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) live at Tramps in New York sometime around 1997-’98, and it was one of the strangest, and most frustrating concerts I’ve ever seen. 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 after his opening band finished H.R. took the stage, using the opening act as his backing band. They played a set of decent reggae that I don’t remember much about, except that the guy on stage had very little in common with the guy I thought I would be 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. 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 mostly 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 caused this transformation. Was it simply mental illness, or was there something deeper that made H.R. 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 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 today thanks to a new wife who has been getting him the medical and psychiatric attention he’s needed for a long time. 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 100% right. While his bands (Cro-Mags, Stimulators and Harley’s War) aren’t my thing, Flanagan was one of the few New Yorkers who was 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 mix 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, 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 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”, and recounts performing 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.

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 Mexican culture’s influence 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 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 The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Dylan, Led Zeppelin, and The Eagles, to name a few giants 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 writing voice 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. A co-author could have added some crucial spice to an otherwise bland read, and 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 of his career down to just 40 pages. True, his output from that time doesn’t compare 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.

Brian Jones: The Making Of The Rolling Stones by Paul Trynka (Viking Press)

Writing the definitive biography of a multi-dimensional personality like Brian Jones isn’t easy, and a look through Amazon tells me that many authors have tried. However Paul Trynka is the right guy for the job, having already penned great biographies of David Bowie and Iggy Pop, two similarly larger-than-life figures. I haven’t read any previous Jones bios, but Trynka claims to have unearthed some new important details in Jones’ life story, which makes the book unique. Plus he avoids getting caught up in the cheap “was he murdered?” sensationalism previous books have leaned heavily on – in fact, he doesn’t think Jones was murdered and even debunks some of the popular theories on Jones’ death. Trynka also paints a vivid portrait of Jones’ life leading up to the Stones, including his fractured relationship with his parents, his pre-Stones career (including years of performing live), and fathering four children with four different women – three before he was famous! There’s also tremendous insight into life in The Rolling Stones’ camp during those formative years, when Jones was their leader – the guy who had the creativity and experience to drive the rest of the band (who were relative amateurs). He paints a pretty ugly picture of the band’s relationships with one another, with sexual one-upmanship, constant jockeying for position in the press and a myriad of petty barbs all a part of daily life. He even suggests that Mick and Keith’s eventual dislike for Brian may have stemmed from him making a measly 5 pounds more per week than the rest of the band early on. Lastly, he illustrates quite well how that ugly side of the band caused Mick and Keith to push Brian to the sidelines once they became more confident in their own abilities, a practice which continues to this very day as they regularly minimize his considerable contributions with a series of misremembered facts and outright lies. It’s an interesting and often revelatory read.
Seemingly mandatory rock-bio fact-checking oversight: Trynka mentions that Jones recorded a soundtrack in to German director Volker Schlondorff’s Mord un Totschlag in 1967, referring to the film as Schlondorff’s follow-up to The Tin Drum. The Tin Drum wasn’t filmed until almost a decade after Brian Jones died.

33 1/3: Gang Of Four – Entertainment! by Kevin J. H. Dettmar (Bloomsbury)

Entertainment! is an album tailor-made for a 33 1/3 dissection. Not only did Gang of Four’s debut contort the excitement of punk rock into new shapes through funk and reggae, but it’s also dense with lyrical commentary on consumerism, alienation, and sexism. Yet somehow, Kevin J.H. Dettmar’s book falls flat. The problem is that Dettmar concentrates so heavily on the lyrical commentary, and tackles it in such an academic way, that the book feels like classwork and not a pleasure. Sample sentence:

“Whereas one of the signal accomplishments of cultural studies has been the destruction of the convenient binary opposition between “consumer” and “producer”: consumption is not an entirely passive process, we now realize, but an activity involving real choices and creativity.”

So, are we having fun yet? I wouldn’t mind the scholarly tone if the book provided new insights into the album, but it didn’t enhance my understanding or appreciation for Entertainment!. Without that, there isn’t much about it to recommend.

33 1/3: Richard Hell & The Voidoids – Blank Generation by Pete Astor (Bloomsbury)

You may know Pete Astor as the singer for The Loft and Weather Prophets, two rather likable bands from the early years of Creation Records. Well, in addition to his credentials as a performer, he also gives lectures on Musicology at the University of Westminster, so he understands rock from an academic perspective as well as a visceral one. This makes him just about the perfect person to write a book on Blank Generation, an album that brilliantly combined the intelligence of Hell’s poetry with the rebellious force of rock music. Astor comes through big time here, telling personal stories of Hell and the album, while also explaining the influences that made Blank Generation such a powerful statement, musically, lyrically, and aesthetically. Personally, I’ve loved the album since I first heard it fifteen years ago, and even though I’ve read Hell’s autobiography and countless other books on New York punk, Astor adds new information and perspective to the story. Take the album’s title song for example, an often misunderstood punk classic, which I never realized was a combination of the chords from Ray Charles “Hit The Road Jack,” and the ideas from a novelty single called “I Belong To The Beat Generation,” purposefully re-designed to make a statement similar to The Who’s “My Generation.” The book also gives just due to guitarists Ivan Julian & Robert Quine, along with drummer Marc Bell, who all had a crucial role in enhancing Hell’s visions with their own unique and actually quite accomplished way of playing. Astor recounts their pre-Voidoids resumes as well, letting you know that these were no punk amateurs. As with any volume of the 33 1/3 series, the book’s success lies squarely on whether it makes you think differently about the album and listen to it again with fresh ears – and it does both.

33 1/3: Can – Tago Mago by Alan Warner (Bloomsbury)

Alan Warner’s book provides some information about Can and the recording of their brilliant 1971 double-LP Tago Mago, but mostly it’s about Warner’s teenaged path to acquiring and understanding the album. Growing up in late ’70s rural Scotland, his exposure to new music was limited to whatever was available at the local record store or the record collections of friends and family. There weren’t many ways to find anything outside the mainstream, but after discovering punk Warner stumbled on an NME interview with Johnny Rotten where Can was mentioned as an influence. This sparked something inside him and he set off on a quest to acquire their music, without knowing what they sounded like or which albums were the “ones to get”. While this innocent small-scale exploration hardly puts him in league with Vasco de Gama, it’s a reminder of what it was like to be a young person with a curiosity for music before the internet gave us access to whatever/whenever. I’m just old enough to remember what that was like and found myself relating closely to the story, even smiling at the book’s notion that, if your local record store didn’t carry a record, you might not even know it existed. Good stuff.