Originally written for my PopMatters.com "Aural Fixation" column, but not published.
image from nytimes.com
Summary: This fall several superstars added their autobiographies to the ever-increasing market of rock memoirs. However, there’s a lesser-told story deserving of an audience as well: the life of working-class musicians who travel by van instead of private jet, tour clubs instead of stadiums, and are staying in dives instead of suites. Here’s one of their tales.
Music fans salivating for self-penned tales of debauchery and stardom from their favorite rock gods can dive into recent autobiographies from Pete Townshend (Who I Am: A Memoir, Harper), Neil Young (Waging Heavy Peace, Blue Rider Press), and Rod Stewart (Rod: The Autobiography, Crown Archetype). There’s an understandable appeal to getting a (hopefully) unguarded glimpse into the life of a legend. These are musical giants who have lived lives we mere mortals cannot imagine and likely could not have survived.
The bigger the star and the more sordid the life, the better. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Keith Richards’ Life did as well as it did. The guy personifies rock-n-roll at its baddest and best – arguably better than anyone else in history.
When unpacking the personal accounts of a superstar, however, fans aren’t just curious about how these legends achieved immortal status. Readers also want to peak behind the mask to see larger-than-life superheroes drop their oversized personas and reveal their humanity. People want to know that those who have attained unfathomable success have been plagued by fear and failure along the way.
A few months ago, Rob Sheffield put together a list for Rolling Stone on the best rock tomes (“The 25 Greatest Rock Memoirs of All Time,” 13 August 2012). Sheffield acknowledged the all-too-familiar rags-to-riches (and sometimes back to rags) blueprint of the rock memoir.
Unsurprisingly Sheffield’s list is populated with books on Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Chuck Berry, and David Bowie. The more intriguing titles, however, are those about more unfamiliar names like Nick Kent and Kristin Hersch. As Sheffield says, “Great rock memoirs don’t always come from great artists: sometimes it takes one-hit wonders, losers, hacks, junkies, crooks.”
In that spirit, the book which caught my attention was Black Postcards (Penguin Books, 2008) by Dean Wareham.
Exactly. Readers keyed in to the indie-rock scene of the 1980s and ‘90s may know him as the frontman of Galaxie 500 and Luna, but if you’re like me you’d heard of him or his bands.
This seemed like more fertile soil than digging through the conventional bio of one of rock’s elite. For every superstar living a life of stadium tours, private jets, and hotel suites, there are hundreds of working-class musicians gigging in dives, traveling in cramped vans, and crashing in cheap motels.
Wareham actually achieved a measure of success many would be overjoyed to have – albums with tens of thousands in sales, appearances on national talk shows, and videos aired on MTV, even if only on a limited basis.
Still, there’s something which differentiates the Dean Warehams from the Keith Richards of the world. What motivates the musicians who have to keep their day jobs to keep slogging it out? Do they still believe they’ll make it big someday? Did they never dream of stardom in the first place?
For the uninitiated, here’s a brief overview of Wareham’s career. He tells how in the summer of 1987 he was in New York playing with Speedy and the Castanets. “There I was under the lights at CBGB for the first time in my life, just now realizing that I was onstage with a fool and that I needed to quit the band immediately” (p. 32).
After a summer of moping over a lost girlfriend and listening to Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers’ Back in your Life, he hooked up with Damon and Naomi, a pair of Harvard grad students who had dated since high school. As Wareham says, “You can spend your time placing ads…and sifting through messages left on your answering machine by idiot musicians…but the best thing is to start a band with your friends” (33). Galaxie 500, named after an old car, was born. As stated in their All Music bio, “their minimalist dirges presaged the rise of both the shoegazer and slowcore movements of the 1990s.”
However, when Wareham tired of butting heads with the voting block of his coupled rhythm section, he dissolved the band in 1990. After a solo EP in 1991, he formed Luna. With musical influences like Wire, Joy Division, New Order, and Sonic Youth, Wareham wasn’t exactly going to overcome what he cited as one of the dream-pop outfit’s biggest obstacles: they weren’t grunge. Nonetheless, Luna survived personnel changes over a twelve-year career which saw the release of seven studio albums.
I sought out a compilation and was a click away from buying it before opting to explore YouTube first. With apologies to Wareham disciples, I was unimpressed and the album remained on the virtual shelf.
The book left me with a similar dissatisfaction. Wareham chronicles nearly two decades of a life of touring small clubs in the U.S. and Europe. While there are the requisite tales of sexual conquests and drug binges, they are delivered with an aloofness suggesting nothing really excites him. The book cover says it all – a head shot of Wareham with a blank look on his face.
He reports celebrity run-ins with rapper Flavor Flav and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ lead singer Anthony Kiedis with a ho-hum detachment and a mere paragraph or two when seemingly a chapter’s worth of insight could be offered.
There’s also a quality of self-absorption. He was in New York in 2001 when terrorists brought down the twin towers. However, instead of offering moving insight into the immense tragedy happening right in front of him, he focuses on the personal turmoil of leaving his wife for Britta, the bassist in Luna.
The distance Wareham puts between himself and his lifestyle does provide the benefit of preventing this book from becoming a why-didn’t-we-make-it-big whine fest. Wareham confesses he’d “never lain awake at night dreaming of being a big rock star” (106) and that he wasn’t interested in shoehorning catchy choruses into his songs in return for radio airplay. He relayed a meeting in which he said, to the disappointment of the record executive, that he just wanted to make records. “It never occurred to me to want to be a household name.”
Dean Wareham lacked the necessary ambition and possibly talent to ever make it big. He was never destined to be a Pete Townshend, Neil Young, or Rod Stewart. He never dreamed of stardom, but Black Postcards offers an account of someone who succeeded. His life wasn’t necessarily one filled with passion, but Wareham seemed to live the life he wanted – and that’s all anyone can hope for.