Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Book Review: I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon by Crystal Zevon

For a few years my brother and I had a running contest to find the ultimate "anti-Zevon." Essentially this was the musician who best exhibited overwrought emotional live performances, sappy, excessively maudlin lyrics, laughable self-pity, a bloated sense of self-importance, and a complete lack of self-deprecating humor. James Taylor, North-era Elvis Costello, and Adam Duritz were all at various points crowned with this dubious honor. Actually, I think Adam Duritz still wears the crown.

Of course, this ridiculous and simplistic game was only possible because of Zevon's reputation as the hard-living, hard-drinking, womanizing, balls-to-the-wall lunatic portrayed in his songs, particularly those from his first few albums.

A somewhat more complex view of the musician unfolds in Crystal Zevon's I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon. A collection of biographical anecdotes, quips, and stories told by Zevon's friends, family members, colleagues, and cohorts thrown under the bus by the musician, the book recounts the highs, lows, and in-betweens of Zevon's life, with what can only be described as brutal honesty. The book's contributors do not make apologies for the musician; they never try to hide the fact that Zevon could be, especially when sucking the bottle, a complete, unimaginable asshole. Yet through all these dirty deeds, the book conveys a certain tenderness and definite affection for the man, shortcomings and all. In short, it is one of the most honest and engaging music biographies to date.

The image of Zevon that emerges from this book is essentially that of a man whose actions were driven by his various addictions, particularly to booze (and more booze) and women (and more and more women). These actions were almost always despicable, including incidents of mental and physical spousal abuse, frequent bed-hopping from groupie to actress to waitress to every other occupation at breakneck pace, and a complete disregard for his children's welfare.

When on the bottle, Zevon was spiteful, vindictive, and dangerous: a complete maniac not too different from the characters in some of his songs. The stories told in the book about his drinking and its consequences are truly frightening. While the sex-n-drugs-n-rock-n-roll lifestyle might have been celebrated, or at the least, vividly described, in Zevon's songs, his friends and colleagues, and the broken relationships left in his path, make it clear that such a lifestyle was nothing to romanticize.

With all of Zevon's faults, the reader might very well view him as little more than a belligerent, obnoxious drunk. What prevents that from happening are the contributors' tales of the musician's better moments, which, for the most part, they saw only when he was off the sauce. Once sober (and before his relapse after being diagnosed with cancer), Zevon is revealed to have been an active, caring father, a dedicated friend, and an intelligent, humble person. To say that Zevon was a different person when sober is an understatement; it is truly startling how his personality was so lousy when sauced and so caring when sober. One suspects that Zevon would not ultimately be remembered with such sympathy by the book's contributors if his drunken behavior had continued when sober.

My only complaint about the book is that it sometimes ignores Zevon's music in favor of his wild, extracurricular exploits. There are occasional anecdotes regarding how a particular lyric or song developed (Zevon actually rubbed pot roast on his chest, which would eventually find its way into the song Excitable Boy), but for the most part these insights are few and far between.

The book begins and ends with an unflinching account of Zevon's illness and death. Although this could be seen as a cheap way to evoke the reader's sympathy before all the stories of debauchery are told, it instead shows him as a person, not as a musical persona or stereotype. In the end, the lasting image of Warren Zevon is that of a conflicted man whose actions were influenced by the addictions that defined most of his adult life. A prick when drunk, a kind, compassionate person when sober, Zevon is undoubtedly a fascinating musical figure. This book, and Crystal's willingness to honor her ex-husband's wish that she recount his life with complete honesty, stands as one of the most revealing and heartbreaking music biographies written.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Book Review: Rip It Up and Start Again - Postpunk 1978-1984 by Simon Reynolds (U.S. version)

Simon Reynolds’ Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 is an ambitious and well-researched, though ultimately flawed, attempt at defining and chronicling the postpunk movement. Like post-Entertainment Gang of Four, the material is solid and engaging, but leaves you thinking it could have been so much better.

There are many things to like about this book, and these keep Reynolds’ study from being just another also-ran entry in the growing number of books examining the punk and postpunk eras. Reynolds’ enthusiasm and love of the postpunk music he discusses is apparent, and for the most part he tempers his enthusiasm and doesn’t fall into the trap of claiming everything from this era was without fault (though his over-the-top praise of Scritti Politti borders on the obsessive, wearing-blinders type of praise usually espoused by a band’s family members).

This enthusiasm lends a certain pace to the book that makes it very readable. Reynolds paints great pictures of the various musicians, freaks, con artists, suits, and lackeys that dotted the postpunk landscape, and rarely does the book get bogged down in extraneous details. (It should be noted that the U.S. version reviewed here is an abridged version of the U.K. edition).

The greatest strength of this book is how Reynolds convincingly places postpunk music in its broader historical, social, political, and economic contexts. Of course, some of this is easy; it doesn’t take much effort to show how Joy Division’s utterly humorless and bleak music was influenced by the band’s shithole hometown of Manchester (not to mention Ian Curtis’ fractured psyche). Though it can be a slippery slope (and borderline pretentious) to argue that a raucous noise band was somehow influenced by high art, Reynolds makes a strong case for exactly that, in the cases of Pere Ubu, The Pop Group, and Gang of Four. In these ways, the book reads like equal parts social history and music history, and the end result is that the reader is left with a greater understanding of how these outside forces influenced the music of the postpunk years.But enough of this Simon Reynolds Admiration society. Now it’s time to turn on the Nasty switch. There are just simply too many gaps in Reynolds’ study that prevent it from ranking as the definitive word on the postpunk era.

One glaring shortcoming is the key bands and movements that are summarily ignored or given short treatment, especially on the American side of the pond. The early 1980s American hardcore scene, both on the East and West coasts, is given scant attention. Likewise, pre-vortex-of-suck R.E.M. is not even addressed; Reynolds instead inexplicably focuses on the B-52s when discussing the Athens music scene. Finally, the crush-all-others-like-grapes band Mission of Burma is given a truly appalling Cliffs Notes treatment. While it is impossible to mention every band or movement in a relatively short book, Reynolds’ omissions of such areas in favor of chapters devoted to less-important bands (like Soft Cell and Human League) seems curious at best.Reynolds also fails to successfully establish what defines a band as postpunk, other than the fact that they fit within the years covered in this book. This inability to create a coherent definition, or at least to suggest the defining characteristics of the postpunk era, leaves the reader to conclude that the term postpunk is little more than a music journalist-invented term to neatly categorize a certain period of music.

However, the book’s greatest fault lies in Reynolds’ claim in the Afterword that the years 1978-1984 somehow represented a golden age of musical experimentation and creativity that surpassed both the punk era that preceded it and the indie era that followed it. With this approach, Reynolds dismisses the punk bands as ultimately musically conservative and the indie bands of the 1980s as little more than color-by-numbers imitations of previous groups. Sure, postpunk gave us a whole mess of tremendous bands, but it also produced garbage like Bow Wow Wow and Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

Reynolds claims that the postpunk bands represented a clean break from the past in which all bands were constantly looking forward, which is contradictory given how Reynolds argues that art movements like Dada influenced many postpunk bands. And besides, no band operates in a vacuum, regardless of how sexy or macho the laughable concept of Year Zero in music still seems to be. Rip It Up and Start Again is a solid attempt at chronicling a subset of the postpunk era. For readers especially interested in the British version of postpunk, there is plenty to like. However, readers interested in the story of American postpunk bands, or the full story of the postpunk years, will be more disappointed. While well written and certainly an engaging read, there are too many contradictions and gaps in Reynolds’ book to consider it the final word on the postpunk years.