Sunday, January 24, 2016

Whole lives: Carrie Brownstein, Patti Smith, and Elvis Costello

Carrie Brownstein, Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl (Riverhead Books, 2015)

Carrie Brownstein was and is a guitarist and vocalist in Sleater-Kinney. Her excellent memoir Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl—the title is taken from a song on the 2005 album The Woods—will draw you in even if, like me, you can't quite be described as a fan of the band (although by the time you finish it you probably will be).

It is about much more than being a fairly famous performer. Brownstein offers moving accounts of what it was like to grow up in the 70s and 80s in a suburban family with deeply hidden emotional fissures; to find music as a refuge, as a solace, as an escape, and as a means of expression; to enter the adult world with deep uncertainty about your future and purpose; to try to find like-minded people as friends, partners, mentors, and co-creators; and to struggle to hold on to what you've achieved while at the same time allowing yourself and your partners room to grow and change.

Of course, there is plenty of vivid detail about grungy practice spaces, the grind of travelling in drafty vans and sleeping on people's floors, and the terror and exhilaration of standing up in front of an audience to play. For those who have romantic notions of what touring in a rock band is like, Brownstein's book will be a sobering reality check.
In 2000, Greil Marcus named us the best rock band in America in Time magazine...Here we were, "America's Best Rock Band," unloading our equipment that had been shipped home from overseas, that we'd just picked up from the airport by ourselves: drums, amps, road cases. We did not even have the help of a friend or crewmember to carry everything out of our van and into Janet's basement, down rotted steps with very low headroom. You had to duck or you'd give yourself a concussion. "Best Band in America" and my back is about to go out again because I'm carrying a sixty-pound amp into a practice space the size of a pantry in which Janet's aged marmalade cat had sprayed multiple times. It smelled like piss and dryer sheets. This was us having "made it!"
Brownstein leaves no doubt, though, that it can all be worth it for a transcendent moment making music. At the end of the book, describing how it felt to step onstage for the opening show of the tour for the first Sleater-Kinney album in a decade, 2015's No Cities to Love, she writes, "I was home."

Patti Smith, M Train (Knopf, 2015)

M Train is Patti Smith's deeply personal memoir covering the period from her move to Detroit in 1980 up to the present. In its format and associative structure it is clearly influenced by W. G. Sebald's unclassifiable works such as Rings of Saturn, but like Smith's great cover versions of songs by other artists, it emerges as something uniquely her own, expressed in her own unmistakable voice.

In the time period covered by the book Smith lost the love of her life, Fred Smith, and her brother Todd; re-emerged as one of the most compelling performers you will ever have the privilege to see; and watched as her beloved New York City was devastated by Hurricane Sandy and struggled to recover. But to focus on the external events it describes is to miss the flavor of this reflective and intimate book.

M Train is the perfect companion volume to Smith's previous memoir, the brilliant Just Kids (Ecco, 2010). That book describes her first move to New York in the late 60s, her chance encounter with Robert Mapplethorpe, and the development of their transformative artistic and personal partnership. In my post "Favorites of 2010: Books," I wrote that "Just Kids is written in an autodidact's style which is direct, genuine, unsentimental, at times incantory, and like her music, utterly compelling." The same can be said of M Train.

Patti Smith performing Bob Dylan's "Changing of the Guard" from Twelve (my favorite rock recording of 2010):

Elvis Costello, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink (Blue River Press, 2015)

In addition to borrowing his sartorial style from Buddy Holly—the horn-rims, the suits and ties—1970s-era Elvis Costello also adopted Holly's concise songwriting style. Back then Costello wrote fierce two- and three-minute songs which didn't need to be longer, and which would have been less effective if they were.

His biting, bitter lyrics were so dense with wordplay that their manifest meaning was sometimes anything but straightforward. The latent meaning, though, was always clear: Costello himself memorably said in an early interview that his songs were all about "revenge and guilt," although "resentment and anger" might be equally true.

The gift for the telling detail seems to have abandoned Costello almost entirely when he sat down to write his memoir, though. This rambling, confusingly arranged book would be twice as good if half its ink had really disappeared. But of course, as his incredible creativity in the period 1977-1982 (in 1980 alone he released 40 songs in the US), various nasty drunken comments, and many ill-advised choices show, Costello famously lacks an internal editor; it's just unfortunate that his publisher couldn't supply him with an external one.

Of course, brevity has its limitations (that could almost be an Elvis Costello lyric), and we can be glad that Costello has occasionally allowed himself a more expansive canvas, as on 1982's Frank Sinatra-Nelson Riddle influenced Imperial Bedroom. But my admiration for Costello did anything but grow after spending 670 pages in his sometimes enjoyable, sometimes annoying, sometimes evasive, and sometimes tedious company. As he writes with self-lacerating wit (on page 372), "The trouble with finishing any autobiographical tome like this is that for every mildly diverting tale or precious memory, you eventually arrive at this thought: I don't much care for the subject." It's a feeling the reader may come to share.

As someone once almost said, you may feel I'm unkind, but I'm being as nice as I can.

A blast from the past: "Lipstick Vogue" from the furious This Year's Model (1978):

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