Race for the Prize: 90s Music Biographies

June 14th, 2009 | Category: Essays, Reviews

The music scene of the 1990s was confused. At the turn of that last decade, Hip-hop was displacing Metal as the top-selling genre, and Nirvana was allegedly setting off the so-called “alternative revolution,” yet Guns ‘N Roses was all over MTV with opulent, twelve-minute videos and all over the charts with an epic double CD. The world was wild at heart and weird on top.

Black PostcardsUnderneath that odd veneer of mainstream schizophrenia, independent music was thriving. Dean Wareham is one of the unsung architects of indie rock. His bands, Galaxie 500 and Luna, helped define a sound and an era. Black Postcards (Penguin, 2008) is his memoir of the making of that sound, a glimpse at a time in music that is all but long gone: days of record stores, seven inch records and colored vinyl releases, vans and venues, maps and menues… Wareham did his share of time in this world, roaming the land beneath the radar. It was a time when, as he writes, “It was odd playing to an audience of eleven, and then being interviewed as if anyone cared what we had to say about anything” (p. 63).

Wareham’s stories are an in-depth look at band dynamics during a chaotic era and how the music industry worked at the height of its excesses, as well as how Wareham himself negotiated both — an era where label heads describe bands like Luna as “little boats,” saying, “There are too many small boats in the harbor. They’re all trying to get out to sea. But it’s crowded — so many little boats, the big boats can’t get out to sea. It’s terrible” (p. 176). This is when record store shelf space was at a higher premium, before the digital revolution made records in the long tail profitable.

Black Postcards is largely well written and a fun read, even if a bit snarky and nitpicky in places (plenty of venom for Seattle bands, digital technology, The Pixies, etc.), but who wouldn’t, if given such a chance to do so, try to even the score a bit? Even when he’s a grumpy old man about things, his insights are astute. In regard to the music business’s financial woes, he tackles the concert business as well, writing,

There were hundreds of bands out there, booking the clubs months in advance, playing their stupid songs. there is something tribal about it — different groups of men wearing different kinds of rock clothing, descended from different rock traditions, singing their songs and dressing up and dancing around, competing with other groups of men for an audience’s attention (p. 293).

Wareham is also the only other person I know of who likens Eddie Vedder’s voice to Cher’s. Anyway, couple this book with Matthew Buzzell’s Luna documentary, Tell Me Do You Miss Me (Rhino, 2006), and you have a crash course in Wareham’s world of the 90s, as well as two of its most critically renowned and respected outfits.

[Note: While reading Wareham’s book, I also started reading Alfred Jarry’s Exploits & Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician which was most recently published by the Exact Change imprint. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Exact Change is run by Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang, also known as the other two-thirds of Galaxie 500. The coincidence was far too weird to ignore.]

Staring at SoundSpeaking of renowned, respected, and weird, Staring at Sound: The True Story of Oklahoma’s Fabulous Flaming Lips by Jim DeRogatis (Broadway Books, 2006) presents a wholly different view of the same era. If Galaxie 500’s records sounded like they came “from another planet,” then The Flaming Lips are still orbiting some other sun. Staring at Sound does a great job of following their formation from their old meat locker practice space to clubs all over the globe, from parking lots across America to the big screen in Christmas on Mars (2008).

Lead Lip Wayne Coyne talks about not being able to relate to bands from New York such as Sonic Youth, but feeling completely natural broing down with San Antonio’s Butthole Surfers. His musings on recording, filming, and performing are intriguing and enlightening. It’s funny, in some aspects, these guys are so regular. In others, their brains are in backwards. Both cases make their story thus far fun and freaky, and DeRogatis does a fine job telling it.

By the way, like me, Jim DeRogatis spent the 90s writing about music for magazines. Unlike me, Jim got his musings collected and published. One of his previous books, Milk It! Collected Musings on the Alternative Music Explosion of the 90s (Da Capo, 2003) is one man’s close-up view of the build-up and breakdown of the music of the time.

On another planet still, but coming up during the same era, Pantera defined a different kind of 90s music. At a time when Heavy Metal was supposed to be dead (friend and fellow writer Adem Tepedelen wrote at the time that metal wasn’t dead, it was “just wounded and pissed off!”), the Cowboys from Hell were debuting records at the top of the charts — back when that meant selling hundreds of thousands of records in just a few days (1994’s Far Beyond Driven sold 186,000 copies in its first week). Their guitarist, “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott was adored and hailed by everyone who knew him and his playing.

Black Tooth GrinBlack Tooth Grin by Zac Crain (Da Capo, 2009) tells Dimebag’s story, from his birth in Arlington, Texas to his death on stage in Columbus, Ohio, from Pantera’s glittery late-80s beginnings to their chart-destroying reign as one of Metal’s most unrelenting acts. Through it all, Dimebag managed to remain a blue-collar Texas everyman while simultaneously becoming a certified Metal guitar god. He was a genuine guy no matter, always ready to buy a tray of shots for the friends at the bar. As friend and business partner Larry English puts it, “There was no fake Dime” (p. 258). He wasn’t quite on his way to burning out, but he never got the chance to fade away. Among many other things about Dimebag, Crain’s book sheds new light on that harrowing night in Columbus in 2004. Dean Wareham may have gotten yelled at by fans for breaking up Galaxie 500, but he didn’t get gunned down for it.

Metal always gets a bad rap when it comes to those who typically write about music. It’s often depicted as cartoonish and silly, the very antithesis of punk or indie rock (Hip-hop is often treated the same way, as if one genre is more “true” or “real” than another). This elitism, if I may call it such, is the antithesis of what I thought the whole punk rock/DIY idea was about. It often seems like less of a dislike for the genre, and more of a contempt for its fans. You might not enjoy Pantera, maybe you think they’re baffoons and their fans are worse, but they did exactly what anyone else who’s ever wanted to play music for a living did — and they never compromised what they wanted that music to be.

The 90s were a weird time for music, and one that we’re not likely to see again. These three books offer three different glimpses into that time and how three bands navigated it — all with varying degrees of success, bitterness, and carnage, but all with a damn good story.

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By the way, if you like the behind the music stories no matter the genre, I also recommend The Long Hard Road Out of Hell by Marilyn Manson and Neil Strauss (ReganBooks, 1998) and for added debauchery, check out The Dirt by Motley Crue and Neil Strauss (HarperEntertainment, 2002) and Lords of Chaos by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind (Feral House, 2003). Oh, and I can never say enough good about Continuum’s 33 1/3 Series.

Further Posting:

3 Comments »

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