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Book Review: Please Kill Me – The Uncensored Oral History of Punk

So you want to know who started it all, huh? Who the fuck started PUNK ROCK? Well, let me tell you something: It doesn’t fucking matter.

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So you want to know who started it all, huh? Who the fuck started PUNK ROCK? Well, let me tell you something: It doesn’t fucking matter. The fact is that it came into existence somehow and for that itself we should be thankful. On the other hand, if you want to know HOW it came about then I recommend letting your curious and greedy hands flip their way through this piece of work. It is a great storybook, a bedtime story if you will. Taking you through the wicked, hopeless, and warped paths traveled by a many influential, well known, and even obscure musicians from way back when.

Some say it started with the Ramones, others say the Sex Pistols. Then there are others who say that it started with the glamorous and femme New York Dolls. The great thing about this book is that it proves them all wrong. Ok, so “proves” is not that greatest verb to use because this IS an account of people’s lives as recorded through interviews. Extremely subjective and easy to manipulate are accounts given by anyone…or so I imagine. Back to the great thing about this book: Its “Once upon a time” is in a place called New York (though there are brief stints in London, Detroit, and Los Angeles) with the soon to be Velvet Underground, Nico tagging along, and Andy Warhol funding the whole lot. The book eventually takes you through the history of the Ramones, Malcolm McLaren and his Sex Pistols, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, The Dead Boys, MC5, Blondie, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Patti Smith, Television, The Heartbreakers and a handful of other bands.

The villain … the horrid circumstances those mentioned in the book had to overcome or decided not to overcome. The disco music with songs that lasted for what seems like ages, the heroin sold around the corner from the alternative castle known as CBGB’s and the record companies trying to keep their acts doped up to avoid conflict. These along with other setbacks make up the antagonist and the emerging heroes: anyone able to survive and contribute to the surroundings. The collaboration of their efforts resulting in an extremely volatile, emotional, and twisted genre: Punk. 

The book name-drops like no other with an arrogant, “you had to be there”, “let me throw it in your face” tone, making you feel like you missed out. Then again with all the rage, drugs, sex, and sketchy living environments described, I for one am comfortable with my role as a reader. Even with a sense of the author’s attempt to claim superiority as well as ownership of the term “punk” the reader is not alienated. Perhaps the reader feels like a tiny mouse in the corner seemingly watching everything go down but not entirely shunned.

Essentially the book is a collection of interviews. How Legs and Gillian were able to construct such a work with numerous spoken tales is not only commendable but admirable. The interviews are broken into shorter versions, each person giving his/her account of a specific time or situation as well as the more general atmosphere of the time. Different sides of one story are put out into the open and left for the reader to put together. For the parts of the interviews that could not be tightly tied into the core of the book there is a section in the back for your reading pleasure. 

Personally, I found this book amazing in its structure and ability to include the reader in the circle of obscure and famous figures as they reminisce (even if the reader feels nothing to add to the circle or even that she/he should hide in a corner and listen). To top it off, it is also quite amusing. Although, the glow around some of the legends does seem to fade as one gets more acquainted with antics associated with their past; the flow of the book is amazing and undisrupted. Accept no imitations. One of my favorite parts of the book is about Sid Vicious (who actually seemed like a goofy kid not some insane, nihilistic, and sadistic rebel) and his mistaken identification of a vacuum cleaner for dope. I guess you have to read it to understand. 

Please Kill Me – The Uncensored Oral History of Punk

by Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain
(Penguin Books)

Books

Book Review: The Disaster Artist – My Life Inside the Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made

I cannot recommend The Disaster Artist highly enough. It might be one of the best reads I’ve had in a very long time.

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In 2003, the world of filmmaking was shaken to its very foundations. Bursting onto the scene and blinding the city of Los Angeles and Hollywood like a renegade supernova, was a film that went by the insipid title of The Room.

The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside the Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made is a book all about the making of that film. For those who haven’t seen The Room, the basic synopsis boils down to a ‘love triangle’ plot, between a banker, Johnny, his fiancée, Lisa, and the best friend, Mark. There’s romance, betrayal, drama and finally tragedy. Seems simple enough, right? Wrong.

The final instalment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy might’ve won all eleven Academy Awards that year, but it was The Room that still managed to be the talk of the town (and eventually, the world) amongst many filmgoers.

Don’t be mistaken, The Room wasn’t a sleeper hit or master class in filmmaking. In fact, it was the complete opposite. A train wreck so disastrous that it’s still being watched, studied and talked about, to this day. “So bad it’s good” and “The Citizen Kane of bad films” are quotes often thrown around whenever The Room is muttered.

What makes The Room so bad? Well, to put it bluntly, everything. From the acting to the directing, to the sets and continuity, is a consistency of abysmal filmmaking. Yet despite its terribleness, there remains a kind of loveable charm. Most of this charm seems to stem from the man who helmed the project, the weirdly fascinating and enigmatic, Tommy Wiseau. Wiseau was responsible for acting as the lead character, Johnny, writing, directing and producing The Room (Orson Welles, eat your heart out).

Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s book, The Disaster Artist, doesn’t start at the premier of The Room in Los Angeles, 2003. It starts instead a year earlier, with a lunch between Greg and Tommy, a lunch so bizarre and off-the-wall, that it almost reads like sketch comedy. It’s a day before official production is about to begin on The Room, and Tommy with genius-gusto, decides to offer Greg one of the lead roles in his film, as Mark, Johnny’s (Tommy’s character and fictionalized version of himself) best friend. A plan so flawless, until Greg reminds Tommy that the role is already cast.

In the next chapter, we are taken back to 1998 in San Francisco with Jean Shelton and her acting class, where Greg relates his early origins into acting and his dreams of “making it”. It’s here that he meets the one-and-only, Tommy Wiseau, for the very first time. They’d later on become acquainted with one-another, after Tommy steals the show by giving one of the most ludicrous renditions of the famous ‘Stella’ scene from A Streetcar Named Desire ever witnessed.

“Most bad performances are met with silence. This was something else. There were murmurs. There were giggles. Everyone in that basement studio knew they had just witnessed one of the most beautifully, chaotically wrong performances they would ever see.”


 – The Disaster Artist

What follows throughout the book is parallel storytelling, or intersecting storylines. One side focusing on the making of The Room, and the haphazard tyrannical way in which Tommy went about acting, directing and interacting with the cast and crew. The other, on the growing friendship and relationship between a young, Greg Sestero and not-so-young, Tommy Wiseau, both bonding on their dream and love for acting (and in particular, James Dean). Each storyline is as equally entertaining, funny and at times touching as one another.

The Disaster Artist is a book that doesn’t quite feel like it’s written from someone with journalistic prose looking-in on The Room, or the life of Tommy Wiseau. Instead, it’s a book written by someone who lived and breathed these experiences and moments. The final result is a raw and believable account, with a striking amount of humility and sincerity. The praise in this regard goes solely to Greg Sestero; he is quite possibly the best—and only—person capable of telling this story. His perspective is paramount to understanding the making of The Room, and Wiseau.

In terms of the content itself, there are many reasons why fans—or even those unfamiliar with The Room—might want to pick this up. For years, people have been baffled about almost every aspect of this film and the mysterious man behind it. From, “How did Tommy manage to get $6 million to fund this film?” to something as simple as “Just where in the hell is Tommy actually from?”

You don’t have to be familiar with the film itself, or even know a great deal about the players such as Tommy Wiseau to find this book enjoyable. After all, driving the engines is a timeless story, full of great characters and great moments.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It might be one of the best reads I’ve had in a very long time.

The Disaster Artist

by Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell
(Simon & Schuster)

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Books

Book Review: Birth School Metallica Death – Volume 1: The Biography

Nothing Else Matters. Literally.

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In December 2013, when six of the world’s continents could no longer accommodate Lars Ulrich’s ego, Metallica made history by playing a gig at an Argentine research station in Antarctica. The band also, however, gave its fans an early Christmas present and made the Freeze ‘Em All concert available online free of charge.

This double-sided, complex character of arguably the world’s best-known metal band has been one of Metallica’s defining elements – Metallica is both grandiose and generous, seminal and self-absorbed. This duality has found expression everywhere: critical and commercial success versus fabulous flops (remember Lulu?), pioneers of the thrash metal genre versus contemptible, self-indulgent sell-outs. James Hetfield’s dark lyrical ruminations have also given Metallica an intellectual quality absent in other heavy metal groups; this quality only presents itself, however, when Lars Ulrich stops verbalizing his every thought.

As you can see, I can throw quite a few things at Metallica, both positive and negative. However, I could never accuse Metallica of being boring, which, unfortunately, is the first adjective I reached for when reading Volume 1 of the group’s biography written by veteran music journalists Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood and narcissistically titled, Birth School Metallica Death.

A slight qualification is necessary here. Volume 1 covers the band’s early years until the Black album, and there are moments of great writing and intrigue. The authors make an admirable examination of the childhoods of each band member and find, unsurprisingly, that hardship, loneliness and family strife ensured that music became the only solace available. The memorable phrase “hormonal clusterfuck of adolescence” wonderfully captures Hetfield’s isolation and aloofness, when social acceptance and popularity were still a long way off.

The authors’ exploration of the band’s formation and early struggles is also quite interesting. The intellectual merit I associated with Metallica at the outset was, at this point, somewhat rudimentary: Metallica’s forerunner, Leather Charm, produced the risibly titled, ‘Hades Ladies’. Had Ulrich and Hetfield chosen something else from their proposed list of band names, like say, Thunderfuck, it’s doubtful they would have found the same level of success.

Such deft humor and interest quickly become scarce and are smothered by the laudatory sentiment the authors adopt – the sense of destiny that Metallica was always going to become the world’s greatest metal group: Metallica’s “ascendancy seems inevitable to the point of being preordained.” The group’s originality is staggering, as they “had begun their journey not so much on a road less traveled as on a thoroughfare entirely of their own making.” This may flirt with the truth, but its painful repetition soon becomes tiresome.

The authors’ choice of subject matter is frustrating in parts. They spend far too long on tedious subjects and give scant attention to more complex themes. The tales of tour debauchery quickly exhaust their interest, while parts of Metallica history suggesting that the band is fallible receive just casual mention. This includes the band’s poor treatment of original bassist Ron McGovney and the cruelty visited upon Jon Zazula, the tireless producer responsible for the band’s early success. The authors seem to dismiss this as a positive, almost necessary cruelty that enabled Metallica’s advance to stardom. (The exception here is a semi-decent glance at Metallica’s conduct towards Jason Newsted, who comes across quite well.)

The end result of all this is a biography that reads like an extended schoolyard discourse on why Metallica is the greatest band ever and why all other bands suck. This would have been an apt subtitle. It’s not enough to heap praise on (almost) everything the band has done; the authors feel the need to throw stones at the bands who didn’t reach Metallica’s success: Anthrax, Slayer, Ratt, and Scorpions all come in for criticism, or are presented standing in awe in Metallica’s vast commercial shadow. This doesn’t just seem misjudged, but pointless. The annoying, diehard Metallica fans who think that the four elements of the title truly comprise life will no doubt lap this up, but the more discriminating fans will be left discontented. If the authors had excised just some of the more congratulatory sentences, the book’s length could have been significantly reduced, rendering unnecessary Volume 2, due out this year, when we will probably be told that really, honestly, after the 12th listen, St Anger isn’t all that shit. It is. So is this book.

Metallica

Birth School Metallica Death – Volume 1: The Biography

by Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood

Published by: De Capo Press

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