Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Music as Primal Therapy: The Loud Memories of Chris Stamey

left: Chris Stamey. (Photo: Daniel Coston)

A Spy in the House of Loud is great title for Chris Stamey's personal memoir, as much about his times as his own role in them, and by way of two other great titles, one from the Anais Nin novel in 1954 and one from the Doors song in 1970. The book is Chris Stamey’s recollections of the cultural period during which music became louder, meaner and funnier: a wild ride by a wild child. After all, Stamey was the force behind the dB’s (both deciBels and decibel breakers, with a superfluous apostrophe) and he definitely knows whereof he speaks, or perhaps he screams.

In addition to borrowing from Anais and referencing Jim Morrison, the title of Stamey’s boldly maniacal yet quietly elegant stroll down memory lane also evokes one of his own songs with the dB’s “A Spy in the House of Love,” from their 1984 album Like This. It doesn’t actually contain any echo of either one, and it doesn’t need to, but what it does do is remind us of a time of phenomenal exuberance in the pop-rock music scene, a time when disco went to hell, at top speed and top volume. The new scene was in fact post-pop writ large. Hence, Stamey’s sonic notion of the "house of loud."

At about the same time I encountered Stamey’s new book, I also encountered another overlapping memoir stroll by Luc Sante in Vice magazine, and, being somewhat superstitious, I decided there had to be some sort of synchronicity between the two, since Sante was also dragging us along with his moist memories of the CBGB Club, a notorious venue which seemed to pick up where Max’s Kansas City and Steve Rubell’s Studio 54 left off. But it was a lot louder and much seedier (in a good way) than both. 

Sante, a French culture critic who emigrated early in childhood to America with his family, was able to provide an exceptional insight into what made American post-pop music in general and New York’s New Wave scene in particular so compelling to clever artists such as Chris Stamey and his colleagues in sonic chaos. He had an outsider’s ethos and skill at grasping the mutual outsider status of new wave and proto-punk stylings.

“Almost everything of interest in New York," he observed, “lies in some degree of proximity to music. The music is your spur. If you could figure out how to get in, the music would suffuse you. You wouldn’t even need an instrument: you would become one with the music and it would pour from you like light through gauze.” Some of that gauzy light is captured quite nicely in these two Stamey songs from the dB’s in their primal prime.

The vibe that was sweeping the music world, literally the world itself, as evidenced by the similar sounds emerging from the Marquee Club in London, where the Sex Pistols held court over the decay and collapse of any and all romantic myths about what pop-rock was or could be about, was something that Sante decoded very well as a search, but not, however, the kind of sweet kindly search embarked upon by the youth of an earlier decade: “It flittered across underground newspapers and teen-gossip rags and lifestyle glossies and radio interviews and industry promo-artifacts stacked near cash registers and hazy orally transmitted lore of dubious provenance. By 1975, it is a new world, somehow. Everyone gets a haircut that year, but not one can say exactly why.”

Perhaps this is why I enjoy Sante’s notion that maybe “the people would be the times.” Of course, maybe they always were, the jazz age of the '20s, the beat age of the '50s, the hippie age of the '60s, and the lost ages of the '70s and '80s. The people are always their times, just sometimes more obviously so than others. And these were the times that Chris Stamey, who had already become legendary for playing with the legendary Alex Chilton (formerly of The Box Tops, which were proto-punk already in 1967, a full decade before anyone was ready) and the visionary founder of Big Star, a very advanced pop band from 1971-1974 (and beyond) would become steeped in as the founder of the dB’s (active from 1978-88 and again from 2005 to the present). This is the tale of personal dreams and nightmares that Stamey shares with us in A Spy in the House of Loud. He does a masterful job of sharing both.

The dB's, circa 1981. (Photo: Getty)

1975, of course, was a strange year for several reasons. The new and third line-up of one of the most bombastic and blockbusting hit pop groups in history, Fleetwood Mac, was launched that year. Perhaps the brightest and shiniest purveyors of breakup pop since The Beatles, Mac would also be the final nail in the coffin of alternative counter culture music, an event that just called out for fresh fury. FM radio was also launched, a whole new formatting cushion to contain the new gigantic industry that was about to take over the entertainment business. And only two years away would be the death of Elvis and the birth of punk, two more seminal and situational elements that altered the course of music history forever.

Once again, Luc Sante is perhaps more salient on this point than most domestic observers ever could be, when the expatriate Belgian critic opined, “Psychic emanations are big: you can feel change peeling off the walls but you can name the form of that change. The year is a laboratory. Anything is possible. The hippie order of knowledge has been overturned. The time has come for us to assume our own place in the music, and that will involve the overthrow of what has come before. Life is suddenly black and white, with a thin stripe of red running through. And that makes the music right for the world outside: the persistent breakdown of all structures, the vacated certainties and welcomed randomness, the retreating future and imminent prehistory.”

Stamey and the dB’s, among others, actually did feel change peeling, and, as his memoir proves to us, he and they, among others, really could name their form of that change. They named it the dB’s, an exotic nickname about breaking the limit levels of music (even loud music like The Who or Led Zeppelin) and celebrating the sudden breakdown of all former borders having to do with harmony, melody, even of entertainment itself. New wave and punk music would be somewhat similar to the Dadaism and Surrealism movements in the visual art and cultural domains. There is no meaning anymore, they declared, so live with abandon and join us in singing our national anti-anthem. Ironically, they were also invented a self-denying paradox to parade itself under an unspoken banner: anarchists unite.

There was (initially, anyway) no media to cover this new wave/punk scene, with television, newspapers, magazines and radio all being united in their indifference or incomprehension. But the new scene didn’t care because they covered themselves: they knew everything already anyway because they were all “plugged into the distant invisible telegraph of youth.” They also knew that their now was the Big Now, even if that conviction was only shared by a scant few hundred people in the know. Soon enough, all the rest of us would also know, and Stamey’s book intimately describes how that unlikely historical fact came to pass. New wave, he reminds us, was also No Wave. And that amorphous fact reminds me of Dylan’s "Ballad of a Thin Man," in which he declares that “something is happening here / But you don’t know what it is / Do you, Mr. Jones?”

Crucially, Stamey’s excellent memoir is subtitled "New York Songs and Stories," and the narrative illustrates that his band and their career may not have been possible anywhere else. Released by the University of Texas Press, which has a well-done American Music series, it does indeed unfold kind of along the lines of one of his dB’s songs. A literary jukebox, so to speak, it shares first-hand experiences about the making of his music and the making of his life, all while unspooling across a cultural landscape that defined the making of several grippingly poetic decades. It’s also surprisingly low-key, understated, self-deprecating and humble.

He was originally from North Carolina and some of his childhood prior to his moving to New York provides a logical explanation for why he really belonged there and how his character and temperament allowed him to fit right in from day one. In 1978 he almost immediately began working with one of his idols, Alex Chilton, and started moving in the high-altitude circus tent of new wave/punk circles that would forever transform the music world.

It was his friendship with Richard Lloyd of the innovative new wave band Television that led to his debut release of Chris Stamey and the dB’s and the dizzying saga of his role in the upper stratosphere of alternative rock that was taking both the art and music fields by storm. The manner in which he tells his story is clear and concise, actually warm and rather funny, again in keeping with his songwriting style. “To me,” he confided in one media interview, “euphoria lives inside an electric guitar. That’s the place I find freedom, passion, exhilaration: in the spaces between the notes, in the distance between the frets.”

The dB's reunited in 2012. (Photo: Getty)

When discussing his recent records, Falling Off the Sky from 2012 (the long-awaited reunion of the dB’s), and his solos Lovesick Blues from 2013 and Euphoria (2015), the 64-year-old Stamey (who looks remarkably healthy given the tales of excess, musical and otherwise, that occupy his narrative) told the folks at Yep Roc Records for a profile piece: “I found these songs inside the same dilapidated old Silverstone lipstick guitar that I’d written my first records on. Maybe that why it sounds a bit like those records in a way.”

What many of those early records sounded like was a young man’s visceral reaction to first hearing the breathtakingly proto-punk Detroit based-band MC5 when they visited Stamey’s southern hometown of Winston-Salem in 1971 for a concert. Nothing was ever the same after that. It would have been the same kind of life-altering event that Tom Petty experienced when seeing The Beatles a generation earlier. The impact stayed with Stamey and molded his free-form approach to making his own music six years later with fellow North Carolinian Mitch Easter and a few other wayward friends.

All of those players, Stamey and Easter along with Chris Holder, Will Rigby and Peter Holsapple, were originally from “the South,” and all were transplanted to where they actually seemed to belong, New York. Eventually, though, after kicking up a royal ruckus with the best of the best on the New York, art, theatre and music landscapes, in 1995 Stamey would return to his roots in North Carolina, where he resides to this day with his wife and kids.
As he describes it so well in a narrative with alternating currents of jukebox selections featuring fellow artists who influenced him (Tom Verlaine, Richard Thompson and R.E.M., among others) popular music was undergoing a seismic shift in the mid-to-late 1970s when he and his band came of age: “The old guard had become bloated, cartoonish and widely co-opted by a search for maximum corporate profits, and we wanted none of it.”
So what they ended up doing was inventing a new guard, not necessarily an avant-garde per se (although Stamey is remarkably well-schooled in myriad schools of alternative cultural modes) but rather a new form of pop music.

Pop music for grown-ups, we could call it. His book smoothly takes us back to an auteur explosion happening in small NY clubs led, most notably, by up-and-coming bands like Talking Heads. Together in this fast-moving milieu, Stamey and company charted a course away from arena rock into a new kind of hyper-personal and quirky singer-songwriter stylings offering an alternative to stadium mentality music and to big business interests. His book is a great guided tour of the studio experiences behind each song, with just as many highly articulate insights into the other musicians of the era as into his own work. It also portrays a brilliant Southern boy’s coming of age in a city of other brilliant talents, where it seemed that every second person he met was as brilliant as himself. The main thing they all had, apart from unique voices, styles and ways of producing electric music, was a fervent desire to break the rules and make some noise.

Chris Stamey has played a huge role in the history of new wave music, both as a singer-songwriter and, later on, as a gifted record producer and cultural entrepreneur. He was also a groundbreaker in a whole new idiom: independent musicians, bands and labels, and what came to known as the indie artist movement. As a producer, he has worked with Alejandro Escovedo, Skylar Gudasz, Flat Duo Jets, Tift Merritt, Le Tigre, and Yo La Tango.

Since 2010, Stamey has been musical director for an international series of concert performances of Big Star’s classic album Third, alongside Big Star’s Jody Stephens, Ray Davies, Wilco, R.E.M. and the Kronos String Quartet. All are artists who fully appreciate the grandeur of the quirk and visionary post-pop created by the late Alex Chilton’s brainchild. Thank You Friends, a concert film of these arrangements, was released in 2017, and Stamey’s original jazz radio play about the early sixties in Manhattan, Occasional Shivers, (kind of a precursor dress rehearsal for Spy in the House of Loud, in a way) premiered nationwide in 2016. His new book is an entertaining and welcome contribution to our understanding of and appreciation for one of the most fervent, fertile and revolutionary periods in American and international popular music history.

Chris Stamey’s book from University of Texas Press is represented and distributed by Codasat Canada.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Fall 2018.

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