Some books about rock music that I read this month

Books! Books! Books! Books! Books!

Hello! What’s this? A rare Sunday post? Well, happy whichever day of Passover it is if you’re Jewish and whichever day of Lent it is if you’re Christian and whichever holy day of your various other religions it might be if that’s your deal. Religion is none of my damn business! For me, it’s just a regular ol’ Sunday which means time to spend $16 at the Taco Bell drive thru and watch Youtube videos of shows I’ve been to so I can try to spot myself in the crowd.

Sorry I’ve been slow on the ol’ REPLY ALT lately. I’ve been trying to put together another zine in my spare time, which I promise will be available soon. I’m printing the words here to hold myself accountable. (P.S. I typically make those sorts of things available to my paying subscribers first, and at a discount, so get a paid subscription if you’d like. Here, I will discount a year…)

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[taking the mic off the stand like an open mic comic trying to kill time before the next set] Hmm, what else, whaaat else?... Oh, I wrote the teeniest lil profile, of Show Me the Body, for The Guardian

I’m also currently in the final stages of work on SELLOUT, which involves having the manuscript go through a copyedit and a legal read. The copyedit is a very funny process for a book like this. Basically, my publisher hires a very patient and meticulous reader to comb through the entire thing to assure that I’ve speled everthing corectly and that my grammar ain’t suck ass too much. (Hi, Will, if you’re reading!) For the most part it’s just “hey you missed a comma here” or “you said ‘with’ when you meant ‘among.’” But the parts where I have to do punksplaining make me chuckle. Like, I had to stress that the band ALL is stylized as ALL. All caps, always. “Why?” the copyeditor asks. I want to respond “All? No, ALL!” But that is the kind of punk dorkery that would only land with the readers of my newsletter. We’ve also gone back and forth on whether “motherfucker” is one word or two, the difference between Cheetos and Cheez Doodles, and whether Danzig needs to be identified by his first name (No!). So, I feel pretty confident in saying that I’m giving you folks a thoroughly vetted book here. (Have you pre-ordered it yet? What the frig yo! Get on it!) The copyeditor and I have also been debating how to stylize some rock ‘n’ roll vernacular. Apparently, crowdsurfing is one word, stage diving is two words, and slam-dancing is hyphenated. What the hell is that?!? Someone needs to write a rock music style guide. In fact, maybe that should be my next book. OK... no one steal that idea. Just forget I said that last part.

That is all to say: I’m very glad to let loose on the weekend and do some No Rules Writing for my newsletter, babyyy. Anything goes! How bout I call the bathroom a shittery? Not even a real word. Fuck it. No one can tell me not to. Hell, I can capitalize it if I so desire—Shittery. I can make it a verb. “I shitterized my favorite pair of jeans.” No dumbass copyeditors here making me follow The Rules. (If Will is reading this, I hope he knows that I’m just kidding. He seems cool and told me he started listening to At the Drive-In as a result of reading my book which was very nice.) But also? Fuck every copyeditor!! (Again, Will, I’m just kidding, you’re very kind to tolerate this.) Copyeditors can eat my assssssss. Eight S’s how bout that shit?? (Sorry!)

Hey, speaking of books! I read a lot of them. Well, I read a lot of rock memoirs/histories. I’m too stupid to read any other kind. Sometimes in a bookstore I will pick up a book about like sustainable energy or biocentric design, and I will furrow my brow as though I am very intrigued but then I sort of cock my head and put it back as if to say, “Ahh yes I have read this one already.” Anyway, this month was Women’s History Month, and since I was already reading a rock memoir by a woman at the time I realized that, I challenged myself to read two more by month’s end. (Of course, the all-time greatest rock memoir by a woman is this one and I am not biased, just my honest opinion!! Disregard the name on the bottom. Unrelated!) Want to see what I read for WHM? Glad you asked!

Here are three (good) rock memoirs (by women) that I read (this month)

Be My Baby by Ronnie Spector

Be My Baby is an entertaining read insofar as it is viewed as a Phil Spector tell-all. Sorry to judge a female artist’s story as it relates to her husband, but there are sort of two sides to this book. The first is a standard memoirish tale about a young, talented singer of mixed ethnicity (her father was Irish and her mother was Black and Cherokee), hustling to catch her big break in the music industry. This side is interesting enough, albeit a bit surface-level and one-dimensional. We get a few juicy stories of notable musicians trying to mack on her, from Frankie Valli to John Lennon to David Bowie. But that side of the book is quickly overshadowed once Ronnie meets, falls in love with, and subsequently marries and divorces producer/legitimate psychofuck Phil Spector, at which point the book becomes a horror novel about a woman trying to escape a Hollywood prison. By prison, I mean that Phil literally built huge guard walls around their mansion (with guard dogs!) to prevent her from leaving. He did, eventually, gift her a car to provide her with the illusion of freedom, but even then, he had it equipped with a creepy life-sized dummy of himself that he buckled into the passenger seat so people wouldn’t think she was alone. That part sounds like something I made up, but I assure you it is real:

There are lots of other jaw-dropping marital details about Phil in here. He was cripplingly self-conscious about his hair loss. He drank and got abusive. He sabotaged her career. He forbade men from talking to her, to the point where the Rolling Stones were afraid to even make eye contact with her for an entire tour. He bought her a coffin which he kept in the house as some sort of looming threat. He sent hitmen to scare her from seeking child custody after their separation. 

And then, of course, there was the professional side in which he also happened to be the most revolutionary producer of all time. That’s where the line gets tricky. I happened to have started this book right before Phil died recently. There was no shortage of Hot Takes Online that day, but the only person whose thoughts I was interested in were Ronnie’s. When he passed, she said this of him:

“The magical music we were able to make together, was inspired by our love. I loved him madly, and gave my heart and soul to him… As I said many times while he was alive, he was a brilliant producer, but a lousy husband.” 

This dichotomy is what makes Be My Baby a tragically beautiful story. Or beautifully tragic, depending on how you look at it. Phil wrote “Be My Baby” to impress Ronnie. And Ronnie put everything she had into performing it to impress him. The song is the sound of two people falling for each other. And the product was, in my opinion, the greatest song ever recorded in America. But its success ultimately came at the price of so much personal pain for Ronnie. It’s hard to reconcile that when listening back. I would rather hurl myself out a tenth story window than have a Separate the Art from Artist conversation, but given that Ronnie can reflect on the song now with appreciation, I’m more prone to follow her lead and enjoy it as the sound of a woman who bravely risked her life for her singing career. And not, ya know, the studio work of a murderously insane producer who apparently has a blackmarket mannequin connection.

Reading Be My Baby inspired me to look up as many Ronettes videos as I could find, although there weren’t that many on Youtube. Here’s my favorite, though, and maaaaan, Ronnie was just the fucking coolest. (I mean, she still is.) So much energy in such a small package. 

It’s funny, because in Be My Baby, she describes her sister and cousin (her backup singers) as being vaguely interested in maintaining musical careers but also sort of just being along for the ride. Watching this, it’s glaringly obvious how much more it meant to Ronnie. You can tell she loves performing with every fiber of her being. A true American treasure.

Horror Stories by Liz Phair

Speaking of American treasures, Liz Phair. Given that her rise to fame was built on expressing the alienating experience of being a woman in the music industry, and given the title of her memoir, Horror Stories, I thought for sure this book would be a tea-spilling journey through various Bad Industry Men she’s encountered. There is a bit of that, largely contained in the chapter about [Ryan Adams], but Horror Stories is actually built on a much more clever premise. The book is an essay collection that is, as she puts it in the prologue, “about the small indignities we all suffer daily, the silent insults to our system, the callous gestures that we make toward one another.” 

The essays jump around and vary in quality. The weaker essays typically suffer from Phair trying to make a moral mountain out of a molehill. In one, for example, she stretches a simple story about walking through New York in a blizzard for 17 pages before stuffing in a ham-handed metaphor for finding your inner strength in the last paragraph. That one didn’t particularly stick with me, and reminded me of that Seinfeld episode where J. Peterman is trying to turn a story about returning a pair of pants into a profound life lesson in his memoir. But when Liz Phair is on, she’s on.

As is apparent to anyone who follows her music, Phair is at her best when she’s chronicling intimacy. And indeed, the strongest essays are the ones about the interpersonal relationships with her friends, her male suitors, or her son. It opens up with an ethically questionable story about leaving a passed out woman alone in a bathroom stall at a college party. It’s the type of story that everyone has rattling around in their mind in some form—an instance of regret in which we could’ve done something to help another human but instead refused to let get in the way of our day. This is when Horror Stories was at its best: trying to itch at those uncomfortable thoughts that exist in the dark corners of her memory, the “sober morning-after reflections.” They make her appear imperfect and flawed—sometimes naive or bratty or callous—and that’s the point. She knows this endears her to the imperfect reader. 

Phair could have easily given her fans what they wanted and written a book about the gross music industry schlubs she encountered around Exile in Guyville, or what guitar she used on “Fuck and Run,” or why she sold out and made that poppy major label album for Capitol Records (SELLOUT by Dan Ozzi, in stores 10.26.21 from HMH Books, pre-order at sellout.biz), but instead she gives readers a look at the mindset of the actual person they’ve been following for decades, which is much more interesting. I think when us music nerds consume something an artist has made—a book, an album, etc.—we tend to analyze it in terms of what they’re trying to express to us through it, but we often overlook the life experiences that lead to it and what it meant to them.

When I interviewed her a few years ago, for example, I asked about how it felt to get all that backlash for that Capitol album, a part of her career I am acutely fascinated with. She said: 

Well, OK, check this out. I had a really good time promoting that record. Despite all the horrible things people were saying—I didn’t even think they were horrible, I honestly thought I was doing therapy. I would do interview after interview and I’d try to talk them down off the ledge because they were so mad. I just had to calibrate, explaining that I was on a major label, that’s where I got left, and I had to sink or swim and so I swam. In actuality, promoting that record exposed me to far bigger audiences and I learned how to get my sea legs on stage and learned how to do a ton of things. Those were heavy times but that was really fun, to be part of a band, and that camaraderie, and our tours were so great. I just experienced so much that I would never, ever give back. So I don’t have regrets.

And now that I’ve read her book, I’ve realized what she was really saying: She was in love with her guitarist at the time and touring was an excuse to galavant around the world with her love interest and she didn’t really give a fuck what us little geeks thought about her being on Top 40 radio or using the songwriting team behind Avril Lavigne or selling out. I shouldn’t have asked how it felt, I should’ve asked how she arrived there. A good reminder that, no matter how much you might identify with an album or a song, it is ultimately an extension of the artist themselves, and not you. It’s not yours, it’s theirs. That seems like a good transition to the next book...

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. by Viv Albertine

(I don’t know if decades of being a giant nerd who buys every single screamo record primed me to enjoy ludicrously long titles or what but I absolutely love this title.)

Viv Albertine’s memoir about growing up, finding rock music, falling in with punk scene up-and-comers like the Sex Pistols and the Clash, and forming the Slits is a remarkably well-written book. Her sentences are so simple, so direct. I often hear people criticize that sort of writing as being “too easy” or whatever, but I assure you, writing a simple sentence is extremely fucking difficult. If you ever find yourself reading a piece of writing and thinking to yourself, “psh, I could do this,” please recognize that it takes years of practice to be able to organize thoughts in such a straightforward manner.

Anyway, if a book can provide me with even just one idea to chew on for a few days, I consider it a worthwhile read. There’s one sentence in Clothes, Music, Boys that really struck me for some reason, when Albertine describes learning to play guitar as a novel and radical act. No other women she knew played guitar, she says. Even going to a music store and buying her first Gibson felt like getting away with some underhanded deed to her. She struggled to learn the basics of the instrument during lessons from her boyfriend, Clash guitarist Mick Jones (“Train in Vain” is allegedly about her). But what she lacked in talent, she made up for in vision, about which she was very deliberate. “Expressing myself through the guitar is a very difficult concept to grasp,” she writes. “I don't want to copy any male guitarists, I wouldn't be true to myself if I did that. I can't copy Lita Ford from the Runaways or the guitarist from Fanny: they don't sound like women, they sound like men.”

Then comes the sentence I’ve been pondering all week: “I keep thinking, ‘What would I sound like if I was a guitar sound?’”

I’m not sure why this stuck with me so much. I guess because it frames musicianship in a way I’d never really considered before—“what would I sound like if I was a guitar sound?” Obviously, I’ve heard guitarists play and thought, “Wow, that person can friggin riiiiip.” Or I’ve appreciated the tone, style, and personality a guitarist brings to their instrument. I’ve considered how a guitarist is expressing themselves through their playing. (A great example: Pelican’s Trevor de Brauw, in my opinion, is one of the most uniquely gifted shredders around today, because while he plays in an instrumental band, I am still blown away by how much he is able to emote through his strings. His riffs are little sonic poems.) But I’d never quite considered this idea the way Albertine describes it, of sharing an identity with your guitar, of capturing your essence in sound, of being your instrument. How to do that? For her, the answer to this question was her idiosyncratic work in the Slits—a technically wrong approach, but distinctly hers.

This idea of harmonious creativity translates to other mediums, of course. I immediately applied it to writing, but it can be a way of thinking about any form of expression—painting, dancing, whatever. Are you using your instrument or are you your instrument?

Anyway, I’ve drifted a bit far from Viv Albertine’s memoir: It’s good. Very smart. Very British. Covers a lot of ground without ever feeling complicated. She is less interested in analyzing What It All Means than Phair is in Horror Stories. Albertine just gives you the stories. You figure it out. 

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OK, enough of my hastily strewn together book reports. What books about music (by women) would you recommend? Sound off in da freakin comments!


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