By Jason Kron
This Searing Light, The Sun and Everything Else | By Jon Savage | April 2019, Faber and Faber, 160 Pages
If you've read as many music biographies and seen as many documentaries as I have, you know how it usually goes: A group of outcasts (in this case, the band Joy Division) congregate in a place with no options for them (in this case, Manchester). The singer (in this case, Ian Curtis) is a quiet, book-loving poet type who sheds his shyness on stage and goes apeshit, confounding those who knew him as a well-mannered family man. Though the band never intended to make music for the masses, the masses attract to them anyways. Then it ends too soon as the singer's demons overpower them in one way or another (in this case, suicide). People are taken by surprise, remembering the side of him that laughed and liked to play pranks. But then, similarly to what others have said about Kurt Cobain and countless other musician suicides, friends took a closer look at his lyrics after the fact and thought, "Why didn't we try to get him help sooner?"
It's a fascinating story, one that has transcended generations and genres and became a cash cow for the biography and documentary businesses. Therefore, it's ambitious to attempt tackling such a tale with the intent of bringing something new to the table. Having been a respected music writer for decades, Jon Savage can be counted on to complete such a task and has done so with his new book This Searing Light, The Sun and Everything Else. Savage was present during much of Joy Division's life, and many of the journalist quotes he uses are his own from back in the day. The book is an oral history, predominantly spoken by the three remaining members (who went onto form the band New Order), with no direct commentary from Savage other than the previously mentioned 1970s era writings.
This Searing Light has a very conversational feel, and like most long conversations, a percentage may be interesting and a percentage may be filler that you had to be there to understand. If you're not familiar with Joy Division or don't particularly care for them, you may not get much out of learning about topics such as their record contracts or relationships woes. Similarly to other music retrospectives, this is a book for fans, those who delight in reading about the band's recording technique and who they toured with and what books they were quoting in their lyrics. If this is you (and it is me), this book is very worth your time.
The Beautiful Ones | By Prince; Forward by Dan Piepenbring | October 2019, Random House, 288 Pages
Prince’s estate has shamelessly put out much of his unreleased music since his death, which is especially sketchy when one considers how particular Prince was regarding what he made public. We’re talking about someone who even hired Kevin Smith to make a documentary about him, which he then took and put into his famous vault (the documentary has still never been shown). It’s hard to know what of his material he would’ve approved of being released after his demise, including his barely-begun memoir The Beautiful Ones. However, shortly before his death, Prince had made an official announcement about the book’s eventual release, so it’s seeing the light of day now is more likely to be accompanied by his blessing from the great beyond. Considering that Prince spent his final days working on this book, perhaps it would’ve been an even bigger tragedy if we could never see this work.
Much of The Beautiful Ones is a touching introduction by Dan Piepenbring, the man hired by Prince to co-write the book with him. Though there are some mentions of Prince’s famous playful idiosyncrasies (such as his hosting late-night screenings of Kung Fu Panda 3), he writes of a Prince who was thoughtful and intense as well, someone who cared deeply about how the record industry treated black artists, someone who was fascinated by cellular theory (the idea that we inherit the memories of our parents), and someone who made music with the idea of a spiritual harmony in mind.
The chunk of the book that’s actually written by Prince is pretty small and goes up to preparing for the recording of his debut album For You. It includes trademark Princespeak, the kind of text lingo that predated texting (using an eye for “I”, a “U” for “you”, etc.). This kind of writing doesn’t make for an easy read, but it wouldn’t be a Prince book without such a technique. Though this is more technically well-written than most books by musicians, anything authored by Prince would be guaranteed to be amazing no matter what. This is because he was much, much, much more interesting than we are, and the ideas that flowed out of him were fascinating whether they were fine-tuned or not.
In an attempt to beef up a very short memoir, The Beautiful Ones concludes with a series of Prince’s quotes from various music publications over the course of his career, which are also a lot more insightful than average musician quotes. In addition, the book is full of photos of and art by Prince throughout his life, which only adds to how much of a must-read this is for his fans. For a non-Prince fan, this is still a pretty good use of not very much of your time, as it is a rare window into the mind of a true superhero.
Sunshine on an Open Tomb |By Tim Kinsella | October 2019, Featherproof Books, 361 Pages
Tim Kinsella has spent close to three decades being an extremely prolific and influential musician with Chicago-based bands such as Cap’n Jazz and Joan of Arc. In the last decade, he’s also written two brilliant novels (The Karaoke Singer’s Guide to Self-Defense and Let Go and Go On and On) and a memoir (All Over and Over), employing off-kilter and heart-wrenching techniques that he’s used in different ways with his music. Not only is he a good author for being a musician first, but he’s one of my favorite living writers, period.
His newest novel Sunshine on an Open Tomb is a one-of-a-kind work. The setting is 1988, and the narrator is an unnamed fictional younger brother of George W. and Jeb Bush. The Bushes are never named outright, everyone in the inbred family has an alias, and they’re collectively known simply as “The Family,” but it is 100% clear who The Family are supposed to be. The protagonist is writing this book in response to an inaccurate biography of The Family that had been released, giving his own alternate history of his bloodline and of this country’s dark underbelly.
Some of Sunshine on an Open Tomb is a personal narrative of the narrator’s tortured existence, ranging from his obsession with the film River’s Edge to only being able to speak the phrase “Duh, unga-bunga” out loud (which everyone in the book understands to mean something else, like how the kids in Peanuts understand the seemingly indecipherable grown-ups). The other part of the book is comprised of extensively-researched conspiracy theories (and though I didn’t look up all the ones that are referenced here, but all the ones that I did look up did actually exist, and there’s probably hundreds of names and theories that are mentioned and worth exploring). The names of characters outside of The Family have also been altered, some of which are easy to figure out (such as Nixon being Nxn) and others not so much (such as JFK being King Arthur).
The book bounces back and forth between the narrator’s day-to-day experiences and these larger conspiracy theories, and the entire work is written in a herky-jerky, stream-of-conscious manner. It’s not a light read and not a particularly easy book to follow, but it is beautifully written, darkly funny, and perfectly captures the mood of conversing with someone who’s intensely paranoid and alienated.