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Rock Book Roundup: An online exclusive review

An online exclusive review

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

By Tim Kinsella


Popular music has always been about selling a lot more than a melody. Teenagers are the target market, not only because of their disposable incomes, but because their pliable identities make them susceptible to deep attachment to a persona via posturing and/or high-pitched emotionalism. Pop songs sell the persona of the performer, and it’s this persona that the audience clings to. The smartest performers craft their public images with sophisticated subtlety in a manner the audience can idealize as being just like themselves, while remaining always barely out of reach. Perhaps the most common persona in underground or alternative culture is that of the outsider.

I like to imagine the characters these four books represent and broaden the impressions of — Lydia Lunch, Handsome Dick Manitoba, Thom Yorke and Elliott Smith — as all sharing a table in a cafeteria. It is not difficult to imagine they would be drawn toward the same table of weirdoes and geeks in the high school of popular culture. Each leaves his or her own fingerprints, to differing degrees, on the creation of his or her own myth, and each does so with different levels of sophistication. But alienation remains the common theme between them.

Paradoxia: A Predator’s Diary, Lydia Lunch’s 1999 memoir now re-issued by Akashic Books, reads like Penthouse Forum written from the Toxic Avenger’s perspective. Her gory details of sexual encounters of every kind seriously make a vow of celibacy appealing. Turning people on with first-person accounts of sexual encounters might be simple, but making people nauseous hardly equates literary achievement. Maybe recounting this endless string of unfortunate decisions implies some depth. But in the end, I just felt bad for her. All she thought to be self-empowering comes across as psychosis projected.

Her ambitions to appropriate and feminize Hubert Selby Jr. or Bukowski come off cartoon-ish. Sleeping with a pet python? Her long-line of Leader of the Pack-style bad-boy boyfriends come off about as irresistible as Snake Plissken in Escape from New York. When her and a beau do eventually graduate to petty crime and harassment, it seems like maybe there is an arc to the story, but that too fizzles as just another transitory thrill.

Between the OD’s, suicide attempts, transsexual hookers, sex in puddles of puke and screwing random teenagers on the street, there are moments. A tantrum turned multiple pet-massacre is funny. A brief philosophical indulgence arguing suicide as an act of courage uses more cranium than derriere. Toward the end she lets the posturing slip and takes a moment to reflect on her obsessive, self-destructive behavior, even showing genuine compassion towards another sentient being for a moment. But ultimately her misanthropic armors win out and she recoils from her interior glance.

Maybe the only self-aware aspect of this self-conscious memoir comes in the quiet repetition of a repeatedly passing analogy. She compares sex to an abstract time zone, and then continuously refers to this once the parallel is established. Maybe within this simple, vague poetic flight lies the entirety of her introspection or motivation or at least a clue to its existence. I’m not going to argue her spot she has crafted for herself on the art-punk Mt. Olympus, but I will not be devoting much time to it.

The Official Punk Rock Book of Lists by Amy Wallace and Handsome Dick Manitoba views counterculture from the formally rebellious and proudly stupid perspective of Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators. The funniest part is Manitoba’s spot on the cover cartoon (front and center, flanking Joey Ramone along with Kurt Cobain, and right next to Iggy Pop). I might not argue his rightful inclusion on the cover alongside the Sex Pistols, the Misfits, Green Day, Debby Harry and the Cramps — even if his initials on his hat betray the insecurity that no one would recognize him — but it could be read as slightly self-aggrandizing to put himself front and center. Even as a fan of many of the bands it covers, I cannot imagine being so desperately restless as to read punk fart jokes and Mohawk tips or a list of fat punks. Maybe sniffing glue would help?

What the first two books have in common — the contempt for straight culture — evolved into an abstract dread by the mid-Nineties. Dead Children Playing by Stanley Donwood and Dr. Tchock collects the paintings from Radiohead’s catalog. At first glance the book seems about as interesting as looking closely at these covers, but a few details propel it beyond that.

A photo of all the paintings in a huge studio topples one’s familiar sense of scale of the individual works. As CD covers, or even as a small coffee-table book, the paintings are reminiscent of Adbusters-style collages and doodles. Viewed from afar, the paintings are revealed to be larger — consequently, the gestures within them are far more expressive and kinetic than their reduced scale would imply.

A short, personal essay introducing each section knocks the suggested level of discourse down a notch, and the results are advantageous. Donwood comes across as a likeable and modest guy, one fixated on the paranoid cultural subconscious. However self-consciously naïve his style may come across, the essays reveal the level of thought behind each series, which the jumble of the original covers does not necessarily betray. Donwood seems like someone any Radiohead fan might know, who just lucked out and got financed to struggle through his obsessions.

The visual representation for Kid A — the struggle to recover blurred memories within the limited focus of blood and snow, cartoon sperm and skyscraper pyramids — is impeccable. Reminiscent of the frozen menace of Robert Altman’s Quintet, this landscape perfectly heightens the heroism of Yorke’s soaring vocals. A situationist detour through London with an antique map inspired the surveillance-culture musings of Amnesiac. Maps then morphed into simple, bold billboards for Hail to the Thief, tracing the connections between consumer culture and passive empirical ambitions in a more immediate manner than Radiohead’s predecessors.

Through photos and interviews with those who knew the man best, Autumn deWilde’s book Elliott Smith uncovers how Smith could write songs everyone could relate to: He was just like everyone else. He liked to drink with his friends. He was sometimes funny and sometimes withdrawn. Although everyone refers vaguely to his bleak last years and the frustrations they all felt toward him at that point, it’s remarkable how common Smith comes across. Even his habit of stealing people’s jokes endeared him to his friends. The man they tell of seems not just an unlikely rock star, but unlikely to be in control of any situation.

DeWilde entered Smith’s life as a friend and collaborator later than most of the people she interviews, and makes sure to justify her undertaking the project to many of her interviewees. Everyone agrees Smith was charming and quick to open up to people before swiftly sabotaging relationships. As a result, many friends are left wondering what any of them meant to him.

However heavy-handed Smith may have become while crafting his own public persona, it comes across as an honestly humble reaction to exceptional circumstances. The overall impression is of a self-conscious and self-depreciating man, confused as to why so many people ever looked at him as special.

The book’s format presents a unified image of Smith. The various photographs seem perfectly consistent with the man his friends speak of. He is withdrawn and easy-going in a classic Eeyore sort of way — a loveable persona for any singer/songwriter.

 

 

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