Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio, By Derf Backderf, 288 pgs.

For those who don’t know, in 1970 a group of National Guard soldiers were sent to Kent, Ohio to hover over the anti-war protests happening at the college. After a couple of days of mild unrest, the soldiers blindly opened fire on students. Thirteen seconds later, several were injured and four students were dead. Most of the students were just walking to class.

This comic (graphic novel, if you must) covers the shooting and the events that lead up to it. We get the perspective of the four students, the guardsman, and the small government in Kent, Ohio. The story breaks with bits of history of the college, the National Guard, and whatever else was going on politically in the summer of 1970.

Derf Backderf (My Friend Dahmer, Trashed, Punk Rock & Trailer Parks) did years of research and interviewed eye-witnesses for this book. The details run deep, even noting what the students were eating and what they were listening to. And if you’re not familiar with Backderf’s art style, you should be. Very bold black and white surreal style where most characters are very stretchy-looking. Everyone looks like they were run through a taffy puller and pressed back down for packaging. I mean that in the most absolutely flattering way possible.

As you can expect, this book is very heavy. I found myself shaking while turning the last couple of pages. I had tears welling up when it was over. This book is a reminder that history repeats itself in the worst ways. How fear, lies, and misinformation can lead people to make horrible decisions.

There have always been bits of education thrown in all of Backderf’s work (Read Punk Rock & Trailer Parks for a lesson on the 1970’s small town Ohio punk scene). But Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio is chock-full of information and the twenty-five pages of notes in the back are an interesting read on their own. This book should be taught in school. Shit, maybe even in church. –Rick V. (Abram Books, abrambooks.com)

Lord of Thundertown, By O.F. Cieri

When I opened this book the text of the preface was printed at an angle which prohibited me from reading all of it. Also, some pages became unglued from the binding and started falling out. Thankfully, the rest of the book remained intact, but it was an ominous sign.

Lord of Thundertown takes place in present day New York City. However, the city has an underground society that consists of all kinds of creatures including those who can shapeshift and others with pseudo-super powers. The “above ground” and “below ground” societies interact but there is a sense of tension between these two cultures.

The main story line involves Alex, Sam, and Nails, twenty-something punks who all at one point or another go missing in the below ground world. Lots of weird characters are encountered and help is needed from one of the Lords, a creature who lives above ground but controls a particular turf of the city. Frankly, I wasn’t entirely sure how these two worlds related. What is the history of this underground world? When did it come about? Was it just in NYC? I had so many questions about the origins of this fictitious world as I read Lord of Thundertown. It’s quite possible it was in there but if so, it wasn’t elongated.

One prominent theme in the book is the use of aether design, or magic spells. These aethers protect characters from some of the supernatural creatures. The story ultimately revolves around making sure that those missing humans can make their way from below ground to above ground. The ending, however, felt pretty anticlimactic.

Frankly, Lord of Thundertown was a slog for me to get through. I grew up reading a lot of fantasy and sci-fi, but found much of this confusing and lacking good descriptions. I had a difficult time understanding the construct of this world. There were many characters and it wasn’t always easy for me to figure out who they were or why I should even care about them. I believe the author, O.F. Cieri, has talent for this kind of genre, but this world didn’t draw me in and entertain me in a way I would’ve hoped. –Kurt Morris (ninestarpress.com)

Nihilist Drummer, The, By Dr. Lane D. Pederson, 132 pgs.

I was excited to review this book since not only was it written for drummers (and I am one), but it was also written by a talented drummer who plays in the band Dillinger Four. He would be the first to point out how meaningless it is to include those details, and after reading this book I would be inclined to agree. That is only because I now feel like I am better able to understand and embrace nihilism (in regard to drumming).

When I first received this book in the mail, I was immediately nervous and thought that it was going to be awkward that I would have to write a bad review, since it’s a small black book of unnumbered pages with only a couple sentences on each page. It’s almost like a book of memes written by the guy who refuses to just bite the bullet and learn how to do social media. But I’m glad to say it was actually hilarious and I ended up with nearly a third of the pages folded to mark my favorites lines.

It opens with a foreword by Dave King, who is apparently a famous jazz drummer. Although he somewhat roasts Lane, it really only further strengthens the appropriateness of embracing the nihilistic philosophy since he too—although extremely accomplished and expertly skilled in drumming—is more or less just as unknown and unimportant as the rest of us (drummers). It felt like I, too, was getting roasted as I read it, but I also felt a comradeship in the smugness of the jabs at the drummer “culture.”

Lane reminds me of a Larry David of drummers, spouting some realness and knocking any cocky drummers down a peg or two. Lane owns a drum shop and is also a clinical psychologist, so it’s safe to say that he has geeked out on drum gear as much as a gearhead can and he’s come out the other end as a nihilist. There is something oddly comforting about knowing that no matter what, you’ll never be as good as the best legends, but also that, “Your drumming hero sold 300 records last year.” It was an unexpected delight and perfect for drummers who don’t take themselves too seriously, which we all know are the best kind. –Rosie Gonce (tcdrumcollective.com/the-nihilist-drummer-book)

Punk Xmas Carol, A, By Alex Herbert, 68 pgs.

This reimagining of the Charles Dickens classic uproots it from its London origin and dumps it in Boston. And don’t expect Mr. Scrooge, because that’s not what this tale is about. The main character in this retelling is Norma, a young punk “who was dead inside to begin with.” Yeah, Norma is fucking up. She’s a selfish jerk who doesn’t respect anybody around her. She thinks it’s her right, because she’s punk. Isn’t that the point, you say. Well, hold up there! Norma’s problem isn’t that she refuses to listen to authority and sticks it The Man. It’s that, unlike her non-binary best friend, Simon—who despite struggling with a heroin addiction, still manages to cook for the homeless—Norma is self-absorbed. When the two meet up on Christmas Eve, to gather donations for Food Not Bombs, Simon politely calls her friend out for some her bullshit privileged white girl behavior. Norma won’t have it. She doubles down and gets defensive. The interaction ends with Norma misgendering Simon, then continuing to dig her hole with an ignorant, queerphobic rant and storming off.

Norma’s Christmas Eve continues in a whirlwind of mean-spiritedness and self-sabotage, until she’s alone in her room drifting off to The Clash. Then she’s visited by the spirit of Simon who tells her she’ll be visited by three ghosts.

The Ghost Of Punk Past is a leather-clad, portly fellow who takes Norma to the set of talk show host Bill Grundy where The Sex Pistols in the iconic interview cuss out the uptight old, host. Norma expresses shock at the band’s wearing of swastikas. Christmas Past uses this scene to teach how such nihilism and shock tactics led, more than anything, to self-destruction. The specter expresses how community-building and mutual aid made punk last long enough for Norma to be a part of it and without the all Nazi imagery she hates seeing. Norma kind of gets it, but says, “But I still don’t really see what this has to do with me.” Does she learn? Well, I’m not going to give away any more of Norma’s spectral visits.

A Punk Xmas Carol gets at what’s really important about punk: community, compassion, and resistance. That requires soul-searching and putting in work. Norma represents the part of punk that refuses this growth and the danger it has on the community. When it was at its best, I was defensive and enlightened, just like Norma. It’s preachy, as was A Christmas Carol, making for a brisk, entertaining read that leaves you with a lot to think about. –Craven Rock (Alex, [email protected])

Rebel Music in the Triumphant Empire: Punk Rock in the 1990s United States, By David Pearson, 288 pgs.

Having lived through the 1990s American punk scene, I immediately had reservations about this book. This didn’t change as I began reading; the introduction featured a band that I have considered to be a bunch fuckheads for at least two decades (disclaimer: I’m almost definitely wrong here). Furthermore, the dry content made for a slow and boring read. However, before long, bands that I cherished (namely Los Crudos) popped up, and what had previously seemed dry and boring became dense and challenging. Rebel Music in the Triumphant Empire: Punk Rock in the 1990s United States is definitely not a punk gossip rag. Instead, we have an in-depth, scholarly study of how 1980s punk/hardcore gave way to a much more radical and diverse movement in the ’90s—politically, musically, and culturally.

Author David Pearson has a PhD in musicology from City University of New York. While reading Rebel Music in the Triumphant Empire, I sensed I was reading an extensive, well-done research paper. My hunch may have been correct, as a quick web search brought me to a CUNY page outlining Pearson’s PhD dissertation entitled: “Constructing Music of Rebellion in the Triumphant Empire: Punk Rock in the 1990s United States.” The abstract read a lot like the blurb on the back of the book. Unfortunately, the dissertation itself is “embargoed” until September 2021, so I couldn’t pull it up for comparison. Dissertation or not, Rebel Music in the Triumphant Empire reads as if written by and for outsiders of the ’90s scene. Still, considering some of the bands mentioned (Born Against, The Pist), I’d be surprised if Pearson wasn’t entrenched in the rock on some level.

Admittedly, some of this is pretty funny at first; Aus-Rotten riffs tabbed out, and sub-chapters entitled “The Blast Beat,” and “Crusties as the New Hippies,” are good for a laugh, but it’d be idiotic to deny their importance in documenting the social and musical progression of ’90s underground music. On the other hand, Pearson’s documentation of Los Crudos and their place within their Pilsen, Chicago community, as well as the national/global ripple effect of that relationship, absolutely rips from the get-go. The mighty Lance Hahn (RIP) of Cringer/J-Church fame lamenting that people don’t like melodic political music (“It just doesn’t work that way.”) is kind of heartbreaking.

Using very specific examples, Pearson’s book documents in fine detail how the elements of music, politics, ethics, and propaganda of 1990s punk/hardcore all evolved together to form something that did indeed change the world, whether the world realized it or not. I would have liked to see some visual examples of the propaganda artwork that is discussed. Other than that, Rebel Music in the Triumphant Empire is truly a monster of historical, sociological, and musicological significance. I could do without the NOFX, but that’s just me being a fuckhead. –Buddha (Oxford University Press, opu.com)

Return to Spring, A, By Gabriel Hart, 40 pgs.

I didn’t know about the Spring Break Riots of 1986 in Palm Springs before this pocket-sized novella arrived at my place. Briefly: a bunch of drunken yahoos started pouring water onto people in the street and driving by in convertibles—which escalated into women’s tops being pulled off, followed by violence. Gabriel Hart uses this event as the foundation for A Return to Spring. A modern-day bartender and her friend, both involved in the riot, are confronted by a man who has unearthed video footage of the pair, seeking to blackmail them.

This is the second of Gabriel Hart’s books I’ve read: in issue 120 I reviewed Virgins in Reverse & The Intrusion, twin novellas which demanded readers scrutinize their expectations and understanding of the noir form. Here, Hart continues to upend expectations by subverting revenge fantasy form. A quick read, but plenty to chew on. –Michael T. Fournier (Mannsion Press, mannisonpress.com)

Someone Should Pay for Your Pain, By Franz Nicolay, 248 pgs.

Band people: you know that one coworker who refuses to believe that you’re not trashing hotel rooms and getting laid every night on tour? Give them a copy of Someone Should Pay for Your Pain, Franz Nicolay’s fast-paced novel about the drudgery of touring life. It’ll shut ’em right up. Nicolay chips away at the romance of the open road, one weak cup of coffee at a time, while painting a pitch-perfect portrait of a musician’s lonely, prolonged adolescence.

Punky singer-songwriter Rudy Pauver is rolling his eyes through yet another diminishing returns tour when adult life finally catches up with him and his converted pickup truck. Through the blur of indifferent audiences and counterfeit drink tickets, Rudy becomes the de facto guardian of his crust punk niece and is forced to reckon with his broken relationship with a famous former protégé—a career-defining falling out where the holier-than-thou Pauver has always cast himself as the victim, though the truth is far more muddy.

Author Franz Nicolay is an indie rock vet who was in The Hold Steady and The World Inferno Friendship Society, and has a few solo albums and a travel book about punk touring on his merch table as well. In Someone Should Pay for Your Pain, Nicolay draws from his own life on the road to load this novel with sage truisms about art and aging that send this tale of crestfallen man-children right toward the gut. As Pauver shrugs a series of albums into the world, Nicolay muses that, “Each… was a little disappointment, a snapshot of the moment the thing passed from pure, perfect potential to imperfect existence.”

Someone Should Pay is bookended by Pauver’s moribund tour, but the bulk of this quick and detail-laden novel traces the earlier stages of his career: playing second fiddle to a manipulative idealist in a Gainesville punk band, self-sabotaging while opening for his Bright Eyes-esque protégé, and reaching the age where “being a musician… is mostly keeping track of who’s quit drinking.”

Pauver seems to have been born jaded and directionless, but Nicolay’s pitch-perfect observations make his story intriguing and all too true, zooming by like trees on the side of the highway. If the most specific things are the most relatable, then this carefully orchestrated takedown of musician life and will hit home with anyone who is reckoning with the bleary truths of a self-righteous life, from either side of forty. –Chris Terry (Gibson House)

We’re Not Here to Entertain: Punk Rock, Ronald Reagan, and the Real Culture War of 1980s America, By Kevin Mattson, 291 pgs.

When I was a teen punk in the alt-friendly 1990s, ’80s punk seemed like ancient history—a relic of a bygone era when every band was screaming about nuclear war and putting pictures of a forked-tongued Ronald Reagan on their records. I couldn’t help but wonder, were things really that bad then? After reading Kevin Mattson’s invigorating new book, I know that the answer is a firm, “Yes.” The Dead Kennedys were not being dramatic.

We’re Not Here to Entertain is a vivid, well-researched, and easy-to-digest history of the birth of DIY punk, showing its rise in the early ’80s as a natural reaction to the era of corporate homogeneity and conservatism ushered in by President Reagan during his first term. Entertain is not a standard-issue music history; there are no, “They were the only two guys at their school who hated jocks and loved the Ramones” band origin stories to be found in these pages. Instead, Mattson positions this generation of punks as middle class, suburban, white teen boys who were radicalized by the President’s constant threats of war and the draft. These young punks probably hated jocks, too, but the book shows these kids as fighting for their lives against a larger and more pervasive evil.

Entertain is broken up into short sections that tell a certain tale—say about police beating the fuck out of people at punk gigs, or the alternative comic artists like Matt Groening and Gary Panter who started making transgressive art as a reaction to the decade’s corporate-friendly sheen. These sections are contextualized by check-ins with Reagan, showing how his policies and “entertainer in chief” persona fueled this underground movement.

Mattson, a history professor who co-founded the DC activist group Positive Force, has talked about sifting through different punk archives at university libraries to write this book. True to the egalitarian, “anyone can do it” nature of punk, the quotes that he unearthed from forgotten zines and bands are given equal footing with the era’s better-known names. It’s not just about Minor Threat, it’s also about The [email protected] and every other band, zine, and scene that sprung up as the DIY network was growing.

As a punk, it’s exciting to read Entertain and see how the groundwork was laid for the music and politics that saved my ass over a decade later. And, while Entertain is focused on punk, it should be an interesting read for anyone who is interested in culture and art that is made as a means of resistance and survival. –Chris Terry (Oxford University Press)

When Can I Fly?: The Sleepers, Tuxedomoon and Beyond, By Michael Belfer, 224 pgs.

The Sleepers are one of those acts I know of more than I actually know, one of the first wave of San Francisco punk bands, so I was psyched to check this one out. Michael Belfer spins tale after tale of adventure herein, as he moves between the Sleepers and Tuxedomoon, a stranger, experimental San Francisco act. The stories here are fairly unbelievable, as Belfer reaches the end of one permutation of a group, travels to a new town with no plan, and bumbles into chance meetings with people who provide him opportunities to keep playing in other bands, kinda like one of those old Tintin cartoons.

But When Can I Fly? gets bogged down with drug talk as it gets closer to the end. Maybe if I knew the band a little better I would have been more interested in this, but let’s face it, there are so many books that rely on excess, you know? So many. And fans of the rock bio genre tend to read a lot of them, so piling on the heroin tales makes me wonder who the imagined audience is for this one. Is it people in recovery? Fans of the first wave who somehow haven’t already heard these kinds of stories a zillion times? Is there an imagined audience? I don’t know. To be fair, Belfer’s tone in fairly neutral throughout—he’s not glorifying as much as reporting. But still. I hate to be a “for fans of ____________” guy, the most mundane kind of endorsement there is, but there you go. –Michael T. Fournier (Hozac, hozacrecords.com/books)

Y Con Tu Espíritu: Palabras y Muertitos, By Bob Rob Medina, 182 pgs.

I was first exposed to the work of Bob Rob Medina’s (former head of Donut Crew Records) when I reviewed a book that he co-authored with Sonny Kay called Colorado Crew: Denvoid Part 2 (Razorcake 115). Colorado Crew was impossibly gigantic and looked fantastic from cover to cover. I was stoked when Medina’s full-on art book showed up in my review materials for this issue. Unsurprisingly, Y Con Tu Espíritu: Palabras y Muertitos (Translation: “And With Your Spirit: Words and Little Deaths”) is visually stunning, but it’s the depth of the content that really strikes a nerve. As Medina switches out between paintings, linocuts, and personal writing, the effect of the combined media is stirring and makes Y Con Tu Espíritu impossible to put down.

The first chapter of Medina’s book is undeniably heavy: a series of paintings dealing with depression and suicide, with a few pages of writing mixed in. Personal tragedy is at the center of the story, as the artist deals with mental illness and the suicide of a partner. The paintings are a deluge of emotion, and they are as dark as you might imagine. Medina describes this series as part of a healing process.

Another stand-out chapter of Y Con Tu Espíritu is Medina’s “Stations of the Cross” linocut set. As in the other linocut pieces, the captivating skeletal characters (I believe these are the Muertitos referenced in the book’s title) and the overall style are reminiscent of traditional Mexican Day of the Dead art. The prints are flawless and striking. The bold solid colors, influenced by Media’s time in Mexico, and the sharp black outlines make the prints seem to defy the paper they are printed on. Each of the fifteen “Stations” (fourteen plus “The Resurrection”) is accompanied by a few paragraphs explaining the root of the image and its significance to the author.

A chunk of the text (and art) in Y Con Tu Espíritu is related to Medina’s personal Christian faith. This might be a deal killer for some. However, Medina explains his faith as being purely personal—maybe even something that he himself does not entirely understand. He never comes close to being preachy or dogmatic.

Throughout Y Con Tu Espíritu, Medina hints at a return to tradition, especially in the Muertitos linocuts and his explanation of his humble religious beliefs. Although there are undeniable traditional factors at play, the author appears to continue moving forward—personally and artistically—in the face of all obstacles. It is a delicate balance, but the payoff is pure gold: In Y Con Tu Espíritu: Palabras y Muertitos, Bob Rob Medina merges tradition with innovation and drives it all through multiple forms of media to create an art book that is as poignant and stimulating as it is visually gratifying. –Buddha (Wake Up! Music, wakeupmusicgroup.com)