"I've been inside of more libraries
Than I have dope houses"
- from song, "A Life Of Rock & Roll," Ricki C. (c) 2009
From the ages of zero to twelve years old all I cared about was reading and World War II. When I was 12 The Beatles (and, more importantly, The Dave Clark 5) appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and my little seventh-grade Catholic boy head exploded. As such, from the age of 12 to earlier this morning all I have cared about is reading and rock & roll. (And maybe movies and sex, but not until much later on.)
Nowadays that means that I read way too many books about rock & roll that I get out of the library. It also means that, problematically, I would now often prefer to read about rock & roll than to LISTEN to rock & roll. (Have you HEARD & SEEN what's masquerading as rock & roll and/or music lately on your radio and T.V.? Mumford & Sons? The Voice? American Idol? Seriously?)
Anyway, here's my two latest rock & roll book recommendations:
1) I Slept With Joey Ramone by Mitch Leigh. This book was published in 2009 but somehow I never got around to reading it until now, and it's pretty great, I sincerely regret not picking it up sooner. Written by Joey Ramone's younger brother - Mitch Leigh (who also served as guitarist & co-songwriter in rock critic Lester Bangs' band Birdland) - it documents, in a really poignant and personal way, how Jeffry Hyman of Forest Hills Queens, New York, reinvented himself, pretty much by sheer force of will, to become Joey Ramone.
The Ramones' story has been pretty well documented over the years. Just in my collection I've got books by Everett True and Monte Melnick (The Ramones road manager for pretty much all of their existence) and I know there's a book by Johnny Ramone floating around out there. (But Johnny was kind of a dick, so I never bought that one, though I'm pretty sure I read it out of the library.) (At the same time I find myself calling Johnny Ramone a dick - largely for stealing away Joey's steady girl and then marrying her, maybe just to prove that he could and for running The Ramones like a military operation rather than like a BAND for all of their career - I find myself admitting that if Johnny hadn't run the organization that way, The Ramones most likely would never have played 2,263 gigs over a 22 year span, without ever having anything approaching a hit record.) (On the other hand, as Colin and I have oft-conjectured on Watershed tours; maybe if The Ramones HADN'T been run that way - traveling the world crammed together in a van, hating one another and literally not speaking for years at a time - two members of the band wouldn't have destroyed their immune systems with collected stress and died of cancer and a third wouldn't have OD'd. We have no conclusive medical or psychological proof of this hypothesis, we're just sayin'.)
But I digress. You really oughta read this book. It's simultaneously funny and heartbreaking in all the right ways as we watch Joey Ramone - who, due to various physical & mental problems, more than a couple of doctors declared "would never be able to function in normal society" - transition from existing as a marginalized basket case to being a rock & roll star. Or are those really just two sides of the same coin? Either way, it's still a truly inspirational human story, told with love, grace & humor by Joey's little brother. (Most telling incident in the book: In 1977, when Mitch Leigh quit as The Ramones' first roadie, after getting a raise in pay from $60 to $70 A WEEK, Johnny replaced Mitch with TWO new guys, each making $250 a week. In rock & roll, brothers so often get screwed.)
2) A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of The Smiths by Tony Fletcher. My lovely wife Debbie and I don't get out much in the winter. In fact, if we could work it right and ensure that a steady supply of snack cakes, milk, Lay's potato chips and Mountain Dew would get delivered, we might not ever leave the house at all in December, January & February . As such, I'll occasionally find myself just trolling the library website for something interesting to read. That's where I ran across this book.
Now let's get some parameters straight: I could give less of a shit about The Smiths. They were the very first band, back in the 1980's, that all of my tastemaker friends LOVED (are you reading this, Curt Schieber?) that I finally wound up thinking, "Okay, the hell with it, I have tried and tried and TRIED to like this band and they just suck. I should not have to work this hard to enjoy music." (I later repeated that pattern with Guns & Roses, Nirvana, grunge and most recently with Arcade Fire and Mumford & Sons.) But something about the library's description of the book hooked me, so I reserved it.
When the reserve came in, Debbie and I were on one of our rare outings together to obtain food & literary supplies, so she ran into the library to grab the book for me while I kept the warm car running in the cold. She came out lugging a book about 1/3rd of her diminutive five foot height and I thought, "What the hell is this?" It turns out the Fletcher book is 698 PAGES LONG! ABOUT THE FUCKING SMITHS! HOW IS THAT EVEN POSSIBLE!
Pencilstorm readers, I was looking for maybe 237 pages about The Smiths, tops, not 698 pages. If I had gone into the library myself rather than sending Debbie I'd have handed that book right back to the librarian for them to pass on to the next reservee - to some pale, wan, winsome Morrissey & Marr fan who might actually appreciate 700 pages about their heroes.
Since it was already checked out and since it was too cold to ask Debbie to walk it back into the library I decided to give it a shot, and damn if it isn't actually pretty good. Admittedly, I didn't start the book until page 210, chapter thirteen, as it takes Fletcher THAT LONG to get to Morrissey and Marr even meeting for the first time. (I'm fairly certain Tony was being paid by the word for this tome, BIG MISTAKE for the publisher.) But from there on the story moves right along. The book chronicles the birth and growth of a young band in month to month - if not week to week - detail and I'm genuinely enjoying it, way more than I ever would have thought I would. It's truly well written. (By the way, I'm 200 pages beyond where I started and they haven't made their second album yet.)
One of the true advantages of reading rock & roll books in the internet age is that virtually any television appearance mentioned in the text can be punched up on YouTube. (By the way, if Debbie hears the phrase, "Just punch it up on YouTube" from me ONE MORE TIME this long winter/spring, there's gonna be trouble.) I've found myself doing that more and more while reading this book, and you know what I've discovered? I've discovered I STILL don't like The Smiths music. Somehow I like the IDEA of The Smiths more than I actually like The Smiths. I'm enormously heartened by the idea that Morrissey refused to go on Jimmy Kimmel's show alongside those cracker assholes from Duck Dynasty, solely because of his vegetarian beliefs. Try to imagine almost any other celebrity or rocker turning down a paycheck or a T.V. appearance these days just because of their principles. Or, indeed, try to imagine any other celebrity or rocker these days WITH a belief or a principle. (Let's face facts, people, any one of the Kardashian sisters would fuck a llama in a closet if it meant they could get another reality show out of the deal.)
Come to think of, Morrissey probably wouldn't go on that show either. Thanks, Steven.
(ps. Best pop-culture Morrissey reference of the week: The Colbert Report, last Wednesday night, when an interview-guest pig farmer claimed their pork is made "naturally," Colbert asked, "At what point do the little piggies decide to naturally meander into the slaughterhouse? Do you read them Nietzsche, play them a little Morrissey?")
Ricki C. missed The Ramones the first time they played Columbus, Ohio, in March of 1978 at a dive called The Sugar Shack, because he didn't believe The Ramones would actually PLAY at the dive that was The Sugar Shack. He did see them the second time they played Columbus in July 1978 at a supermarket-converted-into-a-rock-club - Cafe Rock & Roll, by name - and damn, is he glad he did.
He never saw The Smiths live anywhere, anytime, and is equally glad of that.