Featured Book Reviews from Razorcake Issue 93 Going Underground, Hepatitis Bathtub, Metaphysical Ukulele

Aug 23, 2016

Going Underground: American Punk 1979-1989
By George Hurchalla, 416 pgs.

Despite the glut of punk history books in recent years, still precious few attempt an overview of the “hardcore” years referenced in the book’s title. The best known, Steven Blush’s American Hardcore, is a highly flawed and wildly inflammatory cesspool of factual inaccuracies, lurid sniping, backbiting, and axe-grinding posturing as “documenting” one of the most important subcultures of twentieth century music history. Though covering the same ground, Hurchalla’s tome is easily superior on a number of levels, not the least that he not only understands the subculture of which he was a part, but he makes a concerted effort to explain it—its motivations, codes of conduct, strengths, weaknesses, and very raison d’etre.

Rather than focusing solely on the country’s larger, and more famous regions, Hurchalla weaves his tale of the American hardcore scene’s patchwork of sub-scenes almost like a tourist’s guide, adroitly focusing each chapter on a given city, state, or region of the country, its musicians of note, and how they fit into the larger picture. He culls the bulk of his tale from both contemporary interviews and the assorted fanzines long before the worldwide web became the all-encompassing resource/boondoggle it is now. Respectful of his subject matter, Hurchalla is also not afraid to address the scene’s shortcomings—the sexism, racism, and other –isms it still struggles with. He also addresses its cliquishness and often narrow-mindedness, the violence and mayhem that both charged and plagued its formative years. On the flip, he also celebrates the things that continue to make it an inspirational, crucial outlet for so many generations of pissed-off kids of all classes and ethnicities.

In this third edition, Hurchalla tightens up the time period and trims his personal recollections while expanding his scope to include input from women and punks of color. The result is a more focused and fluid narrative that provides a more holistic view of a very diverse subculture. It remains the go-to tome and an essential read for punks and historians alike. –Jimmy Alvarado (PM Press, PO Box 23912, Oakland, CA 94623)

Humorless Ladies of Border Control, The: Touring the Punk Underground from Belgrade to Ulaanbaatar
By Franz Nicolay, 359 pgs.

At best, travel writing is a commercial that advertises a trip you could never have because they leave out the diarrhea, the hangovers, and the loneliness. At worst, the genre stinks of charity as so many writers praise opportunities to get their hands dirty, either by participating in some highly choreographed public service—which they would never participate in stateside—or by literally holding the hands of an impoverished local for a photo-op.

The Humorless Ladies of Border Patrol is a travel book of sorts, but one written by a musician whose banjo and accordion tumble from one dive to another in a land of improvisational train schedules and apocalyptic Soviet architecture. The book gets its name from author Franz Nicolay’s idea for a pinup calendar. It would feature border police grimacing into the camera in the same way they scowl at Nicolay as he crosses from Hungary to Ukraine, Ukraine to Russia, or any of the jittery borders in post-Soviet Europe. One of the cheerier guards asks for a CD: “It’s the kind of music you can listen to in the gym?” he asks, doubtfully. Well sure, if you’re gym is a cabaret bar with beer-slicked treadmills.

So the question—why tour deeply in here, of all places? Surely, Japan and Mexico and Spain and Australia are easier to book, more trodden and routed with popular venues. But as it is, Nicolay’s great-grandmother hailed from near Transylvania, he knows a handful of the languages, and he’s a bit of a Slavophile when it comes to literature. In fact, I’ve never read a travel book with more complementary literature about the region. We’re treated to snippets from historian granddaddy Herodotus, all the big Russian lit names, and a bucket of scholars to follow. It doesn’t seem showy, either. It’s as if Nicolay expected me to ask, Why Bulgaria? Why Mongolia? In reply, he asks us,Why not?

Nicolay prefers “Slavs and their neighbors [for] their pessimistic humor [and] preference for the possible over the admitted,” for their belief “that it is only natural and rational to cross the street if it’s empty, to park on the sidewalk or median, to have a drink if having one will not adversely affect your neighbor, to pull the car into a river for a bath […], to free domestic animals to graze and fornicate and excrete in the commons.” After all, “us being children of nature, and nature famously harder to tame than to indulge,” wouldn’t these people be the most receptive to folksy, foot-stomping punk?

The author has played in loads of successful groups, notably with indie superstars The Hold Steady. But I thank the pagan god of Nicolay’s choosing that he didn’t publish some boring-ass Pitchfork memoir about his latter group and instead gave us this researched, charming, and sharp account of touring eastern Europe during the days of Ukraine’s revolution, Pussy Riot’s arrest, and a hundred other memorable moments from a wandering musician’s perspective. —Jim Joyce (The New Press, 120 Wall St., 31st Floor, NY, NY 10005, thenewpress.com)

Let’s Go to Hell: Scattered Memories of the Butthole Surfers
By James Burns, 504 pgs.

The Butthole Surfers are perhaps the band that holds the record for staying longest on my “I gotta check this band out” list. The fact that their album Electric Larryland seems required by law to be in every used CD bargain bin (along with Sisqó’s Unleash the Dragon) probably played a part in my hesitancy to dive in. Reading Let’s Go to Hell was a full-immersion course in correcting my fifteen or so years neglecting the Butthole legacy beyond the songs “Pepper” and “The Shah Sleeps in Lee Harvey’s Grave.” This book is a passionate love letter to the band, if not at times borderline cult-like in proselytizing for the Butthole’s importance.

The Butthole Surfers’ story is cobbled together from interviews author James Burns has compiled over the years, archival materials such as zine columns, and a healthy dose of conjecture. The biographical narrative of the book could have benefited from some judicious editing; quite often, enthusiasm gets the better of the author. The stories told of the band’s many incarnations, though, are a fascinating portrait of the Butthole Surfers’ intentions to push the musical and artistic boundaries of punk—and often of good taste in general. The—admittedly shaky—recollections of the band’s ultra hardscrabble rise from destitute Texas cult band in the ‘80s to legitimate hitmakers in the ‘90s alternative boom is a fascinating trajectory. (I’m not sure how to feel about them suing Touch And Go Records, though.)

Perhaps the book’s biggest weakness is that in its eagerness to spread the gospel of the Butthole Surfers’ importance as punk’s kings of weirdness and one of Texas’s hardest working bands, the writing often tips over into purple prose and grandiose moments of navel gazing. Every member change, tour, album release, and label signing becomes an odyssey necessitating grand-scale heavy introspection on what the chosen particular moment meant—not only for the Butthole Surfers, but punk rock and society as a whole. Stepping back for a couple meditative reflections on a band’s place in the world is acceptable. The dozens of times that pensive asides happen got to be a slog. Yes, the story of how Gibby Haynes put his penis on a suitcase Jimmy Carter touched is interesting and funny. No, it probably was not a moment that influenced and shaped international policy.

That said, the 160 or so pages of annotated info on the Butthole Surfers’ discography and live performances at the end of the book is a marvel to behold in its obsessive detail. –Adrian Salas (Cheap Drugs, [email protected])

Metaphysical Ukulele, The
By Sean Carswell, 184 pgs.

The first novel of Sean Carswell’s I read was his 2008 Train Wreck Girl, and I was an immediate fan. Like Carswell, I grew up in the backwaters of Florida, so I connected with the familiar settings and characters almost as much as I did his seemingly effortless writing style; a style that conveys a working class, DIY punk ethos in its very delivery, without bringing attention to itself. While other “punk writers” can seem as obvious and ham-fisted in their prose as an obligatory NOFX singalong (and I’ve got nothing against NOFX), Carswell’s authorial voice seems more comfortable and worn, like your favorite Arrivals or Worriers song.

So, it was not without a bit of trepidation that I approached Carswell’s newest collection of short stories, The Metaphysical Ukulele, in which he purposefully compromises his own authorial voice. The dozen stories are all about well-known writers written in that writer’s style. And, yes, each story also revolves around a ukulele. But the literary conceit of writing about an author in that author’s style is a device that could go horribly wrong so easily. I’m sure the very premise behind the collection would make many creative writing teachers’ blood run ice cold. Artful homage can become painful parody with the overuse of a trope. Emulation can collapse into shallow stereotype under the weight of forced inside jokes.

But goddamn does Carswell nail it in each and every story. Throughout, he is borrowing stylistic tricks—informed references and passages from each author—yet his own authorial voice remains intact. Yes, I was already a Carswell fan, but for fuck sake, this collection should simply not succeed at the level it does. The Herman Melville opener, with its references to questionable sexual escapades and ukulele accompaniments, barely prepares the reader for the heights that Carswell hits. By the time you get to the Chester Himes story (in which a ukulele effectively transforms Chester Himes, struggling artist, into Chester Himes, world-renown detective writer), you will be a believer. By the utterly brilliant Richard Brautigan story, Carswell is hitting his stride. Each story I read became my new favorite story. How could he top the inspired story about Raymond Chandler as told from the perspective of a private dick hired to find the blocked writer’s ukulele? How about with a story of a young woman initiated into a secret band of ukulele players that may or may not include the one and only Thomas Pynchon, written in the style of Pynchon? To dare to pull that story off—hell, any of these stories—takes some serious gall. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to testify that Sean Carswell has the skills to meet the challenge and then some. Highly recommended. –Kevin Dunn (Ig Publishing, PO Box 2547, NY, NY 10163)

NOFX: The Hepatitis Bathtub and Other Stories
By NOFX, Jeff Alulis, 357 pgs.

This is tied with Joe Keithley’s I, Shithead and Michael Azzerad’sOur Band Could Be Your Life as the best punk rock book I have read. The story of NOFX is told by each member of the band in near equal measure (Eric Melvin, Erik “Smelly” Sandin, “El Hefe,” “Fat Mike,” and, where applicable, their early guitarists Dave Casillas and Steve Kidwiler). Each band member brings a very distinct aspect and viewpoint to the history of NOFX as their stories intertwine. Juxtaposing each band member’s story with each other is an extremely effective exercise in crafting and examining a historical narrative. Just as often as recollections back each other up, there are times that the story from one person does not agree with another’s, or sheds light on aspects that weren’t known to other members of the band. What emerges isn’t just a point-by-point recounting of NOFX’s history, but stories of four lives shaped by punk rock.

The tales are occasionally inspiring, just as often hilarious, and even more often disturbing. Impressively, the hepatitis bathtub mentioned in the title isn’t even the most disgusting anecdote in the book. NOFX, in a way, personify the complications of punk rock. Discovering punk at the right juncture can save a person’s life, but, just as often, punk can be stupid, violent, and more than a little contradictory. For every positive change punk has had on those in NOFX or their immediate circle, there are just as many people who were swallowed up into darker paths—like addiction or random violence—especially in the hardcore scene of L.A. in the ‘80s.

Perhaps the most compelling thread in here is Smelly’s path from obnoxious and out-of-control junkie to longstanding sobriety, while still retaining his place as the drummer in a band where insane amounts of drugs and alcohol are standard. This is juxtaposed with band members reflecting on Fat Mike’s increasingly heavy and worrisome intake of drugs and alcohol, up to and including present times. There is a refreshing candor to how little it is held back from any of the band members. Yes, Fat Mike can often seem kind of self-aggrandizing, but there’s also enough raw back story that it starts to make sense (if not necessarily being agreeable).

Jeff Alulis has managed to help massage NOFX’s recollections into something eminently readable. The stories are not always pleasant—in fact they’re often not—but they are intensely fascinating looks at the way lives are shaped by punk, for good and ill. –Adrian Salas (De Capo Press, 44 Farnsworth St., 3rd Fl., Boston, MA 02210. decapopress.com)

Over for Rockwell
By Uzodinma Okehi, 332 pgs.

Over for Rockwell is the story of Blue Okeye, an aspiring comic artist who leaves Iowa City for Hong Kong. Once he lands, Blue divides his time in three ways: stalking the city for inspiration, fumbling through nightclubs for a hookup, and drawing in his apartment with a poor sense of quality control. Stacks of fresh paper become piles of balled-up trash. Blue switches to his sketchbook. Then he gets so pissed he throws his sketchbook out the window, a nightly ritual, only to head downstairs, climb the dumpster, and find the book at the top of a mountain of garbage. Throw in some clunky kissing and that’s his life in Hong Kong.

So, when the international life doesn’t deliver, Blue does the logical thing: he moves to New York, where at least there’s a vibrant comic scene. His lover, Vanessa, a fellow artist, gives Blue some life advice that wakes him up and shapes the story: “‘Nobody’s going to say it,’ she says, ‘but art is about rules. The rules are the format. The rules set you free. By forcing you down to a limited number of elements, and because you can’t go anywhere else that’s how you get better. By playing within that box.’”

Blue knows about rules, he just never cared for them. Most of the book sees Blue riffing on the abstract—crafting witticisms about perseverance and preservation while his lifestyle produces no platform to persevere, no art to preserve. He’s a sort of Cometbus if only the guy never picked up a drumstick and instead of practicing zine wizardry complained on Twitter. In short, Blue’s an asshole—he befriends women just for sex, seeks faults in his peers’ art, and lets coworkers work while he espouses delusional theories. Not a guy I’d want in my life. But as far as fiction goes? It’s delicious to watch a jagoff at play, and that’s what kept me coming back.

Over for Rockwell is a bit like the Ramones’ twenty-eight song and fifty-four minute album, It’s Alive. Lots of whoasand anger and scatological humor firing past at spitfire speed. Author UzodinmaOkehi paces the book in five hundred short chapters that burst on the reader and form a nonlinear narrative that jumps between years and cities while circling around Blue’s crisis of belief in his work. After Vanessa gives Blue that comic advice, she draws on some of his panels, which causes Blue to scream, “as if she’d picked up a gun and shot [him] in the thigh.” He compares it to, “being bullied, but then I also realized how lame that sounded. I’d spent years lapsing and starting… without that real forethought that separated real art from gibberish.” And that challenge of separating art from gibberish gets us in there with Blue. Just slip out comics with bands or comics with zines—whatever—and enjoy Okehi’s quick-burning meditation on the joys and sorrows of being an artist in our overstuffed twenty-first century lives. –Jim Joyce (Short Flight/Long Drive, PO Box 1658, Ann Arbor, MI 48106, hobartpulp.com/minibooks)

Punk Rock Entrepreneur: Running a Business without Losing Your Values
By Caroline Moore, 127 pgs.

As someone who is entrenched in DIY culture and has it baked into my life, I feel like this book is a big no-brainer. That’s not to say there aren’t any golden nuggets of truth here. Some important takeaways for me were these following couple of quotes: “When you’re working on something you feel strongly about... there are benefits other than money,” and, “But you do need to develop a healthier attitude about getting paid.” Finding one’s value and worth in their own work is a struggle, though I feel like that topic is much more thoroughly covered in another Microcosm book, Make It Mighty Ugly.

I found myself muttering “no duh” several times. While this isn’t meant to be the punk rock version of Who Moved My Cheese?, it still manages to be both and neither. One of the sections covers the importance of building a community of support which becomes your audience. Another lays out the benefits of split records (i.e. half the cost, twice the exposure). Many of the other tidbits are about how you should value your time and not let the prospects of lengthening your resume consume your vision of success. Moreover, you should be proud of each thing you put energy into; otherwise it’s not worth doing.

My two biggest bones to pick are the assumptive and condescending attitude Moore often took. For instance, she explains what Tony Hawk Pro Skater is, but then talks down to the reader if they don’t know Louis CK. On the flipside of that, several artists are mentioned with no context of who they are, like Winston Smith (who, up till now, I thought was solely a fictional character in 1984. In case you’re wondering, he’s a collagist who designed the Dead Kennedys logo. He also makes/made fake gig posters).

My second complaint is intensely more passionate. Here is the spark that ignited the irritation: “Sometimes, opportunity cost comes in social standing, which can be a major roadblock to peoples true passions. It could be that if I quit the family business, our Thanksgiving dinners are going to be awkward.” One of the key components to this DIY entrepreneur guide is to know your audience. You’re a music photographer, writing about punk ethics in a book released on an alternative press. Do you really think that your audience is concerned with perceptions of social standing?

The author goes into detail at the start about how the book came to be. Moore had been volunteering as a photographer and coordinator for Weapons of Mass Creation festival for three years. She lead a seminar called “How Punk Rock Made Me a Better Entrepreneur.” After reading this book, I feel like the seminar or a web series might have been a better way to go in dispersing this information. –Kayla Greet (Microcosm Publishing, 2752 Williams Ave., Portland, OR, 97227)

Rise, The Fall, and the Rise, The
By Brix Smith Start, 455 pgs.

I have to admit that I know very little about the band The Fall. So, I approached Brix Smith Start’s memoir, The Rise, The Fall, and the Rise with some concern. I questioned if I would be able to relate to her time in this long-running British act. But if a memoir is well written, the subject matter can be easily understood and related to. (Think Patti Smith’s Just Kids.) What I found with Start’s book was an overabundance of information and anecdotes. The Rise… is a tome, coming in at 455 pages.

Start literally writes of her entire life, starting with her birth in 1962 and everything that came after. She shares her upbringing, including her parents’ divorce, her father’s many marriages, and the shuffling between family members in Chicago and Los Angeles. She goes to Bennington College in Vermont, but eventually drops out and returns to Chicago to live with her mother and step-father. At the time she was very much into The Fall. After running into Mark E. Smith (who pretty much is The Fall) at their Chicago show, Start finds herself in love and moves to Manchester, England, to be with him. Soon the two are married and Start joins the band full time.

After a tumultuous time in The Fall (and her divorce from Smith), Start looks for ways to reinvent herself: solo musician, actress, fashion designer, and television personality. She’s constantly finding ways to succeed, often relying on her connections to give her a boost. She tells of meeting world-famous musicians and British royalty. The more she tells of her experiences, the harder it is to entirely sympathize. The lifestyle Start lived was—with the exception of her years in The Fall—decidedly un-punk.

While there were enjoyable, interesting stories in the book, there is no reason it has to be this lengthy. I couldn’t help but wonder, “Where was the editor with this?” Why didn’t anyone tell Start that there wasn’t a reason to include a page’s worth of description of the food available at the Friars’ Club in Beverly Hills? Why were there pages upon pages of material written about her pugs? While I understand that they are important to her, they don’t drive the memoir or serve as a primary theme in the book.

If I’m to gather it correctly, the book is primarily about Start’s ability to reinvent herself when faced with large challenges. That’s perfectly well and good. However, that theme needs to be the focus of the memoir. That should guide the work. Given its bloated page count and excess information, that’s unfortunately how I felt about this book: fairly pointless. Kurt Morris (Faber & Faber, 74-77 Great Russell St., London, England, WC1B 3DA)

Spitboy Rule, The: Tales of a Xicana in a Female Punk Band

By Michelle Cruz Gonzales, 144 pgs.

Spitboy was a Bay Area hardcore band active in the ‘90s. They sported an all-female lineup, a rarity in a scene long known just as much for being a hotbed of testosterone as for being the hotbed of creativity that produced, among other things, what became known as “alternative” rock. Though they intentionally didn’t affiliate themselves with the then-nascent riot grrrl collective of bands, they did cover much of the same lyrical territory and beyond—misogyny, racism, sexism, rape culture. They simultaneously tried to navigate their existence in a scene that—despite its best intentions—continues to struggle with the fact it’s often little more than a microcosm of the greater society to which it strives to provide an alternative.

Gonzales, then known as “Todd Spitboy,” was the band’s drummer and one of its lyricists. The book is more memoir than a linear autobiography. Gonzales writes of her formative years in a small Northern California town, her discovery of punk, her move to the San Francisco area, her early musical endeavors, and the life of Spitboy, from formation to dissolution. Each episode is delivered in chapters that sometimes mirror the assorted photographs peppered throughout the book. They are short impressions that both document a given moment in time and contribute to a greater thematic thread.

While her story is of note in and of itself, Spitboy Rule is particularly affecting when she speaks of being a person of color within the punk scene, and the only person of color in her band. Recounting numerous awkward moments within the context of both, she talks of first trying to bury and supplant her ethnicity with that of a punk. She then rediscovers and embraces that ethnicity and its accompanying social class when it pops up and causes some uncomfortable situations between her, her peers, and her bandmates. Gonzales addresses the subject with candor and understanding. She raises some interesting questions in the process with a voice that is clear, singular, and introspective while never losing sight of the bigger picture and her place within it.

Included are pieces by Professor Mimi Thi Nguyen and Los Crudos vocalist Martin Sorrondeguy, who deftly provide context about Gonzales, Spitboy, and the time and world they inhabited. All told, The Spitboy Rule is a highly recommended read for anyone interested in gender/ethnic studies, Spitboy, the punk scene in which it existed, the often contradictory and landmine-ridden political climate of that scene, or simply a memoir about living an extraordinary life during an extraordinary moment in America’s musical timeline. –Jimmy Alvarado (PM Press, PO Box 23912, Oakland, CA 94623)