Race for the Prize: 90s Music Biographies

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.


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.

The End of Print

Magazines have always been my favorite form of media. Having grown up in rural areas of the South, I found the window to my interests opened in their glossy pages. The big photos and words from other worlds kept me connected to all that I wanted to be a part of. If this sounds a bit romantic, it was. The grocery store newsstand and the mailbox were the modem jacks of the time.

Back then, it was music, skateboarding, and BMX magazines, and though those still capture my attention on a regular, these are the ones of which I don’t miss an issue.

For my regular science fix, Seed is by far the best magazine out there right now. If Wired was still weird (like it was up until 1998 or so) and focused on science instead of the web, it might resemble Seed. Excellent visualizations and great writing, plus the Seed Salon in which two luminaries — whose interests are often unexpectedly juxtaposed — discuss a pressing science issue. Past Seed Salon’s have included such pairs as David Byrne and Daniel Levitin, Albert-László Barabási and James Fowler, Jonathon Lethem and Janna Levin, Benoit Mandlebrot and Paola Antonelli, Will Self and Spencer Wells, Jill Tarter and Will Wright, Tom Wolfe and Michael Gazzaniga, and Robert Stickgold and Michel Gondry, among many others. I’m obviously biased, but I love the fact that every issue includes this form of dialogue alongside the monologue of Seed‘s traditional articles, which are consistently stellar (oh, their website is excellent as well).

Coming in second on my magazine must-haves is Good. Some of the best infographics I’ve ever seen have been on this magazine’s pages. Good is not necessarily about anything in particular, except good things — good ideas, good design, good stuff. Each issue of Good is themed, which is both good and bad. It’s good because when they cover something, they cover it well. It’s bad because sometimes one might not be interested in the theme. With that said, they’ve often won me over anyway.

Though the common sentiment (I even expressed it above) is that Wired used to be better, it’s still one of the best. The lost art of long-form narrative journalism is alive and well in Wired. They’re also consistently refreshing their voice with new writers, staying true to much of their original blueprint, and challenging their readers with easter eggs. Their recent “Mystery Issue,” guest edited by J. J. Abrams no less, is chock-a-block with perplexing puzzles and hidden games. So times have changed and so has Wired, but you’ll still be hard-pressed to find a better read at your local Safeway.

Make is more like a quarterly how-to book — how to do everything yourself. It’s the D.I.Y. bible. Some of the most creative people and writers alike work for Make (people like our friends Gareth Branwyn and Mark Frauenfelder), and they spread and network with makers from all over with the magazine, the website, tools from the Maker Shed, and Maker Faire — the latter of which is going down in San Francisco this very weekend!

There are a few more I pick up once in a while: Geek is never quite as cool as it purports to be, but I still snag it sometimes. Fast Company is sometimes interesting enough to buy. Psychology Today often reels me in in spite of myself. And despite everything I’ve written above, DIG BMX is still the best magazine on the planet.

Mirroring Minds

In researching technological mediation (which many of you know has been my most intense intellectual jones over the past few years), I started looking internally a year and a half or so ago. Internally meaning cognitively, thinking that quite a lot of the process I’m trying to figure out is going on inside our heads. I first read about mirror neurons when David Byrne and Daniel Levitin were in Seed Magazine‘s “The Seed Salon,” and I immediately knew I’d stumbled across something I couldn’t ignore. Continue reading “Mirroring Minds”

Music for Magazines: This is Not a Record Review

I wouldn’t even bother writing about Coldplay’s latest record, but as the water of the music industry recedes, Viva la Vida has landed as a big fish in a little pond. Dave Allen exerted quite a bit of effort vilifying the record over at Pampelmoose, and while I don’t disagree with all of his points, I think his keyboard’s venom is at least partially misplaced. This is not a record review. Continue reading “Music for Magazines: This is Not a Record Review”

Mind Wide Shut: Recent Books on Mind and Metaphor

Scientists have used metaphors to conceptualize and understand phenomena since early Greek philosophy. Aristotle used many anthropomorphic ideas to describe natural occurrences, but the technology of the time, needing constant human intervention, offered little in the way of metaphors for the mind. Since then, theorists have compared the human mind to the clock, the steam engine, the radio, the radar, and the computer, all of increasing complexity. Continue reading “Mind Wide Shut: Recent Books on Mind and Metaphor”

How We Became Post-Rock

There seems to be very little consensus on exactly where Rock crossed the line and became Post-Rock (a term popularized by Simon Reynolds), but most people agree that the two bands that galvanized the movement in the last two decades are Tortoise and Mogwai. The roots of the genre run deep and in many directions (e.g., Prog, Brian Eno, Jazz, CAN, PiL, Industrial, Jim O’Rourke, et al.), but for our purposes, we’ll start roughly with those two.

Mogwai live [photo by Leif Valin]Mogwai is consistently one of my most-listened-to artists. This is partly because they make great sleepy-time music, but also because their blend of mellow prog, raging guitars, and soundtracky drama has held my attention for years. Where Tortoise tends toward a shuffle and strum, Mogwai has a propensity for rumble and roar. Structurally, if the former were a lattice partition, the latter would be a brick wall. Simply put, there’s just a lot more tension and release with Mogwai.

With that said, the brand of Post-Rock that I am drawn to owes more to Mogwai than Tortoise (Explosions in the Sky and Kinski, for example), but this is not to paint Tortoise (and their brethren, June of 44, Rodan, et al.) out of the picture. Each of the new crop of these bands owes a great debt to the mathematics of Tortoise and Slint, the guitar textures of My Bloody Valentine and The Cure, the orchestrations of Radiohead, and the experiments of electronica. But they’re each taking this loose foundation in new directions. Hood, 65daysofstatic, The Notwist, and 13 & God all slouch toward electronica; Isis, Cult of Luna, The Ocean, and Jesu all lean on the metal; dälek blast Hip-hop through their wall-of-sound; Explosions in the Sky, God is an Astronaut, Caspian, Saxon Shore, and This Will Destroy You all play the middle ground, holding the core of instrumental post-rock together with fervor.

Thanks to a series of tips from longtime music friend Wayne Wambles, these last few bands are among my recent most-listened-to artists. I’ve been listening to quite a lot of Explosions in the Sky over the past year or so. Wayne caught wind of this and recommended several bands to me, all of whom toil similar musical soil to Explosions in the Sky and Mogwai.

These four bands are the logical heirs to the Post-Rock torch. Their compositions wax and wane in a similar emotive fashion to their forebears, building tension and releasing it in flurries of guitar noise. There’s not much more to say by way of description, but here are brief synopses of each.

Caspian often starts off with near silence but builds into a wailing wave of guitar. They’re the most organic of this new crop, careening off the rails and staying at the edge of control at all times.

With vocals sometimes employed, but used as not much more than another instrument, God is an Astronaut flies somewhere between Sigor Ros and Mogwai. With four great records out, they’ve been around seemingly forever (see one of their videos below).

On the flip-side, Texas’s own This Will Destroy You has had a brief but successful history, having only been a band since 2005 and having blown up right out of the box. The youngest of all of these bands, they’ve already proven themselves worthy of the post-rock mantle with 2006’s Young Mountain EP (Magic Bullet) and their recent self-titled full-length.

Saxon Shore remind me more of Mogwai in that they seem to rely on electronics more, and, like Mogwai, they’ve worked with David Fridmann (who is best known for his pioneering work with The Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev). Fridmann produced their last record, The Exquisite Death of Saxon Shore (Burnt Toast Vinyl, 2005), and his influence is heard in its epic drive and many climaxes (They’re currently working on new material).

Here’s the video for “The End of the Beginning” by God is an Astronaut from the record of the same name (runtime: 3:43):


Blade Runner Redux

Just when I thought I’d missed it, The Laurelhurst Theater here in Portland brought Blade Runner: The Final Cut back around (I wasn’t here when it first played, and somehow, I missed the movie’s original release, though during that same time I managed to see all three original Star Wars movies as they came out). Thankfully Ridley Scott’s upgrades are subtle. He didn’t feel the need to George-Lucas it up with obvious and jarring new scenes and CGI. The changes are relatively seamless. Continue reading “Blade Runner Redux”

Too Much Information: Four Recent Books

In his 1995 book, Being Digital (Vintage), Nicholas Negroponte drew a sharp and important distinction between bits and atoms, bits being the smallest workable unit of the digital world, and atoms being their closest analog (no pun intended) in the physical world. In the meantime, this distinction has become more and more important as our world becomes increasingly digital or reliant on digital technologies.

The Long TailAs an over-simplified example, shelf space in a regular “bricks and mortar” bookstore is limited, but online it isn’t. In order to pay its rent and stay in business, a physical bookstore has to carry books that sell at a faster pace than an online store, which can afford to carry books that sell less often. The latter is called “the long tail,” and it’s how Amazon was able to stake its claim as “The World’s Largest Bookstore” and eventually to expand into every other product line one can put in a box or an inbox. When it comes to purely digital artifacts and products (e.g., digital file sharing, music downloads, ebooks, etc.), the power law on which the long tail is based isn’t truncated (as it is eventually in the Amazon example, and sooner in the traditional bookstore example).

The Long Tail (from Chris Anderson’s site)

Chris Anderson admittedly didn’t invent the idea (Jeff Bezos for one has been making millions with it for years), but no one else has covered it like he has in his book. The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More (Hyperion, 2006) is the concept shot from every angle, through every available lens. The idea is that blockbusters, hits, best sellers form “the short head” of the graph, and the niche items, cult phenomenon, lesser sellers form “the long tail.” Our culture is moving down the tail (i.e., it has become “niche-driven” as opposed to hit-driven) and off the shelf (online as opposed to in the store). Most retail stores only have room to carry items in the short head, while online “etailers” can carry items further down the tail. And when it comes to digital products, shelves are no longer an obstacle, in more ways than one.

Everything is MiscellaneousWhen products move from shelves to databases, the way they can be organized changes. Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder (Times Books, 2007) is David Weinberger’s take on Web 2.0’s tags and folksonomies, set in contrast to objects in physical space (bits vs atoms). “Orders of order” he calls them. Items on shelves are limited by the rules of the physical world. Items in a database are not. The former can be filed in one category, on one shelf, in one place (the first order of order). The latter can be searched, browsed, alphabetized, tagged — all at the same time (the third order of order). These orders of order also apply to encyclopedic information — Wikipedia’s bits as opposed to Encyclopedia Britannica’s atoms — and the way it is created.

InfotopiaIn Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge (Oxford, 2006), Cass R. Sunstein continues some of the work he did in Why Societies Need Dissent regarding deliberation, group polarization, and emergent knowledge. The most obvious and most successful example is Wikipedia. Whereas mindless mobs wait at the bottom of many collaborative slippery slopes (see a sharp antithesis to Wikipedia at Urban Dictionary), Wikipedia is frighteningly accurate. My friend and colleague Tim Mitchell proposed a great test of Wikipedia’s success: If you doubt the site’s aggregate knowledge, check its information against something you do know, as opposed to something you don’t. Sunstein’s book goes a long way to explaining the ins and outs of why collaborative filtering might provide the best method for knowing things.

Bit LiteracyMark Hurst’s Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload (Good Experience, 2007) approaches the infoglut from more of a self-help angle, proposing an ambitious plan for getting things done and getting things organized in the digital deluge. It’s not quite the panacea it purports to be, but useful ideas abound. Finding signal in the noise — especially in the noise of your own email, photos, files, to-do lists – is what bit literacy is all about.

As bandwidth increases, Negroponte’s observation from over a decade ago is finally showing its impact. The distinction between bits and atoms is an important one, and perhaps more important than we previously realized, whether we’re trying to find something or just find something out.

Recurring Themes, Part Five: The End of Humanity

“Through fiction we saw the birth
Of futures yet to come
Yet in fiction lay the bones, ugly in their nakedness
Yet under this mortal sun, we cannot hide ourselves”
— Isis, “In Fiction”

There’s an episode of The Twilight Zone I watched as a kid that stuck with me. I don’t remember all of it, just the end: There’s a man, a bibliophile, he’s the last person left on earth, and he’s ecstatic because he’s surrounded by books. Then he breaks his glasses.

Since first seeing Children of Men’s vision of humanity without hope about a year ago, I’ve been spotting eschatological themes everywhere. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress are a couple more examples from my recent reading. The release of the film I Am Legend marks another for the pile.

Children of MenThough both movies depict a dystopian picture of humankind’s future, Director Alfonso Cuarón said that he envisioned Children of Men as the “anti-Blade Runner.” He told the set designers, “I don’t want inventiveness, I want reference,” adding “Don’t show me the ‘great idea’, show me the reference in real life.” The result is not only a very gritty and real feeling but also a very possible one, a feeling that our world could look like the one in the film sooner than we care to realize. Wholesale infertility notwithstanding, indeed, a lot of what is depicted in Children of Men is happening right now.

In a talk that should certainly be included in future printings of his recently reissued Enjoy Your Symptom! (Routledge, 1992), philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek describes the infertility in Children of Men as “spiritual infertility.” Just as the works of art collected in the museum in the movie lack their historical context, so do the citizens lack hope. Most of their spirits are blatantly suffocated by its absence. This hopelessness is evident in nearly every aspect of the movie, from the government-sanctioned “suicide kits” to the stagnation of technology. The lack of offspring produces a society with no need for maintenance (Though national security is of the utmost concern in Children of Men, the deterioration of the infrastructure couldn’t help but evoke to me James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency [Grove Press, 2006], in which he cites strip malls, suburbs, and big-box retailers as signs that we’re building “a country not worth defending”).

Among the many visual metaphors in the film (e.g., the many animals, Theo’s lack of shoes, etc.) is the boat in the final scene. Zizek interprets the boat as a metaphor for humanity’s lack of roots in the movie. The refugees in captivity, the artwork in the museum, and — even with the hope of Kee and The Human Project — the extant populace of Children of Men’s world are set adrift on a sea of existential uncertainty and spiritual bankruptcy.

The RoadSimilarly, the man and the boy (they’re not given formal names) in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road are adrift in a post-apocalyptic world with nothing but what they can carry or scavenge to live on and nothing but their wits to protect them as they trudge farther and farther down a road. The road is apparently leftover from a decimated infrastructure, a lone strip of asphalt plodding toward the sea like a geographical lifeline. Steven Shaviro pointed out a perfect example of their dire situation in the line “Mostly, he worried about their shoes” (funny that a similar metaphor was evident in Children of Men).

“There were few nights lying in the dark that he did not envy the dead.” — from The Road

The Road’s agoraphobic landscape leaves one aching for shelter. Its mise en scène is one of nonstop exposure and unknown dangers lurk seemingly at every point along the road. In the same way that silence can be deafening, McCarthy’s economy of prose only adds to the feeling of stifling openness. There are no lush turns of phrase, no whimsy in words just as there is neither lushness nor whimsy in the world described.

Wittgenstein’s MistressDavid Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress depicts a similarly desolate world, though the narrator seems much more sanguine about it. She roams from place to place, taking what she needs from abandoned households, borrowing vehicles as needed, and pausing intermittently to type her story on a typewriter. It’s a beautifully written and intricately realized story.

The end may or may not be coming, let’s just be careful with those glasses, just in case.