After more than a decade in the publishing business, I’ve amassed a sizable home library on my favorite band and genre of music (punk, for lack of a better term). My entrance in the field coincided with an explosion in nostalgia for the spirit of ’77. In 1999–2000, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and Joe Strummer came out of hiding for the premiere of their official documentary, Westway to the World. A live album, From Here to Eternity, and reissues of their discography followed.
Strangely, after Strummer’s untimely death in December 2002, the publishing slowed. Between 2005—10, many of the best works on him or the band have gone out of print. Gird yourself, however, for a deluge of content when Strummer finally gets his biopic, Joe Public, and a feature film about the making of London Calling is released. I’m betting as well that memoir holdouts Jones, Simonon, and maybe even former Clash manager Bernie Rhodes will cash in at last.
In the meantime, sup on these standouts in the literature, divided into admittedly quirky categories that reflect my personality and approach. Clash books first, followed by general punk nonfiction, then rock ‘n’ novels (a long-term project that I’m involving my librarian pals in).
IF YOU BUY NOTHING ELSE, INVEST IN THESE THREE CLASH BIOGRAPHIES
- The Clash. The Clash (ISBN 9780446539739): You can’t miss the screaming flourescent pink cover, which is meant to mimick the band’s flight cases. I won’t lie: the production values for this official biography are shockingly bad. Marred by more than the odd typo and recycling interviews from Don Letts’s Westway to the World documentary, it still merits a place here as a striking visual document. I love the previously unpublished photos (see Strummer reading Henry Miller’s The Time of the Assassins) and reproductions of set lists, concert posters, journals, and correspondence.
- Gilbert, Pat. Passion Is a Fashion: The Real Story of The Clash (ISBN 978030681434; o.p.): This appears to be out of print, but that will change when the biopics in production hit the big screen. I reviewed Passion for my job (“This is a heartbreaking and heartening story of punks growing up and growing old, the real story indeed”), and it’s by far the most balanced biography, incorporating a wide array of perspectives and seemingly agenda-free (unlike Marcus Gray’s Last Gang in Town, reviewed below, which I kinda like for being so, “Watch me take you down a notch, boys!”).
- Salewicz, Chris. Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer; The Definitive Biography (ISBN 9780571211784): A labor of love nearing out-of-print status, this is by British journalist Salewicz, who knew and admired Strummer but does a commendable job of shaking out every stealth skeleton in my hero’s closet. Skirt chasing? Check. Tendency to get power-happy and retreat into marijuana hazes? Yep, yep. Interviews with Joe’s inner circle and former lady friends reveal the man for what he was: deeply flawed, contradiction-ridden, and trying to make up for it all by reminding the world of its humanity. You will cry buckets at the end.
AN ESSENTIAL MEMOIR (WHERE ARE YOURS, BERNIE RHODES AND KOSMO VINYL?)
- Green, Johnny & Garry Barker (text) & Ray Lowry (illus). A Riot of Our Own: Night and Day with The Clash (ISBN 9780571199570): Green fell into working for The Clash as road manager and is famous for chucking the band’s equipment into the River Thames after the, er, difficult filming of the video for London Calling. Very Strummer-like in his flair for storytelling, he provides colorful, uncensored close-ups of life on the road with one of the most ferocious live acts in rock ‘n’ roll. His intent is not to expose any one member—though Mick Jones gets it, good-humoredly, for his Elizabeth Taylor–like demands for food and drugs. Overall, an excellent means of absorbing the nuances of the boys’ clashing personalities; oddly, the only memoir, period, from any of The Clash’s minders.
SOLID COFFEE-TABLE GOLD (OR SUPREME TOILET READING, IF YOU PREFER)
- Gruen, Bob. The Clash: Photographs by Bob Gruen (ISBN 9781903399347; o.p.): New Yorker extraordinaire Gruen, along with Don Letts and Pennie Smith, made up the band’s official documentarians with unrestricted access. This out-of-print, oversized paperback is a chronological record of Gruen’s working relationship with Mick, Paul, Joe, and Topper, spanning 1976 to 1983, roughly. The backstage shots are fun to gawk at—look, there’s Andy Warhol, Debbie Harry, Bo Diddly, Ian Dury, etc.! But this is really worth acquiring for the panoramic color and black-and-white stage shots of The Clash cooking with grease and the comic snapshots of them attempting to be civilians in, well, supermarkets. With daffy, snarky captions by Joe, Paul, Mick, and Gruen. Deserves a second life as a hardcover with higher production values.
- Smith, Pennie. The Clash: Before and After (ISBN 9780859651677, o.p.): I confess I do not own or have even handled what is rumored to be the most beautiful photo essay of the group. It’s been on my Most Wanted List for ten years (fucking pathetic, Heather). Anyways, you’ll just have to trust me and all the other Clash maniacs when we say you should buy it used, kiss it, and keep it under your pillow. For proof of the caliber of Smith’s work, see the iconographic cover of London Calling and Sandinista!
- Lowry, Ray (illus.) & Ben Myers. The Clash: A Rock Retrospective (ISBN 9781906283360): Late British cartoonist/painter Lowry played an important role in The Clash’s visual presentation. In 1979, he documented their North American tour in support of London Calling, for which he also did the cover design spoofing an Elvis Presley record (“God made me do it,” he says in these pages). This paperback, published shortly after his death, collects those tour illustrations, a mix of stark, bold ink drawings and strobe-light-colorful, Rorschach-ink-blotty watercolors. Not totally essential for your Clash library but a cool novelty to impress conquests and such.
FULL OF SHIT OR THE STRAIGHT DOPE?: A MIX OF BOTH, AKA OBSESSIVE BIOGRAPHY
- Gray, Marcus. The Clash: Return of the Last Gang in Town (ISBN 9780634046735): My hat goes off to Gray, the first biographer to attempt to deconstruct the elaborate hypocrisy of The Clash after their early Eighties implosion. First published in 1996 (I own a 1997 Owl paperback edition), this is detailed as fuck, the perfect fodder to feast on if you’re a Clash fan in the early throes of love. That said, it’s terribly edited, the prose comes at you like machine-gun fire, and you have to wonder at some of Gray’s facts—or at least the way he mashes them together like Midwestern hotdish ingredients. From the beginning in the book’s original edition, Gray made it all too clear for my tastes that he was out to take the band apart, as if all they deserved was to be ashamed. He tones down that ethos here, but I’m still not sure what motivates the man. A fascinating document, in any case, and a testament to the level of obsession the band inspires, even among quasi-haters/lovers.
FINALLY—AN ALBUM MAKING-OF!
- Gray, Marcus. Route 19 Revisited: The Clash and London Calling (ISBN 9781593762933): Here we have Marcus again, by all accounts just as research-frenzied but in less missionary mode. This is another book I’ve yet to read (it only came out in America in October 2010; its spine stares me in the face every day at work), but I feel compelled to put it here because of the strong reviews it received and the forthcoming film that will also delve into the writing, production, and selling of what is arguably The Clash’s finest moment, London Calling. Now, a similar book for Sandinista!, please.
NERD OVERDRIVE: ALBUM/SONG/LIVE SHOW ANALYSIS
- Topping, Keith. The Complete Clash (ISBN 9781903111703, o.p.): This is the only A–Z encyclopedia of sorts cataloging and weighing The Clash’s tremendous musical output, in the studio and live, that has ever come across my desk at work. There’s no index, a glaring oversight, but Topping clearly did his research and can turn a nice phrase. Aside from well-known singles, fans are enlightened to soundcheck favorites like “Baby, Please Don’t Go” and even the busking tunes of The Clash Mark II. Especially involving are the mini narratives of The Clash’s tours, detailing repertoires. Jalouse! If you happen to own Tony Fletcher’s competing The Clash: The Complete Guide to Their Music (Omnibus Press), let me know.
Punk Rock Nonfiction
- Bangs, Lester. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic; Rock ‘n’ Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock ‘n’ Roll (ISBN 9780679720454): OK, this isn’t a straight-up narrative recounting of the birth of punk, but late rock critic Bangs was a passionate supporter of its earliest incarnations in The Count Five, The Velvet Underground, and The Stooges. Via his twitchy, amphetamine and yet sophisticated album reviews and band profiles of, well, The Clash, you get a visceral feel for the movement’s music and philosophies, not to mention the very human desires that draw people to music. Nothing will make you feel as if you were there when you weren’t. (See my ode to Bangs in my debut post, “A First Novel Big Bang(s) Theory.”) A companion volume, Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste, was published in 2002.
- Colegrave, Stephen & Chris Sullivan. Punk: The Definitive Record of a Revolution (ISBN hc 9780304359874, o.p.; pap. ISBN 9781560257691): Copying the oral history format that Please Kill Me (see below) made popular, the co-creators of The Beatles Anthology rightly acknowledge New York City’s and London’s contributions to the movement in this oversized, photo-heavy coffee-table history, but fail to quite capture the “white-hot intercontinental transmissions,” to quote my review from 2002, that made punk so stew-rich and exciting. Way too much space is dedicated to The Sex Pistols and their entourage, key though they were. Yet there are diamond moments, like the chapter covering the doomed Anarchy in the UK Tour with black-and-white shots of pillow fights and carpet wrestling, which show the bands for the kids they mostly were.
- Lydon, John with Keith & Kent Zimmerman. Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs (ISBN 9780312118839): Lydon, of course, formerly went by the name Johnny Rotten. Back in 1995, on the eve of The Sex Pistols’ Filthy Lucre reunion tour, he became the first big punk figure to pen a memoir, and it’s a masterwork: Dickensian dark but also hilarious, profane, and searing in its quest to depict from whence “the youth culture” that stormed the King’s Road really came (hint: poverty; loads of creativity). P.S. I’m convinced Lydon is a closeted hard-boiled crime writer. This one’s as marked up as Please Kill Me (see below). I adore it.
- McNeil, Legs & Gillian McCain. Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (hc ISBN 9780802115881, o.p.; pap. ISBN 9780802142641): I first encountered this classic in a Vanity Fair excerpt, of all places, and I was heroin-hooked. When the book was finally published, I read it three times in a row, underlining and Post-It-noting key passages. Some have said McNeil and McCain give short shrift to British contributors, but their point is that punk, like jazz and baseball, is a quintessentially American invention, and they amassed a deadly arsenal of original interviews to prove it. You will laugh, you will cry, and you may come close to puking. Sex, sex, drugs, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll in paper form. See also We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk by Marc Spitz and Brendan Mullen.
- Palmer, Robert. Rock & Roll: An Unruly History (ISBN 9780517700501, o.p.): Not a dedicated histoire de punk, but I’m putting it here for effectively introducing me to the whole song and dance. “Chapter 9: Blank Generation” grabbed me at the throat with its killer quote from John Lydon: “That line about ‘no future,’ it’s prophetic: You will have no future if you don’t make one for yourself.” Like Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain (see above), the late Palmer points back to The Stooges and The Velvets before crediting lightning rods The New York Dolls, The Ramones, Patti Smith, The Sex Pistols, The Clash, etc. Simple, accessible Punk 101 from the first full-time rock critic at The New York Times.
- Savage, Jon. England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond (ISBN 9780312288228): Of the two Punk Bibles that get bandied about, this and Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (available in Google Books), I overwhelmingly prefer Savage’s work for its direct sociological explanations of why and how The Pistols & Co. happened. French situationism, I think not—these 1950s babies were dealing with the aftermath of World War II; an unending grocery list of unfulfilled promises. There are enough direct quotes from punk superstars here to fill a few stories of the Empire State Building. Eat ’em up! See also Savage’s recently released The England’s Dreaming Tapes.
STRIKING PUNK-ERA MEMOIR
- Smith, Patti. Just Kids (ISBN 9780060936228): In 2010, I saw CBGBs alumna Smith take home the National Book Award for nonfiction to raucous tears and applause. While the honor might have marked her official literary comeback, the book doesn’t need the academy’s vetting. Read it for its remarkable tenderness for the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, Smith’s first soul mate and champion whom she met shortly after moving to New York in 1969, and its incanting of the literal and spiritual hunger that fed an inspiring work ethic. Stardom would eventually be hers, first in the high-fatality arts scene that revolved around the Hotel Chelsea. The Clash make no cameos, but the same flinty bohemian aesthetic that would inspire John Mellor to become Joe Strummer drifts off these pages like smoke.
- Wolcott, James. Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York (ISBN 9780385527781): Vanity Fair blogger Wolcott arrived in broken-down Manhattan a few years after Patti Smith with one distinct advantage: a letter of recommendation from literary god Norman Mailer. Timing and one editor’s good will made up the rest of his titular good fortune, which landed him regular stints at The Village Voice and a friendship with New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael. If you don’t care to steep yourself in his coming-of-age as a squarish young man of cultural journalism in one of the most decadent eras in American urban history, skip straight to “Part III: Punk” for one of the most astute sociological takes on The Scene at CBGBs. Again, The Clash don’t rear their heads, but you can soak up the slow build of punk zeitgeist—and take a few keen writing tips.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Novels
YOUNG ADULT (WITH ADULT CROSSOVER) — SELECTED BY LAURA RANCANI
- Benway, Robin. Audrey, Wait! (ISBN 9781595141910): Imagine for a moment that your significant other wrote a song about you. Feels smooshy, doesn’t it? OK, now imagine that the song hits airwaves throughout the country. It’s inescapable. Starting to get irritated? It gets worse. You aren’t dating this person anymore. The song he wrote is a breakup song. Now that his band is a smash hit, paparazzi all want a piece of your drama. Welcome to high school student Audrey Cuttler’s life! This sassy send-up of tabloid-driven culture champions making one’s own voice heard in the midst of a swirl of rumors and rocking out like no one’s watching.
- Brothers, Meagan. Debbie Harry Sings in French (ISBN 9780805080803): Sixteen-year-old Johnny is a patient at Parkwood Rehabilitation Center after a near overdose when he first hears “Sunday Girl” by Blondie. Drawn to Debbie Harry’s glamorous image, Johnny realizes that he doesn’t just admire the lead singer’s brazen attitude and style—he wants to be beautiful and tough like her, too. This is a frank, funny, and refreshing book in which a straight male protagonist learns that finding yourself also can also involve finding your stride in white rhinestone heels and a thrift store dress inspired by the Parallel Lines album cover.
- Hughes, Mark Peter. Lemonade Mouth (ISBN 9780385735117): A dentist’s jingle, a lemonade machine, a ukelele…a revolution? Charlie, Mo, Olivia, Stella, and Wendel hardly know one another when they are all hauled into the principal’s office for separate offences. What happens next is destined to go down in Opequonsett High School history: the birth of Lemonade Mouth, the finest (and only) rock band ever formed in OHS’s detention room. Narrated in turn by each band member and peppered with the eyewitness accounts of students and faculty who experienced their self-proclaimed “Mozart on acid” wall of sound, this novel-as-band-history is at turns tart and sweet.
- Cohn, Rachel & David Levithan. Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist (ISBN 9780375835339): Nick’s the straight bass player in a queercore band. Norah’s a college-bound senior, fully aware that her parents would probably disown her for being out at a loud and sweaty club when she could be working on college applications. When word gets out that indie rock idols Where’s Fluffy? are playing a secret show, Nick’s world and Norah’s world collide as they bond, bicker, and bond again while searching the New York City streets and find themselves on the heady precipice of budding romance. The 2008 film version starring Michael Cera and Kat Dennings—while emotionally similar to the tone of the novel—remixes the story’s major elements. In other words? Read this sucker for the full scoop on these mix CD aficionados.
- Going, K.L. Fat Kid Rules the World (ISBN 9780142402085): Weighing almost 300 pounds, lonely Troy is nearly ready to end his life when a chance meeting in a train station with scrappy, homeless Curt alters his outlook. Curt demands nothing from Troy that afternoon except a meal, and so begins the teen duo’s hesitant steps toward friendship. This poignant book examines the transformative power of both music and camaraderie as the boys navigate life’s difficulties and channel their energies into making music. The raucous noise and stomach-churning stage presence they cultivate as the founding members of Rage/Tectonic are nothing short of exhilarating, and echoes of Troy’s formidable drumming skills will pound in your skull for days.
- John, Antony. Five Flavors of Dumb (ISBN 9780803734333): When sloppy garage rock band Dumb’s amp literally catches fire during an unauthorized performance on the front steps of their Seattle-area high school, Piper lights a flame of her own. On impulse, she presents the band with a challenge. If she can find them a paid gig in one month, she wants Dumb to make her the band’s official manager. This is no easy feat for a person who has never heard a note of Dumb’s music clearly. Profoundly hearing impaired since age six, Piper relies on her lip-reading abilities, residual hearing, and the vibrations produced by sound to experience and critique the band’s work. She observes Dumb’s magnificent moments and epic meltdowns through keen eyes and with fierce wit in this musical coming-of-age tale.
- Ostow, Micol (text) & David Ostow (illus). So Punk Rock (And Other Ways To Disappoint Your Mother) (ISBN 9780738714714): In Ari Abramson’s mind, there’s nothing that could more quickly improve his coolness quotient at Gittleman Jewish Day School and make the girl of his dreams start swooning over him than to be the guitarist of his own band, The Tribe. When the aspiring rock quartet he wrangles together makes major waves with a ska-infused klezmer cover of “Hava Nagila” at a friend’s bar mitzvah bash, it almost seems like Ari has it made. What could possibly stand in the way of stardom? This spirited prose-graphic hybrid created by a brother-and-sister team will induce belly laughter as The Tribe’s members encounter one decidedly unpunk roadblock after another on their quest for greatness: a snooping little brother, gawky romantic mix-up, and the dreaded SATs.
- Prinz, Yvonne. The Vinyl Princess (ISBN 9780061715839): Audiophile extraordinaire and employee of Bob & Bob Records, 16-year-old Allie resolves to reach out from her Berkeley, CA, home to other vinyl geeks across the globe as web mistress of http://www.vinylprincess.com and creator of an accompanying print fanzine. Though the speed at which her blog takes off—as well as the inclusion of a mystery subplot involving a string of local robberies—requires some suspension of disbelief, Allie’s passion for music rings true. This love letter to the analog format and celebration of indie record shops is a charmer.
- Simmons, Michael. Vandal (ISBN 9781596430709): Perhaps the last thing you’d expect to happen as a result of competing in a teen talent show would be an offer from a KISS tribute band to perform regularly as the band’s lead guitarist, but 15-year-old Will isn’t used to a typical life. Wildly cheering crowds both baffle and please Will, but when his Ace Frehley costume is off, he wonders when the police will next show up bearing news of his older brother Jason’s latest exploits. Fascinated and unnerved by Jason’s chronically destructive behavior, Will offers his brother an opportunity to serve as a roadie for KISS FOREVER. Can this shared experience heal family wounds? Find out in this brief and bittersweet examination of the complexities of sibling relationships.
- Watts, Leander. Beautiful City of the Dead (ISBN 9780618594993): Shuttled off for her first day at her new high school despite the fact she is ill, Zee almost mistakes her conversation with mysterious Relly for a fever dream. Could this cagey, guitar-toting boy really be serious about her joining his band, Scorpio Bone, as their new bassist? Add into the mix capricious lead singer Jerod and the aptly nicknamed Butt—drummer and toilet humor enthusiast—and the essence of “ghost metal” is born: music so loud that a quiet place shimmers just below the volatile surface of the sound. The band’s achievement of ghost metal state during a live set triggers a spooky supernatural rivalry with adults in their community in this poetic, blistering work of urban fantasy.