Like any art form, rock music has carved for itself a canon of influential reference points. A "canon," fittingly, is a code often set by religious authorities; as more than one observer has noticed, precious little in modern America has as fervid a following as rock 'n' roll.
That kind of fanaticism breeds restlessness on its fringe, one endemic to self-perceived outsiders. An "alternative" to the rock canon can be dated as far back as the formation of the canon itself, at the outset of rock criticism -- say, the Mothers of Invention's negation of the hippies' overnight sainthood, or the Modern Lovers' 1971 debut, on which Jonathan Richman defiantly declared "I'm Straight," not stoned, unlike Duane Allman (who was deified that year after his death in a motorcycle wreck) or Eric Clapton (aka "God"). More obviously, alternative can be traced to the Ramones' raid of pop's basic elements on behalf of the underground and, overseas, to the Sex Pistols' vandalism of British groupthink.
Ironically, alternative music -- which has only been recognized as a sphere (blob?) unto itself for a half-dozen years or so -- now it has its own canon. Or at least the first salvo has been fired. SPIN, the magazine established a decade ago to provide an antidote to the classic-rock axis of Rolling Stone, has put forth its own version of the iconoclastic genre's definitive checkpoints.
In his introduction to the SPIN Alternative Record Guide, former SF Weekly contributor Eric Weisbard offers a short expository essay titled "What Is Alternative Rock?" Mostly, alternative has been defined only by describing what it is not -- the baldfaced efforts of "mainstream" pop musicians to crack the Top 40 -- but even that holey skiff has been scuttled as alt-rock sails up the charts (to No. 1, even). In some circles, at least, the parlor game that goes by the name of Weisbard's introduction has made for endless hours of amusing opinionmongering, but the SPIN book makes a gallant effort to answer the eternal question.
In part, Weisbard defines "alternative" by distinguishing between mainstream youth culture and more willfully obscure "bohemia," and that's not a bad start. In a short space, he also does a respectable job of mapping the various tributaries that have fed the alternative flow, quoting critic Robert Christgau's "semipop" to describe the delayed influence of music that was, say, too (something) for wider listenership on its first go-round (Flying Burrito Brothers, Big Star, Can).
The SPIN guide looks, feels, and smells like a reference book -- a fact which is sure to raise some hackles, because it's definitely not one. Don't look for the neotraditional country group Freakwater here -- not even as a cross-reference in a bio of Janet Beveridge Bean's primary concern, the Chicago caterwaulers Eleventh Dream Day, because that band is not listed either. The editors say that they set out to create a book that might be read cover to cover, more or less, which means they've concerned themselves with shaping a conversation rather than a document. Unlike the Trouser Press Record Guide, which professes to be an encyclopedic reference for indie rock, the SPIN book leaves out a host of worthy bands and artists in favor of proposing a framework for the alternative canon.
The arbitrary nature of such a structure inevitably leads to confusion and points of contention. For one thing, Captain Beefheart is listed here as a progenitor to alternative, but Frank Zappa's aforementioned Mothers are not. Dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson is acknowledged; his peer Mutabaruka is not. Lyle Lovett, in; the trash roots band Uncle Tupelo, out. On a scale of one to 10, Elvis Costello's most recent output is dismissed out of hand with threes and fours: Is that rating in relation to his other work, or to the other music in the book? Trends are addressed by using a seminal compilation album as a launching point, but you're not going to find the "blaxploitation" section unless you know that Sire's 1991 tribute to the style was called Pimps, Players, & Private Eyes.
But such gripes were surely anticipated with glee when the SPIN people embarked on this project. On the plus side of the ledger, the book is full of incisive writing from contributors like Simon Reynolds and Byron Coley; the Bay Area is liberally represented by nearly 10 past and present pundits. If you buy records as though you were a rock critic (i.e., you weigh their "significance" as much as the pure pleasure of their sound to your ears), this guidebook provides as lively a salon for discussion as the best of the music it covers.
-- James Sullivan
Boy George (with Spencer Bright)
Take It Like a Man
Pet Shop Boys Versus America
Video killed the radio star, but what killed the video star? Today, the naturally charismatic Bjsrk makes superb videos, yet, trapped by MTV niche-marketing, she's relegated to cult-figure status. Back in the '80s, though, if you looked odd and had a flashy clip, instant fame beckoned: Think Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Annie Lennox, and, of course, Boy George.
Culture Club's heyday was Britpop's last hurrah, a time when music wasn't so compartmentalized and U.K. street styles -- no matter how crazy or tacky -- became U.S. mass trends. Like Punk Never Happened read the title of a book with Boy George on the cover, but really, the New Romantic movement was punk gone burlesque: In fact, Boy George began his career as Malcolm McLaren's final Bow Wow Wow puppet, singing songs like "The Biological Phenomena of the Yellow Retina" (rapped like a racing commentary, with all the horses named after well-known or closeted homosexuals).
Of course, analysis isn't a big part of Take It Like a Man, Boy George's autobiography: The only reflection he knows involves a mirror. The tome is -- surprise! -- the musings of a gossipy queen, a gay man who treats other people as characters, fixating on their physical features and personality traits. The best way to read Take It is to scan the index and look for interesting names, because Boy George has an opinion on everyone. Running into Danny Bonaduce at a bar, an acid-tripping Boy quips, "You were much cuter when you were 5." When Brooke Shields tells the Boy smoking is bad for him, he replies, "So is getting fucked up the arse, but I do that every night."
It's a quick step from Icon to Joke in fame's alphabet: Boy George's drag persona was never threatening, and by the time he made a cameo on The A Team, mouthing lines like "Totally awesome, Mr. T," he'd become a circus clown. "Not knowing when to shut up was one of my greatest faults," Boy writes early on. A prophetic statement, seeing as his book is 500 pages long; often entertaining but rarely insightful and ultimately exhausting, it's like a whirlwind party that never stops. Stories about Boy's poor family, his inherent love of dressing up, and his pre-fame sexploits are interesting, but statements like "[Gays] all love a man in a uniform" suggest he's best off speaking only for himself.
Boy's two main addictions are "straight" boys who dabble and drugs. Of the former, Take It Like a Man fixates on Spear of Destiny singer Kirk Brandon (Boy's first love) and Culture Club drummer Jon Moss (who inspired most of the group's ridiculously coded lyrics). Drugs provide the book's dreariest moments: All substance-abuse stories are the same, and all Boy has to say upon kicking his smack habit is, "DRUGS ARE EVIL." Thanks for the insight. In the end, he's writing homages to India and seeking wisdom from Shirley MacLaine. Still, after surviving a Wilde-style crucifixion in the British court system and gutter press, he's hip to the fact that he was vilified for a practice -- heroin use -- straight rock stars routinely get away with.
Ultimately, the best character in Take It Like a Man isn't Boy George but his friend Philip Sallon, who tosses off bons mots like "That's about as interesting as your last chart position." Boy's new LP, Cheapness and Beauty, settles the same scores with greater flair and brevity. "There are very few Culture Club tracks I can listen to without cringing," Boy George notes; ironically, now that he's making better music, the American masses don't care to hear it.
The same problem faces the (far superior) Pet Shop Boys. Mistakenly branded as "yuppies" for their 1985 U.S. hit "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)," Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have grown artistically and shrunk commercially stateside with each release since. Chris Heath's Pet Shop Boys Versus America is a diary of the pair's 1991 U.S. tour, a theatrical extravaganza -- complete with dozens of dancers, even more wigs and masks, and no onstage musicians -- that seemingly thumbed its nose at rock-ist critics. Was the show fantastic? Yes. Did it "rock the house"? No (thank goodness).
If Take It Like a Man is Boy George's failed attempt to carry on Quentin Crisp's witty queen routine, Pet Shop Boys is Tennant and Lowe's successful attempt at matching, epigram for epigram, Oscar Wilde's infamous U.S. visit a century earlier (you know, the one where Wilde had nothing to declare but his genius). Neil: "L.A. is our lady." Chris: "It's about the only one."; Chris: "Did you see Living Colour on MTV? They were saying the message is just as important as the music." Neil: "So what is the message?" Chris: "They didn't say, of course."
Basically, the pair play their self-appointed roles: bookish Neil and sullen Chris. Mixed with photos by Clash photographer Pennie Smith, Heath's text records Tennant and Lowe's everyday public babble; both he and his subjects reap a fair amount of amusement from the banality of a life on the road. At a radio appearance, a DJ announces "Neil and Chris from the Pet Shop Boys getting down with Cox on the radio." "Is that meant to be a double-entendre?" Neil asks. Faced with surly German and goofy French interviewers, Chris talks of doing a musical called Cheese "where all the characters are different cheeses," and writing a song that strings together every pop clich in the book (ex.: "We're going to find a higher ground if enough water passes under the bridge").
The tour also results in some strange star encounters. At a post-Oscar Hollywood party, Tennant meets Steven Spielberg, Young M.C. (a Pet Shop Boys devotee), and a severely sloshed Joni Mitchell. And no one is more shocked (and impressed) than Tennant and Lowe when Axl Rose appears backstage to announce he once yelled, "The Pet Shop Boys suck!" at an MTV Video Awards but now is a big fan who's turned Trent Reznor onto the group.
Unlike Boy George, the Pet Shop Boys are acutely self-conscious: Chris constantly compares the tour to This Is Spinal Tap; Neil declares "I'm totally bored by us" near the end. Heath's book is never tiresome, though. It highlights -- like Jon Savage's recent interview accompanying the new B-side retrospective Alternative -- the duo's knack for turning common conversational snippets into great lyrics. It also highlights their skill at lampooning contemporary stardom (someone should play "Shameless" for Courtney Love) and the mechanics of the music industry ("We should call our fan club 'Fan Base,' " says Chris). The only thing missing from this book is the group's heart, but it's apparent on any of the duo's recent LPs. Unfortunately, only their (gay, male) "fan base" is aware of this. Such is the Pet Shop Boys' dilemma: They're the greatest pop act in the world, but pop music isn't popular anymore.
Boy George performs Sat, Dec. 16, at the Fillmore in S.F.; call 346-6000.
-- Johnny Ray Huston