The Sound of Our Town (Book Review) by jgn on Monday, September 17, 2007 in Reading, Listening, and Reviews

Brett Milano, The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (2007). $24.95. [Amazon ]

Brett Milano, frequent contributor to the Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, and other publications, has written a great little history of Boston rock and roll. If you have friends who saw a lot of local music in the 60s, 70s, 80s, or 90s, this would be a wonderful holiday gift: Tell them to start with the chapters on their decades. The opening chapters are more straight history, and the latter are a bit more of a "scene" history with insider anecdotes and reports of famously-gossipped-about events. You'll learn something here about the key perfomers from the 50s to the present: Freddy Cannon, the Remains, the Lost, the "Bosstown Sound," Aerosmith, J. Geils, Boston, the Modern Lovers, the Mezz, the Real Kids, DMZ, the Lyres, Mission of Burma,the Throwing Muses, the Pixies, Dinosaur, Jr., Morphine, Buffalo Tom . . . they're all here. Much to Milano's credit, he doesn't fall prey to the mistake of Legs McNeil's Please Kill Me or Clinton Heylin's From the Velvets to the Voivoids which provide the scensters way too much leeway to alter history with varnished versions of what really happened. Milano also knows many of the people he reports on as friends, and he does a good job of telling a true story that is also not inflammatory or embarassing to its subjects.

One thing Milano tunes into that was plausible to me but not something I'd cough up if you asked me to characterize the Boston sound is that Boston bands have written a lot of sad songs. Occasionally Milano mentions New England weather and overcast skies. He's right. There is a real tradition of get-out-the-razorblades songs (many disguised with upbeat melodies).

There are some oddities: Salem 66 and November Group get their major mentions in the chapter on 1977-1980 (I guess because as gurls they get bundled in with Robin Lane and the Bristols, who are discussed in that era); the Neats are sadly neglected (a few brief mentions; they were terribly misunderstood and under-appreciated: I wish Milano had set the record straight here); ditto for Scruffy the Cat; Nat Freedberg doesn't really get as much attention as he deserves; and Milano uses the Turbines "Wah Hey" as a way to introduce a chapter, but you don't really get the details on why they were so compelling. But these are quibbles; having griped a bit here, there are bits that Milano gets so right. For example:

Most Lyres fans can recall the night they've dragged some music-snob friend, or maybe just a timid girlfriend to one of their less coherent shows and gotten only a puzzled look: you really think this could be one of Boston's greatest bands? Damn right they are. You just have to see them on a good night, when those elemental chords are pounded out like the future of civizilization depends on it. (p. 110) This is true. I was a lucky one who dragged someone to the Rat to see Lyres and they were spectucularly on and crazy, igniting a quasi-mosh pit frenzy. But talk about hit or miss . . . So everywhere in the book past 1980 or so Milano brings a valuable "you are there" perspective to what he narrates.

In fact, the book could (should?) have been twice as long, and I sincerely hope there will be a second edition (there has to be, right? Boston rock doesn't stop!). There are a lot of opportunities to "drill down" on individual bands. Take Dumptruck, for example: Milano calls it Seth Tiven's band (p. 190), but the shared leadership of Kirk Swan was crucial in their early years -- and I can recall stories of their origins in two New Haven kids trading licks in their bedrooms: How else could you get that kind of guitar interplay? I am sure there was a page limit Milano was fighting against. Just for example, Milano touches on Big Dipper, but never mentions the connection to the Embarrassment; that's a flaw, because there are going to be readers who are catching up on the Boston scene who know well the Embarrassment's importance in mid-America. Yet another thing that would have helped would be to have given the street addresses of the clubs that have disappeared: Milano mentions the Unicorn, which was near the Pru. Really? Wow. Where!?

Also missing from this volume is a discographical essay. Brett! This is your chance to sort through it all and pick and choose and help out all of us hopeless record collector slime! An annotated discography would be a great thing (maybe one could be written for the book's web site?); an accompanying CD would be even better.

The last thing I wish could appear in an expanded edition would be a "where are they now" section. Just for example, it has always pained me that people are still toiling away on the local scene with only occasional but sometimes astounding appearances (e.g., the Bags) -- a word or two about how they're still getting out there, what their day jobs are: That's real life, and it has a place in a book that is so generous about the scene.

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