I don’t mean to always buy a book and I don’t have the money or time or space for all the books I have already but I check, every time: what if, what if, what if that book I’ve been looking for that I can’t recall and will never think of again is sitting there on the shelf? And what if, what if, what if I never find it again? And so it was: on the shelf at PulpFiction, So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star: How I Machine-Gunned a Roomful of Record Executives and Other True Tales from a Drummer’s Life by Jacob Slichter, i.e. the drummer from Semisonic. I’d forgotten 1) that this book existed and 2) that I wanted to read it until I saw it there on the shelf. And that is why I go to used bookstores all the time.
I didn’t like Semisonic in the 1990s but who did? And that’s obviously part of the fun and he knows it – he’s not just in Semisonic, he’s the drummer in Semisonic. But it isn’t enough to carry the book. He needs to choose between an expose of the industry or a personal narrative and while that may simply be an issue of the editing process, he is also just not a good enough writer to carry the weight. But that’s not even it. I really liked the Juliana Hatfield book – When I Grow Up: A Memoir. I read it in three days, September 2008, when I’d put Blood Meridian aside for a brief respite. And I liked it but I can’t make a persuasive argument that it was better because she’s a better writer than Jacob Slichter.
Of course, the simple answer: I like Juliana Hatfield, I listen to her records, I have favourite songs and I know the chord progressions and I put her songs on mixtapes in grade 12. Jacob Slichter is talking about these Semisonic songs as if they’re good, as if they’re interesting but they’re not. He writes about his bandmates(?) as though they’re these mystical fountainheads of creativity but he’s talking about Semisonic – he writes as if the music speaks for itself. I really wanted to find Semisonic all over again: hey, you guys were great! I was such a dick in high school! But no, these songs aren’t really that interesting. And I have to admit, 12 years later, yeah, Closing Time is a pretty fantastic song; no matter how much I hated it in grade nine, there’s a reason it was a hit but there’s also a reason that no one liked the follow ups.
Some of my favourite memoirs, however, are written by people I don’t like. Take Herb Grubel, Reform MP for Capilano-Howe Sound from 1993-7: had I been politically active at the time I would have worked against everything he was running for but his book is great – I ordered my own copy, sent him a personal cheque for $20. I wanted to like Jacob Slichter and I don’t dislike him and I enjoyed his book a lot but I’m also really happy that it’s over.
Last month I went out to see old Bruce Cockburn live in Mission – after the tour, he’s going to write his memoirs. But in a sense he’s been doing that all along: the liner notes of every album list the location and date at which he wrote each song. And that’s all it is; memoir as a list of where and when.
I ordered my Juliana Hatfield book online in September 2008 and I still have never seen another copy of it, new or used. In the back of So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star is the original receipt: $12.95 on May 13, 2005 at Powell’s Books, 1005 W. Burnside, Portland OR. From Portland to Main st, Vancouver; 2005 to 2010.
My very favourite musician memoir, from last summer: Joe Jackson, A Cure for Gravity. Unfocused and messy and a direct personal narrative and yeah, I like his records more than these other guys but separately he is a better writer. He trusts himself and his editor trusts him and best of all, it ends just as he hits the big time. He never gets to the payoff, his nominal stardom, the ‘real scoop’ – he just writes about growing up.