Book Review: An Emotional Memoir of Martha Quinn

Alan Licht. An Emotional Memoir of Martha Quinn. Chicago: Drag City, 2002. Paperback, 76 pages, $11.98.

A 76-page paperback for eleven ninety-eight? No matter—this slacker-style cultural history is a bargain at any price. Licht, a New York City rock musician/avant-garde noisemeister, has written “a highly subjective survey of the last two decades” based on his experience “as a music performer, listener, scenester, and occasionally, writer.” Highly subjective, maybe, but highly readable.

In Part 1, he revisits the slick pop and “ ‘bad’ new wave” of his Reagan-era youth—music that, whatever its faults, helped him discover the world and thus transcend “the jail sentence of suburban adolescence.” He offers his current reactions to Eighties tracks both popular (Billy Joel’s “ ‘Allentown’ was stuck in my head for the rest of the day so forcefully that I think it actually woke me up the next morning”) and obscure (Rockpile’s “Teacher Teacher”: “I remember the intro guitar figure, but that’s about it”). His critiques hover close to That ’80s Show-style fluffiness, thought he does offer quite a few zingers, such as calling Haircut One Hundred “a likable band, in a hateful kind of way.” (I myself liked that group during my teen years!)

Part 2 moves ahead to the Nineties and examines that decade’s vanishing dichotomy between pop and underground, between moving forward and rehashing the past, between living pure and selling out artistically or politically. The “suburban and a little sloppy, but essentially well-scrubbed” bands that started appearing in a cleaned-up New York City (and elsewhere) led to “the Clintonization of rock”: the status quo hidden behind a hip and profitable façade, music celebrating an alleged return to realness after the “reactionary, dark” Eighties. Licht writes affectionately yet truthfully; he may prefer the Nineties “over the cultural void of the Eighties anyday[,]” but he doesn’t gloss over the Vedder Decade’s more questionable developments, from the corporate commodification of cool to the “impermanence of digital technology” to the “personal isolation” wreaked by computers. Licht then offers a thought-provoking eulogy for the decade, contending that the “puritanical national psyche” couldn’t endure any more economic good times, so “bum rushed the incompetent Dubya into office.”

By the way, this book contains nothing about the MTV veejay/zit-pad spokeswoman Martha Quinn. You decide if that’s an advantage or a drawback.

Previously unpublished, from January 18, 2007

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