Maybe it takes two Canadians to place Donald Trump in perspective. Phil Dellio and Scott Woods worked on this book for more than a year, never expecting that by the time it was published, Trump would have actually won the election. The book works just as well with that surprise element, though, because they are trying to figure out Trump, not just as a person/politician, but as someone who is part of our cultural landscape.
Thus, the “chapters” examine cultural landmarks that connect to Trump, in order to understand all of us. They go from Sarah Palin to Elvis Presley, which all by itself makes a nice instant description of the parameters of President Donald Trump. There is a section with, in turn, Pat Buchanan, George Wallace, Barry Goldwater, and Joe McCarthy. The middle of the book is devoted to “early sightings in the movies, on TV, and between the covers”, which goes from Nashville (the movie) to Howard Beale, from Citizen Kane to the Manchurian Candidate, from Gordon Gekko to The Joker. These selections make sense the second you see the connections.
None of this would matter if the writing wasn’t up to the concept. So it is important how good that writing is. There is no attempt to identify who wrote what, but there is a smoothness to the style that keeps any seams from showing. Combine the pleasure of reading this writing with the seductive nature of the book’s structure (short chapters), and Unshackled becomes very hard to put down. You can’t resist the pull of “just one more chapter”.
In some ways, this book is very much of the moment. You might even think it’s a bit too late to be reading about the emergence of Trump as President. But it’s still soon enough to the election that everything seems fresh. And it works as an excellent snapshot of how this all seems to us as we prepare for Trump’s inauguration. For this reason, I think this book will make for interesting reading ten years from now, as a reminder of where we were in 2017. I not only recommend Unshackled, I suggest you read it ASAP.
(I suppose a disclosure is in order. I know both Phil and Scott, and am very kindly included in the acknowledgements. It made my day to see my name in the same sentence as Rob Sheffield’s).
I’ve read several of Shawn Levy’s books, and I like every one I’ve gotten to, especially his first, King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis. He has written about the Rat Pack ... he did one book on the Swinging Sixties in London. He doesn’t always choose topics I am passionate about, but he makes me interested, so I’ll start one of his books no matter the subject, knowing it will be worth it. Thus, I happily pre-ordered his latest, on Rome in the 1950s.
I expected to find good stories about the big film names of the period, placed in a larger cultural context, and that is exactly what Levy delivers. Once again, he burrows into areas I hadn’t cared much about ... I should have been warned when Pucci’s name appeared in the subtitle. But you can trust Levy to make that larger context something you want to learn about, and so I read more than I ever thought I would about post-war fashion, in Italy and in Europe as a whole. And it was indeed educational, since I knew so little about the fashion world. The book convinces us that the big fashion names were integral to the creation of Italian culture after World War II.
As for the dolce vita, it’s all here. Fellini and Loren make the subtitle, but Anita Ekberg deserves special mention. She comes across as much more interesting than her public image ... in fact, we learn that she was more than her image, which seems like a small point until you realize that image is pretty much all we ever knew, or cared about.
Levy devotes a lot of time to Fellini, and rightly so ... La Dolce Vita is his movie, after all. I don’t think I needed convincing about the importance of Fellini to Italian film and culture. I’m not his biggest fan, and I would have enjoyed a more detailed description of the making of Antonioni’s L’Avventura, my favorite Italian film of all time. But the truth is, Antonioni’s film speaks to a general malaise ... it isn’t specific to its time, which is why the story of upper-middle class people speaks to us, no matter our own class position. Fellini, though, in films like La Dolce Vita, managed to make movies that were intensely personal yet also very much of their moment. If you want to see a great film, L’Avventura is the choice. But if you want to see Rome in the 50s, filtered through the lens of Fellini the showman, La Dolce Vita is where you’d look. Which is why it’s a great place for Levy to spend time.
(I suppose this is where I admit to a fondness for “Toby Dammit”, Fellini’s contribution to the Poe anthology Spirits of the Dead. I’m not sure it’s representative of its time, but the title character feels like he would belong in the dolce vita, Fellini is at his most Fellini-esque, and it is over in 37 minutes.)
Levy’s writing is easy to read. You think you’re just taking in a history of the scandals. But when you finish the book, you realize you’ve actually gotten a clear vision of a specific time and place. By blending movies and fashion and celebrity and paparazzi, Levy makes all of the aspects of that life more interesting. Dolce Vita Confidential is another success for Shawn Levy.
My wife doesn’t have a birthday. She has a Birthday Month. So I have to be on my toes all through October, not just on the 4th (which is what the rest of us would call her birthday).
Last night we settled in to watch TV. She wanted to start with Designated Survivor, the new, so-so- Kiefer Sutherland show. I was feeling a bit sad ... silly, really, but I wished we liked more of the same TV shows and movies. Designated Survivor may turn out to be a show we watch together, but it kind of gives “common ground” a bad name.
After that, we watched the season opener of Ash vs Evil Dead. This is more like it, I thought, I like this show a lot, which reveals my real definition of “shows we watch together”: something I like that she tolerates. Except she doesn’t tolerate Ash vs Evil Dead, she likes it, too. And she occasionally laughs, which if you know Robin, you know laughing at TV isn’t a regular occurrence. But it’s one of the reasons I love her so ... she’ll sit quietly as a comedy plays, then laugh at arguably the goriest show in TV history (gore isn’t inherently funny, but ridiculous, over-the-top gore is).
And if Season One was the Goriest Show of All Time, Season Two had an early scene that easily topped anything we’d seen before. And we laughed. I can’t find the scene on YouTube, which is probably just as well. The best I can do is this Season Two trailer, which was apparently too gory for Comic Con:
Later in the evening, we spent a few minutes chuckling over a couple of S. Clay Wilson drawings.
Now I ask you: what kind of moron would think he and his wife had few shared tastes, when she laughed at Evil Dead and S. Clay Wilson?
Early in his autobiography, Bruce Springsteen writes:
In the beginning there was a great darkness upon the Earth. There was Christmas and your birthday but beyond that all was a black endless authoritarian void. There was nothing to look forward to, nothing to look back upon, no future, no history. It was all a kid could do to make it to summer vacation.
Then, in a moment of light, blinding as a universe birthing a billion new suns, there was hope, sex, rhythm, excitement, possibility, a new way of seeing, of feeling, of thinking, of looking at your body, of combing your hair, of wearing your clothes, of moving and of living. There was a joyous demand made, a challenge, a way out of this dead-to-life world, this small-town grave with all the people I dearly loved and feared buried in it alongside of me.
He is describing the first time he saw Elvis Presley on TV. He was two weeks shy of his 7th birthday.
Born to Run allows us to see what drove Bruce from a very early age. We’ve heard the stories in bits and pieces over the years, but seeing them in one place, chronological, has a special impact. It turns out many of those stories he used to tell on stage about growing up were true. Bruce Springsteen was a misfit who found his calling in rock and roll music. And for many reasons, all of them discussed in this book, Bruce was the guy who did indeed make it. Writing about a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame jam:
In 1964, millions of kids saw the Stones and the Beatles and decided, “That looks like fun.” Some of them went out and bought instruments. Some of them learned to play a little. Some got good enough to maybe join a local band. Some might have even made a demo tape. Some might have lucked out and gotten a record deal of some sort. A few of those might have sold some records and done some touring. A few of those might have had a small hit, a short career in music, and managed to eke out a modest living. A very few of those might have managed to make a life as a musician, and a very, very few might have had some continuing success that brought them fame, fortune and deep gratification, and tonight, one of those ended up standing behind Mick Jagger and George Harrison, a Stone and a Beatle.... I knew my talents and I knew I worked hard, but THESE, THESE WERE THE GODS, and I was, well ... one hardworking guitar man. I carried the journeyman in me for better or worse, a commonness, and I always would.
There is an undertone throughout the book that tells us Bruce knows for many of us in his audience, he is that god. And he never downplays the role his big ego played in his career. But it feels legitimate when he deflects such thoughts, standing up not for the gods, but for the journeymen.
Most of the pre-publication things I read focused on his fight against depression and anxiety. This does indeed take up a sizable portion of Born to Run, especially in the last third, when he finally stops and takes stock of where his life has gone. This is vital, crucial material ... knowing that our hero fights against the same problems we all do matters more than perhaps it should ... and Bruce pulls no punches in talking about his battles. He had promised us a real, warts-and-all picture of his life, and he delivers. In those sections, I was reminded of Carrie Brownstein’s memoir, which described how debilitating life on the road became for her. You wonder how he was able to continue making music during those times.
And the music ... the book has three parts. The first takes us through his childhood, up until his first two albums have been released in 1973. The second section goes through the most vital artistic period of his career, from Born to Run to Tunnel of Love. The third and final section seems appetizing, kind of like watching the E Street Band play music from the “Other Band” years. But the final section is also the shortest. While we get several chapters about the making of Born to Run, while all of the subsequent albums through Tunnel of Love get detailed treatment, suddenly the book shifts. Part of this is the shift in his life ... once he pairs up with Patti, things are better, and as their three kids are born, life seems worth living in ways that perhaps hadn’t been true before that.
The third section, and the first chapter of that section, is called “Living Proof”, and begins with the birth of his first child. The next chapter is devoted to Patti, then to the firing of the E Street Band, LA riots, a marriage and a honeymoon, another child, and then, finally, comes “The Other Band”, which gets one short section in the “Going to the Chapel” chapter. He briefly names each of the band members, says of the subsequent tour “It was a lot of good shows, good company and good times.” That’s pretty much it. After the in-depth look at each of his albums, Human Touch and Lucky Town are barely mentioned. This is a period where, musically, we know too little, and I was looking forward to this part of the book, so I was disappointed to see it dismissed.
In fairness, much of that final section is about his depression. While he writes a bit more about albums like The Rising, none of his work of the last nearly thirty years gets too bogged down in details. The first two sections are so engrossing, the third becomes a bit of a letdown, at least in the discussion of music. And this might speak to his musical career ... while he has made some fine albums since Tunnel of Love, with a few classic songs, what makes him still excitingly relevant is the passion that remains in his live performances. He has inched closer to being a nostalgia act, except when you play with the fervor of Bruce and the E Street Band, you are caught up in something far greater than mere nostalgia.
He also has an interesting way of always finding the best in people. We learn that Danny Federici was a handful, but in the end, he played the organ with heart and that’s what mattered. His first manager famously screwed him over, but Bruce also insists that he believed in Bruce when no one else did. Even his father, with whom Bruce has the most complicated relationship, becomes a more sympathetic figure in the end. And when there are problems, Bruce often puts the blame on himself. His first marriage goes by in a flash, but he has nothing but good things to say about his wife, and puts all of the negativity on himself. As for Patti ... well, it reminded me a lot of my relationship with my own wife. He fucks up, she sets him on the right track, she doesn’t take shit but she is always there for him, and even when she is hard-headed it is in his best interest. If the first two thirds of the book are about reaching to the gods of rock and roll, much of the final third is about his wife the red-headed goddess and their three offspring. It isn’t dull, especially with the freak outs and therapy sessions and psych meds, but it’s as if the music takes a back seat.
And you know what? He deserves it. He gave so much of himself to rock and roll, in the process enriching the lives of so many of us. He’s earned a break.
Except he can’t help himself, so he keeps giving. As he says in “Darkness on the Edge of Town”,
Tonight I'll be on that hill `cause I can't stop I'll be on that hill with everything I got With our lives on the line where dreams are found and lost I'll be there on time and I'll pay the cost For wanting things that can only be found In the darkness on the edge of town
He finally sees past the darkness, but he still has it in his bones.
Near the end, he tells about an operation he had not that long ago, a story that sums up the above. Over the years of giving the proverbial 110% on stage, he’d developed cervical disc problems. The surgery sounds scary, especially for a singer:
They knock you out; cut an incision into your throat; tie your vocal cords off to one side; get in there with a wrench, screwdriver and some titanium; they take a chunk of bone out of your hip and go about building you a few new disks. It worked!
And his voice was fine, a few months later. But this is where it gets good. He heads back on tour “with just one instruction: no crowd surfing! But there is no fool like an old fool, so the first night I dove right on in. Everything was fine.”
I just finished reading Music in the Air: The Selected Writings of Ralph J. Gleason. Gleason was a big part of my life, starting sometime in the 60s and going until his premature death in 1975. His television series, Jazz Casual, which ran throughout the 60s, was produced at the San Francisco NET (now PBS) outlet, and while I wasn’t a big jazz fan, the show, and its host, was hard to miss, especially in the Bay Area. Along with the countless things Gleason wrote for various magazines, he had a regular column in the San Francisco Chronicle, from before I was born until he died. We subscribed to The Chronicle for most of my life, and especially once Gleason started covering the local rock scene, I never missed a column. I remember getting as a birthday present a book by Gleason, The Jefferson Airplane and the San Francisco Sound, which was a mishmash of recycled columns and interviews with each member of the Airplane. Gleason was already in his 50s when that book came out, and it was always clear that he wasn’t the same age as the musicians in that world, but his presence was strong in the Bay Area rock scene, and his writing was never condescending ... he didn’t write from above like the jazz expert he was. With Jann Wenner, he co-founded Rolling Stone, which at first seemed like a local paper. Again, Gleason’s regular columns in RS were mandatory reading at my house.
For all of these reasons, I looked forward to this anthology of Gleason’s writings, edited by his son, Toby. And it doesn’t disappoint. The range of Gleason’s work is evident by looking at the four sections into which the book is divided: “Jazz and Blues”, “Folk, Rock, and Pop”, “Comedy”, and “Politics and Culture”. That last section is almost superfluous, given how often politics and culture are part of most things Gleason wrote. The jazz section is most informative to me, especially his pieces on Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. And I was happily surprised to find many passages still exist in my memory, like the time Duke Ellington gave Nixon four kisses, “One for each cheek”. Or the moment in his essay on Hank Williams where Gleason refers to San Pablo Avenue as “possibly the longest main street in the world”. I’ve always remembered that line, without always remembering where it came from, so it was fun to see it was yet another way Gleason was part of my life. (Since 1987, I’ve lived less than half-a-mile from San Pablo Ave.)
Gleason was so much a part of my life in those years that I was surprised when a friend, Peter Richardson, in a review of this book, wrote he “didn’t know anything about the Ralph J. Gleason cult until I began researching my 2009 book on Ramparts magazine.” Pete, like myself, is a Bay Area guy (as he says on his blog, he was “Bred and buttered in the East Bay”), and I’m only a bit older than he is, plus he knows the local culture as well as anyone. (Suffice to say that at this point, he knows more than I do about all this stuff.) I suppose some of this is age-related ... I don’t expect my kids to know all about Ralph Gleason, or even to know who he was. (When I was directing American Studies senior theses at Cal, a student came to my office one day ... I think she said I’d been recommended as someone who might be able to help ... I no longer recall the exact family relationship, but she was, if memory serves, one of Ralph Gleason’s grandchildren, and she decided to write about him because she realized she knew very little about this man who was both famous and a family member.)
Music in the Air includes many examples of Gleason’s liner notes for albums. (The list of such notes is endless ... a highlight in the book is the notes for Bitches Brew by Miles Davis, Davis having a long-time relationship with Gleason. To this day, I remember Davis’ contribution to a large obituary section in Rolling Stone on Gleason’s death, a section featuring numerous heartfelt comments. Davis was brief and to the point, and for that reason, unforgettable: “Give me back my friend.”)
Here is the Jazz Casual featuring John Coltrane:
Postscript: After finishing Music in the Air, I happened on an interview with author Jack Hamilton, who has a new book, Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imaginary. Book looks quite interesting, but what caught my eye in the interview was this:
Pitchfork: Ralph J. Gleason, who co-founded Rolling Stone, comes up a lot in the book. The quotes you utilize are blindsiding—endless “other”-ing, almost no self-examination. My favorite is when he writes about the “magic rhythmic power” of Santana’s rhythm section, presuming they could only be accessible to people with a direct line to Latin America’s “savannahs and inland plains.” Your respond: “The 'magic rhythmic power' that Gleason extolled was provided by Michael Shrieve and bass player Douglas Rauch, both of the savannahs and inland plains of San Francisco.”
Hamilton: [laughs] Yeah. I realized at the time I was coming down fairly hard on Gleason. I definitely don’t feel like I unfairly demonized him or anything. He was an elder figure who had come to rock as a longstanding jazz critic, and who in those early years was a really influential voice because he had that prestige. He was really seen as a critical authority on music. That Santana material is from Rolling Stone; he also wrote a lot [about rock] in the [San Francisco]Chronicle.
Another essay that he published in The American Scholar in 1967 was called “Like a Rolling Stone.” It’s this interesting, bizarre intellectual and artistic manifesto on rock music—in 1967, when this is a fairly early concept, the idea that rock is art. The amount that race figures into it, these quotes where he’s trumpeting white creativity over what he sees as black music selling out. One thing that came up a lot while I was writing the book was that notion of selling out, whether or not a black musician is making music that’s “black” enough. No one’s ever said that Dylan or the Beatles aren’t white enough.
The “Like a Rolling Stone” essay can be found in Music in the Air.
Jovana Babovic is an historian with a clear love for Sleater-Kinney. She goes far afield from a track-by-track approach ... in fact, she never comes close. Instead, she places riot grrrl within the history of rock and roll music, shows how the women who created the music in that genre were battling against long-held prejudices against women in rock, and then explains how Sleater-Kinney grew out of that milieu, tying them specifically to the Pacific Northwest. She shows how the band drew power from that community, but also how they couldn’t be confined to those roots.
She talks about the making of Dig Me Out, which took eight days during a miserable snow storm, pointing out that they were able to create the album under those conditions because they were prepared (this reminded me of Rombes noting that The Ramones were able to make their first album so cheaply because they rehearsed before they ever hit the studio). Once S-K hit the road, touring behind the album, they confronted the condescending sexism of the sound guys, who never understood that these women knew what they were doing. And a key moment in the book comes when S-K are opening for the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and a fan of the headliners is giving Corin some shit. “We just want to say that we’re not here to fuck the band; we are the band.”
One question I have had through the close to 20 years I’ve been a fan of Sleater-Kinney is why they have so many middle-aged guys among their admirers. I once wrote, “Sleater-Kinney are a 21st-century version of classic rock. Their most obvious roots are in punk via riot grrrl, but the less obvious roots are reflected in the bands they cover in concert: Creedence, Bruce Springsteen, Jefferson Airplane, Richard Thompson, even Danzig. The Woods sounded like Blue Cheer meets Led Zep; drummer Janet Weiss plays like a cross of Keith Moon and John Bonham.” Their music reflects the tastes of a lot of middle-aged men. What Babovic reminds us, again and again, is that the music is made by women, and that while these women want to reach out to the largest audience possible, they will never do this at the expense of their demand that what women do in rock music is not just relevant, but crucial. (Babovic quotes Weiss about those middle-aged men: "We always joked that Corin had these intellectual 50-year-old men who wore glasses and looked like college professors. ... She really had a type -- these guys always stood on her side and they were Corin's special, intellectual fans.")
I don’t know which of their eight albums is my favorite ... probably Dig Me Out or The Woods. But I remember in the earlier days, when a question often arose, are you a Call the Doctor person or a Dig Me Out person? It was never close, in my book ... most obviously, Dig Me Out is when Janet Weiss joined the band, and “my” Sleater-Kinney always includes Janet. I can say that I very much enjoyed revisiting the album through the lens of Jovana Babovic.
Here are my favorite tracks from Dig Me Out:
“Dig Me Out”. The video, from 2015, has everything that is great about a Sleater-Kinney concert. Corin’s unstoppable vocals, Carrie dripping charisma and playing her idiosyncratic guitar lines, Janet Fucking Weiss of the Great Drummer Hair showing why she is the best.
“One More Hour”. Perhaps the most heartbreaking song in their catalog, and in the running for best breakup song ever. Oh, you’ve got the darkest eyes.
“Turn It On”. The video is from CBGB’s in 1997, a show written about in the book.”On top of that, there were rats everywhere.... ‘It was just gross and just-don’t-touch-anything,’ Tucker said. ‘But it was also a very rock ‘n’ roll club.’”
“Words and Guitar”. As much a statement of purpose as “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” from the previous album. The email list for S-K fans I was on was named after this song. “Take take the noise in my head, C'mon and turn turn it up, I wanna turn turn you on, I play it all i play it all, I play it words + guitar!”
“Little Babies”. I’ve never been quite sure what this song is about, but it is their greatest sing-along. “Dum dum dee dee dee dum dum dee dum do, All the little babies go oh oh i want to.” I could add that Janet is great on this one, but I could say that for every song they recorded once she joined the band.
“Not What You Want”. Like the Stones’ “Rip This Joint”, this is S-K blasting through a song at breakneck speed ... as Corin sings, “80, 95, maybe more!” As such, my favorite S-K blitz song, at least until a couple of years later, when Janet had her greatest moment in “Youth Decay”. (That song has my favorite Sleater-Kinney lyric ever, one that could be my motto: “I’m all about a forked tongue and a dirty house.”) The video is from Portland, 2006 ... after that show, they took off for a decade.
Bonus: here’s the last time we saw them do “Youth Decay” live, San Francisco, 2015:
I love Rob Sheffield’s books. His first, Love Is a Mix Tape, was an explicitly autobiographical memoir, a moving and beautifully written story about his life and subsequent marriage with Renée Crist, who dies unexpectedly. He tells this story by blending in a series of mix tapes, which suggests the direction his next books would go. The second book mentions Duran Duran in the title, the third is about “the rituals of love and karaoke”. It would be hard to find two subjects that interest me less than Duran Duran and karaoke, but I loved both books. I love that they continue his use of memoir to illuminate broader topics, such that by the time I finished the books, I had a much deeper understanding of those things I had thought were uninteresting.
What makes Sheffield’s books work is that while he is a central character, his presence is used to illuminate the world around him. Some writers (myself included) tend to turn everything into a story about myself, but that’s not what Sheffield accomplishes. Instead, he uses his personal connections in the service of his subjects. It’s quite a skill, one I wish I could master.
Sheffield loved David Bowie, and when Bowie died, Sheffield’s heart was broken. He says his latest book, On Bowie, “is a love letter to Bowie ... a thank-you for the beautiful mess he made out of all our lives.” Reading this, I realize that on some level, every book Rob Sheffield has written is a love letter of sorts, and that provides a lovely structure for whatever he is writing about. In one moving passage, he writes about hearing Bowie had died. “I thought about waking up my wife to tell her. But I wanted her to sleep one more night in a world that had Bowie in it.” In those sentences, we feel how important Bowie was in people’s lives, but also how Sheffield’s personal response includes the desire to protect his wife for a few more hours.
Here’s the thing: we learn a lot about Rob Sheffield in On Bowie, just as we have in all of his books. But, more than that, we learn a lot about David Bowie. Sheffield’s critical analysis of Bowie’s work is idiosyncratic ... of course it is, it should be, he’s not trying to put a canon in concrete. By attaching his own life history with Bowie, Sheffield stands in for the fans, and that helps a non-believer like me appreciate how Bowie and his fans fed off of each other. The biggest implication is always there ... substitute your own favorite for Bowie, and you’ll recognize a lot of what Sheffield goes through over the years. But by working with the memoir structure, Sheffield always brings those larger implications back to the specific story of David Bowie.
Here are a few of my favorite Bowie songs. I only scratch the surface ... another use for On Bowie is to uncover hidden gems from Bowie’s recorded work. Me, I’m a greatest-hits kind of guy when it comes to Bowie ... well, I also love The Man Who Fell to Earth, one place where Rob and I do disagree. These are in no particular order, probably chronological although I’m not checking. “Stay” would be atop my list.
While Alice Bag is listed as the author of Violence Girl, the author’s name is arguably only applicable in the second half of the book. The selling point is the name ... there are people who know the name Alice Bag who don’t know her name at birth was Alicia Armendariz. But Violence Girl begins with the story of an East L.A. Chicana, and very gradually moves us through Alicia’s life until she adopts the Alice persona.
It’s not exactly two books in one, because Alicia’s memoir does a great job of showing how she became Alice. Still, those readers who come to Violence Girl hoping to read about the L.A. punk scene in the late-70s may be surprised to find it takes 140 pages before Alicia graduates from high school.
Those pages are vital, though, because we learn how Alicia’s childhood helped form the person she became as a punk grownup. Importantly, Bag’s background as Latina and woman automatically expands our vision of L.A. punk as a haven for suburban white boys playing hardcore punk. Alice Bag’s music was informed by the Mexican music she heard as a kid, as well as the glam rock she favored. But what dominated the sound of The Bags was the violence referred to in the title, for Alice Bag steamrollered her way through live performances, singing with an angry passion that made lyrics irrelevant. And the roots of that violence lay in her upbringing in a home with an abusive father. While there is clearly a social context for L.A. punk as a whole, and The Bags in particular, Violence Girl, in taking us through the transformation from Alicia to Alice, shows the personal aspect to Alice Bag’s stage presence.
It’s a sign of the quality of the book that, even if you are antsy to get to the punk stuff, the story of Alicia’s childhood is interesting and insightful enough that it works not just as a prelude to what is coming, but as a standalone memoir of growing up Chicana. Of course, once we get to punk, Bag’s I-was-there story telling draws us right in. Bag’s writing is more functional than elegant, but that is especially appropriate when she talks about forming bands and bonding with the community of local punks. That community forms the heart of the second half of the book, and when the community begins to struggle (drugs play a big part), we feel it because Bag has made us appreciate the liberatory experience that precedes the downfall.
An extended epilogue, where Bag goes to college and travels to Nicaragua as a teacher, is a believable continuation of the story we have been told. And Alice Bag has never gone away ... her memoir may end in the 80s, but Bag lives on, as activist and archivist. She is living proof of how the transformation that accompanied punk can influence throughout a person’s life.
“Music Friday” is a misnomer here. Jeff Pike’s new book, Index: Essays, Fragments, and Liberal Arts Homework covers a lot more ground than just music. I didn’t do a statistical analysis, but I think music might have only been the third-most common topic, after movies and books. But it’s Friday, so I’m writing about it here.
I’ve been a longtime reader of Jeff’s blog, which can be addictive even when it riles me up (today he wrote about Dancer in the Dark, a movie I hate to be reminded of). The breadth of things he writes about is impressive ... the book’s subtitle is quite accurate (well, “liberal arts” is on target ... it never feels like homework). I thought the book would largely be an anthology of his blog posts, and there is some of that. But, to give one example, arguably my favorite piece in the entire book pre-dates the blog, so there is a lot of fresh-to-me material.
Index is also an accurate title, for the book is structured in A-to-Z fashion, from A.I. Artificial Intelligence to Neil Young’s Weld. I’m fudging things a bit here, because the truth is, the book literally goes from A to Z ... each letter gets its own short essay to introduce the “chapters”. Jeff had been writing these “letter” posts on his blog for awhile now, and I admit I was puzzled by them. But they make sense here, and in fact he does some of his best writing when digging deep into this or that letter.
As a longtime blogger myself, I couldn’t help comparing this book to something I might put together. What I noticed was how good the longer form pieces are (I tend to write long form only when it’s to be published elsewhere).
And I don’t know why I didn’t think of this in advance, but Index is an ideal bathroom book. The structure invites you to jump around, and the length of the essays are just about right for that environment. So Jeff, you’ll be glad to know you’re in there with Kael and Christgau and Marcus and David Thomson and, yes, Dellio.
Of course, I wanted to read about my favorite topics first. He is quite fair with Bruce Springsteen, writing about “Independence Day” and “Downbound Train”. I liked reading about The Replacements/Hüsker Dü from somewhere who was there (meaning Minneapolis ... I was “there” for Hüsker Dü in that I loved them and saw them several times in concert, but Jeff was “there-there”.) But perhaps my favorite essay had nothing to do with music, movies, books, television, or any other thing that might be called “liberal arts homework”. I’m referring to the long piece, “Strat-O-Matic Baseball, 1985-1993”, which as I noted above pre-dates the blog (although a related post, about the great Robert Coover novel The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., includes a brief mention of Strat). He captures perfectly the feel of being obsessed with that game ... rather, those kind of games ... I have played many over the years, going back to 1961, but I only had a short affair with Strat-O-Matic. I love reading about this ... for a long time, I found my attraction to the games something I should approach in a clandestine fashion, a feeling that was multiplied after reading Coover’s novel, which is frightening in its psychological accuracy. In the 1980s, the world discovered “fantasy” sports, and nowadays it is not unusual to participate in such games. (I played “rotisserie” baseball from 1987 until the present day, although it looks like 2016 will be the first year I don’t have any teams in almost 30 years.)
It’s easy for me to recommend Jeff’s blog. But I can now recommend Index with equal fervor.
I just finished Gina Arnold’s fine book on Exile in Guyville, another entry in the 33 1/3 series. I spent the 90s reading Arnold’s “Fools Rush In” column ... she seemed to inspire a lot of vitriol, not just from people whose missives appeared in Letters to the Editor segments, but from people who wore “KILL GINA ARNOLD” t-shirts. Often, what I loved about Arnold’s columns was the very things that irritated her detractors. She regularly inserted her personal life into her writing. Here she is in a 2001 interview:
I have always felt that one of the flaws in a lot of rock criticism (besides the boring prose style) was that it tried to be objective–which is impossible, with something like music. The best you can hope to be is descriptive: you know: this is who I am, this is what happened to me, this is why it means something to me, if you agree you might like it too. And if you don’t, well then, ignore it.
A typical week for Gina would involve receiving a gift certificate for the services of Jack Kevorkian from a bunch of slighted Rolling Stones fans (yep, it really happened) or one or two letters making fun of her affinity for you-know-who. Everyone had different reasons for disliking her -- either she didnt get her facts right, or she didnt support the local scene, or she talked about herself too much, or she was too jaded and stuck in 1990.
In the same article, Arnold offers an on-point comment on the criticism she often received:
People would say to me, ... Why do I want to hear about your life every week? And I would say, You think I write about my life? Okay, what do you actually know about my life? And they wouldnt have an answer. I write about music and how it relates to things in my life, but very few people actually know me.
Is it any wonder I loved her? I’ve often argued that rock criticism learned a lot from Pauline Kael’s approach, and you can’t find a better example than this.
Her Exile in Guyville book is unlike her columns, but in a way I think makes sense. There is an academic feel to much of the book, and indeed, since the 90s, Arnold has gotten a Ph.D. from Stanfurd. Her writing now reflects this, and why not? She’s just continuing her personal touch.
She spends a part of the introduction informing us that she wrote much of the book in Seoul. I can already hear those haters from the past ... who cares where she was when she wrote? But one of her primary arguments in the book is that Exile in Guyville is informed by a community, “Guyville”, and what better way to remind us of this than by describing the community where she is writing, and how it helps her both gain the necessary distance from her subject, and also to see similarities between then and now.
The first two sections are the best, as she places Exile within the cultural context of its time. For me, the section where she compares Phair’s songs, one by one, to the corresponding tracks on the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., is the book’s least successful. I know that Phair encourages the comparisons, but after such excellent cultural criticism, it’s a bit disappointing to read compare-and-contrast lyric analysis. Arnold does her best with the idea, but I got antsy. She recovers in her brief final section, which brings us full circle to Seoul.
Of course, now I’m going to do precisely what I’m complaining about. Here is Phair’s “Never Said”, chosen as much as anything because there’s an official video:
“Never Said” is about keeping secrets, probably the secret of who is sleeping with whom. Liz, alas, was unable to keep whom she was sleeping with secret and suffered the tortures of the dammed when her record came out. People guessed this and that and accused her of “sleeping her way” to the top ... People know who Mick Jagger sleeps with too ... but somehow it never seemed to have the same repercussions as Liz’s peccadilloes.
The very act of making an album that seems to take on the canonical favorite Exile on Main St. is irritating enough to those who make canons that they will find reasons to dismiss Phair from the start.
The Stones’ counterpart, using the track-for-track comparisons, is “Tumbling Dice”, where “The women, alas, are always trying to drag him down, with their bitchin’ and itchin’, but the men – i.e. the proverbial ‘tumblin dice’ of the title – can’t be tied down.... Great riff. Nice metaphor. Internal meaning not so pleasant, but that’s the Stones all over.”
I wonder what Arnold made of Linda Ronstadt’s version of “Tumbling Dice”:
The obvious question arises: what do I think of Exile in Guyville? I loved it at the time, and I think it holds up well. We saw her on her solo tour in 1995, playing songs from Guyville and Whipsmart, and she was admittedly unassuming, but that didn’t change my feelings towards the album. Here’s a very low-fi song from a different show on that tour:
I often think of Phair and PJ Harvey at the same time. In fact, back in 2010, I had an entire blog post about this:
Harvey, on the other hand, has never had to worry about being taken seriously. She didn’t turn into Avril Lavigne … she added theatricality, but in the context of indie rock blues that kept her sound rooted in the “authentic.” She followed up Rid of Me with arguably the best album of her career, To Bring You My Love. Her weirdness always seemed to call on primitive urges, where Phair wasn’t really that weird at all, in the end. Harvey remains uncompromising, remarkably so, really. And I’ve come to realize over the years that yes, PJ Harvey is a “better” artist than Liz Phair. But it still feels like Phair loses because her idea of uncompromising is seen as mainstream, even as she releases new material on her website instead of through a label … if you think Liz Phair is mainstream, you haven’t been listening to the stream for some time now.
I don’t know if I still think PJ is “better”. But I do know that to this day I play Exile on Guyville more than I play any PJ Harvey album. Having said that, I’m always looking for an excuse to post videos of Harvey performing “Rid of Me”, which I love more than any individual song of Phair’s.