You know that rock ‘n’ roll might have reached its middle age when the films and books have to teach kids the basics of how to rock and/or roll. Two-thousand-and-three saw the release of School of Rock, where Jack Black taught 10-year-old kids the historical significance of Yes, the Byrds and Stevie Nicks, et cetera. Last year, ex-Semisonic drummer Jacob Slichter wrote a guide entitled So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star, which tutored would-be future superstars on how to (and how not to) choose a wardrobe, shoot a video, negotiate a record contract, and tour the world.
Now stepping into this fray is Canada’s own Dave Bidini, a fortysomething rhythm guitarist for a quirky cult band called The Rheostatics, who has penned a rather slim volume meant for the ‘tween crowd – specifically, those who are about nine-to-12 years old. It’s rather surprising that Bidini is targeting a group so young, particularly since I wonder if it’s all about the bling-bling and shiznit on the schoolyard lately. I’m not entirely convinced that the world is screaming out for a tutorial to help 10-year-old rock stars make it big as a result, but if it helps to save the bloated elephant that is rock from dying, anything goes, I guess.
That this is geared at middle-schoolers isn’t all that surprising in itself given Bidini’s status as a father of two kids, and is probably at that age where he wants to hand off something to the next generation. That’s not to mention that The Rheostatics already performed the rather unusual, definitely non-rock and roll move of releasing a children’s album: 1999’s The Story of Harmelodia, inexplicably misspelled on this book’s back cover as “Marmelodia.”
With those interesting credentials under Bidini’s belt, this guide certainly has got a fair amount going for it. Adult readers who pick it up will find it a fast read that not gives a few history lessons for young ones who might not know, say, who Dion or Murray the K were, but one that offers up a few interesting anecdotes about rock stardom. The best part of the book, hands-down, comes early: the section on what it means to “make it” and how some of the most successful rock stars around are still paying their dues. The story of Bidini spotting Lux Interior and Poison Ivy, the husband-wife nucleus of the seminal punk group The Cramps, loading a van with their own records on a street in New York while the Rheostatics were being shuttled around the city by major label lackeys is worth the price of admission itself.
What’s truly refreshing about this attempt at juvenile rock memoir, rock history and all-around “how to make it’ guide,” is that Bidini doesn’t talk down to his young audience, nor does he get too preachy about the wonderful days of the music business of yore, save for one screed on the evils of corporate radio. In fact, his honesty and mano a mano tone of voice is so strong, and carries so well here, that it’s easy for an adult reader like myself to almost wish that he’d canned this book and had gone straight to writing an all-out autobiography for youngsters. It’s funny, but this slice of juvenile non-fiction seems to have the most direct voice, for the most part, of any of his other non-fiction sports books for adults or his 1998 road diary On A Cold Road. I hope this is only the start of a trend, as I think the no-nonsense voice he presents here serves him well.
A major criticism of the book, though, is that it could have used a much better editor. Aside from the aforementioned Harmelodia/Marmelodia snafu on the back cover, the book suffers from lapses in syntax and grammar that are downright embarrassing for someone of Bidini’s stature, and someone should have caught this stuff. (Sloppiness might count for something in music; in writing, it’s another matter altogether.) In fact, Bidini writes during a section on Internet downloading: “Carpenters get paid for making deck chairs just as John Bonham should get paid for playing ‘Moby Dick’.” Not to nit-pick, but a better example might have been picked to make the comparison, since, of course, Bonham died in 1980.
Another place where the book falls flat is in the actual advice giving. I really was hoping to hear more on what Bidini had to say about surviving long distance tours with one’s fellow bandmates, which is a thread that’s touched upon and then left to dangle, as it is in On A Cold Road. I admire Bidini’s diplomacy skills, but, in journalism, sometimes you have to drag the skeletons out of the closet and beat them up a little. At times, it seems like he was leading up to some big profound statement about dealing with people, only to stop dead in his tracks so he could move onto the perhaps more enjoyable (and easier) task of talking about the merits of shopping for stage duds in vintage shops.
That all said, this is a fun, engaging book all around for anyone interested in making a little racket and clamor. I suppose it may even be a lot more fun if you’re an adult, and you grew up with the records and personalities talked about here. Part of the joy of For Those About To Rock is the child-like sense of wonder and nostalgia that Bidini brings to the table. However, I also hope it finds its audience and kids wind up reading this. As Bidini himself puts it, “Rock and roll is a most serious and important thing, but it’s also stupid, stupid fun. If you get tickled somewhere between those two places, you’ll be all right.” And if enough kids read this and finally learn how to find that tickle, well, perhaps they will finally be too.