Posts Tagged ‘anchor books


Ranters and Crowd Pleasers by Greil Marcus

Ranters and Crowd PleasersRanters and Crowd Pleasers by Greil Marcus

Why should you or me or anyone at all read a book of rock criticism, especially when it’s filled with stuff about records from 30 years ago or longer, of bands who aren’t around anymore and musicians who aren’t even alive? It’s a good question. Why should anyone read Greil Marcus’ 1992 collection Ranters and Crowd Pleasers (also republished as Inside the Fascist Bathroom)?

It’s tempting to say something about how it putts music in a proper context, like reading a period review would help us get into the mind of that particular place and time. This might be true for some collections, I imagine, but it’s not really why I’m recommending this particular book of Marcus’ criticism.

I wouldn’t recommend it as a history of punk rock, either. Although it’s nominally a book about punk rock, particularly of English punk, and Marcus’ reviews cover a pretty good range of bands, generally a handful of names keep popping up, over and over: The Clash, Gang of Four, The Mekons and Lilliput. At the same time, more than a few seminal American bands fall to the wayside: there’s only a couple mentions of Sonic Youth and Black Flag, while both Husker Du and The Minutemen don’t ever show up at all.

So as a history of punk in the 80s, it only kind of succeeds; books like Our Band Could Be Your Life cover the 80s underground in a better fashion. So why am I recommending Ranters and Crowd Pleasers, then, exactly?

Basically because it’s a collection of criticism about music in the 80s, but is about more than just music. It takes music, ties it into pop culture and examines why this music was so important then, looks to deeper trends in the decade and gets to the core of why some of this music is so powerful and why the decade unfolded as it did.

Continue reading ‘Ranters and Crowd Pleasers by Greil Marcus’


I Hate It Here: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon SquadA Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Sometimes books hit me right between the eyes and catch me unawares. Other times, I want to hit the book right between its eyes. This was one of those times.

Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit From the Goon Squad had picked up a shelf of tributes: a Pulitzer Prize, plenty of best-of-the-year awards and more blurbs than I bothered counting. Most say some variation of how smart the book is, how clever a writer Egan is. And that’s just where my problems begin.

Her book more or less follows a group of people along their lives, starting in late 70s San Francisco, through New York in the mid-aughts and winding up in the desert at some unspecified point in the future. They start punk bands, go on safaris and have a moment to reflect on the September 11 attacks. And they’re all super caught up in themselves and their lives that they might not realize how alienating they are.

Which is probably key to this book. It never asked me to consider that maybe these characters were supposed to be unlikable, but they’re all generally crappy people: they lie, cheat, backstab and act petty all the time. Maybe that’s the point, but I never felt especially clear on how Egan wanted readers to feel, if she wanted people to see through their self-congratulatory attitudes and luxury trappings. Particularly since Egan has her characters defend each other when they assault people and wreck each other’s lives.

Indeed, as the back copy says, some of these characters experience “redemption,” which I suppose makes it okay when one tries to sexually assault a person they’re supposed to writing a profile about: they’re bad now, but everyone will get their happy ending! Except maybe the victim, who in another story is wed to a third-world dictator. Really.

What really makes this book frustrating is how on a technical level, it shows Egan as an interesting stylist. Throughout the stories here, Egan tries different structures, forms and voices. One story is told through a PowerPoint slideshow, another is structured in the second person. There’s even a DFW pastiche, a rambling, self-obsessed story just laced with footnotes. And in a formal sense, the stories all work: they’re put together well and Egan never falters in all kinds of experimental styles.

But at the same time, it’s a gimmick that when combined with her characters narcissism, has the discomforting effect of feeling show-offy. It’s as if Egan is showing off, almost bragging about all the feats of prose she can pull off. It left me with a bad feeling in my mouth and at times, left some of her stories just about unreadable for me.

Still, I’ll give her credit when they work: “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” (aka: the slideshow story) is a moving story about parents trying to connect with an autistic child who’s obsessed with pauses in rock tunes; as someone with an autistic family member, the way she captured single-minded obsession and how families have to adapt to them resonated with me. Likewise, I think “Forty Minute Lunch” is supposed to be unreadable and awful; it’s certainly successful at it.

But ultimately, her novel never quite lived up the hype: it’s not a band novel, barely even one about music (so much for the back copy again, which claims there’s “music pulsing on every page’) and is ultimately one about people who all seem to think they’re a lot smarter than they are, written in a way that seems to suggest the author is of a like mind.

Rating: 2/10. Honestly, it was one of the more infuriating books I’ve read in a while; even as I blazed through the thing in a few days, I still found myself setting it down in disgust every so often. Even if you’re interested in her prose and attempts at various devices, I’d still recommend Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style over this. At least there, you don’t have New Yorkers feeling sorry for themselves every few pages!


Outback: In A Sunburned Country – Bill Bryson

In a Sunburned CountryIn a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

I think I’ve read a Bill Bryson book before. Maybe more than one, I’m not really sure. See the thing about his travel books is that once you’ve read one, you’ve kind of read them all.

Generally, they follow him as he drives around a country and takes in the sights and has a few pints. He reports on the background of the country, reports colourful stories that fill the background and has enough interesting people and experiences to fill in the book’s details. It’s nice and charming, but it all kind of blends together. These days I can’t remember if I read his book on the United States or England. Or if even read both.

Anyway, I picked up a used copy of his Australian book a while ago at a thrift store and was waiting for a good opportunity to dig into it. And after reading Peter Carey’s novel about Ned Kelly, I figured now was as good a time as any.

The book follows Bryson on about four different journeys. First is a cross-country train tour, the second takes him up and down the eastern coastline. Then it’s a trip down through the Northern Territory to Uluru and finally, a jaunt along the west coast. He drives a lot, drinks a bunch and visits a lot of museums, too.

Of the trips, I found the third the most interesting. Bryson starts at Darwin, up on the northern coast and takes a long drive with a buddy of his down to Alice Springs, a long, flat drive that takes a few days and has almost no scenery around to liven things up. Just lots and lots of dry land and highways. But his stopovers in small towns are as interesting as anything here: small places that aren’t much more than a pub, motel and gas station, sometimes all in one. In one place, the owner shows off their TV, a novelty in that part of the country.

Their visit to Uluru is great, too: Bryson’s description of the big rock is okay, but I was more interested in how he describes the nearby town of Alice Springs: after driving through so much desert and isolation, he comes to the built-up city, where you can hit up a K-Mart and get some takeout before staying in a plush hotel. The juxtaposition is stunning and entirely from tourism, from people flying in.

There are other fun visits. There’s a museum with a giant picture of a telegraph repairman working in the buff, a trip to Hemelin Pool Marine Nature Reserve to see the stromatolites, a swim over at the Great Barrier Reef, an explanation of why it took so long to build the opera house and plenty of history between the coastlines.

And it’s not always a nice history, so it was good to see Bryson not shy away from Australia’s shabby treatment of the Aborigine population. Every so often, he’ll ask someone about them and get a dismissive response, generally along the lines of drinking and walkabouts. He notes their coolly dismissive attitude; compared with his section on how the country has failed them, you can see the vicious cycle and how little people seem to care.

One annoying trait throughout this book: Bryson commonly uses a passive voice that makes him seem more than a tad British and longwinded. And I wonder about his facts, too. For example, he opens the book with a strange story about a possible nuclear blast in the outback. He suggests the country is so vast and open that Aum Shinrikyo can set off a nuke and nobody will notice.

It’s a crazy story and Bryson repeatedly refers to it to illustrate how open the Outback is. But did it actually happen? A while back, The Straight Dope busted that story wide open, suggesting it was probably a meteorite, but maybe a small earthquake. But almost certainly not a bomb, which as Cecil Adams notes, is completely improbable. And if Bryson falls for such an obvious trap, I get a nagging feeling about his other reporting and conclusions: how much did he put in for colour? Did that pub owner really show off his TV?

Rating 5/10. As a whole, it’s not a bad read. I have some doubts about his conclusions, but generally nothing so big it ruined everything. Rather, I looked at this like I’d experience an episode of This American Life: enjoyable, light entertainment. Thing is, it’s about as memorable as that too: a week later and I’m already struggling to remember which event happened in which Bryson travelogue.


Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain by Marty Appel

Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee CaptainMunson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain – Marty Appel

On a summer afternoon a good 35 years ago, Thurman Munson’s Cessna Citation crashed just outside a Canton, Ohio airport. It was a sudden and dramatic end for one of the most fascinating intervals on one of the most fascinating teams in baseball history.

As a player, Munson represented the gritty everyday kind of persona. He played through injuries, logging time at the demanding role of catcher. Seen in his lifetime, as a gruff, blue-collar, a regular kind of guy, he resonated with a lot of fans. Still does, too.

But Munson was a lot more than that. He came from a broken home, had a keen eye for real estate and business and a sly sense of humour. He was nearly bipolar towards the media: he could spend entire seasons barely talking to reporters, but would offer to fly one across the country so they could see their family.

It’s too bad only glimpses of this man come across in Marty Appel’s biography. But maybe Munson was too elusive, too private to really be open to anyone, even the man who co-wrote his autobiography.

Appel had a unique relationship with his subject. For most of the 1970s, Appel was Public Relations director for the Yankees. And in 1978, he worked with Munson on his autobiography. Appel has sources and resources most sportswriters would dream of; he was actually there in the clubhouse for most of Munson’s career. He mixes his firsthand experiences with detailed reporting, having spoken with teammates and family, plus occasional extracts from other books. At his best, Munson was a tremendous athlete, someone who could control a baseball game from behind the plate and a good slap hitter and battled through a series of injuries.

Munson’s complex character comes across at times. His acrimonious relationship with his father, for example, helps to explain a lot about his character. Munson’s father was resentful, bitter and angry. After a night when Thurman went 5-for-5, the elder Munson called his son’s play shitty. The drive everyone talks about when speaking of Munson’s play could’ve stemmed from this relationship; it certainly reminded me of Ty Cobb’s infamous relationship with his father.

There are other telling passages: Munson, in full uniform, talking business with Steinbrenner (and tracking dirt all over his bosses office); lending his jacket to a trainer on a cold day; offering to fly a lonely sportswriter’s family out to spring training in his new plane – which, as Appel notes, Munson had moved exceptionally quickly to. In under two years, Munson went from single-engine propeller planes to a powerful, twin-engine jet.

Munson could be cold and caustic with the media – the people who shaped his public image – but he was obviously more than that. After all, he bought his airplane so he could fly home and visit his family during breaks in the season.

Even at about 350 pages, the book feels padded. Appel regularly block-quotes sources, letting them talk for pages at a time. He runs the full, 22-page transcript of an ESPN interview with a survivor of the Munson crash; lets Keith Olbermann (who has no connection to Munson’s life) recount his experience as a young reporter on the night of the Munson crash for three pages. At the same time, occasional unfollowed threads pop up. For example, near the finish, Appel casually mentions Munson’s friendship with Wayne Newton and how it factored into Munson buying a jet. It never comes up again in the book (Newton doesn’t even crack the index!)

There are also wild changes in pacing. Near the climax, Appel breaks down the final days of Munson’s life in excruciating, day-to-day detail. But earlier in the book, he glosses over Munson’s early years, rushing through his high school and pre-pro baseball career. And Appel regularly falls back on clichés (“he knew how to play the game” ) and supposition (“It’s likely Munson would have survived…”) throughout the book, not to mention many personal digressions. In some ways, the book features him as much as it does Munson. There’s also a weird part where he calls Diana Munson pretty and says “she could have dated many men,” too.

Rating: 4/10. On the whole, Munson is a bit of a messy book, long on some details and short on others. It’s an incomplete picture of an interesting man, but what picture comes through makes Munson seem even more remarkable: a rock in the roaring sea of the late 1970s Yankees. Still, not especially recommended, even for Yankee fans; I’d go with Sparky Lyle’s The Bronx Zoo or Jonathan Mahler’s The Bronx is Burning instead.


Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader by Lester Bangs

Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs ReaderMain Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader by Lester Bangs, edited by John Morthland

I have a few cornerstones when it comes to music writing: two that immediately come to mind are Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train and the Rough Guide to Rock. Both do different things: one seeks to explain the cultural connections between America and music, the other’s a cheekily written, highly opinionated compendium of every band you’d want to read about, plus a bunch you don’t (The Pooh Sticks, for example).

But a big one is the collected works of Lester Bangs. His career was relatively brief, lasting less than 15 years, but he wrote a ton: reviews for Rolling Stone, essays for The Village Voice and just about everything in Creem. While there are parts of his writing I’m not really huge on – I don’t think it was unfair when Sara Marcus called him a homophobic speed freak in the LA Review of Books – other parts of his attitude still ring out to me. He refused to compromise, calling artists out as he saw them  for releasing awful music. Hell, he was once fired for being disrespectful to musicians, since I suppose critics should be nothing but respectful and polite. He wrote a handful of memorable essays, including two which are as relevant today as they were in his lifetime: Where Were You When Elvis Died, for my money the best remembrance of Elvis’ legacy, and The White Noise Supremacists, a scathing attack on racism in punk rock.

Neither essay is in this second collection of Lester Bang’ writings: Main Lines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste. But this volume isn’t the leftovers from a short career in music journalism. It offers a more even look at Bangs career than the other collection out there, with a little bit of everything: prehistory in the form of excerpts of a novel written by a teenaged Bangs, his first reviews for Rolling Stone, long features for Creem Magazine and some material published posthumously.

By and large, Bangs is remembered as a music critic who was sometimes harsh when reviewing records. And maybe if you’ve read his other collection, you know he was really into Lou Reed and The Clash, too. But Main Lines… shows how wide-ranging his writing was. Even right from his first published reviews one sees his wide interest in music: who else went right from writing about the MC5 to jazz? These are interesting in an academic sense, but it’s only when he starts bashing people that his reviews stand out from the pack.

The book really takes off when Bangs stretches out into feature writing: there’s fun looks at the mid-70s Rolling Stones, an interesting profile of Captain Beefheart (complete with unprovoked slams at Frank Zappa!) and a great account of him travelling to Jamaica to experience reggae first-hand, spending time at recording studios and record stores and at the English labels who ripped these artists off.

Two that really stand out to me are his essays on Miles Davis’ electric albums. The first, written in the wake of Davis’ 1973 album On The Corner, captures the prevailing mood towards that album in the mid-70s: it was a sellout at best, a strange and failed experiment at worst. Bangs goes after him, stretching back several albums to Miles in the Sky, and experiencing a Davis gig in New York, trying to sort out what he calls the cancer in the music and slamming Davis for playing with his back to audience.

The second, published around the time Bangs died, takes a nuanced look at Davis’ electric period as the musician reemerged from a self-imposed retirement. By this time, Bangs has caught up to the album: listen to On the Corner while watching people move on the sidewalk, he writes, and feel the inherent energy, the vibrating rhythms both have in common. He was the rare critic who admits to his mistakes, to when he was wrong: he was part of the crowd that trashed Davis in the mid 70s, the chorus of voices who followed him into a retirement, but he was also among the first who came to meet those albums on their terms and realize how groundbreaking they were, too. It’s a shame Bangs died so young: I can only imagine what he’d have made of the rise of college radio, hip-hop and electronica.

Still, even now, when music criticism has seemed to devolved into ratings on a 1-10 scale and Klosterman-esque thought experiments, Bangs’ essays stand out. He was a unique voice in music writing, the rare critic whose love for music is matched by his brash opinions of what really mattered in music. Whenever I get stuck on something for Bearded Gentlemen Music, Bangs is the first writer I turn to.

Rating: 7/10. Some of the writing here is kind of hit and miss – the reviews don’t really stand out, but what Rolling Stone reviews ever will? – and some of his more out-there stuff in the latter sections (Trapped By the Mormons comes to mind) didn’t do anything for me, although I recognize their value as insights into his personality. Still, on the whole, this is a great collection by one of the more entertaining writers in rock criticism. Recommended.