Passion Is a Fashion: The Real Story of the Clash by Pat Gilbert (DaCapo Press, 404 pages, $18.95)
Jacob Slichter's entertaining memoir recounting his 15 minutes of rock fame, So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star: How I Machine-Gunned a Roomful of Record Executives and Other True Tales from a Drummer's Life, is a primer for those musicians who, despite all warnings to the contrary, still yearn for the brass ring of stardom. Slichter's trial by fire should make that gig-to-gig struggle and relative obscurity seem like a blessing by comparison. Slichter had his time in the limelight as drummer for the Minneapolis band Semisonic. On the strength of their fluke 1998 hit, "Closing Time," the trio met the music industry monster head-on — and were quickly devoured by the usual suspects: clueless record executives, sinister radio station program directors, and a cynical music press, for starters. Slichter's story, to paraphrase another famous Twin Cities musician, is about all the surreal shit that happens when you don't miss the first rung on the ladder of success. In the early, 90s, Slichter met two members of the soon-to-be-defunct band Trip Shakespeare. The three soon caught on and became a full-time venture. Slichter recounts not only the absurdities of gig-a-night life in the van but also the attendant — and usually overlooked — loneliness that can accompany it. The band proved a popular draw, and in the aftermath of Nirvana offered enough of a melody-driven pop alternative that they drew interest from major labels — which is when things got weird. Their major-label debut went nowhere and their label was swallowed up in a merger, but the follow-up, powered by "Closing Time," earned Semisonic opening slots with stadium fillers like Matchbox 20, and TV appearances with everyone from Leno and Letterman to Conan and Howard Stern. Slichter describes with wide-eyed disbelief hobnobbing with stars and musicians he'd never even dreamed of meeting, photo shoots and limo rides and drinking champagne at the Grammys. But though "Closing Time" proved to be, as the label execs said, "a 'marketplace' song," Semisonic "was not a marketplace band." By the end of their ride — with a new album tanking on both sides of the Atlantic and getting dropped by the label only a matter of time — Slichter had gone from polite neophyte to "fantasizing about whipping a drumstick" at their fans. In the end, it doesn't matter, really, since Slichter's future, if Rock & Roll Star is any indication, is with a pen, not a drumstick.
Clash biographies have become a virtual cottage industry since the death of front man extraordinaire Joe Strummer. Pat Gilbert's Passion Is a Fashion: The Real Story of the Clash, is the cream of the crop, partly due to its exhaustive detail, but also because the author shows the same all-out commitment to his subject that the Clash themselves were famous for. Gilbert, a former editor at the excellent British music magazine Mojo, was, as a youngster, one of the fans the Clash made priority No.1 throughout their career. As Gilbert writes, the band could be "horrible to the people who worked for them, and horrible to each other at times, but never to the fans, who always came first."
Gilbert recounts in detail all the famous and infamous moments in the band's career, and wisely focuses on the Clash's revolutionary effect on music, introducing a generation of punks to reggae, ska,jazz, funk, soul and hip-hop. Long excerpts of Gilbert's book appeared in Mojo, including the heartfelt epilogue recounting Strummer's sudden death from a heart attack in December 2002 and the outpouring of affection from fans and fellow musicians around the globe. It's no easy task getting across the excitement the Clash generated, especially on stage, and as Gilbert relates, after the band broke up, many in their circle described it as "the mother of all comedowns" and akin to "having come home from a war. . .they found it difficult to adapt to civilian life."
"What could ever replicate that kind of excitement, danger and camaraderie?"
Reading an account written with this much passion isn't a bad start.