Music

Friday Mini Book Review: Perfect From Now On

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Past mini book reviews.

Perfect From Now On: How Indie Rock Saved My Life by John Sellers. (Simon and Schuster, 2007). It's unlikely a review of a book like this can be fully fair, balanced, and just. One possibility is that its subject matter—one American male born in 1970's personal journey through music fandom—will seem inherently impenetrable and uninteresting to the reviewer, and thus all the author's self-deprecating wit and problems-with-dad material—see, this topic has something universal to say about the human condition, and this writer is just an all-around interesting voice–will be seeds thrown in a barren field.

Another possibility is that the reviewer will himself have a fanatical obsession about popular music and its attendant fandom, thus see the material through his own strongly and often emotionally gripped thoughts on what's really important about the topic, what sort of relation to this music is most illuminating, and, most dangerously, have dark thoughts about how and why this guy…this self-admitted quasi-poseur (first heard Pavement in '93! First heard Guided by Voices in '02! Bases his book on his insight into and fanaticism for these bands!) got the Simon and Schuster contract for this hardcover original on this topic.

Not to say that, in principle, this couldn't have been a very interesting book, Sellers' John-come-lately status notwithstanding. It's readably affable, and occasionally pleasingly witty. The reader should bear in mind it is firmly of the by now either classic or clichéd mode of self-referential quasi-memoirish modern nonfiction, sensitive-but-not-ickily-so, funny-and-self-deprecating division, lots of irony but still just enough sincerity. It's the tone common to lots of slight modern nonfiction about topics that aren't obviously stuffed with emotional depth or excitement, those topics smaller than being abused by your nutty parents or adventuring by choice or circumstance in dangerous foreign lands.

Thus, it's suburban and loaded with way too many footnotes full of personal asides, instant-critiques of his own writing, and sideline mini-essays. It's got a cockamamie and neither funny nor enlightening attempt to create a foolproof mathematic formula for musical greatness. While reading it, I was simultaneously reading the huge hit from a few years back Candy Freak, which approaches candy with the same tone and authorial voice (though more actual reporting), which added to how aggravated I was by this one—try to read only one book of average guy quirky topic nonfiction at a time, my friends. Readers of Esquire and GQ will be very, very, very, very familiar with this voice—the attempt to craft an authorially useful, engaging, and showily "honest" voice for modern manhood in a somewhat schlubby world minus sports and war. It's the Judd Apatow voice for modern non-fiction (and yes, I know it preceded Apatow.)

So, we learn how Sellers is embarrassed by his Michigan-youth love for Huey Lewis and Bryan Adams and Duran Duran–lots of this unlovely status-climbers obsession with being (publicly, at least) embarrassed by his old passions, which is unfair both to him, the objects of the passions, and the reader who should be owed a deeper understanding of how and why their authorial guide relates to the world. He gets lightly hipped to the likes of Morrissey and New Order, and goes on a (dull and uninsightful) pilgrimage to Manchester in honor of his fandom. His love for music, of course, gets mixed up with his love for certain girls, who we never really get to know.

The book has some pleasures, if you can handle the lack of depth in his understanding of his ostensible subject matter. (Yes, I mean both his own life and indie rock.) Halfway through the book, he becomes a fanatical fan of Pavement and Guided By Voices, two of the archetypal public faces of American indie rock of the 1990s. The book wraps up with a way-too-long account of how he actually got personally involved with GBV leader Robert Pollard and then made a mistake that got him cast out from the kingdom.

It's the kind of gossipy stuff that would be quite gripping if it was happening to your buddy and you were hearing about it daily in grumbles over beers and forwarded emails, but didn't bear the weight of a quarter of this book's narrative and almost all of its drama. It ain't indie-rock if you don't attitude-drop, and I've got my own, even less interesting but blessedly much shorter, story of a quasi-Pollard encounter, involving being blind drunk with pals in Manhattan singing a song called "Where are the Nazis?" we had just made up on the spot, ringled by a former GBV bassist, into Pollard's answering machine. That's all I really remember; ask Michael Moynihan, he was there. Actually, I'm not even entirely sure that incident is less interesting than Sellers'.

To those who are interested in the cultural history of indie rock told through a personal narrative, which seems to me promised by the subtitle, Sellers' coming into it all so late and so lightly is a problem. Because "indie rock," man, means being involved in at least some degree with the world of zines and scenes, small clubs, and forming your own bands or labels. If not actually D-ing IY, you'll get this subject best if you have at least some awareness and involvement in that world, which was key to the cultural and personal meaning of the music.

Sellers comes in purely as a guy who listened to some records and liked them, which isn't nearly as interesting. I know it makes me sound like a ridiculously annoying snob to say that merely being a listener isn't good enough to write a smart and knowing and valuable book about indie rock. I do believe the failures of this book, by a writer who is clearly thoughtful and talented, shows that I'm not wrong.

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  1. I got your Indie Rock right here.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kIf-k9vElhQ

    They were back then, for sure.

  2. Me or Sellers? I’m 39, Sellers two years younger.

  3. The book (and the author) sound about as ubersuperficial as my personal image of most indie rock already is.

  4. Good luck selling your review copy Brian.

  5. The old 930 club was a really shitty place to see a show, crowded, smelly, hot and amazingly small. I think it was only meant to have 300 hundred people in it max, I bet there were always way more in there than that.

    That doesn’t stop me from having fond memories of the place though. Yes, I did see GBV and Pavement there many times back in the day. Pavement really sucked when I saw them, but GBV were always great.

  6. SIV—Ah, it’s all marked up. I’d be in many ways a happier man if I were quicker to sell books. Alas, I’m obsessed with accumulating them.

  7. Interesting note on the idea that being in a band, no matter how crappy, puts one higher in the indie rock hierarchy, or at least more in the know. I’ve held that view to varying degrees over the years (my apartment is a graveyard for yesterday’s recording gear with enough guitars to build an ark). Perhaps it has something to do with the idea that doing is better education than seeing someone else do. Not sure if thats rational, but I suspect it carries weight in a genre where DIY values are important.

  8. From right here in Denver, I’m pretty sure that this guy qualifies as an Indie Rocker; It’s my friend and frequent H&R commenter, Fyodor!!

    http://www.littlefyodor.com/

    It’s one stellar musical experience!

  9. Nah Brian I know you’re not 16. I was just mocking the “Listening to music saved my life” claim as being one of a emotionally fragile teenager. I respect the work you do greatly, please don’t think I meant any disrespect.

  10. The first show I ever saw was Black Flag’s 2nd-to-last-show ever. I’m so totally more hip than the guy who wrote this book.

  11. So, now we know who Indie Rock Pete was modeled after.

  12. Alas, I’m obsessed with accumulating them.

    I’m the same way but your mini-review suggests this one is taking up space more deserved by nearly any other volume.

  13. Let’s not forget one of my all time favorite Onions, “37 Record-Store Clerks Feared Dead In Yo La Tengo Concert Disaster.” The Onion, I know, but its from 2002!

  14. I’m guessing Jim Greer then.

  15. Rick Barton – I heard “Blitzkrieg Bop” in the drugstore the other day. In the late 70’s & early 80’s, my friends (other than punks) thought I was a freak for liking the Ramones. Now they get played at football games.

    Brian – there’s a third possibility in addition to the ones you listed, although you did sort of imply it in the body of your review – self-absorbed dilettantes with no personal connections to their actual subject of study aren’t all that interesting, and typically not very insightful. Your “scene” criteria is hardly elitist – if this shmoe had even written a fanzine, he might have some actual content for his book. As it is, it sounds like we can get the same content or better on a H&R open music thread.

  16. “self-absorbed dilettantes with no personal connections to their actual subject of study aren’t all that interesting, and typically not very insightful.”

    That was what I was trying to say, albeit in a nicer way. I’m a gregarious drunk is what it comes down to.

  17. Lamar – I haven’t had my Xanax today – must be why I’m not in a nice mood.

  18. involving being blind drunk with pals in Manhattan singing a song called “Where are the Nazis?” we had just made up on the spot

    sung to the tune of “who makes the nazis?”?

    i met this guy at a book reading he did here in good ol’ chicago. nice guy. i didn’t have the heart to tell him i only skimmed his book at the bookstore and declared it not worthy of a purchase.

  19. The first show I ever saw was Black Flag’s 2nd-to-last-show ever. I’m so totally more hip than the guy who wrote this book.

    I saw Black Flag at the Sancho Brothers Wrestling Hall in El Paso with Sacchrine Trust and the Rhythm Pigs in 1984 (85?). That same year I my band, Exploding Archbishops, opened for Tex and the Horseheads. I don’t claim that makes me hipper than you, but the fact that I saw Tupelo Chain Sex live just might.

    Mainly, however, those facts make me old.

  20. Rick Barton,

    I didn’t realize a band that released their first record with SIRE would count as “indie” in any meaningful sense of the word.

    But what do I know.
    I guess this is indie rock too then…
    http://youtube.com/watch?v=bpV5InLw52U

  21. Sorry, everything went blurry halfway through the third paragraph. The author may have been under the influence: (“…it is firmly of the by now either classic or clich?d mode of self-referential quasi-memoirish modern nonfiction, sensitive-but-not-ickily-so, funny-and-self-deprecating division, lots of irony but still just enough sincerity.) Ai, carramba! The mind reels. Writing about music is…well, you know the cliche. Millions of words resulting in nothing. But we feed on it.

  22. Tex and the Horseheads

    Man, now there is a band whose name I haven’t heard for a long time.

    I remember thinking that the lead singer was pretty hot, but drank way too much. Plus, they were also pretty bad.

    I’ve been an indie rock fanboi for a long time. At every point, most of what you would hear was crap. This is true now and it was true then.

  23. mk,

    It wasn’t so much the booze as the heroin that did in Tex’s sex appeal. Nothing sexy about a drunk junk sick punk-chick no matter how good the gene’s.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/dopey/88507540/in/set-72057594051087069/
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VsGeU_OtdNc
    http://www.myspace.com/texacalajones

    The show was pretty good. Better than their albums, but, yeah, they had as many bad songs as good. I like that show for the sole reason that our band, which was formed that afternoon and did not have any real songs, was dubbed by the Horseheads–

    “Way better than Jesus and Mary Chain, and you guy’s aren’t assholes.”

  24. My band Hangman’s Jury opened for Gaye Bykers On Acid in ’91. Vid heir. They were having a disastrous tour of the states, and that gig didn’t go much better. Their bass player wound up having to borrow my rig for the show.

    Ironically, I forget who headlined that night, probably because I was thoroughly plastered by the time they came on. some band that just signed with Capitol, and thought they were better than everyone else for it.

  25. BakedPenguin,

    Yeah, today’s cutting edge can wind up being tomorrow’s musak. Guess it happens when lotsa folks see what the early fans saw in the acts.

  26. Neu Mejican,

    I actually don’t know what the accepted definition of Indie Rock is, if there is one. If it’s record company, perhaps the Ramones don’t get put in that category. I was thinking like “cutting edge”, as independent of prevailing modes. Perhaps I mostly just wanted to link to em but my pretext was weak.

    When I say your link was a song, “Hocus Pocus”
    I was thinking “ABRACADABRA”. Guess i’m just kinda stuck in the 80’s (and punk from the mid-late 70’s)-:)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yyAOSPtrCLI

  27. Neu Mejican,

    You’re probably right. It probably is a record company definition. But if so, no Indie Rock ensemble is called Indie till they make a cd for sale.. Are we ok with that?

    So maybe I linked to the Ramones sans a good reason. Well how about this? Linking to the Ramones is it’s own good reason!…

    “Sheena is a Punkrocker”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yQ9kOamgaU0

  28. ..Shoulda been: “When I *saw* your link was a song, “Hocus Pocus””

  29. Rick Barton,

    I am old enough to remember that “indie” used to mean independently produced, released, and distributed.

    Now, SIRE, was an independent label until WB bought them up…so maybe you are technically okay… I think the Ramones were signed before SIRE was gobbled, but SIRE was a pretty big label by that point in history.

  30. Neu Mejican,

    I forget who I saw Tex and the Horseheads with. I think it may have been Blood on the Saddle. I liked Blood on the Saddle. I’m thinking it was maybe early 1985?

    It’s all a bit hazy though. I was about 16 at the time and went to concerts just out of habit.

  31. mk,

    The gig with Tex and the Horseheads got us an opening slot for Blood on the Saddle.

    The band that time around went with the name Fucked Up Nancy…in honor of the first lady.

  32. Brian Doherty is way more scene than you.

  33. Neu Mejican,

    The Ramones did their first album in 1975 with Sire.

    From Wikpedia:

    In the later 1970s, Sire transformed itself into a large independent record label…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sire_Records

    I think the Ramones make the Indie cut by the record company criteria.

  34. The book does sound painfully dull. The concept may have been interesting had Sellers found his eyes opened to new vistas through the discovery of a truly obscure genre of music — like, say, polka, sci-fi movie soundtracks, or Swedish black metal — which then leads him to explore an equally obscure (non-hipster) subculture.

    Ah, memories — The one time I saw Tex and the Horseheads a member of the audience tried to grope Texacala. She didn’t flinch.

  35. Here’s a damn good Indie punk band in the old school style:

    Switchblade Kittens – “Solar Plexus Kick”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3xFWAUH0lsY&NR=1

    Promo:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PXjpFC32EEE&feature=related

  36. About a third of the way through this book, and just about done with it. I think the review above hit the nail on the head… to be an “authority” on indie rock in any way, you have to have at least gotten into the culture somewhat. It’s not just that he was an admitted Johnny-come-lately… I myself never really got into the culture until grad-school; which just happened to coincide with when indie was really asserting itself (mid-late ’80s). But he never even really “gets into” the culture. He doesn’t seem to understand it (at least not yet through Chapter 5). Indie rockers don’t make pilgrimages to their “idols” graves. Indie rockers don’t even HAVE idols.

  37. Okay, I did Mr. Sellers the justice of finishing the book. I just don’t see him as having any expertise on indie rock. Some of the things he says ring true to anyone discovering indie music, and even to the development of my own musical tastes. But the book is nothing but chapters of name-dropping and how he discovered those names, and a “brush with greatness” story. He doesn’t offer any unique or informed insight into the indie world. He seems only superficially embedded into any scene of any kind, and only because he chose to become a professional writer, and has developed connections that can gain him some access. His musical tastes, while I’m sure genuine after discovering the bands, seem driven as much by what’s supposed to be cool (which at this late stage he’s come to understand that what’s really “cool” is what’s not cool) and who it might impress, than whether the music spontaneously speaks to him. I have to think that if he had been just a little less hungry for acceptance, he’d still be listening to Journey 24-7. His musical tastes are simply obsessions that could just as easily be over anything else, and it seems the main function of indie rock in his life (other than to provide him with the occasional paycheck) has been mainly to waste a lot of time and money. What has he gotten out of it other than many wild nights out and a few stories? Does it go any deeper than that? He doesn’t even remotely explain “how indie rock saved his life”. There seems to be very little that’s natural about his discovery of and involvement in indie rock. And while Robert Pollard may have forgiven him, it is unbelievable that he gained acceptance into the “inner circle” having just signed a book deal to write about it, and never revealed that of his own accord. What it did reveal (as if his overwhelming fanboy approach to music didn’t already reveal this) is that he is actually very clearly an outsider to the world of indie rock. Anyone involved in any indie rock scene has a “brush with greatness” story (or several). But they don’t write books about it (and especially don’t sign deals to do so and then don’t tell the subjects). At most, they think “Neat!” and tell a few friends, realizing it’s just an encounter with (possibly) like-minded soul who’s art they admire, but who is a person just like them. Lastly, again, while I can forgive some of the “johnny-come-lately” aspect to his musical listening… COME ON! You’re just discovering Superchunk? In 2007?! That’s just embarrassing.

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