Live Through This!
DECEMBER 8, 1997: The back cover blurb from Entertainment Weekly enthuses: "Expect revelations galore about Courtney Love..." but the only revelation inside is how bland and unmemorable Poppy Z. Brite's writing can be once she abandons her neo-goth horrorshow roots in favor of non-fiction muckraking. And sadly, although the story may be "real," that doesn't necessarily make it interesting, or even very mucky, which, let's face it, is why people read most pop bios to begin with.
In Courtney Love: The Real Story by Poppy Z. Brite (Simon & Schuster, $25 hard), the chronological run-through of Love's first 32 years is noteworthy only as a collation of more or less previously known facts about modern rock's reigning screech diva. As Brite paints it (not quite black), Love is a Debbie Harry for the Nineties, constantly re-inventing herself and her history whenever she becomes tired of the current persona, or perhaps whenever trouble dictates it (i.e. "the heroin problem" and the resulting backlash and successive kinderwhore-to-Versace transformation). There's nothing wrong with self-reinvention, updating, or backtracking into saner waters, but there's also nothing revelatory about the fact that Courtney Love does it. As a thematic construct, it's about as juicy and mouth-watering as a month-old cicada carapace.
Other un-scoops abound: Love's on-again/off-again romance with the Teardrop Explodes-era Julian Cope; Sugar Baby Doll, Love's first band alongside Kat Bjelland and Jennifer Finch; the Qantas debacle; the Kathleen Hanna (of Bikini Kill) scuffle at Lollapalooza '95. Brite allegedly had full access to and cooperation from Love's entourage, though The Real Story seems curiously devoid of the requisite bombshells you'd expect. Perhaps the very fact that this is an "authorized" biography is the problem -- too much cooperation from the subject has a tendency to obscure the facts, as most journalists and biographers soon find out. Imagine, for example, if Kitty Kelley had worked in tandem with Sinatra: less filling, tastes like cardboard with marinara.
Poppy Z. Brite remains one of her generation's most viscerally talented writers and Courtney Love is, if not her musical equivalent, then pretty close to the mark. Brite's fiction to date (Exquisite Corpse, Swamp Foetus) has produced some of the most gut-churning, unnerving images since, oh, Jean Genet, but The Real Story's Lovely prose is more deadly than deathless, culminating in the single worst final biographical paragraph to date: "Could Courtney Love, with her nuclear temper and her penchant for melodrama, allow that peace to last? She hoped so. And this time she was pretty sure she could."
Ouch. Unintentional, matter-of-fact clunkers like that litter The Real Story like asps in heaven, out of place and vaguely unnerving, but not so much so that you care very much. It's an unexpected explosion of mediocrity arising from the meeting of two of the most original and talented artists working today, like mixing gasoline and blood and ending up with a saucer full of skim milk. -- Marc Savlov
Often, Chuck D and his 10 years in Public Enemy are just the vehicles that set up punchlines about the injustices that surround race, crime, drugs, the media, wealth, and power. "I've never stressed the importance of me. I am a man first and a Black one to the core," he says in his own explanation of why Fight the Power is neither a full autobiography nor simply a "State of Hip-Hop" thesis. Instead, each chapter, or verse, offers Afrocentric and cogent solutions entirely appropriate and considerate of the problematic American history he's outlined.
But whereas his consistent and recurring arguments and explanations of the role of black athletes and entertainers in a white media makes for a compelling book-long thread, what makes Fight the Power wholly more interesting than the average Nathan McCall or Cornell West college text is Chuck D's own position as a performer and pundit (not to mention "lyrical terrorist" and "Public Enemy #1"). His story of Public Enemy's birth, initial struggles, touring history, and eventual role as hip-hop's international ambassador is the framework for the book's most compelling moments -- whether it lies in the details of PE's internal struggles, tales of record company exploitation, or the media spin on a set of 1989 remarks that have forever linked Public Enemy to anti-Semitic rhetoric.
But just as Chuck D's habit of attaching a race or nationality to each character (i.e. "the white guy, JD Considine" or "Sal Gigenti, the Italian-American") murk up an argument or two, Fight the Power's last third is also somewhat diluted by his own failure to reconcile the 1989 debate and comprehend that the hypocrisy of a "Black and Jewish Relations" chapter/diatribe that too often furthers the Jew-as-shady businessman stereotype. Even so, it's a tribute to the rest of the text's clarity that both sets of inconstencies are actually relatively minor derailments.
Luckily, Fight the Power is a dense enough guide to hip hop culture and black politics that, like any Public Enemy record, both Chuck D's theoretical hits and misses are equally unapologetic. In fact, Fight the Power is irrefutable proof that more so-called biographies should not just regurgitate history, but also take stands and leave it to the reader to sort out their relevance. "Until next time, don't believe the hype," is Chuck D's conclusion. Sure enough, but let's hope the next time doesn't take 10 years.-- Andy Langer
As the reigning hair band between 1978 and 1984 -- when Roth quit the band -- Van Halen Mach I succeeded Kiss (and preceded Guns 'n' Roses) in parlaying their swaggering, stomping post-Zeppelin rawk into heavy airplay and millions of albums sold worldwide. They were also the quintessential traveling circus arena-show -- big stunts, big spectacles, big show. Behind the scenes, it was pretty much the same -- big money, big egos, big parties. Accent on big. At the heart of all this, leading a pair of brothers and their bass-playing buddy from Pasadena, David Lee Roth was the biggest, hairiest, absolutely most obnoxious monkey of them all. Only Roth wasn't so dumb.
Born Indiana in 1954, precocious little David Lee was raised in a healthy, firmly middle-class environment, uprooted only slightly when Dr. Nathan Roth moved the family to Jersey. Before you could say Vietnam, DL was at his Uncle Manny's club in the Village, Cafe Wha?, witnessing -- firsthand -- Dylan, Ginsberg, and Lenny Bruce. Makes an impression on a kid. So does moving to the valley, Los Angeles, where Roth shucked off a somewhat sickly early childhood for a full-on, sunshine-and-sports Southern California adolescence. When the Beach Boys and the Beatles and everyone else came along, as with so many other baby boomers, it was pretty much all over -- especially since Roth was getting kicked out of school for being the class clown; "I was not the class clown... I was the court jester, a venerated and ancient tradition." Right, Dave, whatever.
Roth slogs through all the old tour war stories, describing how to trash hotel rooms and "fish" someone, alternating long chapters with shorter goodies like "M & Ms" (a test to see if promoters had read the concert rider) and "Personal Best" ("five chicks at once"). More interesting, however, are "The Engine Room," about being a Jewish rock & roller ("Every step I took on that stage was smashing some Jew-hating, lousy punk ever deeper into the deck"), "Reunion Blues" (the skinny on what white trash Eddie Van Halen is), and the most fascinating chapter of all, "Travels With Dave." It's here, at the end of many pages with sentence fragments, that the reader realizes that maybe Roth wasn't just some hedonistic gorilla who slept with as many women as he could. He was, of course, but this wasn't the only rock-star fringe benefit he was enjoying.
As Van Halen was busy touring the world, so was Roth, going to its ends to find adventure and tests of physical endurance. Nothing like having some "dumb" rock & roll schlong describe the Amazon's ecosystem, or the Devil's birthday party in Haiti, or how one has to feed a yak when ascending Mount Everest to make you feel like maybe college was a big waste of time.
Wait a minute. Who's made a monkey outta who? -- Raoul Hernandez
As one might rightfully expect, the crux of the book concentrates on the 20 year period between 1949-69 when Miles was personally responsible for ushering in at least a half-dozen significant stylistic changes in jazz. The first chapter is a short "Self-Portrait" by Miles himself, followed by pieces that run chronologically to the music's evolution. Starting in the fast lane while still a teenager as Charlie Parker's counterpoint in spearheading the bebop revolution (mid-Forties), we follow Miles through the Birth of the Cool (1949-50), the amazing quintet and sextet with John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, and Bill Evans (mid-late Fifties), his prodigous orchestral collaborations with arranger Gil Evans (late Fifties, early Sixties), the powerhouse Shorter/Hancock/Carter/Williams quintet (mid-late Sixties), and the "In a Silent Way"/"Bitches Brew" dyad that forged the blueprint for jazz fusion (1969-70).
There are also several post-fusion essays which try to make sense of the electric Miles by delving readily into his past accomplishments. This tact is handled most successfully by the intrepid Village Voice critic Gary Giddins. Other particularly noteworthy chapters include Max Harrison's rather lengthy ode to the Davis/Gil Evans alchemy, Peter Keepnews' lament about the virtually unrecorded "Lost Quintet" and Amiri Baraka's inspired exultation on the Coltrane/Adderley band and his observation of how Cannonball's blues 'n' funk proclivities actually laid the groundwork for what became "Fusion" a decade later. It's fascinating to read, especially through our own postmodern, fin de siecle perspective, articles written 20, 30, or even 40 years ago when this music initially came out. I would have relished some writing that included more socio-cultural-political insights into Miles and his music, especially his Sixties work. Nonetheless, Miles fans of all stripes are sure to find this volume immensely enlightening. -- Jay Trachtenberg
If you're not an academic, the name of John Lomax may be unfamiliar to you, but his work is not -- the former University of Texas staffer was responsible for some of the earliest and most important work in preserving America's folk music legacy, especially in the genres of cowboy balladry and rural African-American music. If not for Lomax, songs like "Home on the Range" and "Goodbye, Old Paint" might have been lost to history forever, and Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter would have been just another convict who rotted away in prison instead of becoming "King of the 12-String Guitar." He played a major role in developing the Library of Congress' Archive of American Folksong.
While Lomax deserves all the praises he might receive for his contributions to American folklore, it can sometimes be hard to tell exactly how he accomplished it. You can be certain that Kris Kristofferson's "The Pilgrim: Psalm 33" was not written about Lomax, but the lines "He's a walking contradiction/Partly truth and partly fiction" describe him well. John Lomax the person worked very hard at creating John Lomax the legend.
In Last Cavalier: The Life and Times of John A. Lomax: 1867-1948 (University of Illinois Press, $34.95 hard), former Southeast Missouri State University professor Nolan Porterfield -- author of the celebrated Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America's Blue Yodeler -- has diligently dug through the personal papers of Lomax (housed at the University of Texas), and attempted to separate the truth from Lomax's embellishments, especially those found in the Lomax autobiography Adventures of a Ballad Hunter. As Porterfield recounts in great detail, Lomax's work was driven as much by vanity as fascination; more than anything else, Lomax wanted to be recognized as an Important Person, especially an Important Texan. He accomplished it, but was never completely satisfied that he had, and constantly added feat upon feat not just to provide an income but also to supply the applause that he craved.
In fact, Porterfield is perhaps too diligent. Last Cavalier seemingly traces every single step Lomax made during his life -- as a showpiece for Porterfield's work, the book is quite impressive, but anyone outside of the most rabid of folk music fans may find the narration a disappointment. Only a small portion of the book focuses on the personal interactions between Lomax and the musicians -- the chapters on Leadbelly are the most interesting -- while most of it focuses on the more mundane machinations of the folklorist's day-to-day attempts to scare up money for himself and his family.
However, Porterfield may have thought it necessary to fully capture the complex individual that was Lomax: Although Lomax wanted respect in the academic world, he had great disdain for its liberal leanings; although he wanted to be a learned man, he clung fiercely to his good-old-boy Texas roots; and despite his great interest in African-American life, he was very much the Southern white man who could never advance beyond patronization, at best.
The recent multiple-volume release of The Alan Lomax Collection on Rounder Records dovetails nicely with the publication of Last Cavalier. It might make a nice companion -- before the Socialist-leaning Alan began his staggering body of recording work, he learned his craft at the side of John, his conservative father. And if you have the stamina to get through the 100 or so CDs that Rounder plans to release (the first five are already out), you may be just the type to pore over this extremely detailed biography. -- Lee Nichols
Okay, when your wife is using blow as make-up, you're not just a rock star, you are a fucking rock star.
If you need a "How-To" book on how to ingest a pastiche of pharmaceuticals to excess and instigate some small-scale insanity, then you need Walk This Way: The Autobiography of Aerosmith by Aerosmith with Stephen Davis (Avon Books, $25 hard). Be forewarned, though, this isn't just a trashy, tell-all, tabloid fodder bio, it is a goddamn horror story. Why? Because it's scary-scary to think that they got away with it.
Collectively, the five guys in Aerosmith were able to live faster and sin deadlier than just about anybody before them and miraculously survive. Really, there is no way any of these five guys should still be alive; but to hear the boys in the band re-tell their history (what they are able to remember of it anyway) is seductive.
The basic story: Aerosmith's members cleaned up financially, then blew it on drugs and wrecked their lives. So they cleaned up physically, then cleaned up financially again. The story is engaging mostly because it's told in the band's words -- literally -- as the book is a series of first-person recollections, along with a bit of third person factual history filler; the band is fairly unflinching in talking about some touchy things.
Too bad there's too little of what it took to get from the fall to the re-rise, specifically what it took to get clean. Being that much of an addict (especially a heroin addict) as Tyler was, then going through rehab, cannot be particularly pleasant, yet it is largely untreated. The intervention when the other band members shipped Tyler the scapegoat off to rehab is well-documented in the book's prologue. And Tyler adds a couple of sentences about what a wreck he was, but that's about it. There's very little suffering in the book. And if getting clean is such an essential part of the band's story, of its middle-aged success, why is it glossed over?
Omitting the horror stories makes it look like the band's history is purely a fairy tale. In fact it looks better than a fairy tale. It's not as G-rated boring. Perry and Tyler et al were able to live the rock & roll lifestyle beyond what should be physiologically possible and still live happily ever after. And that's what makes this book scary, scarier than Bill Gates even. It's difficult to imagine some teen reading Walk This Way and not thinking, "I'm going to do all of this because I'll live anyway and still end up butt rich." Hell, I read it and thought, "I should have been a fucking rock star."-- Michael Bertin
Subtitled "An Insider's Guide to Live Music, Cheap Eats, Dive Bars, Thrift Stores, and Deviant Fun in America's Top Music Cities," Underground USA is sure to prove invaluable if you ever find yourself in Louisville, Durham, Columbus, or Providence with time to kill. (And, really, what else would you be doing there?) Split about evenly between big cities (New York, L.A., D.C., Chicago), college towns (see above, plus Austin and Athens, of course), and places that continually pop up on those "Top Ten Places to Live in Your Twenties" lists (Portland, Memphis, San Diego, Seattle), each of the 20 (get it?) entries contains headings for clubs, bars, food/coffee, hotel/motel, body alterations, local wonders, and transmissions (aka media). There's plenty to do under each one, though how many would piss off the locals if you showed your tourist ass there is hard to say. Judging from the Austin chapter (penned by sometime Chronicle and current Texas Monthly scribe Jason Cohen), it's about 50-50. Props to Jason for the "Don't Move Here" caveat and enshrining Texas Showdown and Crown & Anchor as "Best martyrs to Austin's music-scene history," but he should be horsewhipped for not mentioning the Sunday night Free for All (though Hole in the Wall itself merits a brief "Best hangout disguised as a rock club" paragraph).
The rest of the book is full of such astute advice as don't go into South Central after dark, white boy, and there's much more to Memphis than Graceland. However, if you want to see a Jerry Springer taping while you visit Chicago, you're on your own. That's SPIN for you -- always on the cutting edge. --Christopher Gray
British writer David Dalton has made a career of chronicling the late 20th century's romantic icons, be they actually dead (Dean, Morrison, Joplin) or those who have shaken hands and drunk a beer with death (the Rolling Stones). Each time out, Dalton writes of his subject like some diseased 19th-century poet, with beauty, grace, and a true feel for the spirit of their art. Hence, it was inevitable Dalton would get around to writing about Sid Vicious. And considering who's crafting the prose, it was equally inevitable Dalton's El Sid: Saint Vicious (St. Martin's Press, $21.95 hard) would be damned readable.
Not so much a straight biography as a breathless monograph on Sid and his "importance" (and yes, he does hold some), El Sid is not the place to go for solid facts and figures. Instead, you get a dazzling rush of words celebrating Sid as the ultimate manifestation of Wot Punk Wuz All About, Mate. "He couldn't play his instrument, he couldn't sing, he was a mess: weedy, goofy, gullible, and psychopathic. Sid Vicious was perfect. Even Elvis failed in the end but not Sid. He was nobody at seventeen, world-famous at twenty, dead at twenty-one!"
Dalton has not one point here -- he has two. For one, Sid was at root a less-healthy but better-known version of what C.J. Ramone would later become: Punk's Everykid, the fan who stage-dove from out of the pogoing hordes and actually joined the band. For another, death cemented Sid's place as the ultimate Sex Pistol: Would Sid have wound up making electronica records and guesting on Judge Judy à la Johnny Rotten? Hard to tell, innit??
The device of splashing excerpts from an imaginary Sid "diary" is a fun one that doesn't always work, mostly due to Dalton's being too well-read to truly pull off speaking for Sid. Still, the energy and snot with which Dalton imbues El Sid makes it the best literary encapsulation of punk's spirit yet printed; you just might walk away a tad more charitable toward poor dumb Sidney. For better or worse, Dalton is just as inaccurate as Johnny Rotten in defining Sid: "If you don't get Sid, you don't get punk." -- Tim Stegall
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