The Bookshelf Report is an ongoing series where a Bushwick reader gives us a tour of the books that occupy their shelves.
Chris Estey is a music journalist/super fan operating out of Seattle. He has written for the likes of City Arts, The Rocket, Seattle Weekly and the Stranger, to name a few. Plus, I’m sure you have seen him at a rock show or two over the years. Chris now runs Big Freak Media, a Seattle-based publicity/marketing firm devoted to artists, writers and music makers.
I’m so happy to have Chris join us for the Bookshelf Report.
How do you organize your books?
Very poorly, but there is some method to my compulsion to collect and horde. Welcome to my Temple of Dead Media. One time I was interviewing a band for The Stranger and they were freaked out by it, and I joked that this was actually an auxiliary office, meant to put bands at ease knowing they were just chatting with a fervent fanboy. I think the people in the group believed me, though.
I like to pile and stack my books based on access for reviewing, resources, and relaxation. The books that come in for review when I write for the KEXP Blog I tend to put in one beloved clump in my living room, so I can read them and take notes when my wife is sleeping (we have very different shifts in our work). They need to be out here and easily available, and though I am way behind in my columns (Scribes Sounding Off and 33 1/3 Odyssey) I do intend to catch up ASAP. These are mostly recently published or upcoming references tomes on musicians, the music scene and “record business,” and challenging topical or materials related to art and music. And some perilous stacks of all of the 33 1/3 books, the little pocket-sized volumes of rumination by a single author on a specific favorite album. The former are my favorite types of books, ones I still buy and get sent for review, and the latter also need to be out here in case I need to go someplace. Like many people, I always need to have a book on me when out in public, and between 33 1/3s and the new zines I still buy when I can, I’m covered. (I’m an old zine-punk and order batches from distributors. A lot of the best music writing, in my opinion, is in fanzines.)
On my far well of this front room is where the choicest pop culture criticism titles from Greil Marcus, Pat Thomas, Nick Tosches, Greg Tate, Robin Wood, Pauline Kael, Ellen Willis, Gillian Gaar, and others are located, among books of interviews with and non-fiction essay books from science fiction authors Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Thomas Disch, and Philip K. Dick. And shelves of Marvel and underground comics. It’s a stew of counter culture thought and four color explosions, and some days I consider just putting a sign out front that says Third Eye Books and letting people come through and buy it all cheaply so it stops terrifying me how much I’ve invested in it and what it would take to move this all. My wife would be ecstatic. She reads everything on a goddamned pad-thing now. From the public library even!
In my bedroom, there are several different shelves or piles, such as my graphic novel stack, as I tend to read those sprawled on my belly on our bed like a big fat comics fan whale. The thicker, nerdier, deeper, more investigative music magazines are stacked in here too, favorites being The Pitchfork Review and Wax Poetics, and the dense prose of obsessive punk zines (Razorcake) and music collecting glossies (Record Collector, Ugly Things, Flashback). Another addiction of mine was collecting late 70s-early 80s mainstream rock fanzines — the period in which I became a punk and music hoarder. I love to dig into a stack of CREEM and Trouser Press from that post-punk and new wave period, and compare and contrast what they thought of records then when they came out and how those same albums are rated today. (I truly advise this, if you wish to spend twenty bucks on a crappy copy of CREEM, rife with sexist humor. If you don’t wish to, I don’t blame you.)
Speaking of which, say in September of 1980, one single record review section could have full length analysis of the first Pretenders album, the first Cure album in the States, Get Happy!! by Elvis Costello, Too Much Pressure by the Selector, Colossal Youth by Young Marble Giants, and other hugely influential records all coming out at about the same time. A sample record review section from a magazine on top of the game in that period is revelatory, almost novelistic in its description of cultural change in the era.
Why hold on to all of this, with so much available on the Internet? (Short answer: I haven’t been evicted yet.) Well, say you’re writing a show preview for the Phoenix New Times because one of your best friends is an editor there and no one else on staff has any real first-hand experience when the first five ZZ Top LPs or The Time’s significant review came out. I could make $75.00 rereading a few old reviews, getting some details down, and rolling it into how I experienced the music myself as I was growing up. Score! For more bucks to buy more fanzines.
Internet archiving takes this writing out from the ads, photos, and other releases available at the time that might give more clues to what a release meant. That said, I also own all those Record Guides, the Trouser Press, Rolling Stone, SPIN, encyclopedias on funk and reggae, etc., which are both part of their published time too but are more or less objective in assessing older music.
I am pretty spare in my collection of fiction, but I have organized that together as well. I read about a novel or two a year, which shames me. I keep them handy in case I feel inspired to do my duty and dig in. As Jefferson (the music magazine buyer and fellow comic collector) at Sonic Boom (soon RIP) says, “the novel is still THEE art form.” Amen. I think he’s just making fun of me. Novelists I enjoy: Denis Johnson, Mairead Case, Jim Thompson, and those speculative fiction aces listed in the first paragraph above.
Be honest. What percentage of the books on this shelf have you actually read?
No book goes completely unread, but many are treated like a freshly steamed crabs, quickly and furiously crushed and broken apart and taken in, savored and devoured for the best thought meats and the buttery ooze of weird facts. I confess that I will often skip chapters in a book if it looks like a redundant slog of already known or guessed about stuff, and a lot of details I already know about is being described. There are tons of books in here I haven’t read, in frothing and spilling piles, and they say the Japanese have a word for the pleasure of unread stuff hermit nerds collect they don’t even consume. The equivalent are record collectors who don’t open the skins (cellophane) on their albums, and it’s not because they’re hustling them on eBay. Between you and I: Never trust a skinny Chef.
What’s your favorite book on the shelf?
Right now, my favorite book is Real Life Rock by Greil Marcus. These are top ten lists he made every month for various magazines that he was assigned a column for, a sweep of pop popping popped, to contemporaneous outsider art products and gutter philosophy raging at the time, to indicia and mottos stopped into vinyl inner grooves. And he threw in everything from old blues songs to punk rock B-sides to novels to political speeches to the way somebody said something in media. Anything that provoked him that month, made him think or feel positively or negatively, and also was a platform for him to amp artists he believed in, or felt needed more endorsement by the popular culture. Almost every list feels hugely urgent, like he really needs you to focus on this or you’ll miss something going on in the subtext of everyday consumer culture or weird margins
The current trend with career-challenged journalists chagrined by the Internet is to make fun of sensationalistic or “list”-based media, yet a lot of our best (or at least most fun and interesting) criticism can be found in such collections of insider autobiography and imaginary charts. It just depends on who is telling the tale, putting things into random boxes, and how much they are censored or have to censor themselves. Marcus never seemed to censor himself. He was allowed randomness, weirdness, not forced to write click-bait. For awhile at each market. He could tell a narrative with a list. Maybe that’s the difference.
About how many bands have you interviewed in your lifetime? Which interview was the most memorable?
At least a few hundred. I started interviewing musicians around 1980, the first being John Shirley, in the Portland punk band Sado Nation, for my fanzine Not Mellow. Over the years, I interviewed so many bands I can’t remember them all, but some of these are archived at Three Imaginary Girls.
My most memorable interview would probably be chatting with Nick Cave about Karen Dalton for the liner notes to the Light In The Attic reissue In My Own Time.
Instead of being trapped in the terrible role of asking an iconoclastic artist about their own work, when they’re doing all they can to pour their attention into their work and not interested in what other people think about them, I was able to converse based on a shared fandom for a somewhat obscure but deeply loved artist (Dylan was a huge fan of hers too). He told me an amazing story about breaking up with a woman in the UK and then playing a tape of hers from In My Own Time driving around Sāo Paulo, crying while watching all the beauty and poverty of that area.
I see you own a copy of House of Psychotic Women. What’s it about?
Ha! I bought House of Psychotic Women specifically to research and investigate a writing project I am working on regarding feminist revenge torture porn. These are exploitation movies about women losing their shit (or getting it together) and doing everything they can to pay sexist bastards back. They are usually a strange mix of satire, sexual sadomasochism, and genres like action adventure, but mostly horror. There’s almost always a fierce feminist subtext no matter how much the women are mistreated (and then mistreat their torturers) in the narrative, and a lot of it has to do with queer theory or BDSM. Great examples are Martyrs, American Mary, The Woman, Walk All Over Me, and Scorned. Reviews of these movies will probably become a blog or fanzine for me some day.
Meanwhile, Kier-La Janisse, the author of House of Psychotic Women is both more intimate and less precise about focusing on this particular sub-genre of film. She gets very personal with how these movies have effected her. Described as “an autobiographical exploration of female neurosis in horror and exploitation films,” she is examining all kinds of movies which can serve as a cathartic experience for women to deal with their own feelings of helplessness, daily horror, oppressive madness. A writer for magazines like Filmmaker and Sangria, Janisse is a scholar, advocate, promoter, and excellent critic about the various genres in which women go mad and get even, and variations thereof.
Is there a current up and coming Seattle area band that you find yourself talking about all the time?
To shorthand it, the new Fly Moon Royalty album is achingly beautiful and extremely delicious.
I have several bands in the Big Freak roster and affiliated which I think are a part of a new movement to create a neo-monocultural rocking pop unity again, not unlike the initial new music boom here a couple of decades and a half ago. None share a very specific genre, so can’t be tagged — but are creating very personal, sometimes political, extremely well made music that refuses to be fey or boring or sheepish. Some of it is very dark, and some of it is very weird and colorful. It is time for genuine soul, spit, sweat, and grit to come back to live and recorded music, and I’m glad to be working with and know most of the bands who care enough to change things dynamically. This goes from my work with and for Fly Moon Royalty to Nicole Willis & the Soul Investigators to Wind Burial to Murder Vibes to the Salt Riot. A lot of women: Women’s voices are carrying almost all the best new music.
If you are familiar with the rosters of labels like Stiff Records or SST, what I am trying to promote is very similar — anything that is adult and interesting and bold and unafraid to connect with audiences, and isn’t just an ironic soundtrack to “Whatever.”
That bunny has a pair of wings! What’s the story there?
Her name is Buffy. Oliver is the stuffed mouse on the bicycle next to her. My wife is a huge fan of The Belfry, the wild taxidermy shop in Pioneer Square. They have everything stuffed but humans. She bought the bunny from a gift certificate I gave her for her birthday late last year; strangely, I did not notice those wings myself until a couple of weeks ago! My friend and previous assistant Little Freak (Rachel LeBlanc, of the noise duo Hashtagtits) came in and alerted me to this mutation. I don’t know the story, but I do know that I need new glasses.
Thanks, Chris! You win the award for the longest Bookshelf Report ever.