How I Met Dean Wareham

I came across this memoir at the bookstore one day, and I’m not sure what, exactly, made me want to pick it up. Maybe it was the front-cover blurb by Liz Phair, one of my all-time favorite singers. Or maybe it was Wareham’s sultry stare and slightly agape mouth. I certainly didn’t recognize him, or realize that the bands Galaxie 500 and Luna (whom I both enjoy) were related, but I bought it that day on impulse, and read through it rather quickly.

I often found myself at odds with Wareham throughout this book. He’s kind of a dick, which seems to be the only brand band frontmen come in. A good fraction of this book details his personal life, including his privileged upbringing and his years of cheating on his wife. Plus, I think he could have been helped a bit by a ghostwriter or a good editor, as there were a lot of very self-indulgent details that I didn’t care for… Really, dude? I don’t care about the relative dryness of the paella you ate in Spain. This isn’t too surprising to me, since Wareham also talks a lot about his process as a lyricist, and I’ve always found him to be a little lacking in that department (and which he seems to hold himself in very high regard to). But by the end of it, I felt like I “got it” a little bit more–the mundane repetition of details about touring and band member squabbles make so much of the book in such a cyclical sense because that’s so much of what being part of a band means.

That’s ultimately the great value of this book–a first-hand account of the “indie” music industry before that was an actual thing, how it’s changed over time, and the true strengths and weaknesses of independent vs. major record labels. There’s also plenty of personal drama, of which Wareham skirts the line of overstating. He consistently speaks about how unglamorous his “rockstar” lifestyle actually was, but includes every detail about the after parties and his love life from college to present, which I guess is probably more interesting to someone who cared about who this guy was before hearing about this book.

But regardless, Wareham’s music is incredible. I first got exposed to Galaxie 500 my freshmen year of college when I went through a giant phase of buying every used CD I could find of an independent release from the early 90’s (don’t worry, I cut that shit out, although I did find some really great albums that way, like the soundtrack to “Half-Cocked” and badass bands with frontwomen like Mecca Normal and Bettie Serveert). Galaxie 500’s songs sound a lot the same, but I specifically remember one night I couldn’t sleep, too upset over something to do with my boyfriend at the time, and so I sat up listening to their album On Fire over and over again. It was the only thing that helped.

It was particularly this song, “Decomposing Trees,” that really gets me. I learned from the book that this song is apparently written about one of Wareham’s friends with whom he dropped acid then subsequently took him into the woods to meet God. This song inspired a poem I wrote that night, aptly titled Bad Poem 500. Here’s a few stanzas:

I wonder what the world is made of
when all I want to know
are the names of children who don’t exist,
what’s the heartbeat that skips when I’m gone.
I bang my head on the floors and walls.
I turn up the volume.
I think I know my favorite song
but in two years I’ll probably forget it.

How do our voices become electronic impulses
transmitted through hand-held devices into the ear.
The reception cuts out. We stumble, we falter,
pulling apart, strings into threads in the wind.

The majority of the book focuses on the 12-year career of Luna, whom I was less familiar with. My old roommate got me exposed to them by showing me the documentary Tell Me Do You Miss Me. I don’t remember most of the plot, but it’s filled with a lot of great live footage. Their music is great, and although I love Galaxie 500, Luna is definitely on another level artistically. Wareham details the differences between these two projects, mainly that when he started Galaxie 500 he was just a college student who could barely play guitar having fun with his friends, unsuspecting that it would be possible for such a thing to blow up into an album and tour within a year, while Luna was a more mature effort, for which it reaped the benefits by being ultimately more successful and possessing longevity.

I did find this book fascinating as someone who has been drawn to the era of music from which this emerges — when “indie” meant “signed to an independent label” rather than a money-making genre. Then, it contained a diverse range of sound without a singular unified style (it still does, in some respect, but has lost its original meaning; now a lot of our most lucrative acts get called “indie” while being signed to major labels). The bands didn’t make any money back then, but it’s good that during an explosion of commodification of music, some were more concerned about making a good album than making a big hit. In that sense, there are few more qualified than Wareham to provide insight into this pop culture phenomenon that today pervades major music conglomerates and record labels. Luckily the explosion of music pirating has hurt major labels more than bands like Luna and Galaxie 500, which have always mostly made their money off of live shows.

Today Wareham and former Luna bandmate/current wife, Britta Phillips, have put out a couple of cover albums together, which are also really good. You’ve probably heard their version of “Bonnie and Clyde” before, and after reading the book, I understand why it’s such an appropriate song for  this iconic couple to sing. Here’s a video of them singing the song together before their lecherous affair began:

Apparently during this particular performance, Wareham was too petrified to look at Phillips because he was so unable to control his attraction to her. Hey, she is pretty damn hot.

I give “Black Postcards” *** and recommend it to those who are interested in indie music or the music industry… if you’re not, you’ll probably not be able to get past Wareham’s ever-apparent self-indulgent style.

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