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The author of the book: Clinton Heylin
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Language: English
Edition: Chicago Review Press
Date of issue: May 1st 2005
Format files: PDF
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Clinton Heylin's From the Velvets to the Voidoids: The Birth of American Punk Rock was a captivating read that, not unlike Patti Smith's autobiographies or Greil Marcus's study of the world of Bob Dylan's Basement Tape sessions with The Band, transported me as I read it to another historical time and place, one with which I was vaguely familiar but much less so than I had at first thought. The book dealt with four periods in the development of American "punk" music (a label many of those associated with it disdain), the precursors (namely the Velvet Underground, the Modern Lovers, the Stooges, The New York Dolls and the MC5), the First Wave (Television, Blondie, the Ramones, Patti Smith, Rocket from the Tombs), the Second Wave (Talking Heads, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, The Heartbreakers [all three of these tied to Richard Hell], Suicide, the Dictators, Pere Ubu) and the No Wave movement.

I picked up the book at a (mostly used) record store that I frequent and was drawn in by two elements: First, it was written by Clinton Heylin and I enjoyed his All Yesterdays' Parties: The Velvet Underground in Print, 1966-1971, which compiled practically everything published about the Velvet Underground, one of my favorite bands, from 1966-1971. And, secondly, the cover caught my attention as it made reference not only to the Velvets in the title, but the cover art included an image of Debbie Harry with Iggy Pop, two favorites.

I enjoyed reading about the origins of bands with which I was previously familiar and also appreciated that the work introduced me to recordings by some of these artists with which I was unacquainted and also introduced me to other artists from the New York and Cleveland scenes of "punk" music (Rocket from the Tombs, Ubu, the Dictators, Suicide, Mink DeVille, etc.), whose music I quickly took an interest in.

What made Heylin's work so important was that at the time not much, and certainly not anything so in-depth, had been written on the history of American punk music, though much had been written on the British punk scene. Heylin's history of punk was influential and came out surprisingly just as there was a growing reevaluation of the bands (with the ascendancy of grunge in the 90s) that came out of New York and Cleveland and especially those New York bands associated with now famous venues like Max's Kansas City and CBGBs in the 70s, a time when creative genius was sparked in many places (though each movement seemed unaware of the others occurring elsewhere that drew on the same currents), genius that burned brightly and then imploded, with many bands releasing only about two albums (and great albums at that) before fizzling, thinking that they were doing something innovative at the time but unaware that their impact would extend beyond the socio-historical conditions at the time when they were giving birth to these new ideas.

For me, it was also interesting to get a deeper understanding of the roots of the bands and artists who came up in this period. Richard Hell says, "From the Velvets to the Voidoids is the first book I can remember reading about rock & roll that gives the impression that its subjects--the musicians/performers--are actually intelligent. That itself alone is enough to justify the book and make it important." I knew that Patti Smith was a poet before she was a music legend, and I learned from her autobiography that she was friends with the likes of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, that she had an interest in world cinema (many of the same films that I personally enjoy) and worked at a bookstore (The Strand I believe) due to her love of books. Many of the artists who emerged from this period were similarly well-read and were also influenced by film and musical forms like classical and free jazz that are typically considered more "highbrow" than is the case with rock & roll. The (mis)perception that rock stars are somehow culturally inferior compared to other types of artists can perhaps be illustrated by the following example: In my Proust book group at one point someone had made a reference to Mick Jagger and many in the group scoffed, but she justified her Jagger reference by pointing out that he is apparently very well-read. I think there is a cultural bias that has diminished, but still exists, that suggests that rock (and especially punk rock, but really any type of popular art) is a substandard art form and that these types of artists are essentially just goofing off. Heylin clearly demonstrates that the artists that emerged in the American punk rock scene were not just a bunch of misfits looking for something to do, but that they often had a method and an aesthetic vision that shaped their work, though sometimes this vision was less clear than at other times -- artists like Blondie and the Ramones for instance (the former considered the least likely of the CBGB bands to succeed) developing their sound over the course of many years and many performances to small crowds. Others like Richard Hell, Television and the Talking Heads seemed to know early on exactly what they wanted to do (though with necessary adjustments here and there). And there was also a divide between the art-rock punk aesthetic (Television, the Heads, Patti Smith) and the "fuck-art" crowd, those who just wanted to rock without the pretensions.

From the beginning to the Postlude the book was very strong -- funny at times and extremely informative -- even if a bit biased in favor of certain acts (namely Pere Ubu and Rocket from the Tombs, both which arose in Cleveland). But by the time I reached the Postlude it began to fall apart. Much of the Postlude was occupied with Heylin lauding himself and tearing apart the efforts of others who have attempted a history of this scene and also being unnecessarily harsh in his criticisms of certain music artists (both those associated with these scenes and those who preceded it). This came across as very bitter. And if his bias in favor of Pere Ubu is not evident throughout, he makes it clear when he writes in the Postlude: "If I herein make the case for Marquee Moon, Horses, The Modern Dance and Blank Generation as the most enduring landmarks of American punk, it is because none of these have been superseded by the garage bands over the pond."

And I was then equally upset when, after this Postlude (written in 2004) I approached Appendix 3 (Dramatis Personae) and Appendix 4 (Discography and Bibliography), which appeared to be unaltered from the way they appeared when first published in 1993.

Overall, Heylin's work is a fascinating study of the roots of American punk, the author's analysis mixed with interview responses from leading figures from the scene. But as with an original issue of a CD, it seems that the original might be preferable to the remastered copy (new edition), the flaws in the latter more evident and inexcusable. If it is not going to be tastefully updated, it's best to just leave a good thing alone.


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Reviews of the From the Velvets to the Voidoids: The Birth of American Punk Rock


TOBY

Why do I need to drive a phone number?

LUKE

Contradictory. On the one hand, it pulls in and on the other ...

AMELIE

The book that found the answer to my question

BOBBY

It was a surprisingly interesting book. Very highly recommended.

ALICE

Despite the criticism, I liked the book!




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