The assumption, I guess, is that the catalyst for my book, Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music, was the music created by the spirited Olympia label. That makes sense. I can understand a reader or reviewer believing that I am simply a huge fan of K Records, and, therefore, I suffered the slings and arrows of authorship in order to spread the gospel of the label. That happens. But that isn't my story.
Words are not a means to an end for me. They are the end. If you were able to jack directly into my brain and download the tangled particulars of songs, musicians, and distribution deals contained in the book, a big part of the story would be missing: mainly, the story itself.
I did not write this book because I am a fan of K. There is music I hold in higher esteem. If this project were based on my music fandom alone, my first book would be about Bob Dylan. There are already far too many of those and likely more being written at this very moment.
I always think in terms of story. As a music journalist, I have written complimentary short critiques of a band's music to get people to check out a show, but I have generally refused to tell a story about a musician unless I believe the story stands on its own merits. If that story fit into the feature format of a magazine, I would write it. Every once in a while I would come upon a story that was too big and timeless for that. These stories I considered literary. Until recently, I had no way of telling them. The history of K is the first.
What "literary" means to me, I can't quite put my finger on. Except that whatever it is, my entire life spent enjoying books has set up the criteria.
Please Kill Me did this for the '70s punk rock scene, as did Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces for the U.K. punk scene. My favorite bit of cultural excavation, though, comes from Mark Harris's excellent Pictures at a Revolution, which relates the intertwined stories of the five films nominated for the 1967 Academy Award for best picture. Harris manages to make the nuts and bolts of the film-making process compelling, thrilling even, while shedding light on the reason that the "classics" section at your video store ends in 1967.I prefer stories that haven't been told, or, even better, the secret history of a story that people believe has been told. The process of dispelling conventional wisdom is key. Legs McNeil's oral history
I am also drawn to stories of young people pushed by unknown forces to blaze a path into adulthood. The thrill of witnessing personal revelation is undeniable, but youthful discovery is also a great plot device that keeps exposition light and limber. I can't say this without pointing to the coming-of-age novel, J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, but there are many others. Stephen Chbosky's 1998 novella The Perks of Being a Wallflower (now getting the Hollywood treatment) is a fine example that also happens to use music as the catalyst for emotional evolution. My model for this type of character, though, is Larry Darrell, the restless hero of W. Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge. The reason I like Darrell so much is not because I understand him, but because he is an enigma in Maugham's book. He appears to the narrator, as if out of nowhere, offers a glimpse of his life, and then recedes from view, only to appear later on a different leg of his journey. Maugham uses one of the great limitations of storytelling — the fact that you can't know everything about a character — to his advantage. Genius.
There is more, but these two points in particular were important to me while writing Love Rock Revolution. My hope is that I have succeeded in telling a secret history of independent music, and that I have turned K Records founder Calvin Johnson into the type complicated hero you would like to read about.
The fact that you can turn on your stereo and listen to him sing after you put down the book is a bonus.
÷ ÷ ÷
Mark Baumgarten is a Seattle-based music writer. He serves as Editor at Large for City Arts magazine, and his work has been featured in Willamette Week, the Village Voice, Seattle Weekly, and Lost Cause magazine.
Books mentioned in this post
Mark Baumgarten is the author of Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music