Chris Stamey's Homage to the New York Music Scene of the '70s
A Spy In The House of Loud works best on quiet stages, taking singular trips down clearly paved roads with definite endings.
A Spy in the House of Loud: New York Songs and Stories
University of Texas Press
The heart of a music memoir often rests in how much technological music talk the writer wants to include in the narrative. Most of us read these books to relive the excitement of the scene described from an insider's perspective, to have our presumptions validated and elevated into the realm of truth. Some writers, like Bob Dylan, (Chronicles, Volume One, Simon & Schuster, 2004), have been purposefully elusive when putting their career into perspective. That book -- brilliant and beautiful as it is -- still confounds many in that it refuses to follow a linear path from start to finish. There are no secrets revealed or truths confirmed about why Chronicles written and how it came to pass. Other writers, like David Byrne with How Music Works, entered the world of music writing with tones that were equally professorial, pedantic, and precious. How we process these styles as fans of the form more often than not reflects our willingness to risk going so deep we might not ever return.
Chris Stamey's A Spy In The House of Loud: New York Songs and Stories could have been a seamless journey through what its subtitle suggests. Certainly he has the musical bona fides to make any curious reader eager to hear about his time making music with Alex Chilton, Mitch Easter, or his group The dB's. Indeed, Stamey was there at the roots of the music scene in North Carolina, and he worked to help form the early sound of R.E.M. The structure of this book certainly starts out in a promising way as Stamey reveals that what we are reading apparently was not supposed to take this final form:
"It began solely as an annotated songbook, concise paragraphs attached to sheet music, words and melodies and chords suitable for parlor playing in the old way. But from the git-go, I pretty much failed at the concise part."
On one hand, the honesty here is admirable and we may be willing to go with Stamey since he's revealed in his preface that he's going to take the long way from start to finish. We're going to take a discursive journey, side trips and digressions that won't add up to much more than a display of the author's musical expertise (and there are more displays of that than necessary.) On the other hand, Stamey doesn't seem to accept that memoirs (or autobiographies) are a different animal from a musical boxed set. Readers aren't necessarily willing to browse through chapter after chapter of false starts and alternate versions or one theme in various keys and tempos. There's a limit to the patience of even the most generous reader.
That said, there are some powerful and evocative chapters here. Stamey describes Tom Verlaine, of the legendary 1970's New York band Television, as not knowing the clichés. He's surprised at how instrumentally well-rehearsed they are. Stamey flashes back to his adolescence and paints a picture of himself as an unabashed audio nerd, returning home from a 1964 train trip to New York City to see the World's Fair. His gift of a reel-to-reel tape recorder has opened up a universe of possibilities:
"I thought I had found a way to stop and rewind time itself, the distinction between memory and the now blurring away into dreams along the course of that sleepy night."
Stamey reveals to the reader that before the Summer of Love (1967), science was king. It was a perfect time for possibilities as he and his friends listened to "The Letter", "Wooly Bully", and other tunes from the era of pre-jingle jangle folk rock. It wasn't until Stamey heard Simon and Garfunkel's "7 O'clock News / Silent Night" recording that he wanted to make records. It's an interesting and perhaps appropriate song for the scientifically-minded academic musician, "…the contrast between the deadpan recitation of death tolls and the Everly Brothers-style tenor harmonies that did it…" That 1966 recording from a duo better known for their sweet harmonies and poetic allusions was one of their few diversions from convention, and Stamey wanted to be part of that world.
Some of Stamey's writing here might come off as defensive in his regular reminders that he is a "real" musician, that he can read and compose music. He notes that some of his writing style was inspired by William S. Burroughs' cut-up technique. He tells us that some of the dB's classic power pop nuggets were influenced by John Cage, Stockhausen, and Charles Mingus. He also tells us (for some reason) that he can play chord progressions on studio recordings as they are being played backwards. It's unfortunate that he doesn't stay longer in the world and environment of the New York City music scene in 1975-1977, even if that was just a small piece of his story. It's this tone of separate but equal, of in the scene but above it all, that makes for a sometimes difficult narrative to appreciate. The prose is assured and strong, but not always warm.
Some of the gear head technological talk that overwhelms A Spy In The House of Loud does prove interesting, even if the reader is unfamiliar with the songs. In fact, the reader familiar with the songs might feel these explanations are too much. Take this passage:
"Another technique we used on that record was crescendo-decrescendo glissando harmony singing, a slow vowel-sound morphing with a bit of doppleresque pitch bend that we faded and bent into lines, sometimes turning our heads from the mic as we swooped."
In between the pontifications and explications, there's much to like about A Spy In The House of Loud. By the late '70s Stamey relates the confrontational aspects of such bands as Television and The Sex Pistols to the Dadaists in New York and France. That may be providing more credit in retrospect than deserved, but the reader can't help but get caught up in Stamey's earnestness. We don't have to endorse it, but the passion is to be applauded. Stamey's dividing line between the rock star excess of mid-'70s arena rock gods (like Led Zeppelin) and what was being done by his wave of writer/performers leaves no need for interpretation:
"There was a big gap between the scarf-draped rock stars' lives and stories and our own. A basic lack of lyrical honesty prevailed in that more celebrated world, along with a musical staleness and derivativeness."
Still, Stamey is not immune to being starstruck by a legend from the earlier rock era. A highlight of this book involves time in London, at Abbey Road, and reluctance to engage in conversation with a willing Paul McCartney. Stamey gets on better with producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick. Stamey adds crickets from the sound-effects tape he'd taken from an EMI closet at Abbey Road, and would later discover that they were the same crickets used on Abbey Road:
"…it was like the Beatles themselves did a cameo for us… except it was their fellow insects instead."
While such warm scenes are few and far between here, the critical observations are more interesting. It's just unfortunate that Stamey doesn't specify the targets of his criticism here, and that he feels a need to say it at all. Readers might find themselves wishing he had waited for objective voices to tell the story of the scene, of Stamey and his contemporaries, or that Stamey had at least been willing to entertain such ideas with at least a modicum of humility, context, and perspective.
The "Jukebox" sections of A Spy In The House of Loud, printed on grey paper perhaps to differentiate this section from the more personal narrative, are reflections on tracks Stamey produced. These ruminations are a little more successful in that he seems to have a distance from them. Of a track by Pylon, he writes: "The material was written in a style that was becoming more and more popular: rehearsal-room collaboration." Of R.E.M's "Radio Free Europe," he writes: "They stayed put in Athens and in some ways remade it in their own image; they became ambassadors for the South…" Of Master Guitarist singer/songwriter, Richard Thompson, with whom Stamey made 1984's Small Town Romance, Stamey rightly notes: "Beware: He can break your heart with a single well-turned phrase, then lift it right back up with a miraculously deft twist of his fingers on the strings."
It's too bad Stamey didn't include more memories of his time with The Golden Palominos, a "curated" band of the '80s that at times included Bernie Worrell, Michael Stipe, Syd Straw, and Richard Thompson. They were as doomed in their tragic hipsterdom as a reader and listener might think of that time, and their brief appearance here makes us want more:
"It was an intense and sometimes volatile group of characters, but at our best we created real fire on stage-and comedy too, at times… We still needed to play the encore [after the drummer had passed out from exhaustion] , so Michael led those of us still standing into Bill Withers's 'Ain't No Sunshine.'"
A Spy In The House of Loud is a love story to both the downtown New York scene of the '70s and Manhattan of the '20s through the '50s. Before the Appendix (a valuable summary of many of the source songs discussed in the chapters), Stamey expounds on his love of and for Manhattan, of Gatsby's Jazz Age, of Bernstein's West Side Story. Stamey claims he admires musicians rather than rock stars, but the reader gets the sense he might be hiding from his rock star moments. A Spy In The House of Loud works best on quiet stages, taking singular trips down clearly paved roads with definite endings. When Stamey gets behind the control booth for a long series of sporadic lectures about how a sound is created, however, it can become exhausting.