My 2013 book report (Part 3)

Nov 08, 2013 No Comments by

So far, my 2013 rock book report has investigated the autobiographies of legends (Pete Townshend, Rod Stewart) and key role players (Peter Hook, Bill Bruford). Now it’s time to flip through the memories of two great artists who at first glance might not appear to have much in common, until you realize that they both came of creative age in the early ’80s and that the trails they’ve blazed lead through the same worlds: punk, electronic dance music, and the domain of the sensitive singer/songwriter.

Bob_Mould_See_a_Little_LightBob Mould (with Michael Azerrad), See A Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody (Little, Brown and Company) — Bright kid from upstate-NY small town learns to cope with dysfunctional (sometimes violent) family dynamic, gets inspired by punk rock, struggles with homosexuality and alcoholism, and eventually becomes underground icon with Hüsker Dü and Sugar before openly embracing his gayness in the bear subculture—with a brief foray into pro wrestling. It’s a fascinating story, and Mould tells it clearly and honestly. His account of the indie-rock ’80s (a subject his collaborator Michael Azerrad nailed in his 2002 book Our Band Could Be Your Life) shows just how close to the bone everyone was living. A young Henry Rollins, for example, was one of several artists on the SST label who regularly slept in the company’s office. Mould’s evaluation of his back catalog is also, in my opinion, spot-on (the three highest points: Hüsker’s Flip Your Wig, his own Workbook, Sugar’s Copper Blue). All the same, I wouldn’t want to be in a band with him. His dealings with friends, lovers, and creative collaborators alike are marred by a mile-wide passive-aggressive streak that sometimes edges into outright meanness. To his credit, Mould doesn’t candy-coat or excuse his past behavior, which indicates that he’s at least trying to be a nicer person these days. As I read See a Little Light, particularly the section covering Mould’s 1994 outing in the pages of Spin magazine, I couldn’t help but wonder what might have happened if it had been common knowledge during the ’80s that Hüsker Dü, one of the hardest-rocking bands of all time, featured two gay men (drummer Grant Hart being the second—and no, he and Mould never were a couple). Would their sexual orientation have gotten more attention than their music? Would it have sparked a backlash among the hardcore kids? Or (and this is the optimist in me speaking) would it have helped some people get over their unhealthy social stereotypes?

Bedsit Disco QueenTracey Thorn, Bedsit Disco Queen (Virago) The woman who lent her rich, smoky voice to the music of Everything But the Girl proves to have just as compelling a voice on paper. As she makes plain, navigating through the music business is tricky for anyone, but it’s even harder when you’re 1) female, 2) an indie idealist, and 3) an intellectual. (Thorn downplays this last aspect of her personality, understandably; I’m probably one of the few readers of this book who would’ve loved to learn more about her graduate dissertation on the novels of Samuel Beckett.) Other things that might pose career challenges: being romantically attached to your creative partner (Ben Watt), seeing him through a catastrophic illness (Churg-Strauss syndrome, which nearly killed him), and having three children (including twins). Thorn gets through it all with aplomb, and writes about it with wit to match. Clever incorporation of her own song lyrics at significant points in the narrative emphasizes how autobiographical her work has been and how skilled a wordsmith she is. Like Rod Stewart, whose “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” EBTG covered successfully in 1988, Thorn has an effortlessly engaging writing style that suggests she must be a wonderful conversationalist. But although I’ve never interviewed her, I’m told she can actually be quite reserved in person. All the more reason to treasure Bedsit Disco Queen, which is without question the best music memoir I’ve read in the past year.

Next: Part 4, in which my focus shifts slightly from autobiography to music history with a personal slant.

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