[20 August 2009]
Understated is not a word you much associate with rock ‘n’ roll. The genre doesn’t put much stock in subtlety, subtext, or self-awareness either. So it comes as a surprise to encounter a memoir, one of the most gratuitous of literary forms, written by a rock ‘n’ roller that comes off as modest, frank, and almost self-effacing.
Less surprising is the fact that the memoir in question is by Dean Wareham, a demure denizen in the rock landscape. Though Wareham has served as front man of two highly influential indie rock bands: Galaxie 500 in the 1980s, and Luna in the 1990s, he seemed to do so without breaking a sweat. He currently is one-half of the indie pop group Dean & Britta, a duo with his wife and former Luna bassist Britta Phillips. The two release albums on their own label, Double Feature, and score films, such as Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale. Most recently Dean & Britta have written music for the Andy Warhol Museum commissioned project, 13 Most Beautiful: Songs For Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests.
As a guitarist Wareham transformed what might have been considered a handicap of sorts and turned it into one of the most distinctive playing styles around: a minimalist approach to which music journalists have affixed adjectives like “spacey” and “shoegazing”. Wareham did the same with his voice, which is slightly nasal, and flat, and which comes across as absolutely unaffected in his vocals.
Last year, Wareham released Black Postcards, a memoir detailing his long career in the music industry. His narrative voice is matter-of-fact and droll, as if Wareham were writing a profile of himself in first-person for The New Yorker. This isn’t to say it’s not engaging: not only does Wareham offer an intimate portrayal of what it’s like to be in a band, he unearths hidden truths about the music business, and popular culture at large.
But rock’s traditional tropes are largely absent from Black Postcards, which was released by Penguin in paperback this summer. Or to the extent that they appear at all, Wareham seems to trot them out dutifully—but self-consciously—with a knowing tone. As a result, Wareham’s memoir, which he subtitled “A Rock and Roll Romance”, is both a revelatory glimpse into the last years of a thriving record industry, and an honest excursion into the world of music-making. Reading intimately as a diary, or a blog, Black Postcards is unflinching, unsentimental, and somehow understated.
Wareham doesn’t dwell on his childhood, devoting fewer than 30 pages to his life before graduating college. Born to a middle-class background in New Zealand, Wareham’s family relocated to New York City when he was a youngster. There, he immersed himself in the late ‘70s music scene, following bands such as the Feelies and Talking Heads. He attended two elite schools, the progressive prep school Dalton, and then Harvard College, where he dryly notes: “I was not a good Trotskyist… I was also not a good guitarist. And I was not a good student.”
He was no philistine, though, peppering his prose with references to Thomas Mann, Georg Büchner, Bertrand Russell, and Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy advisor and first female US Ambassador to the UN, Jeane Kirkpatrick. This brief section reads as if narrated by a member of Salinger’s Glass family (it is no wonder that Wareham wound up scoring Baumbach’s film). Here’s a brief section from the time young Dean didn’t win a Battle of the Bands competition:
We did not win the Battle of the Bands. A committee graded each band on four criteria: presentation, songs, musicianship, and appearance. We came in last in every category. The winning band was the Love Monsters ... [which] featured two brothers, Matt and Dan Wilson, who years later would form a band called Trip Shakespeare, based out of Minneapolis. Dan went on to far greater heights with Semisonic, who had a bona fide radio hit that is probably still paying his mortgage—“Closing Time”.
Wareham’s entire memoir is suffused with this dry wit, and deadpanned omniscience. Yet as a participant in the rock ‘n’ roll scene in the late ‘80s, and throughout the ‘90s, Wareham proves to be an invaluable guide, and an incisive observer. Wareham explains how “Modern Rock” was replaced by “Alternative Rock” on the radio, and then supplanted by “Indie”. He explains how licensing works via an interlude about the song “Bonnie and Clyde” and its subsequent use in a Cadillac commercial. And he addresses the ‘90s state of the music industry, rattling off anecdotes about KROQ and MTV and A&R and promotion.
Brief chapters simultaneously debunk rock mythology, and attest to the industry’s excess. But Wareham doesn’t exempt himself. High off a positive review by Forced Exposure’s Byron Coley in Spin magazine and a mention that Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore had been listening to his band, Wareham acknowledges his youthful excitement, yet deflates his early faith in it: “In 1988, this was already akin to a new cultural award, something you might hear about in the pages of NME. ‘Thurston Moore’s favorite album of the year!’ Though Kim and Thurston had championed Das Damen, too, and everyone knew they were crap.”
Wareham comes off in a calm, amused voice. Addressing the death and rebirth of rock music, he notes: “Rock is periodically pronounced dead by cleer rock critics—killed by world music, or by hip-hop, or electronica, or the Backstreet Boys. But if you wait a year, it comes back to life.” Addressing his acrimonious break-up with Damon and Naomi after a troubled relationship in Galaxie 500, Wareham comes off as fair to his bandmates, and self-critical to boot.
About his guitar playing, Wareham writes, “Great guitar players are a dime a dozen. It is sometimes your very limitations as players that set you apart from the crowd.” In an interview he gave me while I was still in college (and working at his old radio station), the wry Wareham noted: “The fact that I can’t play at dizzying speeds has forced me to become a more melodic player. That’s what I like to listen to. The important thing in playing is to pick out a few notes, play them tastefully.”
About his early vocals to the wonderful Galaxie 500 song, “Tugboat”, Wareham writes, “I kept it simple—I sang the same verse three times. Maybe I was lazy.” But then Wareham continues: “But plenty of great songs only have two lyrics—‘Fly, Robin, Fly’ by Silver Convention, for example, or ‘I Don’t Wanna Walk Around with You,’ by the Ramones”. Silver Convention and the Ramones? It’s difficult to discern if Wareham is serious or not.
Wareham is perfectly aware of this ambiguity. Much later in Black Postcards, when auditioning Britta Phillips as a new member of Luna, Wareham warns his bandmates, “‘Listen,’ I said. ‘No hanky-panky. If anyone gets involved with her, they’re out of the band.’ I think I was joking. Perhaps I was half joking. Perhaps I was dead serious. Perhaps it was a joke with a serious underlying message.”
The same is true about Wareham’s lyrics. Famously non-committal, even the lyrics to the song from which Wareham titled his memoir, a track off Luna’s penultimate album, Romantica are ambivalent. In the last line of each verse, Wareham sings, “If I had to do it all again, I wouldn’t,” and then pauses before lilting into the chorus, “Throw it all away. Throw it all away. I want a holiday.”
After disbanding Galaxie 500, Wareham formed Luna with Justin Harwood (of the Chills) and Stanley Demeski (of the Feelies). Wareham was able to recruit Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison to perform with Luna, and the band had a long career with Elektra Records. But when the 10-year relationship failed to produce a “hit”, Luna was summarily dropped. Wareham continued to helm Luna for a few years before disbanding the group to form yet another indie pop group with his musical and romantic partner Phillips.
All of this lends the impression that Wareham is doing perfectly fine. Neither especially enamored with himself or his success, Wareham wraps up Black Postcards with Luna’s final concert at New York’s Bowery Ballroom. A bit of Wareham reportage follows:
“I have since seen the Luna documentary, Tell Me Do You Miss Me, and in this final scene I appear to be fighting back tears. I can now report that I was victorious over those tears. We had a long, sad moment, but then we went downstairs for the post-Luna party and it was all good.”