Tuesday, July 8, 2008


Review of Drive: A Road Trip Through Our Complicated Affair with the Automobile by Toronto journalist Tim Falconer. A slightly condensed version appeared in the Toronto Star in May 2008.

Is a car simply an appliance, a tool that performs a task, or is it a ticket to life-affirming, life-altering experiences? That’s one of the questions at the heart of Drive, Tim Falconer’s consideration of car culture. As for Falconer’s book itself, it’s more appliance than experience – dependable, sure, and stocked with information, but decidedly short on thrills.

Falconer, a Toronto journalist, wants to write about how cars have sprawled our cities, made us lazy, and complicated our lives. And he’s done plenty of research to back it up. But he also wants (quite sensibly) to bring some sense of narrative to that research, and also to understand the deep connection so many people feel with their rides. And so a road trip is born. Falconer sets out from Toronto in his ’91 Nissan Maxima and drives all the way to California, reporting on his progress and interviewing various auto enthusiasts and industry types as he goes.

Drive thus proceeds along two fronts. Falconer doles out background on everything from the history of car design to advertising through the decades to professional car racing, while theoretically using his own experiences and encounters along the way to add colour. It all reads as a bit of a grab bag, but one main theme does emerge: car culture is bad for urban planning, but folks sure do love their cars. For much of the book, these ideas are repeated more than expanded upon.

That’s one problem with Drive. Another is that the colour isn’t very, well, colourful. Falconer writes about highway traffic, about auto-themed tourist attractions (like the Cadillac Ranch, a handful of cars upended and stuck into the Texas desert), and about the ups and downs of the historic Route 66 in the southwest U.S. He also records his impressions of the various cities he passes through, rating them on how inviting they are. But while Falconer’s prose is serviceable enough, he struggles with setting a vivid scene or capturing the spark of a personality. He introduces just about everyone he encounters, for example, with a superficial physical trait or two – descriptions that range from nearly meaningless (“a small, thin, fey man with bleached blond hair”) to laughably absurd (“a small, dark-haired man who wore running shoes and jeans without a belt”).

The author himself strikes a position somewhere between amiable and altogether edgeless. He throws out general disapproval over traffic volume, suburban sprawl, and our car-enabled sedentary lifestyles. But the more specific the subject gets, the more his own opinions seem to retreat. After describing a crass TV ad that plays on parental anxieties, Falconer offers this hard-hitting analysis: “Some people found these spots offensive because they seemed to suggest that people who didn’t pony up for the expensive service didn’t care about the safety of their family.” It’s not the last time we hear from these mysterious “some people” or “more than a few people.”

As an argument, the book is strongest in its final chapter, which makes the case that downtown traffic tolls would both acknowledge the true societal cost of congestion and generate revenue for improved public transit. London, England, has tried this approach with some success. but here in Toronto, Mayor David Miller toyed with the idea and then quickly backtracked. “Miller is just one more politician without the guts to make tough decisions against cars and drivers,” writes Falconer, in a rare but welcome flash of fire.

Drive has other pleasures here and there; they come and go like rest stops on the highway. One charming section recounts a night at a family-friendly drive-in outside Picton, Ontario; another intriguingly describes the way technology is used to track traffic patterns. Overall, though, the book keeps to the middle of the road: it’s informative enough but not fascinating, entertaining enough but not captivating.

Falconer ends Drive with a playlist of rock and roll car songs, including Chuck Berry and the inevitable Springsteen but also the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner” and Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn.” It’s a bit of fun that seems out of place, and ironically, it reminds the reader that the book itself could have used some more rock and roll energy.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Black Postcards

Review of indie-rocker Dean Wareham’s memoir Black Postcards: A Rock & Roll Romance. Appeared in the Toronto Star, spring 2008.

Dean Wareham is a rock star – sort of. Like countless indie musicians before and after him, Wareham has spent his career in a no man’s land somewhere between obscurity and mainstream success. His fans are numerous enough that he can earn a living with regular club gigs, but not quite numerous enough to make that living an enviable one.

All of which makes Wareham a refreshing rock memoirist. The genre’s usually given over to tales of fiscal excess and champion debauchery, but Black Postcards, Wareham’s new book, is about as far from Motley Crue’s The Dirt as you can get.

Wareham’s known as the frontman for two cult bands: Galaxie 500 in the late 1980s, and then Luna from 1992 to 2005. Both groups blended dreamy pop and rock-snob taste in influences (Velvet Underground, Talking Heads, Modern Lovers) with Wareham’s expressive guitar solos and somewhat less expressive vocals. He may not seem like a likely author – his doggerel lyrics were usually the weakest thing about his records – but the book shows him to be an observant guy with a wry sense of humour.

A New Zealander by birth, Wareham moved to New York City as a teenager with his family, and began his musical career while attending Harvard. As Black Postcards recounts, in Cambridge he learns the guitar and begins playing with an old high school classmate, Damon Krukowski. Eventually the two of them form Galaxie 500, with Krukowski on drums and his girlfriend, Naomi Yang, on bass.

Galaxie 500 made three cult-classic albums, but the personal dynamics were tense; in one of indie rock’s more legendary breakups, Wareham quit the group suddenly in 1991, deeply embittering his former bandmates. In Black Postcards, Krukowski and Yang do not come off well. Wareham paints the couple – convincingly, it must be said – as controlling, petty, and insecure. They constantly outvote him on band decisions, even though he writes most of Galaxie’s songs. And it’s hard not to seethe on Wareham’s behalf when they berate him just for playing a solo charity gig or, even more absurdly, for stepping into a spotlight onstage.

So Wareham splits the scene and forms a new band. Luna’s story is not as ugly as Galaxie 500’s, but in some ways it’s even more dispiriting. The band begins with promise, but by Wareham’s own estimation, they peak with their third album, Penthouse. They go on to record four more, but Wareham seems to find the process increasingly painful, and to take less and less pride in the end result. And a commercial breakthrough eludes the group: they shuffle from one record company to another and tour constantly, usually playing the same clubs again and again.

Wareham’s candor about these frustrations is the greatest strength of Black Postcards. With a light and self-deprecating touch, he thoroughly debunks standard rock mythologies. The touring life? A thankless grind punctuated by band bickering and misadventures, enlivened only by drugs or tawdry one-night stands. Luna’s recorded legacy? Wareham can barely muster any interest in most of his own albums. The adulation of fans? “If you wanted to try and pick up a girl, you had to make an effort,” he explains. “You had to wade out into the audience immediately after the show, pretend to look busy, and then answer a lot of stupid questions from guys who wanted to know what kind of distortion pedals we use.”

Amid all the cheer, the intra-band dynamics are regular points of interest. The various Galaxie 500 psychodramas stand out, of course. But Sean Eden, Luna’s Ontario-born second guitarist, is also a memorable figure. He comes off as mainly benign but hopelessly neurotic, rerecording his own guitar parts for hours on end in the studio while his bandmates twiddle their thumbs.

Lest readers assume the subtitle of Black Postcards must be sarcasm in action, genuine romance does bloom with the arrival of a new Luna bassist, the beautiful Britta Phillips. She and Wareham fall for each other on the tour carousel and eventually become an item. Wareham, however, is already married, with a young son. After much agonizing and some psychotherapy, he leaves his wife for Phillips. Since Luna’s 2005 breakup, Wareham and Phillips have recorded and toured as a duo.

The torn-between-two-lovers stuff is quite affecting, helped by Wareham’s bold honesty. (To his considerable credit, Black Postcards never once reads like he’s trying to court the reader’s sympathy.) But it would all be much more affecting if we had even the barest sense of either woman’s personality. Throughout the book, both Phillips and Wareham’s wife, Claudia, remain near-total ciphers. Perhaps this springs from an admirable impulse to protect their privacy, but the decision does Wareham’s narrative no favours.

In fact, whatever Black Postcards’ merits as an honest document of an intriguing career, it doesn’t exactly mark the arrival of a major new literary talent. Stylistically, Wareham mostly relies on flat, offhand declarations that give the book the feel of an as-told-to. (“I was a father now. It was exciting and scary.”) And for content, he relies too much on his tour diaries; huge patches of the book are devoted to tedious city-by-city summary. Black Postcards is a must-read for any fan of Wareham’s music, and should engage general indie-music fans too, but its appeal outside those boundaries will be slim.