A charming, knowledgeable memoir by an esteemed first-generation indie-rock musician.
Stamey, a founding member of the dBs, exemplifies the underground rock veteran whose influence outweighs their commercial fortunes, and this debut is a rich recounting of his personal and musical narratives. The author’s passion comes through in the book’s organization, which combines personal chronology with the associations attached to a “jukebox” of significant songs. Although he captures his shoestring musical beginnings during a bohemian North Carolina upbringing, he writes, “it was always New York. My life before Manhattan seemed simply a coiling before the leap north.” He vividly depicts the creative ferment and rough edges of New York in the late 1970s. Proximity to legendary venues like CBGB fueled his ambition, as did the innovative music being made by acquaintances like Television and Alex Chilton. “It was a time when lines were being drawn in pop music culture,” he writes. Stamey found that underground musicians could eke out a living, despite major label disinterest, due to a growing network of low-budget studios and the first regional independent record labels: “Suddenly there was just enough money changing hands to bring managers into the act.” This allowed bands like the dBs to tour worldwide and release albums, developing a cult following, particularly after their friends in R.E.M. broke through. Yet Stamey felt constricted as a songwriter by the band he’d started. “It was not a tabloid breakup,” he writes, also noting that “it didn’t seem to come as a surprise to the rest.” This indeed allowed him to broaden his horizons, both as a recording artist and as a producer of artists like Yo La Tengo and Ryan Adams. The author deftly combines a wry, self-effacing tone with clear, precise discussions of the intricacies of songwriting and production and the surreal transformations of the industry, remaining positive and thoughtful throughout.
A standout addition to the crowded shelf of recollections by the underground iconoclasts of the 1980s and ’90s.