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Review: Punk rockers Brownstein, Costello and Smith serve up stories

Carrie Brownstein plays guitar in the studio during the making of Dig Me Out, Sleater-Kinney’s 1997 album.
Carrie Brownstein plays guitar in the studio during the making of Dig Me Out, Sleater-Kinney’s 1997 album.
Published Nov. 25, 2015

If you think you know what to expect from the memoirs of punk rock stars, let Carrie Brownstein, Elvis Costello and Patti Smith show you something different.

Those three names could represent three generations of punk rock royalty. Smith, who will turn 69 in December, was part of the form's first wave in the 1970s; her legendary 1975 album, Horses, was one of its totems.

Costello, 61, released his brilliant first album, My Aim Is True, just two years later; it was born of punk's energy and rage but showed clear signs of the form's metamorphosis into new wave (not to mention Costello's ability to morph through all sorts of musical genres in the years to come).

By the time Brownstein, 41, and Corin Tucker released their exuberant first album, Sleater-Kinney, in 1995, Smith and Costello were among the elders of punk and Sleater-Kinney was a late offshoot of yet another punk genre, riot grrrl.

All three are authors as well as musicians. Each has a new book out, and each book takes an entirely different approach. And if you're expecting ghost-written tales of debauched, drunken, drugged excess from any of them, think again. Well, okay, there's a little debauchery. But these people are not only musicians but wordsmiths and storytellers, and in these books they get to stretch out past the three-minute mark — and we can be glad they did.

Artistic risk-taking

Brownstein's Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl begins with her childhood in the suburbs of Seattle: an anorexic mother who abandons the family when Carrie and her sister are children, a lawyer dad who's gay but remains in the closet until Carrie is an adult, her own insurmountable sense of not really belonging anywhere.

But the book focuses mainly on her early years as a musician and her decade-long experience as one of the three members of Sleater-Kinney (its famously non sequitur name taken from a highway outside a rehearsal hall), as well as her personal disintegration that led to the band's hiatus, which began in 2006 and ended this year.

Before she was a musician, Brownstein was a fan, immersed in the local music scene in and around Olympia, Wash., and she vividly details the joys and obsessions of that experience: "As much as the person onstage is performing, so, too, is the audience."

Fandom gradually turned into playing in her first band, Excuse 17. On tour, she met Tucker, then in another band called Heavens to Betsy. Brownstein describes their meeting, which would lead to Sleater-Kinney as well as a fairly brief romantic relationship and enduring friendship, as life-changing. She manages to paint a vivid picture of their musical collaboration, with all its artistic risk-taking and passion, and to sketch their romance without ever getting too personal; no dirty laundry here, folks.

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It's clear all the media attention to their relationship and to the band's all-woman lineup still irks Brownstein — she offers a sampling of astonishingly sexist quotes from articles about Sleater-Kinney ("more than three hot chicks in low-rider cords") and notes dryly that she doubts any music writer has ever asked someone why he's in an all-male band.

The bulk of Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl could almost function as a text for the dynamics of creating and sustaining (and then not) a band. Brownstein, who did graduate work in sociolinguistics, has clearly analyzed and deconstructed the experience. But she lived it, too, both the exhilaration and the exhaustion. Over the years, she writes, she sometimes felt she was on a world tour of emergency rooms: She suffered from torn ligaments around her spine, shingles, life-threatening allergies and, finally, an emotional breakdown that broke up the band.

The final chapters describe some of her efforts to recover, although the last five years or so are left blank — Brownstein's second career as a star and creator of the TV satire Portlandia, which arguably has made her more famous than Sleater-Kinney ever did, gets exactly two sentences.

The book ends with Sleater-Kinney's first reunion concert, in January of this year: "Corin started the first notes of 'Price Tag,' the opening track of the new album. Two bars later, Janet (Weiss) and I came in. I was in my body, joyous and unafraid. I was home."

A means of salvation

If Brownstein's book reads as earnest, even academic at times, reading Costello's Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink feels like sitting next to him at a long, tipsy, laid-back party and listening to him spin tales until the sun comes up.

There are a lot of tales in the book's 688 pages, and they are not exactly linear — one chapter begins with his being unexpectedly called on to sing harmony with Paul McCartney at a 1999 concert, covers writing and recording Imperial Bedroom with the Attractions in 1981, dips into Costello's Catholic schoolboy days and why he chose "George" as his confirmation name (the Beatles) and why his Irish father was scandalized (St. George is the patron saint of England), pauses for a micro short story about two prostitutes, then winds up with the time he met Bob Dylan and his then-teenage sons in a snowy Minneapolis parking lot. And I'm leaving out a lot.

But it all works together. If there's anything to that idea of Irish blarney, Costello obviously has the gift. Declan MacManus (Costello was borrowed from a great-grandmother, Elvis from guess who) was born in London to Irish parents, and the book often returns to the push and pull between those two cultures he felt growing up in London and Liverpool.

Costello's childhood is one of two main threads in the book, especially his relationship with his father. Ross MacManus was a jazz trumpeter and singer; Unfaithful Music opens with young Declan watching from a balcony one Saturday afternoon as his nattily dressed dad performs with the Joe Loss Orchestra at the Hammersmith Palais de Dance, where ballroom dancers circle the floor.

"My father wore a dark lounge suit for the matinee," Costello writes, "and evening dress when the occasion demanded it. The idea that you wore a suit to work became so instilled in me that, to this day, the temperature must soar well above one hundred degrees Fahrenheit before I will remove my jacket."

He learned lessons other than the sartorial from his dad. Costello's book echoes Brownstein's in its depiction of music as both a demanding, sometimes relationship-destroying career and a means of salvation, a joyous source of creation. That forms the book's other thread, documenting Costello's long career in loops and whorls, dotted with a murderers' row of geniuses he has befriended and collaborated with, from David Bowie to Johnny Cash, Joe Strummer to Burt Bacharach — about all of whom he has great stories. Even his relationship with his wife, jazz singer and pianist Diana Krall, is couched mainly in musical terms.

In its last pages, Unfaithful Music circles back to a dreamlike chapter in which time becomes entirely fluid, one story melts into another like a Dalí watch, and Costello sits down himself to play with his father's band. It's a sweet coda.

Dreams and visions

Brownstein and Costello are first-time book authors, but Patti Smith has 10 previous books under her belt, including the 2010 memoir Just Kids, which won the National Book Award for nonfiction and a shelf full of other honors.

Just Kids was mainly the moving story of Smith's complex relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, although she also wrote about her early musical career. Music, however, has never been Smith's only artistic focus despite her iconic status in punk rock; she's also a poet and visual artist, and, as Just Kids and now M Train prove, a wonderfully evocative memoirist.

Despite its intense sense of life, loss was at the center of Just Kids — Mapplethorpe died of AIDS in 1989 — and another loss is the stone that forms the ripples of M Train.

In 1980, Smith met, fell madly in love with and married Fred "Sonic" Smith, who had been a guitarist for seminal Detroit band MC5. They had two children and led an unorthodox but happy life together, mostly far from the New York music scene in Saint Clair, Mich., until he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1994. Months later, Patti's brother, Todd, to whom she was close, also died suddenly.

Two decades later, those losses still resonate through M Train. Smith's kids have grown up and moved on to their adult lives, and she is living in Greenwich Village in a rented space with a couple of cats, spending much of every day in a tiny coffeehouse called Cafe 'Ino, where she indulges what she calls her only addiction — what sounds like gallons of black coffee a day.

"My hands are as empty as the pages of my journal," she writes. "It's not so easy writing about nothing. Words caught from a voice-over in a dream more compelling than life. It's not so easy writing about nothing. I scratch them over and over onto a white wall with a chunk of red chalk."

But gradually, Smith turns that nothing she feels inside into something. The book is a meditation on the comforts she finds in beloved cafes and books, in travel to Frida Kahlo's Casa Azul and the grave of Japanese director Akira Korusowa. When she's passing through London, she always checks into a hotel and watches her beloved mystery series, "giving myself over to the likes of Morse, Lewis, Frost, Wycliffe, and Whitechapel — detective inspectors whose moodiness and obsessive natures mirrored my own."

And, of course, she is haunted by her memories of Fred. M Train is often surreal; whole passages, like her adventures as a member of something called the Continental Drift Club, seem unreal, and others are clearly dreams.

But her dreams and visions are what, in the end, sustain her: "I have lived in my own book. One I never planned to write, recording time backwards and forwards. I have watched snow fall onto the sea and traced the steps of a traveler long gone. I have relived moments that were perfect in their certainty. Fred buttoning the khaki shirt he wore for his flying lessons. Doves returning to nest on our balcony."

Contact Colette Bancroft at or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.


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