I Wanna Be Literated! 107

I Wanna Be Literated! 107

Friday, 06 May 2016

A critical evaluation of Under The Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk by John Doe with Tom DeSavia and friends, published by Da Capo Press

While the stories are (almost) never the same, it’s pretty surprising how consistently structured and formulaic most rock biosand scene expositions are; be it the story of one artist or the collected stories of many, the authors of such books often attempt to condense the finer points of “what happened” down into a single narrative. That basically means one author’s impression of a story gets told but, no matter how in-depth it goes, the results are always going to be as much a story of the author – and what he or she decided was important to include in the story they chose to tell – as it is the story of the intended subject(s). How does anyone assume that such an impression could be the whole story? Recognizing that potential shortcoming and attempting to avoid it is where Under The Big Black Sun breaks tradition and presents a different kind of story in so doing; while X co-founder John Doe’s is the first name on the cover of the book, his is not the only authoritative voice in it – he is more the book’s currator. The reasoning for how and why the book has been assembled the way it has is summed up in a brief note included by Doe which appears before readers even hit the foreword (penned by Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong) of the novel. It reads:

“Certainly more stories will be told about this era. To the best of our abilities, we tried to tell what we knew & what we can remember. It’s likely that people & events have been left out, but that will be someone else’s story. The different perspectives & voices here reflect the collaborative, adventurous spirit that defined the early punk-rock scene in Los Angeles. We couldn’t have and didn’t want to do it alone.

– John Doe
Richmond, Calif.”

While this method of storytelling might seem a little haphazard or potentially awkward to attempt to employ for this book in theory (wonderful successes by other singular writers make deviating from the established paradigm seem a little dubious or nerve-wracking in principle), the logic put forward by that explanation proves to be watertight as the words of one author give way to the next and next and so on. In fact, each athor proves to have a very clearly developed authoritative voice; Doe’s drier, more analytical tone gives way to Go-Gos guitarist Jane Wiedlin’s brighter, almost sing-song authoritative tone (which proves to even endure through those moments when she’s being incredibly incisive and critical) smoothly and, in turn, provides an excellent relief for Henry Rollins’ notoriously clipped phrasing (which actually does translate into print – or seems to), Mike Watt’s internet culture-identified style (anyone who has ever read the hoot page will recognize the bassist’s style when it appears in Big Black Sun) and TSOL singer Jack Grisham’s starkly confrontational dialogue. Each of the authors’ voices are clearly defined and because each author took a chapter to themselves, their tone dominates that portion of the book but, like a brilliant mosaic, each piece fits together. Granted, there do prove to be moments when shifts between one voice and the next feel a bit rough and/or uneven (toward the end, the chapters authored by Go-Gos alumnus Charlotte Caffey, John Doe, Jack Grisham and Dave Alvin read well individually, but align with each other a litle awkwardly), but such rough patches are often resolved easily if readers take a break or breather from the book between transitions and simply pick it back up once they’ve had the chance to cleanse their mental palettes. It may sound odd, but it works.

In the end, what proves to be the coolest thing about Under The Big Black Sun is the fact that, no matter what tone the author employs for his or her contribution (be it heavy or dark or direct or folksy or sweet or sassy et c.), the tie that binds them all together is how obviously each of them adored their scene and how faithfully they wish to preserve it in this book. That love holds Under The Big Black Sun together and renders it a complete and satisfying read that no single tone of those who contributed to the book could have acheived; each of these parts makes a great and unique whole – without a doubt. [BILL ADAMS]



Under The Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk is out now. Buy it here on Amazon. http://www.amazon.com/Under-Big-Black-Sun-Personal/dp/0306824086/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1462553606&sr=1-1&keywords=under+a+big+black+sun

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