It’s Better to Burn Out Than to Fade Away.

GermsDarby Crash had the perfect punk-rock plan: takeover the L.A. punk scene in five years, commit suicide, and become immortalized as a legend. Little did he know that Mark David Chapman would derail that plan very shortly after Darby followed through.

Biggie Smalls never had such a plan, but after a five-year ascent to the top of the rap game, unknown gunmen burned his name into music history forever.

I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. — Woody Allen

Darby Crash (born Paul Beahm and briefly known as Bobby Pyn) had a rough upbringing, but somehow ended up an intelligent, charismatic iconoclast in early adulthood. His sloppy but visionary leadership is exactly what made the Germs the incendiary and legendary act that they’re remembered as.

Biggie Smalls (born Christopher Wallace and also known as the Notorious B.I.G.) had a rough but loving upbringing and ended up an intelligent, charismatic poet in early adulthood. His street-influenced but hopeful rhymes put him deservedly in the running as one of the best emcees ever in the eyes of millions.

Darby Crash’s five-year plan included writing songs, putting together a band, booking gigs, and learning to play — in that order. Germs shows were so notorious for their violence, drug use, and insanity that by the time their first and only full-length record came out (the Joan-Jett produced (GI); Slash, 1979), the Germs weren’t allowed to play anywhere in L.A. Their perfrmance in Penelope Spheeris’s punk-rock documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, Part I (Spheeris Films, 1981) was shot in a space rented especially for the film.

Shane West as Darby Crash

Though his first full-length record didn’t surface until 1994, Biggie Smalls’ career was already in full effect. He’d signed with Puffy in 1992 and had dropped sixteens on several records. Ready to Die (Bad Boy, 1994) spawned three major chart hits and went on to become a certified Hip-hop classic. It was to be the only record he would see released in his short lifetime.

What We Do is SecretWhat We Do Is Secret (Peace Arch, 2008), Roger Grossman’s biographical film depicting the unlikely rise, loud and bright burn, and inevitable fall of Darby Crash and the Germs truly captures the spirit, if not of the times, of Crash’s presence. Shane West is mesmerizing. One reviewer wrote that West seems to be channeling Crash, and I’m inclined to agree. His performance reminds me of higher profile iconic nails being hit on their heads, such as Denzel Washington’s Malcolm X and Jim Carrey’s Andy Kaufman. Though West’s Crash tends to overshadow everyone else in the movie (as one imagines Crash did in real life), Rick Gonzalez and Bijou Phillips are also brilliant as Pat Smear and Lorna Doom.

NotoriousNotorious (Fox Searchlight, 2009) does a serviceable job of telling Biggie’s story from a fan’s perspective. To be fair, Voletta Wallace (Biggie’s moms) and Sean Combs (his A&R rep, mentor, and friend) are executive producers, so investigative reporting this isn’t. Also serviceable is Jamal Woolard’s depiction of Biggie. It’d be dead-on if it were based on mannerisms alone (everyone in this movie nails the nonverbals), and if Anthony Mackie’s performance as Tupac Shakur wasn’t so fresh (though it is jumped off by a “dear stupid viewer” scene in which he’s unnecessarily introduced by name several times). The studio scene that started the so-called coastal feud between Biggie and Tupac, Bad Boy and Death Row records — in which Tupac is shot several times and in the confusion blames Biggie and the Bad Boy crew — is written and filmed in a perfectly chaotic manner. You feel like a witness to the jumbled madness. Biggie’s coincidentally tying up all of his personal loose ends on the eve of his death on the other hand…

Jamal Woolard as Biggie Smalls

Following his coup d’etat of the L. A. punk scene (done) and in the spirit of the Neil Young quotation above, Darby Crash planned on killing himself via a lethal dose of heroin, thus becoming a punk rock legend. After one last Germs reunion show, he followed through on December 7th, 1980. Unfortunately, John Lennon was shot and killed the very next day, overshadowing the death of Darby Crash and one of the greatest punk rock bands of all time.

Though Biggie’s debut record was titled “Ready to Die,” he had no such plans of becoming a martyred legend, but the first-person theatrics of Hip-hop storytelling were lost somewhere in the mix of “keeping it real.” Poetic first person doesn’t always mean the man on the mic. The space between that person and the one on the street are walls closing in, and on March 9th, 1997, those walls closed for Christopher Wallace.

If Notorious let its dynamic characters stand on their own like What We Do Is Secret does, it’d be a better movie and a more fitting tribute for it. Both Darby Crash and Biggie Smalls deserve the attention and these movies though. They both rebelled, rose above, and rocked shit. People with their abundant talent, unyielding drive, and unfettered commitment don’t come around very often.

Though some may see the comparison as forced, the parallels between these two men and these two movies are myriad. Even their mode of rebellion and the related conspicuous consumption are integral to their similarities. Biggie’s Hip-hop (i.e., that of the mid-to-late 90s) and Darby’s punk rock (i.e., that of the mid-to-late 70s) used consumerism to stake their positions relative to mainstream America. Though they do it in different ways, both speak for the frustrations and aspirations of marginalized, working-class youth. Both are undeniably angry, but both are ultimately hopeful.

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Shot live at The Whisky in L.A. circa 1979, here is “Lexicon Devil” by the Germs — a glimpse of the captivating chaos that was Darby Crash (runtime: 2:02).

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And to keep it rugged and raw, here’s a clip of a seventeen-year-old Biggie Smalls battling on the street in Brooklyn (runtime: 1:05). Listen as he deftly switches his pitch to follow the break of the beat. Fresh.

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33 1/3: Books About Records

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

The line above has been attributed to several voices — Elvis Costello, Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, and Lester Bangs, among others — but if the roof is on fire, I say we dance. Continuum’s 33 1/3 Series, helmed by the insightful and inimitable David Barker, is good books all about good records. Not just “good” records, but records that changed the face of music in one way or another — records that set the roof aflame, and the two I just read — Paul’s Boutique by Dan LeRoy and Loveless by Mike McGonigal — are just that.

I know, what can possibly be said about Paul’s Boutique and Loveless that you haven’t already heard some drunken music geek say jumping up and down waving his or her (probably his) hands? I thought the same thing, but having been that drunken, hand-waving music geek more than once in the past, I was still interested.

Coming out of the wake of the Hip-hop parody that was License to Ill (Def Jam, 1986), the Beastie Boys surprised everyone with the sample-heavy psychedelia of Paul’s Boutique (Capitol, 1989). Upon its initial release, the record’s public response could be described as “doom” for the Beastie Boys’ career, but over the years it has proven itself one of the most important records of its time, and possibly the most creative sample-based record ever made.

The Beastie Boys were seemingly riding high after their many tours supporting License to Ill. On the contrary, they were ready for a break and ready to get paid, but their bosses at Def Jam were not about to offer them either of these. The suits neuvo there were stuck in a cashless lurch with their newly minted distribution deal with Columbia and anxious for a new record from the Beasties. This would not do. So, our heroes bounced to the Left Coast, found some new friends, some new collaborators, a lawyer, and a new label. Finally paid by a sweet advance from Capitol, the Boys were set to blow off some steam and start work on what would become their undisputed masterpiece.

While the Beastie Boys were sorting out their post-License to Ill lives, a loose-knit group of DJs and producers was busy creating the soundtrack to their next era. Among these were John King and Simpson (The Dust Brothers), Matt Dike (DJ, promoter, Delicious Vinyl founder), and Mario Caldato Jr. (studio engineer). Paul’s Boutique would eventually include the music of many — real (?) and sampled.

Dan LeRoy’s book gets at how this all came together, and — it’s an interesting and illuminating read about a particularly mysterious time in the Beasties’ history. LeRoy’s insightful epilogue regarding nostalgia is also not to be missed.

Say what you will about the Beastie Boys, but Paul’s Boutique is the record that synced their placement in the alphabet and their placement among music legends: right between The Beach Boys (Pet Sounds) and The Beatles (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band).

Not unlike Paul’s Boutique, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless (Creation, 1990) is widely considered — and rightfully so — one of the most important and influential records of the 1990s. Also like Paul’s Boutique, its making is shroud in rumor. Such myths (e.g., that it cost half a million dollars to record and bankrupt their label Creation only to be saved by Oasis, Kevin Shield’s notorious studio meticulousness, that there are thousands of guitar overdubs, etc.) are either clarified or dispelled herein.

Mike McGonigal does some digging for the roots of the signature My Bloody Valentine sound that was refined on Loveless and defined an era and countless imitators (also mentioning such worthy influences as Sigur Rós, Mogwai, M83, and Caribou, but spending a disproportionate number of pages on Rafael Toral), but how he went the whole book without mentioning Robert Hampson, I do not know. He does warn that writing about this record can make you “start believing it’s the most transcendent record ever,” and that “it’s too easy for this album to turn you into a pretentious twat. Be very careful!!!” Thankfully, he avoids hyperbole except where appropriate and taps into why this beautiful wall of guitar noise remains the touchstone that it is.

These two books pull back the curtain on their respective subjects, giving us a glimpse behind the mystery surrounding both. So, if you’ve been that drunken, hand-waving music geek or know someone who has, these two books (as well as the rest of Continuum’s 33 1/3 Series, including books on Reign in Blood by Slayer, Daydream Nation by Sonic Youth, …Endtroducing by DJ Shadow, Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division, Led Zepplin IV, Bee Thousand by Guided by Voices, among many others) will help explain the phenomenon.

Now if I could just convince David Barker to let me do one… (Right?)

Radio Silence: The Salad Days of American Hardcore

In the early eighties, American hardcore brought extra speed and confrontation to the DIY punk-rock game. Radio Silence: A Selected Visual History of American Hardcore Music (MTV Press) documents a big chunk of the beginnings of this genre and its culture. Authors Nathan Nedorostek and Anthony Pappalardo opened up their archives of letters, original artwork, records, tapes, fliers, t-shirts, zines, and photographs — all the the sacred ephemera of the movement. Continue reading “Radio Silence: The Salad Days of American Hardcore”

Sonic Youth: Goodbye 20th Century

No band has been more consistent while simultaneously being more experimental than Sonic Youth. Ever. When it comes to making great records while still pushing the limits of themselves and their listeners, Sonic Youth are the reigning ensemble. I doubt that anyone in the know — fan or foe — would contest that. In Goodbye 20th Century (Da Capo), their first authorized biography, David Browne wades through waves of feedback and gets behind the amps of the nearly three decades of noise from this veritable institution of American music. Continue reading “Sonic Youth: Goodbye 20th Century”

How We Became Post-Rock

There seems to be very little consensus on exactly where Rock crossed the line and became Post-Rock (a term popularized by Simon Reynolds), but most people agree that the two bands that galvanized the movement in the last two decades are Tortoise and Mogwai. The roots of the genre run deep and in many directions (e.g., Prog, Brian Eno, Jazz, CAN, PiL, Industrial, Jim O’Rourke, et al.), but for our purposes, we’ll start roughly with those two.

Mogwai live [photo by Leif Valin]Mogwai is consistently one of my most-listened-to artists. This is partly because they make great sleepy-time music, but also because their blend of mellow prog, raging guitars, and soundtracky drama has held my attention for years. Where Tortoise tends toward a shuffle and strum, Mogwai has a propensity for rumble and roar. Structurally, if the former were a lattice partition, the latter would be a brick wall. Simply put, there’s just a lot more tension and release with Mogwai.

With that said, the brand of Post-Rock that I am drawn to owes more to Mogwai than Tortoise (Explosions in the Sky and Kinski, for example), but this is not to paint Tortoise (and their brethren, June of 44, Rodan, et al.) out of the picture. Each of the new crop of these bands owes a great debt to the mathematics of Tortoise and Slint, the guitar textures of My Bloody Valentine and The Cure, the orchestrations of Radiohead, and the experiments of electronica. But they’re each taking this loose foundation in new directions. Hood, 65daysofstatic, The Notwist, and 13 & God all slouch toward electronica; Isis, Cult of Luna, The Ocean, and Jesu all lean on the metal; dälek blast Hip-hop through their wall-of-sound; Explosions in the Sky, God is an Astronaut, Caspian, Saxon Shore, and This Will Destroy You all play the middle ground, holding the core of instrumental post-rock together with fervor.

Thanks to a series of tips from longtime music friend Wayne Wambles, these last few bands are among my recent most-listened-to artists. I’ve been listening to quite a lot of Explosions in the Sky over the past year or so. Wayne caught wind of this and recommended several bands to me, all of whom toil similar musical soil to Explosions in the Sky and Mogwai.

These four bands are the logical heirs to the Post-Rock torch. Their compositions wax and wane in a similar emotive fashion to their forebears, building tension and releasing it in flurries of guitar noise. There’s not much more to say by way of description, but here are brief synopses of each.

Caspian often starts off with near silence but builds into a wailing wave of guitar. They’re the most organic of this new crop, careening off the rails and staying at the edge of control at all times.

With vocals sometimes employed, but used as not much more than another instrument, God is an Astronaut flies somewhere between Sigor Ros and Mogwai. With four great records out, they’ve been around seemingly forever (see one of their videos below).

On the flip-side, Texas’s own This Will Destroy You has had a brief but successful history, having only been a band since 2005 and having blown up right out of the box. The youngest of all of these bands, they’ve already proven themselves worthy of the post-rock mantle with 2006’s Young Mountain EP (Magic Bullet) and their recent self-titled full-length.

Saxon Shore remind me more of Mogwai in that they seem to rely on electronics more, and, like Mogwai, they’ve worked with David Fridmann (who is best known for his pioneering work with The Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev). Fridmann produced their last record, The Exquisite Death of Saxon Shore (Burnt Toast Vinyl, 2005), and his influence is heard in its epic drive and many climaxes (They’re currently working on new material).

Here’s the video for “The End of the Beginning” by God is an Astronaut from the record of the same name (runtime: 3:43):

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