Black Postcards – Dean Wareham

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.


The Rest Is Noise

Classical music.. how do you approach it? There’s so much of it. How do you find out what you like and what you don’t, where to begin, which direction to go? There may be a temptation to just ignore it. Don’t get it, never will.. which would be a big mistake.

Classical music is boring? How about The Rite Of Spring, music by Stravinsky? At it’s premiere in 1913, there were riots worthy of a Sex Pistols or Jesus And Mary Chain gig. Arguments, fistfights in the audience, the Paris police failed to restore order, chaos reigned. Anything but boring.

Classical music is highbrow? Let’s take the tritone, for example, a musical interval that spans three whole tones, the augmented fourth or diminished fifth. It’s an unsettling and unstable noise. Not interested? Well, it’s also called diabolus in musica, the devil in music. Remember the intro of Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze? It’s a tritone. You’ll hear it in the music of Black Sabbath. And you’re going to find it in classical works by Saint-Saëns, Benjamin Britten and many more, from the Middle Ages onward. And in jazz. And in film music.

So you could pick up a book or two to help you along.. start with Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise, which will tell you about 20th century music and how modern composers pushed the classical music envelope, creating an array of sounds as yet unheard. The book looks back for references to the late romantic period of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, and tips its hat to The Velvet Underground, The Beatles, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.

I was lucky. My much-missed old friend Gillan Meek prompted and gently pushed music in my direction. “Try this”.. “Did you like it? Great. Here’s something a little different.” That’s how I discovered beautiful sounds like the Tallis Fantasia by Vaughan-Williams (1910), Arvo Pärt‘s Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten (1977, modern music indeed) and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta by Bartók (1936). Try them for size.

It’s easier than ever to try classical music.. Alex Ross’ web site has iTunes playlists and the majority of MP3 download sites will let you grab just one movement of a symphony, say, to sample it.

And if I had to recommend just one place to get you started on a classical music odyssey, let’s pick something from a time before Alex Ross’s book begins. Take fifteen minutes out of your day to listen to Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic play the fourth movement from Gustav Mahler‘s 5th Symphony. There’s no finer interpretation of the Adagietto.

Here’s Part 2. Did you like it? Good. There’s a whole lot more to discover.

Books New Music

Me, Cheeta

If you have a hankering for a rollicking tell-all tale of movie star excess, sex, violence, kidnap and bananas.. knuckle down to your local library (makes so much sense in these cash-strapped times) and badger them to get you a copy of ‘Me, Cheeta’, the autobiography of the world’s most famous chimpanzee, still going at the age of 76. Cheeta has a lot to say about Tarzan co-stars Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan, the Hollywood movie machine, and much much more. Don’t be tempted to have a glass of something while reading it though.. you’ll be snorting it down your nose at the sheer preposterousness of the cheeky chimp’s litigious revelations.. if Marlene Dietrich was “one of the good Germans”, says Cheeta, “then the bad ones must be absolutely f*****g terrifying”. Maureen O’Hara inimitable? Not according to our simian raconteur: “Maureen was in reality highly imitable. I myself can do a reasonable Maureen O’Hara by simply screeching as loudly as I can and flinging my excrement around.”. Ouch!

Salacious, foul-mouthed and entertaining. Yep. Go on, check it out, you know it makes sense.

And now that we’ve established a theme, I’m looking forward to checking out more of Leader Cheetah.. I recently pricked up my ears at their Arizona-by-way-of-Adelaide take on alt-country.. Australiana, maybe? Damn fine stuff, whatever:


Bit Of A Blur – Alex James

I’m back. Another 24000 miles under the Captain’s belt, visiting the old country. Grabbed a couple of books for the cabin: this one which suits my grizzled old man countenance, plus Alex James’ biography.

Blur music: I put on several of their albums since I returned and.. truly great sounds. Gave the music scene a kick up the pants. I could have done without the Oasis battle, mind, but listening once again to Graham Coxon’s snaky guitar lines is reason enough to celebrate: Damon Albarn’s lyrics, the enthusiasm, even the Britishness.. all good. But the BritPop excess… dear oh dear.

I nearly finished the book. Nearly. I’d have thrown it across the room, but you don’t do that to books, do you? But if I’d had to read one more tale of matey high jinks with Damian and Tracey and Keith, I would have shredded it, no problem. The more famous he gets, the more uninteresting the tale. I genuinely liked the early history of the band and the insights into his childhood, but the story all goes to custard in a blizzard of cocaine, booze and boorish behavior. I know he admits he was living the rock and roll lifestyle the way he imagined it should be lived.. and that should be entertaining and the basis for a great memoir (Paul Trynka on Iggy, anyone?), but here, it’s just a repetitive barrage of pointless anecdotes.

He may be a reformed character now, who knows? The closing chapters probably would have told me he’s settled down, living in a house, a very big house, in the country, new baby and wife bringing perspective and clarity to his thoughts. But is Alex James now the kind of bloke that Alex James would want to live next door to?


Open Up And Bleed

I’ve been spending a happy hour or two with Paul Trynka‘s new biography of Iggy Pop – a rattling good read it is too. It fit my bill – long enough to keep me going for a while (I read fast), unpretentious, the balance between pure info and story just right. The Guardian reckoned it didn’t “capitalise on the raw drama that is intrinsic to [Iggy’s story]..” – phoo, like Anthony Keidis’ book, you mean?

Mister, if that means I have to trawl through endless tales of prodigious quantities of drugs and sex to get to the real heart of the matter, then I’ll decline the offer, thanks. Very nicely done, Paul: I hope Iggy is pleased with the end result.

There is nothing more to be said on the fall and rise (and fall and rise, encore) of Iggy pre, during and post-Stooges than lies between the pages of this book.. especially interesting are the ‘Iggy and Dave’ passages, which saw me put Mr. Osterberg’s ‘The Idiot’ and ‘Lust For Life’ plus Mr. Bowie’s ‘Low’ and ‘Heroes’ on heavy rotation on the ship’s stereo as I navigated the book.

Plenty of reviews out there, you don’t have to take my word for it.. plus some interesting stuff on the Trynka web site.

Check it out at Amazon (or Amazon UK)

Stooges bonus: Longtime Iggy roadie Jos Grain spent a little time writing a rider for the great man.. very funny, not to be missed, read it here.

Gratuitous YouTube post: The Stooges at their peak, Cincinnati, 1970.