From the Velvets to the Voidoids: A Pre-Punk History for a Post-Punk World
Reviewed by Mike Mosher
Friday, February 23 2001, 10:53 AM
First of all there's that atrocious subtitle. Are we to believe that the 1990s were "Post-Punk"? I don't. In an extremely tacky concert film directed by Dave Markey, Sonic Youth celebrated 1991 as The Year that Punk Broke at the same time the media supernova that hit Seattle carried Nirvana and its legions of nirvannabes to global eminence. Then came Green Day and the Offsping's market triumphs, followed by digital remasterings of the Stooges' Raw Power and reunion tours by the Sex Pistols, Wire, the Damned and the Buzzcocks. All things considered, its hard to imagine that there was anything 'post-punk' about the nineties.
All the usual historic suspects are represented in 1993's From the Velvets to the Voidoids: Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Joey Ramone, Chrissie Hynde, and Richard Hell. Yet there is something cramped about this digest of previously-published interviews. I can best point out its faults in comparison to a similar, more successful book employing the same format, 1997's Please Kill Me: An Oral History of Punk, by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, also published by Penguin.
Between 1976 and 1978, McNeil, McCain and friends had been the producers of the jolly magazine PUNK--its issues collected and reprinted in 1998--and committed to a syncretism of rock and comics. As deft students of MAD founder Harvey Kurtzman, they conducted nightclub interviews with Lou Reed and others that turned into wacky sfumetti (drawn-on captioned photographs) in print. Please Kill Me's interviewees usually had the benefit and perspective of hindsight, bemused wisdom from the intervening two decades, and wizend interviewers asking the right questions. Those interviews gathered by Heylin in From the Velvets were mostly taken at the point in the Gotham darlings' prominence where they are taking themselves waaay too seriously, believing their press clippings.
And let us contrast the other book's authors with Clinton Heylin. In Manhattan in early 1977, to see Legs McNeil at a punk rock gig was the imprimatur of the happenin' place that evening (as Bob Hanamura sightings occupy a comparable place in the San Francisco art world). Judging by his methodical, collegiate prose the author of From the Velvets seems to be the uptight, devoted student, the guy at the punk party staying sober so he can better take notes and not miss anything, the bookish boy who doesn't see that the punk scene was in no small part for laughs, out for fun, just for goofing around and often very funny. McNeil and McCain begin with narratives from the Stooges' Michigan, comb Ohio then listen to many big New York City storytellers and a few voices from the West Coast. Heylin's own regional fixation seems to be to immortalize the unfortunate Ohioan Peter Laughner, the legendary Rocket from the Tombs/Pere Ubu guitarist who died too soon in a flurry of excess. But even Laughner probably had more fun and laughter than the readers of From the Velvets to the Voidoids, a book that's for historical completists only.
From the Velvets to the Voidoids is available from Penguin Books