City Paper is not for tourists
Dean Wareham isn’t famous, isn’t rich, and, as rock musicians go, doesn’t seem particularly tortured. So anyone picking up his memoir, Black Postcards, hoping to live vicariously through excess, addiction, and decline will be sorely disappointed. And the fact that Wareham isn’t a household name reduces his book’s potential audience even further. Which is a shame—he’s a good singer, and, as it happens, a talented author, too. His memoir follows his early interest in music to his experiences in each of the bands he’s fronted—Galaxie 500, Luna, and now Dean & Britta—and the dissolution of his marriage when he begins an affair with Luna’s bass player, Britta Phillips (now his wife). He writes candidly about clashing with bandmates, being broke, and going through the dirty, tiresome, and occasionally fun business of touring. “Here we were again—six grown men sharing one van and three hotel rooms for five weeks,” he writes. “It encouraged us to behave like children instead of men.” They play road-trip games like “Who would you fuck?” and “Who would you open for?” (Sometimes there’s overlap, sometimes there isn’t: One member of Luna would bed, but not open for, Natalie Merchant.) Wareham argues that even when members of a band are best friends, fallout is inevitable. “Steve McQueen and Yul Brenner did not get along on the set of The Magnificent Seven,” he writes. “But then it was over. The rock-and-roll band is a unique construct, one that can last for many years.” Still, he doesn’t lose his love for music, and he uses his encyclopedic knowledge of it to good effect throughout the book, dropping mentions of unknown and lesser-known acts throughout like little gifts. Less successful are Wareham’s increasingly tedious reminders that music is a business. He recounts his frustration with one member of Luna, who frequently takes too long to get a song right and runs up the studio tab, the math of owing a record label millions of dollars in touring and recording fees, and how that means he’ll never see a penny in royalties. But the sluggish moments do drive home the point that being in a rock band frequently sucks. Wareham’s story is a portrait of America’s pop landscape from somebody constantly excluded from it: He traces the industry’s obsession with grunge and alternative, then Britney and ’N Sync, and the collective industry panic when Napster and iPods arrived. During this time Luna was called everything from shoegaze to space-rock to dream-pop, but never grunge or bubble gum, and despite a strong indie following its albums never went platinum, or even gold. In the context of 20 years of working in a volatile music market, Wareham’s frustration is both palpable and understandable. At one point, Luna recorded a version of Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” then got dropped from their label before they could release it. Meanwhile, Sheryl Crow released her own cover of the song, which won a Grammy. “We thought to ourselves, That could have been us,” Wareham writes. “But she’s Sheryl Crow, and we are not. Good things happen to Sheryl Crow. Still, I’d rather be me than Sheryl Crow.” Most people don’t know who Dean Wareham is, but that’s all right with him—eventually.