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Book Review: B-Sides and Broken Hearts by Caryn Rose

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Must love Doc Martens, Rolling Stones bootlegs, and long walks on the Bowery to CBGBs…

You had me at “hate Dave Matthews…”

I rarely give relationship advice to fictional characters. Out loud, at least. It’s so unseemly, and people stare. But when it comes to such potentially confrontational and divisive issues as music, something’s gotta give, and someone’s gotta go packin’.

In Caryn Rose’s inviting and beguiling B-Sides and Broken Hearts, which jumps back and forth in time from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, irresistible Ramones force Lisa manages to overlook the formative sonics cementing  immovable Rush buff and fiancé Ian for quite a while. Until now. She can “easily think of other nights, other moments, other conversations, where the signal was bad, the connection was broken, and I would look at him like I didn’t know who this person was.”  Even his academic “proprietary filing system” of LP organization is done the way a member of Rush would do it. And at a big record fair a typically dour Ian puts a damper on Lisa’s find of a “Holy Grail,” dissuading her from buying a hard-to-find picture-sleeved single of the Stones “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadows?”    

But events come to a culmination when, on the day of punk rock icon Joey Ramone’s death at 49 on April 15, 2001, Lisa reels over Ian’s cavalier and dismissive insensitivity to her shock and sadness over the news. It’s more than just the issue of one of her teenage heroes, any Ramone, or about Rush, or “music, or talent, or validity. This is about you not fucking getting it.”    

She just couldn’t stay, and had to break away. Lisa is a punk rocker.

And a Muse to an Infinite Trainwreck, of all things, a great band with a godawful name, soon to be Blue Electric — courtesy of David Bowie’s “Sound and Vision” by way of Lisa’s fanzine name in New York, notes from the electric blue.

New York? That’s where Lisa’s from, where she saw many live shows, and found creative outlets for her poetry, photography, writing, and music fanzine publication. In New York Lisa meets the seemingly too-too-perfect James, and not only do they have eyes for each other, they both have eyes for the same Stones’ single Ian had discouraged Lisa from buying at a previous record fair, and Lisa ultimately ends up with her prized possession.

A tune-some twosome meant to be? Maybe, but I personally would, on first impulse, consider advising Lisa to give James the boot after his pouty disparagement ( “He was cute even when he frowned.” Umm…)  of Paul Westerberg and the Replacements: “I think Westerberg is a good songwriter,” he tells ‘Mats fan Lisa. “ I just have a problem taking them seriously.” (I would object more harshly but then I remember that I “saw” the Replacements at the Roxy in L.A. when they drunkenly collapsed on the floor to play “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy, I Got Love in My Tummy,” and stayed flat on the floor for the rest of the show.)

But then a terminal pout-off, as adorable as that might be, is averted and diverted into a round of Glimmer Twin Trivia. We’ll never know, unfortunately, if this relationship lasts long enough for the couple to get to the finish-each-other’s-sentences stage. Or if this “super easygoing” guy really has a dark side — Lisa’s friend Marie, a sensible Elvis Costello obsessive, holds up the “deep, dark, truthful mirror” and broaches the subject of James being perhaps “too nice.”

As it turns out, James has a very dark side. And though it’s fairly probable that he hadn’t, as Lou Reed would term it, made a “very big decision” to “try to nullify my life,” the end result is the same. “I don’t know when the heroin started,” Lisa says. She never saw the track marks. (You never do on nice junkies.) “He was as far from the stereotypical lazy, egotistical, women-using, druggie musician as you could possibly get.” Nevertheless, she grasps for straws and Keith Richards analogies after the shock of finding him on the bathroom floor — a syringe in his right hand, a blackened spoon on the edge of the sink – wears off some.

Still, there’s a lot of wearing off to be had. After James’ death in July of 1989, Lisa is yet seriously depressed in March of 1990, and decides to move to Seattle, where James is from, and where his body was shipped to be buried. Though there’s a vague morbidity attached to Lisa’s decision, it’s not entirely a case of throwing herself on his grave, where she’ll leave a suicide note, then go to an anonymous motel room to kill herself. There is a pragmatic side to it: it’s the early ‘90s, Microsoft and the high-tech boom is getting underway, and grunge is on the go. Bring your friends.

Though you wouldn’t exactly know if teenage angst is paying off well or not. There’s a few flannel-shirted bands — Mudhoney, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam – referenced in B-Sides and Broken Hearts to purposeful effect, but Nirvana inexplicably gets short shrift (a single mention of Kurt Cobain’s favorite bar, Krist Novoselic spotted at a festival, a Foo Fighters flash forward). But more than enough of the slack is made up for with the World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band overkill, to the extent that quotes and cover bands get each and every Ya-Ya out and you’re not hipper than thou enough if you don’t know where the video for “Waiting on a Friend” was filmed.

Still, as much as Emotional Rescue, though often dismissed as a disco album, is the quintessential New York Rolling Stones record, Lisa asserts, Seattle and the West Coast is where she finds her own safe haven. And a job with a little outfit called Microsoft, while she still helps out Electric Blue — who were becoming a massively critical and commercial success – designing their t-shirts, photographing their promotional portraits and some albums covers, going on tour: we even go along to the ‘Mats’ Let it Be house in Minneapolis. Seattle was good to Lisa for a long time, but the relationship woes with the wrong man – Ramonesphobe Ian — is finished. “This relationship just wasn’t it,” she reflects. “I can’t believe I didn’t try to change it, and just sat there and let my life happen to me, instead of being an active participant.”

Meanwhile, Electric Blue — specifically he-digs-me-he-digs-me-not Jake – invites her down to the great big freeway of L.A. they call home, and she grabs for the chance at another road trip to perhaps rekindle something that might have been and still might be. And she grabs a few clothes and some books and the kind of music that’ll get you calling shotgun, except I think the passenger seat is filled with choice CDs. Here’s a partial list: Ramones, Replacements, Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, the Who, David Bowie, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Led Zeppelin, the Stooges, and R.E.M.

So, it’s moving — with music, comfort music, if you will. This change is another big one, and Lisa has to wonder: “This trip wasn’t me? No, my life wasn’t me.” Maybe these are the other plans. Life has a B-Side.

B-Sides and Broken Hearts has some chick-lit elements peppered throughout, but only a little, and toward the end an “I love you but I’m not in love with you” precious moment. But you can come for the romance, and stay for the rock: all in all, the book provides an ample opportunity to get lost in the music and artists and knowledge, and before you know it you’re soakin’ in it. Lisa’s road trips, for example, are perfect for her to ruminate and recall. And so we get Rose’s incisive analysis of the Replacements’ powerful “Unsatisfied,” and a passionate breakdowns of Springsteen’s “Prove it All Night.” I know how hard it can be to convey this to others not inclined to listen (or see in concert, though I have converted a couple naysayers). She also displays a vivid sense of place, whether it is somewhere I have never been, or some old haunts (Venice and Zuma Beach).

The nostalgia of it all also triggers some memories. For some reason, it evokes some odd billings I’ve seen in concert: Iggy Stooge and Talking Heads; Warren Zevon and X. And I do want to make an effort to find a hard-to-locate AC cord for my reel-to-reel so I can play the ’78 Springsteen Roxy show I recorded, mentioned a few times in the book.

I also have about five or six of the pre-censored Stones’ Some Girls covers. By the way, did I mention that I thought there were a lot of Rolling Stones references in the book?

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