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.