Butch Walker, Drinking with Strangers (Morrow, 2011)
Butch Walker is, among traditional musicians (“traditional” here as opposed to the normal kinds of musicians I listen to, who specialize in noise, death industrial, and that sort of thing), one of the best in the business today. Over the past decade and change, he’s released half a dozen studio albums under his own name after stints fronting hair-metal band SouthGang in the eighties and Marvelous 3 in the nineties. All of them are sterling; Walker is, as far as I’m concerned, the best lyricist in rock today, which is why he gets paid big bucks to write hits and produce records for bands ranging from indie-rock stalwarts Weezer to Japanese pop tarts Puffy, and stopping off in a lot of places in between. (None of his own work sounds even remotely like the stuff he does working with anyone else. He explains that in the book, almost in an aside.) Listen to a random song from a Butch Walker album released since 2001 and you’re pretty much guaranteed gold. Which is why I broke my usual rule against dipping into one of my least favorite genres, the memoir, to read Walker’s. Memoirs are the reality TV of the book industry; for every one worth your time, there are a thousand that, like the Necronomicon, will drive you insane if you even open the cover. (It is not, I think, a coincidence that so many reality TV “stars” pen memoirs as a way to continue their fame after the cameras stop rolling for good.) You probably know which of those I was hoping for here.
It’s a memoir, so the substance of what you get between these covers shouldn’t surprise you; in fact, if you’re familiar with “Going Back/Going Home”, the second track from Walker’s 2008 album Sycamore Meadows, you know the abbreviated version of this story; the book covers the same portion of time as the breakdown in the middle of the song does. This is the feature-length version, with a bit of fleshing out (and some of that you already know if you’re familiar with the two live albums he’s released, as much of it is covered in between-song banter there). If you’re at all familiar with the music industry, you probably know the story by heart anyway; boy in band, band gets signed, record company sucks, band breaks up, boy forms new band… the world has moved on since then (and Walker was one of the first artists to move with it), and the music industry has changed, so there’s some nostalgia to be had with that story. Memoirs, however, are never about substance; no one’s life story is really as original as they think it is. Memoirs are about style. And so, the obvious question: how does Drinking with Strangers measure up?
Fifty pages from the end of this book I would have told you it doesn’t. The main problem with it is that it feels like someone with no editorial prowess at all transcribed dictation exactly as it was given. There’s a reason editors exist, and getting rid of that sort of thing is a lot of it. It just goes to show, as many teleplay veterans have discovered when turning in their first feature script, mastery of writing in one genre does not equate to mastery of writing in all genres. There are some other problems, mostly with what seems disingenuousness (one cannot reasonably spend five pages talking about idolizing Tom Petty while discussing the writing and subsequent success of “Freak of the Week” in the late nineties and then turn around and on the next page claim to be entirely unaware of The Byrds’ “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star”, a song that found its way back to the airwaves in force in 1986 after being covered by…Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers). But, for some reason that may never be explained, the last two chapters of the book take on an entirely different tone, straightforward while still empathetic and friendly. It’s almost as if Walker stopped trying so hard and his natural voice kicked in. Those last two chapters buy this book a few years off its time in purgatory. Getting there is a little rough in spots, but if you’re a fan, it’s worth the trip. ** ½