|04.09.22|| The second in a planned trilogy of NYC music books, this is an oral history of the NYC punk scene throughout the 70s. It's also largely regarded as one of the best oral histories ever written, as well as maybe the book that popularized the format? In any case, this book is an absolute monster.
For starters, I was initially hesitant to get into this because it's a genre of music that, while I don't dislike punk music, has never been my favorite. Furthermore, I was a little confused because the book proclaims to be the uncensored history of "punk" but it's mostly all about NYC and one of the writers wrote for a magazine called Punk. Before reading, I was firmly under the impression that punk as a thing popped up a little in The Ramones but mostly in Britain with Sex Pistols... so I wasn't sure if this book was about the magazine or what.
So... as this book portrays, punk rock is firmly an advent of NYC, but it wasn't until Sex Pistols that it became codified and associated with the mohawks and safety pins and all that. And while this book did fully include the Sex Pistols in its narrative, that's mostly where it ends, with nary a mention of punk scenes in any other cities, how punk became post-punk, or anything after that. It doesn't even really mention any non-punk bands who happened to be in the same place at the same time. Blondie's in here a little bit and Talking Heads are maybe mentioned once or twice but the book really focuses on The Velvet Underground, The MC5, Iggy & the Stooges, The New York Dolls, Television, Patti Smith, The Ramones, The Dead Boys, and The Sex Pistols. I guess it's arguable that these are the only bands that need focusing on to tell this story? I also guess I'm writing this much about the focus of the book because it's the only thing that didn't exceed my expectations here. I didn't entirely get the exhaustive dissection of how punk rock formed anywhere but NYC.
What I DID get however, was a book full of absolutely amazing anecdotes. I feel like most of the oral histories that I've read in the past, I've chosen to read them because they deal in subject matter that I like. They either revolve around a movie or a TV show or something where I'm already familiar with everyone being interviewed. This book has probably the lowest ratio of people I was already familiar with. Yes, I knew who Iggy Pop and Lou Reed are, but I couldn't tell you the entire line-up of the Velvet Underground. I couldn't even tell you which Ramone was which... much less the multitude of other people they talked to: label people, friends, roadies, groupies, managers, friends, etc. The Cast of Characters chapter is like 20 pages long, but also interestingly includes people talked about, not just people we hear from directly.
What I'm taking a while getting at is that this book is about a scene I had relatively shallow knowledge on, so I didn't have much prior knowledge to carry context with while reading. Like, I very often didn't know or remember who the person was while I read what they said. So it's a real testament to how good this book is that stuff like that didn't matter.
I think this book has some of the most batshit extreme excess interview footage I've ever read. Like I can't believe these people said this stuff. It almost doesn't matter who's saying it because so much of it is so goddamn evocative. Of course I still wound up studying the photo sections over and over while reading and it does help to know "oh, it's the band's manager saying this" or whatever, but when they're talking about seeing their friend get stabbed to death by Puerto Ricans then get arrested and sent to jail for it, it's just crazy dangerous 70s NYC 100% pure uncut vibe boring into your brain.
Like, take The Ramones. You might watch their videos and think "wow, the story is Joey the singer. He's so tall and strange and he's putting this doo-wop Beach Boys vocals set to these grinding guitars" but Joey's barely in this book. Instead, it's tons and tons about Dee Dee, and you realize the REAL story about the Ramones is ALL about Dee Dee! Dee Dee's story is insane! From hustling on the street to the truckload of drugs and violence he's seen and all this stuff... so in that regard I feel like the book knows its shit. It knows where the story is and you're along for the ride, but boy is that ride bumpy.
Basically, every single person in this book fucked and did drugs with everyone else.
And talking to the groupies was another trip. I always got the sense that most groupies were either like how the "band aids" in Almost Famous where they were all about the band and the sex was like this unspoken PG-rated thing that just came along with the gig or it was like a regrettable phase in young lady's lives that they'd rather not talk about. But no, here we're talking post-pill, pre-aids 70s where everyone is young and passionate and drunk or high all the time. These women, "famous" groupies like Bebe Buell, talks about falling in love with all these people and really wanting them physically. They were liberated, rebellious, and a vibrant part of what was happening. Although I guess, funnily enough, the Almost Famous Band-Aids were based on women interviewed in this book. haha.
So, purely by the quality of words presented in these pages, I feel like this book has to be the best oral history I've read. Even though i still don't love the music as much as say LCD Soundsystem, I feel like these interviews are just so good that I really felt like I was there... but not in a descriptive way where I could smell the piss in the CBGBs bathroom but more of a personality way like I could just imagine walking into Max's and seeing the usual suspects at various tables drinking and hanging out and nodding along to whatever's playing.
And on one final morbid note. I read the 20th Anniversary edition of this book, where it was noted that a good 40-some interview subjects had passed away since the book's initial 1996 publication. So reading through the cast of characters takes on a Jim Carrol vibe where each person has their cause of death listed. I suppose it's one final reminder that these people really lived the fuck out of their lives and few stuck around long enough to get old, which is just about as close to the theme of the book as you can get.
Like I said, this is a monster of a book.|