books

The Scene That Would Not Die

If you fancy yourself a historian of all things punk, then you’re going to need Ian Glasper’s The Scene That Would Not Die on your bookshelf. Published by Earth Island Books, it’s the fourth and final volume in Glasper’s loving, meticulous, and exhaustive chronicle of the UK punk scene(s) beginning with 1980. Following The Day The Country Died: A History Of Anarcho Punk 1980-1984, Trapped In A Scene: UK Hardcore 1985-1989, and Armed With Anger: How UK Punk Survived The Nineties, Glasper’s latest tome covers that last twenty years of punk and ends in the present day. It’s a history that bears witness to the dawn of social media and the early days of music streaming and finds contemporary musicians continuing to play the music they love while anxiously pondering its future in the shadow of Brexit and COVID-19.

First and foremost, The Scene That Would Not Die is a reference book. Explaining his decision to list the bands he profiles in alphabetical order, Glasper notes of his previous books that readers tend to “cherry-pick their chapters” and that “very few read the book from front to back.” Yet even though the book reads like an encyclopedia of bands whom — despite decades of dedication and, in many cases, by design — you’ve never heard of, the entries call out to each other like voices in the night as musicians cite their influences, jump from one band to another, or straddle multiple bands at once. What emerges is the story of a community bound as much by a love of hard-driving guitars and heavy, pounding drums as by a suspicion of mainstream culture and the trappings of a consumerist vision of success.

Not surprising, perhaps, is the fact that many of the bands featured in this volume are as dedicated to political issues as they are to their music; indeed, for most of them, the two go hand-in-glove. Veganism, anti-fascism, anarcho-syndicalism, and socialism are a few of the stances that the musicians profiled herein embrace. Nonetheless, as Justin Wood of two-piece anarcho punk band 51st State insists, the real joy of his brand of punk is that it’s “a little bit like a reset button that shakes you up from the consumerist negativity of our current culture and world.” What’s more, he adds, the punk scene on the whole “is a really broad church, and there is such a wide range of music within it… There is such a variety of bands, holding different views and politics, but all exist within punk, and this does mirror the broad scope of humanity in society; I think that even though this can be a frustration, it is probably human and it should be a nurturing and positive scene.”

The book also goes a long way toward replacing the shopworn Sid-Vicious-inspired stereotype of the punk-as-mindless-ne’er-do-well with an incredibly erudite and socially-conscious model. Take, for instance, the ruminations of Chris Dodd of Bad Breeding, who comes off as a cross between a scholar of Marxism and a character from a Don DeLillo novel when he discusses the future of not just punk but humanity as a whole: “For me, I’ve always seen a return to class analysis as the crucial tenet in pushing for radical deconstructions of the systems and frameworks that purport to govern our lives. This will become ever more apparent as the climate continues to rapidly evaporate and it becomes starkly obvious that our current economic mode runs counter to the existence of life on earth. There’ll be no time for navel gazing or liberal point-scoring when the earth is either ablaze or underwater.”

As the above and many, many other passages of The Scene That Would Not Die suggest, one of Glasper’s strengths as a historian is to let his subjects do the talking. When he does interject, it’s only to provide context so that the bands he’s chronicling can tell their owns stories, or to offer discographies and select-listening lists (including some very helpful URLs at the end of each entry). And while the ease of finding this music certainly signals the end of an era when to be aware of a band like Atterkop meant being neck-deep in a scene of like-minded individuals, the good news is that punk will never die. As unlikely as it may seem that punk can, in Glasper’s words, remain “relevant and meaningful to a risk-averse society in the face of such instant gratification,” the fact that the genre is always moving forward, “never past tense,” means that “as long as someone wants to stand up and ask ‘Why?’ or say ‘No!’ in a loud, angry voice, there will always be a place for this feisty subculture.”

Review by Marc Schuster

Die Empty

Screen Shot 2017-12-03 at 9.20.47 AMHard as it may be to believe, Die Empty by Kirk Jones is kind of dark. The novel centers on an overweight insurance broker named Lance whose recent acquisition of the entire Masters of the Universe toy line has failed to brighten the onset of middle age or his sneaking and well-founded suspicion that his wife is having affair with his best friend and next-door neighbor, Dave. Complicating matters is the fact that Death — dressed in his traditional dark hood — has entered Lance’s life and offered him a deal he can’t refuse: a guarantee of forty more years in exchange for a lifetime of imagining creative new ways to help Death increase his body count. And, it turns out, the job is fraught with complications.

The humor throughout Die Empty is extremely dry, and the narrative arc follows a weirdness curve that can only be described as exponential. Things don’t just get curiouser and curiouser. They go bat-shit crazy in a David Lynch kind of way. Indeed, Jones’s blending of the mundane and the bizarre gives Die Empty the feeling of a cross between a film like Blue Velvet and a George Saunders story. That Jones narrates the story in second-person adds a layer of creepy intimacy to the proceedings. Imagine, for example, being told that you’re not only working for death and passively plotting to kill your wife, but also that you’re into a category of entertainment labeled “nun porn” and that a man with no pants named Gerald (who happens to be leading you to an abandoned cabin in the woods) may or may not be your father, and you’ll get a sense of the position Jones is putting you in when you sit down to read this novel.

As strange as it is, Die Empty is extremely accessible — particularly in comparison to  Jones’s 2011 novella, Uncle Sam’s Carnival of Copulating Inanimals, which is a fascinating if slightly bizarre read about a man who falls into a wood chipper and is reincarnated as a man-shaped mass of tears. Clearly Jones is an author with a vivid imagination and a penchant for oddness. With Die Empty, he uses those gifts to explore the meaning and potential meaningless of life in a world that often seems designed with only death in mind.

Hero-A-Go-Go!

61CDYqFHMlL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Michael Eury’s Hero-A-Go-Go! is a loving and meticulously-researched tribute to the Camp Age, an all-too-brief bygone era when superheroes and other pop-culture phenoms didn’t take themselves so seriously. Fittingly, Eury’s study begins with a meditation on what may represent the pinnacle of 1960’s camp culture, the Batman TV series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. Arguing that Batman in particular and the camp movement more generally emerged at a time of great tumult and uncertainty in American history, Eury provides a convincing context for anyone wondering how heroes like Super LBJ and Fatman (The Human Flying Saucer) ever gained traction — even briefly — in the American imagination. To wit: Camp provided an amusing and much-needed distraction from the heaviness of world events.

Beyond the first few pages, Eury shifts from examining the social context of the camp movement to cataloging the wide range of characters that the movement spawned and offering the inside scoop on how many of these characters came into existence. In addition to Batman, Hero-A-Go-Go! examines a wide range of (relatively) well-known campy heroes like Plastic Man, Maxwell Smart of Get Smart, and the Mighty Heroes, but where the book especially shines is in Eury’s excavation of obscure camp figures like Captain Nice, Mr. Terrific, the Fighting American, and the Fat Fury (among many, many others).

Also noteworthy are Eury’s examinations of comic book incarnations of pop-culture icons like Jerry Lewis (whose adventures as a DC comics character had him somewhat inexplicably crossing paths with Superman, the Flash, Batman and Wonder Woman) and former US President Lyndon Baines Johnson, whose comic book alter-ego, Super LBJ battled Super Commie, Super Poverty, and Super “Ignerance.” Along similar lines, Eury also reveals some camp-ified versions of well-known comic books that (perhaps thankfully) never made it past the earliest pilot stages, the most egregious example being a proposed Wonder Woman series that imagined the title character as a socially awkward superhero living with her nagging Greek mother in a cramped apartment.

Eury also provides readers with a healthy selection of interviews with those most intimately involved in the creation of camp-age classics: Bill Mumy (Will Robinson of Lost in Space fame), legendary cartoonist Ralph Bakshi, and Dean Torrence (of Jan and Dean, regarding their album Jan and Dean Meet Batman) to name just a few.

All told, Hero-A-Go-Go! offers an exhaustive compendium of all things camp from the 1960s, the perfect read for anyone who loves comic books or simply thrives on historic pop-culture arcana.

Side note: I found Eury’s book to be so inspiring that I had to try my hand at writing and illustrating my own campy comic, the questionable results of which can be found here: The Indelible Half Halbert.

Do the Dead Dream?

Screen Shot 2017-11-14 at 8.33.15 AMFall is upon us and Halloween is nigh, so if you’re looking for a good scare (or several dozen good scares), then look no further than FP Dorchak’s anthology of short horror fiction Do the Dead Dream? Collected here are forty-five short stories spanning the entirety of Dorchak’s writing career, many of which originally appeared in such esteemed publications as Black Sheep, Apollo’s Lyre, and The Waking Muse. And in each story, Dorchak’s skills as a storyteller with a penchant for considering not just alternate realities but alternate ways of thinking about reality are on full display. In other words, Do the Dead Dream? isn’t just scary… It’s also deep.

Truth be told, things get deep pretty quickly (and literally) with a piece titled “The Wreck,” in which a diver is inexplicably and undeniably drawn to mysterious shipwreck at the bottom of the sea. In this story, gets at the heart of human desire — particularly that brand of desire that is rife with conflict: The diver in question knows that his oxygen supply is limited, yet he keeps pushing, keeps going deeper and deeper in search of the truth behind the mysterious wreck. What mysterious force keeps pushing him? Or, more accurately, what mysterious force keeps drawing him in? And, more to the point, the story all but demands, what makes all of us keep seeking truths even when doing so might work against our better interests?

The theme of searching for truth continues in the following story, “The Walkers,” which finds the member of a mysterious tribe of — well — walkers sent to the rear flank of a long march to check on rumors of death and destruction. Once again, the truth (as Fox Mulder used to say) is out there, but it certainly isn’t pleasant. Also bound up in this particular tale is some subtle commentary on class and knowledge. To wit: Do the upper echelons and decision makers of society know something the rest of us don’t? And would society fall apart if suddenly we all knew it?

Not surprisingly, the search for truth raises more questions than it answers throughout Do the Dead Dream, but for my money, that’s always a sign of good art. Indeed, it’s also a hallmark of all of Dorchak’s work, particularly his novels like Sleepwalkers and Ero. Additionally, this is a substantial volume — forty-five stories spanning nearly 500 pages — so the creepiness and intrigue will certainly carry you well past Halloween and into the new year — and probably beyond!