Black Postcards (Book Review) by jgn on Sunday, March 16, 2008 in Reading, Listening, and Reviews

Dean Wareham, Black Postcards: A Rock & Rock Romance (2008). $25.95. [Amazon Ir?t=jgn09 20&l=ur2&o=1]

This is Dean Wareham's story of his experience as the lead singer and principal songwriter of two of indie rock's greatest bands, Galaxie 500 and Luna. It's a memoir told in historical sequence, and seems to pretty honest (for a lead singer/songwriter . . .) about the joys and miseries of collaboration in music. If you have even passing interest in either of those two bands, you must read this book. If you're interested in indie rock from the 80s and 90s, you'll enjoy it as well; he relates provocative stories about Damon and Naomi (the rhythm section, and much more, for Galaxie 500 and beyond), the producers Kramer and Tony Visconti, the scenester Terry Tolkin, and many others. It's also a good read if you've wanted proof of intelligence out there in rock world. It's well written, and frequently droll. Wareham has a nice stylistic tic of deflating a phony with the final sentence in a paragraph:

Neil Hagerty of Pussy Galore was hanging around during our sound check. I'm not sure what he was doing at CBGB at five in the afternoon, but he seemed to be out of it on smack. His eyes were pinned and he stood by the side of the stage, scratching his legs and telling about the suede pants that he had picked up on the street for $5. Admittedly, that is a very good price for suede pants. (p. 58)

For each band there is a narrative arc from inception though self-discovery and self-knowledge, down to acrimony, depression, and boredom. A parallel story is how it has become increasingly hard since the 80s to stick out from the crowd even if your band is great, and to make any decent money -- Wareham tells this story with frequent acknowledgement that with the advent of digital music downloads, you just can't get the big advances anymore. And by "big advance," we mean: Big enough to live without constant touring. There are incidental comments along the way about the awful economics of rock nowadays: For instance, clubs will ask for a cut of t-shirt sales (see pp. 290-291) . . . Now that's sick and greedy. There are loads of stories here about hotels and clubs all over the world, drugs, people lost all along the way: I've read a lot of rock books and Wareham's story of the routinization of road pleasures is perhaps the best. Wareham is good, too, about recovering details that were doubtless hugely significant in their moments: E.g., the relative merits of a Dodge Dart vs. a Datsun B-210.

A fair amount of the book is devoted to mentions of the decline of his marriage and his affair with Britta Phillips, a latter-day bass player for Luna; now, after Luna, Wareham is half of Dean and Britta. I won't spend much time on that here, but the emotional story is a bit thin for a memoir. Balancing this thinness, though, are copious quotes from the songs. So when you're wondering whether Wareham felt much about anything or anyone, it is worth pondering the lyrics he quotes near these scenes (which Wareham discusses on p. 259). Or, perhaps obviously, the true emotional story is about the "family romance" of being in a band: Wareham represents the two other band members in Galaxie 500 as acting like his parents (and thus making him yearn for a certain kind of freedom from them), and later acknowleges that break-up, and that of Luna, as a kind of divorce.

There's also some rock wisdom in these pages:

Good drummers tend to come from the suburbs. They have a distinct advantage--garages, basements, extra rooms--all things that are in short supply in New York City. (p. 119)

Towards the end:

You can generally add a star to the review if you announce that the band is breaking up. (p. 283)

I read this fine book on a plane to Arizona without access to my tunes; but the narrative is so compelling that I could hear them in my mind as I read.

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