Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.
Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Bookmarks: Brief reviews of new and overlooked books

Long before there were blogs, before there were even zines, there was Rollerderby, an offbeat mail-out pasted together and distributed from a rented attic in Rochester, New Hampshire. Written on a typewriter, stitched together with scissors and glue, and reproduced on an industrial photocopier, Rollerderby was a crazed cut-up of true-life tales, reviews, sketches, stories, gossip, and cartoons, its margins crammed with handwritten notes and last-minute observations. Later issues featured interviews with underground luminaries like Courtney Love, Nick Zedd, and Lydia Lunch. The magazine’s manic style mirrored the speeding brain of its creator Lisa Carver, author of Drugs Are Nice, a clever, engaging memoir of life on the edge.

Lisa Carver is the girl your mother warned you to stay away from, the girl always caught smoking in the bathrooms at school. It’s not surprising Lisa grew up different — at age 15, her drug-dealing dad told her he’d once killed a man, and best friend Rachel liked to bite the breasts off Barbie dolls. Drugs are Nice chronicles a coming-of-age in the 1980s and early 1990s, when the punk scene was dead and buried, but some time before freaks and outcasts like Lisa could establish ersatz communities online.

As a teenager, Carver forms her own band, Suckdog, with the Barbie-chewing Rachel, and their amateur, giggly cassette recording “Drugs are Nice” gained them a marginal underground following. But when Rachel leaves for college, Lisa starts to feel like the only freak in town, and she strikes up correspondences with all the psychos and maniacs who seem tuned in to her lunatic wavelength — first, Murder Junkies front man GG Allin, then obsessive French musician Jean-Louis Costes, whom she meets and marries the year she turns 19. With Costes providing them with musical back up and anarchic performance routines, Suckdog begins to develop a further following in the DIY underground of cassette trading, mail art, pirate radio, garage bands, and bedroom DJs.

When Jean-Louis returns to France, Lisa moves from Rochester to the west coast, and takes up residence in with a group of similar outcasts, Rollerderby fans with energy to burn, including fellow girl-freaks Dame Darcy, whose bed is decorated with “a replica of a two-headed pig fetus (hand-sequined)” bobbing in a jar, and the sexy, stylish musician/photographer Cindy Dall (who “would never put sequins on a pig”). Looking back, Carver believes that in her case, abandonment fuelled creativity — only her creativity, as she readily concedes, now looks a lot like self-destruction. But only in retrospect: at the time it was joyful mayhem.

Even so, Carver demonstrates here an early understanding of responsibility and self-sufficiency. Separating Drugs Are Nice from other memoirs of female fringe-dwellers — like Lisa Falour’s I Was For Sale, or Lydia Lunch’s Paradoxia) is not only Carver’s smart, bright style, but the fact she doesn’t gloss over the reality that living an anarchic, post-punk lifestyle doesn’t mean you’re immune from working a boring day job. Without family support or college degree, Lisa puts in more than her fair share of time on the late shift at Friendly’s and Dunkin’ Donuts, as well as a local brothel, living on raisins, breadballs, and Monterey Jack Cheese, scribbling and sketching Rollerderby all hours of the night.

During, Carver finds herself drawn to the kind of tortured, violent messed-up men most other women would find repellent — men, she admits, not unlike her father — and, reading her memoir, you start to feel it’s only a matter of time until she runs into somebody really unpleasant — somebody like the scary industrial musician Boyd Rice, whose basement apartment is decorated with Nazi memorabilia, and with whom Carver grows infatuated. At this point, she’s like the girl who’s about to become the next victim in a horror movie; you want to yell at her not to go down into the basement — but you forget that, so far, Lisa’s never met a monster she didn’t like. When Rice ties her up and flogs her, unable to descry the line between adventure and abuse, she moves into his Nazi-themed basement and has his baby. Rice drinks, does drugs, grows deluded and turns scary; Carver gets scared and depressed. Still, despite her growing fear of him, she stays with him for the sake of the baby until, in a fit of the DTs, he beats her head against the nightstand until she’s unconsciousness (and he’s thrown in jail).

This nasty lesson learned, life gets a lot harder for Lisa. Rachel is in a car crash, and her face gets messed up. Lisa’s son, Wolfgang, who — ironically, in the light of his father’s Aryan Nation politics — is born with a chromosomal deletion, and Carver is strongly aware that, despite all her time and effort, he may still end up in an institution. Nevertheless, Drugs Are Nice seems to be written from a calm, stable place, with no blame, moralizing, or regret. Carver remains bravely proud of her odd, wild, self-destructive younger self, her experiences with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, while managing to be self-reflective, even analytical. Ironically, she finds that these days, the more opportunities are opening up for her, the less she’s interested in them, preferring to spend her time with Rachel and Wolfgang. She’s still hopeful, still spirited, but no longer in thrall to the intoxication of living on the edge, of the thrill of being an outcast: “The glory is that there’s no glory,” she concludes. “It’s hard when you know that all you can hope to be left with is dignity — which, in comparison to the sprawling, painful splendor you once had, is really rather pale.”

Mikita Brottman Amazon

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