Wednesday, August 30, 2006
"The kid in high school who should have been reading books but was doodling band logos in his notebook? That was me."
"At last we had conquered Basingstoke." Seb Hunter lays down these words just past the half-way mark of his metal-memoir, Hell Bent For Leather. It is a hard-won sentiment, but no reader will be caught off-gaurd when, 10 pages later, they follow Hunter into his first day on the job at McDonald's. Nor will the reader be too surprised to learn that Hunter's greatest challenge is remembering which fryer to use for apple pies, and which to use for fish. It seems all of Hunter's wisdom is of the hard-won variety.
Most readers of a certain age will quickly recognize Hunter – he's that guy you remember from grade 10 who was mostly sweet, probably smart, but couldn't seem to focus on anything that didn't involve a guitar. He also didn't show up for grade 11.
Hunter gallops through the expected trials and tribulations of a kid taken over by the rock & roll dream. He pisses away his life listening to Led Zep and figuring out Jimmy Page solos, one note at a time. He falls into a number of bands, none of which make it as far as "Puppet Show ... and Spinal Tap." He possesses analytical facilities that weave together some beguiling sense regarding the metal of the late-80s and early 90s. And he ill-advisedly follows his whims when it comes to recreational drug use. After months of clouding his brain with mary-jane, he drops acid. His first experience is such a catastrophic disaster, he drops it again a few days later, just to make sure it's as bad as all that. Conclusion from trip #2: it's much, much worse.
I'm an easy mark for a memoir like Hunter's, but even so I was surprised at the accolades it's received. Q, Blender and Maxim give it their unanimous endorsement – perhaps the British setting makes the difference, I thought. But then the very American Publisher's Weekly awarded it a starred review.
I can't get quite that excited about this book. I've been ruined, because I've already read Fargo Rock City by Chuck Klosterman, which neatly sews up the musicologist analysis of said musical era. But more significantly, I've read Cheese Chronicles: The True Story Of A Rock n Roll Band You've Never Heard Of, by Tommy Womack.
Why Womack's book remains a sub-underground classic is a mystery to me. He's got Klosterman's articulate and witty self-awareness, but he's also got band experience and a particular insight that comes with possessing genuine musical chops. Womack, like Klosterman, knows that guys my age from rural North America all share precisely the same formative rock & roll experience: the first time we saw that 30-second TV ad for the local KISS concert (on a b&w set, no less). This is sure to set a guy on ironic footing, but irony can take you only so far as a rocker; Womack hears Jim Carroll's “People Who Died” at exactly the right moment, and Government Cheese is born. They share the stage and tips jar with REM, drive that beat-up van from Bowling Green to NYC to play at CBGB (OMFUG), make videos and air them on the all-new, all-powerful MTV, and otherwise complete their natural ascendancy to ....
Well, Government Cheese might be just a hazy memory in a select few minds, but Womack, I'm happy to say, is still the man. He's busy doing the solo gig, and throwing his cheery, musical heft behind Todd Snider (has Tommy recovered from Leno and Letterman? You be the judge). As for Cheese Chronicles, you can get your very own copy at Amazon for a mere $35, or you can buy it directly from the man himself, at the more reasonable price of $16 (US, of course).