Featured Book Reviews from Issue #91: The Story of Lookout Records, Portland Punk, Specious Species, Sick Pack

Sick Pack
By MP Johnson, 104 pgs.

Sick Pack is the story of a man and his abs. Male model Fabulo’s six pack has brought him fame and fortune—the shirtless image of him and his chiseled abs have adorned the covers of countless trashy romance novels the world over. But Fabulo’s abs don’t want fame and fortune. They want freedom! Fabulo’s abs launch a daring plan to escape him and his drudgery of crunches, leg lifts, and constant flexing. The result is an absurd and surreal tale of body parts trying to find themselves, and a man left to figure out who he is without the most defining part of his identity. Featuring plenty of sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, and a sexy bounty hunter who hunts rogue body parts, Sick Pack careens from one action-packed scene to the next. Chapters are short, with each one encompassing mostly the same scene. The briefness of the chapters kept the pace tight, and the action going. A few longer chapters offer moments of brief introspection on the parts of the characters, be they people or anthropomorphic body parts. 

A bit more in the way of introspection/character development might have made this more compelling for me, but what it lacked in character was made up for with a plot that knew what direction it was heading in from the first chapter. Astute readers are likely to also have a clue where things will end up, but with Sick Pack, the journey is certainly more enjoyable than the destination. From a disembodied moustache crime boss to a hardcore band of disembodied parts, the surreal characters and bizarre situations of Sick Pack are sure to hold your attention the whole way through, but I wouldn’t cut off a hand to read it. –Paul J. Comeau (Bizarro Pulp Press, bizarropulppress.com)

How to Ru(i)n a Record Label: The Story of Lookout Records
By Larry Livermore, 282 pgs.

Readers familiar with Larry Livermore’s writing—his columns of yore for Maximum Rock’n’roll and/or Punk Planet, or his excellent and engrossing Spy Rock Memories—will find the pace and style of How to Ru(i)n a Record Label a familiar return to form, and new readers should have no trouble jumping in mid-stream. Throughout, Livermore’s prose is crisp and engaging, and his storytelling is candid, occasionally to the point of inducing cringes (as an example, witness Livermore badgering Sam McPheeters of Born Against to release the band’s CD anthology on Lookout!, with Larry progressively getting meaner and drunker as negotiations go south).

With that said, I wonder how many readers threw this new book across the room around chapter twenty: it appears Livermore’s answer to the titular question is to hire a woman. As Molly Neuman becomes part of the label’s management, we see Lookout! Records come off the rails, acting like a major label, spending ridiculous money on barely-seen videos, putting out more records than it can adequately promote, and dealing with Ben Weasel. Ol’ Ben isn’t happy with the label’s sixty percent royalty rate, and begins demanding ridiculous advances and threatening legal action. Throughout all this, it appears that Livermore is heaping blame on Neuman and the rest of the label’s growing staff rather than taking responsibility.

But that’s the thing—appears. It’s not fair for readers to stop reading as the label’s crash happens. Prior to Neuman’s arrival in the narrative, Livermore spins tales of Gilman Street’s early days, including the heyday of Operation Ivy and Green Day’s meteoric rise both on Lookout! and later the major label realm. Livermore paints himself as an ethical, if scattershot, businessman, what with the aforementioned royalty rate and a contract clause reverting ownership of recordings to bands if owed moneys go unpaid for six months or more. But the emphasis here is on scattershot—what was at first a labor of love turned huge and nigh-unmanageable with Green Day’s success, making the label feel less like fun and more like a job. Livermore does a good job illustrating this change of scope through anecdotes discussing the small bedroom office eventually being moved to a huge warehouse.

Ultimately, Larry does a nice job owning up to his personal failings. Lookout!, after all, was his brainchild. The responsibility to make choices was in part his, but rather than making decisions—anydecisions—he instead let apophasis reign. Choosing not to choose, he says at the end, was both his own and the label’s ultimate downfall, not any staffing or roster choices.

Stick with How to Ru(i)n a Record Label and you’ll find that Larry Livermore’s writing style is executed as if in the moment, which makes his eventual realizations all the more impactful. Recommended. –Michael T. Fournier (Don Giovanni, PO Box 628, Kingston, NJ 08528)

All Ages: The Rise and Fall of Portland Punk Rock 1977-1981
By Mark Sten, 315 pgs.

As can be inferred by the title, this is another brick in the wall of tomes recounting punk’s hydra head history. I can almost hear the collective groan coming from bald and spiky-headed readers across the planet, but fuck ‘em, I think the way things are rolling out—many voices from many different places, like punk itself—is just as it should be. So many unique eras, pockets, and sub-pockets of talent and characters have made their mark on a patchwork quilt of scenes that the catch-all “history” that rock journalists and assorted academic nose wavers strive to force down our throats is all but impossible. As I’ve said before, one can’t rely on rock’s traditional “importance” markers to assess a scene that disdains everything those markers measure. Admittedly, the quality of many of these historical accounts can vary wildly, but when one pops up written by an insider who knows how to sling a keyboard, the results can be quite impressive.

Such is the case with this book. Writer Mark Sten’s own history is deeply embedded in that of his subject matter, having been a musician and founding member of the Revenge collective that set the tone for Portland’s wildly independent, creative, and resilient scene. Sten’s take on the scene’s history unravels more like a memoir than straitlaced history, peppering its traditional timeline format with personal anecdotes, snarky comments, and heapings of the sarcastic wit that made punk’s early waves so goddamned funny. This angle can be more than a bit dicey, but he’s more than familiar with the subject and has a great voice, one that engages the reader more in a conversation than a lesson, still piling in all the info scholars drool over without all the stuffy academic bullshit verbiage.

With its coffee-table size and three-hundred-plus page length, it’s a decidedly heady read. I’m also sure that Sten’s old school punk sarcasm will likely result in whole sections sending various “trigger generation” readers into one tailspin after another. Yet, even casual perusers will find much to suck them in—especially those with a yen to learn more about the scene’s varied denizens—including the Wipers, King Bee, Sado-Nation, Dead Moon, Neo-Boys, Smegma, Rancid Vat, and Poison Idea. It’s chock full of pictures, flyers, illustrations, and highlighted sub-conversations so that many aspects of a scene usually left out of the conversation get some attention. Hats off to ye Sten, this is a fine read from beginning to end. –Jimmy Alvarado (Reptilicus Press c/o Mark Sten, 215 SE 13th Ave., Portland, OR 97214, reptilicususa.com)

Specious Species, No. 7
Edited by Joe Donohoe, 282 pgs.

The seventh issue of this literary anthology is built around the theme of “California.” Choosing a subject broad as the state could have easily been an exercise in futility based on the sheer geographical size, not to mention the incredibly diverse populations and social narratives that make up the Golden State’s fabric. In the issue’s introduction, editor Joe Donohoe admits that due to logistics and resources there is a heavier emphasis on the San Francisco Bay Area than the rest of the state. Even so, this anthology covers an admirably far-ranging physical and historical area (often informed by a punk perspective), and feels like a text that supplements the study of California’s many unique yet integral historical eccentricities.

Boasting around forty entries, contributions range from comics and poems, to interviews, to exhaustive historical surveys. Joe Donohoe’s impressive historical sketch of pioneering rocketeer and occultist Jack Parsons ties together such seemingly disparate threads as Aleister Crowley, the United States space program, Scientology, and the stately Craftsman mansion neighborhoods of Pasadena (that were walking distance from where I used to live in Northeast Los Angeles). Having personally just finished a program in moving image archiving at UCLA, an interview conducted with film historian and curator David Kiehn of the Essanay Niles Film Museum in the San Francisco Bay Area was particularly absorbing. Much of the moving image history in the United States is centered on Los Angeles, New York City, and the Library of Congresses film holdings, so reading about the one-time prodigious film production in Niles, Calif. during the early twentieth century and the still-robust film archive there was an illuminating addendum to what I studied.

Shorter pieces—such as capsule histories of the Chinese town of Locke, Calif., or the origins of the legend of Joaquin Murrieta—are fascinating glimpses of the more obscure corners that occupy California’s history. Interviews with current/future cult figures such as writer Jerry Stahl, counterculture literary distributor Last Gasp’s head man Ron Turner, and Avengers’ singer Penelope Houston are great oral histories of more recent subcultural movements that have shaped modern California and popular culture in general. The centerpiece of the whole book has to be Donohoe’s astute and extensively detailed biographical and literary survey of the life and works of Oakland’s pioneering author Jack London. Donohoe’s thoughtful and careful analysis of the life and contexts that birthed London’s literary successes and failures serves as a great primer to approaching London’s body of work. London is presented as a complex and often contradictory figure, and as such readily personifies the messy but oftentimes fascinating nature of the state that he called home. –Adrian Salas (Specious Species, 3345 20th St., SF, CA 94110, speciousspecies.net)