As I mentioned way back on this post from 2008, as much as I’ve tried to branch out, my tastes are pretty narrow when it comes to reading material.
I’d love to say that I’m broadly well-read when it comes to the more celebrated books of the day, but it’s just not true. If you’re looking to engage in a discussion about today’s most incisive fiction, you’re much better off speaking with my wife (who works in publishing) than one such as I. Truthfully, I’ve pretty much lost my taste for fiction almost entirely. Unless I have some vested interest (like, say, I know the author or it’s about something near and dear to me), I usually cannot muster up the interest to crack the binding.
As a result, whenever I’m perusing through the aisles of a bookstore (when I can still find one, that is), you are more than likely to find me striding right past the "new fiction" and “best sellers” tables and right back towards the predictable neck of the woods: music.
I can’t help it. Apart from books about New York City and a naggingly disquieting fascination with true crime, the tomes that fire my imagination are almost always music-related, be they memoirs, tell-alls, oral histories or slavishly detailed accounts of the recording of seminal albums. I love that stuff. Always have.
Anyway, I’ve been on something of a tear of late (you may remember posts about books by David J, Kim Gordon, Robert Christgau and Marky Ramone). I thought I’d weigh in on the last few books I’ve poured through.
“Anger is An Energy: My Life Uncensored"
by John Lydon
Okay, this one was indeed kind of a no-brainer (even if it’s the second book Lydon’s written on ultimately the very same subject). I remember reading “Rotten: No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish” when it first came out — me being a huge fan of both the Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd. — and frankly finding it, well, a bit dull. “Anger is an Energy” hits many of the same marks as the previous book, but it feels a bit more relaxed and conversational, rife with Lydon’s own grammatical quirks. In that capacity, it feels quite intimate.
By the same token, however, I found “Anger…." sorely in need of a countering opinion. I mean, granted — yes, it’s the storied punk provocateur’s own account of proceedings, but all too often the narrative suggests that Lydon himself was the sole voice of reason and compassion throughout his entire life. While I have great respect for the man’s convictions, the book feels like something of a laborious humblebrag. He pulls few punches when it comes to predictable targets like Nancy Spungen, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood (ever the villains), but he has no shortage of surprisingly disreputable things to say about folks like Ari-Up of the Slits (his daughter-in-law), Joe Strummer of the Clash and pretty much all the former members of the Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd.
Having never walked a mile in the man’s shoes, I shouldn’t judge too harshly. His loyalty and devotion to wife Nora and best friend/minder John Rambo are admirable. By the latter end of the book (detailing his forays into reality television), I started to drift, but obviously — it’s a required reading for the fans. Now, if only he published it after the Virgin credit card story surfaced — I’d love to hear him explain that one.
“Freedom of Choice”
by Evie Nagy
I can’t say I knew what to expect when I picked this one up. I’m a huge fan of the 33 1/3 series, but they can be uneven from time to time (for every amazing one — like Erik Davis’ trek through Led Zeppelin IV or D.X. Ferris’ take on Slayer’s Reign in Blood — there can be a clunker like Colin Meloy’s botched attempt at Let It Be by the Replacements). But given my devout (sorry) adoration for Devo, I couldn’t say no.
Put simply, I’d go as far as to say that Nagy’s is the most authoritative book on the band published to date (and believe me, I’ve read plenty of them). It’s no coincidence that it’s also the only book that the band’s members have endorsed and leant their services to.
Regardless, Nagy totally “gets it” and goes endearingly in depth. It’s great stuff from top to bottom. Go get it.
“How To Be a Man (and Other Illusions)”
By Duff McKagan
To be honest, under normal circumstances, I never would have given this title a second glance. While they were perfectly fine, Guns N’ Roses were never anything all that special, in my opinion (see also Nirvana in that same respect). Sure, I bought Appetite for Destruction when it came out, but let’s please come back to earth, shall we? They weren't exactly pushing any envelopes.
That all said, Duff McKagan has always struck me as the coolest gent in the band. True to form, I read an excerpt from this book somewhere wherein he cited the albums he found crucial, and I was pretty captivated by his choices. As such, I picked up the book.
Essentially a self-help guide for men (as its title suggests), “How To…” documents McKagan’s journey towards sobriety and family domesticity after years of perilous drug-&-drink intake. If you’re looking for salacious details, you won’t really find them, but Duff is candid about his own failings and thoughtfully humble throughout.
For my money, I think the most eye-opening part of the book was how Duff decided to put himself through school after cleaning up. If you’d ever seen any interviews with the man circa the glory days of G’N’R, you probably wouldn’t consider Duff a Rhodes scholar, but in the disciplined re-allignment of his life, the former hell-raiser evidently developed a passion of knowledge. Even more illuminating than his list of crucial albums is his reading list.
The book isn’t exactly a heavy lift, but I found Duff’s story surprisingly endearing. I wish I could sum it up with something pithily snarky, but there it is.
“Your Band Sucks: What I Saw at Indie Rock’s Failed Revolution (But Can No Longer Hear)”
By Jon Fine
Originally, I wasn’t going to read this, based on some age-old conclusions that its author — former Bitch Magnet guitarist Jon Fine — was something of a dick. By his own admission, this is arguably the case, but after reading a few reviews of the book online, I decided to spring for it.
Having just finished it, I must happily report that it’s the best book of this bunch and one of the most enjoyable things I’ve read in a long damn time.
In retrospect, if Jon Fine genuinely is a dick, then — by god — so am I. The parallels between his life experience and mine are dizzying, and our sensibilities are disarmingly aligned.
In “Your Band Sucks,” Fine details his youth as something of a disgruntled misfit who found solace and belonging in music most folks dismissed or misunderstood. Not content for it to be just a side-dish to his life, Fine dove headlong into this particular subculture.
Having myself grown up as a comparable misfit equally besotted with music many found unpalatable, I immediately found Fine's story resonant. Attending Ohio's Oberlin College during the same four years I attended Denison University (also in Ohio), Fine took his own preoccupation with music a step further than I and formed his own band, the aforementioned Bitch Magnet.
The rest of "Your Band Sucks" tracks the course of Fine's fractious tenure with that trio, his stints with other bands like Vineland and the improvisational Coptic Light, his reluctant surrender to the rigors of a career outside of music, and then the unlikely reactivation of Bitch Magnet. Along the way, Fine is hilarious, self-effacing, candid, insightful and refreshingly not at all afraid to be fiercely emphatic about his convictions or give a few swift kicks to some select sacred cows (a man after my own heart in that capacity).
As I mentioned back in this post, Fine also shares my suffering in the hearing department, and is similarly saddled (unrepentantly) with Tinnitus. Like I said, this book was right up my street, and I highly recommend it.
What's next? Well, I've been eyeing the new 33 1/3 book on Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables by Dead Kennedys, but it looks a bit more textbooky than fun. We'll see. I've also been thinking about "The First Collection of Criticism by a Female Rock Critic" by Jessica Hopper, but -- honestly -- the "bully for me" title doesn't bode well. I realize that interpretation probably wasn't the author's intention, but her failure to come up with a more accurate, clever and/or compelling title (one that, say, puts the accent on subject matter over authorship) would have been preferable. Just sayin'.
But, y'know, being that I ultimately enjoy reading things that piss me off, I'll probably spring for it.