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Dancing Barefoot: The Patti Smith Story

Dancing Barefoot: The Patti Smith Story

by Dave Thompson

Chicago Review Press

I’ve said my piece about Dave Thompson’s writing before — if you want it done fast, boilerplate-style, before the craze dies down, you give this man a ring — but with subject matter as rich as Patti Smith, I had hoped this book would be more Number One Songs in Heaven (a very entertaining read) than his Red Hot Chili Peppers bio (’nuff said). I’d like to say that Dancing Barefoot is a fine piece of writing that ties together Smith’s career neatly and serves as an excellent bookend to Smith’s own, Just Kids, and Judy Linden’s photographic compendium, Patti Smith: 1969-1976, but as is often the case with Thompson, it’s complicated. Especially since Thompson tosses out whoppers like the claim that William S. Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch at the Chelsea Hotel (egads man, check yer fucking timeline) and wholesale lifts portions of Just Kids into his own work (with the net effect of making those chapters pointless to read if you’ve already read Kids). On the other hand, he gives quite a bit of pagespace to Patti’s usually overlooked post-“retirement” life/work, scores interviews with key members of the Patti Smith Group, and calls bullshit, when necessary, on peccadilloes like Smith’s later albums and her tendency to freeze out other female musicians in her youth. So it’s a mixed bag. Okay, he’s done his research, listened to the bootlegs, and read the magazines (and pulls quotes from ’em like a motherfucker!), so we get interesting revelations about her work with John Cale (circa Horses) and some brief glimpses into her life with soulmate Fred “Sonic” Smith, but on the other hand it reads like a damn press release too much of the time, and he just doesn’t dig deeper when the story gets interesting. Like when her longtime collaborator (and lover? What ho, I’d never heard that!) Oliver Ray suddenly dropped out of her band and life, Thompson closes the case with something to the effect of, “We’ll never know why he left.” You can almost picture him dusting his hands off. Good lord man, isn’t it your job to even look into that lil’ wrinkle?

Thompson dutifully follows the arc of Smith’s career from an impulsive move to New York City to the apogee of the Patti Smith Group with Horses and the birth of punk and then, less sexily/iconically, Smith’s gradual withdrawal from performance and immersion in domestic life. And finally, after a series of personal tragedies and deaths, a triumphant return to writing and singing. A return that continues to the present day.

I’m still gonna have to say that Victor Bockris’ Patti Smith: An Unauthorized Biography edges this one out, just by dint of Bockris’s writerly flair, and that he, unlike Thompson, doesn’t shy away from things like her crazy-ass “performance” at the Interzone Conference. But with that tome kinda hard to find right now, this may be Thompson’s moment… at least until Smith delivers on the promised second volume of her memoir.

Chicago Review Press: www.chicagoreviewpress.com

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Dance of Days

Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capitol

by Mark Anderson and Mark Jenkins

Akashic Press

For another writing gig, I was recently bemoaning the fact that this tome had fallen out of print. As a learning tool for those interested in independent/DIY culture and an oral history of a musical subculture, it was invaluable. Courtesy of Akashic Press, we now have an expanded and redesigned version of this book. Great news. Even better, it’s just as energizing as the first read. It’s fascinating to see how young the key players were when they did their most important work. What were YOU up to when you were 16?

What a group of youngsters in Washington DC did at that age was kickstart the next iteration of punk rock (hardcore, straight edge, etc), and play a major role in the birth of the American musical underground — a loose network of clubs, radio shows, fanzines, and bands that existed completely outside of the major label system and provided a breeding ground for the most exciting and cutting-edge music of the day. Dance of Days covers the years 1979 to 1994 (in the aftermath of the Nirvana “alternative” feeding frenzy), from Teen Idles to Minor Threat to Fugazi, to put it glibly. But Ian McKaye, Jeff Nelson, Brian Baker, and Lyle Preslear of Minor Threat were only a part of a fiercely independent and energetic music scene. Dance of Days is the story of bands/labels as disparate as Lungfish, Bad Brains, Positive Force, Riot Grrrl, Simple Machines Records, Henry Rollins, Rites of Spring, Iron Cross, Fire Party, and Holy Rollers. This is just one fucking city!

The organizing principle for this book, and I didn’t even catch this the first time I read it, is the parallel rise of Minor Threat/Fugazi and the fall of Bad Brains. It’s a classic case of pupil outstripping the master (Bad Brains were mentors to a young Minor Threat), made all the more tragic by Bad Brains’ inspirational frontman HR’s slow decline into drugs and, quite possibly, madness. Bad Brains were never able to capitalize on their initial flashpoint of brilliance and inspiration, while Ian MacKaye went from strength to strength, Minor Threat to Dischord Records to the fiery Fugazi.

There were downsides to this subculture/movement. There was elitism and cliqueishness both unconscious and conscious. Artsy acts like Fire Party and Black Market Baby felt that they were snubbed and robbed their rightful place in the DC Scene by the Dischord faction (a criticism, incidentally, that could be leveled at this very book). The gang mentality of early acts like Minor Threat-SOA came back to bite them in the ass later on when hardcore descended into a mindless violence and thuggery that they could never quite shake. And it was bleakly funny to read about the sniping that Fugazi were subjected to by former comrades as they got more successful, even though they still held themselves to almost ludicrously high standards. Whether it was Riot Grrrls questioning their commitment to feminism, “fans” excoriating them as sellouts when a Ticketmaster service fee raised their ticket price from $5 to $6.25, or the members of a political group that Fugazi donated money to turning around and blasting them for putting a UPC sticker on their album. As idealistic as punk can be, it can just as easily descend into a Mean Girls-esque high school cafeteria. Of course, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get out there and do it anyway.

Akashic: www.akashicbooks.com

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Print Reviews

Grunge Is Dead

Grunge Is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music

by Greg Prato

ECW Press

Despite almost being hobbled right out of the gate by a pedestrian cover that makes it look like a quickie “Sounds of Seattle” chord book and weirdly giganto-sized text on the inside, you really have to look beyond the presentation here, for content is king. Author Prato works from a very gutsy premise — that the Seattle “grunge” scene of the late ’80s/early ’90s was in its own way as important as the New York punk scene of the late ’70s. To that end, Prato gives grunge the full Legs McNeil, gathering up all the major players in the Seattle saga, large and small, for a Pacific Northwest edition of Please Kill Me. Fans and concertgoers (interesting gambit) share talking-head duties with members of marquee bands like Soundgarden, Mudhoney and Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, while club owners, label impresarios like Bruce Pavitt, Slim Moon, Jonathan Poneman and Daniel House, artists, managers, producers like Jack Endino, and pioneer bands like Mother Love Bone, Tad, Melvins, and Fastbacks fill in the rest of the blanks.

Everyone involved holds forth in a surprisingly candid manner, considering not all the bodies are buried yet, and at least half of the interviewees are still active artists, laughing and crying and reminiscing fondly and still a little shocked that everything exploded in the way it did, and all the tragedy that eventually overtook the scene. Most entertaining nod goes to Mark Arm, cult figure supreme/frontman of Green River/Thrown Ups/Mudhoney, with a close runner up being Jeff Ament, bassist for Green River/Mother Love Bone/Pearl Jam/Deranged Diction. In fact, it’s a pretty major coup to get the likes of Eddie Vedder, Ament and Stone Gossard, still pretty fresh off the Pearl Jam press blackout. But it’s mutually beneficial, they share their side of the story, and there’s a lot of history to tell, and they get their still somewhat spurious rep burnished by the likes of Arm telling a story about how after touring with both Nirvana and Pearl Jam, it was Pearl Jam who seemed more independent and in control of their own destiny. Elsewhere Duff McKagan gets his historical due, beyond just bleach blonde GNR knucklehead to punk rapscallion and scenester extraordinaire, as a member of Fastbacks, Ten Minute Warning and the Fartz.

The sordid story is told in full, from all sides — artist, promoter, consumer. And it’s an entertaining story, full of black humor and pathos about how an unlikely city’s music scene basically slipped on a banana peel right into the manhole of popular consciousness. If you ever thought Sub Pop’s Pavitt and Poneman had a grand plan, they themselves, along with insiders like Tad Doyle, Daniel House and Kim Thayll are quick to discount that notion. I don’t need to remind you of the particulars of Soundgarden, Nirvana and the house that Sub Pop built — if the book just retold that yet again, it would be worthless. It’s the human anecdotes that make this book — whether it’s a bunch of Seattle hipsters going to see the first Seattle gig of “Duff’s new band” (Guns N’ Roses) and ending up horrified, Andrew Wood dressing up in KISS makeup and pointing to imaginary balconies full of fans in dive bars, Pearl Jam and Mudhoney deciding not to do a Green River reunion as an encore because they remembered how much their music “sucked,” Soundgarden having the most passive aggressive band breakup ever, or Tad getting the shit sued out of themselves repeatedly, for unfortunate choices of cover art — it’s the stuff that Woody Allen films, and Spinal Tap songs would beg for.

Some parts of “the story” don’t get the attention they deserve. For instance, Everett True’s recent Nirvana biography captured the more slapstick/art-pranks side of Seattle music, like the Thrown Ups and Tad’s outrageous antics. Though, to be fair, relevant members of each outfit are given copious interview time. As is Blag Jesus/Dahlia, the inimitable frontman of one of only two bands who’ve ever scared the shit out of me live (the other was David Yow, and the runner up was Leslie Rankine from Silverfish), who’s just gloriously contemptuous and contrarian about every bit of conventional wisdom about Seattle music (like, Nirvana was good, etc). And there’s just this uncomfortably mawkish chapter of reminiscences of Kurt Cobain (and then Layne Staley) that almost torpedoes the whole book, until Dahlia swoops in and shits on everyone’s fond memories. Oddly, a similar chapter about Andrew Wood is much better.

If you’re into oral histories — and you should be, Studs Terkel knew what was up — this is probably the closest “grunge” will get to the definitive no-agenda record.

ECW Press: www.ecwpress.com