Books That Rock, Part 2

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Just Kids, London division: Viv Albertine, Keith Levene and Mick Jones in 1975.

In this latest installment, there’s a decided emphasis on the Seventies. I guess we always gravitate to our coming-of-age period. As opposed to the canard that writing about music is a suspect endeavor (which I knocked around a bit in Part One) there seems to be interesting books coming out all the time, esp. by women rockers. New books by Chrissie Hynde and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon are on my eventual to-do list (but after this, I want to get back to some fiction reading) and “M Train,” Patti Smith’s follow-up to her celebrated “Just Kids” is due in October along with an author tour. One such book that I have read, and couldn’t recommend enough, leads off here.

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“Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys” by Viv Albertine (2014)

“Anyone who writes an autobiography is either a twat or broke. I’m a little bit of both.” That has got to go down as one of my all-time favorite opening lines for this type of book. Out of seemingly nowhere, Slits’ guitarist Viv Albertine has hit the stores with this live-wire memoir of growing up in Sixties England and being at ground zero for London’s mid-70s punk rock revolution. Her prose is as frank, unsentimental and dryly humorous as the music of the cutting-edge all-girl band she joined shortly after picking up a guitar for the first time at 22. Viv is not especially famous (the Slits only made two albums in their 70s incarnation) but this works in the narrative’s favor. Her scene-making and (eventually) music-making exploits come up the years in a virtual timeline of street-level Brit-rock history. The talking points are many: discovering the Beatles on her babysitter’s record player (“I feel as if I’ve jammed my finger into an electricity socket, every part of me is fizzing”), being a barmaid in the pub-rock era, spending the long hot summer of 1976 criss-crossing London with pal Sid Vicious, being the girlfriend of the Clash’s Mick Jones (“Train in Vain” was about her) and, of course, finding her “voice” as the guitarist in a seminal band. This punks-as-pedestrians angle is a novel take on a much-traveled subject. It uncovers the inner workings of a relatively small group of people who shook up the pop music world with fierce commitment in an analogue age—imagine arranging practice sessions when members live in various squats without even a landline, never mind a cell phone or email. Albertine is also spot-on in her recollections (honest but never disrespectful) of her fellow travelers, like the pre-Spungen Sid Vicious and the dynamic Slits singer, the late Ari Up. Of course, there’s a long second act after she left the music biz following the dispiriting break-up of her band. From aerobics instructor to TV producer to wife and mother, to major health problems (she is a cervical cancer survivor) to divorce and then a long climb back to music-making as a solo artist. What burns through all of it is Albertine’s lifelong belief in the lasting value of creative non-conformity in spite of all the obstacles life throws your way. Inspirational.

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What You Want Is in the Limo—Michael Walker (2013)

Michael Walker, the L.A.-based author whose previous pop-history tome was “Laurel Canyon”, investigates a key transitional year in rock music with his second book. The pivotal but under-appreciated year of 1973 is a subject near and dear to me and my own post on the subject (“Between Patchouli and Punk”) can be accessed from the “Rock on Record” category on the right. Walker calls this “The Year the Sixties Died and the Modern Roc k Star was Born” as he vividly re-lives the recording of three huge albums and the Dionysian U.S. tours that followed them—Alice Cooper’s “Billion Dollar Babies”, the Who’s “Quadrophenia” and Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy.” Here in spades are the tales of debauchery and superstar privilege, the dawning of the age of the single-headliner stadium shows in place of the collective ballroom or festival experience of the 60s, and a shifting business model where savvy acts were now raking in the dough alongside the promoters, managers and record companies. Much to his credit, Walker also perceives the social gradation when younger baby boomers came into their own “wishing only to continue the Sixties hootenanny of which they are given a tantalizing glimpse… they saunter into high schools trailing pot smoke and wan entitlement, the first postwar generation not to have to register for the draft.” A high-school sophomore in ’73, I was wishing for a little more of that to go with the piled-on anecdotes of rented jetliners, groupies, hotel room thrashings and wayward substance intake like Alice’s daily consumption of uncountable cans of Budweiser and shots of VO whiskey. But even here Walker’s even-handed instincts notes that the record companies, not yet under the yoke of their “corporate overlords” still spent money on artist development, even if that led to the coked-out excesses of the later 70s. Each of the three bands claimed a martyr to that everything-all-the-time period—drummers Keith Moon and John Bonham were gone by the end of the decade and Cooper band guitarist Glenn Buxton (so fried by the 1973 tour that there was a backup guy playing most of his parts) died in 1997. But a survey of ‘73s top records, seen in this book and in my aforementioned post, confirms it as one of rock’s most invigorating times and Walker brings it back most admirably.

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“Who I Am” by Pete Townshend (2012)

I’m not usually one for reading hefty rock-star memoirs, but it was hard to pass this one up with the hardcover marked down to seven bucks (from a list of $32.50) on the Former Bestsellers table at Barnes & Noble. The Who are one of my favorite groups and leader Pete Townshend is well known as one of pop music’s more articulate and introspective figures, with a self-effacing streak that can usually counter the well-known excesses that come with the territory. The early chapters are rich with post-war London anecdotes but take a darker turn when young Pete is shunted off to stay for some months with his eccentrically unpleasant grandmother. Half-formed memories of cruel behavior (and possible sexual abuse by one or more of her “gentleman” callers) would haunt him and ironically lead to charges of downloading child porn almost a half-century later. When it comes to the Who, the familiar arc of their story is naturally enhanced by the first-person recollections. Townshend, as both an aesthete and a gearhead of the first order, gives a great accounting of both the ideas and the recording of grand works like “Tommy” and “Quadrophenia” and even clarifies the concept behind the super-ambitious (and never completed) “Lifehouse” project. As far as rock-star hijinks go, married-with-children Pete admits to being a vaguely envious side-glancer to the many exploits of bandmates Keith Moon and John Entwistle, but he and Roger Daltrey managed to avoid much of the druggy excesses that helped claim them both. “Prudish” with groupies, his main weakness (aside from his eventual serious drinking problem) was as a “fantasist” who succumbed to the charms of several women he met in his personal and business dealings, leading to long estrangements from his wife Karen Astley, from whom he eventually got divorced. His 2003 arraignment on child-porn downloading is a fascinating read, if only because it is refreshing to hear a side of the story that only seemed to invite knee-jerk condemnation of him at the time. Townshend had already funded a research group to combat this scourge (still haunted by his childhood half-memories) and he did it as an aggressive but ill-advised ploy to bring the problem to light. At 500 pages, “Who I Am” may be a bit too piled high with rock-geek details and anecdotes for general interest, but a rewarding read for Who fans and music history buffs.

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“Love Goes to Buildings on Fire” by Will Hermes (2011)

Sub-titled “Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever,” Will Hermes’ wide-ranging and irresistible book surveys the “multiple creative frequencies” that beamed throughout the city from 1973-77. Although it takes its title from the Talking Heads’ first single, this means more than just rock ‘n’ roll, though the New York Dolls, Ramones, Television, Patti Smith, Blondie, Springsteen and others are all present and accounted for. But it was also a time of intense activity in other genres, and developments in salsa, loft jazz, disco, avant-garde and early hip-hop are also traced closely. But these are alternating timeline stories so a reader who is not altogether taken with the struggles of Philip Glass to stage a production of “Einstein on the Beach” (as interesting as that may be) can skip ahead until he or she comes across the next appearance of the words “Richard Hell.” Naturally, socio-political trends and events (the city’s brush with bankruptcy, Son of Sam, the ’77 blackout) are weaved in but despite the Big Apple’s many struggles in that era, for the musicians and their followers it is “less about escaping the nastiness of the city than reveling in it, amping it up to a cinematic scale, drawing a narrative in which (they) could wage heroic battle.” Hermes, a senior critic at Rolling Stone, fills his tome who who-knew anecdotes (“The summer was exceptionally hot. It gave Laurie Anderson the idea to hitchhike to the North Pole”) and is especially well-researched though I’m not sure if we need to know the exact address of every recording studio, dive club and crash pad. Still, “Buildings on Fire” is no mere good-old-days exercise. Hermes, who grew up in Queens but was a little young to partake in the original CBGB scene, sees musical culture a as continuum and in a generous epilogue concludes by both catching up with his Seventies’ cast of characters and looking at today’s scene as well. Despite what us Boomers may think, these kids feel the same sense of possibility as Hermes and his music-obsessed friends did back in the mid-70s, standing on the roof of a Queens apartment building gazing at the dazzling lights of Manhattan. “We were ready to fly to them.”

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The New York Dolls in a New Years show at Mercer Arts Center. Photo by Bob Gruen in the earliest hours of 1973.

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“Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island” edited by Greil Marcus (1979)

Released in 1979, “Stranded” may still stand as the ne plus ultra when it comes to rock-geek literature. Editor and music-critic dean Greil Marcus set up a nifty little parlor genre: if you were stuck on a desert island with only one album to listen to, what would it be? He sent that out to a would-be Hall of Fame of fellow rock scribes (Lester Bangs, Ellen Willis, Tom Carson, Janet Maslin, Nick Tosches, Ariel Swartley, Dave Marsh etc.) and got predictably fascinating and idiosyncratic results. Many of these twenty writers struggle with the core futility of the premise: Tosches duly notes that “being marooned somewhere with neither whiskey nor Jewish girls troubles me greatly” (before settling on “Sticky Fingers”) and Marsh is so flummoxed by the whole aloneness thing that he comes up with an imagined compilation record called “Onan’s Greatest Hits” and if you think that the Who’s “Pictures of Lilly” is included in that you are correct. Some choices are a bit strange—John Rockwell is so intent on finding a universal pop common denominator that he finds himself defending Linda Ronstadt’s “Living in the USA” for thirty pages!! But most of this is great as in Carson’s astute celebration of the Ramones’ “Rocket to Russia” (“the kind of deadly serious fun that rock and roll, and America, couldn’t live without”), Lester Bangs’ passionate dissertation of “Astral Weeks,” and the heartfelt and headstrong advocacy of both “The Velvet Underground and Nico” by Ellen Willis and the New York Dolls’ debut by Robert Christgau are strong statements about the value of music in one’s life in general. Also, Marcus’ extensive “Treasure Island” discography at the end will keep me discovering new platters until my time is called and I sail off to that island clutching a copy of “The Kink Kronikles.”

My new book “Rock Docs: A fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” will be coming out by early 2016 (or so I’ve heard!)

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