Friday, July 5, 2013

Dean Wareham's "Black Postcards": Book Review

I opened this wondering how he'd respond to his bandmates' betrayal. The liner notes on Galaxie 500's box set (Rykodisc, 1996) are the saddest I've read: drummer Damon Krukowski and his partner, bassist Naomi Yang, describe how guitarist Dean Wareham broke their hearts as by phone he broke up the band in 1991. No reunion rumors here.

Well, the first page begins with not Dean but Damon's words. Krukowski's cited at length as he relates his surprise and resentment as Dean stepped out from a mike, during their last tour, into a spotlight at a Southern California show. The trio eschewed what Dean elsewhere here calls "rock faces" when playing guitar, and this stance represented for Damon and Naomi--who formed a determined front as a couple whose friendship with Dean went back to their ninth-grade prep school days at the Dalton School before they all went to Harvard and formed Galaxie 500--a symbolic defiance of the band.

Dean then enters. "Yes, we had been friends." In fact, from 1987 on, they "led a revolution and were led to the guillotine." (1) He tells his side efficiently, from his New England-descended, New Zealand-raised background, his Australian education, his emigration with his family to Manhattan for high school, and briefly, his stint as a Spartacist League advocate at Harvard. Galaxie 500 begins on page 33 and ends soon after page 100. As Dean tells it, he already had left the band by phone once, and after their final tour, he wanted out, as if they became a cult, and as with any relationship that demanded too much for too little, he walked away. Two against one, but he held the power. It's all reported in often deadpan tone, understated and matter of fact.

Interviewed for Dalton, "they gave me some psychological tests, like the one where you draw a family and a house (the mommy and daddy should hold hands, and the house shouldn't be on fire or anything)." (8) Whatever privilege he has enjoyed appears without comment, as a stoned snack of Cheez Whiz on Wonder Bread at 3 a.m. in a stranger's Cincinnati apartment soon stands for his decades ahead as an acclaimed but struggling indie rocker. In 1989, in Pittsburgh: "It was odd playing to an audience of eleven, and them being interviewed as if anyone cared what we had to say about anything. Such is the world of indie rock." (63) His next band, Luna, lands him on the New York Times' Sunday Arts and Leisure front-page, but he goes off to work to be heckled by a co-worker at his temp office job that if he's in a band, it must not be a very successful one. 

His dry, detached nature steers this account of surviving into not only one's thirties but forties fronting a rock band outside the arenas, negotiating the demands of labels--he shows as does Bob Mould's even more fiscally detailed 2011 memoir "See a Little Light" (reviewed by me Aug. 2011) the difficulties of being a critic's darling during the rise of "modern rock" in the 80s only to meet a Nirvana-grunge backlash in the 90s and then slimmer profits as media conglomerate merged--despite that decade's CD boom. I find such content engrossing (rather than both books' tendency to lapse into "we played at such-and-such opening for so-and-so, got drunk with [insert name here], stayed there, then went here"), for Mould and Wareham, intelligent, well-educated, and savvy self-promoters, came up from a fractious, talented trio who taught themselves, inspired by(post-) punk, how to play. They emerged if a crucial five or so years apart in the 80s as wry, cocky guitarist-singer-songwriters with a notoriety for frankness as well as a knack for melody derived from 1960s AM-pop ditties and later FM-psychedelia, evolving into layers of processed, and subtler, experimental studio textures.

Wareham charts the span of Luna. Tentative first, promising second, breakthrough third, difficult fourth (Pat McCarthy's production and the weeks spent making "Pup Tent" prove a cautionary tale), so-so fifth albums lead to the sixth being live. Why? When a label drops you, that window allows your band to own its concert versions. We learn how the advance goes to pay off not the record label's gross (say, $6/CD) but $2 (the artist's share advanced), and how even if songs are licensed for ads, the profits may well go only to pay off the giant debt: for Luna, over $1.2 million in the hole into what by indie standards via a 90s corporate deal earned respectable if not earth shattering terms of success.

But, as for both bands, this will not lift you up into the heady sounds themselves. Wareham (as with Mould) skims past what for me are highlights of their trio and solo work; it's assumed that a reader will already know the discography. This will prove a drawback for casual fans or those who don't have the albums. I do, but I missed so much here of what made them stand out. I'm about the same age as Mould, two years older than Wareham. The pleasure of learning what they and I shared as we grew up listening to the same music--and reading books--enhances this for me. With Galaxie 500 and Luna I like the earlier releases for their Velvets-inspired, Paisley Underground-infused updates of an ethereal vocal and skeletal or swirling guitar-bass-drums. This could be earthy or, as Dean says early on of a review of Galaxie's "Today" LP (his and my favorite), beamed in as if from another planet.

He does quote from a catty journalist who mocked Wareham's lyrics: "Dr. Seuss on acid"'; later McCarthy's snippet wondering if Luna seems "urban prairie music" to me sums up their mid-career, pre-lounge phase. Wareham's understated in crediting his bandmates Damon and Naomi, and similarly polite but reticent regarding his ex-wife (and small son) whom he left, predictably once one hires a leggy, buff, blonde bassist, for current partner first in music and now in life Britta Phillips. The last, post-live albums favored a mellower, diffused ambiance that fit Wareham's NYC loft mood. (I note as a listener to Damon + Naomi's work a not dissimilar shift into sonic sophistication.)

As with Jesse Jarnow's (reviewed by me in June 2012) case study of indie rock via Yo La Tengo, "Big Day Coming," Wareham takes us from the days of singing to the radio through the post-punk club and "collector scum" scenes and the start-up labels and radio scams to get airplay, into this millennium and the arrival of Napster. Wareham comes across as less of an obsessive rock consumer than the YLT trio, but like Mould and many who grew up spending our pocket money on records, we miss the analog even as we accept the digital, carrying our music with us as we go, despite its infidelity. For indies, it's the "cyclical" death of rock--again. He must decide how to survive. He chooses Britta over his wife, thus keeping Luna together rather than his marriage. The "dynamic had changed within the band,"and as Wareham ponders what to do with his relationships, 9/11 erupts. Without a place of his own, from Britta's he calls his wife. "Our therapy session was canceled." (242)

So, as with Mould, you get raw drama from the details of messy love and longing. But missing (as from Mould for that matter) is how great his guitars sounded even on songs recorded with more primitive production (Kramer in all his shambolic unpredictability for Galaxie 500 looms large, and the haunted hustler Terry Tolkin receives rueful but dignified tribute). How did Wareham, as concert tapes document, get so good so fast? There's a lengthy Mike McGonigal (May 3, 2010) Pitchfork "Temperature's Rising" oral history {reviewed by me in book form with Yang's artwork} that notably calls attention to Wareham--and Krukowski's--skill. Yang is often overlooked, as she had to start from scratch on the bass, but as with her vocals, both merit respect that (maybe understandably) stays subdued in this memoir. Wareham had to deal with the past, relationships with lovers and bandmates, but he moves on awkwardly if realistically, in a style that challenges the autobiographical rock genre's slick transitions or sentimental anecdotes.

It's refreshing to find "a rock and roll romance" not as an "as told to" or ghostwritten or padded. It's acerbic, and droll--like his vocals and lyrics an acquired taste that may not please all. He realizes he prefers Brooks Brothers cotton to "ironic polyester shirts." He gleans metaphors from Isaiah Berlin's fox and hedgehog, he applies Eric Hobsbaum's explanation of postwar consumer culture to the teen spending boom that propelled many of us into buying records, and he watches his seatmate Flava Flav fall asleep on the plane from too much gin.

This is a substantial but not overwhelming account: you get the sense of the life led out of hotels and other people's couches, and while it's loosely organized and may seem to lack internal organization, as you go along, it clicks as a combination of "you are there" and "on reflection...." It's sobering to note that on the last tour, Dean's still hiking in Oregon a mile to the laundromat on dryer-free Wednesday, and getting lunch at Taco Bell and dessert as a Sno-Ball Hostess in Pennsylvania even as he's "a tiny bit famous." 

Parts are funny. Both bands covered eclectic songs, and the pranks played on mates enliven the road tales. (The Feelies' wonderful Stan Demeski was Luna's first drummer and he gets some good snubs in on the "new" guitarist Sean Eden.) Crammed in a Ford Econoline, dealing with dodgy promoters, earnest fans (what effects pedals did he use?), pushers, pleading prostitutes and other ladies after late-night shows on two continents, and putting up with hotels may be standard fare, but Wareham, for all the scattershot mood with which perhaps suitably he chronicles his fate, captures the tedium, the doubt, and the sparks of energy that keep him going.  (12-2-12 slightly altered, to Amazon US)

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