Wednesday, October 14, 2009

I just finished reading a new book on the California Bay Area punk scene, called Gimme Something Better, by Jack Boulware and Silke Tudor, two writers I know nothing about. The book is okay, and the scene it documents is definitely worthy of attention - especially the late '70s SF scene which, like the L.A. scene of the same era has typically been overshadowed by happenings in NYC and the UK. The book details that era in a good bit of detail, and also covers much that came after, leading up to the big success of Bay Area bands Green Day and Rancid (and somewhat later, AFI).

I'm not interested in doing a full-scale review of the book, at least not here, not now. But I do want to comment on the form of the book, because it's the latest representative of what has become a genre unto itself: the punk rock oral history.

Many people seem to think that Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain pioneered this particular approach with their popular account of the New York punk scene, Please Kill Me. While I think they definitely popularized oral history as the dominant mode of punk rock chronicle, they weren't the first. Clinton Heylin beat them to the punch a couple years earlier with From the Velvets to the Voidoids, and those two books cover an awful lot of the same ground, although Please Kill Me is definitely the more lurid of the two and thus a more fun read.

Since then (PKM came out in '94), oral histories of punk have proliferated. We have We Got the Neutron Bomb (Brendan Mullen and Marc Spitz, on LA punk), Lexicon Devil (Mullen, Don Bolles and Adam Parfrey, on the Germs), Dance of Days (Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins, on the DC scene), American Hardcore (Steve Blush, on - you guessed it - hardcore). Even John Lydon/Johnny Rotten turned his autobiography, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, into an oral history. And now we have Boulware and Tudor's book, and I'm sure there will be more to come.

I like a lot of these books, and have found them valuable for piecing my own research together. But at the same time, I'm skeptical of the motivation behind a lot of them. For one thing, this way of representing punk has become standardized - each oral history that comes out seems more like the one that preceded it, even though the locations and the interviewees vary from one to the next. One really unfortunate result of these books is that they all focus on the most sensational aspects of punk: the drug addiction, violence, the squalor of the so-called "punk lifestyle." And as they do so, they define punk as something that ultimately has very little to do with the music that punk bands have made, because none of these books - none of them, with the possible exception of Blush's book on hardcore - have anything interesting to say about punk music. I'm willing to grant that for many people punk is a lifestyle and an identity, not just a musical genre; but without the music punk would mean shit. And the music is the thing that these books most fail to discuss adequately, because the authors get too caught up in playing "connect the dots" between the stories told by their informants to really dig deep into anything, and it's a lot easier to piece together an oral history of people staking out their sides in the East Bay vs. West Bay feud than it is putting together a string of mostly disjointed observations into something that speaks to the complexity of the creative process. Despite the romantic assumption that the punk creative process is spontaneous and unreflective, punk music is as much the product of calculated effort and applied creativity as any other form of really great music.

There's another thing that bothers me even more about these books, though, and it's something that is made explicit in Gimme Something Better. In the introduction to the book, former Operation Ivy frontman Jesse Michaels claims: "The oral history format has the great advantage of eliminating The Rock Writer ... The stories that follow are the real thing."

This, quite frankly, is bullshit. Does anyone really think that piecing together a 470-page oral history is not an act of WRITING? Does anyone actually believe that the authors do not ultimately exercise their own judgment in deciding which interview excerpts to include and which to leave on the cutting room floor, let alone deciding which questions to ask in the first place? The fact that in all of these oral histories the author's questions are omitted from the text is to me not a sign of the "realness" of these books, but a sign of their fundamental dishonesty. They mask the conditions of their own production. They try to make it appear as though there is just one big flowing conversation happening amongst all the informants, when in fact the whole thing is choreographed and arranged by the people whose names appear on the cover of the book.

These books are the product of a lot of labor and they show it. There's good reason why people enjoy reading them. But why is it that I have rarely read any of the above books and come away having any genuinely new insights into the things they discuss? I think it's because in allowing their informants to theoretically do all the talking, the authors abdicate their own responsibility to actively, explicitly interpret the material they work with. And while I appear to be most decidedly in a minority, I would so much rather read a book in which an author offers an original interpretation over one that pretends to let its subjects "speak for themselves."

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Media alert: I was interviewed yesterday on WRSI, The River, one of the more cool local radio stations. My interviewer was Monte Belmonte, the morning show host, and he did a nice job of editing our wandering 25 minute conversation into a series of three short segments that mostly speak to the peculiarity of my position teaching rock history at a prestige school like Smith (which I don't find all that peculiar at this point, but I guess it still looks odd to the outside world). It's a nice counterpart piece to the one I did earlier this year for WFCR, the local NPR station, a link to which is archived in an earlier post.

Here's the link to The River interview:

Thursday, October 1, 2009

This is a completely unpremeditated post (which I realize is not an unusual thing in the world of blogging but it is sort of unusual for me, since I'm still relatively new at this), prompted by having just quickly skimmed Pitchfork's list of the the best albums of the 2000's, from #200 to #21 (the top 20 are still to come). I have mixed feelings about Pitchfork. I'm not an "indie rock" person, but a fair bit of the music I like falls under the indie rock category; and Pitchfork's reach in their review section, while narrower than I'd prefer, is broad enough to encompass enough music that I might at least potentially like that I find it worth reading. How's that for qualified interest.

Still, I'm such a compulsive reader of things about music, and even more so, one of my big guilty pleasures is that I can't resist a good list. I've only included one list so far on this blog but I can assure you that more will come (see below). Lists can be completely trivial but they can also force you to exercise your own critical judgment in a visceral way. There's something about seeing music or movies placed into a list - especially a "best of/top 10" list - that immediately makes me want to figure out how much I agree or disagree with the rankings, even if I think the overall enterprise is sort of dumb (for instance, if Guitar Player magazine offers a list of great rock guitarists I'm a lot more likely to take it seriously than if the same list were offered by Rolling Stone, but either way I'd be inclined to go through it and see what I think).

Lists of records especially feed into my compulsive side because then it becomes not just a matter of, do I agree or disagree; but becomes also a game of, how much of this stuff do I own? And that's exactly what I fell into with the Pitchfork list. How many of Pitchfork's choice for the top 200 (minus 20) albums of the 2000s do I own? The reveal is below, but first a further word on why I care.

In this case, I was especially interested to check the list against my own music collection because I'm well aware that my tastes lean in a decidedly retro direction. When I'm shopping for music I always favor older material over more current stuff; and one of the main reasons I read music magazines is so that I can better force myself to buy the occasional newer album rather than only feeding my desire for more 1970s hard rock or 1960s free jazz. Seeing that Pitchfork had assembled such a list, I saw it as an opportunity to test just how much my consumption habits are completely stuck in the past.

As it happens, they're not quite as stuck as I thought, although overall I only have a small proportion of what's there - but then again, I don't like everything Pitchfork reviewers like anyways so I'd guess that half the stuff there is stuff I could easily live without.

So far, I own - get ready - 20 out of the 180 albums listed so far. I'm guessing I'll have at least a few of the top 20 since I always find that as lists get higher I'm more likely to have more of what they feature, since the things at the top of any such list are the things that have tended to get more attention and to be more universally appreciated - and while I pride myself for going against the musical grain much of the time, good reviews do get my attention.

Now, to make this whole thing really meta, here's my list of the albums I own that are featured on the Pitchfork list, sans anything that might be in the top 20 (I've noted the ranking of each album in parentheses, from low to high):

Lightning Bolt, Wonderful Rainbow (#157)
My Morning Jacket, Z (#146)
Fiery Furnaces, Blueberry Boat (#145)
TV on the Radio, Dear Science (#140)
No Age, Weirdo Rippers (#136)
Sleater Kinney, The Woods (#127)
Mastodon, Leviathan (#126)
Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP (#119)
Jay-Z, The Black Album (#90)
No Age, Nouns (#78)
The White Stripes, Elephant (#74)
Portishead, Third (#71)
The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America (#64)
Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend (#51)
Deerhunter, Microcastle (#50)
The Streets, Original Pirate Material (#36)
Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes (#32)
Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago (#29)
Kanye West, The College Dropout (#28)
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Fever to Tell (#24)

And now, to get even more meta, here's my own ranking of these same albums, from high to low:

1. Sleater Kinney, The Woods
2. Mastodon, Leviathan
3. The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America
4. Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes
5. The White Stripes, Elephant
6. Fiery Furnaces, Blueberry Boat
7. Jay-Z, The Black Album
8. My Morning Jacket, Z
9. The Streets, Original Pirate Material
10. Kanye West, The College Dropout
11. No Age, Nouns
12. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Fever to Tell
13. Portishead, Third
14. Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago
15. Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP
16. TV on the Radio, Dear Science
17. No Age, Weirdo Rippers
18. Deerhunter, Microcastle
19. Lightning Bolt, Wonderful Rainbow
20. Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend

A caveat: several of the albums above are very recent purchases for me (I just bought the Portishead album a few days ago, and TV on the Radio I just got a couple weeks before), so my opinions will likely shift as I have more occasion to listen to them. That's the final point I'll make about lists: they are not permanent, but capture a momentary opinion that poses as something more enduring.