RAT SCABIES AND THE HOLY GRAIL - Christopher Dawes (326 pages)
Yep, you read right - RAT SCABIES and the Holy Grail. Hard to believe that the man who is, without question, the best drummer to come out of the original wave of UK Punk bands also has a fascination with the Holy Grail. But, seemingly, it's true.
For those who are unaware, Rat Scabies was the drummer in THE DAMNED. He's the fella responsible for that bowel-bursting intro to 'New Rose' and the pneumatic-drill beats of 'Neat Neat Neat'. The author, Christopher Dawes, was formerly as music journalist - some older UK readers may recall his pieces for the NME under the name of 'Push'. Dawes also lived opposite Scabies. Over the course of tea-drinking and joint-rolling sessions and frequent visits to the pub, Scabies turned Dawes onto the mystery of the Holy Grail and, specifically, the mystery of a priest named Saunière and a French village named Rennes-le-Château.
To simplify the main mystery, Saunière was, initially, a poor village priest in Rennes-le-Château. During his tenure at Rennes he became, mysteriously, stinking rich. The source of his rapid and long-lasting wealth - which has never been determined - has initiated mass intrigue ever since. But analysis of paintings, parchments and graveyards suggests Saunière found the Holy Grail, or at the very least, some other sacred treasure.
That sound rather complex? Well, it is in some ways. As the book progresses, we are introduced to more characters from history who may have had a part in this piece of 1800s espionage including Leonardo de Vinci, Claude Debussy, Nicolas Poussin, Jean Cocteau and numerous Popes. On top of that, more theories abound regarding the Romans, Nazis, Visigoths, Knights Templar, the Cathars and even the Masons. You could say this is the Punk Rockers equivalent to The Da Vinci Code, only there is probably more fact here and certainly more humour and accessibility.
If that appears rather boring for the average Punk Rocker, just remember that Rat Scabies is at the centre of things! Throughout the book, Scabies' antics are frequently hilarious. But this should not be viewed as light-hearted or a piece of satire. Scabies' knowledge of the Rennes mystery is comprehensive and borderline obsessive. Thankfully, as the text progresses, Dawes offers frequent reminders of who some of the lesser mentioned characters are, allowing those with no former interest in the subject small refreshers on some of the more complex parts of the story - and most welcome they are.
In many ways, this reads like a travelogue. Scabies and Dawes flit from their home in Brentford, UK, to Rennes, to Paris, to Edinburgh and back again. Dawes goes into detail about the characters they meet, the towns they stay at and their chosen means of transport. This really is a masterstroke as it creates a side-story that runs parallel to the main mystery.
My only disappointment with the book is the lack of graphics. A number of paintings are habitually referred to -Poussin's The Shepherds Of Arcadia and Teniers' The Temptation Of St Anthony to name but two - and the book would have been augmented considerably had there been prints of these paintings. Likewise, some photography of Rennes would have been a big bonus.
That really is a minor gripe though; the text is wonderfully paced, it flows and rarely gets too bogged down in the mythology that could render the casual reader bored. The story is riveting, certainly educational, and one that most with an open mind and average curiosity should find compelling. Dawes captures Scabies' bluntness and mischievous qualities perfectly without resorting to eulogising the man or his Punk Rock past, whilst clearly demonstrating that there is a depth about Scabies that certainly surprised me - and I've met him (Scabies) a couple of times.
A great read, one that surprised me, educated me and certainly entertained me. Still seems odd though. I can see Vanian snooping around in graveyards and getting a buzz from the Gothic environs, but Scabies? Just goes to show, truth can sometimes be stranger than fiction!
THE REPLACEMENTS: ALL OVER BUT THE SHOUTING - AN ORAL HISTORY - Jim Walsh (304 pages)
It’s a brave man who takes on the challenge of writing the first, in-depth account of the best rock ‘n’ roll band the world has ever seen, Minneapolis’s fantastic REPLACEMENTS. The band’s history is strewn with fables, myths, contradictions and hyperbole. In the wrong hands, this could have been a tired piece of muso-journalism eulogising the band and simultaneusly misunderstanding it. Thankfully Jim Walsh was in the Twin Cities at the time of the ‘MATS, witnessed them, knew them, wrote about them and - critically - UNDERSTOOD the band. He even delivered an eulogy at the funeral of original guitarist Bob Stinson.
The book is presented in the soundbite format that has become increasingly popular. As is often with this format, I would have preferred a stronger narrative from Walsh, but he links the quotes up in an appropriate way so you know exactly where you are in the band’s career and who the main players were around the band at that time. Walsh also contributes his own pieces written within the chapter’s timeframe which bridges the narrative between now and then. Those who feature include obvious candidates like the band’s original manager Peter Jesperson, Westerberg’s and Bob and Tommy’s mothers, wives and Minneapolis scenesters along with familiar luminaries like Bob Mould and Grant Hart of HUSKER DU, SOUL ASYLUM’s Dan Murphy, Jack Rabid, Alex Chilton, Tommy Erdelyi (nee Ramone) and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck.
The personalities of the ‘MATS are explored throughout. Frontman Paul Westerberg often comes across as scathing; at best he’s obstinate and at worst has a tongue that’s cutting enough to break friendships. Mars and Dunlap both come across as good guys (if a tad bitter in the case of the former), while Tommy virtually embodies the soul of the band for me. Poor old Bob though, behind his craziness, seemed a rather sad but intense character.
Besides the text there are some great photos, flyers and mag covers thankfully all with captions (how many books forget those?).
Negatives are few. The most apparent being that the quotes of Westerberg are taken from previous interviews. It’s not explained why Westerberg wasn’t/ couldn’t be interviewed, but it is a disappointment. Flicking through the pages, it appears that Tommy Stinson’s comments were all sourced from previous interviews too. It's a great shame as some hindsight from the pair could have given the book a whole extra dimension.
Fittingly, the book ends with a sobering and respectful chapter to the passing of Bob Stinson.
Whether there is a better ‘MATS book somewhere is debatable. I don’t think I’d wanna read Westerberg’s (although I know I would). If anyone can improve on this, I guess it’d have to be either Peter Jesperson (who may have a few gripes of his own and could be left wanting from the period where he was fired) or, most likely, Tommy Stinson. But for now, this really is an essential read - especially as it was written/ compiled from an ‘insider’. No band before or since embraced Punk Rock (especially during those heady days of USHC) and ran with it, progressing into a rock ‘n’ roll band responsible for writing some of the best songs to ever come out of America AND retain its credibility.