It’s taken Alan Licht nearly 15 years to admit to digging a few Thompson Twins songs. Which makes him, I guess, a better man than I.
Because my unkind ass still loathes most of those radio-ready Faux Wave bands of the ’80s, sporting their heinous haircuts sculpted into, I dunno, waterfalls, avalanches, over-groomed Pomeranians, something. The very idea of A Flock of Seagulls makes me now, as an adult in Licht’s own age group, consider reaching for a Pepcid. Back in the day, I would have just drunk too much, talked in vaguely informed terms of Iggy or The Clash, and then thrown up.
Which means that I had a pretty good time with Licht’s chapbook-sized An Emotional Memoir of Martha Quinn, if only because it allowed me to feel superior all over again, just as it obviously did Licht himself.
Licht, 35, for years an improvisation-and-noise guitar architect in New York City’s avant-music scene, has used his most recent foray into writing to remind us that the 1980s sucked — except that, y’know, some of the music didn’t suck as much as he maybe first thought. The Twins’ “Hold Me Now,” he posits, now strikes him as an OK song.
Quinn, published last year by Chicago music label Drag City, is by turns maddening and richly rewarding, written in a chaotic style that bounces between memoir, diary, blog-like diatribe and name-dropping cultural tract.
Pulp magazine dubbed Quinn “a hipster’s lament,” while Licht said by phone recently that one friend has drawn comparisons to the classic works of essayist and cultural critic Joan Didion.
Unlike the crystalline-penned Didion, however, Licht the writer is a mess; the book begins with an egregiously dangling modifier and then shambles through enough comma splices to frame a grammar class around.
That said, Licht’s fourth-grade English teacher isn’t the target audience — as a 30-something member of everyone-has-ADD Generation X, the intended reader is moi. And hell, screw the grammar, because Licht mentions MTV veejay Nina Blackwood — and she was kinda hot!
And in the end, Licht’s erratic style and flawed mechanics are maybe just the thing for summing up a decade that anyone who was paying attention remembers as an often monstrous affront on both the senses and the psyche.
“The Eighties were a reactionary, dark time,” Licht writes in Quinn, “completely ruled by fear.” (Just to separate that decade from, like, now.) They were a time, Licht notes, of “cultural void.” (Just to, y’know, separate that decade from now.)
Part of the reason Quinn works is because we accept Licht as Someone Who Matters — a cooler-than-thou Guitar God with pedigree to burn (from ’80s band Love Child to Licht’s ongoing work with fellow hipster Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth). Which means we willingly indulge Licht in his thinking we actually care that he found Talk Talk’s “Talk Talk” to be “alright, I guess.”
That said, the sometimes-author can be great, bitchy fun:
• Of Haircut One Hundred, he writes: “a likeable band, in a hateful kind of way.”
• Dire Straits: “Anyone could play bass in this band.”
• Yaz: “Kinda like the Eurythmics, only worse.”
Ironically, Licht begins Quinn by saying he doesn’t want to come off as judgmental.
“I tried,” he says with a laugh when we talk. “I can’t help myself.
“To me, criticism is only a valuable tool if you’re trying to make something better,” he continues. “If I criticize anything — like a piece of writing or anything — it’s largely because I think I can do better.”
This is the same guy who, in a bylined Matador Records blog about former child stars, labeled Michael Jackson as “the poor man’s Gary Coleman.”
And the same guy whose brutal assaults in Quinn on shameless fame seekers Billy Corgan (“Billy may have liked to wear a T-shirt with ZERO written on it, but he was always looking out for Number One”) and Hole singer Courtney Love nail them both to the wannabe wall, where they willingly hang bleeding, waiting for their next photo-op. The former Mrs. Kurt Cobain fares by far the worst, being directly equated (on a flattering level) to Hillary Clinton and (on a more, er, staining one) to Monica Lewinsky.
That last part, I say, is pretty harsh.
“Not if you’re Hillary Clinton,” Licht counters.
Love’s fame, Licht posits in Quinn, began on her knees, yanking something more than just The Cobain’s chain.
The author insists he has no particular axe to grind against Corgan or Love; they’re both just easy examples of how, in the early 1990s, “the underground became mainstream.”
And that’s the real focus of much of Quinn: The mainstream’s co-option of what once was hip — of what so many of us had to work so hard to unearth for ourselves when we were digging for adolescent meaning.
“Before Nirvana, alternative rock meant something that wasn’t ready for the mainstream,” Licht writes. “After Nirvana, it was the mainstream.”
So Quinn isn’t so much about the 1980s as it is about how the culture, such as it was, devoured itself and then sold off the offal as one more buffed-up bauble. And it’s not about the real Martha Quinn — the petite, girl-next-door MTV veejay — at all.
Licht’s book is also not the nostalgia piece suggested by its cover — a black-and-white collage of ’80s icons, from Quinn to Billy Idol to what is likely a Kajagoogoo, but could well be a Duran.