Saturday, October 18, 2008

Black Postcards - Dean Wareham

Anecdote #1: Sometime in mid-November 2007, I went into a hair salon in West Hollywood. One of my co-workers told me to see his stylist for a hair cut, since I had been talking about how I needed to get one. He told me that he would pay for the hair cut and I could just pay for the tip. It was very generous of him. I had to wait a few minutes and leafed through a copy of Men's Vogue and saw that there was a piece in the magazine by Dean Wareham. I read an essay by him about how he was cheating on his wife with his new female bandmate. I only knew Wareham by Galaxie 500 but in reading this article I found out he was also in the band called Luna. I was impressed with the emotion of the piece. It was very heartfelt, almost too poetic for a mass-market magazine in a hair salon. It also felt very personal to be reading an article in a magazine like that by a guy that I would presume many, many people would not recognize by name. I had loved the albums I had gotten by Galaxie 500 and it seemed very special to be reading this article in quite a glamorous magazine by a guy that I presumed to be a low-key indie rocker.

I didn't realize then that the article was an excerpt from Wareham's forthcoming memoir, Black Postcards, (specifically, the chapter entitled "The Dorm Room Jukebox," which is about a party in a UMASS dorm room after a Luna show there in 2001, and how it was Wareham's first exposure to the Napster culture of music file-sharing) and when I read a few notable mentions of the book in the months afterwards, notably, Mac McCaughan's (which you can find on the link to the Portastatic blog), I decided to put it on my list of things to read. I don't have anything negative to say about it except that it inflamed my jealousy of the man. True, the picture Wareham paints is far from the ideal image of the rich, excessive rock star, but still, he had way more fun than I, or probably anyone else I've known, ever had. Plus, when he offers up this compliment to the normal, everyday working, professionally made person:

"His [Sean Eden, Luna guitarist] sister was married to a lawyer. Or a doctor. One of those. They had two children. Other people, people who are not in rock bands, have real lives--lives of quiet accumulation, 401K accounts, Roth IRAs, college funds, retirement funds, and health insurance." (310)

I do not feel the least bit worthy of any kind of respect. Reading this book made me depressed in the sense that it made me realize how few of my dreams have been realized, and indeed how they may never be realized. So I was very jealous of Wareham for the majority of the reading. But I could not stop. The easiest way to explain it is, it reads like a very long chapter out of Our Band Could Be Your Life, except the chapter isn't about Galaxie 500, and it's not going to stop when Luna signs to a major label deal. Let me point something out: I've never listened to Luna. If it is a crime to review this book without any knowledge of the band's sound or catalog, then I would like to offer up my guilty plea. I will say that it made me want to go out and buy a few Luna records (Penthouse and Rendezvous and Pup Tent are made to sound quite interesting), and maybe that is one of the hidden motives of the book--to sell more old records. But Wareham wouldn't be that shallow. Or, maybe he would. The fact is, he is an excellent writer of prose, and this memoir stands on its own perhaps better than any other piece of musician autobiography I've ever read. That said I haven't read many. I've been dying for months to read Mark E. Smith's autobiography, Renegade, but that is probably something I will have to ask for from Santa Claus.

But getting back to my point, I have never listened to Luna, and so perhaps the majority of the book was not as enjoyable to me as it could have been. I'm probably stepping out on a huge ledge here by making this statement: Wareham will be remembered more for Galaxie 500 than for Luna. Galaxie 500 is the stuff of legend, and Luna is the stuff of being in an everyday ordinary rock band. There are 3 Galaxie 500 albums and 7 Luna albums. Wareham makes the point that Luna was a better live band. That may be so, and I haven't really listened to them (this is why I'm stepping out on a huge ledge), but the Galaxie 500 albums, of which I have all 3, are pretty much as close to perfect as you can get, and I just can't imagine the Luna albums being held to the same high standard of consistency. Today is an astonishingly good debut, trim and focused like a laser beam. On Fire is their classic, long, bloated masterpiece that favors an excess of fantastic sad songs over an efficacious running time. And This is Our Music sounds like a perfect mix of the first two--their career catalog and trajectory is almost like the description Vladimir Nabokov gives of his own work: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

Though Wareham does not namedrop Nabokov, he is extremely well read and drops Thomas Mann, Goethe, Murakami, Kundera, Andre Breton, Gogol, Malraux, E.M. Forster, and Kant, whom he admits he didn't understand:

"I took a course on Kant's Transcendental Deduction when I was a sophomore at Harvard. We spent the whole semester going over twenty crucial pages, and now I couldn't for the life of me tell you what it was about. What a waste of my parent's money." (204)

I do believe one of the finest points he makes on art comes in his description of the Luna song, "Hedgehog"--chosen as the second single off of Penthouse:

"'It's always the song you like the least,' she said, 'that will be picked as the single.'
The smart guys in the alternative radio department chose 'Hedgehog,' track nine. It's not that we didn't like the song. We just thought it was the worst of the ten on our album. We had buried it at track nine, where you put the weakest song (the final track on an album should be a good one). They identified 'Hedgehog' as the most alternative sounding song on the record, being that it was short and slightly aggressive. Maybe the program director would think that Luna was grunge.
It's no fun, it's no fun
Reading fortune cookies to yourself
Are you a fox or a hedgehog?
Do you care anymore?
Wasting time, wasting time, wasting time all the while
I don't know what they're sayin', but I hate it anyway
I borrowed that fox/hedgehog opposition from Isaiah Berlin's famous essay, feeling pretty sure he wouldn't come after me.
'The fox knows many things,' wrote Berlin, 'but the hedgehog knows one big thing.' Some artists are foxes: Aristotle, Pushkin, Goethe, Picasso, Paul McCartney, Beck--they can do all kinds of dazzling things. But others are hedgehogs--Hegel, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Jackson Pollock, and Keith Richards. They stick with one idea." (139-140)

But Wareham is definitely not an art snob. He also talks about going out to see Darkman and Resident Evil: Apocalypse at foreign movie theaters, and watching Shallow Hal and I, Robot on hotel room televisions, and also going to see Erin Brockovich. He also talks very candidly about his drug use. He doesn't talk so much about pot as we can pretty much safely presume that basically everyone who is a musician or affiliated with musicians smokes pot as a foundational element to chemicals. He never talks about being a pothead himself though, and I kind of doubt he could be, with all of the foreign touring and border crossing and random searching. He does however liberally mention use of coke and a surprising amount of ecstasy, which other people are always giving the band. There are not really any personal stories about addiction of his own that make this book lurid--obviously the most lurid parts are his depictions of his faithlessness to his wife Claudia. Most of the time I am hung up by the fact that Dean Wareham makes himself seem so cool by writing very matter-of-factly about his life, and all the things that happened in it. Were I to write a memoir (IF I am to write a memoir???), it would be filled with infinitely more pathetic stories. So I have to excerpt a part from my favorite chapter "The Herbertstrasse," because it was the only time when Wareham doesn't seem to care at all about making himself seem cool:

"I said goodbye to Lee, Justin, and Sean, and followed my new friend upstairs. She took me to her little rented room and told me to take off all my clothes and sit on the bed while she put on some music--the Spice Girls' 'Spice Up Your Life.' She left me alone for a minute. I sat there feeling naked and vulnerable. My friend returned wearing only panties and a bra and said that for another DM 50 she would take her clothes off, too, and wouldn't that be nicer? She was being very gentle with me.
She knelt on the bed next to me and applied the condom. What happened next happened too quickly. I was very excited, and the motion of her hands applying the condom was enough to make me come immediately. Scheisse. Premature.
'Schade,' she said, which translates, 'It's a shame.'
That was that. I got dressed quickly.
The whole experience was disappointing. Sex isn't much fun when you have to pay for it. There was no sweet kiss, no lingering over the moment. I'm not sure if that encounter qualified as sex at all. I felt like I had just paid too much for a falafel sandwich, a disappointing meal at a tourist trap." (186-187)

To me, this is what great writing is all about. Admitting things that you won't admit anywhere else except on the page. Putting it out there for everyone to read and not being scared by what anybody would think about you afterwards. I feel bad quoting what must be the most lurid portion of the book, but it is an example of why Black Postcards is great: Wareham has the right attitude about memoir-writing.

I said before there is not a personal story about addiction, but there is a mini-biography provided in the way of Wareham's friend and A & R representative for Elektra records, Terry Tolkin. The early chapters on his friendship with Tolkin are some of the most moving chapters of the entire book. Tolkin had run away from home in Rockland county when he was sixteen to New York where he sold acid and worked as a prostitute and eventually got into punk rock through an older boyfriend that he lived with in 1978 who lived around the corner from CBGB. Around this same time, Wareham himself was living in New York, going to the private Dalton High School, and being a "part-time punk," seeing Richard Hell and the Voidoids as his first show. But Tolkin eventually worked at the record store 99 Records, which then formed a label, which then signed a bunch of prominent no-wave bands, and finally Tolkin started booking Big Black and the Butthole Surfers. By the time he is working with and befriending Dean in Luna and going on tours with them, he's making a six-figure salary working out of Rockefeller Plaza and doing copious amounts of drugs. I might as well spoil what happened to him as I've spoiled so many other parts of the book, but I would just say, Terry Tolkin is one of the most evocatively drawn characters to come out from this work.

There's probably a lot else to mention about Black Postcards, like all of the musical celebrities Wareham meets, but at the end of the day, the best audience for this book are those that have dreams of being in their own indie rock band. I have pretty much given up on my own dreams in that field because I have zero guitar playing ability and I never worked very hard to practice at it. No, the inarguably more difficult (and crowded) field of literature is my dream, and typing is never something I will find overly difficult. Fortunately for Wareham, he can do both. Fans of Galaxie 500 and Luna and....Dean and Britta....will love this book and anybody with a passing interest in indie rock will find practically every question they could ever have answered.

Anecdote #2:
Shortly before I left Chicago for L.A., I saw that Dean and Britta were playing Schuba's, a bar and rock club in Chicago a short distance from my apartment. I convinced my roommate to go with me even though I had not shoved the Galaxie 500 albums I had down his throat like the other bands I made him go with me to see. This was probably going to be a pretty high cover for the show, and we went to Schuba's, just to see what the scene was like, to see if we were there before they went on. I said if we were there and they had already been on for thirty minutes, we wouldn't go in. Schuba's has a set-up where you can hang out at the bar, and then they have a pair of doors where a bouncer sits and stamps your hand for admission. Well, we were standing near the door, and the bouncer stepped away for a moment, and my roommate mischeviously just pushed the door open, and we were in for free! No one noticed and the set was great. I enjoyed hearing all the new songs by Dean and Britta, and they closed out their set with the great Galaxie 500 song "Tugboat" and I heard a bunch of people in the audience going "Shhhh. Tugboat," like they had to call attention to the song. It's definitely a special memory in my eight-year-history of concert going.

1 comment:

John McGrath said...

I hope you've listened to Luna by now. If not you should stop whatever you're doing right now and put on 'Penthouse.'