Times Book Review podcast briefly addressed his passing and while I had intended to do Bonfire of the Vanities and maybe The Right Stuff (one day), their comments seemed to indicate that Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is his seminal work. So maybe that will have to come first. 

Wolfe will be remembered for "New Journalism." What will Roth be remembered for? Not winning the Nobel Prize. He was a Nobel Prize-level writer. I think he will be remembered for demarcating the line between toxic masculinity and horniness. Among other things.

Recently, there was a very scandalous book published that apparently details an affair with a fictional stand-in for Roth. The author admitted that she did, in fact, have an affair with Roth, and not all that long ago. Roth was also recently in the New York Times for an e-mail exchange checking up on him, after all the #metoo revelations, to get his take on the finer points of male desire. He had been retired from his occupation as a novelist over the past several years. 

I read Everyman over 10 years ago now, and that seemed to be his comment on retirement. Indignation still came after (as did The Humbling and Nemesis). American Pastoral was the best. I still haven't read everything. 

Here I've only written about American Pastoral and The Professor of Desire. Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint should be re-read. Both are essential. People have said The Plot Against America is prescient and/or prophetic. I want to read that and Sabbath's Theater.

It's hard to do better than Roth. That is the only thing of substance I can say here, and I'm not even sure that qualifies as substance. 

We wrote about Salinger eight years ago. Salinger was silent for years. He practically hadn't published anything since Roth had first published. They were 14 years apart in age. I consider them equals. They're two of the best 20th century American writers to have lived. Surely there are many great writers that nobody knew about. They both relayed truths rarely spoken, yet often felt. 

Roth's prolific career is a work of art on its own, and this writer is not so deeply familiar with it that an authoritative tone may be struck. Suffice to say, this entire site is filled with instances of exhortations to read so-and-so and while I do truly try to be careful not to overwhelm the casual reader, everybody knows that Roth was a true modern master (in the same way that I know Bellow was, though I haven't read him). He's in the Pantheon. Our world is rapidly evolving and one expects a similar change in the way we consume literature, as well as our expectations of how we expect to be transported by it. So maybe there will be a new literature, and Roth is a relic from a bygone era. History has shown that writers will be remembered if their words can stand up to eternity. Roth is not Plato and he will likely not be referenced by Westworld-types of entertainment 2,000 years from now. Roth may not even be Hemingway. I see many parallels with Vonnegut in terms of output and cultural relevance. Vonnegut was not seriously rumored to win the Nobel. Both were zany, though Vonnegut was zanier. People will inevitably compare him to Wolfe if only for their sense of timing. They were true writers. They made their living off writing their books. Roth was popular, but never commercial. One hopes that writers such as him may still exist and prosper. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway (1926)

Back to back best books. Of course The Sun Also Rises is a classic of 20th century American literature, but has anyone read it lately?  I'm afraid to google it to see a a bunch of reassessments.  For me, it holds up.  It's flawed, it's imperfect, but it is also impossibly beautiful.  We haven't reviewed any books by Ernest Hemingway, only one about Ernest Hemingway, and that is probably one of the worst posts ever on Flying Houses (actually I don't think it's that bad, but it is extremely pretentious and off-putting).  I'll try to do better, here.

This is a quick little book.  67,707 words.  250 pages with fairly sparse print per page.

It's the story of a group of expatriate Americans in Paris, and their stay in Pamplona for the fiesta in the early 1920's.  It opens up with a portrait of Robert Cohn, one-time collegiate boxer and writer.  He is friends with Jake Barnes, a newspaper reporter with an injury from World War I.  Jake is also friends with Bill (I can't remember his last name) who is a writer and makes his entrance in the novel telling a very colorful story with many n-bombs (I realize this may be an offensive term, I apologize), though he does not seem to be a racist.  Actually he is portrayed as more of a beatnik type character, a precursor to Sal Paradise or Dean Moriarty.  All of these characters, in a way, are precursors.  The Lost Generation gives way to the Beat Generation...

There is also Lady Brett Ashley, and her fiancee, Mike (I can't remember his last name).   

Everyone is in love with Brett.  Eventually she hooks up with a young matador, Pedro Romero, who is 19.  The group drinks a lot, and they talk about bullfighting.

There is such a force of style in this book that the reader cannot help but be hypnotized.  That was the overall impression for me this time around.  The book is extremely dialogue-heavy.  Sometimes the dialogue is brilliant, and other times it feels unimaginative and clunky, as if the same scene is playing out over and over again: Jake & Co. get drunk and talk about how they all love Brett. 

Her entrance in the novel is notable because of the commentary from Jake on her companions.  The first time it went completely over my head, but this time it seemed pretty obvious they are supposed to be a bunch of gay dudes: "I was very angry.  Somehow they always made me angry.  I know they are supposed to be amusing, and you should be tolerant, but I wanted to swing on one, any one, anything to shatter that superior, simpering composure." (28) Also, the casual way he describes a prostitute he sort of picks up is charming and humanizing.

The real drama of the novel comes between Mike and Robert Cohn.  Mike gets very drunk in almost every scene and he usually says really inappropriate things:

"'Breeding be damned.  Who has any breeding, anyway, except the bulls?  Aren't the bulls lovely?  Don't you like them, Bill?  Why don't you say something, Robert?  Don't sit there looking like a bloody funeral.  What if Brett did sleep with you?  She's slept with lots of better people than you.'
'Shut up,' Cohn said.  He stood up.  'Shut up, Mike.'
'Oh, don't stand up and act as though you were going to hit me.  That won't make any difference to me.  Tell me, Robert.  Why do you follow Brett around like a poor bloody steer?  Don't you know you're not wanted?  I know when I'm not wanted.  Why don't you know when you're not wanted?  You came down to San Sebastian where you weren't wanted, and followed Brett around like a bloody steer.  Do you think that's right?'' (146)

So there is this love triangle story that is complicated by Romero, and Jake--though truly, the heart of the novel is the love story between Jake and Brett.  Could it be described as a love pentagon?  Bill is the only character that is not romantically linked with Brett.

Ernest Hemingway is a romantic figure, particularly in his associations with Paris.  Both The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast are essential literary documents, particularly for any American traveling to Paris (and perhaps Spain).  There is a certain feeling in the work that makes the reader feel powerful.  The words have an import.  Sometimes, this style masquerades itself and masks otherwise unimaginative dialogue.  Usually, Hemingway's style is best served by the way his characters describe their surroundings, rather than the dialogue that is recorded.  Occasionally, dialogue is elevated to high art, as in the famous closing lines of the book, arguably the greatest ending of all time:

"Down-stairs we came out through the first-floor dining-room to the street.  A waiter went for a taxi.  It was hot and bright.  Up the street was a little square with trees and grass where there were taxis parked.  A taxi came up the street, the waiter hanging out at the side.  I tipped him and told the driver where to drive and got in beside Brett.  The driver started up the street.  I settled back.  Brett moved close to me.  We sat close against each other.  I put my arm around her and she rested against me comfortably.  It was very hot and bright, and the houses looked sharply white.  We turned out onto the Gran Via.
'Oh, Jake,' Brett said, 'we could have had such a damned good time together.'
Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic.  He raised his baton.  The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.
'Yes,' I said. 'Isn't it pretty to think so?'" (250-251)

I mean really, that's what The Sun Also Rises is about, right?  The ending.  Perhaps it is not the greatest but it should be in the top 5 for 20th Century American fiction.  A Farewell to Arms would also make that list.  Hemingway is a great writer of endings.  There are a lot of "problematic" aspects of this novel that might otherwise keep it out of the pantheon of Great Books, but the ending makes up for everything.  Despite its flaws, the novel paints an indelible portrait of a time and place, such that the reader is transported there as if they had lived it themselves, and any novel that successfully achieves such a lofty goal as that demands to be read for generations.  From what I understand, Hemingway and Fitzgerald have not receded from their post as the greatest 20th century American writers, or their reputation as that.  In The Sun Also Rises, perhaps more than any of his other works, Hemingway lives up to his status as a literary icon.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements - Bob Mehr (2016)

My first exposure to Paul Westerberg came when I was about 9 when my older sister would play "Dyslexic Heart" (and to a lesser extent, "Waiting for Somebody") off the Singles soundtrack.  She introduced me to Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins and Vanilla Ice.  She did not introduce me to the Replacements but she gets tremendous cred for this. 

About 9 years later I met a girl at NYU my freshman year, which is when I met the most girls, which is when many of us would try to turn our crushes on to bands we liked in the hopes that they would say they liked them too and it would signal that we liked each other without being too awkward. One of the bands she told me to check out, in passing, was the Replacements, downloading "Can't Hardly Wait" from Audiogalaxy for me. Now I had seen the movie Can't Hardly Wait and actually liked it even though I thought I wouldn't, but the song didn't pop out at me.

A couple years later I read Our Band Could Be Your Life and became vaguely interested in the Replacements. Some other friends seemed to like them too, so we'd put on Let It Be or Pleased to Meet Me when we'd hang out. Another friend burnt me CDs of "All for Nothing/Nothing for All" (a greatest hits/rarities collection) and Stereo/Mono by Grandpaboy, the then-current Westerberg solo project. I thought they were all fine, I liked them, but still, they weren't my favorite band or anything.

A couple years later, I'd buy a CD copy of Tim and get Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash from a friend.

11 years later I read Trouble Boys and now terribly regret missing them play in Chicago a few years ago.

Sometimes I read a book and I finish it and I just go, " books." At least I did with this. It's the most epic book I've ever read about a band (Everett True's Nirvana is in similar territory, but this is a greater labor of love). It's nearly 500 pages.  I'd heard about it when it came out, and I knew Pitchfork had put it on a year end best list or something, but I figured I'd get around to it eventually.  In this case it was because of listening to an episode of The Best Show that had Bob Mehr and "Replacements Steve" on.  There it was lauded as one of the best books ever written about rock and I have to concur that it really is quite an experience to be taken in.   

It opens up with the scene of guitarist Bob Stinson's death in 1995, and circles back to that point almost 400 pages later.  Deep biographies of each band member emerge, generally starting with the origins of their grandparents.  After getting into trouble with the law and shuttling in and out of several homes for troubled youth, Bob Stinson starts learning how to play music as an outlet for his anger.  He truly had a horrific childhood, marred by a father that left and a stepfather that abused him psychologically, physically, sexually, verbally, and emotionally.  This stepfather was his brother Tommy's birth father.  Tommy is about seven years younger than Bob, and Bob essentially forces him to learn how to play bass so they can play in a band together.  Tommy is like 10 or 11 when they form their first band, and he is like 12 when Paul Westerberg and Chris Mars join them and the Replacements are formed.  

This book is much more about Paul Westerberg than Tommy Stinson.  It is arguably more about Bob Stinson than Tommy Stinson.  Several themes emerge, foremost amongst them the band's obsession with alcohol.  Almost every rock band is affected in some way or another by the excesses of alcoholism, but they take it to another level.  There are a lot of outrageous scenes in this book.  A story about a really legendary, insane show (where Bob Stinson misbehaves incredibly) is told in Our Band Could Be Your Life and not repeated here, signalling that Mehr has certainly digested those source materials and given the reader something they haven't read or heard about before.  That kind of attention to detail and audience is one of the reasons it belongs on the Best Books list.

This could be a really long review if I wanted it to be but I'll just say what this book meant to me.  It made me listen to Don't Tell a Soul and All Shook Down.  I am glad for the former, and sort of indifferent about the latter.  This is my ranking of Replacements albums:

Pleased to Meet Me 
Let it Be
Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash
Don't Tell a Soul
All Shook Down

I don't want to get into all my justifications for this, but it colors my experience because the only real stories about the band I knew came from Our Band Could Be Your Life, and stopped after Let it Be.  The recording of Pleased to Meet Me is one of the highlights of the book, and I think it cements the album's place in the band's oeuvre.  It's such a short album and it's so densely packed and represents every style the band would run through in its time: loud fast punk, ballads, attempted pop singles, and genre experiments.  

So it got into that, and it also referenced the heavier demo version of "Kiss Me on the Bus," which is now on the Tim expanded edition, and is significantly more awesome than the album version.  It tells of how they came to jam with Tom Waits in a studio sometime in about 1990, partying late into the night (unfortunately there is no tape).  It tells of celebrity encounters with Keith Richards and Tom Petty and their rivalries with Husker Du and R.E.M.  It tells of Peter Jesperson.

Peter Jesperson is the unofficial "fifth member" of the Replacements, though he never played.  He is co-founder of Twin/Tone Records which put out all their albums through Let it Be (basically the first half of their career).  He tours with the band and cheers for them in the crowd and parties with them and manages them.  He develops his own drinking problem, and the chapter detailing his breakdown that led to rehab is another highlight (or perhaps "lowlight" is more appropriate).  Recently the only critique I had for a book was mentioning the same thing twice, with the second time acting as though the first had never happened.  This is probably an editorial oversight (and a nitpicky thing to criticize).  Many may not mind such repetitions, as they tend to freshen one's impressions.  Yet they stand out to me as a thing that is easy to fix, and a clear example of addition by subtraction.  In this case, it only happens once, and it's about the last time Tommy Stinson and Paul Jesperson speak for very many years:

"When he showed up at the bar, it was just Paul and Tommy there.  
'One thing I remember was Tommy, he was smirking a little bit before Paul dropped the bomb,' said Jesperson.  'He was sitting there like, "I know something you don't know."  We were so tight, and had been such close friends.  I harbored a really deep resentment towards him after that.'" (214)

Then much later:

"Much as the pain of being booted out of the 'Mats' inner circle lingered, Jesperson had been hard-pressed to totally avoid the band.  By the time of Don't Tell a Soul, he'd built back up a tentative friendship with Paul Westerberg.  However, he remained estranged from his former 'little brother' Tommy Stinson.  He simply couldn't shake the image of Stinson's smirking face that day at the Uptown when they'd dumped him.  'I held a grudge against Tommy for a long time because of that,' said Jesperson.  (392)

This is a pretty soul-shattering event and this supposed editorial oversight may be forgiven where (as here) the language is not identical.  It's a significant betrayal and it bears reiterating 170 pages later.  If it had been a few pages later, it might be less forgivable. 

My favorite phrase to come out of the book is "putting himself on the line emotionally" to describe what Paul Westerberg was not willing to do:

"The next day, at the band's hotel, Rieger got into a heated discussion with Westerberg, telling him: 'This car-crash mentality is something you have to move away from.  You write these amazing songs.  Why are you sabotaging your own songs?'
Rieger's platonic ideal of a performer was Bruce Springsteen: someone who wrung emotion out of every lyric, put himself on the line with each show, and gave 100 percent night after night.  That's what he wanted out of the Replacements.
'I'm not giving you a hundred percent,' replied Westerberg.
It had become his refrain, practically a mantra, during Please to Meet Me.  When Westerberg said it to Jim Dickinson, it was a question of trust; as he acted it out with the record company, it was a matter of insecurity.  But as he spit out the words again to Rieger, it went far deeper.  'I can't mean it every night,' admitted Westerberg, meeting Rieger's eyes. 'I just can't fuckin' mean it every night.'
Westerberg viewed performing, as he did everything, in stark black-and-white terms.  He could live with drunken insouciance or bored incompetence, so long as it was real.  What he couldn't do was fake it.  And he wasn't willing to put himself on the line emotionally.  'For him there was no middle ground,' said Rieger.  'That's part of the reason people gravitated to him as an artist.  It was all or nothing.'" (277)

On the podcast episode that may or may never be released, I talked about how this book did not mention a specific outrageous concert mentioned in Our Band Could Be Your Life and I read the short excerpt of it from that volume we were discussing.  And I also talked about some of the things in here, like lighting their money on fire and throwing toilets out of tour buses.  So perhaps one mention of that before the end will be in order.

The podcast episode arguably centered around the Replacements as an excuse for me to talk about this as well.  And I mainly talked about how the book made me reassess Don't Tell a Soul and gain a deeper appreciation for (read: no longer completely ignore) it.  My guest said that he preferred All Shook Down and I told him I disagreed.  This was perhaps the highlight of the episode.  I do think he is wrong about this.

The book goes some pretty unseemly places and that is probably why it categorizes itself as unauthorized.  This precisely the problem my guest referenced about Azerrad's earlier "authorized" biography of Nirvana, Come as You Are (still a pretty good book from what I recall).  I believe we agreed that Everett True's Nirvana was the superior book.  We also talked about the ways in which Paul Westerberg was similar to Kurt Cobain.  Now I think that Kurt was a big Replacements fan as well (though they are hardly cited as an influence along any of the same lines as Melvins, Black Flag, Black Sabbath, Pixies, Wipers, etc.) and I do believe this book captures the one and only meeting between them.

Actually, there are 3 pages that reference Cobain and this first one had a better first-ever meeting story, with Prince:

"Although seemingly polar opposites, Prince's and the Replacements' sense of showmanship had a common root.  'We experienced the same weather and a lot of the same things growing up,' said Paul Westerberg. 'Minneapolis audiences are mighty reserved, and learning to command an audience in a place where people are notorious for being quiet will either make you a wallflower, quiet artist, or it will make you a really boisterous, aggressive, or flamboyant, which is what it did for both of us.  I really think a lot of his flamboyance came from the suppression of the place that we live.  It's a cold place to live in more ways than one.'
The 'Mats genuinely admired Prince.  On one occasion, Tommy Stinson was watching Prince perform from the wings at First Avenue while standing next to Ric Ocasek of the Cars, who were also at their pop chart zenith that year.  After the Purple One peeled off a breathtaking Hendrix-like solo, then danced his way across the stage and into a leg split, Tommy slapped Ocasek on the back hard, pointed at Prince, and said, with a measure of Minneapolis pride, 'Let's see ya top that, buddy!'
Prince was rumored to have lurked in the shadows at some of the Replacements' shows at First Avenue, but it was in the bathroom of a club in St. Paul where Westerberg finally ran into him.
'Oh, hey,' said Westerberg, seeing the dolled-up singer standing next to him at the urinal. 'What's up, man?'
Prince turned and responded in cryptic fashion: 'Life.'" (152-153)

Actually it is Bob Stinson who becomes fixated on Kurt Cobain, not Paul Westerberg, and it is true that they perhaps have more than a few things in common.  But there are definitely a ton of parallels with Westerberg.  The excerpt probably says everything that need be said:

"Pundits would suggest Nirvana had picked up the proverbial torch that the Replacements had fumbled away.  'Cobain sings and writes about romantic complexities and youthful apathy with much of the intensity and insight of...Paul Westerberg,' wrote Robert Hillburn of the Los Angeles Times.  'Cobain, indeed, could be the Paul Westerberg of the 90's.'  But Westerberg thought they had little in common: 'I guess I wore a plaid shirt, and yes, I played real loud,' he said, 'but Nirvana sounds to me like Boston with a hair up its ass.'
Cobain and Westerberg would cross paths just once, in late 1992, in San Francisco.  Westerberg was in town recording, Cobain was there producing an album for the Melvins, and they were both staying at the Triton Hotel.  One evening they rode up an elevator together in awkward silence, exited on the same floor, walked to neighboring rooms, then shut their doors without acknowledging one another.
Days later, Westerberg would dash out a song called 'World Class Fad' ('You wax poetic about things pathetic, as long as you look so cute/Don't be sad, you're a world class fad') that many, including Cobain, interpreted as a diss.  'I never respected Kurt Cobain enough to write something about him,' said Westerberg.  'Maybe he felt he was a world class fad.'" (404)

That seems like a harsh choice of words, but okay!  In any case, this is a great book if you want to justify all sorts of bad behavior to yourself, if, for example, your ex is in the process of replacing you, and you think about the nature of your replacement, and the Replacements, and what it really means to be faithful.  Infidelity is casually strewn about without major drama, though there would also be divorce. There was one passage I wanted to excerpt.  But actually I couldn't find it, and it's probably for the best because its not a very appealing thing to highlight unless you get excited by the idea of two guys deciding to make out so they can follow through with a partner-swap more readily.  There are certainly better things to highlight.  From the very beginning, Flying Houses has endeavored to only excerpt the most beautiful writing from each book it documents, and perhaps we have lost sight of that lodestar over time.

Suffice to say, incredibly bad behavior has its place in the lives of the pantheons of culture.  Few bands today could do what the Replacements did in the 80's (and 90's) and get away with it. Notably I remember it being mentioned that Robert Christgau gave Stink an A+.  Here is just one quick example of how they lived:

"The band's first vehicle--the Chevy van financed by Tom Carlson--quickly wore out.  They replaced it with a beat-up Ford Econoline that they dubbed Otis, after the drunk on The Andy Griffith Show.  It didn't take long for the 'Mats to turn it into a second home, ripping out its seats and staining the interior with beer, trash, and urine.  (The band was constantly pissing out of the step down to the side door, which came to be called 'the trough.') Its walls were soon marked with all manner of lewd graffiti and inside jokes.  Westerberg insisted that an image if the van's guts adorn the back cover of Let It Be:  'To give people a sense of what life with us was like,' he said. (144)

There's little more I could add to the topic, so we'll leave it there.  Give yourself a good couple weeks to finish this, though it also reads very quickly.  It's hard to find the time to read a lot these days.  Easier to listen.  Give the Replacements a listen and if you're not interested at all, maybe you won't care at all about the book.  Or don't listen to them at all and just trust me when I say this is a great book and give it a chance and then give the Replacements a listen and totally alter your interpretation of them.  This book may be long, and at time obsessive, but I think everyone who encounters it will acknowledge that it is a great achievement and that they will never think about the band the same way after reading it.  In a good way.  

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Happy 10th Birthday

This is a few days late, but on Easter Sunday we celebrated the 10 year anniversary of the first post on Flying Houses.  It's become my life's work (at times begrudgingly) and yet I always question the value of what I am doing at all.  It's gotten tedious to review books. 

I wanted to release the first 7 episodes of the Flying Houses podcast today.  But I have only just recorded 1 (two if you count the intro), about Our Band Could Be Your Life.  Who knows if it will come off at all.  Things are taking much longer than I thought they would.  

Flying Houses has not experienced any kind of boost in popularity this year, nor do I think it will ever.  I do think it might with a revamping, however, and at least a couple have suggested that I build a more unique website with squarespace or something.  Perhaps, but towards what end?  Promoting myself as a book critic without a publisher?  I digress.

Top 5 most popular posts of 2017:

(1) Top 10 Albums of 2017 (181)
(2) Chicago Marathon 2017 (147)
(3) The Rise, The Fall and the Rise (144)
(4) Slaughterhouse-Five (139)
(5) The Sellout (111)

We need not pat ourselves on the back to cite those posts we think most worth reading.  However, if pressed, I would cite Letters to Felice as the best post of the year.  Other highlights include the Vonnegut Project, the 2nd Salinger book to be reviewed, and the above popular posts. 

I don't think I need to say much more than that.  I always report my earnings to date though to show just how little I have advanced in 10 years ($35.72--It was $30.90 in 2 years ago).  I get more interest from my checking/savings accounts, and those are like 0.0005% and 0.00025%.

In short this is a total vanity project that amounts to a net loss of income in the form of hours of human capacity consumed.  It has been rewarding at times, and yet at other times I have felt like a voice that does not need to exist.  We are all superfluous and trying to find what we are meant to do, or good at, and I am not sure it is either.  Regardless, I am very proud of the work that I've done here, even if it imparts of a whiff of insanity due to lack of commercial success or other media-related consequences.  2018 should be the most interesting year yet for Flying Houses, and we hope it will not be the last. 

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.