Thursday, September 8, 2011

Real Life Book Reviews 3: Byron Coley 'C'est La Guerre'

Man o' the hour Byron Coley: He always stays in focus as everyone around him gets blurry.
When word reached me of the publication of Byron Coley's C'est La Guerre: Early Writings 1978-1983 (145 pages, L'Oie de Cravan, Montreal, 2011, French and English, introduction by Mike Watt), I was hoppin' all over this joint like a goddamned chimpanzee on meth-spiked Skittles. Which is a badly Coleyesque way of saying, "I dug the idea immensely."

This is par for the course for me. As a young rock journalist in the '80s, my initial fanzine writings were very much cut-rate Coley, the way 1960s American garage rock was bargain basement Rolling Stones-n-Yardbirds-isms filtered through a heavy hand on the fuzzbox. Coley was very encouraging of me at the time, until my obnoxious pestering ways forced a final "fuck off." Which I needed. I'd have never developed my own voice without this scission.

It was hard not to be under that guy's sway, so strong was his voice and so prominent was his presence in the mid- to late-'80s fanzine (and pro-zine) world. Across his co-editorship of the 'zine of the day, Forced Exposure, and into far-ranging freelancing spread across publications as august as The Village Voice and the inaugural Spin (or even as odd as teen music mag Smash Hits!), Coley displayed uncanny musical taste (the more obscure, the better, in his mind) in a fast-n- flashy style that was equal parts Richard Meltzer's dadaist syntax and grammar games and wiseguy humor, as well as Lester Bangs' keen analytic and contextual mind. And he'd just as likely tell you a tall tale to get you to the truth. (I cherish a memory of a Spin Underground piece introduced with a dialogue between Byron and his dog, where the dog mocked Coley's musical taste as Byron "rubbed warm peanut oil" into the dog's coat, as a way of introducing America to the avant swamp-Stooge-isms of Australia's The Scientists.) Along the way, he introduced many of us young'uns to the joys of Sonic Youth, prime-era SST Records, Einsturzende Neubauten, Australian garage punk, Lydia Lunch, Nick Cave, and The Flesh Eaters. (Truly, no one wrote better about that band or leader Chris D.'s poetic songwriting genius.)

Still, Coley had to journey from somewhere to get there. And that's the subject of this very-limited-edition anthology: Byron's baby steps, journalistically-speaking. Interspersed with hilariously autobiographical correspondence with pal Angela Jaeger, just to give these reprints some personal historical context, are Byron's earliest print forays for New York Rocker, Take It!, LA Reader and LA Weekly. You get a hilarious Devo tour diary from '78, brilliantly insightful criticism of the Minutemen ("Guitar Warrior, Dennis Boon, shakes his (not inconsiderable) booty like a cement mixer full of bowling balls, his guitar spewing gas like a pint-size St. Helens..."), Husker Du, Suicide, The Germs and Lydia Lunch. There's also potent slaughter and butchery of sacred cows ranging from the "definitive" Jim Morrison bio No One Gets Out Of Here Alive ("Anyhoo, if you ever find yourself taking a college course called, 'Jim Morrison: Many of the Facts,' this will probably be the text book...") and David Bowie. In fact, no one wrote (rightly or wrongly) with more venom and bile about Bowie:

If you're gonna be a style proselytizer, wouldn't it be sensible to at least pick/choose a good style to promote? Yeah, it would. But Bowie's so feeble-minded and has so little conviction in his beliefs that he's always prepared to hop on the next bandwagon that promises to have an extensive dress code. You can call that progress and exploration if you will, but I'll call it the vacillation of a man who has no center. Davie's a swirling black hole that you've deigned to place near the center of the musical universe and his voracious appetite's already sucked much light outta the sky. "His master's voice" robbed Iggy of his juice much more efficiently than years of heroin addiction could; Lou Reed's official break with the legacy of the Velvets (Transformer) was so effectively nambified that it's taken him over a decade to even begin shaking off its cutesy-pie dynamics; and what about Hunt Sales?

Wrapped in a block-printed raw cardboard cover and limited to a 750 copy first edition (apparently a second edition is imminent, so huge has been the demand), this is as much a fine art object as a book. This is underlined by the inclusion of some crude Coley drawings, collages, and visual poems. Which likely emphasizes why Byron ultimately limited his pro-'zine presence: He's as much artist and poet as rock critic. He'd probably rather be listening to his extensive jazz record collection than writing about rock bands (although he continues with publications like The Wire and the recently-ceased Arthur, in addition to self-publishing poetry chapbooks, and doing record projects and running a record/bookstore with long-time pal Thurston Moore). Even 30-some-odd years later, this early work shines and thrills, and excellently foreshadows what Byron did in his heyday. You couldn't find a finer read if you tried. Good shit, dad. Good shit....

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