If you’ve ever sat in a diner at 3 a.m. after a concert and hashed over the set list minute by minute, song by song—or marked the events in your life by what tour was taking place at the time, or which record was just released—or waited in line all night to buy concert tickets—or spent endless hours trying to master the guitar licks or drum fills in your favorite songs—or driven across the country to see a show, or play a show—then likely you will enjoy Caryn Rose’s and Bill See’s new books. And if you’re reading Paste, it’s a good bet that music isn’t just the background to your life—it’s a constant companion, a trusted friend, the angel on your shoulder. Both these memoirs have a pounding, infectious rock ’n’ roll heartbeat running like a bass line. Both stories are concerned with flying through the flame—and coming out the other side, battered and singed, older and wiser.
Lisa Simon, the protagonist of Caryn Rose’s book B-Sides and Broken Hearts, finds her life turned upside down and inside out after Joey Ramone’s death on April 15, 2001. As the story begins, she’s trying to make sense of this news and feeling so wounded she can barely function. She copes by playing Ramones records—on vinyl, of course (“if ever there was an analog band, it’s the Ramones”). It’s a watershed moment in her relationship with her boyfriend, made all the more apparent when she notes that he has, actually, been listening to Dave Matthews. “We don’t listen to Dave Matthews … We’re the people who drive 300 miles in one night to see Sonic Youth,” says Lisa. A breach of taste like this is serious enough for a breakup.
Rose’s book time-hops through the late ’70s/early ’80s to the present. We find Lisa Simon on the road—distributing fanzines at the foot of the stage at club gigs in New York City, moving to Seattle, and eventually landing in L.A. For Lisa, each city turns out to have its angels and demons.
Author Rose was determined to write the novel she always wanted to read—a book from a female rock fan’s POV that showed that “music could wrap its tendrils around our hearts and lives just like it does for guys,” as she says on the book’s website. The story concerns her relationship with a band that lives next door to her in Seattle and later breaks out to be world-famous. She’s a friend they respect, and they take her advice seriously, as when she suggests to the lead singer: “Jake—you are thinking Mick, when you should be thinking Keith. Keith, 1972.”
B-Sides and Broken Hearts closely mirrored my own growing up process, my early days in New York City going to see bands in the late ’70s/early ’80s while at the same time eking out a living mostly to keep myself in concert tickets and new albums. Life was always about who was playing and where … and what new song they did that night, and what they said before they did it, and catching the insular references to Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out. Back then, we had no Internet, no social media, no cellphones to call friends from in front of the stage. Bands built an audience brick by brick, fan by fan. You really felt part of a secret society. Caryn Rose perfectly captures those days.
Bill See’s memoir, 33 Days, tells the tale of an indie rock band on the road for its first-ever tour through the U.S. and Canada. Taken directly from Bill’s diaries as lead singer for L.A. band Divine Weeks, this is a day-by-day chronicle about four guys in a smelly van with no windows in the back seat. They stay at dive motels or crash on someone’s floor every night, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to stay alive, Every once in a while, they achieve the transcendence of really connecting with an audience at a gig. At the same time, they deal with leaving families for the first time ever, missing their girlfriends, and learning the aching pungency of living your dream and wondering at the same time if it’s all worth it.
Likewise 33 Days takes place in the ’80s, but not the ’80s that you’ll see captured on a VH1 Special with music videos by Madonna, Prince, or Bruce Springsteen. It’s the tender, often heartbreaking, and realistic story of a band taking its first steps into a real world of dimly lit clubs with filthy bathrooms, managers that cheat a band out of its last $20, nights in a fleabag motel that doubles as a brothel. No roadies to set up or break down the stage, no soundman to adjust the settings on the board. Just the guys in the band and a friend who acts as a de facto road manager, mostly warning the band not to spend money, ever.
“Music is like rapture, my religion,” writes Bill before they set out on the journey. This book is about living the religion, and risking losing it in the process. 33 Days is spot on with the disconnect that the band members feel from everyday reality in their travels: “As we make our way out of Portland, we experience the completely alien concept of doing exactly what we want to do while the rest of the world carries on with their dull and dismal Saturday morning errands … For us, it’s back on the highway to follow the breadcrumbs left by our heroes in this sort of parallel universe.”
That’s where the trail leads in both these oddly parallel books—to a place where you live hard and fast, but are free, with all the glory and squalor freedom brings. Freedom from real life is the sparkling diamond heart of both 33 Days and B-Sides and Broken Hearts. Both first-time authors have accurately captured the passion and pain of dreams coming true … even if you find the dreams a little grungy.
Holly Cara Price lives in New York City, where she writes about books, music, and pop culture. Follow her on Twitter @hollycara.