By Liz Phair
New York Times Book Review, April 6, 2008
Freddie Mercury once said, “I want it all and I want it now.” This appetite might aptly be called the rock ‘n’ roll disease, and Dean Wareham seems to have caught it. Or is in recovery. Or is somewhere along the road. Part confessional, part unsentimental career diary, Wareham’s “Black Postcards: A Rock & Roll Romance” reads like good courtroom testimony: to the point, but peppered with juicy and unsolicited asides. Dominick Dunne would make sure his seat was saved before excusing himself to use the restroom.
Wareham is a respected cultural figure who cut a wide swath through the ’90s independent music scene both in America and in Europe, fronting such beloved bands as Luna and Galaxie 500 (though, in the case of Galaxie 500, this frontman status was deeply contested by his bandmates, accelerating the group’s eventual demise, which is captured hilariously in an anecdote at the beginning of the book). He portrays himself as a surprisingly unsympathetic character. He visits a prostitute. He makes people angry. He follows girls home after the show. He snorts coke. No apologies are made because this is, after all, a rock ‘n’ roll autobiography. Late nights, a lot of drugs, a little infidelity (well, maybe not just a little, but I won’t give away the ending) — that’s par for the course, right? His honesty is challenging and humbling. Yet, for an egghead (Wareham is a graduate of both the Dalton School, the progressive and prestigious Upper East Side preparatory academy, and Harvard) with an elective reading list to rival Art Garfunkel’s (Thomas Mann, Mark Twain, André Malraux, Nietzsche, to name a few), he seems perfectly happy to partake in whatever recreational opportunities come his way, with enviable disregard for the consequences. Guilty? Not guilty? What are we as a jury to think?
The facts, at least, are straightforward enough. Thanks to what must have been meticulously kept tour diaries, a rich harvest of the who, what, where and when of Wareham’s past makes up the bulk of his story. The heyday of alternative music was a heady time, and Wareham was at the heart of it. After the big business of arena rock trampled through pop culture in the 1980s, with its smoke pots and high ticket prices, a fresh crop of homegrown bands espousing the D.I.Y. ethos, culled from the underground punk scene, suddenly came into vogue. A countercultural wave with roots in political and social activism swept the nation, culminating in the enormous success of bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. These self-proclaimed nerds conquered the world for a time, making up in originality and earnestness what they lacked in glitz and swagger. It is the arc of their ascendancy and, at the end of the decade, inevitable decline that is documented so vividly in Wareham’s prose, from the point of view of an authentic creative force within this world.
Born in New Zealand in 1963 into a middle-class family, the second of four children, Wareham recalls a passion for music at a very young age, when he formed definitive opinions about records before he was even old enough to date:
“My father … brought home Nina Simone’s ‘Here Comes the Sun’, wherein Nina covers George Harrison and Bob Dylan and the Bee Gees, and delivers what I consider to be the greatest recorded version of ‘My Way’. Joe Cocker’s ‘Cocker Happy’ was also a favorite, with his stellar version of ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’, which he did far better than the Beatles.”
The author is nothing if not a connoisseur. But Wareham’s real gift is his ability to capture the minutiae of daily life in a rock ‘n’ roll band and somehow make it universal. It’s as if a curtain were brushed aside and we all got to go backstage and experience the lives of those who ran away to join the circus: we ride in buses, drive in vans, count T-shirts, bicker with our bandmates, play shows, get courted and booted by record labels, make albums, fall head over heels and, throughout, rub elbows with countless influential artists of the day, crisscrossing the globe in tour trajectories so overlapping and incestuous it makes you want to call in a band traffic controller just to keep all the names straight.
Filled with humor, Wareham’s memoir is fast-paced and memorable, peopled with characters you could find only in the music industry. There is Kramer, the irreverent producer/sound man/bass player who pals around with Dean and the band during a few Galaxie 500 tours. An avid stoner who records brilliant records at warp speed, Kramer is prone to jumping onstage during a set whether or not he is invited. His playful pranking endears him to Wareham, but falls flat with the rest of the band. The friendship between the two men echoes that of Jake Barnes and Bill Gorton in “The Sun Also Rises”, with Kramer as the oft-quipping Bill, and Dean, the taciturn Jake.
But not all the subplots in “Black Postcards” are so happy-go-lucky. One particularly unforgettable story involves the rags-to-riches-to-rags-again tale of a high-flying A & R executive at Elektra named Terry Tolkin, whose musical discernment never translated into the other areas of his life. Riding around in limousines, showing up late to work, throwing outrageous parties for artists and charging it all to the label, the surprisingly likable Terry finds himself on shaky ground as a corporate realignment threatens to squeeze him out of a job: “If he had signed just one platinum act, all would have been forgiven. Instead he gave them Luna, Stereolab and the Afghan Whigs.” Things go from bad to worse, until “Terry had lost his wife, which he pretended not to care about. Now he had lost his job. … Six months later he was working at a gas station in New Jersey, changing oil and brake liners by day, snorting heroin by night.”
One of the things “Black Postcards” does so well is shatter the illusion that rock ‘n’ roll is all fun and games. Things pile up. The weight of the accumulated past begins to take its toll. Wareham fights to stay engaged in his creative efforts, sometimes at the expense of the stability of both his family and his band. Sick of rumors, sick of disgruntled fans, bad hotels, bad gigs, he may be writing down his remembrances partly to set the record straight. But his supreme interest is clearly and purely music. It is the scaffold on which he hangs most of the feelings and fragments included in the book. Even his writing style has a rhythm to it: passages move rapidly back and forth between incident and impression, creating a kind of (I’m not kidding) rock ‘n’ roll. If the writing suffers from a tone of detachment throughout, the author is well aware of it. In fact, the long journey to inhabit the present is the book’s crowning sentiment. Comparing himself with his young son, Wareham tells his therapist about his struggle to be in the here and now:
“‘Jack has this incredible ability to enjoy the moment,’ I told Bernie. ‘He’s always smiling and laughing and having a good time, while I’m sad about the past and worried about the future. …’
“‘You’re pissing on the present.'”
“‘If you have one foot in the past and one in the future, then you’re pissing on the present.'”
The day of reckoning comes when Wareham is forced to face a crossroads of his own making. Having just left his wife, he sees his son out with the nanny on the street but cannot approach him because he cannot find the words to explain why he will no longer be living at home:
“I gathered myself and walked down Crosby Street, through SoHo, across Canal Street and back to my studio, where I rolled on the floor and sobbed again. Strange sounds came out of my throat, from deep down inside — guttural, primal noises that I didn’t know were in me. But they were there.”
Liz Phair’s albums include Exile in Guyville, Liz Phair and, most recently, Somebody’s Miracle.
By the Editors
The New York Times, April 6, 2008
Fifteen years ago, Liz Phair released a remarkable debut album, “Exile in Guyville,” on an indie label and wound up on the cover of Rolling Stone. Her mother had envisioned a different kind of success, naming her Elizabeth Clark Phair because she thought that would make a good byline in The New Yorker.
“Poor thing,” her daughter said in an e-mail message. “She got a potty-mouthed rock star instead.” Phair, who reviews Dean Wareham’s rock ’n’ roll memoir, “Black Postcards”, in this issue, still seems like a bit of an exile in her mostly male world. She admitted to feeling “vulnerable” in dingy clubs “where guy rockers seem to feel at home and safe”, adding: “All the cables, amps, road cases, etc. are basically intimidating to me. I don’t know what they do, I can’t lift them and they only come in one color: black. I don’t have tattoos, I don’t wear heavy makeup or feel cool and knowledgeable about music. My rock comes from the inside, from emotions; it could be equally well conveyed if I were just to stand on a street corner and scream.”
Phair, who lives in Los Angeles with her 11-year-old son, has “five jobs and no baby sitter”. She’s recording a new album, making a documentary about Exile in Guyville, working as a scorer on the CBS drama “Swingtown” and finishing a book (“fiction, not memoir”). She’ll also be appearing on a kids’ record called “The Body Rocks” — “an educational disc about the human body on which I sang crazy ’70s-style backup vocals, and for which I have become an animated character: rock nurse with guitar!”