Books, Not Bands: Reading In The Garage With “We Never Learn”

“We are trying to close fifteen yards between the audience and us; and the White Stripes want that fifteen yards.” – Billy Childish

The title of this article is deceiving: I don’t have a garage. If I did, I’m damn sure I wouldn’t read inside one. The prospect of reclining on a pile of tools or sitting on top of a spare tire, slowly paging through a good read as the smell of oil pooling on the floor drifts up my nose… well, it doesn’t seem nearly as attractive as reading on the comfort of my couch. I just threw that in to be a shitty subtitle, which gives me something in common with the book I just finished reading, Eric Davidson’s We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988-2001.

 

Before you read the rest of my review, reread the title of Davidson’s book again. If the words“Gunk”, “Punk”, and “Undergut” being strung together in that fashion doesn’t make your eyes want to grow mouths so they could vomit all over your screen, then you and I, dear reader, were born on different planets.

When someone says “I’ve got good news and bad news”, I’m the kind of person who always wants to hear the bad news to get it out of the way. We Never Learn is an excellent book, and for lovers of rock history, tales of tour debauchery, and good interviews, its damn near indispensable.  It has a few faults, though, which I’ll talk about first to get it out of the way. Gunk Punk, for starters. In the introduction, the author expresses his ambivalence about the phrase “garage rock” and proposes the use of “gunk punk” as an alternative tail to pin on his book’s donkey, said ass being the rowdier, Sonics-loving, beer-soaked, and production-values-be-damned segment of the rock underground. Oddly, perhaps sensing just how retarded a phrase gunk punk is, its almost never used in the book. I noted it popping up maybe a handful of times, whereas “garage” appears on almost every other page.

The other two beefs I have with We Never Learn: Davidson can lay the hyperbole on pretty thick. He’s enthusiastic about his subject, and makes no bones about how biased he is towards it, but he can pile the praise high on so many of the acts he writes about it gets kind of ridiculous (a minor nit to pick, admittedly, esp. considering I can be quite hyperbolic in my own writings).

Beef #2: Davidson is too humble. Davidson was a member of the New Bomb Turks, who according to the book, had toured and interacted and had dealings with at least 90% of the people in this book. They are the “Zelig” of garage rock, and yet he says very little about his group’s history. While its refreshing that the dude would rather wave other bands’ flags and cheerlead the movement, there were moments where I yearned for him to raise his own flag and give some more context on how the New Bomb Turks fit into this scene.

Now that the bad news has been told, let’s move on to the good. We Never Learn is the best kind of music history book, in that it immediately made me want to hunt down at least half of the acts it wrote about. Davidson makes these groups sound GREAT, and helpfully provides a list of essential singles and albums to seek out at the end of the book (the book also comes with a free 20-song download). The scope of his book is vast: while he writes mostly about American bands, he also devotes chapters to groups from France, Sweden, Japan, and England. He interviews musicians as well as zine writers, label heads, and record collectors to give a broad overview of all the people involved in building and maintaining this ramshackle, discordant scene.

I think part of the reason why I was so wowed by this book is that, I must confess, I know little about garage music. I’m well-versed in punk and indie music, and I’ve listened to my share of Sonics songs and given “Nuggets” a spin on several occasions. It used to be, when I heard “garage rock” referred to modern music, I would think of the White Stripes, The Hives, etc.

The great feat this book accomplishes is showing how small a worldview that is and how deeply neglectful rock critics were in covering the subculture that spawned groups like the White Stripes. I had never heard of The Devil Dogs, The Country Teasers, Dead Moon, The Oblivians, The Cheater Slicks, The Gories, or The Rip-Offs before reading this book. Now that I’ve consumed We Never Learn, the next time I hear someone say “garage rock”, those will be the names that come to mind. Along with the many, many other groups Davidson covers that I‘ve heard about, like Guitar Wolf, Teengenerate, Turbonegro, The Dwarves, The Mummies and Billy Childish (whose interview is so good it justifies the purchase of the book all by itself).

If We Never Learn had another subtitle, it should have been “Everyone Fucking Hates Jack White”. It’s kind of amazing: folks from Childish to Jim Diamond to the Dirtbombs rag on the Stripes front man. It’s a consistent theme in the book, the sheer douchiness of the man and his pariah status. And based on the stories told in the book, its kinda hard to disagree with their grim assessment. Though the best Stripes-related story goes to foreword writer Byron Coley, who explains how part of the credit for the White Stripes buzz-y guitar sound goes to folks from Wolf Eyes for messing with Jack’s amp. Speaking of Coley: when is HE going to write a music history book? Never mind the mountains of liner notes the man has written, just a cursory glance at “Forced Exposure” and the “Bull Tongue” columns he used to write with Thurston Moore for now-defunct Arthur magazine show a VAST knowledge of music. And the dude can write. Hopefully one day he’ll drop his own version of “Our Band Could Be Your Life” and blow our minds all the way to Andromeda.

If you love the Sonics and their throat/speaker destroying howling, read this book. If you love punk music, read this book. If you love reading about a subject that rarely gets its due, read this book. Just please don’t try and perpetuate this “gunk punk” nonsense. Lovers of music writing are already besieged with hundreds of idiotic sub-genre names, and we don’t need another earwig to burrow its way into our chewed-on discourse.

And if you enjoy book reviews that use the word fuck for no reason, rejoice! I’ve got a couple of other books I’ll be covering soon: Retromania by Simon Reynolds and  Supergods by Grant Morrison. Until then, dear readers, mind your paper cuts and flex your heads.

 

 

–Ashley Naftule

Leave a Reply