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Books - U

UNIVERSITY OF STRANGERS - Bob Pfeifer (154 pages, Smog Veil Records/ Power City Press)
This is a decidedly brave debut novel and quite unlike anything I have read previously. Pfeifer (former big knob at Epic and Sony Recs and President of Hollywood Recs) has written a novel of fiction that revolves around a real-life event (a murder no less), brought actual personalities into its fictional conspiracy and presented the entire narrative in a manner that reads like a union between an oral biography and multiple personal diaries.
The factual event is the murder of Briton, Meredith Kercher. She was murdered in Perugia, Italy in November 2007 in what was described as a 'sadistic sexual encounter'. Of the three charged with her murder was American, Amanda Knox. It's this murder and the succeeding trial around which the factual side pivots, bringing in the fictional, mysterious, covert organisation called the Secret Society of Strangers.
The quest of the Strangers is the truth - sheer, unadulterated truth. Chilean novelist, Roberto Bolano, appears to be at the core of the Society, having sent out a letter (while on his deathbed) to fellow Strangers imploring them to seek the truth and, specifically, that involving Kercher's murder and the trail of Knox. The Strangers is a group of musicians, actors and writers. There seems to be no 'induction' or confirmation of just who is a Stranger, but Woody Allen, Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop, Sean Penn and Johnny Depp are all involved in some way.
Enter Branko P, former front man of Cleveland Punk band Whatchacallit. He received a Bolano letter and, more than any other Stranger, became embroiled in the turmoil of the case when he is falsely accused of rape. Via his imprisonment and attempts to clear his name and Knox's, he discovers just about every avenue of Perugian bureaucracy has something personal at stake in the Knox trial.
It's a story that screams paranoia, corruption, media manipulation and a vague surrealism as no one character lives their life without an outside influence.
While the subversiveness of the story undoubtedly holds the attention, it often gets bogged down in the conspiratorial side of matters at the expense of character development. Pfeifer also frequently fails to capture the personality of the celebrity he is representing in the first person - Woody Allen in particular lacks the self-deprecating wit and hypochondriac tendencies of the man himself.
It's a complex method of telling a relatively simple story, and it certainly pays dividends to read the book a second time – especially when considering the ‘Cult of Celebrity’ side of the book and why certain people are deemed ‘cool’ while others aren’t.
As a bonus, the book also comes with a download card giving the reader a few tracks from Pfeifer's latest band, Tabby Chinos. (03.06.11)

Books - V

VIOLENCE GIRL: A CHICANA PUNK STORY - Alice Bag (382 pages, Feral House)
To the casual Punk fan, the name Alice Bag and that of the band, THE BAGS, may mean little. However, the news that Alice Bag has published an autobiography will be enough to send a shiver of expectation down the spine of any self-respecting Punk aficionado who has heard the classic Dangerhouse 7" ‘Survive’, or seen Decline Of The Western Civilisation, or has a fondness for the original LA Punk scene.
Born Alicia Armendariz and of Mexican decent, Violence Girl chronicles the life of one of the formative and most instantly recognisable faces of the original LA Punk scene: Alice Bag. The writings appear to be lifted directly from a diary, or at least read more akin to journal entries rather than a preconceived autobiography, giving the narrative a distinct sense of placement and energy. Nor does Bag proffer any self-indulgent introduction or foreword - from the first page we’re pushed, head-first into a confrontational BAGS performance with atmosphere, antagonism and suppressed violence dripping from each word.
From there, we’re taken right back to Bag’s childhood. It’s a frank and refreshingly blunt but emotionally-charged portrayal of an adolescence spent in a fractious house, where her father regularly took his violent mood swings out to the extreme on her mother and poverty was a frequent event. That’s not to say Alice was unloved as her father appears to have adored her, her mother proved to be strong in the case of overwhelming adversity, her sister provided inspiration and the good-times they all shared are manifest. These chapters form a significant part of the book and give a real insight into what components went into the make-up of the formative, defiant Alice Bag. I didn’t sense any sepia-tinged embellishment of events; just brave and concise reminiscences of childhood.
Of course, when music hits is the story most of us want to read. Be it Bag’s Elton John obsession, or Patricia Morrison’s Queen obsession (and getting the top of her finger cut off in a bizarre accident at a Queen gig) or the sheer craziness of life in THE BAGS (and the proto-Goth ensemble CASTRATION SQUAD that followed), it’s a charged, adrenalised piece of writing and, just like the chapters of her childhood, they are unblinking, vivid and direct. Bag pulls no punches in her volatile relationship with the likes of Darby Crash and her sense of remorse at his passing really it affecting. Further chapters tell of life at the infamous Canterbury, alcohol and drug abuse, tormented love affairs and rites of passage on the live stage.
It would have been easy to leave the book in this den of iniquity, but unlike so many who came out of that early Punk scene drug, booze and/or mentally damaged (if at all), Bag’s story offers a sense of catharsis and inspiration as she found her vocation in teaching, including a spell in Nicaragua.
Filling the book out with photos from Bag’s own private collections, this is easily one of the best autobiographies I’ve read; Bag’s writing lacks pretension and has emotional gravitas (particularly when discussing the closure she needed when her father passed away), yet has fantastic energy and sincerity about it. Most significantly, it’s uplifting and inspirational on many levels. A truly captivating read, both as a personal biography and as a reflective documentation of formative LA Punk Rock. (14.11.11)