PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Books

Black Postcards by Dean Wareham

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.


Black Postcards: A Rock and Roll Romance

Publisher: The Penguin Press
Length: 352 pages
Author: Dean Wareham
Price: $15.95
Format: Paperback
US Publication Date: 2009-05
Amazon

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.”

8

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.

Books

Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon
Music

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.

Music

'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.

Music

ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.

Music

The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.

Books

Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.