Express Reviews

Book briefs for the month of March


The Biography

By Mike Barnes
Cooper Square Press (2002), $26.95

Has any artist working in the realm of popular music been so simultaneously unpopular with mainstream record buyers and feted by rock critics as Captain Beefheart? He’s had trouble even getting and keeping record deals, let alone scoring hits — yet such is the rabid intensity of his cult following that many readers will welcome a 400-page study of a man who was often as mysterious as his music.

The Captain, aka Don Van Vliet, is rumored to be in serious ill health and rarely appears in public these days, so it’s little surprise that the author of this biography was not granted access to his subject. But Barnes does his best to compensate for Van Vliet’s absence by extensively interviewing many who worked in his bands, including such key players as drummer John French, guitarist Gary Lucas, and guitarist Bill Harkleroad. This book makes clear that while the Captain was dependent upon lieutenants like these to translate his mixture of blues, free jazz, crunching rock, and free-associative wordplay into music that could actually be played, he was also reluctant to give them credit, and at times seemed dedicated to making their lives so miserable that few could work with him for sustained periods.

Well-researched and highly readable, Captain Beefheart balances plenty of wacky tour and recording-session stories — including several fabled collaborations with Frank Zappa — with criticism that’s not afraid to point out when the emperor had no clothes. — Richie Unterberger

My Life as a Reluctant Messiah

By Marc Maron
Broadway Books (2001), $12.95

Comedian Marc Maron’s one-man show, “The Jerusalem Syndrome,” is named for a psychological state in which certain visitors to the Holy Land start believing that their close proximity to God has transformed them into divine mouthpieces. Maron has expanded his stage performance into a darkly humorous memoir about his vaunted Son of Godhood.

In the darkly humorous book that grew out of his stage show, this prodigal son journeys from his birth on Yom Kippur Eve through roles as Hebrew-school holy terror, alternative stand-up comic, and postmodern pilgrim seeking to capture God’s face with a camcorder. Finally he returns to his hometown, Albuquerque, where he has an epiphany while doing a benefit for his synagogue.

A self-described “Beatnik warrior” traveling through excess to enlightenment, negotiating the wages of sin, Maron presents his life as a constant balancing act between courting popularity and taking a stand. He acknowledges wanting to both express his truth and reap the rewards of fame: “I wanted to hone the antisocial part of my personality,” Maron confesses, “into a craft that could earn me a living.”

His bullying mentor in Hollywood — a town which Maron calls the “anti-Jerusalem” — was the late comedy superstar Sam Kinison, whose shadow looms like a tombstone over this narrative. Maron’s Marlboro-, Coke-, and coke-fueled lifestyle ran counter-parallel to that of Kinison, who metamorphosed from preacher to comedian to monster.

Maron views his human failings with an unfiltered eye and shares them with an uncensored voice. He’s a smart, funny tour guide through the heavens and hells he’s made for himself. — Pat Katzmann


By Jonathan Coe
Knopf (2002), $24.95

Adept at lulling his readers into a false sense of security, Jonathan Coe unfolds The Rotters’ Club like a popular film peppered with surprising plot twists. Largely set in the industrial British town of Birmingham during the 1970s but framed by events in 2003, this coming-of-age novel employs politics, race, and even religion in its backdrop, giving an added depth to the proceedings.

Coe’s is a singular ability to find pivotal action in a mundane moment, and then to stunningly, quietly underwrite it. Presenting scenes like Doug Anderton’s visit to the legendary offices of the New Musical Express, or even trickier, an early encounter with punk rock — a Clash concert — invokes the risk of cliché and self-indulgence, but Coe pulls them off without either.

The tone is gentle and rarely cloying, apart from a few ventures into the Nick Hornby territory of lists, plus a ransom note’s worth of typefaces. But as the story of four young friends bulldozes breathlessly toward its conclusion, it’s hard to feel not the least bit manipulated, especially when an addendum promises a sequel. Coe loves his characters, and they are, apart from dreamgirl Cicely, very, very real, but he has already said it himself, perfectly and succinctly, midway through the book: “What days those were, for unfinished stories.”— Susan Compo

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