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An Emotional Memoir of Martha Quinn

Alan Licht

An Emotional Memoir of Martha Quinn

Author:Alan Licht
Publisher:Drag City

By Ned Oldham | Posted 2/6/2002

In his introduction, indie-rock/avant-garde guitarist Alan Licht explains his esoteric title (after Fielding Dawson's An Emotional Memoir of Franz Kline), makes a disclaimer for what his slender volume is not (the Martha Quinn story), and summarizes what it is: "a highly subjective survey of the last two decades as seen through my prism as a music performer, listener, scenester, and occasionally, writer." Licht, perhaps best known for his stints in bands such as Love Child and Run On, has always been something of a diamond in the indie rough; this book is a slacker-style gem of ethnomusicology on American underground music and pop.

Sparked by a chance encounter with the Thompson Twins' early-'80s hit "Hold Me Now" in a Hoboken pizzeria, the now thirtysomething Licht revisits the early MTV roster only to find that many of the songs had lodged themselves in his unconsciousness. He admits that, while his adolescent taste tended toward the likes of Captain Beefheart and Joy Division, "I squeezed a lot of listenability out of the MTV playlist."

Licht goes on to re-appreciate the MTV '80s without forgiving its horrid features. "I'd never seen anyone like Boy George," he writes, "and with good reason--who'd want to look like that (a Hasidic/Kabuki/Kachina clown)?" He praises Flock of Seagulls' music as "pretty majestic" and reconsiders lead singer Mike Score's hairdo as "an origami fantasia on a merkin," while damning Howard Jones as "spineless." Ultimately, his research, aided by Rhino Records' compilation series Just Can't Get Enough: New Wave Hits of the '80s, propels him toward a realization: "[Avant-noise composer] Glenn Branca is no longer the good guy, Peter Cetera [of Chicago] the bad," he concludes. "It's all just music."

But the best nuggets here come from Licht's eyewitness observations and thoughts on the culture/subculture in which he came of age. He spends the second half of this droll and lucid book comparing and contrasting the recession-riddled Cold War '80s, spawning ground for a truly volatile punk-rock scene, with the "you can be mainstream and alternative at the same time" boom of the '90s. He leaves you with a spark of hope: "The current domination of these shirtless rap-metal thugs on the one hand and the Britney Spearses and 'N Syncs on the other may not bode well, but neither did the just pre-Beatles Bobby-riddled horizon of 40 years ago (Rydell, Darin et al.)." Yet he ends on a note of doom, suggesting that in the same way all those MTV hits had remained buried in his unconsciousness for 15 years, so has the national psyche repressed "the Reagan/Bush hit parade--you can forget about a song, but never really forget it."

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