Book Reviews

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us By Hanif Abdurraqib, 285 pgs.

There’s no kind of writer I enjoy more than the kind Dorothy Parker described when she reviewed Harlan Ellison’s story collection Gentleman Junkie: “a good, honest, clean writer, putting down what he has seen and known, and no sensationalism about it.” That’s Hanif Abdurraqib. (Though since he’s black and I’m white, I should point out that “clean” refers to the prose.)

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us is a collection of thirty-nine essays. Here’s a sampling of their titles: “Carly Rae Jepsen Loves You Back,” “I Wasn’t Brought Here, I Was Born: Surviving Punk Rock Long Enough to Find Afropunk,” “It Rained in Ohio on the Night Allen Iverson Hit Michael Jordan with a Crossover,” and “My First Police Stop.”

If the titles remind you of Lester Bangs, that’s not coincidental. Abdurraqib is open about Bangs’ influence. He shares with Bangs long paragraphs and a hunger to understand as much of the world as he can before he dies. (Abdurraqib doesn’t make jokes, though.)

He’s writing for everyone, and usually about music, but the question that runs through the book is, “As a black millennial, how do I live my life?” And a black millennial who’s fortunate enough to discover this book may be introduced to the music of Bruce Springsteen and Fleetwood Mac, both of whose music Abdurraqib writes insightfully about. He lacks ideological deafness, and for example, points out how amazing Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” is; a song I’d taken for granted (and probably will again—it is Fleetwood Mac, after all). –Jim Woster (Two Dollar Radio, twodollarradio.com)

Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook By Mark Bray, 259 pgs.

It’s not really a “handbook,” but it has its moments. We can forgive a small press a little pizzazz. The back cover refers to the author, Dartmouth lecturer Mark Bray, as an “insider”—which he’s not, he’s an interviewer—but he’s probably as close to an insider as we’re going to get for awhile. (He believably says anti-fascists are not going to allow embedded reporters.)

Bray writes “antifa” is “shorthand for anti-fascist in many languages,” and he doesn’t capitalize it. He also points out the antifa don’t have a central authority.

Much of the book is a welcome history of anti-fascism. America spent most of the twentieth century hoping fascism couldn’t happen here, but it had already happened here. After the Civil War Jim Crow laws comfortably fit the definition of fascism, and the KKK was and is very much a fascist organization (the word “fascist” didn’t exist until 1919).

Bray then addresses free speech and violence. To defend antifa from accusations of quelling free speech, he borrows from talk radio and social media the ever-popular Yeah, but what about [some other person or group who, in their way, is doing or has done roughly the same thing] counter-offensive, a litany that in this case includes prisons, corporations, and even homeowners associations. (Buried in the book is antifa’s goal of ending prisons.)

And the violence. Bray is like the people I’ve debated/argued with on Facebook regarding punching Nazis: in these people’s vacuum, no one makes a mistake. No, no, I’m only talking about punching people we know are Nazis. Bray the lecturer is something of a hawk, subtextually casting his vote for antifa violence. A limousine is set on fire in Washington D.C.’s Logan Circle the day after Trump’s inauguration and Bray calls it an “iconic moment.” The reader is left to wonder whether anyone was inside the limousine.

But what do we do about fascists, then? Waiting around is never a good idea. Bray describes the steps a group of Dutch anti-fascists used in 2009 to mobilize people who didn’t necessarily identify as antifa—call them civilians—to oppose fascist marches. The steps—which any anti-fascists unclear of how to proceed can duplicate—worked well, inspiring an impressive number of civilians to show up as opposition.

But then those Dutch anti-fascists started throwing dog shit at the fascists. What would a bystander unfamiliar with fascist history think about that scene? One side throwing dog shit, the other side not throwing dog shit. Which side is that bystander going to conclude offers the better solution? –Jim Woster (Melville House Publishing, mhpbooks.com)

Difference Between, The By Billy McCall, 140 pgs.

This book may be my new favorite thing. It’s such a simple idea, but works so well. Billy McCall takes various things (Ice Cube and Ice T, empathy and sympathy, herbs and spices) that sound similar or are often confused, and explains the difference. I learned so much reading The Difference Between. There were many times I said, “Yeah! I always get those confused!” McCall’s explainations are quick, easy-to-understand, and occasionally humorous (Palm Springs and Palm Beach, for example).

This is not a diss, but I can totally see this book being for sale at Urban Outfitters. It’s smaller in size (approximately 4” x 5”) and each person/place/thing is given a page with an illustration, so it makes for a quick read. The Difference Between is a great idea for some toilet reading or a white elephant gift as the holidays approach. Highly recommended and for six bucks it’s worth the price. –Kurt Morris (iknowbilly@gmail.com)

Everything Is Combustible: Television, CBGBs and Five Decades of Rock and Roll By Richard Lloyd, 398 pgs.

Richard Lloyd is primarily known as one of the two guitarists for Television. I’ve never taken the time to get into the band beyond a few songs but was familiar with Lloyd and Television’s importance in punk music history. Lloyd does a fine job of exploring his particular take on the scene through a book of what he calls “stories spoken aloud in the tradition of oral storytelling.” I can see these tales being told by Lloyd to a group of friends in an exciting, ¬“can-you-believe-this?” way. There are stories about his frequent experiences with Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, and people from the ’70s punk scene in New York City. I enjoy reading the adventures of bands from 1970s punk because the musicians often write in a way that puts the reader in the scene and lets them know how exciting and fresh the environment was.

Lloyd has some great tales which kept me turning pages, but he is his own worst enemy as a writer by doing quite a bit to take the reader out of the setting. As a reader, I had a number of concerns. The material people want to read about is Television and Lloyd’s experiences with punk music. We instead read extensively about his childhood, with material related to the band not coming into play until almost page 170. In most cases, Lloyd tells and doesn’t show us what happened.

Early on, Lloyd mentions how he can recall memories from when he was one, two, and three years of age. He claims to have an “eidetic memory.” However, scientific studies have shown we can’t retain experiences from that time. Thus, if an author is sharing things from the start of the book that are difficult to believe, why should I accept the other things he tells me? In addition, I had trouble with his timeline—events were occasionally told out of order and he claimed to have gone into the World Trade Center at a time before it would’ve been built.

At 398 pages, this book is longer than it should be. The tales can at times draw the reader in. However, Everything Is Combustible is a perfect example of the need for a good editor. They would’ve helped sculpt this into something with more punch, where the stories of CBGBs heyday would’ve captured the reader instead of being just a few chapters thrown into the midst of hard-to-believe tales, philosophical ponderings, and stories about all the women with whom Lloyd has had sex. –Kurt Morris (Beech Hill, PO Box 40, Mount Desert, ME 04660)

Henry & Glenn Forever + Ever: Completely Ridiculous Edition By Tom Neely, Igloo Tornado, 320 pgs.

This book is a ridiculously well designed tribute to the power of a brilliant, stupid idea. The basic concept is of a “what if?” which imagines if Henry Rollins and Glenn Danzig were a couple who happened to be neighbors with satanic occultists, Hall & Oates. I remember first running across the original sixty-page Henry & Glenn Forever indy comic around 2010 and thought it good for a chuckle. I hadn’t realized Tom Neely and the Igloo Tornado art collective had been hammering away at the concept ever since so that now there is enough material to assemble a 320-page hardcover book.

This book stands as a testament to icon building. The whole concept works because Henry Rollins and Glenn Danzig are such singular personalities that they transcend music and become pop culture figures. It’s safe to assume most punk, hardcore, or metal fans probably have some opinion on Henry Garfield and/or Glenn Anzalone, and probably only half the time is it related to their music. Part of the charm of the comics is the repeated use of imagery linked to Henry and Glenn to create a visual joke or advance a plot point. For instance, the photo that surfaced of Danzig leaving a grocery store with a box of kitty litter gets more than a few references. And one of L.A.’s most infamous (sadly gone) music landmarks, Glenn’s pile of bricks, is almost its own character. Henry and Glenn are such well-defined men of extreme passions, the mundane nature of buying cat litter, or as the comics propose, engaging in petty domestic squabbles, causes cognitive whiplash. It’s somehow easier to buy that Danzig confers with supernatural forces, or that Henry Rollins would go barefoot across an active war zone to record shop than it is to imagine the two of them having to deal with everyday relationship problems and chores like regular people.

The book is also a love letter to comics as an art. There are serialized action stories, short form jokes that take just a panel or two, and a ton of tribute art imagining Glenn and Henry in every form of comic art form throughout history. These include lovingly rendered takes of Henry and Glenn as golden age superheros, Archie-style teen romance comedies, ill-proportioned Rob Liefield super soldiers, and even Hernandez Brothers indy comics.

The book isn’t one hundred percent hits. Sometimes the artists or writers cop out with insultingly lazy gay stereotype jokes (looking at you “Going to Gaydes”). It’s perhaps inevitable there will be questionable entries when the concept at the heart of the entire endeavor is subverting two of punk’s most famously masculine men by throwing them together as a domestic couple. Maybe the true art is that the concept is usually handled somewhat skillfully. –Adrian Salas (Microcosm Publishing, 2752 N Williams Ave., Portland OR, 97227, microcosmpublishing.com / I Will Destroy You Comics, iwilldestroyyou.com)

Nails By MP Johnson, 77 pgs.

For the record, MP Johnson is a Razorcake contributor, although I’ve never met her. She normally writes in the world of bizarro fiction, a cult genre of the weird that made me wonder if I would like Nails. She assured her followers this short book was different from her normal writing—much more personal.

I’ve been interested in seeing Johnson change over the past year or two as she has more openly addressed her attempts to accept her gender. While I don’t have personal knowledge with it, my observation has been that transitioning can be an incredibly hard experience. Johnson opens a window to it with these seventy-seven pages.

The story takes place over the course of a few days in Los Angeles. By herself, away from friends and family, it’s a place she can feel safe (so to speak) to crossdress and explore who she is. Johnson goes to a Damned concert, gets her nails done, eventually meets a dominatrix, and has many a misadventure along the way. There were so many times I felt empathetic to everything which befell her. Johnson’s ability to draw the reader into her tale says a lot about her writing.

Speaking of that, for anyone who thinks authors in the world of bizarro fiction can’t write, I’d suggest they read Nails. Johnson’s prose sets the reader in the scene even with its edgier moments. I came across scenes where I cringed at the brutal description (if I ever have to shave my asshole I’m going to be sooo careful) but the fact that it did so is a sign of Johnson’s talent.

Nails is not an easy read. I felt sad through most of it—while I can’t relate to experiences with gender issues, I could understand the sentiment of loneliness and how crushing it is. Johnson has her experiences but they’re relatable and interesting (if sometimes embarrassing), which shows a great talent of a writer. The ability to pull at my heartstrings and make a unique tale universal is incredible. Despite its lack of happiness, the raw honesty makes Nails one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I can’t recommend it highly enough. –Kurt Morris (Lazy Fascist Press, lazyfascistpress.com)

Nowhere to Go By S. Ludman, 244 pgs.

I can’t review this book without taking into account the skinhead stereotype: hyper-masculine, violent men beholden to leaders; vague ideology; a perverted sense of honor; and the ability to justify anything based on all of the former, but prone to beating your ass. That said, I’ve known skinheads, partied with skinheads, been best friends with skinheads, and damn well know the value of having them on your side. Still, I can’t think of one who didn’t have at least two of the above faults. Skinheads, though, don’t come out of a vacuum. There’s a reason why they chose their subculture, why they glorify violence, why they hang on to backward ideas of what it is to be a man and, like everyone else, are the clay that society molded them into. There’s room for nuance and complexity in telling their stories.

Unfortunately, you won’t get that in Nowhere to Go. It starts off decent enough. Matt lives with a foster mother who’s a coke dealer and addict. After being beaten to a pulp by her latest dirtbag boyfriend, Matt steals all her cash and coke and runs away to Los Angeles to be a punk. We get a good idea of why Matt’s angry, why he can kick ass and take a punch. We understand the chip on his shoulder. But that’s all we get.

As soon as he gets to L.A. he gets jumped by a skinhead gang. He beats their asses. They recruit him into their gang. He meets the hot punk girl with her dyed hair and ceaselessly referenced nipples and fights the rival skinhead gang for her honor. She breaks his heart. He fights anybody and everybody to forget the pain. And on. And on.

If that’s what you want, you’ll get it here along with countless plodding pages telling of Matt’s broken heart, but the author lacks the ability to show it. Immersive literature would show—through dialogue, symbolism, understated actions and body language—deep meaning, perhaps even allowing you to sympathize. Unfortunately, any potential for this is tossed away for cornball, Hollywood-style dialogue, countless brawls, hetero-rutting, and boob adjectives. If there’s something to be said for the work, the pleasure and drive in making it is palpable. The author seems excited to tell an action-filled story without the pretenses of literature, but it takes more than that to grab me. –Craven Rock (CCM Publishing Group, Crowd Control Media, 8504 Firestone Blvd. #391, Downey, CA 90241, crowdcontrolmedia.net)

Punk Women, Volume One By David Ensminger, 98 pgs.

Ensminger tells the reader right off the bat that this is a collection of profiles of women in punk written by a cis white male. He instantly outs himself as not unqualified, but as a champion of these overlooked stories who carries with him an awareness as to not come off as an expert on a life not lived by him. As soon as I finished reading the book, I went right back to that introduction to see if he accomplished what he set out to do.

Yes, this is a hodge-podge of genres (hardcore, punk, thrash, metal), as well as a varied group spanning many races, backgrounds, and LBGTQ women. There were a ton of bands I wasn’t familiar with, but I feel like all I got was a generalized review of their music. Sometimes (The Voids for example) Ensminger wouldn’t mention the woman whatsoever in his quick blurb about their music. It left me feeling like I’d read a few hundred words about the career of a band just because there’s a woman in it.

I suppose there is a tactic in simply normalizing the gender diversity, though his mission statement was to shine a light on these women and I think in some excerpts he fell just short. His voice and writing style is very cerebral and academic, which I much enjoyed. However, there were only a handful out of the many, many profiles that included an actual interview and it left me feeling like these women’s voices were still overlooked. What I really hoped for were personal stories from these musicians. I realize that’s quite the undertaking, but I think Ensminger has the drive to do so.

There was Mel Hell from Zipperneck who suffered from nerve damage inflicted from her dentist in 2011 and I learned so much about her life—coping with constant, debilitating pain yet still carrying on with life the best she could. Or the story of Osa Atoe coming up with the D.C. punk scene and assuming all punk was political at its core, leading to her being an activist today.

There were a few times where I didn’t know where or when bands were from, and others when I was completely immersed in the life of the woman profiled. I think this book is suffering a bit from being overzealous and not dedicating enough time to each subject. For volume two, maybe reach out for at least a comment or two when possible? Though I overall enjoyed this, I will knock the author one coveted punk point for getting a Blondie song wrong (“Rip Her to Shreds”—not “Tear”). Even if I’m being a little harsh, I am very happy a project like this exists and would recommend grabbing one of the four hundred copies out there. –Kayla Greet (Left Of The Dial Books)

Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World By Billy Bragg, 431 pgs.

What’s your first thought when you hear the word “skiffle”? A word that Microsoft Word doesn’t recognize? Before reading Billy Bragg’s history of the not firmly defined musical genre, my first thought was always Lonnie Donegan’s novelty song “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight,” which I probably first heard on the Dr. Demento radio show. I knew the Beatles started as a skiffle band, but more or less thought skiffle was something young musicians did until they figured out how to make girls think of sex.

Roots, Radicals and Rockers directed my attention to Lonnie Donegan’s version of “Frankie & Johnny,” to which I direct your attention—it has to be the most sexual song of England’s 1950s, and accordingly, inspired hundreds of British teenagers to take up their first guitars. And now I get skiffle.

In Bragg’s history, skiffle is a long, cylindrical magnet that stretches from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth, attracting moments in history from the dawn of the American railroad to the explosion of post-war British youth culture. It’s a feast of learning.

Bragg’s voice is conversational, but the conversation is business-casual, not as with, say, Sarah Vowell’s voice—her readers are friends, Bragg’s readers are co-workers.

And if you’ve never heard “Midnight Special” by Lead Belly—and apparently that’s the proper spelling of his name, not “Leadbelly” or “LeadBelly”—listen to that, too. Most of rock music, including your favorite punk song, comes from it. I would not have realized that without Bragg’s book. (I also didn’t know what the Midnight Special was, and now I do.) –Jim Woster (Faber & Faber, faber.co.uk)

Stranded in the Jungle: Jerry Nolan’s Wild Ride—A Tale of Drugs, Fashion, the New York Dolls, and Punk Rock By Curt Weiss, 280 pgs.

My second punk rock obsession after Never Mind the Bollocks was the New York Dolls’ self-titled album. “Personality Crisis” is a near-perfect encapsulation of teenage hormones firing in ten different directions at once, in a way that was sloppy, aggressive, sexy, and a little dangerous. Fairly or not to the other band members though, my fandom never went much beyond an obsession with Johnny Thunders and a fascination with the fact that David Johansen was also “Hot Hot Hot” Buster Poindexter. Curt “Lewis King” Weiss definitely put his research work in, and the result is a comprehensive and enlightening read on Jerry Nolan, whose drumming with the New York Dolls and the Heartbreakers put him actively in the eye of the New York punk storm since the very beginning.

True to the biography’s subtitle, Nolan was a consummate thrift shop fashion plate whose ear for stylish ‘50s rockers like early Elvis and Eddie Cochran in his youth informed his belief in the power of slick personal presentation on stage (or “profilin”). Perhaps the biggest musical influence in Nolan’s life, though, is jazz drummer and band leader Gene Krupa. Weiss brings just enough analysis of technique to the table to tease out subtleties and illuminate facets of Jerry’s craft behind the drums without slipping into pedantics. Nolan’s Pre-Dolls and Heartbreakers career is traced all the way from his early teenage garage bands in Lawton, Okla., to his first recorded bands in the late ’60s, Peepl and Maximillian, who attempted to ride the wave of psychedelia that emerged in the wake of Jimi Hendrix. Along the way, Jerry had a drive for true fame that was constantly just slightly out of his reach, but exacerbated by people he came across in his life, like his childhood best friend Peter Criss and a dalliance with young Bette Middler.

Unfortunately, like many of these early punk stories, heroin might as well get second billing. By the time of the New York Dolls, Jerry was a daily heroin and methadone user. Nolan’s and Thunders’ bromance, while producing some amazing music, was also quite likely a slow death sentence for both of them, as the rest of their lives became about copping above all else. The book doesn’t shy away from Jerry’s dark side. He was unquestionably an asshole on many levels. While he engaged in the standard rock star tropes like womanizing and becoming a controlling egoist, there were also some tendencies of his that really went beyond, such as his stubbornly ingrained racist attitudes (despite being friends with many people of color), and the eagerness with which he and Johnny Thunders took in introducing people to heroin. For many early punks though, sketchy behavior is often par for the course, so hopefully most people are smarter than to look towards them as role models. –Adrian Salas (Backbeat Books, 33 Plymouth St. Suite 302, Montclair, NJ 07042, backbeatbooks.com)