Saturday, March 29, 2008

Book Review: The Big Wheel by Bruce Thomas

“Why the [expletive deleted] do you want to re-read that [expletive deleted] book?” To be honest, it was a fair question. My brother’s basement library has enough books to rival a major league library. Choosing Bruce Thomas’ The Big Wheel was the equivalent of walking into a fine dining restaurant and asking for Hamburger Helper and I’ll take a Banana Pudding Pop for dessert, thank you.

I had decided to re-read several books related to life on the road in the world of music, including Sam Shepard’s Rolling Thunder Logbook, Larry Sloman’s On The Road With Bob Dylan, and, most precariously, Thomas’ The Big Wheel. Thomas, former bassist with Elvis Costello and the Attractions, is still an outcast in Planet Costello, and this book is allegedly a large part of the reason for this.

I first read this book when its second edition (a surefire and utterly distressing sign that there is indeed no justice in the publishing world) was published in 2003. To say I disliked it is being too mild; upon first reading, I couldn’t recall a less interesting, more pompous, and completely inane piece of writing (other than one of my own blogs). The insights into the touring life were the worst kind of pseudo-philosophical nonsense that a college kid might write after studying Sylvia Plath for a semester. Thomas was prone to massive fits of existential ponderings; the simple act of watching a lousy television show from his hotel room could plunge him (and the reader) into page after page of post-modern angst. He also came across as a snarky, sarcastic, bitter ex-musician (from a bassist, no less). Perhaps worst of all, he completely botched a reference to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

A second reading hasn’t really changed these opinions. However, there is actually a decent amount of comedy in this book, if the reader can look past its many flaws and accept it as, at best, a grossly exaggerated account of life in the Attractions. For example, Thomas tells a humorous story about how he assists a friend in transporting “wellies” all over the English countryside. Of course, nothing goes according to plan; the van filled with wellies (which I’m told by a British friend are either shoes, jimmy hats, or Filipino hookers) breaks down, Thomas “borrows” a tire from a nearby car, cops intervene, and the harebrained scheme takes several days and results in no profit.

The book also contains some funny stories about life in the Attractions, though, perhaps for fear of a lawsuit, Thomas never mentions the band members by name. Instead, they are reduced to names like The Singer, The Keyboard Player, and the Drummer. Although some of the tales are pure VH1 Behind the Music (musicians getting drunk and doing idiotic things in hotel rooms... imagine that), some of the dynamics of the Attractions’ interactions are revealed, if from a sometimes suspect point of view.

The other aspect that’s striking after a second read is how mild and non-offensive the characterization of Costello (er, The Singer) truly is. In fact, there are actually very few mentions of The Singer. These brief mentions portray The Singer as a hypochondriac, distant and removed from the rest of the band, and someone whom dogs always bark at. I suppose that Costello is actually a Terminator. That this book managed to get Costello, a man who’s lobbed plenty of grenades and putdowns in plenty of his songs, riled up, is somewhat surprising. The insults are few and far between, and are quite tame.

Even with these occasional touches of humor, The Big Wheel is a pretty brutal read, and seems far longer than it actually is. It certainly won’t go down as one of the best books about life in music. Thomas’ absurd philosophical musings and snarky disposition almost ensure that by themselves. But buried among these problems are some entertaining stories that might make the reader laugh. Just don’t expect an objective, fact-based account of life on the road with Elvis Costello and the Attractions.

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