Our own music editor Alex V. Cook has just had a collection his music criticism, 'Darkness, Racket and Twang' published by indie publisher, the SideCartel. Featuring 200 pages of his ears' sharpestobservations , and his investigations into the world of popular and unpopular music that you have come to know from these pages and elsewhere.
We took a fact finding trip to Baton Rouge to meet the man in his lair... Or at least that of the Highlands Coffees, at the junction of Highland and Chimes, a favorite haunt of his. Over the soft pitter patter of laptop keys and the soothing classical sounds wafting up to the rafters it's almost Bukowskian in a way, somehow, to an unschooled ear, this concoction could seem like a contradiction. We're here to hear of his rollercoaster rise from failed painter, to critic of record, the record critic everyone wants to get their releases to first. Highland Coffees is where he chooses to meet, from where he writes his various columns several times a week.
Oh and we don't care if this seems in anyway even more self-indulgent than the rest of outsideleft, Alex V. Cook has a lot to say and he always says it best...
Darkness Racket and Twang is your first book, the question is, not when did you start writing, but when did you start listening?
As actively listening to records, it was probably when I was in 5th grade. I inherited my step-brother's old record player and the remnants of his collection - Black Sabbath, Grand Funk, Hendrix records. However, my tastes were really informed by the 99 cent 45's I started buying up. Gary Numan's "Cars," The Police "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic" and the horrible Rod Stewart comeback "Young Turks" was in the first batch I brought home. A mix tape for a car-trip through purgatory. Then albums - My first was Blue Oyster Cult's Extraterrestrial Live and Prince's Purple Rain. I'd always been a library hound, and when I turned 16 and they let me into the adult stacks, I discovered they had records you could check out, all those great Smithsonian Folkways avante-garde classical records. I remember the first time I dropped the needle on Harry Partch's "The Dreamer That Remains" on a whim, and boom! My taste for weird music has yet to be sated.
Growing up in Louisiana, was there a lot of music in your house as a child?
Yes and no. My father was a big classical snob with a hi-fi well-suited for the enjoyment thereof, so he commanded the stereo. To be honest, I don't remember music much. When they split up, my mom got a console with an 8-track and a bunch of Empowerment mushy records - Barry Manilow, Styx, Neil Diamond and played out her liberation through those and performing in little theater musicals. As Morrissey so famously put it, "I can smile about it now, but at the time it was terrible." She started dating this guy from down-the-bayou and he always had a radio tuned to the old country AM station, with a steady stream of Merle Haggard and Hank Williams. Mostly, music has been a solitary pursuit , even to this day, rather than a social one.
Who helped shape your taste, is there anyone like that, it's so diverse, it runs the gamut...?
Reading, more than anything. I would scour and commit to memory any and all music periodicals that opened a glimpse on a musical landscape past the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Lynryd Skynrd. I had a very similar sonic upbringing to Rob Fleming protagonist in Nick Hornby's "High Fidelity" (Rob Gordon in the film) where one record would lead me to the next. One early book on electronic music was a springboard that led me to John Cage, Pere Ubu, Devo and Tangerine Dream, all in one fell swoop.
Who were some of the first bands you saw in concert?
Hahahaha no one came to Houma where I lived, but everyone came to New Orleans. My first official concert was Thompson Twins with Orchestral Manouvers in the Dark opening. I had this great OMD shirt that had dayglo bones all over it, and it quickly became a key part of my wardrobe.
Who was the most recent?
I have a job as a concert reviewer for 225 Magazine in Baton Rouge, so I end up going to 3-4 shows a week depending on who's playing. The last two really notable ones were Sufjan Stevens at the House of Blues, and Susan Cowsill.
When did you start writing about music?
In about 2000. I had, and still have, a LiveJournal going, and as an escape from the monotony of the office, I'd write about stuff I had downloaded. Stereogum and other mp3 blogs were new and all the rage, so I made my LiveJournal into a half-ass one. Alarcon was a friend on my LJ account and asked me to join the OL team after my piece on Joe Strummer's death, which is included in the book.
Then you were asked to write the liner notes for Drive By Truckers...
It was their bio for their 2006 album A Blessing and a Curse. I'd been bugging their PR person about freelance opportunties with them and this came up. It was such a pleasure in that they are really my favorite current rock band. My first paying writing gig as well.
How did the idea for the 'Darkness, Racket and Twang' come about?
I think everyone involved on both ends really wanted to do a book. I wanted to write one and the SideCartel wanted to publish it. When they first broached the idea I thought it was a nice thing to say, you know? "I want to put out a collection of your writing." Then months down the line, I was up for a position at a local magazine and called Sidecartel up saying, look, I don't know if you are serious about doing this book, but just say you are, since I'm telling my prospective new editor that you are. They came back and said indeed they wanted it, and to give him a title, so Darkness, Racket and Twang was the first thing that popped into my head.
It's received high marks from the critics?
So far. Everyone that's read it seems to really like it. I hope so. My aim is to be able to geek out on music in an emotional and humorous way. In a lot of ways, I think being a music obsessive is rather self-indulgent and absurd, and I'm willing to wallow in that absurdity and see where it takes me.
There are some pretty high profile quotes on the cover, from Patterson Hood, Tim Westergarden, Joe Ambrose and Kirk Lake...
I sent out feelers to anyone I could think of, and I got the nicest rejection letter from John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats. He wrote a rather detailed letter explaining how he just didn't have time to give it the attention it deserved.
You openly acknowledge your love of Lester Bangs and his influence on your writing...
He is the fountainhead as far as music writing goes. I knew I had found my writing idol when after reading his piece about Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, I ran out and bought the record, like in a fever. Previously I would have only bought a Van Morrison under duress of gunpoint, so I figured if he could spur that kind of action, he is clearly the man. My other critical hero is Jonas Mekas, experimental film-maker and founder of Film Culture magazine and the Anthology Film Archives. I picked up his collection "Movie Journal" at a yard sale once and devoured it. He came from the idea that one should be an unabashed advocate for the art one loves, that your promotion and enthusiasm was much more valuable than your criticism. After reading this book, I felt like a goddamn expert on experimental film, could talk very intelligently on films that I had never seen, nor would ever. Brilliant, electric stuff.
The daring Cover of Darkness, Racket and Twang, is something of a pastiche, an homage! (although I probably shouldn't use that word), right? (I was going to say 'darling',misspelled it and there it is! - daring)
An inadvertent tribute to Lester Bangs. When working with Jay, the designer, on the cover, I was trying to find the current cover of Bangs' "Psychotic Reactions..." to show him what I didn't want it to look like. I came across this out of print French edition that was perfect. Jay does psychedelic posters for bands, so we met his typography and design to this French edition and came up with what I think is a great cover.
In one of your most poignant pieces, I read your very personal take on the immediate aftermath of Katrina. I wonder if you're in the line of fine southern writers, like a rocknroll day William Faulkner?
Katrina was hard. I was not personally affected besides having no power for a week and tree limbs all over my yard, but I grew up just south of New Orleans, and that city was my Other, my place to escape the dull suburban life. It really is a unique city and to see it demolished by laziness and lthen eft for dead just kills me.
As for the southern writer thing, that's a heavy circle to enter, especially around here. I was not born in the South so to many, I'm not considered truly Southern. I'm Southern by circumstance, and by choice in my adult life. Nonetheless, there is a connection in that life here is like the summers - heavier, more intense, but also languid and sultry. I will run a damn long sentence together like Faulkner does, but if anything, I would want to be seen as a rock-n-roll Walt Whitman. I think he is one of the very few writers that gets that the human experience is really a cosmic one and that everything comes at us at once.
(Alex V. Cook's book of rocknroll observations, 'Darkness, Racket and Twang' is available now from the SideCartel)
Photo: ¬© Jerri Jensen. Thanks to you!
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com