Versus Battle!: McIver v. Mullen
Weighing in at 305 pages, in the pink and green trunks with the corset,
Whores: an oral biography of Perry Farrell and Jane’s Addiction
Mullen, Brendan (2005, Da Capo Press)
…aaand in the red and black trunks, weighing in at 171 pages,
No One Knows: the Queens of the Stone Age Story
McIver, Joel (2005, Omnibus Press)
These two fighters are around the same age, though one has the distinct disadvantage of being noticably shorter on reach than the other. This could be due to the fact that McIver’s subjects are well known for being far more reticent in interviews than Mullen’s, even to the point of refusing to talk about their equipment (Joshua Homme finally broke his silence on that, but it was a long time coming). Both of these stories are told in a chronological vein, with both of them going back to the early days of their frontmen’s careers (Psi Com for Perry Farrell and Kyuss for Joshua Homme).
Round One: Treatment
I guess it’s always a temptation with this kind of group biography to let the big personalities dominate the discussion. So, as you can imagine, Joshua Homme and Perry Farrell dominate McIver and Mullen’s books respectively. It’s not a big drama, but just don’t go expecting a lot of technical talk – these books (indeed, this type of book, witness Long Hard Road out of Hell by Marilyn Manson and just about every book on Led Zeppelin) tend to be light on the technicalities and more about the in-fighting, the bad habits and the groupies.
Which is not a bad thing, right? If you like rock and roll of any stripe, you have to have a certain tolerance for bad behaviour. That was certainly something that I respected about both of these books – they didn’t scrimp or edit too much of the gory stuff out. We got a pretty good description of the Rock am Ring concert from Nick Oliveri (the source of the Freitag 4:15 tattoos that all the band have to commemorate their worst show ever), and a pretty brutal description of the rift that developed between Eric Avery and himself. All in all, you get the feeling from both of these books that their subjects didn’t pull any punches in the interview stakes.
Round Two: Style
I liked that Whores allowed Jane’s Addiction to tell their own story – not just the band but their entourage, ex-managers, friends and haters alike. Mullen’s work seems almost more curatorial than anything, just getting together the transcripts of old interviews (since apparantly Jane’s don’t do interviews anymore), and filling in some of the gaps with new interviews with periferal members of the scene.
There is less of that in No One Knows. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be much of it at all. I mean, it’s still there, like the allowing the band to seemingly tell their own stories, but not as much of the perifery. I would have liked to read some more about the early days of Kyuss, about the morphing of the generator party sound into what Queens have become known for. I don’t know, it just felt far more heavily edited than Whores, which is unfortunate. Maybe it wasn’t, maybe that was just my interpretation, but… hmpf. Just not that good.
Round Three: Visuals
This is a little different to the other Versus Battle!s. But in this kind of biography, it’s quite common to get at least a few photos and little visual nuggets. This is where the main difference between the two bands, at least stylistically, comes to the fore – Jane’s could rightfully be considered somewhat of an art rock band (their influences include Bauhaus, for Pete’s sake!), and QotSA are a lot of things, but art rock ain’t one of them. So it’s about even on this score. Both could have done with a little more colour plates, but perhaps that’s just me being all “ooh, shiny colours!”
Whores by a long shot. It’s better put together, gives more of a sense of the overall ‘big picture’ of the band, and is just the more interesting read, once you get past the stuff with Nick Oliveri and the ‘early days’ stuff. It’s a lot more of a long-view picture too; but I might revise that decision if McIver publishes a second edition with some Them Crooked Vultures stuff in it.
Okay, but in saying that, Perry Farrell was just in that E! “reality” Married to Rock thing, so maybe it’s all down to subject. I mean, I can’t really see Joshua Homme and Brodie Dalle doing that show anytime soon. These biographies really rely on the subject being one with the project, and if there’s one thing that Perry Farrell doesn’t seem to be shy about talking about, it’s himself. But I guess the problem with this kind of book is that it can give you a false ‘understanding’ of the subject.
So while, yes, Whores is a technically better put together piece of work, I’d still take anything in either of these books with a pinch of salt. A big part of any performance is the myth building, and that holds no less true for rock music than any other performance art form. By allowing the story of these bands to be told gthrough the artists own words, you can really get a sense of that (conscious or unconsious) mythologising taking place.