Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!


What I've been reading

Perfect From Now On: How Indie Rock Saved My Life by John Sellers. 215 pages, 2007, Simon & Schuster.

Fans of obsessive behavior as well as music should love this book. It's a very funny and extensive look at "indie" rock and how music affects our lives. Anyone who has collected music to the extent that Sellers does (or even a fraction of the amount he has, because he's pretty comprehensive) or even collected anything else (for me, it's comics, but even I'm a piker compared to Sellers) will find something pertinent to his or her situation in this book. It's a nice light read, but it offers some nice nostalgic musing on rock since the mid-1970s, as well as documenting Sellers' journey to hipster doofus.

Sellers was born in 1970, which means this is a perfect book for someone like me (who was born in 1971). Sellers isn't obsessed with Sixties music (the first sentence of the book is: "I hate Bob Dylan"), but he's also not enamoured of pop music of the last decade. Therefore, although he loves certain bands I've never heard (most of the latter part of the book is taken up with his devotion to Guided By Voices, a band I've heard of but never heard), he discusses his love for Eighties metal and Nineties indie bands, and I feel more comfortable reading this than if he wrote paeans to the Beach Boys (I don't get their genius, sorry) or newer bands like ... um, yeah, I'll get back to you. That's not to say he doesn't know far too much about new bands, but for most of the book, he's talking about music I grew up with (not necessarily listened to, as I still have never heard Daydream Nation, to pick a random "great" album from the 1980s), and therefore the familiarity factor helps. It may not for you if you're significantly older or younger than Sellers. Or it may.

Sellers goes into great detail about his childhood and life leading up to his great obsession with Guided By Voices, including his father's similar obsession with Dylan (hence the Dylan-hatred, which is understandable when you're exposed to it ad infinitum throughout your childhood) and the impact music has had on his life. An early paragraph gives you an idea about the kind of book Sellers is writing:

A partial list of things music has made me do: fly overseas at considerable expense to see a live performance by a and I no longer liked, nurture a crush on a goth chick way out of my league, nurture a crush on an alternachick way out of my league, write a love letter to a German woman made up entirely of lyrics from my favorite synth band, reconsider fast friendships, get ticketed for doing 82 in a 55, drive around a remote area of England looking for a hero's grave, wear parachute pants without irony, perform the moonwalk in front of a crowded gymnasium, switch college majors, miss a final exam, shoplift (both successfully and unsuccessfully), dive to the bottom of a numbingly cold Scottish pond to retrieve my favorite T-shirt, stab my thumb into the back of a fellow concert attendee's neck to get closer to the stage, drink too much, lose my voice, stage-dive, cry, and regret.

If any of this pertains to you, even a little bit, Sellers will make you laugh. He speaks from a typical American childhood - he grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, weaned on AOR stuff like Journey and Foreigner, got interested in metal like Van Halen, and never knew that there was anything else until he went to college. He gets into "alternative" stuff with U2 circa 1985 - before The Joshua Tree - and gradually moved on to the Smiths and New Order. Through New Order he discovered Joy Division and Ian Curtis (whose grave he looks for in England) and then on to even more alternative music. Which led him to Guided By Voices.

Sellers' prose is easy-going and nicely self-deprecating, but he does have that whiff of elitism about him, which he readily admits. The fact that he recognizes his elitism makes it funny but doesn't make it any less elitist. Let's face it - anyone who collects something to the point of obsession is going to think they're the best at it, or the biggest fan, or the most knowledgeable. Sellers makes the point throughout that he kept getting on the bandwagon late, after the bands had gotten some mainstream success, and he makes the all-too-true point that occasionally you want your favorite band to remain anonymous so that your love of them will be a badge of honor. We all do this to a certain extent, and Sellers does a nice job at exploring this feeling. It's a fine line to walk between his elitism coming through and his ripping that same elitism down, and for the most part, he does a nice job. Only toward the end does it become a bit annoying, which I'll get to. A nice thing about reading this book and being contemporary with Sellers is that you feel like he's talking about me. I know that not everyone grew up in a middle-class, mostly white area and listened to "classic" rock until they went to college, where a friend turned them on to the many different vistas of music (in my case it was my friend Dave Boger, who let me listen to the first Violent Femmes tape in 1989), but I did, and Sellers could be writing about my musical curve as well as his own, although mine doesn't go as far as his. This might make me more favorably inclined to the book, although I suspect that many people go through this arc, even if the bands might have different names.

Sellers also has good credentials to back up his tastes. He has invested heavily in the bands he likes, and done a lot of research. That gives him a more steady place from which to espouse his opinions, even though that's all they are - opinions. The appeal of the Pixies continues to escape me, and I do not share his near-maniacal worship of Ian Curtis. Joy Division is lousy, according to me. But I recognize the feelings behind the opinions, and that makes his self-assuredness palatable even when I don't like the band in question (Sellers' favorite album is The Queen is Dead by the Smiths, another band I don't "get," and he loves Dinosaur Jr., even though J Mascis sounds like a particularly nasally cat in heat).

Where Sellers falters a bit is in his devotion to Guided By Voices and the lengths to which he will go to see them and become part of the "inner circle" of Robert Pollard (the band's leader and only consistent member), who get to hang out at his house and drink copious amounts of beer. His obsession doesn't really take a dark turn, and his writing is as funny as ever, but reading about Sellers getting in with his hero doesn't resonate as much with me. Then the story becomes a bit more personal, as the band's publicist sends out an e-mail to the mailing list telling them that Sellers is a journalist who is going to write about the band in an upcoming book even though he presented himself to Pollard as just a fan. The Guided By Voices message board lights up with death threats, and Sellers writes an abject apology to Pollard. Sellers never says it, but this points out the dark side of obsession - fans rising as one to threaten someone who might dare to give their band some publicity. Maybe Pollard doesn't want it (he's never courted superstardom, after all), but I bet more people will hear about Guided By Voices through this book than most of the magazine articles about them, so I don't know why anyone would get upset at Sellers. These chapters about his trip to Dayton, Ohio, where Pollard lives, and then the fallout from the revelation that he's a journalist are the weakest in the book, because it's nothing you can't find on a blog or message board where people take something minor and make a mountain out of it. It's just dull.

But for the most part, this is a fun memoir and a relatable journey through music in the 1980s and 1990s. Sellers peppers it with extremely long footnotes that are often more entertaining than the main narrative (including a letter to Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine imploring him to make more music, plus an 11-page footnote (!) documenting his observance of the day Ian Curtis died - 18 May - in 2005) and appendices in which he makes lists (as he points out in the book, you're not a true music nerd unless you've made lists) that include 8 "dingers" (albums with no bad tracks on them) to the top 5 songs that annoy him more than any in the world ("American Pie" is #1, which I suspect would be on the top of many people's lists) and offers a formula you can use to rank your musical preferences (Radiohead is much, much better than the Strokes, by the way). Sellers does a fine job hooking us and keeping us on the hook, and even though the book slows when he actually gets to meet his hero and the deplorable behavior of Guided By Voices' fans makes us wonder why anyone would want to be obsessive about music, it's still a nice read. I'm not sure how indie rock saved his life, but it's still fun to read Sellers' musical reminiscences.

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Blogger thatsthespirit said...

Absolutely terrific review. I read about this book in a magazine and thought, "Screw this if he doesn't like Dylan" (and I share all your reservations about Sellers' favorites, too. Glad to see I was right in thinking I'd be bored by the book.

16/4/07 9:33 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Thanks. I did like the book, but I can see why people might not.

17/4/07 7:29 AM  
Blogger Nik said...

I just ordered this myself, it sounds a lot like Chuck Klosterman's work which I dig. Great review. I love Dylan, but I was actually really amused at his anti-Dylan screed which he has up on the website.

21/4/07 8:07 PM  
Anonymous Bill Reed said...

I consider myself to be musically incompetent, but he can't be all bad if he loves The Smiths' The Queen is Dead. That is a damn fine album.

11/5/07 8:28 PM  

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