Book Reviews

Confessions of a Radical Chicano Doo-Wop Singer By Rubén Funkahuatl Guevara, 376 pgs.

Rubén Guevara’s musical-artistic career has been something like a cross between Laurie Anderson’s performance art and Rudy Ray Moore’s willingness to try anything that might allow him to make a living in show business. He appeared on the ’60s teen pop/rock/R&B showcase Shindig, was part of the L.A. punk scene—all of the East L.A punk bands from that era that I’ve heard of make an appearance in the book—and he has devoted much of his creative energy to the Chicano cultural and political struggles.

His memoir documents in detail the shows he’s performed in, what the shows consisted of, and who was on the bill. On the one hand, it’s not always the most compelling reading. On the other hand, every so often, there’s going be someone who wants to know all of those details of a specific show, and they will freak with joy that this book exists.

It’s also a memoir of his life, which includes a lot of interesting L.A. history, and a lot of passages in which, as The Hound In Winter, he looks back on his life as a ladies’ man, not uncommon for a memoirist in his ’70s, but, at times, it’s like what I assume it’s like to read about former FBI Director James Comey’s childhood: That’s not why we’re reading this book, sir.

As I’ve written about another University of California Press release, the book is expensive, so have a library order it. –Jim Woster (University of California Press, ucpress.edu)

Hard Stuff, The: Dope, Crime, the MC5 & My Life of Possibilities By Wayne Kramer, 296 pgs.

Mike Faloon and I did a Midwest tour in support of Mike’s new book The Other Night at Quinn’s this summer. When we hit greater Detroit, a guy at the bookstore there told me that he, too, was reading The Hard Stuff. “I wish Wayne had run some of the stuff by me,” the guy at the bookstore said. “His chronology is all fucked up.”

I don’t doubt this for a second, because “fuckup” is the operative word for most of The Hard Stuff. Wayne Kramer, of course, was the guitarist for agitprop protopunks the MC5, who manage to immediately shoot themselves in the foot upon the release of their debut album Kick Out the Jams. They pal around with a biker gang called the Motherfuckers, who get the band blackballed from any number of East Coast clubs by inciting violence from the stage—and that’s before promoter Bill Graham gets his nose broken in New York City, and before the band takes out an ad proclaiming that the biggest record-selling chain in Detroit can go fuck themselves.

The MC5’s records don’t go anywhere because of these missteps—all of which take place in the first third of the book. From there on out, Kramer has chance after chance to turn things around, but can’t manage it. Instead, he robs houses, goes to jail, gets out, starts bands, gets hooked on drugs, half-ass quits, gets hooked again.

But I kept reading. Kramer’s a skilled storyteller: it’s easy to root for him through his many fuckups because of way he sets readers up. The first bits are about his childhood, where he conveys effectively to the reader the sense of warmth and safety he felt, before his mom becomes involved in an abusive relationship. The abuse spills over to him, his world is turned upside down, and the numbing influence of booze and drugs wrestle with his prodigious guitar talent for dominance. It’s not a new story—especially if you’re a fan, as I am, of rock bios—but Kramer’s short, sharp bursts of prose, reminiscent of Alice Bag’s in her excellent debut Violence Girl, are brutally effective.

After fuckups too numerous to recount here, Kramer finally burrows into the bedrock of his substance abuse and comes through the other side, discussing his addictions and recovery with frank honesty. The end result for me was an appreciation for Kramer’s survival skills (and the incredible dumb luck which kept him from an early grave) and a reassessment of later MC5 records I hadn’t spent much time with. Serious back-in-the-day heads might have a legitimate bone to pick with Kramer’s chronology, but I think that even rearranged, the short chapters in The Hard Stuff would continue to pack a serious wallop. –Michael T. Fournier (Da Capo, dacapopress.com)

Henry and Glenn Forever and Ever: The Completely Ridiculous Edition By Tom Neely, 320 pgs.

By now, many of us know about Henry Rollins and Glenn Danzig, punk rock’s meathead darlings and toned butts of never-ending jokes, largely speculation about their sexualities. Henry and Glenn Forever and Ever: The Completely Ridiculous Edition is one of several collections of these jokes. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of Henry and Glenn Forever, the comic started as a series of zines, which started as barroom napkin doodles, which started as drunken jokes between friends.

I’ll admit it conceptually drew me in. Being a sometimes-gay, definitely queer man-type person, I’m always here for scantily clad muscley dudes professing their undying love and cuddling under hand-crocheted blankets, especially if they’re tattooed and musicians and wear lots of fishnetting (honestly, though, who among us isn’t?). I didn’t give it much more thought than the occasional chuckle/vague enjoyment from afar until I saw the most recent collection—as I see many of the books I end up reading—on a display at my library. I, checked it out, read it, and enjoyed it.

And then I made the crucial mistake when enjoying a lot of media: I thought about it. I’ll give you the disclaimer now. This review is now getting into “destroying something a lot of us love because it’s actually more problematic than we thought” territory. Henry and Glenn Forever, on second glance, reeks of the same internalized homophobia—and misogyny for that matter—that all that art of Trump and Putin making out reeks of. Of course Henry and Glenn Forever is funny! Two incredibly masculine men could never be gay! Then they’d have to be feminine and we all know being feminine is shameful and wildly contradictory to their true beefy manly nature! Also, isn’t male-male affection hilarious? The entire joke here is playing on a sense of masculine, heterosexual superiority and an inherent sense of wrongness about queer identities, particularly gender non-conforming ones.

At the end of the day, gender expression and sexuality are fluid beasts. Boxing anyone into a purely and rigidly masculine or feminine nature is shitty, especially when you link it inherently to their sexuality. We’re all weird, fabulous beings, with our own notions of what it means to be men or women or none or all of the above, and maybe Henry and Glenn should be left to decide for their own what being a man means. Even if it involves leaving each other sweet notes about cleaning the litter box. But hey, the art is cute! –Jimmy Cooper (Microcosm Publishing, microcosmpublishing.com)

Lemon Jail: On the Road with The Replacements By Bill Sullivan, 145 pgs.

By my count, this is the fourth book in recent memory about The Replacements. I’m certainly not complaining, as they are one of my favorite bands of all time. I once lied to my parents (gasp!) as a teenager to get to a Replacements show in DC on a school night at age seventeen, but that’s another story. While never claiming to be a biography, instead this book tells a story from someone who was actually there, tour after tour after tour, until (almost) the bitter end.

This is the journal of being in the smelly van with the band. Spirited hi-jinks regularly occur. By not actually being a member of the band seems to provide the author with a more balanced perspective. Roadie, and later tour manager, Bill Sullivan tells it like it was, with grainy, off-the-cuff photos included. There is some really funny stuff here. There’s also crap in here that will make you wonder how he survived for so long. It is insightful, hilarious, but sometimes tragic. While only one former band member gives a ringing endorsement, that shouldn’t stop you. Lemon Jail presents a highly entertaining look at a fantastic band that played for keeps out on the road. To the victor the spoils. –Sean Koepenick (University of Minnesota Press)

Stained Inside Out: A Selection of Brush & Ink Drawings 2013-18 By Bob Rob Medina

This is a massive collection of art from Mr. Bob Rob. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, he did the cover of Razorcake #94. The pieces are colorful and often pleasantly saturated with ink, like a glimmering pool of paint. The subjects of the pictures are mainly bands and assorted punk people. Some pictures ran in the Denvoid and the Cowtown Punks (2015, Robot Enemy), which is an oral history of the ’80s Denver punk scene. And some illustrations are slated to run in its sequel: Denvoid and the Cowtown Punks: 2, The Kolorado Krew. Each piece is accompanied and with some autobiographical context. Definitely worth reading for sentences like: “My first encounter with Klaus Nomi was right after my friend Jimmy and I transformed from being quasi cholos to wannabe punk rockers.” Fans of Tim Kerr and Chris Shary take note. –Daryl (Robot Enemy, bobrob.bigcartel.com)

We Are The Clash: Reagan, Thatcher, and the Last Stand of a Band that Mattered By Mark Anderson, Ralph Heibutzki, 376 pgs.

The two most universal things anyone with even a passing interest in punk can say is, “I love the Ramones” and, “I love The Clash.” The anarcho bands that came along and made hay criticizing The Clash for selling out probably loved The Clash. Even Johnny Ramone stated The Clash was the only band he thought lived up to the Ramones, and he was on the other (right wing) end of the ideological and political spectrum from progressive firebrand Joe Strummer and company. Across The Clash’s five studio albums from 1977-1983, and various singles and EP’s, there’s something that appeals to nearly any lover of guitar-driven music. And then there’s the little addendum that the band lasted until 1986 and put out an album, Cut the Crap, that no one talks about. These last overlooked years are the meat of this book.

Things pick up at the US Festival in Summer 1983 and move quickly into what could described as The Clash II, when Mick Jones and Topper Headon were replaced by guitarists Vince White and Nick Sheppard, and drummer Pete Howard. Authors Andersen and Heibutzki pull a lot of their day-to-day and big picture perspective of the band during this period through interviews with the replacement Clash members and archival materials, while crafting a parallel narrative about the resurgent rise of conservatism in the U.S. and U.K. during this time under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

The authors make an effective case for these newer members as committed to soldiering The Clash forward musically and ideologically in the face of this global ideological rightward shift. But they’re continuously thwarted by things outside their control such as an increasingly erratic Joe Strummer who was prone to disappearing and self-medicating with alcohol and weed to cope with possible depression issues, and the dictatorial return of original Clash manager Bernard Rhodes. While Rhodes did probably have a large hand in the initial formation and conception of the band in the 1970s, after Mick Jones left Rhodes became a Svengali-like figure who began to push The Clash as his personal musical vehicle. Rhodes is portrayed as belittling or dismissing both the new and old member’s ideas, and largely crafting the conceptually interesting but musically weak Cut the Crap LP on his own. Despite these obstacles, the newer members contributed to The Clash for nearly three years, and culminated in a back-to-basics busking tour of England undertaken by the five members with no outside support or planning during a period when The Clash name alone could sell out large venues.

The history of The Clash traditionally ends with the firings of Topper Headon and Mick Jones. We Are The Clash instead stakes its claim on the overlooked last three years and mines a surprisingly robust history for rise of neo-conservatism but waning of The Clash.

–Adrian Salas (Akashic, Akashicbooks.com)

Your Black Friend & Other Strangers By Ben Passmore, 199 pgs.

I first encountered Ben Passmore’s work online in the form of the title comic, “Your Black Friend.” Though admittedly not the most glamorous of beginnings, it stopped me scrolling through Facebook or Tumblr or whatever soul-sucking conveyor line of shitty news and shittier spelling I was consuming, and I read the comic. I thought it was beautiful, and relevant, and witty, and the colors were gorgeous, and all those good things, but I mostly forgot about it as one tends to forget things they read on the internet.

This did not quell my surprise and joy when I saw Your Black Friend & Other Strangers on the new graphic novel display at my library. I was ecstatic to find out there were more comics out there by Passmore, and even more ecstatic that he seemed like more than a one-hit wonder. Even just reading the introduction to the volume, I was stoked. This guy gets it, I thought.

I got lucky, because he does get it. Not only are the comics gorgeous—and they are gorgeous: the colors are fantastic, the characters well-designed, with an overall great visual vibe—if you’ll let me use that weird expression, about the collection, but the stories ring honest and true. Though some are more abstract in storyline, many address completely contemporary issues in an almost biting manner. A particular favorite is “It’s Not about You,” an introspective look into Passmore’s reaction to being introduced—and attracted to—someone who uses the gender-neutral pronouns “they/them.” At first, he’s confused and angry, but as the night goes on, he comes to the realization that their identity isn’t about him.

The comics in the Your Black Friend collection tend towards a similar framework. Something seemingly complex that we see everyday comes up and Passmore breaks it down to the bones of the issue while retaining a humor and beauty about it. Even the more abstract comics, such as “ok stoopd!” and “The Vampire” serve as metaphors for social and political conditions in the way only comics can. The visuals are central to this metaphor, as in “ok stoopd!,” in which an anthropomorphic chicken serves as a visual metaphor for reactionary fuckheads. Without this visual, the incredibly short scene wouldn’t have the clever punch it does.

Again and again, Passmore draws you into his world, even if just for a single page, and teaches you something, all the while making you laugh and your heart swell in the fun of it all. These comics are good for the tired, jaded, and cynical soul of 2018. –Jimmy Cooper (Silver Sprocket, silversprocket.net)

How Music Works

By David Byrne, 382 pgs.

When the original version of this book was published in 2012, I chose to give it a pass. I assumed it would be a collection of pretentious musings from someone operating at a distance from the culture of DIY musical production that I value. After an expanded second edition was released in 2017, I decided to give it a try and I’m glad I did. Best known as the singer and guitarist for the Talking Heads, David Byrne is a really smart and articulate writer with lots of great insights on a wide range of aspects regarding the intersection of music and modern society.

The books starts off a little rough, with Byrne riffing on the ways in which the creative process is influenced by things such as the architecture of performances spaces. It’s an interesting idea that becomes belabored as if it was an inflated TED talk (turns out, that is exactly what it was). But then the book really starts to shine. The following chapter is entitled “My Life in Performance” and Bryne weaves together autobiographical anecdotes spanning his pre-Talking Heads ventures to recent solo outings, with serious research and deft insights.

Another chapter on “In the Recording Studio” was surprisingly informative, particularly his detailed discussion of his collaborations with Brian Eno. In general, the writing is highly accessible, but there are occasional clumsy sections where the writing seems a little too self-aware. I found the chapter on “Collaborations” a bit tedious and the chapter on “Building a Scene,” which was based off an introduction for a coffee book on CBGB, a serious let-down. Surprisingly, given the richness of that scene, Bryne is probably at his most superficial in that chapter. But the bulk of the book offers thought-provoking passages on a range of topics related to music.

The chapters on how technology has impacted music were truly fascinating, with one dedicated to analog technology and another on digital innovations. The book is less a memoir than an original scholarly study, and Byrne is not opposed to referencing important scholarship and dropping in footnotes, but the prose rarely feels cumbersome or overly academic.

The chapter on “Business and Finances” was exceptionally well done, with Byrne offering the reader deep insights on, among other things, the range of ways in which musicians can make, market, and distribute their music, from the 360-degree deal that have been utilized by the Madonnas and the Jay-Zs of this world, all the way to DIY self-distribution. When he isn’t sure of the specifics of a certain approach, he reproduces his conversations with experts like Mac McCaughan of Merge Records. Byrne concludes the chapter with in-depth dissections of his last two releases to show the specifics costs and sources of revenue, with fascinating insights.

Ultimately, the book is a little uneven, as has been Bryne’s musical output. But he is on-point far more often than he isn’t. Accessible, original, timely and fascinating are the adjectives that come to mind. And his promotion of DIY musical culture in the chapter “Amateurs!” would fit exceptionally well within the pages of Razorcake. I walked away learning a great deal, thinking in new ways, and having a deeper appreciation of Byrne himself. –Kevin Dunn (Three Rivers Press, crownpublishing.com)

Munmun

By Jesse Andrews, 404 pgs.

I know young adult literature contains a lot of dystopias. But how many of them are Marxist dystopias? Or are all dystopias Marxist, really?

And I need to annotate the above paragraph. “Young adult”—yes, Munmun was published as a young adult novel, but my introduction to this book was hearing author Jesse Andrews read the first chapter (at Flintridge Bookstore & Coffeehouse near Los Angeles), and it sounded to me like it was a science fiction novel written for everyone. And “Marxist”—even Marxists will agree that “Marxist” frequently means “tedious,” which is not at all the case with Munmun.

Munmun doesn’t extrapolate from our America to a future America. It’s set in an America-like land in which people’s sizes correspond with how much money they have, from littlepoors to middlepoors to middleriches to bigriches—according to the guide at the front of the book, littlepoors are larger than squirrels but smaller than full-grown cats. Munmun is money.

How will a twenty-first century young adult with regular access to social media respond to a politically bleak and angry novel like Munmun? I don’t know. I do know that, at one point, following a political conversation between two of the characters, I had to stop reading and re-accept the truth that few activities are more difficult than getting poor people to vote. In Munmun, characters try to trade sex for advancement, and force people into sadistic videos—and the condescension: I’d forgotten (if I ever really knew) how much condescension comes with poverty.

But enough about the novel’s ideas. Vladimir Nabokov said, “Style and Structure are the essence of a book; great ideas are hogwash,” and it’s the language that makes this book. In addition to words like the above-mentioned “littlepoor” and “bigrich,” much of the language takes oft-used current phrases and turns them into one word—“ofcourse,” “afterall,” “directdeposit,” “selfsabotage”—which strikes me as something that might actually happen. Plus, in the tradition of old-school science fiction, Andrews creates words with built-in commentary, my favorite being “salesfriend” for sales clerk.

Politically, Jesse Andrews and science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein couldn’t be further apart, but with its language, Munmun belongs on the same shelf as Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Heinlein’s novel is as libertarian as Andrews is Marxist, but both feature a hybrid English (Heinlein’s is rhythmically Russian) and both feature elaborately created worlds, with immensely entertaining narratives. –Jim Woster (Amulet Books, amuletbooks.com)

Night Moves

Jessica Hopper’s Night Moves operates in the dimension of impression: these microbursts of pithy sentiment, culled from Hopper’s 2004-2008ish journals, include dates, but don’t need to. Her book is more about an epoch than specifics, a time when Hopper (who wrote a column for the dearly departed Punk Planet and authored the anthology The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic a few years back) was putting out her excellent, hilarious fanzine Hit It Or Quit It, playing in bands, doing PR, and being the only sober person in a room full of drunk, stoned scene types who put plastic over their windows to keep the cold air from seeping into the kitchen of another janky Chicago punk house. By dint of your reading this review in this zine, it’s likely that you live, or have lived, in such a place.

More, though, than just the identification with the general scenario, Hopper’s vignettes weave in specific details. It’s easy to remember times of yore through her recollections, even if the reader’s details are a little different. Like the party I attended right after Dear You came out where the sounds of Led Zeppelin filled the crowded kitchen, and I first thought “Zeppelin rules,” then “wait, they’re not punk,” then “wait, I’m in a Jawbreaker song.” These vignettes are specific in ways that Razorcake readers will find familiar, if not comforting.

All told, the pieces of Night Moves gesture towards a time that eludes straight narrative. There’s no way to construct a linear description of the day you get married, say, because it’s so intense, a collection of luminous moments to be remembered in snippets rather than chronology. The best times and the worst times are like this. Rather than bogging readers down with the mundanity of the everyday, Hopper cuts right to the good stuff again and again, like a Lungfish record. Unlike Higgs and company, though, there’s no repetition here, just a collection of lovely moments depicting a time in a place with a tight group of friends. Real names be proof, you dig? –Michael T. Fournier (University of Texas Press, utexas.press.com)