Featured Book Reviews from Issue #85: Dysfunction is never the wind in your sails

May 18, 2015

Punk USA: The Rise and Fall of Lookout! Records
By Kevin Prested, 191 pgs.Punk USA is a primarily oral history account of the story of one of the favorite punk labels of the 1980s and ‘90s, Lookout Records. Started in the ‘80s by Larry Livermore and David Hayes, some seminal punk bands of that time—Screeching Weasel, The Queers, The Mr. T Experience, Operation Ivy, Green Day, and Avail—all released albums with the label. And then, in 2005, Lookout, for all practical purposes, went out of business. What happened and why? That’s what Punk USA tries to explore, but only does so to some degree.

The first half of the book talks about the rise of the label: how it was started, what releases were put out, how certain people were involved, and the EastBay punk scene in general. Sometimes this can be painstakingly detailed, such as the information on seemingly every release from the early years and how each respective band got “signed” to the label.

The second half of the book details the fall of the label, which basically details a he said/he said between the co-owner for many years, Chris Appelgren, and the various bands signed to the label. It can be confusing, but what I came away with from reading all the back and forth is that perhaps a better subtitle for the book would’ve been The Rise and Fall of Chris Appelgren. He’s quoted more than anyone and is allowed to give his point of view on the entire history, which is only fair, as he’s accused of being the reason for the label’s financial failure—one far greater than I had imagined. According to the book, “Lookout somehow squandered what may have been upwards of $50 million between 1991 and the time of their bankruptcy,” most of which was from Green Day and Operation Ivy royalties.

Multiple times, Appelgren notes that he didn’t have a business background and once co-owners Livermore and Peter Hynes (the new co-owner who came on after David Hayes left the label years before) left in the late ‘90s, it appears that poor business sense is what caused the label to fail.

Author Kevin Prested noted that he couldn’t fit everything in the book that he wanted: “Huge chunks ended up being trimmed. As much as I love Brent’s TV or Surrogate Brains, the casual reader might not be interested in five or six pages of writing on each of these 7” releases.” You’re right. What the reader of a book about a label as important as Lookout wants are interviews with the bands that made the biggest impression on the punk scene, as well as the average bands. That being said, there are no interviews with any of the guys from Green Day, Operation Ivy, co-founder David Hayes, Ben Weasel from Screeching Weasel, Tim Barry from Avail, or Kevin Army, who produced a ton of releases for the label. There’s also nothing extensive from Larry Livermore.

Anytime a book is written, it’s good for the author to admit any biases (like the fact that Kevin Prested used to write for Lookout’s blog and website, which I discovered doing a search for him online) and limitations. If you can’t get someone to talk to you, you need to admit that up front and also acknowledge that your book will suffer because of that. To compensate, Prested should’ve drawn from other sources than just original interviews. For example, sure, the members of Green Day may be hard to contact, but it’s important to let the reader know you, the author, tried. And if you can’t get them to speak with you, surely they have made comments about Lookout or those involved with the label in interviews.

For example, I wondered where Livermore and Hayes got the money to start Lookout—a subject never addressed in the book. According to an online video interview with Hayes, it was from Larry selling pot he grew. That’s the kind of information that needs to be in a book about the history of a record label. There are many other pieces I felt were missing—things I wanted to know, but whose gaps weren’t filled due to the lack of participants.

What is here is only one part of the story of Lookout Records. The other part still needs to be written. Kurt Morris (Microcosm,2752 N. Williams Ave., Portland, OR 97227)

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys
By Viv Albertine, 432 pgs.
Viv Albertine, the guitarist for The Slits, was one of the core group of punks who helped create the original London scene. She was close friends with Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, Mick Jones, Joe Strummer, Keith Levene, Palmolive, Ari Up, and so on. She hung around Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s SEX shop, played in the infamous Flowers Of Romance, and helped define the influential sound of The Slits. So you would think that her autobiography would provide rich insights into the people and events of that era. In fact, the media blurbs on the back of the book inform me that this is one of the greatest autobiographies from that scene. But it isn’t (Surprisingly, at least to me, John Lydon’s Rotten holds that honor).

To be fair, I need to point out that the book I read right before Albertine’s was Violence Girl by Alice Bag of the Bags. While both books have a lot in common—from detailing a woman’s struggle within a male-dominated subculture to their structure of short, two-to-five page chapters offering digestible narrative nuggets—there is a distinct difference regarding each book’s narrative voice. Within twenty pages of Violence Girl, I was totally smitten by Alice, thoroughly invested in the stories she was telling me. One hundred pages into CCCMMMBBB, I still couldn’t decide if I even liked Viv. I simply didn’t have a sense of who she was. The reason was that her presentation of what should have been completely engaging stories—such as her on-again/off-again romance with Mick Jones, her affair with Johnny Thunders and heroin, her troubled relationship with Ari Up and the rest of The Slits, her confusing friendship with Sid Vicious—are all presented rather superficially. As a result, I don’t understand what she is feeling at any given moment nor am I particularly invested in her life story. When she writes that she was devastated for years about the break up of The Slits, I just have to take her word for it. The breakup marks the end of “Side One” of the book, which covers her youth in punk and takes up around two-thirds of the book. But I’m starting not to care and beginning to look around the room for other books to distract me.

All of this changes in “Side Two.” In her post-Slits life, after marrying and settling down into domestic drudgery, Viv becomes obsessed with having a baby. But she suffers miscarriage after miscarriage and the obsession begins to turn into madness. Shortly after she finally succeeds in delivering a daughter, she is diagnosed with cervical cancer and the threads of her life fray even further. Suddenly, as a reader, I’m grabbed by a narrator whose intensity is profound. The seventy-five pages or so that cover her miscarriages and struggle with cancer are some of the most moving and engaging autobiographical passages I’ve ever read. Perhaps this helps explain why the first part of the book struck me as flat and superficial—that was an entirely different Viv Albertine living a completely differently life, inconsequential in comparison to the one she now finds herself in more than twenty-five years later.

The book continues with her rediscovery of empowerment through music, re-teaching herself how to play guitar, the slow, painful collapse of her marriage, her pondering an affair with Vincent Gallo (don’t do it, Viv!), and her eventual emergence as a solo performer with the release of The Vermilion Border (2012). While not as consistently brilliant as the superior Violence Girl, Albertine’s CCCMMMBBB is a remarkable read in places. While her portrayals of the 1970s and early 1980s are breezy and incomplete, be prepared to be gutted by the harrowing portrayal of her adult years. –Kevin Dunn (St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Ave., NY, NY 10010)

Dodgeball High
By Bradley Sands, 188 pgs.
Bradley Sands is one of the foremost comedy writers in the bizarro fiction movement. He has a knack for writing likeably dislikeable characters and throwing them into wacky situations. In the case of Dodgeball High, that character is Justin Lucas. Justin is basically the coolest teenager ever, at least in his own mind. When his parents move and he has to go to a new school, he’s got to start from scratch to prove to his classmates else that he totally rules at everything. Except there’s one snag: at Dodgeball High, only one thing is studied, and it is way brutal.

There’s a lot more at risk at Dodgeball High’s dodgeball games than getting a rubber ball in your face. These kids have upped the ante. Dodgeball is a life or death matter. Fire. Explosions. Razorblades. Not everyone makes it out alive, but those who do will be well-rewarded. Fortunately, Justin knows what he’s doing. He’s cool under pressure, and a hell of a dodgeball player. Or is he?

What makes this book such a party is how it takes the concept of the unreliable narrator to such an extreme. Justin is one of those kids who has a habit of lucking into things and then taking full credit for them. When he makes a mind-blowing dodge or a killer throw, he chalks it up to his talent, even though it’s pretty clear that most of what goes right for him is a coincidence.

And he is such a kidder. He kids with his friends. Well, they aren’t really his friends, so much as classmates who have refrained from killing him or, in the case of his love interest, serial killer Dodie Manson, attempted to kill him and couldn’t do it. But he kids with the reader too. He’ll set up a scenario, only to throw in a “just kidding,” and explain what really happened. This stunt is handled so adeptly, that it never got old, and I laughed my butt off every time. If you haven’t read any Bradley Sands yet, this is a great place to start. –MP Johnson (Eraserhead Press, PO Box 10065, Portland, OR 97269, eraserheadpress.com)

Double Nickels Forever: A tribute to Double Nickels on the Dime and the
Various Artists, 180 pgs.My wife and I were driving home and I was down on our remote neighborhood, my job, and lack of writing time. Then the Minutemen came on the radio. I’d never heard the song, but couldn’t mistake the burbling bass, skittering drums, and blurted vocals. I listened for a moment, chuckled at a lyric, then looked up at my wife driving with palm trees passing beyond her and thought how lucky I was to live near the beach with such an amazing woman, in the range of a cool radio station. The Minutemen are a mood shifter, the friendship that drove the band infusing every song with contagious goodwill. I hugged my wife. I went home and wrote. I’ve since found a new job.

The Minutemen inspire great things. Case in point: this collection of comics and drawings based on songs from their legendary double album, Double Nickels on the Dime. Fifty-nine artists (including John Porcellino and Dmitry Samarov) each bring a different song to life, creating psychedelic narratives, sharing stories that relate to the songs, or just taking a crack at drawing drummer George Hurley’s floppy ‘80s skater bangs. The art is varied, but consistently rad, and the narratives are all imaginative, a testament to the power of the band’s emotionally direct lyrics.

The book itself is a classy-looking trade paperback, the art in black and white. A small press from Virginia ran a crowd funding campaign to publish it, and they’ve achieved something terrific: a tribute that transcends its inspiration, providing perspective on a dense album, adding dimensions to the Minutemen’s music, and standing on its own as a unique collection of art—just like a Minutemen album. –Chris Terry (leafandsignal.com)

Punk Rock BlitzkriegBy Marky Ramone with Richard Herschlag, 416 pgs.
Punk Rock Blitzkrieg tells the story of Marky Ramone’s life behind the kit, playing drums for one of the most influential and iconic punk bands of all time, The Ramones. Long before any books were written about the band, wild rumors about The Ramones had been the stuff of punk rock urban legend. Such as: all of The Ramones had served in Vietnam, Joey was in a mental institution, Dee Dee was a heroin addict and a street hustler, Johnny was a right-winger, Tommy had dropped off the grid and was the owner a fleabag hotel in Florida, Marky was in a revolving door of rehab, and CJ was a former roadie who was AWOL from the Marines.

One of the most pervasive myths was that Phil Spector had pulled a gun on the band during the recording of End of the Century. (The version of this myth that I’d heard back in the ‘80s was that after a long day of recording, Spector had held them all at gunpoint, making them play pinball at his house all night.)

Punk Rock Blitzkrieg cuts these tall tales down to size, but Marky’s first-hand accounts of the animosity in the band are gut-wrenching. They turn out to be far more severe than the rumors ever had been.

The rumor was that Joey had written “The KKK Took My Baby Away” about Johnny, and that Joey and Johnny didn’t like each other very much. According to Blitzkrieg, that song wasn’t about Johnny at all, but Joey and Johnny did not speak directly to each other for years. Like divorced parents, they would shuttle messages back and forth through Marky or the band’s tour manager, even if they were riding together in the van.

As many gruesome stories as there are, Blitzkrieg doesn’t read like mud-slinging or an airing of old beefs. It just seems like Marky’s explanation of the way things happened, warts and all. His frustrations with his bandmates are quite apparent, but he says he considers them his brothers. Marky loved the energy they were creating and said it made all of the aggravations worthwhile.

And Marky does cop to his own shortcomings. Alcohol slowly gets the best of him and his life spins out, resulting in the loss of his career, identity as a Ramone, and his longtime girlfriend.

He gives an honest glimpse into the struggles of an addict with a horrifying account of a being driven back to drinking by a case of the D.T.s. After several false starts, he finally drags himself out of the pit of alcoholism and rejoins the band.

Some say that the grudges and tensions were an essential ingredient to what made The Ramones so great. Dysfunction is never the wind in your sails; it’s the unnoticed anchor dragging along the ocean floor behind you. It’s a subtle but important distinction to say The Ramones were great in spite of their problems, rather than because of them.

Which is all the more reason to appreciate that they ever existed. Finding four people anywhere who can click musically is like catching lightning in a bottle. Yet The Ramones came together at that special time and place. Then they stayed together (albeit in a state of wild dysfunction) long enough to record fourteen studio albums and play thousands of shows all over the world, lighting the fuse for a worldwide punk rock revolution. That’s nothing short of a miracle. –Jeff Fox

Thankful Bits

Razorcake.org is supported and made possible, in part, by grants from the following organizations.
Any findings, opinions, or conclusions contained herein are not necessarily those of our grantors.