Thursday, March 27, 2008

Hitting Rock Bottom

Spelunking for Rare Rock Books in the Bowels of the Pratt Library

One of the perks of working at Baltimore's Pratt Library is exploring the "red dot" books on the "first stack" - geographically the rock-bottom basement of the building, though the finds there are far from the bottom of the barrel. "Red dots" are basically older titles that have been relegated to storage from the above-level bookshelves either because they are dated or for space considerations. And what I like about the first stack is that this is where the old music and film books are, many being non-popular tomes about obscure subject matters (like early MTV music videos from the '80s or the history of American death ballads or 1960s Japanese experimental films). What's great about these older, out-of-sight titles in Pratt's subterranean jungle is that many are not just off the public racks but are also out-of-print (OOPs, as I call 'em) as well. So it's reassuring to know that Pratt has them archived for the discerning music and film scholars. They even have a book by the great music writer and New York Rocker founder Alan Betrock (Girl Groups: The Story of a Sound), whose books are all OOP (and all well worth tracking down).

Herein in a list of some of those rarities found in the belly of the books beast known as Pratt Central.

OOPs - There It Is!

San Francisco Nights: The Psychedelic Music Trip, 1965-1968
by Gene Sculatti and Davin Seay

This is one the best books on San Fran's '60s music scene, written by a cool author, Gene Sculatti. Sculatti is, in fact, author of the essential but out-of-print pop culture compendium The Catalog of Cool (now online and a title Pratt also owns in its Social Science & History Department!), so his cool creds are completely covered.

As one writer on The Internets observed, "Sculatti was actually there, was a fan, and kept note of all the trivia (and very detailed scrapbooks). So unlike many who rely on published sources or artist interviews, he is a firsthand observer. But also unlike many, he's not an old hippy, and doesn't care about sticking to the 'big names' (to him, the Mystery Trend is as important as the Grateful Dead), so his critical perspective is all the more valuable. Besides all that, you get facts on the pre-hippie SF music history, which you won't find elsewhere."

Skimming this book made me think how similar in tone it was to Mike Stax's Ugly Things magazine. In fact, the only other place many of the bands written about here turn up is in the pages of Ugly Things, where the obscure and forgotten are found and feted. For example, I learned all about Emperor Norton, the nutcase who inspired Emperor Norton Records and who personified the Frisco weird-with-a-beard image (he even kinda looked like Baltimore's own Vermin Supreme!). And they say rock music isn't educational!

This Ain't No Disco: The Story of CBGB (1988)
by Roman Kozak

If you've read Legs McNeil's punk oral history Please Kill Me, then you're already familiar with many of the bands and personalities covered in this great read. But whereas McNeil's history covered the whole movement in New York, London and Cleveland, Roman Kozak (a former Billboard magazine writer) focuses on just one club - THE club - where New York City's punk scene was born and blossomed: CBGB-OMFUG (Country BlueGrass Blues and Other Musics For Underground Gourmands). Reading it made me feel nostalgic for my music era, back in the late '70s and early '80s at Baltimore's Marble Bar. It made me understand how today's kids relate to the Ottobar as their cultural base. I especially liked passages in This Ain't No Disco (which should not be confused with the New Wave album covers book called This Ain't No Disco) talking about the bathrooms at CBGBs, where the men's room had a graffiti chart detailing sexual conquests and the ladies' room had a similar "rating" system (e.g., "Dee Dee has the biggest prick in NY"). That really struck home to me, given that the Marble Bar had the same scene going. There was even a peephole in the men's room where you could get more "intimate" in your interaction with the ladies room (which was filled with guys half the time anyway!).

My most famous memory of the Marble Bar bathroom was pissing right next to Huey Lewis, whose band the Newport News, played there in, like, 1980. I recall I used the toilet and Huey used the sink (hey, when ya gotta go, ya gotta go!). I did not wash my hands.

Back in the U.S.S.R.: The True Story of Rock in the USSR (1988)
by Artemy Troitsky

Back in the late '90s, I used to work with a Moldavian computer programmer (who was also a former car mechanic who never stopped singing the praises of Volvos!) who used to plop on his headphones and sing along to Russian rock music while coding away at his PC. Actually, I worked with three Russians at this computer company, including a very sexy (also very married) chain-smoking Russian woman named Natasha and a quiet Muscovite named Sergei. But Alex (or Dumina, as Natasha called him - I think it was Russian for "wood" and meant "dummy" in slang) was the only one who rocked out in his cubicle. One song in particular caught my ear, as Alex would sing - always off-key, mind you - "One way teekit, yeah yeah, one way teekit!" Across the aisle I'd shout, "What the hell are you listening to?" Wherein Alex would effuse, with a passion usually reserved for Volvos, about the band known as Time Machine (Mashina vremeni). I think he even made me a tape (yes, this was before iTunes and the uniformity of CD burning - even for computer techies). It was real 70s prog rock-ish, as I recall, like ELP or Yes. In fact, whenever I mention Time Machine to the young Russian exchange coeds who come into the library to check their e-mail, they giggle and say "Oh, is old group; is musics from '70s!"

Well, finally I found this book that mentioned Time Machine - the first print reference I've ever found! - as well as other Russian bands.

Rock Around the Bloc: A History of Rock Music in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, 1954-1988(1990)
by Timothy W. Ryback

The next day I found an even better tome, Rock Around the Bloc, Timothy W. Ryback's history of rock music in Communist Europe from the '50s to the '80s.

Besides the great write-up on Moscow's Time Machine, whose concerts were compared to the early days of Beatlemania, Ryback examines other Iron Curtain bands in detail, from East Germany to Hungary.

Digging out my Planetary Pebbles CDs, Surfbeat and Surfbeat 2, I found most of the "various subversives" bands discussed in Ryback's informative and detailed study, like Leningrad's Singing Guitars (Pojuschie Guitary), who formed in 1966 and were considered Russia's first real "rock" band, famously releasing the first USSR rock opera, "Orpheus And Eurydice," in 1975. And Prague's Zappa-influenced Plastic People of the Universe (PPU), who were actually jailed by the Czech authorities in 1976 for "organized disturbance of the peace" after a performance and had to go underground. Future Czech president Václav Havel was a fan and got the band to reunite in 1997.

The Rolling Stone Book of Rock Video (1984)
by Michael Shore

Subtitled "The Definitive Look at Visual Music from Elvis Presley - and Before - to Michael Jackson - and Beyond," this OOP rarity more than lives up to the hype. Nothing else comes close to analyzing the fledgling years of music video. Though MTV was hatched a scant three years (August 1, 1981, to be exact) before this book was published, it's amazingly spot on. No where else will you find as much detail on the USA Network's Night Flight or the early music video artists (Devo, Bowie, Tubes) and directors (like 10cc's Godley & Creme and Steve Barron, who did A-ha's "Take On me" as well as Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" and Hayzi Fantyzee's "John Wayne Is Big Leggy"). But Michael Shore does more than just critique MTV music videos like a highbrow Beavis & Butthead - he studies the whole history of music and visuals, with special attention given to pioneers of experimental film like Oskar Fischinger, Bruce Conner "(Devo's "Mongoloid"), Chuck Statler, Disney's Fantasia, Panoram Soundies (a pre-Scopitones visual jukebox from the 1940s), Scopitones, Mike Nesmith of The Monkees (Elephant Parts), and so on. I liked this one so much I sought 'n bought a used copy from eBay.

Lost in the Grooves: Scram's Capricious Guide to the Music You Missed
by Kim Cooper and David Smay

OK, it's not OOP, but I also ran across this fairly obscure work from the geniuses behind the essential rock read Bubblegum Is the Naked Truth (not to mention the music fanzine Scram, which describes itself as "dedicated to rooting out the cashews in the bridge mix of unpopular culture"), Kim Cooper and David Smay. Cooper and Smay assembled reviews from various scenesters and zinesters, including people like comic artist Pete Bagge (a Raspberries fan - who knew?), psychedelic revivalist Steve Wynn (The Dream Syndicate), music-lovin' author George Pelecanos, cataloger-of-cool Gene Sculatti (who operates the Catalog of Cool website with Kim Cooper), Greg Shaw (Bomp), and a host of rabid music fans from what the editors call "Zinedom's First Wave."

At first skim-through it seemed all over the place, but as I read the alphabetical band entries (from the UK's Auteurs to ole Yankee Doodle dandy Warren Zevon), I saw the common thread running through the picks and raves: overlooked nuggets. Each artist or song or album highlighted is, in its own way, a still undiscovered gem - except by these discerning critics and fanboys/fangirls. Or as Barney Hoskyns (author/editor of Rock's Backpages: The Online Library of Rock & Roll) describes the effort, "Caprice is everything, and Scram's lost grooves are a music geek's very heaven. The zinester spirit of lauding the officially uncool lives on in this eminently dip-worthy collection."

I really liked seeing such obscurities as Japanese cutesy-artnoise rockers Ex-Girl (who I saw play at Baltimore's old Ottobar on Davis Street - now the Talking Head - and later featured on an episode of Atomic TV), French anomalie Michel Polnareff (before he plummetted to mediocrity in the late '70s, he was the French Todd Rundgren, a "peroxide poodle...with layers of baroque and continental weirdness" thrown in, who had Jimmy Page play guitar on his Euro hits), and even local stab-from-the-past, Maryland's Appaloosa, making an appearance for their 1969 self-titled debut LP. Klaatu, Vivian Stanshall, Martin Mull, Monty Python, Slim Gaillard, Emitt Rhodes and other oddballs and obscuros all fill the pages of this hard-to-put-down read.


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