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STAY UNTIL WE BREAK by Mercy Brown (http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com /books/318549/stay-until-we-break-by-mercy-brown/978069840431)

Mercy Brown, the pseudonymous survivor of New Brunswick's Nineties alt-rock scene, returns with her second romance novel, continuing the adventures of a plucky indie band with a great sound and big dreams called Stars On The Floor (or Soft.) In her first novel, Loud Is How I Love You, Brown introduced us to Travis and Emmy Lou, the guitarists in Soft who follow a predictably rocky path to love. They're back but only minor characters in Stay Until We Break, which follows the band on an East Coast tour and focuses on the group's hunky but damaged bassist Cole, and its game but untested road manager Sonia. If you're old enough to remember the days of the Melody Bar and Roxy, you might recognize some of these people (Emmy and Travis are based on the author and her real life husband, but the characters in the second novel tend to be composites.) Still, the story is peppered with anecdotes drawn from real life, and the writing about the exhilaration of being young, in a band, and on the road for the first time rings totally true. Be forewarned: This is a romance novel, which means it hews to a certain formula (lots of sex) and predictable plotlines. But it's a fun breezy read that brought back a lot of fond memories for me (hey, I even review Stars On The Floor's first single in the book!) For younger readers, it's a wonderful primer on the halcyon days of indie rock and a great enducement to get in a van and do it yourself while you still can.

LET’S GO TO HELL: Scattered Memories Of The Butthole Surfers by James Burns (Cheap Drugs)

Despite the sub-title “Scattered Memories,” super-fan James Burns has compiled a lovingly and fanatically detailed biography here of one of the weirdest and most underappreciated bands of the alternative era. The ‘Surfers released records with no song titles, no credits, no lineup information, so whatever’s known about the group’s recordings has been compiled by an underground network of tape traders and record collectors, which is how Burns’ interest in the band started. This bio, often hyperbolic and oozing with flowery phrasing, nonetheless does an amazing job of piecing together the band’s fractured history, near-constant personnel changes, and nomadic tours. Hardcore fans will love the hundreds of pages of annotated discography compiled at the end of the book as well.



HOTELS OF NORTH AMERICA by Rick Moody (Little,Brown)

Rick Moody's new novel purports to be the collected writings of one Reginald Morse, a "top-rated" reviewer on the hotel-rating site RateYourLodging.com. As soon becomes obvious, though, Morse has little to say about hotels, and a lot to share about life, family, and most of all, loneliness.

Over the course of his collected reviews of mostly cut-rate hotels, we learn of Reginald's marriage, divorce, and second chance at romance with a woman known only as K. We learn he has a daughter, whom he rarely sees, and we infer that his career has hit the skids, from a promising start as a stock broker to a fly-by-night motivational speaker whose need for paying gigs takes him across the country and sometimes the world. He frequently seems to stay in the sort of dives that have bulletproof plexiglass in the lobby and cockroaches and bedbugs in the rooms.

Reginald Morse is never dishonest, though, neither about his accommodations nor his own peccadilloes. He writes as sanguinely about filthy carpets and complimentary toiletries as he does about his addction to hotel porn and a foray into phone sex with a male prostitute in Manila.

The life story we infer from Reginald Morse's reviews tells a great deal about the plight of the American middle class, about middle-aged men who fell into the Bush recession and never quite managed to climb out again. But his dispatches also offer commentary on the nascent art of Internet writing, of the run-on sentences and self-important pretensions of people who find relevance only on message boards and comment sections. Of course, as Reginald's online popularity grows, so does his exposure to trolls, and he sometimes has to fight back against other anonymous online entities who challenge not only his credibility, but his very existence.

Does Reginald Morse exist? In his Afterword, Rick Moody tries to answer that question and admits he doesn't know the answer. The Reginald Morse who described his stays at the Willows Motel in Boston Corners, NY and The Mason Inn Conference Center & Hotel in Fairfax, Virginia vanished from the grid after his last posting in 2014. At that time, Moody tells us (with a nudge and wink,) RateYourLodging.com was absorbed into a media conglomerate and all of its freelance reviewers let go. Reginald Morse's online existence was erased with the stroke of a keyboard; this book, his collected postings, becomes his only legacy. As we live more and more of our lives online, do we invite the same fate?

Hotels Of North America is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes oppressively sad, but always compelling. It only takes a few pages for Reginald Morse to spring fully to life, his run on sentences and shameless self-obsessed blovation addictively hooking the reader with page-turning urgency.

HOW TO RU(I)N A RECORD LABEL: The Story Of Lookout Records, by Larry Livermore (Don Giovanni)

Larry Livermore’s first memoir told the story of how he lived off the grid for many years in a remote mountain cabin in the hills of Northern California. But during those years, he somehow found the time to publish his own fanzine, write an influential column for Maximum Rock N Roll, and start a DIY record label called Lookout, whose roster included Operation Ivy, Screeching Weasel, and a little punk band called Green Day. With humor, honesty, and a good deal of self-excoriation, How To Ru(i)n A Record Label tells the story of how Lookout Records came to be, its unlikely rise into a multi-million dollar business, and why Livermore simply walked away from it all at the height of the label’s success. If you were a fan of Nineties pop-punk, you’ll know many of the characters here – Tim “Lint” Armstrong, Ben Weasel, Joe Queer, Dr. Frank – and even if the behind-the-scenes drama doesn’t pull you in, the story of the rise (and fall) of Lookout qualifies as sobering lesson in the realities of rock ‘n’ roll, both as a passion and as a business.

LOUD IS HOW I LOVE YOU by Mercy Brown (Intermix/Penguin)

Do you like romance novels? You know… Girl meets boy, girl shags boy, girl loses boy. Now imagine that story told within the sweaty, inbred confines of a small town music scene – in this case, New Brunswick, NJ in the mid-Nineties, when that noisy college town played host to half a dozen rock clubs and a hundred great bands, all competing for their own little piece of turf. Mercy Brown was there, and now, as a wife, mother, and career woman, she’s traded her guitar for a laptop and recalls what it felt like. I’m not much on romance (and some of the sex scenes here made me blush,) but I recognized every character, every crazy weekend night , every emotion, and every note. The novel works as nostalgia for some, but could easily be a blueprint for any young woman with a lick of talent who hears the call of non-conformity and might be thinking about starting a band of her own.

 


YOUR BAND SUCKS – WHAT I SAW AT INDIE ROCK’S FAILED REVOLUTION (But Can No Longer Hear) by Jon Fine (Viking Press)

A Jew, a Korean, and a Mexican meet at a very liberal liberal-arts college and start a band. That’s the straight line that Jon Fine uses to introduce us to Bitch Magnet, the band he, Sooyoung Park, and Orestes Morfin rode into the heart of the Eighties indie-rock underground, before that messy coalition of aggressive noisemakers in broken down vans, small clubs, handmade fanzines, and college radio even had a proper name. After Bitch Magnet came a string of even lesser-known and even noisier bands that earned a few fans and very little money, until Bitch Magnet reunited after a 21-year hiatus to tour Europe, Asia, and America. Fine takes us with him inside that smelly van, in the pizza-stained back rooms of small clubs and dive bars, and makes us feel why he felt he had no choice but to follow that course over half a lifetime. (Along the way, Fine quotes many of his punk rock compadres, so you’ll get pithy quotes from a Who’s Who of the Amerindie underground. ) This is Our Band Could Be Your Life delivered in the first person, filled with vivid insights and often hilarious inside stories, unafraid to name names and call out the creeps, shysters, and crooked promoters Fine met along the way. Re-emerging in the new millennium on his band’s reunion tour, Fine discovers a generation of bands that wear jeans that actually fit as well as the liberating joy of dancing to LCD Soundsystem. Your Band Sucks is funny, insightful, and informative. If you were there, you’ll nod your head in recognition on every page. And if you weren’t, this story might just inspire you to start your own band (or podcast or music blog.) My only criticism is the title; indie rock’s revolution didn’t fail. We changed the world, all right. We just did it fifty or a hundred people at a time.

No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes: An Oral History Of The Legendary City Gardens, by Amy Yates Wuelfing and Steven DiLodovico (DiWuelf Publishing)

I’m not a huge fan of oral histories but having the participants of the story tell the story works particularly well for City Gardens, the warehouse-like venue in Trenton that served as a major tour stop (as well as a launching pad for local bands) from the late Eighties to mid-Nineties. Authors Amy Yates Wuelfing and Steve DiLodovico compiled dozens of interviews to detail the story of the club and the scene surrounding it chronologically (organized by particularly memorable shows.) You’ll find quotes from rock notables like Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye, and former CG bartender John Stewart interspersed with remembrances from the bartenders, security people, photographers, local musicians, and regulars who turned City Gardens into not just a venue but the hub of a vibrant scene, stuck rather unexpectedly smack in the middle of an urban ghetto somewhere between Philly and Manhattan. If you want stories about the Replacements or Green Day or New Order, you’ll find them here, along with tales of debauched 99 Cent Dance Nights and brutal Hardcore moshpits, Industrial noisefests and skanking Ska shows. At the center of the insanity you’ll find Randy “Now” Ellis, the promoter, booker, and indefatigable ringmaster of the City Gardens circus, without whom none of this would have happened. The book will serve as a nostalgic keepsake if you were there, or a historical artifact if you missed it, but either way, you’ll be engrossed and entertained.

A MAN CALLED DESTRUCTION: The Life & Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops To Big Star To Backdoor Man, by Holly George-Warren (Viking)

If someone wrote a movie about a character like Alex Chilton, nobody would ever believe it: A teen idol at sixteen, a musical genius fronting a brilliant but commercially unsuccessful band in his prime, years of isolation and menial jobs, and finally a rebirth, resurrection, and reappreciation as one of the premiere musicians of his generation. Music journalist Holly George-Warren has done a fastidious job in collecting a remarkably detailed, almost day-by-day account of Chilton’s life, from his heady days as the mop-topped singer of the Box Tops to the frustrating but artistically overachieving accomplishments with Big Star. You’ll learn about his unheralded but significant role in the early CBGB’s punk scene, as well as anecdotes about latter day acolytes (like the members of the dB’s) finding him sweeping floors and washing dishes in New Orleans. George-Warren doesn’t pull any punches; friends and family of former Big Star bandmates Andy Hummel and Chris Bell won’t appreciate her frank appraisal of their foibles and falling out, and Chilton himself often comes across as self-destructive and immature (and, in his later years, as an unrepentant sellout gladly cashing in on nostalgia for his Box Tops and Big Star catalog.) If there’s one problem with George-Warren’s encyclopedic scope here, it’s that the book often reads like an encyclopedia; it’s dry when it should be passionate, and while you get a sense of the man, you really won’t get a feel for Chilton’s music (both the good and bad; anyone remember “Volare?”) unless you’ve already heard it. Still, Big Star’s considerable fanbase will gobble this up.

I’LL TAKE YOU THERE: Mavis Staples, The Staple Singers, And The March Up Freedom’s Highway, by Greg Kot (Scribner)

As the music critic for the Chicago Tribune, Greg Kot chronicled firsthand Mavis Staple’s remarkable comeback from near obscurity when she was championed by the likes of Bob Dylan, Ry Cooder, and Jeff Tweedy in the ‘00’s. But there’s so much more to her story, and Kot delivers all of it, from her family’s roots in the rural south to the Staples Family Singers’ entrance into the world of gospel music, to the family’s important role in the Civil Rights Movement of the Sixties, to their unfortunate collision with disco in the 70’s. At every turn, the Staples seem to bump into history, whether it’s growing up with in rural Mississippi with Mahalia Jackson or moving to Chicago and befriending the young Aretha Franklin, becoming part of the legendary Stax/Volt hit machine, or allying themselves with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson. As a music critic, Kot not only nails the story, but provides a real feel for the music as well: How Pops Staples’ tremolo guitar and Mavis’ deep voice revolutionized gospel music, or how they managed to meld gospel, folk, and blues into their own signature sound. Kot’s detailed dissection of how the Staples’ biggest hits were assembled in the studio bears special mention; you feel like a fly on the wheel as these historic records slowly come together, with a list of artists, producers, and record executives that could fill their own wing of the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame. Most importantly, Kot will inspire you to go back to the music, and hear for yourself the Staples’ and Mavis’ unique contributions to gospel, blues, R&B, and folk, whether it’s their groundbreaking reinterpretation of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” or their rainbow-hued version of the Band’s “The Weight.”

THE FIRST COLLECTION OF CRITICISM BY A LIVING FEMALE ROCK CRITIC by Jessica Hopper (Featherproof)

It’s sad to think that Brandon Stosuy and Jessica Hopper – fortysomethings now ensconced in top editorial positions at Pitchfork.com – represent the last generation of music journalists who will have been trained in print. Both got their start writing for fanzines and moved on to professional careers. This isn’t really the first collection of music criticism by a woman (Lillian Roxon’s 1969 Rock Encyclopedia holds that honor, I believe,) but Hopper’s making a point here. There have been female music biographers, but few collections of actual criticism. Hopper’s a great place to start because her writing has always revolved around her feminism and many of the best pieces in this collection focus on that topic, like her classic piece on the inherent misogyny of emo, her landmark piece on R. Kelly’s sordid sexual peccadillos, or her diatribe about Tyler, The Creator’s sexism. Her feminist perspective is also welcomed in her examinations of artists like Lana Del Rey, Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, and Lady Gaga, (Featherproof) by Jim Testa

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