Lights On The Pine Tree and More Aftershave: Late Shoppers’ Blue-Light Special Edition

Yes, I know, been A While once again. What can I say? Time flies when you’re a fruitfly or, erm, something like that. Been doing a lot of reading, though. Just like Ringo in A Hard Day’s Night being upbraided by Paul’s clean old grandad, I’ve been positively ‘scrapin’ away at those booooks’. So what better occasion than now to hip all Grotto followers out there to a few things towards which to apply your returned gift credits?

One particularly choice bit of light reading fun has been Rob Sheffield’s collection of pop-culture essays, Talking To Girls About Duran Duran (published by Dutton). Sheffield made his name writing for Rolling Stone and SPIN, among other hack shacks; much like those appearances, this book is clever, snarky, out-loud laughable and heart tugging in equal measure. In particular, a chapter examining his attempts to relate, as an 1980’s American suburban teen, to the music (and image) of David Bowie is almost, dare I venture, poetic. And while I couldn’t relate to many of the experiences Sheffield recounts, not being a child of the 80’s, his John Hughes ruminating re: ‘Pretty In Pink’ – the song and the flick – do resonate, what with Hughes’ films being synonymous with that era, for better or worse. Which reminds me to dig out that copy of Talk Talk Talk sometime.

So I had PBS on the box the other night, and when I went into the kitchen to grab a drink, heard an ad for an upcoming series called Secrets Of the Stones. What with all the attention being paid to this new memoir by Keith Richards, I think I could be forgiven for thinking it somehow related to that. No such luck, but a definite reminder as to how slowly I’ve been perusing Life (Little, Brown). And with good reason: at 547 pages, this is an overview long overdue, and as such worth taking one’s time over.

OK. So ‘Keef’s’ lifestyle choices haven’t been especially, shall we say, conservatively minded over the years. And yes, this far along into a career begun as a self-styled ‘unpaid ambassador of the Blues’, his present-day image remains that of this aged, piratical buffoon who also happens to strum a bit of guitar. But lest we forget, this ‘buffoon’ also had a hand in some of the greatest, most influential Rock ever; truly an iconic and, to phrase-coin, satanically majestic character from which so much has flowed that continues to ripple outwards.

People might joke about Keith Richards these days in a manner only slightly less demeaning than Dean Martin, when he introduced the Stones’ 1964 American TV debut on the Hollywood Palace variety show. But can you imagine a world without Exile On Main Street? Or, say, any ten Stones songs or five albums you can pick off the top of the nog, really?

Keith’s dust jacket boast of “Believe it or not, I haven’t forgotten any of it!” notwithstanding, his Life collaborator – the novelist James Fox – has done a stupendous job, both in research and in interviewing Richards family members, friends and minor associates, ultimately folding them into Keith’s own recollections. In doing so, his voice leaps off the page like his guitar leaps out from the intro to ‘Brown Sugar’: profane, unrepentant, authentic.

Of course for the tabloid-inclined, the dirt is all there and in amounts that would send Motley Crue back to Flintstones vitamins (Alvin Orloff, ruler of S.F.’s Dog Eared Books, told me he thinks people are buying it “to see how they, too, can live forever”). I also don’t get the impression that Keith and the Stones frontman he knows as ‘Brenda’ will be sharing a cup of mulled wine at this time of season.

But ultimately, it’s Keith’s almost offhanded observations on the actual inner workings – the PROCESS – of making and creating the Stones’ music, and how it all came together, that make Life totally fascinating: a genuine peek behind that Elegantly Wasted public curtain.

Certainly one of the beneficiaries of the Stones’ blueprint of garage raunch and equal-opportunity glamour was the New York Dolls, and a somewhat as worthy recent read is original Dolls bassist Arthur ‘Killer’ Kane’s posthumous memoir I, Doll (Chicago Review Press). It is, however, somewhat of a blown opportunity. Only following the Dolls up to the time just before their debut LP, not directly addressing Kane’s post-Dolls life, career and eventual conversion to the Mormon faith, one gets the idea that this was the foundation for a larger autobio, prevented only by Kane’s untimely passing in 2004.

What is here, though, would have needed some extensive pruning for that to work. While I, Doll has some choice recalls from Kane of how the Dolls first got together, and their early trials and travails, one also has to slog through pages of digressions into extra-terrestriana, conspiracy theory and Latter-Day Saints doctrine in prose occasionally so purple as to be varicose. In all, ultimately a mildly deserving supplement to existing Dolls bios by Nina Antonia and Kris Needs.

As the Stones begat Johansen and Thunders’s mob, so did the Dolls assist in Punk Rock’s midwifery. Growing up outside Washington DC in the mid-late Seventies, it was fascinating to be isolated inside Beltway suburbia, getting the odd scrap of info and music as they radiated from the energy centers of New York and London – and if lucky, an actual visitation from the Ramones, the Clash, second-division bands like the Cramps or Buzzcocks later, whomever.

And if you think it was exciting on this side of the Pond, it was even more so for one Tony Beesley and his pals, growing up in the South Yorkshire region of England at that same time. All these years later, Beesley has assembled the memories of he and his fellow music heads into a trilogy of books. Of the three, Our Generation: The Punk and Mod Children of Sheffield, Rotherham and Doncaster, 1976 – 1985 (Upfront Publishing) is as all-encompassing and weighty (unto blunt-object physical status) as its title suggests.

That said, it’s quite the admirable achievement as Beesley and cohorts raid their brainpans to recount what it really was like to be that relatively isolated, yet bedeviled by this new beat noise. The fashions, the fights, the partying in the pubs and discos that served as makeshift Punk venues, and powering it all, the music coming fast and furious and galvanizing.

Have also read Beesley’s second of the trilogy, Out Of Control: Doncaster Outlook and Rotherham Windmill (Days Like Tomorrow Books), and while more narrowly focused on the doings of two of his hood’s primary Punk/Wave venues, it’s also worthwhile.

If nothing else, I’m indebted to Beesley for reintroducing me to early Sheffield post-punk trio 2.3 (who sadly only ever released one single, ‘Where To Now’/’All Time Low’, for the same Fast Product indie label that would debut fellow locals Human League and Gang Of Four), as well as a one-hit wonder called Tonight, whose 1978 power-pop party starter ‘Drummer Man’ was a big hit among South Yorkshire’s punknoscenti. (And now available on a recent CD anthology from the Angel Air label: good fun for fans of the solidly lightweight, Seventies Punk/Pop option.)

Only enough time, as the Roast Beast and Who Hash leftovers beckon, to also demand the seeking out of two great music magazines: Shindig (from the UK) and the just-begun Savage Damage Digest (from right here in Fog City), both crammed with tasty, music-head-feeding readability, of both a contemporary and more historic bent. Come on, you can’t read MOJO and Uncut ALL the time, now, can you?

With assuredly more to come from the Grotto, methinks and hopes – between DADT’s repeal and Patti Smith deservedly scoring the National Book Award for her amazing Just Kids – that a more positive, eruditely minded corner awaits us all around the bend of Year Eleven. See you on the other side!

San Francisco
Xmas 2010

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