3.5 very bad Rock Books, is the genre in need of a rest?!


Over the last few years, the general standard of books on popular music (to stretch the term to its limits, as seemingly every last tic and side-alley in every genre gets mulled over)… just sucks.

A lot of cases, it’s a pointless exercise – not so much archaeology or even re-examination of unfairly neglected artists as warming over whatever scraps haven’t been gobbled up yet. (Okay, there’ll always be ghost-written hack biogs of the latest wallet-bothering kiddie karaoke star, but that kind of cash-in’s a given in any branch of the arts &/or entertainment. Except maybe opera. Or guerilla knitting.)

To my mind, one of the worst examples of this is the 2003 biog of Iggy Pop, Gimme Danger, by Joe Ambrose (Omnibus): an appallingly-written, half-baked scrapbook of barely-integrated 2nd and 3rd-hand sources, weirdly sneering authorial comment, and questionable attitudes to the principal women in the tale. (Plus a complete lack of feeling for the actual music.) It’s an anti-feat to make that tale a leaden slog, but the author manages it by dint of being a sloppy fuckwit who’s oh so far above his material – which begs the question why he bothered. Enough on that one – it’s deservedly forgotten already, anyway.

Two I stumbled on recently:

The Velvet Underground: Peeled by Rob Jovanovic (Aurum Press, 2010)

Actually quite interesting, once you get past the first 2/3 of the book on Warhol, Loaded, all those creepy amphetamine squabbles – a lot of people must have at least a passing familiarity with that part by now. It then goes in detail into the post-Lou Reed Velvets, which up till now’s been a quietly – and tactfully – obscured period. It also traces the long struggle of Reed and Cale with the shadow of their early work, leading into the confluence of events that engendered the VU reformation in 1993, and its aftermath.

Thing is, it reads like it was written by a 17 yr-old. According to the dustjacket, the author’s a mid-ranking music journalist for various high-profile rock menopause magazines; obviously he had good copy editors, because this is like a first draft that went straight to print with no oversight. There’s a lot of repetition – eg. facts given only a page or two before get needlessly rehashed; the style’s heavy-handed and lifeless, clotted enough to be impenetrable at times; and as above, there’s very little insight into or feeling for the music itself (or much else). Also, a lot of names are spelled wrong, which doesn’t lend an air of reliability. Is this piece of hackwork really the best the author or publishers could do?

Where it scores is getting a few hitherto-silent peripheral figures (and Tea Party loon Maureen Tucker) to speak, plus of course the airbrushed-by-Stalin early 70’s era, but it all feels pretty perfunctory. And final 3rd aside, does the world need another VU biog anyway?

Grist to the crud-mill, churning out the past, the past and nothing but the past, probably forever.

It’s Lovely To Be Here by James Yorkston (Domino Press, 2011)

God, this is dull. As a glimpse into the routine of any moderately-successful singer-songwriter on tour, it’s almost mesmerisingly mundane and low-key. But not quite. And obsessed – obsessed – with his vegan diet: every single avocado, pitta bread or complimentary banana on his rider (!) is listed in punishing detail. The little I’ve heard of his music I’ve liked, but cripes, does he come across as an old woman (with a disturbing fondness for maintenance boozing, Valium and Co-codamol. Disturbing because that formed the backbone of my own gigging for a while). Can’t work out if it’s mild jealousy or projection, the ghost of Xmas future, but either way it’s the literary equivalent of drizzle – shades of Magnus Mills, maybe, but even so: one banal conversation with interchangeable promoters, one nit-picking description of restaurants and hotel rooms, after another. No spark, no wit and little to engage with past the air of bemused detachment; maybe that’s the “Point”, but its point escapes me. Realism’s overrated, innit.

Special mention: The Fallen, by Dave Simpson (Canongate, 2008). As a book, it makes a great magazine article – which it initially was, and it shows.

None of these (except the first) are the worst on offer; but they’re frustrating in the way a straight-ahead, honest piece of throwaway cash-in fluff isn’t, as they promise much and lapse into workmanlike tedium. It’d be good to have a moratorium on biographical music writing for a few years, recharge the cultural wank-bank. But the mill needs its crud… And more… And more… Bah!!!

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.