Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Everything I'm Cracked Up To Be

While in Iowa last month on the book tour, I met a journalist named John Kenyon, who, over burgers and beers, told me that I absolutely had to read this recent memoir by nineties indie rocker Jen Trynin.

I dunno. Rock memoirs are the kind of thing I think I ought to really love, but rarely do. They are usually about the same things--being bad, deciding to be good again, having hits, going on the road, coming home, divorcing, remarrying, being unpopular, being popular again. Not many of them are very smart, and almost none of them are written very well.

But this one is, and I really liked it. Trynin's story is depressingly familiar--aspiring rock musician can't get a label, and so starts her own. She puts out a record. Big labels finally get interested. They're gonna make her a star. They re-release the record and send her on tour. And then it isn't the hit they were hoping for, and everyone she liked at the label quits, and the band gets into a fight, and everything falls apart. The end.

Somehow though I really enjoyed Trynin's version of this story. I think it's the writing--she's straightforward and engaging, yet capable of surprising and funny turns of phrase. She writes with real humility and self-deprecating good humor about her brief fame; she is unabashed about her crushes on guys, her insecurity about her self-image and her guitar playing, her relative ignorance of rock culture. There are some great bits, including a few nice dream sequences, and a wonderful, dreamlike (but apparently real) incident involving an endless series of terrifyingly identical interconnected hotel rooms. When she cheated on her boyfriend, I gasped in horror; when her Super Reverb died during sound check, I shed a little rock and roll tear. Even though this isn't nearly my favorite book I read this year, I felt a deep affinity for Trynin--I actually just mailed her a fan letter.

Maybe I'm sentimental. In the mid-nineties, when the book takes place, I was half-assedly doing the same things Trynin was doing for real, and it's not hard to imagine my way into her situation. Of course the same thing would later happen to me, on a miniature scale, in the literary world that is now falling all over itself to replicate the failures of the record industry: but that's the way of the artist, I suppose. Indeed, I wish more rock memoirs were about being an artist, rather than about being a star.

For what it's worth, I bought Trynin's first record after reading the book. It's good--very much the kind of thing I was into at the time, and in retrospect I don't know how I missed it then. The second single, "Better Than Nothing," is catchy as hell, and though Rhian and I have some ideas about why it didn't make the grade that summer, the summer Alannis Morrissette was blasting out of every coffee shop, it's still kind of hard to believe it wasn't a hit.


John Kenyon said...

Glad you liked it, John. You're right on: It's interesting because it's about being an artist, not a star. I remember getting a CMJ Music Monthly magazine around this time with "Better Than Nothing" and "You Oughta Know" among its tracks. I guess the powers that be chose their angry young woman and Trynin lost. I hope the fact that she got a good book out of the experience made it somewhat worthwhile.

Anonymous said...

That's what Rhian and I were saying--"You Oughta Know" was appealing to simpler, baser emotions. Whereas the Trynin song is basically saying that unhappiness is normal, but that today she feels OK. That's an indie stance, not a hit stance.

That said, there are a few artists who have managed to hide subtler messages beneath the gloss of pop. Cyndi Lauper springs to mind--"Girls Just Wanna" is a sad song, secretly, about the miseries of adulthood.

Trynin tries to blame herself somewhat for her failure to produce a hit, but I don't think it was her fault. It's just a matter of what people need to hear. And it's hard to predict what that's going to be.

Joe said...

Thanks for reminding me to pick up this book. Trynin received a good bit of airplay on the Boston radio station I used to listen to as a teenager. "Better Than Nothing" had been hidden away in the dusty folds of my brain for about a dozen years until seeing that Youtube link.

"Castle" is excellent by the way. I couldn't put it down.

Zachary Cole said...

Joe: Same here, "Castle" was riveting (especially the last thirty pages, not to give anything away.) "Pieces for the Left Hand" waits on my shelf...

Anonymous said...

Thanks, guys, glad you're digging the books.