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March 13, 2008

Book Review - Black Postcards by Dean Wareham

In this series at Largehearted Boy, guest contributors will review music books.

One of the books I brought to SXSW this year was Dean Wareham's memoir Black Postcards: A Rock & Roll Romance. Wareham has always impressed me with his songwriting in Galaxie 500, Luna, and Dean and Britta, and from friends' raves (Tim's included), I am looking forward to reading the book.

Tim Frederick is the brains behind Baby Got Books, one of my favorite litblogs. Filled with interviews, reviews, news,and commentary, BGB has started a reading series at Decatur, Georgia's Wordsmiths Books that melds literature and music in a way that I can truly appreciate. The next reading features Steven Hall, author of the Raw Shark Texts on April 24th.

Tim Frederick of Baby Got Books reviews Dean Wareham's memoir, Black Postcards: A Rock & Roll Romance:

Pop quiz. Would you rather: (a) make millions of dollars from writing one or two wildly popular, but crappy, songs or (b) enjoy critical success, but have no hit songs and make barely enough money to get by? If you chose (b) you may want to read Dean Wareham's excellent new book, Black Postcards: A Rock and Roll Romance to make sure you know what you're in for. Black Postcards is an incredible behind the scenes look at the last 20 years of the indie rock scene. It also serves as a revealing snapshot of a music industry in upheaval. The book's subtitle, A Rock and Roll Romance, can be misleading. If you're aware of Wareham's personal history, you might think that it refers to his meeting and falling in love with Luna band mate Britta Phillipps. However, Britta doesn't make an appearance in the book until more than 200 pages have gone by. The emotional devastation that his affair with Phillips wreaks on Wareham's personal life, at least as it is described here, is the furthest thing from romantic. Instead, the romance hinted at in the title could be with music, being in a band, performing on stage, the rock and roll lifestyle, or all of the above. Sometimes Wareham likes to keep things cryptic.

The book opens with a quote from Damon Krakowski, a former Galaxie 500 band mate, that casts Wareham in a very negative light. The quote sets the tone for the rest of the book. Wareham is self-deprecating and seemingly incapable of sugarcoating his personal experiences. Early in the book he recounts an encounter with a German fan following a show by his band Galaxie 500 in Frankfurt:

"We have started a band, to sound exactly like you, But we're having trouble. It's not going well....I watched you play tonight. I cannot believe how few chords you are actually playing."

(A scene involving a German prostitute is not one that any man would include in his memoir unless double dog dared to be ruthlessly truthful.) He also mentions his therapists thoughts throughout the book. Wareham comes across as a man who wants to find some peace and happiness in his life. This book might be part of that therapy.

Wareham begins with his childhood in New Zealand, and onto his family's moves, first to Australia and ultimately to Manhattan, where the teenage Wareham finds himself in a prestigious prep school. Wareham's started his first real band while a student at Harvard. This is kind of history is not the typical source of rock and roll angst. Harvard is sooo not punk rock. Fittingly, Wareham's bands have not fit neatly into the typical rock and roll mold, perhaps to their downfall.

Throughout the book, Wareham offers sharp insights into what it means to be in a band. Describing his breakup with Galaxie 500, Wareham says: are not just friends when you're in a band together. The band may begin as pure friendship. You share a love of music...but if the band is at all successful, then it takes on another logic. It becomes a business, Now you are business partners as well as friends and collaborators... At first, it is fun being in this cult together, this secret society. But you become more involved with one another's lives than you ever anticipated. Instead of being friends, it's more like you are lovers. Only you never really planned to move in together.

Although the split with Galaxie 500 was ugly, Wareham seems to go out of his way to be fair and generous to his former band members while telling his side of the story. It is not clear if this even handedness is the result of therapy or the gentle padding of time, but the book certainly reads better as a result.

Following the breakup of Galaxie 500, which Wareham later refers to as his "first divorce", Luna was formed with members of other under appreciated bands, The Feelies and The Chills. The band signed to a major label, Elektra, and after their second album the band began to find some critical and commercial success. With time, Wareham says, people begin to stop referring to him as "the guy that broke up Galaxie 500." Rolling Stone would soon call Luna one of "the best bands that you've never heard of" and name the band's album Penthouse one of the top 100 albums in rock history.

Of course, success is all relative. Wareham spends a lot of time describing the tortured mathematics of the record industry that ensure that a small band like his can never do more than scrape by. It is the personal accounts, delivered almost as asides, that really drive home the financial reality of being in a band like Luna. When Wareham buys an $800 engagement ring for his fiancee, it costs more than his three most recently cars did - combined. There are an endless succession of crappy hotels. Wareham describes using string to hold his old suitcase together while in a European airport. On their last tour, Wareham found himself walking a mile to the laundromat in the rain. The author wants to be sure that we understand that while it may have seemed glamorous when you saw the band on stage, the day-to-day reality was often much different. A European interviewer asked:

"What advice would you give to young people about having career longevity?"
"Go to law school"

With this book, Wareham tells us in no uncertain that being in band is entering into a relationship that is ultimately doomed to fail right from the start, sometimes painfully. You've got to do it for love of music, because there is no real money out there for most bands. Knowing this, would you still do it? If so, for how long? In the titular Luna song, Black Postcards, Wareham sings:

If I had to do it all over again/
I wouldn't/
-- (long beat) --
throw it all way...

As he sings it, it is impossible to figure out exactly what he means. Would he throw it all away or not? My feeling is that Wareham wouldn't hesitate to do it all again.

If you have had a more than passing interest in the indie rock scene over the last 20 years, you need to read this book - immediately. Wareham's prose is crisp and engaging, and his eye for details is remarkable. He reportedly kept diaries of his experiences at the recommendation of his father. I had the opportunity to talk with Wareham about his book briefly after a local performance a few weeks ago. He pointedly assured me that he had written it all himself (with an editor's oversight, of course), unlike some other rock and roll memoirists that he could mention.

see also:

book reviews at Largehearted Boy
Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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