Lonely Boy: Tales From A Sex Pistol – By Steve Jones and Ben Thompson (Da Capo)

I approached Steve Jones’ autobiography with a small sense of trepidation – did I really need or even want another retread through Sex Pistols history? There’s so many books and documentaries on them that their story feels fully told, with no room left for surprise in a subsequent retelling. Luckily, guitarist Steve Jones has had a pretty fascinating life in and out of the band, and even if the public’s never-ending interest in the Sex Pistols is the reason this book exists in the first place, there’s a lot more to it than just that. I found the sections on Jones’ childhood the most interesting part of Lonely Boy, with family drama, sexual abuse, ADHD and dyslexia filling him up with the anger and confusion that exploded out of him in his guitar playing and hedonistic lifestyle. It also gives a glimpse into the grim future that might have awaited Jones had he not discovered music – he was an accomplished thief in his teens, often stealing equipment from well-known bands with surprising ease. He even offers up the theory that David Bowie’s 1972 Ziggy Stardust documentary is almost unwatchable because he and his friends stole a bunch of essential camera equipment before filming began. Stealing, like many things, became a compulsion for Jones. Of course, he wasn’t always successful at it, and began to build up a pretty impressive rap sheet, so it’s probably a good thing that music gave him a way out. I guess old habits are hard to break though, and after the Pistols’ break-up he found himself pilfering purses on the streets of New York in the early-’80s just to get by. I wish he delved a little deeper into these lean years, since New York was such a crazy and dangerous place at the time – especially in the Lower East Side, where he took up among the burgeoning New York Hardcore scene – but, given that he was in the throes of a serious heroin addiction, I imagine his memory of events isn’t great more than thirty-five years later. The story has a happy ending, with Jones, now 61 years old, living in Los Angeles and hosting a successful radio show, Jonesy’s Jukebox, where he entertains listeners with candid interviews and free-form playlists. Lonely Boy proves what his radio listeners already knew – he’s got more than his share of amazing stories, and an ability to tell them with wit and a survivor’s sense of perspective, all of which make the book almost impossible to put down. In fact, I happily devoured the whole thing on a L.A.-to-New York flight, where it all but made time fly.

Finding Joseph I: An Oral History of H.R. From Bad Brains by Howie Abrams and James Lathos (Lesser Gods)

I saw H.R. (aka Human Rights, born Paul Hudson) do a show at Tramps in New York sometime around 1997-’98, and it was one of the strangest, and most frustrating, concerts I’ve ever witnessed. I didn’t know much about his solo work, and was just going to see “the guy from Bad Brains”, figuring he’d be playing that kind of music. I couldn’t have been more wrong. After making the crowd wait for over an hour, H.R. took the stage, using the opening act as his backing band, for a set of decent reggae that I don’t remember much about anymore, except that the guy on stage had very little in common with the guy I thought I was seeing. H.R. was a legendary performer – like an exploding firecracker in concert, but the guy I saw was placid and distant, like he was on another plane from the rest of us. A year or so later, I had the opportunity to see him at Irving Plaza with the reformed Bad Brains – or Soul Brains as they were now being called because H.R. decided he didn’t like the negative connotations of the word “bad” anymore. “OK,” I thought, “forget about that other show. This is the almighty Bad Brains – the real deal revolutionary punk rock I’ve always wanted to experience.” Nope. The band sounded great, but the H.R. was, yet again, a shell of his former self, barely putting any effort into his singing, and standing almost perfectly still. Did he not want to be there? Was his relationship with the band bad? Had he lost his mind? 

Ever since these disappointing shows I’ve wondered what happened to cause the man to undergo this transformation. Was it simply mental illness, or was there something deeper that caused him to turn his back on everything fans loved him for. Author, and long-time New York Hardcore fan, Howie Abrams teamed with James Lathos (who recently released a documentary on H.R., also titled Finding Joseph I) on this oral history which delves into H.R’s unique psyche, and help fans understand some of the things – though not everything – that made him who he is today. The book doesn’t have input from some important folks (bandmates Dr. Know and Daryl Jennifer are missed) but the authors get some fascinating stories from his brother Earl, childhood friends, and tons of other musicians he’s encountered and inspired over the years. And it’s fascinating. In fact, I read the whole damn thing in under 24 hours, completely unable to put it down once I’d been hooked. The book is great because H.R. is such a complex character that it often reads like three different biographies rolled into one. You get the musical innovator whose band single-handedly ignited entire hardcore punk scenes in Washington D.C. and New York, the deeply spiritual Rastafarian who left punk for reggae, and the latter-day H.R., exhibiting increasingly bizarre behavior and living semi-homeless after sabotaging multiple chances at commercial success. While the book covers a lot of hard times – and it’s undeniably frustrating to see someone as talented as H.R. sink deeper and deeper into mental illness – the story has a nice ending, with the singer happier and healthier than he’s been in a long time, thanks to a new wife who has been getting him the medical and psychiatric attention he’s needed for a long time. Needless to say, if you like punk rock, this is an essential read.

Heavy Metalloid Music: The Story Of Simply Saucer by Jesse Locke (Eternal Cavalier)

Books about underground bands like The Velvet Underground, Big Star, MC5 or The Stooges usually create the impression they were so far ahead of their time that nobody appreciated them when they were around. Reading Jesse Locke’s book on Simply Saucer made me realize just how lucky those groups actually were. True, they didn’t have the level of success they deserved, but at least they had the advantage of operating out hip urban centers that gave them access to major label deals, tours and support from the music press. Playing psychedelically-charged proto-punk in early-’70s Hamilton, Ontario (a place I can’t even point to on a map – though that may say more about me than Ontario) made Simply Saucer perennial outsiders. Even though they had serious songwriting chops and an exciting experimental edge, there just wasn’t any kind of local network for them to tap into. Without the opportunity to catch the ear of a clued-in benefactor like a Danny Fields, Lester Bangs, David Bowie or Andy Warhol, Simply Saucer never toured, never put out an album (their only official release until 1989 was a highly-unrepresentative 7″ single), and made such a faint impression that for about a decade after they broke up it was almost like they never existed. However, no matter how deep it’s buried, good music always finds a way to surface given time, and 1989’s posthumous compilation Cyborgs Revisited finally gave the world a much needed document of what the band were capable of. If you haven’t heard it, track it down.

Jesse Locke’s book, named after a phrase singer Edgar Breau used to introduce the live version of their song “Illegal Bodies” heard on Cyborgs Revisited, charts Simply Saucer’s silent explosion, with a well-researched band history from formation up through the past decade since they re-launched in 2006. Locke covers those musically vital early years with fascinating stories of drugs, personal battles, strange performances and crazy bohemian lifestyles – the kind of stuff you’ve come to expect from a worthwhile rock bio. He certainly gets much deeper into their history than I could when I interviewed Edgar Breau a few years back. But perhaps most interesting is the way Locke documents how Simply Saucer’s legend stayed alive after they broke up in 1979, through a small but fervent network of musicians and tape-trading record geeks who, once they heard the band’s mid-’70s demos and live performances, were compelled to spread the word to like-minded peers. With the band’s best music now properly preserved, the future is looking up for Simply Saucer. In addition to Heavy Metalloid Music, there’s a documentary film and a 2cd reissue of Cyborgs Revisited on In The Red Records both promised for 2017. Perhaps they’ll finally get some of the acclaim they should’ve had over 40 years ago. Better late than never.

Harley Flanagan – Hardcore: Life Of My Own (Feral House)

Image result for hardcore life of my own
In recent years there’s been a consistent stream of books, movies, and TV shows covering the vibrant New York music scene of the 1970s and 1980s, and just as many about the crime and violence happening on those same gritty streets. People usually get it all wrong <cough> Vinyl <cough>, but Harley Flanagan’s autobiography, Hardcore: Life Of My Own, gets it all too right. While I personally find his bands (Cro-Mags, Stimulators and Harley’s War) more historically important than enjoyable, Flanagan was one of the few New Yorkers who were neck deep in music and the street life, and his book recalls both in vivid, and often frightening, detail – like it really was, completely unromanticized. Born to an alcoholic, but nurturing, mother and a criminal/addict father who left the family early on, Harley’s life was insane, pretty much from the start. While most kids were playing ball, he was seeing shows at Max’s Kansas City at six (his mother worked there), publishing a book of poems at nine with a forward by family-friend Allen Ginsburg, living a nomadic life in Europe with his mother, and drumming in a Danish punk band at age ten. Things only got crazier from there, as Flanagan – now a skinhead – and his mother moved back to Alphabet City when it was a modern-day wild west. With constant pressure from locals who didn’t like the “crazy-looking” punks invading their neighborhood, he dropped out of school at fourteen and hit the streets hard. There his life was a daily routine of drugs, alcohol, beat-downs, and crime as he struggled to simply stay alive amidst a minefield of gangs, rival punks, and even a shotgun-wielding hitman in a pig mask out to collect a bounty on him. It was an ugly life, and the teenage Flanagan was a vicious street rat with no redeeming qualities other than the fact he could play an instrument, though I have no idea how he found time to practice and write with all the chaos around him. As bad as things got for him, and they got god-awful, you cannot turn away from the hundreds of pages of fascinating stories from an era of New York that no longer exists (which is probably for the best, though people like to wax poetic about the old days). Harley writes about squatting in an abandoned San Francisco brewery, living with a pair of violent satanic Nazi skinheads (!) in Canada, and his career in music, of course. While the whole book has tremendous visceral impact, I keep thinking a chapter on the 1990s where he tells readers he left out a lot of details because he doesn’t want his kids reading it. In a book where he cops to about fifty crimes, freely uses the word “fag”, recounts incidents when he punched a girl in the face, and performed at a Nazi skinhead concert (to be fair he didn’t know what it was until he got there – though he still played), the notion that there’s stuff so bad he doesn’t want his kids reading it is frightening. Thankfully, the book has a happy ending, with Flanagan, now 49 and a parent of two, putting his wild days behind him and finding a new career teaching Jiu-Jitsu to children (including Anthony Bourdain’s – he returns the favor by writing the forward). Throughout the book he often says “I could probably write a whole book just on this part of my life”, and based on what I’ve read, I 100% believe him. In fact, I want him to! I also want a “where are they now” section dedicated to all the crazy characters he ran with over the years. Don’t be surprised if Hardcore: A Life Of My Own gets made into a film or TV series somewhere down the road. In fact, I’ll be disappointed if it isn’t. Fascinating stuff.

My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor by Keith Morris and Jim Ruland (Da Capo Press)

Keith Morris isn’t the kind of guy you expect to write an autobiography. The introspection and sheer volume of commitment needed to recap sixty-plus years of living didn’t seem possible from a guy best known for writing 50-second songs about getting fucked up and breaking stuff. However, he and co-writer Jim Ruland have done the work, and the resulting book is a joy. Although Keith’s best-known for fronting Black Flag and The Circle Jerks in the late-’70s and early-’80s, their stories are already so well-documented elsewhere that it’s Morris’ life before and after that era I found the most interesting. He paints a vivid portrait of his participation in ’70s beach-burnout culture, ’80s Hollywood glitz’n’glamour (including parties with Motley Crue and a crack-smoking session with David Lee Roth!) and the ’90s alternative rock explosion, and how all those things shaped the man he is today. It’s especially interesting to hear the Morris of today – sober, wiser, moral – reflect back on his wild years, and he’s got a good sense of humor about it all now that it’s in his rear-view mirror. My Damage isn’t just a collection of drink and drug stories though. Morris also lets readers in on the hard times he’s endured, from career lulls, battles with diabetes and, worst of all, business dealings with Greg Ginn. Unfortunately My Damage has no passages about how a white guy in his sixties maintains such lengthy dreadlocks – a missed opportunity in my opinion. However, the book confirms what Keith Morris’ appearances in other media have led me to believe: he’s a funny and insightful guy who’s lived an interesting life, which makes for an excellent book.

Under The Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk by John Doe with Tom DeSavia and Friends (Da Capo Press)

I always imagined John Doe had a book somewhere in him waiting to be written. His band, X, were among the more literary-minded groups of the Los Angeles punk scene, and he met his future (now former) wife, and X co-leader, Exene Cervenka at a poetry workshop. Now that his book, Under The Big Black Sun, has finally arrived, I’m perplexed by it. The book’s purpose was, in the words of co-author Tom DeSavia, “for the true story of LA punk rock to be told” (note: it’s L.A. not LA – at least they got it right on the front cover), but it didn’t give me much new perspective outside of a better understanding of the influence Mexican culture had on punk, and the consistent reverence for unrecorded electro-punk innovators The Screamers. If you read We Got The Neutron Bomb, Get In The Van, American Hardcore, or any other books where Los Angeles’ punk scene is a player then you’ve pretty much heard it all before, and heard it told more coherently. Instead of a John Doe or X biography, Under the Big Black Sun collects passages written by L.A. punk musicians, writers, and scenesters, with only about 20% of its slim 250 pages written by Doe. I get the intended point: There’s no “one story” of Los Angeles’ punk. It was a multi-dimensional scene where characters as different as Jane Wiedlin (Go-Gos), Jack Grisham (T.S.O.L.) and Mike Watt (Minutemen) could all play important roles. However, with so many other prominent voices, Doe gets reduced to a bit player in his own book, which reads like a collection of sample chapters from a dozen different autobiographies. The good news is that, based on the chapters here, most of those autobiographies would be tremendous (sign me up for Jane Weidlin, Jack Grisham and Chris D. of the Flesh Eaters – Watt’s would be good too, though his rambling jazzbo style would probably make my head hurt over hundreds of pages). Taken chapter by chapter, Under The Big Black Sun is wildly entertaining, but doesn’t really add up to a satisfying whole. Oh, and X’s drummer of almost 40 years, DJ Bonebrake, is called DJ Bonebreak in a photo caption – a mistake somebody should have caught.

Sound Man by Glyn Johns (Blue Rider Press)

If you grew up listening to music before the digital age made packaging obsolete, you’ve probably seen the name Glyn Johns on the back of some of your favorite records. He’s recorded, mixed or produced just about all the big names in rock like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Dylan, Led Zeppelin, and The Eagles, to name a few from his fifty-year career behind the boards. Based on his accomplishments and the characters he’s crossed paths with, Johns’ autobiography should be an indispensable treasure trove of great stories and anecdotes from rock’s most vital period. Instead I find it dull. Yes he was there, and yes, he played an important role in shaping the sound of classic rock; but his way of recounting events is so dry and emotionless that it’s hard to care. Johns wrote Sound Man – the title perhaps a play on his “normalcy” in a field dominated by insane characters – by himself, which was probably a mistake. It won’t take readers long to figure out he’s not a professional writer and that a co-author could have added some crucial spice to an otherwise bland read. They also could have recommended a normal-sized font instead of the squint-inducing one we’re stuck with. Johns also errs by only focusing on his best known musical activities, condensing the last thirty-five years down to just 40 pages. True, his output from that time was weak compared to the albums he worked on in the ’60s and ’70s, but this is supposed to be a biography, not a ‘greatest hits’. It might have been interesting to hear what it was like for him, given his extraordinary resume, to work on albums by forgotten C-level bands like Summerhill, Jackopierce and The Warm Jets. Unfortunately he doesn’t let us in on that…or much else.