Nothing caught my eye in the pulpy crime fiction section of the library the other week, so I mooched over to the music books and borrowed what turned out to be one of the best rock and roll biographies I’ve ever read.
Dean Wareham was the frontman of cult indie proto-shoegazers Galaxie 500, a band I thought were just fine, but were no great heroes of mine. The best thing I liked about them was their fantastic cover of Joy Division/New Order’s Ceremony. They did, however, have a decent and incredibly dedicated following. As did Luna, Wareham’s subsequent band, praised by Rolling Stone as “the greatest band you never heard of’ (though that line may be a little over-used).
Black Postcards is a brutally honest account of life in the music business, detailing in plain terms the tightrope walked between artistic integrity and commercial acceptance, independence and corporate control. He tells us just what it means to be penniless when unsuccessful and following a dream, then skint when successful but in debt to a major label, and how that affects relationships with the people around you: bandmates, soon to become enemies, tugging in opposite directions. The burn-out. The break-up of families, the infidelity, the bitterness, the wounds. Friends and relations trail in the wake, lost or forgotten.
And the life affirming moments when, all too briefly, the hype and the music and the effort and the desire coalesce and bring the rewards.. world tours, critical acclaim, high living and commercial success.
If you’ve been in a band, at whatever level, you’ll recognise the moves, the infighting and the frustration described here as the depths are plumbed, but this makes it all the more enjoyable when Wareham and company pull it off and scale the peaks. If you have any interest at all in human nature, you’ll find this book a worthwhile read too – you don’t need to know anything about the music.
If you’re not a fan and would like an intro to the sounds, Wareham notes that Galaxie 500’s debut Today – “..made for $750, including sixty minutes of one inch tape” – and Penthouse by Luna are his favourites, Penthouse being “the first difficult album Luna had made, where we fought and were set against one another. Where things took longer than they should have. Where we went over budget. But it was also clearly our best album.” So here’s a track from each, bracketing Ceremony.
If you see the book, grab it. Five stars.
P.S. Dean Wareham continues to perform today, with his wife and former Luna bassist Britta Phillips, as Dean & Britta.