Dean Wareham : Black Postcards

<img src="" alt=" " />In his autobiography, <em>Black Postcards</em>, indie singer/songwriter Dean Wareham delivers a recollection similar to his music, low-key but certainly felt, though with a bit less...
7.8 Penguin

  The New Zealand-born, New York-residing Wareham has been a presence in the alternative music scene for over two decades now, from Galaxie 500 to Luna to Dean & Britta today (with now-wife, and former Luna bassist, Britta Phillips).  His dream-pop stylings have moved in and out of fashion without radically changing over the years, which would give the impression of smooth sailing, but his autobiography shows that nothing could have been further from the truth behind the scenes.  Wareham details everything from the changing record industry to the less-than-amicable break-up of Galaxie 500, the ups-and-downs of the road to leaving his wife and young child for the hot new girl bassist in the band.  Without musical accompaniment, Wareham’s words on Black Postcards lack a degree of color, but his matter-of-fact delivery and refusal to glamorize his ‘rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle’ do ring true, and give some extra weight to those moments of real drama and emotion.  Postcards is also truly an ‘auto’ biography, with events clearly from the author’s perspective, with a lack of self-reflection and over-simplified self-justification that can make Wareham seem selfish.  But as a vision, a viewpoint out of an indie/alternative music-maker, from the first days of ‘alternative’ all the way into the genre changing into ‘indie’, Black Postcards provides an interesting and relatable window.

Like most biographies, and autobiographies in particular, Black Postcards treads very quickly and lightly over Wareham’s younger years; those are the times where your memories are fuzziest, and events seem so far removed from the real world (though moving at a young age from New Zealand, first to Sydney, then New York, could have provided more material).  However, Wareham doesn’t dwell as deeply as many his age would upon his college years; the most interesting tidbits seem to be his activities in Reagan-era leftist organizations, including support for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and Soviets in Afghanistan (but even there, he admits to being less fervent than others).  While more color about the late-seventies/early-eighties time might have given Postcards more of an ‘historical’ feel, that’s not what this book is about.

Unfortunately, Wareham’s retelling of his days with Galaxie 500 is probably the weakest section of the book.  Maybe it was too long ago, maybe it’s since been well overshadowed in his mind by the events of Luna & Britta, maybe the starker separation from bandmates Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang has put it further in the past; whatever the reason, it feels like Wareham doesn’t get to the heart of the matter with his first band.  The material is certainly there: after early college-band miscues, Wareham formed a trio with two friends from high school, Krukowski & Yang – who had also been a couple since high school.  While he does get to some of the interesting issues (Wareham speaks much of being ‘outvoted’ by the couple, and the inherent power issues when you’re the singer/guitarist and they’re the bass & drums rhythm section), Krukowski and Yang themselves aren’t detailed enough; Krukowski comes off as a control-freak, while Yang gets virtually no description at all (Wareham professes to be shocked when a European fan finds it strange that Yang is a Chinese-American Jew, but the reader gets virtually no heads up about this, either – especially as Wareham refers to almost everybody by their first name).  Wareham seems to try to balance it out by professing what great people they are, but other than a nice send-off to their music ability after he’d broken up the band, one never gets the sense why Wareham liked working with these people to begin with (even the quotes from Krukowski that often start chapters in this period, make the drummer seem still as angry as ever).

Yet at least Wareham himself doesn’t either come off as exactly a saint in these pages, or in the rest of the book – though one has the feeling that’s mostly unintentional on his part.  When justifying his actions, he relies on such tropes as ‘Of course, everyone feels this way at some points’ or ‘I just couldn’t stop thinking about it’ – and those are for the major issues.  While he never denies the selfishness that laid behind much of his decisions, the guilt one would hope he would feel only really comes out later in life; it’s probably an indication that he grew up in those years, but one would think hindsight would have given him more of an honest appraisal of those days (not to mention the fact that the issues only get larger as he gets older).

If his recount of his Galaxie 500 days feels like something of a trial-run for his approach to Luna, one can at least tell that that is how Wareham himself feels – and oftentimes with good reason.  Not only was Luna a more successful (and, by most accounts, better) band than Galaxie 500, with more records released and sold, but the events that took place were certainly more momentous – primarily Wareham’s descent into adultery with Phillips, not long after the birth of his son, Jack.

That ‘Rock & Roll Romance’ (the subtitle to the book) forms the heart of Black Postcards.  Wareham’s description of adultery, from the how’s to the why’s to the what-happened-next’s isn’t the most original take on this often covered subject, but there is certainly an authenticity to his retelling of going from appreciation to crush to ‘what am I doing?’ to ‘what have I done?’, and his heartbreak over the effects and separation from his toddler son Jack ring the truest of anything in Postcards.  But it isn’t just there that Wareham is most honest – he is much franker as to what that did to Luna, not to mention his wife, and at last does not shy away from a proper assessment of his self-centeredness, which had really already become apparent to the reader.

An untold undercurrent of Black Postcards would be Wareham’s relationship with women in general, who he seems to rather unconsciously downgrade, or at least de-color, when in comparison with males.  It isn’t just Yang vs. Krukowski: one hears a lot less about his wife Claudia Silver than his son Jack, making his professions of love her – which he seems to only make early on, when he’s trying to get her, and much later, after the affair has been discovered – somewhat less meaningful.  Even Phillips herself doesn’t get the ‘screen time’ one would think she deserves – making Wareham’s attraction to her seem all the more about him.  Some of this is probably justified, as Phillips is a latecomer to his life and his biography, and the life of a musician, with its days in the studio and weeks on the road, did entail a lot of separation from his wife.

And, to Wareham’s credit, he does not scrimp on the details of being a musician – if anything, he over-does it at points, telling a few comments about seemingly every hotel and venue they ever visited from every tour (having kept a tour diary certainly aided him in his recall, but he might have used it a bit too much).  His remarks at various points about the ever-changing music industry are concise but certainly well thought-out and effective, and his viewpoint as being an indie-rock musician is one that is not treated enough in mainstream print and media.  The nuts-and-bolts dollars angle, with royalties and advances, is bracing and informative for anyone who listens to bands that aren’t massive hit-makers.  His experiences in everything from the heyday of grunge (when Luna was constantly told they weren’t grunge enough to really get in on the wave) to the halcyon days of the record companies in the late nineties (when the labels were making money hand-over-fist on hip-hop and teen-pop, but were dropping alternative acts) to today’s illegal downloading-inspired gloom and paranoia (as Wareham admits, Luna records never really made money for its labels, so this isn’t as biting an issue for him these days) are worthy of note to anyone interested in that side of indie-rock.  He also has lots of nice tidbits, from dealing with radio stations to the perils of taking the bigger offer: twice, Luna passed on their European label Beggar’s Banquest (The National, St. Vincent) for their American deal, choosing to go for a new indie imprint with a bigger wad of money, and both times those decisions came back to bite the band, like when one folded because its internet-boom billionaire bankroller pulled his support after the collapse of tech stocks in the early part of this decade.  Wareham also gives a gift to struggling music critics everywhere with his words, from his early days in Galaxie 500, about Francis DiMenno, writer for free biweekly fanzine Noise:

When you’re starting out as a band, people like Francis DiMenno are gods.  Unemployed geeks who are addicted to science fiction and write for free magazines that no one reads.

And outside of Krukowski, Wareham also is enjoyably detailed about many of the other men he went on tour with, from Galaxie 500 soundman/roadie/tour manager Kramer to major-label Elektra A&R rep Terry Tolkin to Luna’s first bassist Justin Harwood and lead guitarist Sean Eden.  Sometimes, this is because the individuals lent themselves to description: Kramer’s wild antics obviously annoyed Krukowski, but “there’s a character” in the Seinfeld sense, and Tolkin was the almost stereotypical, larger-than-life A&R guy, going from running away from home and hustling on New York City streets to blowing wads of money (and drugs) as a high-living A&R guy to being fired for not signing any big hit band (just acts like Luna and Stereolab) to pumping gas & heroin to rehab to his current sedate life in Stillwater, Oklahoma.  But Wareham is also much more in-depth and honest about Harwood leaving the band because he was a father with a family, and Eden’s various trials and tribulations (including his short affair with Luna’s keyboardist Lara Meyerratken).  The final shows at New York’s Bowery Ballroom (QRO venue review) leave a relatively sweet taste in the reader’s mouth.

Like any autobiography, Black Postcards has lots of neat extra little things thrown in, from encountering Flavor Flav on a plane in Australia en-route to a festival they were both doing to the awful, crushing synchronicity of his marriage coming to the crux of its end right around September 11th, 2001.  He also doesn’t shy away from detailing various drug- and woman-taking, though there’s a lot more of the former than the latter, and neither seems particularly fulfilling, or usually even worthwhile.  His studio time gets a much shorter shrift than his touring time (with the notable exception of the grueling process of making Luna’s Pup Tent).  There’s also remarkably little about his family, probably due to their reticent Kiwi ways, but more on his drug-addict older brother Anthony would have been appreciated.

While the autobiography ends with that final set of Bowery shows, Wareham hasn’t stopped making music, now in a pure married duo, Dean & Britta (one can’t help but wonder what Krukowski & Yang think about all this – especially since they’re in their own duo, dubbed Damon & Naomi…).  Their first post-Luna full-length, 2006’s Back Numbers (QRO album review), was well received, but fans weren’t quite over his old band (or completely ready to accept Phillips as a full partner – if there’s one hidden service from this account, is how it dispels any notion of her as a Yoko Ono-like negative catalyst).  In many ways, Black Postcards is fitting final coda to Luna, like that last live album many bands release, post-break-up.  In fact, the entire autobiography is kind of like Dean Wareham’s music – or his life: never reaching some singular pinnacle of greatness, but always interesting and worth following, or living, or reading.  One doesn’t have to be a fan of his music in particular, but the book is certainly for a fan of indie music in general, and it helps dispel a lot of the notions that one might have about it – and surely of Wareham.  He’s certainly not perfect, and definitely could use some more growth and self-reflection, but what life couldn’t?  And unlike most, Wareham was able to put it down all on paper to be read.

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