No. 58: ’90s Alt-Rock Memoirs

Dec 15th, 2008 // 11 Comments

There was a whole lot of ’90s nostalgia this year (no, this is not the last time 80 ’08 (and Heartbreak) will be addressing it), and it’s fair to say that the recent spate of one-hit ’90s alt-rockers penning memoirs of their times in the major-label alternative trenches (almost called this one “Indie-Rock Memoirs” until I remembered my own modest proposal from a while back) isn’t exactly new. In fact, Jacob Slichter, drummer for Semisonic (“Closing Time,” No. 1 Modern Rock, 1998), kicked it off in 2005 with his wry So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star.

The baton was taken up again in 2007 with three more books. Published in the UK only (and out in the US this year in paperback) was Bit of a Blur, by Alex James, bassist for the just-reunited Blur (“There’s No Other Way,” No. 5 Modern Rock, 1991; “Girls and Boys,” No. 4 Modern Rock, 1994; “Song 2,” No. 6 Modern Rock, 1997). Yank-wise we saw Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be by Boston singer-songwriter Jen Trynin (“Better Than Nothing,” No. 15 Modern Rock, 1995), which earned wide praise, and Petal Pusher by another Minneapolis rocker, Laurie Lindeen of Zuzu’s Petals.

The trend continued apace in 2008. The two already extant by Minneapolis band members are now balanced out by a second Boston singer-songwriter’s memoir: When I Grow Up, by Juliana Hatfield (“My Sister,” No. 1 Modern Rock, 1993), which I’ll probably devour it if I ever lay hands on a copy—though the fact that I haven’t yet probably means I won’t for a while. (Unless someone wants to present a case in the comments—one that doesn’t involve the Truth About Evan, please.)

The one I did read, and rather enjoyed, was Dean Wareham’s Black Postcards. That’s not surprising: I’ve long loved Luna (and preferred them to Galaxie 500), not least because while his lyrics in that band often veered into whimsy, Wareham has always struck me as a good storyteller, and on the page he is.

But the major reason is that Wareham’s got the best, or anyway most dramatic, story to tell. Not about his career or his dealings with major labels or his humble origins—about falling in love with Britta Phillips, who joined Luna in time for Romantica (No. 15 Independent Album, 2002), while still married to the mother of his son. Wareham lays out the tale with clipped aplomb, sticking to the facts and not sensationalizing—an instinct that seems to be at the heart of these books coming out all at once. That, of course, and ’90s nostalgia.

80 ’08 (and Heartbreak)

  1. Lucas Jensen

    The passages I read from that Luna book were rather gripping. I was surprised by how into it I was. I, too, preferred Luna to Galaxie 500 (excluding Pup Tent), though I love both.

  2. Ned Raggett

    I know I’ve talked about it with M. before but one thing I’ve noticed is how varied everyone’s favorite Luna album is (if you’re a fan in the first place). For me it’s Bewitched as first among equals, though then again I tend to focus in on the sonics more than the storytelling (big surprise).

  3. Michaelangelo Matos

    @Ned Raggett: Well, so do I. But Penthouse takes the cake–and it’s pretty unanimous among Luna fans as the favorite, as far as I can tell.

  4. John P Strohm

    I enjoyed Juliana’s book, but I’m a little close to it to be truly objective (I’m one of a few people in the book not given a pseudonym). I can say, objectively, that JH is a very good writer and that the book is poignant and often hilarious. And she doesn’t trash me, that’s a plus…

    My band came up at the same time as Galaxie 500 in Boston, so I’m partial; however, I think Luna is fantastic. I’ve read a few passages from Dean’s book, which seems great though at times harrowing.

    I loved Jen Trynin’s book – it’s a great document of the absurdity of the 90s music biz.

  5. Michaelangelo Matos

    @John P Strohm: Hahaha, I feel sheepish now for not remembering, as I wrote this, that (duh) you write for this site.

  6. Michaelangelo Matos

    Also, I just realized that Jen Trynin is a Bostonian too, and G500 were a Boston band. So that makes four Boston books, not two! (Well, three-and-a-half, since Wareham’s mostly a New Yorker.) Minneapolis has some catching up to do, apparently.

  7. bcapirigi

    I spent two hours lost in Boston trying to get to a Dean Wareham reading this past spring. Got there as soon as it let out, but he seemed like a really nice guy. (And handsome!)

    Joyce Raskin from Scarce also put out a book this year. Although I haven’t read it yet, they did put out one of my favorite alternative albums ever.

  8. John P Strohm

    @Michaelangelo Matos: No worries! Juliana’s book is, in large part, about her battle with depression, which is in a way every bit as harrowing as Dean’s separation from his son.

    @bcapirigi: I haven’t read Joyce’s book (though I intend to); I think it’s largely about Chick Graning’s aneurysm – truly terrifying shit. I also really dig Scarce, and I consider Chick’s late 80s Boston band Anastasia Screamed to be one that’s due a re-appraisal. I loved that band…

  9. Mick Kraut

    I read Jacob Slichter’s book last year and found it very interesting.

    Gave a good perspective on what dealing with labels, A&R and touring life is like in a non Van Halen-Motley Crue fashion.

    As interesting as the retrospectives on the big artists can be, there is something more compelling about the average joe/jane who becomes a hit artist and then returns to average joe/jane status when the fickle tastes of the marketplace discard them…

  10. hndinglove

    i’m a sucker for these sorts of memoirs, and i’m almost embarrassed to admit that i’ve read them all. have to say that Dean’s book is by far my favorite (although Jacob Schlichter’s is by far the funniest; his self-deprecation is spot-on).

    they all sort of tap into the lives of the artists just before the internet broke, when we didn’t know what the stars, like, had for breakfast every morning. juliana was one of my idols/faves as a teenager, so reading about her life was illuminating, while sort of reaffirming why i related to her music.

    and my favorite Luna CD is Rendezvous.

  11. Chris Barrus

    Just to throw another book out here, Jez’s from Swervedriver hilarious memoir Rider is well worth tracking down.

    and my favorite Luna CD is Pup Tent. Go figure.

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