Ernesto “Che” Guevara – The Motorcycle Diaries

The Motorcycle Diaries

Ernesto “Che” GuevaraThe Motorcycle Diaries (Verso 1995)

The Motorcycle Diaries is a book based on a diary that Ernesto “Che” Guevara kept while on a lengthy journey through South American in 1951 and 1952 with his friend Alberto Granado.  Guevara was 23 when he began the more than six-month trip, and was still in medical school (in his native Argentina) at the time.  These aren’t raw diary entries, but are eloquently re-written vignettes based on the diary notes.  The prose is excellent, poetic even.  Guevara comes across as a more compelling version of beat writer Jack Kerouac, with more of a sense of purpose and minus the narcissism of Kerouac.  There are a few comments here and there about politics and political economy, but for the most part this is just an engaging coming-of-age travelogue about two bohemian vagabonds getting to know a wider world and its people.  Tennessee Williams‘ character Blanche duBois has the famous line in A Streetcar Named Desire, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”  That more or less perfectly describes Guevara and Granado’s approach to their expedition, as they lacked sufficient funds and provisions and therefore begged, connived, and (sometimes) worked for food, shelter, rides, and other provisions much of the time.  Guevara has a keen eye for character and motivations as he describes the people he encounters.  He also acknowledges the undercurrent of decadence in the trip.  Some editions of the book reprint part of a 1960 speech Guevara gave that nicely adds context to how the expedition shaped his own character, and also contextualizing how such experiences are the sort of thing that are socially necessary in shedding goals that involve striving for individual recognition in favor of advancing common dignity.  After his assassination, Jean-Paul Sartre would famously describe Guevara as “not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age.”  And as Thomas Sankara said about Che in a speech October 8, 1987 commemorating the twentieth anniversary of Che’s assassination, a week before Sankara too was assassinated, that Che “turned his back on the easy road in order, on the contrary, to assert himself as a man of the people, a man who makes common cause with the people, a man who makes common cause with the suffering of others.”  He added, “Finally, let us remember Che simply as an embodiment of eternal romanticism, of fresh and invigorating youth, and at the same time of the clear-sightedness, wisdom, and devotion that only profound men, men with heart, can possess.”  One can get a glimpse of why Sartre and Sankara, and so many others, said these things by starting with The Motorcycle Diaries, which sounds out a portrait of an imperfect human being trying to be better.

Joe Boyd – White Bicycles

White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s

Joe BoydWhite Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s (Serpent’s Tail 2006)

Joe Boyd is a music and film producer, and onetime club operator.  His name is all over a lot of curious music from the late 1960s and early 1970s (and less conspicuous music after that), mostly folk, folk-rock and psychedelic rock.  White Bicycles is his memoir of that time.  He describes a trip to Great Britain in early 1965, saying, “I loved the feeling that I was in a foreign place, and the more alien the better.” (p. 65).  This works as a concise summary of his musical tastes as well.  Always keen for the most exotic sounds — especially if they can also be labeled “authentic” — he was kind of a collector of musical trophy experiences.  At least, that he how his memoir White Bicycles reads.  He provides only the barest details of anything about his life that isn’t a brag, or used as a discrete counterweight to give a more punch to an extended brag — like the story of walking away from the rights to ABBA‘s publishing before they got huge is really an excuse to claim he was in on the band’s appeal before the rest of the world.  But he certainly did rack up an impressive resume of musical acquaintances, record production credits (or co-credits), and scene caché.

As a writer, Boyd is kind of an expert con man.  He has a journalist’s flair for witty one-liners and turns of phrase.  He also has a deep appreciation for how the universal can be explained though isolated examples, betraying that universality in a memoir that seems to suggest (implicitly) that everything universal about the 1960s had something to do with him.  It isn’t that he lies or exaggerates.  The man was there for a lot of important countercultural milestones, though he should earn no credit or applause for it because anyone with the opportunities and resources that he did should have been obligated to do at least as much.  For instance, he suddenly is helping manage the Newport Jazz Festival, but we read nothing about how he managed to get the job.  We hear about how he stretches his resources and empty pockets when in college, though a moment’s pause might remind the reader that Boyd is in an Ivy League college in the first place, with room and board, and still able to travel and devote any earnings toward discretionary travel and musical investments.

Boyd is at his best doing hit-and-run synopses of particular artists and musical sub-cultures, from the sympathetic perspective of someone who “was there.”  When it comes to autobiographical details, his accounts are thin and self-serving.  There is no shortage of name-dropping.  Yet that’s also the reason anyone reads this book, to find out about the seemingly unending roster of musical luminaries that crossed paths with Boyd at one point or another.  But his little synopses are quite engaging, like one about the music of his teenage years:

“The years 1954 to 1956 were the great cusp, when black music was discovered by white teenagers and sold millions of records. The horrified guardians of the nation’s morals feared the underclass world it represented and the miscegenation implied in its rhythms; major record labels hated it because they didn’t understand it, putting them at a disadvantage with buccaneering independents [he mentions a few, none from the South, leaving out Sam Phillips at Sun]”. (p. 8)

He does sum up the book on a sober point about music in the 1960s:

“The atmosphere in which music flourished then had a lot to do with economics.  It was a time of unprecedented prosperity.  People are supposedly wealthier now, yet most feel they haven’t enough money and time is at an even greater premium.  ***  In the sixties, we had surpluses of both money and time.  ***  The tightening of the fiscal screws that began with the 1973 oil crisis may not have been a conspiracy to rein in this dangerous laxness, but it has certainly worked out to the advantage of the powerful.  Ever since, prices have ratcheted upwards in relation to hours worked and the results of this squeeze can be seen everywhere.” (pp. 267-68).

This is all true, to a point.  But your frame of reference has to be that of middle and upper-middle class white people.  This book will appeal most if you are one of those too.  It also must be mentioned that the way that things have changed such that the 60s experiences can’t be recreated a half-century later just happens to emphasize the rarity of Boyd’s experiences, and that privileged rarity is what he plies to his own advantage.

In the end Boyd manages to paint vivid portraits of scenes and incidents from his life. He is nothing if not articulate.  Whether these portraits, and their point of view, is of interest, though, is kind of a separate issue. Boyd doesn’t emerge from the narrative as the sort of chum you are likely to find endearing. There is an elitism and off-putting self-importance to much of his chosen narrative.  This is to say Boyd stops short of making any kind of existential realization that the achievements he boasts about are just as silly and arbitrary as anything else, and they stand in the way of the benign co-existence he claims to have fostered through music — in a way, therein lies the seeds of the downfall of 60s ideals.  Your interest will probably peak if you have heard a lot of musical acts that Boyd was involved with: Pink Floyd, Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, The Incredible String Band, Nico, Vashti Bunyan, Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath, etc.

Svetlana Gouzenko – Before Igor: My Memories of a Soviet Youth

Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organization“For the October Revolution our class produced a small play in which a group of young Pioneers expelled the heroes of Russian fairy tales as ‘non-Soviet elements’.  The curtain opened on this drab little group of Pioneers.  Their appearance brought no response from the audience.  Then the group leader . . . got up and made an introductory speech.  She explained that the old fairy tales, about princes and princesses, exploiters of simple folk, were unfit for Soviet children.  As for fairies and Father Frost [~Father Christmas/Santa Claus], they were simply myths created to fool children.

“After her speech the colorful crowd of ‘non-Soviet elements’ appeared on stage.  A sigh of delight passed through the hall and grew into a wave of applause . . . .

“The Trial began.  Cinderella was dragged before the judges and accused of betraying the working class . . . .  Next came Father Frost, who was accused of climbing down chimneys to spy on people.  One by one we were condemned to exile.  The only exception was Ivan the Fool, because he belonged to the common people and so was no traitor of his class.  He was renamed Ivan the Cunning.”

Svetlana Gouzenko, Before Igor: My Memories of a Soviet Youth (1961)

Gouzenko was the wife of Soviet defector/traitor Igor Sergeyevich Gouzenko, a key figure in the start of the “cold war”.  The passage quoted above sneers at the Pioneers, and sympathizes with betrayers of the working class, but wasn’t that play great?  Children should put it on again.

Loretta Lynn – Still Woman Enough

Still Woman Enough: A Memoir

Loretta Lynn with Patsi Bale CoxStill Woman Enough: A Memoir (Thorndike Press, 2002)

Loretta Lynn’s second memoir fills in a few gaps from her first, Coal Miner’s Daughter (1977), and picks up the years since that first book.  This isn’t an autobiography that attempts to chronicle her entire life.  It is episodic, jumping from one story to the next, revealing only as much as Lynn wishes.  At times, that is the biggest limitation of the book.  When she has something nice to say about someone, they are mentioned by name.  When she has something negative to say about a person or band or business, she typically withholds the proper name.  This is somewhat common with country music memoirs (Cash: The Autobiography does a little of the same, for instance).  But the strength of the book is Lynn’s willingness to accept herself as she is without letting shame or embarrassment get in the way — at one point she acknowledges that she doesn’t read well.

The bulk of the book is devoted to explaining her relationship with her husband, known by his nicknames Doolittle and Mooney.  As much as her music creates a persona of an independent woman, she stuck with Doo since her marriage at age thirteen, in spite of his philandering, alcoholism, abusiveness, jealousy, male chauvinism, and general craziness.  She also writes a lot about the rest of her family, including her many children.  There are maybe two pages total devoted to recordings, a larger number devoted to descriptions of live performances, and substantially more to the grind and crazy escapades of touring and being in the cutthroat entertainment industry.

Loretta Lynn’s best quality was her earnestness and total lack of guile.  This shone through her music brilliantly.  This memoir captures that same aspect, though at the same time her naivety comes through too, and it is hard to accept her frequently superficial explanations on a few topics, some of which veer into supernatural explanations.  One such problem is that while she (rightly) takes some credit for being a pioneering businesswoman in the music industry, taking more control over her music than “girl singers” were usually permitted in the misogynist Nashville music machine, she has no grasp whatsoever of broader social forces.  So she never quite gets around to offering any explicit context for how the three decade “golden years” of the working class coincided with her rise to fame.  If you want that analysis you will need to look for a biography.  But she still has plenty of great stories that revolve around her likeable bewilderment.  For instance, she talks about being on a Dean Martin celebrity roast and leaning over during the taping to ask Martin when dinner will be served — she thought the event was really a dinner where celebrities get together and (literally) eat a pot roast.

I was reading this on an airplane and a steward leaned over and asked what it was, then — after saying he admired Loretta Lynn too — jokingly suggested that maybe I should put it in a paper bag so no one could see it.  The cover definitely markets this as a “woman’s” book, the kind promoted on daytime TV.  No doubt, this is driven by emotional responses to difficult life circumstances.  But anyway, it is a decent enough memoir though this will probably only be coherent if you have read her first memoir or have seen the (rather excellent) biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), which is mentioned many, many times.

George Clinton – Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You?

Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard on You?: A Memoir

George Clinton With Ben GreenmanBrothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You?: A Memoir (Simon & Schuster 2014)

George Clinton, of ParliamentFunkadelic fame, has written his memoir in the “as told to” format with journalist Ben Greenman.  This gives the book a narrative feel, as if gathered from a series of conversations or recorded monologues.  It’s comparable to other memoirs in that format (Cash: The Autobiography, The Autobiography of Malcolm X).  Fans of Clinton’s music will learn plenty about how his bands evolved.  The accounts of some of his bandmates are a little selective.  Though his friendship with Sly Stone in the 1980s and 90s is rendered well as a sympathetic portrait of another star on a downward slide still trying to forge his own way.  The first parts of the book, recounting his early days in a hard-working touring band and the middle years as part of a colossal musical entertainment empire that evolves into a corporate “organization”, are snappy and engaging like most music memoirs of this sort, while the last part of book covering the later years (tales of old fart funkadelijunkie) are bitter and resentful and a bit less endearing, just like so many of these memoirs that chronicle the autumnal years when few(er) were listening.

Latter-day fans who think of Parliament-Funkdaelic as two sides of the same band may be surprised to learn how differently they evolved, meeting only for a brief window in time.  Funkadelic established itself first, and the band was influenced by psychedelic rock.  Clinton mentions the English rock supergroup Cream as an influence repeatedly, and The Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix.  He had an appreciation for the white British invasion blues-rock bands, applauding their interpretations of black American blues.  He talks about Funkadelic being a very democratic band into the early 1970s.  But he also discusses those days like a businessman, never failing to mention how he watched the charts for ideas, made promotional connections in radio, and worked every angle on commercial terms.  When Parliament takes off in popularity, Clinton jumps at the chance to be the frontman.  He felt that to be really huge a band has to have a focal point.  What he glosses over, though, is what the rest of the band thought about that.  Clinton talks about some of the key members like Eddie Hazel, but others are mentioned more in passing.  He addresses some of the splinter bands led by others with a sense of slightly condescending pity.

If you believe Clinton’s account — and you probably can’t believe all of it — he has been screwed royally on financial matters and he’s cleaned up his life just before writing this book.  Still, he comes across as pretty defensive.  He has a rationale for everything.  Yet he works pretty hard to put those rationales across to the reader, while trying not to let on to those intentions and apologetics.  He is also a bit hypocritical.  He waxes on about how all music is adapted from other music.  And yet, a good portion of this book is a rant about how he’s been ripped off, especially in the hip-hop era when DJs have frequently sampled Parliament-Funkadelic songs.  On one page, he’s praising adaptations of old songs (without payment), on another he’s complaining how he hasn’t been paid for samples.  Now, he makes some good points that sampling royalties shouldn’t be set up as they are, and should instead be proportional to the sales of the sampler.  But his arguments are confused and rather self-serving, ultimately resting on nothing more than his whims and fancies.  Some deserve compensation, and others not, and the two can hardly be told apart without Clinton’s infinite wisdom (read: unlimited discretion).  He mentions the George Harrison/Chiffons copyright lawsuit, and defends the ridiculous outcome.  Yeah, maybe Clinton fell in with some crooked people who haven’t compensated him and pocketed the difference.  He makes that case.  It is a fair argument.  But the idea that anybody at all should be raking in royalties for their efforts of decades before, and that sampling isn’t a fair use that creates no need for royalty payments, have kind of assumed away a big part of the public policy issues.

The most interesting way to look at this book is to set aside Clinton’s own spin and put his hippie ideals into a sharper critical focus.  Sure, he was into free love and all that, though pretty early on he tried to reveal the superficiality of much of the 60s counterculture, in terms of how it failed to fundamentally transform society.  But doesn’t that critique apply to him as well?  The book doesn’t go there, but it should have.

Clinton is fast to discard the democratic cooperation of Funkadelic to achieve bigger commercial success with Parliament.  The question of what was surrendered in that process goes largely unexamined, and the assumption that big commercial success is necessarily an achievement superior to purely cultural cachet looms large over the narrative.  He derides those who sought material possessions.  Yet at the same time he talks about how he instead wanted to use his wealth from Parliament’s success to accumulate experiences.  Social scientists have explored how developing “cultural capital” through exclusive experiences and the “nonproductive consumption of time” is just another mode of establishing social distinction, not really opposed to the kind of thinking that gives rise to conspicuous consumption of luxury items.  This is a curious flaw in Clinton’s version of hippie ideals.

He blasts those whose message was about “pointing at a power structure and condemning it as they went about installing themselves at the head of a new one.”  But again, his pleas for credit (and remuneration) for his past achievements kind of seek to locate himself at a particular position in popular musical history, which is to say in a hierarchy.  When discussing a Funkadelic reunion project that required large payments to Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell, Clinton complains about how they wanted to be reinstated as co-leaders and acted like stars, lording that status over the long-time (yet non-famous) members of his working band.  Who decided that Clinton gets to make these calls?  Hasn’t the audience, for better or worse, decided that they want to hear Bernie and Bootsy more than the members of Clinton’s latter-day working band?  Isn’t that really why Clinton recruited Bernie and Bootsy back in the first place?  There is a tacit assumption that in spite of what the audience thinks he gets to be the center of the operation and, like a CEO, slot everyone else in the band into their “proper” place.  Sound very hippie-like to you?  Or were hippies always short-sighted capitalists at heart, evidenced by the way they later gave into the “me generation” and vapid 1980s Reaganomics materialism?  Don’t expect Clinton to pause long on these questions, because he doesn’t.

No doubt, Clinton has made some great music in his long career.  But was his autobiography published only because of his musical talent or did his relentless ability to self-promote have more to do with it?  The man admits some faults and mistakes, for sure, but those admissions are limited mostly to things he feels like he has since resolved.  The demons he hasn’t bested still lurk in the shadows, and those shadows seep into the pages of this book more than Clinton probably intended.  It is good to have this available as Clinton’s side of the story, but there are other perspectives that need to be explored to understand the Parliament-Funkadelic legacy.

Viv Albertine – Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.

Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys

Viv AlbertineClothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.  (Faber and Faber, 2014)

There have been many memoirs published from surviving punk rock personalities.  These include a recent spate of books from women involved in the scene, and its offshoots, from Patti Smith‘s lauded Just Kids to Kim Gordon‘s Girl in a Band: A Memoir.  Viv Albertine, who was the guitarist for the iconoclastic (even by liberal standards) UK punk band The Slits, contributes her own memoir with Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys.  Albertine is not a trained writer and so, like her music, her book is direct and from the gut.  It is made up of mostly short chapters, arranged chronologically.  Each has a punchy theme and tries to grab the reader with its candidness and revealing, even lurid, tidbits.  It wouldn’t convey as much about the punk ethos if it was written any other way.  It is a book refreshingly light on grandstanding and self-mythologizing — the bane of many memoirs — as well as fake humility and fabricated adversities (at least, taking much of this at face value).

The book is in two parts, named “Sides” (like an LP).  The first covers her childhood up through the early 1980s dissolution of her band The Slits.  Most readers came for this part of the book, with its gossip about the punk scene and first hand account of what it was like to be a part of the now-legendary Slits.  The second part of the book is the rest of her life, one filled with more “typical girl” issues like making a living and having a family.  Much of side two would fit comfortably on a daytime talk show for middle class viewers.  But throughout, Albertine comes across as remarkably candid, and for all the lurid gossip and confessional tracts, she tries to stick with a tone that is questioning and humble.

The book’s title is drawn from what her mother complained were the only things she talked about growing up.  Clothes come first.  Chapters include photos and many descriptions of outfits.  This was clearly a big part of what she spent time thinking about all her life.  Some scenes in the book seem to revolve around how certain clothing was selected, and often the mention of certain brand names stands in for more detailed description of the appearance of that clothing.  What is revealing though, is how these descriptions of clothing labels, cut, color, modification, purchase location and such actually fade in and out of the story.  It is when Albertine sees potential and promise in her life that clothing takes on a prominent role, at least a sufficient enough role to merit mention in the book.  She studied textiles for a time at an art school, so she knew clothing from that perspective.  But fashion was part of how punks set themselves apart and brought out instant confrontation with those around them.  When she is married and struggles with cancer and in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment, and when she is depressed and without a career or child, there is almost no mention of clothing.  It appears barely in passing.  A compendium of eras of her life at the end of the book, with friends, musical interests and key clothing compiled for each era, lists clothing for one time period simply as “boring”.  It would have been a bit daring to relentlessly describe clothing across the entire book, even the boring stuff.  Not doing so has a way of revealing how clothing was a tool for ambitious and aspirational ends in Albertine’s life.  When she omits descriptions of them, it conveys a sense of finality and stasis to those periods of her life.  Some readers may find nothing in the details of the clothing descriptions, though it seems worthwhile to at least take in the context for how Albertine’s nostalgia for fashion frames her whole life’s perspective as one seeking mechanisms not just to be herself freed from intrusion but to actively engage in society in her own way.  Viewed through the lens of the old debate between positive and negative freedoms, her fashion sense stands for positive freedom to shape your social trajectory.  When her trajectory was fixed (or seemed fixed) at times of her life, that positive freedom was missing and so clothing doesn’t play a role worthy of mention in her memoir.  Maybe she had (negative) freedom from demands and impositions as a stay-at-home mother, but for her that wasn’t enough, and the clothing that accompanies such negative freedom doesn’t interest her enough to write about.

Music is the reason people know Viv Albertine’s name.  Her band The Slits are cult legends, and their debut album Cut is considered a lost classic.  It is hard to imagine many later feminist rock bands like Bikini Kill without the historical precedent of The Slits.  Albertine describes her early influences, how she navigated the London punk rock scene, and, eventually, how she returned to music later in life after a long hiatus.  She had no formal musical training.  Mostly, she taught herself to play guitar.  The book is filled with plenty of descriptions of the tribulations of being an autodidact musician, playing concerts, writing songs, and recording music commercially. Yet the book’s treatment of music as often as not is a platform to write about the people involved in her life.  Albertine somewhat takes for granted that readers have heard of some of the bands and other musical personalities she mentions, but, rest assured, those unfamiliar should still be able to navigate those chapters.

“Boys” is the last part of the book’s title.  No doubt, boys and romantic entanglements and exploits with them make up a substantial amount of the book.  Albertine is fairly frank.  It might be tempting to cite these things as just prurient gossip.  Yet, remember, this writer considers herself a feminist.  There seems to be something of a point being made here against “slut shaming”  and an exploration, of sorts, of what the punk ethos has to say about sexuality, both during its heyday and in its aftermath.  Albertine is quick to note how the punk scene could, in actual practice, be misogynistic and more limited for women than its inclusive attitude suggested.  The only way to meaningfully examine these things and move beyond them is for people to openly talk about them.  Kudos to Albertine for that.

“Side One” is a fast-paced read.  The chapters are short.  There is no attempt to comprehensively chronicle the days of The Slits here.  This remains a book about about Albertine, not her one-time band.  Some of the descriptions match almost verbatim things she (and former bandmates) have said in interviews.  The ways in which she saw feminism work for (and against) The Slits (and then in the post-Slits years) remains one of the more unique contributions of this book.  There are plenty of little vignettes and anecdotes about things like starting a band (The Flowers of Romance) with Sid Vicious, navigating the mean streets of London as a young girl, and acting on the do-it-yourself (DIY) mentality of punk against a backdrop of institutions set up to prevent that from happening or succeeding.

She relied on opportunities that haven’t been so plentiful in the years that followed (there are allusions to the Thatcher government withdrawing some opportunities).  Looking back over thirty years later, she writes, “‘Punk’ was the only time I fitted in.  Just one tiny sliver of time where it was acceptable to say what you thought.  Perhaps I was lucky to have that.”  When The Slits disband, she sinks into depression and doesn’t know what to do with herself.  Many musicians start other bands, or move into producing or other ancillary roles.  But for Albertine, there was something singular about the punk scene, and her outsider status as an untrained musician didn’t really equip her to deal with a music industry that is quick to discard bands and genres.  She also came from a poor family, raised much of her childhood by a single mother, and wasn’t exactly made wealthy from her work with The Slits.  She didn’t exactly have a vacation home or ample reserve funds to support new endeavors.  The abruptness of how her musical life fell apart is interesting, because for many listeners it is easy to never give a thought to what band members do after there albums are out and the tours complete.  On top of all this, the militantly confrontational nature of The Slits’ music took a heavy toll.  From Albertine’s description, it seems perfectly natural that someone fighting on the front lines to change the world through music might be a bit worn out by that effort a few years later.

“Side two” of the book begins with the immediate aftermath of The Slits dissolving.  She becomes an aerobics instructor, then goes to film school, tries to date, eventually marries, tries to have a child and eventually does, has cancer and lives through it.  Her husband is identified only as “Husband” or “the Biker”.  Then she divorces and renews a musical career.  The pacing of the book shifts markedly here.

The trying times of life, especially dealing with cancer, are by no means new topics to this memoir.  Albertine treats these as well as she can.  Though much of her writing in those stretches seems to echo Denton Welch‘s brilliant unfinished autobiographical novel A Voice Through a Cloud, concerning his strained recovery and difficult readjustment to life after being hit by a car while riding his bicycle (if you have not read Welch’s book, please do so now!).

Her views of romance and love jump around through her life.  She stands by a rather unsentimental vision of it, which recalls what philosopher Alain Badiou calls the “two scene” (see In Praise of Love).  Yet she also wavers between wanting to see the world from the decentered point of view of two or to reaffirm her own singular identity.  She fights off the worst temptations of identity politics.  She doesn’t simply categorize herself as a feminist or a punk or a mother, and presume that those labels have a force of their own.  For that, she struggles to find meaning and purpose at times.

The themes that emerge from the later half of the book wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if not bracketed by both the entire first half and the final few chapters.  Albertine doesn’t talk much about politics or big agendas, only that she has always considered herself a feminist (which is the radical notion that woman are equal to men).  But everything in her life is political.  Consciously or not, she was always working from ideals that are staples of the political left, mostly involving radical egalitarianism.  She mentions struggling with these things in the second part of the book.  She describes the punk ethos as “‘nobody’s better than anyone else’ — we didn’t encourage fandom and that’s still with me[,]” and so doesn’t want to glorify The Slits or claim to be some sort of punk legend and spokesperson for a generation (though she does rely on that fandom to auction much of her punk memorabilia to pay for expensive IFV treatments; something hardly worth criticizing her for).  Ultimately, she concludes that she doesn’t have the (positive) freedom to do as she wishes in her marriage, so after almost 20 years gets a divorce and commits herself to a renewed music career — spurred on by a strange contact, completely out of the blue, from the actor/director Vincent Gallo.

A long period of Albertine’s life was spent as what people in the States call a “soccer mom”.  But there aren’t many soccer moms who were once in a radical punk band and best friends with Sid Vicious!  How did she adapt to being a wife and mother?  What spurred her to go back to music and arts?  What is it like for a woman “of a certain age” (with a punk legacy on top of that) to start up a music career on the “open mic” circuit?  Lots of questions like “how does a person cope with having cancer?” are commonplace, unfortunately, in melodrama and (auto)biography.  But Albertine’s history as a kind of iconoclast gives those same questions a peculiar import.  She does reveal enough about her material circumstances to give a sense of why she chose to buy a bigger house and let it define who she was for a time, and her time as a guitarist for The Slits forces her to confront those questions in a different way than women who dream from childhood about nothing more than marriage and children and a suburban, consumerist lifestyle.

Most musical memoirs are from people who worked in music continuously their entire lives (Patti Smith semi-retired from music for less than eight years).  Clothes… is somewhat unique in adding the perspective of someone who walked away from it completely (and then came back).  And what do punk stalwarts think of all this?  Albertine’s friend Don Letts made a documentary Punk: Attitude in which Henry Rollins (once of Black Flag) comments about how everyone thought of punks as being open-minded, but it turned out that most were just as closed-minded as everyone else, maybe just close-minded in a slightly different way.  While it is somewhat obvious by this point to ask about how some first-wave punks — and plenty of others who followed — were sexist and didn’t think women/girls could make legitimate music on their own terms, what has been less explored is to ask what people once associated with punk think about “ordinary” domestic life outside that milieu.  Are punks, now at least, open-minded enough to listen to somebody who settled down into suburban life after an underground music career?

Albertine writes about how the punks were “the children of the first wave of divorced parents from the 1950s[.]”  Yet much of “Side Two” is about a long, slow reconciliation with that viewpoint, as she tries, for a time, to succeed with a “domestic dream” that she at one point thought “was impossible to live up to.”  This is completely in the spirit of her description of her leap into performing in the punk scene back in the 1970s: “Time to try, and maybe fail again, but better that than never try at all.”  Go Viv! If only that sort of fearlessness caught on a bit more, what might the world be?

For more on this book, check out the many other reviews and interviews with the author.

Willie Nelson – Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die

Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings from the Road

Willie NelsonRoll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings from the Road (HaperCollins 2012)

Here’s one of those memoirs that is chock full of random anecdotes, and shout-outs to and from family, friends and musical associates (sometimes all at once), yet is less insightful on average than the better ones (Duke Ellington‘s Music is My Mistress). This features less of a presence from an editor than his recent The Tao of Willie which is usually a bad thing, but also allows in some nuggets that otherwise might have been cut. For instance, it’s nice to know Willie sympathizes with the Occupy Wall Street Movement, and, surprisingly, his support stems from his admiration of the late Howard Zinn. Most readers will opt for a more conventional Willie Nelson (auto)biography though.

Peter Van Buren – We Meant Well

We Meant Well

Peter Van BurenWe Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the War for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (Metropolitan Books 2011)

The United States invaded and conquered Iraq in 2003.  Then, “resonstruction” began under the U.S. occupation that followed.  Supposedly.  Peter Van Buren was a long-time U.S. State Department bureaucrat gently coerced into a year-long sting on a State Dept. reconstruction team in 2009-2010.  He wrote this memoir about the experience — doing so, naturally, caused the U.S. government to initiate legal proceedings and various other forms of harassment against him to suppress what he had to say and intimidate others who might also try, but with the intervention of civil rights group that merely his departure from the State Dept. with retirement benefits intact.  That puts him somewhere on the spectrum of contemporary whistleblowers that includes the likes of Thomas Drake, Edward Snowden, Jeffrey Scudder, and others (see The United States of Secrets on PBS’s Frontline for an excellent overview of the war on whistleblowers).  But the book is out, and it’s a refreshingly independent-minded view of the war, the reconstruction, and what it meant to be a foreigner on the ground in Iraq in 2009-2010.  Van Buren has taken cues from Vietnam War-era reporter Michael Herr‘s book Dispatches.

Van Buren clearly takes the view that the highest levels of political leaders during the Iraq occupation and reconstruction were at best incompetent fools, and at worst malevolent fiends, mostly interested in fabrication illusions of “great accomplishments” with absolutely no regard for reality or collateral damage.  Just below them, the upper crust of military and State Dept. leadership are portrayed as largely gutless hacks most interested in self-promotion and careerist advancement up the chain of command.  Then there are the lower levels.  The civilian grunt workers are mostly a ragtag batch of borderline con artists and unqualified imbeciles gathered up for the job in a rush who often mean well but in a vacuum of real leadership lack any mechanism to accomplish anything truly “good” for the people of Iraq.  Lower level managers like Van Buren are stuck between appeasing the upper echelons of the government staff (some trying to move up that ladder) and genuinely trying to do good work alongside the grunts (what Van Buren sees himself doing).

Towards the end of the book he sums up the situation — accurately and astutely it would seem.  The government apparatus lumbered onward based on a childish set of metrics built around effort alone (as in “an ‘A’ for effort”), with no regard for objective assessments of results.  Throughout the book, his tone is bitingly sarcastic.  He knows real success from the false projection of it.  He has a talent for analogies.  He explains all the jargon and acronyms.  And he admirably explains all the esoteric cultural norms that are the hidden focus of the book.  The Iraq reconstruction was officially about rebuilding the civilian infrastructure destroyed by the war and giving the country “democracy.”  Without preaching about it, Van Buren chronicles how the reconstruction effort was really about the U.S. government’s attempt to displace corrupt, traditional Iraqi tribalism with corrupt, Western “free-market” tribalism.  Like a covert amateur anthropologist, he describes the many way that the cultures clash.  A recurring theme is to profile the depressingly misguided attempts by the State Dept. to promote “small businesses.”  Perhaps genuinely oblivious to how the Western emphasis on “small businesses” is basically a wedge-issue sort of distraction promoted by politicians and mass media, the State Dept. just kept trying to graft it on to an Iraqi economy that lacked foundational infrastructure (reliable electricity, water and sewage treatment, etc.) that was a prerequisite for a host of things that business (small or otherwise) require.  Those foundational issues were simply too long-term for the State Dept. and military careerists driving the bus on reconstruction, and upper leadership seemed to not really care so long as a supply of other photo ops were available.  Of course, not every project was a bust.  He does explain how a few small-scale projects that worked with rather than against local customs worked out — with no support from State Dept. leadership.

This little memoir may not paint any sort of comprehensive view of the Iraq war or its aftermath, but it does provide a trove of honest descriptions of the daily realities surrounding the United States’ Iraq reconstruction project.  For that, it should prove a valuable resource to everyone except those in power, who will continue to ignore this sort of wisdom and continue to try to suppress it and punish those who speak it.

Having been forced out of the State Dept., Van Buren continues to write (his next book was a novel inspired by John Steinbeck and Occupy Wall Street) and maintains a blog.