'90s Dream-Pop Dreamboat Dean Wareham Remembers His Life and Times
It's hard not to wonder which Penguin Press factotum slapped the subtitle on Dean Wareham's Black Postcards: A Rock and Roll Romance. One easy guess is that it wasn't the author. Sure, a romantic is more or less what singer/guitarist Wareham has come across as in his music over the past two decades--in the late 1980s and early '90s with celebrated slowcore pioneers Galaxie 500, then until four years ago with the brighter, poppier Luna, and now in Dean and Britta, a duo with his wife, Britta Phillips, Luna's former bassist. But Black Postcards is notably hard-nosed even for what is lately a crowded field, the '90s alt-rock musician memoir. With it, Wareham joins the ranks of Petal Pusher, by Laurie Lindeen of Minneapolis rockers Zuzu's Petals; Everything I'm Cracked Up to Be, by Boston singer/songwriter Jen Trynin; and Semisonic drummer Jacob Slichter's So You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star. And just as Luna towered over the other authors' bands, Wareham's book is the best of this crop.
It isn't surprising that Wareham's music has never been incredibly popular: His reedy voice and languid guitar project a somewhat chilly demeanor even at his slyest, and while he's never been less than generous with hooks, he's never seemed especially worried about anyone's brass ring. Black Postcards is entertaining as much for how it's told as for what it tells. Wareham writes clean, laconically funny, matter-of-fact, detail-oriented prose. His anecdotes are compact and smartly chosen, and there are lots of good ones, like legendary punk guitarist Robert Quine bitching about his former paymaster Matthew Sweet ("I hope he gets hit by a bus"). Wareham is plenty caustic himself, skewering several bands by name and offering a (too) lengthy rebuttal to some statements ex-Galaxie 500 drummer Damon Krukowski and bassist Naomi Yang made some years ago to the psychedelic fanzine Ptolemaic Terrascope about the band's breakup.
Like the above-named alt-rock memoirs, Black Postcards contains its share of observational not-really-comedy about the record industry as it existed in its fattest epoch. Galaxie 500 existed before anyone thought indie-label college rock had a chance in hell of escaping its ghetto; Luna began right around the time "alternative" became a fast track to major-label dollars. Wareham has his share of nostalgia for the indie days--Galaxie 500's debut, Today, he writes, "was made for $750, including sixty minutes' worth of one-inch tape. It is still my favorite Galaxie 500 album."--but ultimately grew to prefer the perks of major-labeldom, even if the price to pay for them sometimes included the endless overdubbing sessions out of which 1997's Pup Tent sprang. He even chastises the math of Steve Albini's infamous essay in The Baffler, about how major labels screw over their bands, 15 years after it was published and who knows how many before there won't be any major labels left to screw over anybody.
The book begins with a quick stroll through the author's early years. Dean Wareham was born in Wellington, New Zealand, raised there and Australia and then--from 1977, when he was 14--New York, where he's lived, apart from two stints in Boston, ever since. The radio handed him his first musical epiphany in the frame of the Seekers' "Georgy Girl," in which the 4-year-old Wareham heard what he describes as "beauty and sadness and ecstasy all together"--a rough template for all three of Wareham's groups. At Harvard University, one of his best friends went evangelical, to Wareham's benefit: "The best thing about Graham's becoming a born-again Christian was that he decided he couldn't listen to his punk-rock albums anymore, and gave them all to me." He fiddled aimlessly around on a guitar. Postgraduation, he found an uneventful life in New York and decided to get serious with Galaxie 500, precipitating his second move to Boston, where Krukowski and Yang lived.
The Galaxie 500 stretch of Black Postcards is both the bitterest and most innocent. As fed-up as his response to Krukowski and Yang's accusations is, Wareham doesn't disguise the fondness of his best memories of the band. (He's also more sympathetic to music journalists and critics than many rock musicians, probably because of the lavish praise, which he quotes heavily, the band received early in its career.) The tone changes with Luna: life is steadier, the band improves step by step, the records get better until 1995's languid, perfect Penthouse, still the peak of Wareham's career. (For the casual reader, the generous reckoning of that album's creation might seem puzzling; for a fan, it's anything but.) And just as Luna's story is about to turn into that of the aforementioned clutch of alt-rock memoirs--peaking in mid-decade, declining by the end of it--its founding bassist quits, the job goes to a not quite believably attractive blonde who'd been the voice of the title character on Jem and the Holograms, and all hell breaks loose behind closed doors.
Wareham's secret relationship with Phillips tore his entire life apart. The band almost imploded; his marriage to his college sweetheart, at home with their baby son, snapped. Wareham stacks the information in clipped sentences, trying to leaven the sensational aspects of the story and not quite succeeding. Occasionally, though, he gives in. Later, after Wareham and Phillips' relationship is public, Luna guitarist Sean Eden engages in some backstage shenanigans of his own with a tour keyboardist, leading to the single funniest line in the book, the comedy amplified by Wareham giving it its own paragraph: "Luna was turning into Fleetwood Mac." Isn't it romantic?
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