Book Reviews

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)

No Gods (Or: Peace without Fear or Bombs)

By Chari, 122 pgs.

Paressa is a twelfth grader at a public school in Canada. She worked at an ice cream shop until she got upset at the owner, who can’t run a business. Later he’s murdered in the alley behind a gay bar. Paressa gets a job at the library. Her coworkers like Bauhaus and The Cure. One of them is knowledgeable in the dark arts of buzz cuts. Paressa shaves her head. Principal Whyte is sympathetic. Sort of. Why, he asks Paressa, do you have to be a weirdo? She’s like, “Listen pal, I’m myself, and you’re a tool.” Principal Whyte loves Jesus a whole lot. He ain’t ashamed to crack on the loudspeaker and roll out the prayers. Paressa doesn’t hate the big guy in the sky, but she does have integrity, and you’re not supposed to spill the Jesus in a public school.

What happens next is Paressa and her friend, Wendy, decide to challenge Whyte by having Paressa run for student council president. And things go wild from there. We get Clash lyrics. We get shapeshifting cutie dudes who straddle the jock/punk line. We get cool librarians and Canadian history.

Author Chari is a bit of a mystery. What I know is that they have another book, All I Care about Is Music, and it’s part one of five in a series called Songs of Youth. This book, No Gods, is part two. There’s not a big reason for a thirty-something manbaby like myself to read about a teenage girl getting into punk, but I think I’d dig No Gods if I got it as a kid because I remember being really into Charles Romalotti’s Salad Days, which is broadly similar. –Jim Joyce (Sabba-Too-Jee Books, 260 Adelaide street E., Box 62, Toronto, ON M5A 1N1, Canada)

Palaces

By Simon Jacobs, 248 pgs.

Stunningly literary, a bit horrific, and punk as all hell, Palaces by Simon Jacobs is just a little bit unforgettable. At first glance, it seems like your run-of-the-mill crust punk love story: a couple runs away from it all, have only each other in some weird little New York squat, loses said New York squat, and runs away from it all again… You get the picture. After this relatively “normal” beginning, Palaces rabbit-holes into a surreal trip through space and perception.

Richmond punks John and Joey hop on a train and chaos ensues in a series of abandoned mansions full of wolves, rooms painted like assorted gore and viscera, lost children, and the same knife, over and over again. Part fever dream, Palahniuk-esque horror novel, and meditation on relationships and distance, Palaces defies all expectations and demands to be seen. It doesn’t care what you think. Action-packed sentences both drag on and draw the reader in; it left me lost but desperate to know what was going on. Clocking in at just under 250 pages, the novel is unexpectedly dense. It’s less the kind of book you read on a lazy Sunday afternoon and more the kind of thing you read and tell all your friends just how deep and enlightening it is, when in reality you had no idea what was going on for the majority of the book.

That being said, even if it’s a bit confusing and dense, it’s a hell of an adventure to take. It would be deeply enjoyable to fans of books and movies like Cloud Atlas, Cat’s Cradle, or other works that make you work for your intellectual bounty. Jacobs creates an atmosphere you can’t help sinking fully into, even when it makes you want to vomit or turn away. Unraveling the truth of this work is rewarding and absolutely worth it, but I’m also a gigantic nerd for that sort of thing, so maybe take my words on the matter with a grain of salt. –Jimmy Cooper (Two Dollar Radio, twodollarradio.com)

Recipe for Hate

By Warren Kinsella, 304 pgs.

Named after a Bad Religion song and album and based (albeit loosely) on true events, Recipe for Hate is perfect for those who like murder mysteries, punk rock, and kicking Nazi ass. The narrator, Kurt Blank, is a stand in for the author in his youth, even playing in the same band, The Hot Nasties, whose Invasion of the Tribbles 7” is real and available on Spotify.

Though Recipe for Hate is aimed at teens, the second novel in what is now dubbed The X Gang series, will be geared more towards adults, understandably so after the gorefest Recipe for Hate entails. The novel opens on X and Kurt playing a show with the Hot Nasties before it all goes wrong. At first, it seems like the kind of endearing, nostalgic novel you might get out of Frank Portman, but it becomes clear very early on that this is not the case. Kurt and X realize too late that the Hot Nasties’ singer, Jimmy, is nowhere to be found. They find him in the alley in a crucifix position with a barbed-wire crown of thorns, and so the mystery unfolds as more gruesome murders come about, local white supremacist groups are discovered, and the cops, unsurprisingly, do absolutely nothing.

Prior to his YA debut, Kinsella published several nonfiction books about Canadian politics, including one about the Canadian far right, Web of Hate. Some of the events in Web of Hate formed the basis for this novel, but a lot of the violence and actions taken to counter it are a bit far-fetched and don’t seem realistic even within the convoluted plot of the novel (notably, the events that didn’t actually happen).

Recipe for Hate, though it falls flat at times, is increasingly relevant, with more “alt-right”ers and neo-Nazis coming out of the woodwork every day. The book takes place in 1979 but the ideologies represented within did not seem at all unrealistic for 2018. It’s certainly a novel for troubled times, and a scathing critique of—not even critique, call to arms against—white supremacists in religion and in power. The cast of punks and other sundry misfits Kinsella creates is fun, and it’s a solid portrait of life in a town without too many punks. Give it a shot when you want something engaging and just a little out there. –Jimmy Cooper (Dundurn Press, dundurn.com)

We Are The Clash: Reagan, Thatcher, and The Last Stand of a Band That Mattered

By Mark Anderson and Ralph Heibutzki. 374 pg.

I’m ambivalent about The Clash. They have some good songs, and I feel like they’re a band I should be crazy about, but their sloganeering leaves me empty. Plus, it’s 2018 and I still can’t get through Sandinista!

We Are The Clash chronicles the band’s final chapters: longtime drummer Topper Headon gets kicked out for substance abuse problems in 1983 right before The Clash play Steve Wozniak’s US Festival for a cool half million dollars (exactly half of what Van Halen makes the next day). The show is the last one for Mick Jones, who is summarily booted after the show and replaced with two new guitarists, ostensibly so Strummer, who’s not much of a player, can be an unencumbered frontman. Jones’s ousting coincides with longtime manager Bernie Rhodes becoming an even more McLaren-esque presence, calling the shots in the studio as the now five-piece Clash 2.0 struggles to deliver a follow up to Combat Rock, the group’s most commercially successful record. To that end, Rhodes tyrannically dictates the band’s songwriting, and enlists a bunch of ringers to play on Cut the Crap, the hot mess of an album producer Michael Fanye infused with bloopy canned beats. (I went back and listened to the record for the first time in more than ten years. It’s still awful.)

Despite the presence of two authors on the cover, I’m assuming it’s Anderson who writes mostly about The Clash because of his previous work, the excellent DC-centric Dance of Days. There’s little objectivity in his delivery, as he describes, in sometimes purple prose, the new songs and performances the revamped band runs through. On the flip side of the coin, I assume it’s mostly Heibutzki who writes about the socioeconomics of the times: Margaret Thatcher, still stinging from a series of defeats at the hands of the Labour party years earlier, goes all-out in her offensive on British coal miners, who strike in protest. On this side of the pond, Reagan is elected and nearly goads the Soviet Union into war.

I might be wrong about the roles I’ve assigned the dual authors. Regardless, the biggest failing of the book is the tenuous relation of the aforementioned socioeconomics to the story of the band: often, the political stories seem to run parallel to The Clash, with no real connection. Granted, this makes the occasional intersections powerful: the realization that The Clash, champions of the people, don’t play a benefit for the miners until very late in their struggle was a shocking one. Still, a ton of time is spent on these topics, especially on the miners’ strike—more connection would have helped the book feel cohesive.

But somehow that lack of cohesion kinda worked. It’s Joe Strummer who’s at the core of this book, trying like hell to write new songs, realizing he’s cut off a limb by booting Mick Jones, and living with the pressure of being the titular figurehead of a group whose power has waned drastically. There’s a palpable feeling of dread and foreboding throughout We Are The Clash as the band prepares to deliver the crap (sorry) which will fall into the CBS Records punchbowl. Give it up for the authors: they make me feel bad for Strummer as he disappears to Granada. And the book’s great triumph is its depiction of The Clash’s busking tour: the five go on the road with no money and play their songs acoustic around England for seventeen days. This sounds like the corny last resort of a band trying too hard—and the authors’ comparing Strummer to Jesus adds to this—but I got online and listened to some of the audience tapes of the busking, and they kinda rule. In fact, a lot of the live stuff of the era is pretty good.

So for all my ambivalence about the band, all my skepticism about their motives and perceived poses, We Are The Clash made me re-immerse myself in the group’s work, and made me reconsider them. Joe Strummer is depicted as deeply flawed, sincere, and, most of all, deeply human. It’s that humanity—and the enthusiasm of the authors—which courses through the book, and made me consider and reconsider the band, despite my own skepticism. Which is something. –Michael T. Fournier (Akashic, akashicbooks.com)

Collected Writings: Life Sex Fandom By Johnnie Jungleguts. 212 pgs.

I admit to being initially put off by this one: A quick flip through revealed a ton of blank space, which I thought didn’t bode well for the content, especially after realizing some of the author’s collected musings are culled from Facebook. But! After only a few pages my mind was changed. The author is a gamer (actually, a “gaymer”—I looked it up!), a fanboy and an essayist, among other things. It’s this broad palette that gives Johnnie’s writing such impact: A book of funny statuses from Facebook would quickly be relegated to a novelty. But these provide quick blasts of levity amongst essays about the author’s volunteer work on a Bolivian animal refuge, witchcraft, and his twenty-four consecutive hours playing Final Fantasy VII. The blank space he leaves on some pages just emphasizes the heft of his longer prose pieces. The sum of these disparate pieces is a deeply personal reflection of identity. Thoroughly entertaining throughout as he pinballs from subject to subject, with absurd humor a strong hook to pull in skeptics and acolytes. A complete trip, and well worth seeking out. –Michael T. Fournier (Closing, closingstore.bigcartel.com)

Lords of St. Thomas By Jackson Ellis, 180 pgs.

Sometimes a quick, straight-forward book hits the right nerve. Lords of St. Thomas can easily be finished in two or three sittings, but author Jackson Ellis’s simple prose is evocative. It makes an impact in the short time one spends with it. This book is written as a piece of historical fiction based on the real town of St. Thomas, Nev. which existed from the 1860s in the Mojave Desert’s Moapa Valley up until the 1930s when the construction of the Hoover Dam eventually covered the town with Lake Mead. The plot centers around the Lord family—whose story is told in a flashback by the youngest member “Little” Henry Lord. Henry is in his mid-seventies and going back to his hometown during one of the periodic dry periods when Lake Mead has retreated enough to expose the remains of the town’s streets and foundations. He has not been back to the town site since the day in 1938 when he and his Grandpa, the elder Henry Lord, loaded up a boat from the family home’s front porch and burned down the house on their way out of town.

The elder Henry, a mechanic in St. Thomas, is based on the real final resident of St. Thomas. In the book he is the patriarch to a family that includes his son Thomas, Thomas’s wife Ellen, and the younger Henry. Grandpa Henry is a reserved, caring man, but also intensely stubborn and resistant to change. The submersion of St. Thomas was not a quick event, but rather a gradual death that began in the 1920s when the first surveys and land purchases began to occur for the eventual dam. Many of the events that play out in the novel stem from Henry’s refusal to acknowledge the impending change in his family’s life the rising lake will bring, regardless of his protestations and willful denial. While Henry’s stubbornness in the face of the inevitable forces of nature, time, and the government does have a bit of admirable underdog scrappiness in its Quixotic nature, the willful blindness and unyielding nature he goes about battling the (literal and figurative) tides of change, unfortunately ripples out in ways that fatally affect his family.

Ellis crafts a story that often brings to mind parts of To Kill a Mockingbird. Both stories focus on child characters who are living out their last days of idyllic innocence under the pall of a force bigger than themselves, soon to settle on their lives and change them irrevocably. Although this is a book marked by heavy loss, it is nonetheless still a refreshing read. –Adrian Salas (Green Writers Press, 139 Main St., Suite 501, Brattleboro, VT, 05301)

Make a Zine By Joe Biel with Bill Brent, 158 pgs.

This is the twentieth anniversary of Make a Zine, now on its third edition. The book is, theoretically, about starting “your own underground publishing revolution” (that’s the subtitle). Throughout the book author Joe Biel shares his experience of creating his first zine and coming up in that community, as well as lessons he’s learned. In addition, there are some good nuts and bolts material here: organization, layout and type, postage, distribution, et cetera. However, those foundational issues of how to create a zine are all in the second half of the book. The first half is a mishmash of random things, including the history of publishing, zines and the corporate world, libel, copyright, and zine communities. The last one really tripped me up. It came off as overly negative with zinesters airing their grievances about the community they supposedly loved so much. If I were someone just getting into zines, after reading that chapter I’m not sure I’d want to be any part of that community.

I did appreciate the range of individuals who chimed in throughout the book, however, including zinesters from wide backgrounds (and our own Todd Taylor). In addition, chapters of Make a Zine are written by a few other authors including Katie Haegele, Stephen Duncombe, and Fly. The DIY Comix chapter by Fly was especially good, as it was thorough on every aspect one might want to know on this topic. That’s generally how this book runs, though. There are some strong portions that should be essential information to those new to the zine scene. However, the material that is more about the scene and its politics don’t seem to mesh well with the sections I believe to be more important. Perhaps the next edition will correct these issues and make it more consistent. –Kurt Morris (Microcosm Publishing, 2752 N. Williams Ave., Portland, OR 97227)