The Bigger Picture
My Black Pages
by Bob Moses
Black Postcards, Dean Wareham’s tour guide to a rock star’s soul, gets its paperback release this week, setting the stage for a spring and summer that includes Dean and Britta appearances live and on DVD with 13 Most Beautiful... Songs for Andy Warhol's Screen Tests, and with their own label’s artist Cheval Sombre live and on disc. Wareham calls the book a “Rock & Roll Romance” and, as billed, he tells of heroic struggles with love and love’s consequences, with a life of music and life as an adult.
Black Postcards gets as twitchy close as five guys in an Econoliner van, and sometimes as cranky. Revealing the book’s roots in his tour diaries, Wareham composes in epigrams and reflections. The effect is like a long gaze out the side window at passing highway signs. The signs convey more or less useful information, pass quickly and uniformly, and occasionally prompt a meaningful turn. In Black Postcards, Wareham fronts two critically beloved bands, Galaxie 500 and Luna. For both bands, the fulfillment of rock stardom always seemed to lie just beyond the next release or tour. That gives the book it’s essential tension — and a more colorful cast of characters: the true believers on the way up are way more interesting than the lawyers and accountants that greet you upon arrival.
The foundation myth of every band remains the same: the fear and bumbling, the wrestling with influence and originality, the bonds with bandmates — closer than family but with the end written in the beginning. I witnessed some of the first chapters, as Galaxie 500 made their way from Chet’s, The Middle East and Green Street to the larger rooms and wider world that opened after their Shimmy Disc recordings with Kramer. Though they shared a love of strum and drone with many Boston bands, they seemed to be aimed elsewhere from the start, toward New York or Europe. They didn’t record with local favorite producers Lou Giordano or Sean Slade or Paul Kolderie. All three Galaxie 500 members attended New York City private schools and Harvard; they were in Boston, but not of Boston. Boston spawned countless bands because it had college radio, fanzines, clubs and an eager audience. But there’s a fine line between warm and supportive, and insular and resolutely regional. Galaxie 500 was built for speed, and they were soon enough good and gone.
Wareham’s next musical adventure, Luna, is the crucible that forges a painful personal story and the foundation of his current life and work. He spares us none of the tedium of the road: the endless search for mundane necessities like food and Laundromats, the poor judgments born of boredom, and the moments of pure joy in unlikely places when audience and band push each other to the same release. There’s lots of restaurant and hotel description, and, while Luna tours, we’re in one band’s Baedeker. The reader should exercise caution here: Rock bands generally have low standards indeed for food and beds. Though Wareham and company sometimes indulge in Portuguese porto and count Majorca as a favored destination, in my experience, and as born out here, the conversation between bands on the road more often runs to the best chili mac in Cincinnati than the best turn-down service in Paris.
There are perhaps too many lines such as, “Being all alone in Cologne was making me sad. So I went shopping.” Too many of the same clubs and same shows for the same audiences. But that repetition builds to a realization. Wareham experiences events outside the band, large and small, geopolitical and familial, as if from a great distance, able to form an articulate, even impassioned, point of view but not truly able to feel. That detachment leads to Wareham’s crisis and redemption. The unreality of the road creates an ideal setting for denial. One can hold off any number of decisions, problems, and hurts and just let the routine take over. While there is a real life and a rock life, they exist in parallel. Until they can’t.
Wareham seems to have solved the problem of being an adult in rock — or at least, to a casual observer, have made a pretty enviable show of it. First he’s made Britta Phillips, the last bass player in Luna, a partner in life and music, so they’re pulling the same oar. As a duo, they’ve embarked on projects that free them from the cycle of record, tour, and start again. In addition to two releases of winsome, romantic pop as Dean and Britta, they compose for film (most notably for the feature The Squid and the Whale), launched their own Double Feature record label, and are touring museums, theaters and outdoor festivals with 13 Most Beautiful... . The silent film portraits that Andy Warhol shot at the Factory between 1964 and 1966 make an ideal canvas for Wareham, a Velvet Underground fan who had the privilege of touring with both a reunited VU and Lou Reed. After the long road detailed in Black Postcards, it all sounds engaging and fulfilling. Maybe the music doesn’t have to end when you unpack your bag.
Dean Wareham will read at Book Court in Brooklyn on May 8.
Dean and Britta will appear with Cheval Sombre June 6 at Le Poisson Rouge
Dean and Britta will appear with 13 Most Beautiful… on August 1 at Celebrate Brooklyn, Prospect Park
Trailer for 13 Most Beautiful... Songs for Andy Warhol's Screen Tests
Dean and Britta: “You Turn My Head Around”
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