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.

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