BOOK REVIEW | "BE MY BABY: HOW I SURVIVED MASCARA, MINISKIRTS AND MADNESS, or MY LIFE AS A FABULOUS RONNETTE" BY RONNIE SPECTOR AND VINCE WALDRON
it's difficult to read RONNIE SPECTOR's memoir BE MY BABY (HARMONY BOOKS, 1990) and not come away with an appreciation for just how staggeringly horrific her years as a young adult were at the hands of her ex-husband, legendary producer PHIL SPECTOR.
i don't want to make too much of him since this is not his story, but it's important to get a sense of his character in order to understand her struggle and eventual success in transcending his influence. PHIL is without a doubt a record producer of the first order. his work with 60s GIRL GROUPS like THE RONETTES and THE CRYSTALS and later THE BEATLES are legendary for his use of his WALL OF SOUND technique. essentially he would stack tracks upon each other to create swirling, hypnotic orchestrated compositions that were unlike anything before or since.
in much the same way that he utilized the studio to bend to his will, his relationship with RONNIE was conceived under equally SVENGALI-like terms. she was a player in his warped fantasies and because he held the key to her career, their relationship was a toxic codependency with dire consequences. he would literally stop at nothing to control her:
1) high walls lined with barbed-wire and security
2) a car with a mannequin made to look like him to accompany her on drives
3) surprise adoptions and use of custody as means of control
4) psychological warfare
his most devastating tactic was to promise recording sessions for new songs that never came to be or were shelved indefinitely. her power was her stage presence and he sought to change her into a housewife with limited means of expression, identity or contact with the outside world.
one detail that i found super interesting was that he would watch ORSON WELLES' classic film CITIZEN KANE obsessively and largely the plot of that movie resembles their marriage. one were a rich, powerful man buys everything for his wife without regard for her desires, dreams and ambitions. essentially fame and wealth stunted growth.
the fact that she suffered immensely during and after her marriage, both personally and career-wise (which never fully recovered or reached the same heights again unlike peers such as DIANA ROSS), only further emphasizes the cost of independence.
thankfully she does find bliss eventually in domesticity and motherhood, cliche as that may sound. but i feel that for her finding an identity within a health family construct was something she searched for since childhood as the daughter in a single-mother household. i just like the fact that the memoir ends on a note of creation, something she determined. not a wall that was created around her that ultimately attempted to snuff her out.
to me this book is about struggle and survival and the mental cages we put ourselves in for any number of reasons: fear, loyalty, finances, comfort. people are complicated and the reasons they stay in toxic relationships is equally mercurial and personal. i feel it is a mark of incredible bravery for RONNIE to make a statement like she did in this book especially back in early 90s, almost 30 years ago when this was written long before ME TOO and TIME'S UP and modern advocacy efforts regarding DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, GASLIGHTING and CHILD GROOMING. she is worthy of being admired.
great read. i recommend her memoir highly whether you are a fan of THE RONETTES or not. but honestly, you should be a fan of THE RONETTES.
somewhere along the way, legendary guitar player SCOTT IAN of THRASH METAL icons ANTHRAX learned he had a real gift for storytelling. his obvious mentor in this regard was HARDCORE frontman HENRY ROLLINS of BLACK FLAG/ROLLINS BAND fame who has maintained a longstanding second career as an in-demand spoken-word artist.
given his stature, IAN has seen things over his 30+ year career and his second memoir ACCESS ALL AREAS: STORIES FROM A HARD ROCK LIFE (DA CAPO PRESS 2017), which he penned himself, maintains his acerbic wit, cadence and voice. reading through this it is not hard to imagine him standing beside you performing each narrative as a spoken-word routine, which is definitely a compliment. there is a reason why most musicians don't write their own memoirs, and IAN proves himself a highly capable narrator. his style is very much utilitarian in that he doesn't get too wordy or overly clever with descriptions, which in a way describes his iconic no-sense rhythm guitar work and that of his musical idol, MALCOLM YOUNG of AC/DC.
obviously i don't want to give away any of the stories, but i will say that they deal with his outside pursuits regarding professional poker, moonlighting in tv shows like THE WALKING DEAD and GAME OF THRONES, relationships and of course touring. highlights include stories that include the pranks of legendary PANTERA guitarist DIMEBAG DARRELL (R.I.P.), hanging out with MADONNA and the wardrobe choices of the immortal LEMMY KILMISTER (R.I.P.) of the almighty MOTÖRHEAD.
IAN comes off as a hardworking musician more than aware of how fortunate he is to have his career and the respect of his peers and this book, along with the previous I AM THE MAN: THE STORY OF THAT GUY FROM ANTHRAX (DA CAPO PRESS 2014), seem to be a celebration of that community of musicians. a celebration of how they touched his life, so in that regard i hope he keeps writing.
also keep a look out for the dude in concert. just learned he's touring with MR. BUNGLE in 2020. MIKE PATTON and SCOTT IAN sharing a stage. man, life certainly does not suck.
BOOK REVIEW | "TRANNY: CONFESSIONS OF PUNK ROCK'S MOST INFAMOUS ANARCHIST SELLOUT" BY LAURA JANE GRACE WITH DAN OZZI
its painful to imagine what it must be like to feel born into the wrong body. it must be truly awful to have GENDER DYSPHORIA.
growing up is hard enough without the burden of the shame, guilt, isolation and fear of being outed for something that is so basic to your self-identity. i can't imagine how disillusioning and just exhausting that experience must be.
sadly american culture has a difficult time accepting reality.
reality in all its beautiful, complicated permutations and expressions. the reality that gender is expressed biologically along a spectrum. the reality that our culturally defined, normative-based dualistic concepts of male/female gender identity are just that, artificial human-engineered constructions.
AGAINST ME! front-woman LAURA JANE GRACE in her memoir TRANNY: CONFESSIONS OF PUNK ROCK's MOST INFAMOUS ANARCHIST SELLOUT (HACHETTE BOOKS, 2016) navigates the murky waters of fame, drug abuse, failed marriages and parenthood while coming to terms with her GENDER DYSPHORIA. throughout the book she doesn't mince words about her struggles and ultimately the consequences her transition has had on those around her. it is quite a story.
one structural aspect of this book that was particularly effective was the inclusion of numerous diary entries (apparently selected by co-writer DAN OZZI) that further illustrated and reinforced the level of anguish GRACE went through while struggling with her decision on how to best proceed with her life.
i was really blown away with the courage it took to write this book. GRACE does not shy away from her past selfish experiences as a rock musician or her scattered early upbringing as a military brat and later a homeless punk in FLORIDA during her teenage years. it would seem displacement is a common theme throughout her life.
i can only imagine willing your band from obscurity to being a viable cultural entity must have been confusing enough on its own. i can't imagine the intestinal fortitude it takes to battle managers, PR reps, label execs, bandmates and even former fans while being in a state of becoming. her experience regarding gender identity is beyond anything i've encountered and one is left feeling inspired by her example. its quite an act of courage for anyone to work towards transitioning to their gender identity.
again, i am inspire and just in awe from this book. a very worthwhile read, especially if like me you are sheltered and not familiar with the lived experience of GENDER DYSPHORIA. ultimately the GRACE encourages her fans to seek their truth and become who they were meant to become.
"carrying on in quiet desperation is the english way" - PINK FLOYD
its funny, there was a brief period in 2009 when i taught english in KUWAIT at my old high school. it was a terrible experience and i only lasted a few months before quitting in spectacularly dramatic fashion, something i'll likely get into on a later post. it was my first teaching gig out of graduate school and my worst job to date. what i learned there is that privileged children can be neglected much the same as poor kids. its a real counter-intuitive concept to take to heart, but that doesn't make it any less true. if anything having access and power is more corrosive to students still in their developmental stages and this was something that rang true while reading LILY ALLEN's memoir MY THOUGHTS EXACTLY (BLINK PUBLISHING 2018).
being an american its sometimes hard to understand english stoicism and their "get on with it" culture, but luckily or unluckily i have an english grandmother that was raised by nannies away from parents of means and status not too dissimilar from ALLEN, whose mother was a film producer and father a notable comedian. my grandmother was a war-bride during WWII and brought along with her across the Atlantic quixotic notions of hierarchy and priveledge the embedded english belief of not affronting others with your problems, for that would be unbecoming. this internalization is definitely something i have inherited and in ALLEN i can see a clever mind caught in her own head.
that's my long-winded way of saying ALLEN is truly english.
what drew me to her work back in the mid 00s was her lyrics. there is a definite tradition of english songwriters who write thoughtful, intelligent lyrics about analyzing modern life, usually through character studies. i'd put ALLEN within that lineage that includes other prominent songwriters like RAY DAVIES and DAMON ALBARN in that respect. reducing her work to that of her then-contemporary pop peers is a bit of an insult, as she she seemed in control of her destiny with regards to her records.
and i think that was the point of this memoir, dedicated to her two young daughters in the wake of #METOO movement. she heroically present the public record with a series of vignettes that expound upon topics ranging from infidelity, abortions, career peaks and valleys, motherhood, drug abuse, co-dependency, paparazzi, touring, miscarriages, divorce, sibling rivalry, mental illness, stalkers, parental neglect, addiction, tabloid-induced paranoia and sexual abuse. the common thread seems to be how over time she came to manage her insecurities rooted in childhood neglect and isolation, which were only compounded by her participation in the entertainment industry. it seems obvious that this book is her attempt to provide context to her highs and lows, good and bad choices to her daughters and to fearlessly provide an example for young women to take back control of their bodies and self-esteem.
just a fearless book that lays it all out, which is very much in keeping with the spirit of her music. an affecting and worthwhile read that i recommend.
t seems incredible that this book exists, given the mercurial and closely-guarded nature of TOOL / A PERFECT CIRCLE / PUSCIFER frontman MAYNARD JAMES KEENAN, whose legendary live performances notoriously find him donning an eclectic assortment of stage personas/characters/costumes meant to provoke and obfuscate, allowing him to separate his art from himself. in this manner he has continued to maintain a balance with his family and more importantly his own sense of self.
so it is a little more than intriguing that his collaborative memoir A PERFECT UNION OF CONTRARY THINGS (BACKBEAT BOOKS 2016) written by long-time friend SARAH JENSEN even exists.
this is most definitely the first memoir i have read that has the subject written about in third person, which structurally and stylistically has numerous advantages. structurally it gives the book some distance from its subject, not having to worry itself all the time with the personal feelings and perspective of KEENAN, instead allowing for an unbound narrator to integrate multiple points of view into the narrative. stylistically it makes this memoir read more like a novel, which intriguingly makes KEENAN as a "character" another entity for his audience to interpret and project unto, much like his music.
the main takeaway i got from reading his memoir is that KEENAN is the type of artist that is constantly seeking to challenge his audience, peers and most importantly, himself, to see things from an altered perspective. this need to tinker with formulas and audience expectations while maintaining integrity puts him, in my perspective, as one of the most dynamic frontman of his era (the other being renaissance man MIKE PATTON of FAITH NO MORE / MR. BUNGLE / FANTÔMAS / PEEPING TOM / DEAD CROSS).
given his enigmatic nature and numerous outside focuses (wine-making, brazilian jiu-jitsu, comedy, etc.), this memoir was his way of elucidating to his audience the common thread throughout binds them all: MATHEMATICS. you really get the sense from this book his sensitivity and delight in discovering the patterns, routines and rhythms of nature that bind us all and the myriad of ways mankind has devised uses for them, whether militarily, artistically or even agriculturally.
well worth seeking out and reading. don't worry his mysterious, enigmatic persona is still very much intact, if only slightly more defined at the edges.
i just want to get it out of the way that i found SLEATER-KINNEY guitartist/co-vocalist CARRIE BROWNSTEIN's memoir HUNGER MAKES ME A MODERN GIRL (RIVERHEAD BOOKS, 2016) jarring and difficult to follow. as a former english teacher im pretty accustomed to student writing that attempts to cover up a lack ideas with cumbersome structures and awkward word choices. this memoir is full of them and i can't figure out why?
it was meandering to the point of confusion. my feeling is that a reader of an book dedicated to an artist is hoping to appreciate any number of aspects, any of which are good fodder for a memoir. these could include insights on the artist's biography, creative process, context(s), breakthroughs, downfalls, influences, etc. BROWNSTEIN seemed determined to not placate to any of these tropes of the memoir format. she would seemingly take you on a long aside that dithered and wandered nowhere.
it was very frustrating as i was constantly questioning what her point was and why i was reading this. and then there was her writing style which was overly and ornamental to the point of being annoying. if she was attempting to show-off her cleverness, she failed miserably.
i was able to gleen some information about the formation of SLEATER-KINNEY and how BROWNSTEIN's complicated upbringing informed her relationships with peers and collaborators, but ultimately BROWNSTEIN puts herself center stage which is an odd choice in a memoir. my understanding is that what makes portrait photography and memoirs compelling is not the subject necessarily, but rather the context surrounding the subject. how have outside forces affected an artist's process? what are the internal/external dynamics that contributed to the making of a piece of art? in this memoir things just happen and seemingly she brought it about. came off a bit narcisstic, almost like reading THE DIRT (HARPERCOLLINS, 2001) by MÖTLEY CRÜE, where each of them fight over narritive control by asserting their greatness at the expense of all other band members. same thing with BROWNSTEIN.
i was really interested in knowing about their politics which never really came up. for me personally this is odd because i saw them play ROSELAND BALLROOM on February 15, 2003 right after participating in the anti-war protests that day in manhattan. they seemed very much enthused by that palpable energy and voiced their displeasure in GEORGE W BUSH's policies and proceeded to play a killer set. maybe my perception of them was off, given that so few pages addressed any political concerns. instead all of her concerns are rather insular tropes of the misunderstood traveling musician, which is beyond boring to read.
a very frustrating read. i love the band and i highly recommend listening to their records. i'd just say wait until CORIN TUCKER decides to get around to writing her story. this book is a hard pass.
JOHNNY MARR is a singular talent whose legendary partnership with MORRISSEY in THE SMITHS puts him, in my mind, in the highest echelon of songwriting talents that rock music has ever produced. his story could've ended there but he went on to expand his musical vocabulary by pursuing an expansive carrer that includes collaborative efforts with the likes of TALKING HEADS, PET SHOP BOYS, BRIAN FERRY, THE PRETENDERS, THE THE, ELECTRONIC (with BERNARD SUMNER of NEW ORDER), BILLY BRAGG, KIRSTY MACCOLL, OASIS, BLACK GRAPE, MODEST MOUSE, THE CRIBS as well as a stellar string of successful of recent solo releases.
all that being said, what struck me most from reading his autobiography SET THE BOY FREE (DEY STREET BOOKS, 2016), which deals with him recounting his extraordinary career was his ability to be in the moment. this moment. i cant imagine what it must be like being defined work (however transcendentally awesome) you did as a teenager. for him it was a determined focus and drive, perhaps rooted in his struggling irish-immigrant MANCUNIAN working-class upbringing, that allowed him to not get caught up in the hype and hysteria of riding such a phenomenal critical and artistic wave so early.
as a fan, i'm always struck by his career choices which always appeared to be labours of love and over time he cultivated a following that came with him, which is incredible given that most successful artists are mindful of no alienating their audience. if anything MARR is taking them on the journey with him.
i want to add that MARR's voice as a writer is very direct and deliberate and this has to be one of the better written autobiographies i have read in recent years. perhaps this shouldn't come as a surprise given the literary aspirations of his work over the years and the quality of project collaborators he has sought out. i wouldn't expect anything else but quality in his writing.
as NOEL GALLAGHER is apt to saying with regards to MARR, "dude is a fucking wizard." by all means, check out his work if you haven't and down the road after a lifetime of enjoying his music, consider reading his excellent autobiography.
when the british concocted their COTSWOLD GAMES in the 17th century, a forerunner to the modern olympic games, they touted "amateurism" as a way of assuring that the sporting event was kept pure from debased notions of professionalism. after all, they wanted to showcase their self-assured physical superiority over the constituents of their imperialistic holdings without looking as if they actually tried.
this was the prism i viewed CALVIN JOHNSON and the cult surrounding his legendary indie label K RECORDS and the whole 1980s INDIE music scene of OLYMPIA, WASHINGTON through in general. primarily known for his decidedly non-professional musicianship in his notable group BEAT HAPPENING, as well as late projects including THE HALO BENDERS, DUB NARCOTIC SOUND SYSTEM, and THE HIVE DWELLERS, JOHNSON has been renowned for popularizing what has since to become known as TWEE POP. this genre usually denotes music by amateur or non-technical musicians.
before reading MIKE BAUMGARTEN's "LOVE ROCK REVOLUTION" (SASQUATCH BOOKS, 2012), i mistook JOHNSON and his ilk as being inept, arts-fartsy elitists that look down upon musicians with actual talent, like say the concurrent GRUNGE scene that blew in neighboring SEATTLE. perhaps that notion came from reading books about NIRVANA and PEARL JAM and SOUNDGARDEN and how acolytes of the underground made them question the purity of their careerist motives in making music.
BAUMGARTEN's portrayal of JOHNSON in essence is that of a curious music fan that sought out an artistic community that didn't exist in his youth. the narrative of K RECORDS is the story of his efforts to nurture that community, employing a strong DIY ETHIC that put artistry above profit margin. this mindset comes directly out of his involvement with various INDIE and HARDCORE scenes in the early 80s and his connections to institutions like DISCHORD RECORDS and arguably most importantly, EVERGREEN STATE COLLEGE's unconventional KAOS 89.3FM college radio station. if anything, the story of the label is an outgrowth of the community surrounding the radio station, university and the underground independent tape-trading communities across the nation.
i can understand how successful GRUNGE musicians felt pigeonholed by "Calvinist" acolytes from OLYMPIA and the burgeoning scene including fiercely strident labels like KILL ROCK STARS. by making their bed with the "corporate ogre," they were essentially a part of the machine, a by-line on a quarterly report, a commodity and they knew it. yes, the music produced by K RECORDS was decidedly unsophisticated and had what FRANK ZAPPA famously coined in another era as "zero commercial potential," but their motivation was to sell records but to showcase artistic freedom.
and on that scale he flourished having collaborated with/and or helped promote a fertile cultural scene that gave the world HEAVENLY, BIKINI KILL, MECCA NORMAL, BRATMOBILE, HEAVENS TO BETSY / SLEATER-KINNEY, UNWOUND, HEAVENLY, MAKE-UP, THEE HEADCOATS, KICKING GIANT, THE GO TEAM, D+, THE MICROPHONES, BECK, MUDHONEY, TIGER TRAP, THE MELVINS, and even NIRVANA.
so there you go. K RECORDS is almost a modern VELVET UNDERGROUND-like phenomena in their cultural relevance wasn't rooted in the records they sold, but in the bands they influenced. and their influence according to the book was their DIY ETHIC, GRUNGE bands be damned.