Looking Back at Sonic Youth and Roxy Music
Subtract the sex and drugs, and life for a rock 'n' roll band—or a rock 'n' roll band's biographer—can be a brutally dull affair; that the best rock bios are often also the most lurid is no accident. (Mötley Crüe's The Dirt springs happily to mind.) Bands are boring, man. Folks in bands have arty/outcast childhoods, they convene, they put out a record, they put out another record, they break up, they are immortalized in book form. It ain't rocket science; rocket science is often more interesting.
Michael Bracewell's Re-make/Re-model attempts to alleviate these concerns by focusing entirely on those arty/outcast upbringings, an innovation both admirable and disastrous. The book chronicles, in astonishingly exhausting detail, the mid-'60s British art-school educations of Roxy Music's key players: Brian Eno, Andy Mackay, and especially frontman Bryan Ferry. Along the way, it painstakingly profiles every remotely relevant contributor—the hairstylist, the fashion guru, the helpful critic—to the packaging of Roxy's self-titled 1972 debut. The book ends when the record comes out. The music itself—its genesis, impact, or philosophy—is a tertiary concern at best, briefly and wanly described in standard ________ yet ________ constructions: sensual yet robotic, nostalgic yet avant-garde, etc. This is a book about British art schools that deigns to remind you, every five to 10 pages or so, that there'll be a band at the end of it.
So Ferry's every classmate, instructor, and incidental acquaintance at the University of Newcastle gets a vivid character sketch, to the point where his own personality barely registers at all: He's shy, he's handsome, he's talented; he's subsumed entirely by the company he keeps, particularly professor and revered pop artist Richard Hamilton, Re-make's real rock star. Eno, ever the volatile bon vivant, fares a little better (his instructors heatedly argue about whether to hail him as a genius or kick him out of school). Mackay, other than flaunting a taste for the musical avant-garde, is a cipher. Bracewell knows his shit, but he drowns us in nearly 400 pages of academic arcana and absurdist detail, down to how much super-cool Ferry classmate Mark Lancaster spent on his steak-and-baked-potato meal ($1.28, with tax) that time he visited New York City in 1964 and met Andy Warhol. (Actually, that part's pretty endearing.)
Re-make can be illuminating once you accept that it's far more of a textbook than a tell-all, but its bombastic art-school pretensions (the thesis here is that far from creating a work of art, Bryan Ferry became a work of art) are particularly frustrating when, you know, the rest of the band shows up. Drummer Paul Thompson, a blunt and funny "normal, regular guy" (in Ferry's bemused estimation) arrives for his audition covered in brick dust from his construction day job; guitarist Phil Manzanera's dad dragged his family to various South American political hot spots (they were in Cuba during the revolution) and might well have been a spy. Two potentially fascinating characters, reduced to barely more than a footnote in their own band's life story because they didn't know enough people who knew enough about Duchamp. It's enough to make you lean Republican. Even the brief, refreshing tangents regarding the band's actual music lose their way: It's an improvement to hear Ferry discuss the jumbled imagery of the early hit "Virginia Plain," but it's the relatively low-culture arena-rock guitar-and-synth breakdown that gives the song its kick. Cut this class and listen to Roxy Music instead.
Goodbye 20th Century—the second rock bio from former Entertainment Weekly critic David Browne—flirts with a similar approach, feting the army of totally sweet cool-kid culture warriors who coalesced around Sonic Youth. But it takes care to give the band—and the music—top billing, and generally comports itself like a book written by a dude who's written for a magazine with Entertainment in the title. It's a far more conventional affair—Sonic Youth puts out a record, then they put out another record; repeat, like, 20 times—but Browne's game for the task of finding fresh ways to describe Really Noisy Guitars over and over and over. (Personal favorite: "A moose humping a wolf.") He goads the band (everyone's on board here, even Jim O'Rourke) into uncharacteristic chattiness, and though Sonic Youth isn't a remotely lurid enterprise, he milks intrigue from the mysterious cultural and sexual magnetism of the Kim Gordon/Thurston Moore union that drives the band—the night they first met, they began "talking casually about rhythm and when it should and shouldn't be used"—and especially Gordon herself. (It was commonplace, apparently, to have vivid dreams wherein Kim was just standing there, judging you.)
Browne's got a few tricks up his sleeve, including transcripts from a thoroughly amusing audiotape of an alternately intense and aloof meeting with the head of their British label. (It breaks up when Lee Ranaldo finds a joint—" 'Yeah!' said Moore, excitedly.") But mostly Century chugs along, a handful of pages per album. You can argue that Browne gives short shrift to the band's accepted masterpiece, Daydream Nation, but he's got a shrewd eye for what's really worth dwelling on here: Sonic Youth has the only remotely interesting "underground band goes to a major label" story ever, snatched up by Geffen and relentlessly pimped as nascent superstars at the height of year-punk-broke Nirvanamania. This, of course, is hilarious—the label almost immediately admitted it had signed the band just to make itself look cooler in the eyes of future bands with more mass-commercial appeal—and Century's chronicle of the wayward PR blitz behind 1990's Goo and especially 1992's Dirty is a laugh riot of music-biz confusion, with lots of now-archaic agonizing over video budgets and mass-produced bumper stickers that misspell fascism and whatnot. The band's pastoral late-period work is less bracing (in print, at least), and Browne works too hard to pump up those post-9/11 overtones, but O'Rourke's account of waking up in the band's Murray Street studio that morning and fleeing in terror is harrowing.
Again, if you want dirt, read The Dirt. Plenty of cultural luminaries (Glenn Branca, Courtney Love, Chloë Sevigny) make cameos in Goodbye 20th Century, but that's it. This book basically centers on a marriage, after all—a concept as antithetical to rock 'n' roll as it gets. No problem: In this case, confusion is sexy, and love is the drug.
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