A rock writer writes about rock stars. A rock writer reviews the rock star’s albums, attends the rock star’s concerts, interviews the rock star in hotel bars and dressing rooms, writes biographies about the rock star either before or after the rock star dies.
But the rock writer can also become the rock star, if he behaves as the rock star does. For Marc Spitz, that means the same kind of womanizing, naughty behavior, heroin use and eyeliner-applying practiced by Keith Richards and memorialized in his 2010 autobiography Life. Think of Spitz’s Poseur as the Life of rock memoirs, with less Stones and more typewriters.
Spitz is a rare find: the self-aware bad boy, the articulate addict, the earnest punk, the wastoid with an excellent memory. Unlike Richards, who tends to breeze past the times in his life when he let people down, Spitz zeroes in on faults and flaws, the ex-girlfriends scorned, the years when he didn’t write a thing, the days he attended Spin editorial meetings in dark glasses and feather boa, railroading over the opinions of fellow writers. He doesn’t just zero in—he soundtracks it, song by song, from They Might Be Giants to the Strokes.
Rock writers didn’t always turn their critical eyes upon themselves. Lester Bangs never wrote a memoir, and neither did Robert Christgau. Nor have Greil Marcus, Legs McNeil, or Glenn O’Brien—all elder statesmen of the Spin magazine clan revered by Spitz. In the past few years, major music journalists have been documenting their personal histories, weaving them in with more typical music criticism and pop culture flotsam. Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield has put out two memoirs, Chuck Klosterman (formerly of Spin) released Killing Yourself to Live (billed as “85% of a true story”), and Andy Greenwald wrote a novel called Miss Misery about… a young male music critic. Now we have Spitz’s contribution to the evolving oeuvre.
This influx of personal writing from music writers has produced a certain number of near-clichés—rhapsodizing about former lovers and noting where you were when Kurt Cobain killed himself are two that come to mind. Ultranostalgic tendencies aside, I believe there’s considerable value in combining self-reflection with musical history. A review of OK Computer or Exile in Guyville might describe the sound and place it in a cultural context, but there’s something about a writer, unconstrained by the limitations of music criticism explaining how Radiohead or Liz Phair affected a particular moment in his life, that a review or news piece can’t come close to imitating. Isn’t memoir supposed to be about life? A car ride with your father, playing “Don’t Let’s Start” and arguing over the lyrics—isn’t this the stuff that we remember most?
The sections that contained the most raw power (Iggy Pop-style) were those devoted to Spitz’s life in and immediately following college. It’s not easy to write about such halcyon days without sounding all goo-goo-eyed and obnoxious. The passages comprising his experience at Bennington (a notoriously artsy college in southern Vermont) are vibrant. He describes the “event albums” of 1988, the way he and his friends would huddle around a listening device and consume Pixies’ Doolittle or Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation with rabid eardrums. He recalls his first serious relationship with a would-be Courtney Love named Zoe; he recalls the interactions with groups segmented by their interests, the “Lit Fucks” and “Jazz Cats”; he recalls he and his classmates’ bizarre and uncontrollable longing for heroin:
“As the nineties began, I felt corroded for not being sick enough. Junkies eventually become victims, but most drug tales overlook the fact that most of us start out with ‘become heroin addict’ on our to-do list. We don’t begin under the thumb of the drug. And it’s beyond a choice, really. It’s more like an ambition.”
Serious junkies don’t always live to tell their own tales, so survivors from De Quincy to Wurtzel tend to fascinate even if their accounts of addiction coast on shock value alone. Spitz takes it a step further, if only for the way he laces the drug into his written life, letting it insinuate into the writing without letting the haziness of his addiction affect the acuity of his prose. As Drug Writing goes, this is among the best out there.
Spitz has his share of rock star anecdotes, from striking up an email friendship with Courtney Love—she urges him, “Don’t do heroin. It’s passé. I killed it. It’s over, baby”—and hooking up with someone who might have been Iggy Pop’s wife: “Was Iggy going to bust in?... “Was I committing some kind of punk rock sacrilege? Getting it on with the Godfather’s woman?” He writes cover stories for Spin and dark plays that make him a Ludlow Street star. He never takes that laser beam focus away from himself.
This is an entertaining read for music lovers and ‘90s fetishists and fans of addiction narratives, sure, but it’s also meant for those who enjoy learning everything about a person without expecting anything more. It’s a portrait, masterly and self-contained, and you have to be satisfied with the portrait alone. There’s no climactic moment, no dramatic turnaround or happy ending. As Mark Twain introduce Huck Finn, so it is true for Poseur:
Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. It is a single life and a lot of music.