Words and music of note

November 11, 2007


The most-hyped music book to hit the shelves this fall is Clapton: The Autobiography. Ol' Slowhand was reportedly paid nearly $7 million for his none-too-revealing -- or interesting -- revelations. In contrast, the most engaging and best-written musical biographies often chronicle the fascinating tales of lesser-known heroes, and it's been a banner season for these tomes. Topping the list: a long-awaited account of the band from Austin, Texas, that gave birth to psychedelic rock.

EYE MIND: The Saga of Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators, The Pioneers of Psychedelic Sound(Process, $22.95) is an in-depth account of the group behind the 1966 hit, "You're Gonna Miss Me," which launched countless trips through the doors of perception and helped inspire punk rock along the way. Thanks to Keven McAlester's 2005 documentary of the same name and a flood of articles marking Erickson's return to live performance after years spent battling drugs and mental illness, the singer's story has gained much wider recognition of late. But the tale of what happened to the rest of his legendary band -- which influenced artists ranging from Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin to ZZ Top and R.E.M. -- has long been obscured by myth and misinformation.

Paul Drummond, a British art director, Erickson fan and friend and collaborator of English musician Julian Cope, spent nine years painstakingly researching the Elevators' accomplishments and misadventures, separating fact from fiction by digging through Texas archives and interviewing all of the surviving players, some of whom fared even worse than Erickson: Guitarist Stacy Sutherland was shot to death by his wife in 1978, while the band's guru, lyricist and amplified jug player, Tommy Hall, lives a hermitlike existence in a San Francisco flophouse.

The band's phosphorescent rollercoaster ride makes for a riveting read, and Drummond does a fine job of not only placing it in the context of the times and the rock canon, but in the broader scope of centuries of psychedelic exploration and philosophizing -- though he does quote a bit too often from Antonin Artaud.

Another of the bands influenced by Erickson, Sutherland and Hall was the Fleshtones, the New York group that led the first garage-rock revival in the '80s -- though it always preferred the term "super rock" -- and which stands as the missing link between the Elevators and other "Nuggets" originators and current heroes such as the White Stripes and the Hives. A Chicago area resident and teacher at Northern Illinois University, Joe Bonomo is nearly religious in his devotion to the long-running combo fronted by Peter Zaremba, who some may remember from his side job as the host of MTV's alternative showcase, "120 Minutes." In Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band (Continuum, $19.95), the author approaches his tale with the same scholarly devotion that Drummond employed, though the Fleshtones' struggles for success and battles with drugs and alcoholism aren't nearly as epic as the Elevators'.

"For the Fleshtones, it's never been about money or fame or the Message, egos or compromises or selling out," Bonomo writes. "It's always been about simply spreading a good time to anyone who wants it -- record sales, half-filled clubs, embarrassment, beat-up livers, and the occasional poor spirits be damned. But how long can a party last?" In the end, the author concludes that it will go one as long as the musicians are still walking and breathing, and their story is ultimately one of perseverance and faith in a rough 'n' ready aesthetic originally defined on long-forgotten 45s but so enduringly powerful that grown men devote their lives to it.

A similar spirit was certainly in evidence with the band that fans simply called "the 'Mats," yet another group whose enduring influence vastly overshadowed its commercial achievements during the indie-rock '80s. The stories about its days crisscrossing America in broken-down vans and paving the way for the alternative-rock explosion of the '90s are nearly as much of a raucous good time as classic albums such as "Let It Be" (1984). Now, veteran Minneapolis music critic Jim Walsh has compiled those tales in a wonderfully entertaining oral history entitled The Replacements: All Over but the Shouting (Voyageur, $21.95)

From the group's first ramshackle gigs to their final show breaking up onstage in Grant Park at Taste of Chicago, Walsh traces the whole gloriously sloppy story via quotes from all of the key players -- Westerberg declined to be interviewed, but he has spoken plenty elsewhere -- as well as his first-hand observations as a journalist and a musician who sometimes shared bills with his heroes, and once contributed backing vocals in the studio. With another subject, this lack of critical distance could have been a shortcoming, but with a group that epitomized the ideal of anybody-can-do-it rock democracy, it's an advantage. As Walsh writes in the preface, "After hearing so many stories for so many years, I've come to the conclusion that, in fact, we all were/are the fifth Replacement."

Finally, speaking of Westerberg and the Twin Cities' rock scene, Zuzu's Petals was one of the best also-rans/shoulda-beens of the alternative years, a melodic but hard-rocking female trio that never broke out of the underground but had plenty of fun while mired there. The funniest and most revealing insights into the life of a rock musician almost always come from bands that got close but never quite made it, and that's certainly the case with Petal Pusher: A Rock and Roll Cinderella Story (Atria, $24), the winning memoir by Zuzu's guitarist and vocalist Laurie Lindeen. Here, she considers the disturbing bitterness and jealousy female musicians sometimes sense from other women working in the music business:

"It's confusing; we're all supposed to be educated or enlightened feminists to some degree, yet we don't have the competition piece down -- when is it healthy to compete and when is it that socialized sense of threat that we're responding to? I thought sisters were doing it for themselves, so naturally we'd all go out of our way to help one another. Not that I have a handle on how competition's supposed to work in the world or within the band. When is competition healthy? When it's the spirited thing that spurs you on to do better, which helps the whole 'team' as a result? When is it a sickly pea green shade of envy?"

One of the self-professed "lost girls of Generation Why," Lindeen asks a lot questions in her book, most of all about the expectations of family and society that she finish college, settle down, become a mother and admit defeat when she is diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. She never does, however, and the books charts her struggles to find her own way through awful gigs, worse jobs and turbulent relationships to the point of finally finding true love and contentment with her husband, former Replacement Westerberg, and their son.