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Strove to find a way to punch people in the face by using the Internet.

9/05/2003

BOOK REVIEWS
Written in the last year or two but published in hippie-ass, go-nowhere weekly papers. Hence, they are now recycled for your edification and enjoyment.

Fargo Rock City
By Chuck Klosterman
Conceived as an autobiographical, appreciative survey of ‘80s heavy-metal culture, Fargo Rock City possesses an engaging readability and more than a few good anecdotes. So why is it so depressing?

Author Klosterman grew up obsessed with Motley Crue and Poison. When his book examines just how effective the hair-metal bands featured on MTV were in providing teenagers with a safe, accessible touchstone for rebellion and fantasy, it’s a vibrant, detailed, funny read.

But Fargo Rock City suffers from Klosterman’s contrived everyman persona. Too much time is wasted on I-get-it-already shots at some abstract, amorphous group of “hipsters.” His attempts to display current pop-culture savvy amount to a few poorly chosen dropped names, and even his definition of heavy metal is confusingly narrow. Klosterman frequently comes off like your dad complaining that rock ‘n’ roll was better in his day before all the kids embraced Blind Melon and the Spice Girls and quit listening to Three Dog Night and Grand Funk Railroad. Or whatever.

Because he can put together a decent sentence, it’s also unfortunate that Klosterman is so bitter and self-obsessed. He tries hard to achieve bad-boy credibility by detailing a supposed alcohol problem but it comes off flat and unconvincing. Frankly it would seem lame even without his goofy farm-dork photo on the jacket, but that ain’t helping either.

I’ve met a lot of people like Klosterman. They flaunt a supposed love of music but really are just fixated on the soundtrack to their adolescence. Incapable of separating emotionally from the cultural trappings that surrounded them during the excitement, newness and turbulence of their teenage years, nothing will ever measure up to their standards. Klosterman and others like him refuse to listen to music critically, preferring to instead use music to immerse themselves in a comforting nostalgia.

Fuck that.

Modulations: A History of Electronic Music: Throbbing Words on Sound
Edited by Peter Shapiro
As unwieldy and poorly executed as its title. It aspires to cover electronic music from its experimental, high-minded musique concrete beginnings through various permutations as dance-floor fodder but mostly it just rips off design ideas from 6-year-old issues of Wired magazine. Note to publisher: all the neon graphics don’t make this shitpile look modern. They make it look like a Frankie Goes to Hollywood remix 12” – too bad it’s not as relevant.

Ass-clown Peter Shapiro doesn’t help matters much, prefacing and peppering his little mini-chapters on musical sub-genres with statements so preposterous they don’t even warrant a scoff (“It’s probably safe to say that, with the exception of punk rock, every significant development in popular music since the 1960s has in one way or another emerged from the Jamaican dancehall and its tradition of the sound system”) as well as other bits of jaw-dropping jackassery (“With more unrepentant ribaldry than Rudy Ray Moore, Redd Foxx and Blowfly put together, the collected works of Miami Bass serve as a Satyricon for the late-twentieth century” – that’s a lot of unrepentant ribaldry!)

The positive: a few hired guns don’t embarrass themselves too bad (Rob Young’s piece highlighting electronic music’s roots in the classical avant garde of the forties doesn’t read like it was written by a crackhead), it’s pretty inclusive and the timelines and general facts are straight. If your parents just discovered Aphex Twin (and were blind and had a Braille edition) they might find this book a useful place to crib names for trips back to the record store, but anyone with even a cursory interest in this stuff will likely take one look at the brain-damaging layout and “throbbing word” contorted syntax and dismiss this as another pathetic attempt at hipsterism. Well, I did, anyway.

THEM: Adventures with Extremists
Jon Ronson

In which our intrepid journalist, affable Brit Ronson, ingratiates himself with a smattering of subcultures often demonized by the media (including Klan members, conspiracy theorists, militant fundamentalist Muslims and strident liberal activists) (actually, that last group probably isn’t demonized often enough, but whatever) and hangs around being likable and watching for any telltale signs that his subjects may, in fact, actually be human.

Ronson has produced a work that’s likely to be criticized for its superficiality and generally humorous tone. And there’d be some merit to that. There are more than a few moments in THEM where one might be inclined to arch an eyebrow at Ronson’s tendency to portray potentially violent groups as genial buffoons, and I get the feeling Ronson too self-consciously deploys his Jewishness as a preliminary defense against this kind of gripe. But, you know, taking things too seriously is the main cause of the kind of knee-jerk myopia that’s trotted out for our amusement here in the first place. As the Canadian activists that Ronson at one point shadows so gracefully demonstrate.

Along the way a couple of other good points are made: excessive government secrecy is to conspiracy theory as gasoline is to fire, for one. The segment covering the FBI’s grisly assault on the Weaver family, and its subsequent use of a powerful public-relations machine to vilify its raid’s victims (and the mainstream press’ willingness to help) is a powerful indictment of one of the more sickening abuses of federal power in recent memory. It’s a story that was marginalized and needs to be retold, and Ronson does it effectively.

Oh yeah, one more thing: I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but it turns out that some of those cockamamie conspiracy theories are actually kind of true (I think the jury’s still out on the one about world leaders and media figures being 12-foot-tall, shape-shifting lizards, but I ain’t taking any chances, either).

So, um, keep alert.

This is Reggae Music: The Story of Jamaica’s Music
Lloyd Bradley

The title of this excellent book is pretty bland compared to its original, British name; Bass Culture. Why they chose to swap that out but keep the mildly mystifying UK slang intact for the American release is a question that might forever go unanswered… Oh, wait – I think I figured it out: the publishers are stupid.

At least the book is well executed. Bradley displays a clear love and extensive knowledge of his subject, and he’s to be commended for his extensive research and excellent interviews. The prose is generally workmanlike and occasionally awkward, but Bradley is good at faithfully transcribing his subjects’ dense Jamaican patois into something that’s easy to follow.

If there’s a problem here it stems from the book’s intended audience: the British. While reggae’s highest US profile is among Marley-obsessed frat boys and hippies (and that swell “Bad Boys” song from Cops – irie!), the music has enjoyed more lasting success in the UK pop market. This means lots of stuff that’s probably obvious to your average British music fan (the details of Peter Tosh’s demise, for example) gets referenced but glossed over or ultimately skipped.

Still, that’s a minor gripe when one considers what this book has to offer: a readable history of a fascinating subculture that built itself from the ground up under extenuating circumstances. That, and a laundry list of names to check out that ought to thrill record-store goblins (like me). I mean, I used to think most reggae was suitable only for incorrigible weedheads too stoned to notice how fucking boring the music really was. And now I have two CDs by some guy named I-Roy. Will wonders never cease?

Motley Crue/The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band
Tommy Lee, Mick Mars, Vince Neil and Nikki Sixx with Neil Strauss

This should be required reading for all middle-school students, and not just because anecdotes detailing burrito fucking, copious female ejaculation and Ozzy snorting ants and drinking pee will hold their interest better than The Canterbury Tales. No, this book also provides a valuable public service, believe it or not. It makes the drugs-and-sex excess of the rock-star lifestyle seem ultimately pathetic. All these losers had to do was keep making trashy, screechy glam-influenced metal and they’d probably still be living like Caligula today… But they got grandiose on the cocaine, inflated their petty spats way out of proportion and lost track of what made their music fun in the first place. Now they spend their time in the pokey or rehabbing, trying to piece together shattered psyches, wondering why relationships with dipshit silicone life-support systems go bad and making albums that desperately chase last year’s trend. Hey guys: enjoy the high-profile moments the (truly fascinating) voyeuristic thrills of this book will allow you, ‘cause they’ll likely be your last.

A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal
Anthony Bourdain

He’s too aware of his own celebrity now, but A Cook’s Tour is still as compellingly readable as Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. Here’s the deal: Bourdain travels around the world eating bugs and haggis and snake blood and shit like that. A couple of Food Network guys follow him around, filming him for a TV show and they all get drunk a lot. The weak bits occur when Bourdain tries to grapple with moments of introspection brought on by facing items or events of Great Cultural Significance (he seems aware of his lack of qualification for this sort of thing but it don’t keep him from trying), most egregiously during the “Saigon… Shit. I’m still in Saigon…” Apocalypse Now flash he has in Vietnam (it reads like parody – too bad it ain’t). But mostly this obnoxious New Yorker just self-consciously traipses around getting wasted, eating cool or icky stuff and writing about it with a gift for description that places the reader in vivid locales and at strange and wonderful meals. Definitely worth an afternoon or two.



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