Monday, July 30, 2012

100 reviews, # 2: Mark Baumgarten's Love Rock Revolution

A few years ago I was wisely cautioned not to trust my own judgment on books by people I knew; there’s little doubt that in most cases – even if you love the book in question – you are going to be biased in some way (and often you won’t love it at all, for the wrong reasons). The same is true when it comes to books about people you admire, particularly if in some minor respect you have played a part in their world.

In my case when it comes to Mark Baumgarten’s Love Rock Revolution, I was there (very occasionally) and always interested even when I wasn’t. Recalling my own experience, I have located a number of errors and half-truths in Baumgarten’s text; and naturally, this causes me to feel unwilling to trust the veracity of the rest.

I first encountered Calvin Johnson in 1984, when he sent a cassette of his group Beat Happening’s Three Tea Breakfast to my fanzine. I was instantly engaged by this very minimal, exotic trio and their intuitive embrace of pop. Two years later – during which time Calvin’s K label produced further Beat Happening releases, notably a single and an LP – I traveled to the US and spent some time (over a week?) in Olympia with Calvin and Lois Maffeo; I met Stella Marrs (who wrote the introduction to this book) and Patrick Maley. It was the week of my 21st birthday; Calvin and Lois sang ‘happy birthday’ to me in an abandoned cemetery in Oregon, within moments of my almost treading on a rattlesnake.

I have returned to Olympia at least three times (maybe more) since, and came to know many other people – mainly but not only musicians – in the town. K released two singles by my band, and Pat Maley, another inspired and principled Olympian, recorded and released some other material I worked on; I spent time with Candice Pedersen, Calvin’s longtime business partner in K, in London and more recently with Lois and Calvin at different times in Australia. Which is to say, I was a bit player in the K/Olympia movie of the 80s-90s, but at the same time, I always felt honoured to play that little part in the whole, and the people I knew/know from there have had a huge influence on me over time, one I suspect was possibly mainly positive.

To emphasise: it was a bit part. I don’t believe Mark Baumgarten was mistaken to not interview me for his book, and in fact I don’t think that the Cannanes should have had more prominence than they do (though his description of the group is ludicrous; he obviously didn’t listen to the records).

I will say this: why of the one mention Baumgarten makes of me, does he rehash the story that in May 1986 I took a copy of the first Beat Happening album to Jerry Thackray who in turn played it for someone at Rough Trade, which released it in the UK? I guess I am egotistical enough to be perturbed by the thought that this is presently my biggest claim to fame: I was a part-way messenger for the Atlantic stretch of a now little-thought-of (it was their weakest) LP’s journey to an English record company. I am also a bit confused about how record labels normally hear bands and records; surely for decades people had played record company people records while saying ‘you should put this out’. Which is to say: it’s not even a very good story. But Jerry’s told it in a book at least once, Lois told it in her Beat Happening box set booklet, and now here it is again. I am not denying it happened; I’m only denying it’s interesting. Oddly, Baumgarten later ascribes Beat Happening’s relationship with Rough Trade to be the work of another man altogether; a curious twist, and a problematic one given the above, though I’m very happy for someone else to enjoy a place in the sun for this stellar act.

Back to matters of consequence: I have to say I tend to feel that as a book about the Olympia scene of the 80s-90s is concerned, this is really only just a first stab. Baumgarten talked to quite a few people, and I suspect quite a few others refused to talk to him (Jerry Thackray has recently said online that Baumgarten contacted him for an interview then didn’t follow through). I also wonder if some only agreed to talk on the condition that the book be a certain kind of history. The complete absence of personal relationships in the text – by which I mean, the various pairings and affairs that will naturally take place in a town full of young people with no reason not to carouse – is the first victim in the historical narrative. Now, I wasn’t looking for a kiss-and-tell, and nor do I believe that people should be defined by who they sleep with, and so on. But the people outlined in Baumgarten’s book are like anatomically incorrect dolls: aside from occasional references to sexual orientation (i.e., broadly defining people by who they sleep with), there are no assignations, liaisons or… anything. People who I know went out with each other, by which I mean, boyfriend and girlfriend, are just good friends in Baumgarten’s world. Now, when I wrote my Go-Betweens book, I walked a difficult line; perhaps to my discredit, I discussed some relationships, and not others, using a personal, inexplicable and largely forgotten set of criteria. But I did at least acknowledge that romantic relationships, per se, existed. At times reading this book you feel like you are dealing with a bunch of Sims.

Elsewhere the narrative is just dodgy. Beat Happening all go to Japan, then all return, and then ‘After returning to Olympia, Calvin and Bret reconnected with Heather’ (p. 93). I don’t get it (nor do I get the use of first names throughout, but let it pass). When discussing the Thackray-Go Team contribution, Baumgarten seems to find it an amusing quirk that Thackray is credited as ‘The Legend!’ – except this is the name he’d been known by for at least six years by that stage, in both recording and writing. These are things I feel confident stating are problematic; there are plenty of other elements that seem wrong. Then there’s the proofreading. A growing number of groups ‘made due’?? (p. 63). Calvin started asking Steve Connell for ‘advise’? (p. 97) and so on.

Perhaps to my mind the biggest issue here is that Baumgarten seems to consider the K label more interesting as an idea than any of its output. This is a belief more easily sustained when plainly he has never heard a lot of the material released. He makes it clear from the outset how highly he regards mainstream groups like the Beatles and the Jam; he also gives enormous coverage and credence to Nirvana – even declaring them ‘more talented’ than Beat Happening, an odd declaration in a book and also an opinion I consider stupid but mainly, when did it become a competition?

So, in the final analysis, the real lesson to be learnt from Love Rock Revolution is: not only should historians (amateur or professional, but using appropriately stringent methods) be the ones writing history, but it also helps when picking a topic to try something you actually like and are interested in – in Baumgarten’s case, big-name ‘talents’ from the pantheon of done-to-death (or indeed actually dead) top 40 stars. Certainly, the Baumgarten effort could have been a lot worse. I hope, however, that someone will ultimately take up the challenge of writing one a lot better. 

5 comments:

Everett said...

Fine article, David.

Just a small point. To the best of my recollection, the members of Beat Happening were always known as Heather, Calvin and Bret (one 't' in Brett) - I seem to recall Calvin deliberately eschewed the use of last names.

I haven't seen the book so I can't comment on it specifically, but I agree with your broad points, for certain.

In fact, I am unlikely to ever read this book as the author has seen fit to promote it via a testimonial from former Bruce Springsteen fan club president Charles Cross. It's hard to imagine a man less qualified to comment on the Oly love rock scene of the 80s and 90s: cock rock has always been his forte - cock rock and telling a side of the story than no one who was part of it recognises.

This lack of commonsense on Baumgarten's part makes me question his ability to tell the K Records story to such a degree, I doubt I will ever pick up his book.

As ever, I prefer my own version of history most: failing that, versions of history told by people I love and trust.

David Nichols said...

Jerry, correct, mainly. BH were Calvin, Heather, Bret (I fixed the 'tt' - my mistake). But no-one else signed up to first-name-only terms, and outside the world of BH, it does seem silly. Everyone prefers their version of history, almost by definition, but a disinterested historian should at least try to go beyond that.

Tobi Vail said...

The first part of the book is pretty great...but it's also the part I'm not an expert on so there could be mistakes there that I didn't catch,

The Go Team history is not very factually accurate. I personally don't even really recognize the project that is described as The Go Team and I was in that band, as an equal partner, from 1985-1989. The chronology is wrong and they don't even mention the Birdcrash cassette or Archer Come Sparrow, which were central to Olympia /K 1986-88.

I couldn't figure out when Beat Happening were in Japan from reading the book but yeah, it doesn't really explain why or when Heather was gone and why she was back or anything about her personally at all...and it could be argued that she is the most interesting part of the group! I did notice that the author describes the cover of the Greg Sage produced Beat Happening tape and calls it Three Tea Breakfast, which is a pretty big mistake.

I think that the fact that the book doesn't talk about relationships or sex at all is just one symptom of the larger problem, which is that the history is very male-centered.

I don't think this guy tried to interview me, but I could be wrong. I know Heather and Lois probably didn't want to be interviewed but that is too bad. There were plenty of women involved in every era of K and Calvin has had many creative and business partnerships with women that are not documented in the book.

I did enjoy the first section of the book a lot and thought the story was interesting. I will review it sooner or later!

David Nichols said...

Tobi, exactly. As it happened I composed a paragraph on what I saw as the flaws in the Go Team part of the book and then I just got too confused particularly by the seemingly messed up chronology. I agree with you that it is male-centred and this struck me particularly in the way he deals with Heather's contribution to Beat Happening. If I remember correctly he throws in a whole paragraph that is basically the lyrics to one of her songs, and makes no further comment. What's that about?! And it's certainly true to say that Calvin and Bret are comparatively rounded personalities in the book compared to Heather, who is a cipher as far as Baumgarten's concerned. You certainly barely feature relative to your importance to the story. The more I think about it, the more things, people, places and events occur to me that just aren't featured and should have been.

I have to say this is just one more example of what I've always said. Everyone has to take care of their own legacy - otherwise someone else will do it for them, and the end result won't make anyone happy.

Steve said...

I've thought for many years that the ideal book about the Olympia-based music scenes -- K would be a huge part of it, but also obviously KRS, Yoyo, the origins of Sub Pop, Op magazine, and so much more -- would be an oral history. So many super-smart, super-verbal people . . . But who would put it together? How could it be edited so it wasn't overwhelming? I'd publish it in a heartbeat, of course . . .