Friday, November 21, 2014

2 punks who don't quite get their due

To say that I've recently read two books about punk rockers is perhaps not quite accurate. One, Lou Reed, is generally accepted as the godfather of punk based largely on his early work with the Velvet Underground. The other, Brian Jones, was a founder of the Rolling Stones and died long before punk music was a genre, but I feel fairly confident in giving the early Stones some punk credentials. Both of these musicians were present at the creation of important bands but neither one really gets his due in these flawed biographies.

Certainly the legend of Brian Jones deserves a better book than Paul Trynka's Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones. Jones was, in the beginning, fully an equal to--and probably, as Trynka argues, musically superior to--Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and this book is fine for background information about Jones. It's very sad to see Jones sink into a mire of drugs and thwarted ambition; he was booted from the Stones in 1969, at the dawn of my own rock & roll coming of age, and I remember the headlines about his tragic death in his swimming pool, probably the result of years of drug abuse. 

The main problem with the book is that the author has an ax to grind--that Jones was ill-treated by Jagger and Richards for years before he was forced out, and that the living Stones have never given Jones his due. All that is certainly true, but Trynka can't be objective here; about every 10 pages, he blames the Stones for most of Jones' problems and doesn't seem to see that much of what he reports actually supports the opposite view, that Jones was, to a substantial degree, the author of his own misfortune. Trynka is sloppy with details here and there, though the last couple of chapters, as Jones' downfall seems inevitable, are well written. I like that he takes down the conspiracy theorists who believe that Jones was murdered: Trynka makes it sound like Jones' untimely death was almost inevitable. I liked some of this book, but I wish a more rigorous and objective writer would tackle this material.

The first two-thirds of Transformer: The Complete Lou Reed Story by Victor Bockris was written in the 90s and it's a fairly solid, well-researched look at Reed's life, from the shock treatments he received as a teenager to his falling in with John Cale, Andy Warhol, and the Velvet Underground (who in their short time together became one of the most influential rock bands of the 60s), to his solo career that pretty much peaked in the early 70s with the albums Transformer and Berlin. 

These were both seminal albums for me and I was disappointed when Reed seemed to lose interest in his career, producing slipshod work for years until he regained some footing in the 80s. Bockris explains some of that: Reed was, for much of the 70's, a speed addict and a heavy drinker, seemingly constantly high. But high or sober, Reed had two sides: he was either charming or a total prick to everyone he knew. The biggest fault in the first part of the book is that Bockris does zero analysis of the music. Even "Walk on the Wild Side" doesn't get any detailed look at its lyrics, and that would seem to be mandatory for a book on Lou Reed. He touches on the roots of Berlin in a past relationship of Reed's but delves no deeper. 

The last third of the book, covering the mid-90s to the present, was clearly slap-dashed together just after Reed's death in 2013, and its fault goes in the other direction: rather than doing any new research, he mostly writes only about the music Reed made during this time, with and in reaction to his wife Laurie Anderson. Overall, a sloppy book. If someone took the first half and added copious music annotations, we might have a good read.