A Spy in the House of Loud

A Spy in the House of Loud: New York Songs and Stories
By Chris Stamey
[University of Texas Press]

The “hit” is something of an onus/craw-sticker for any musician of note – even when said “hit” is not really a hit, just a fan fave. A given artist’s fan base will form a death grip on a certain song, or album, even – and said fixation goes on, and on and on. The end result is that the fans expect the artist to play said song, or album, even, at every concert for all eternity. If the hit is “Lust for Life,” or even “Freebird,” well, fair enough: Iggy and Lynyrd Skynyrd, respectively, will smile, play the song, and reap their due adulation and whopping paychecks. But there are many times where the world plays cheap tricks on artists – and the artist, in suit, has to play along. For example, there’s a contingent of diehards at every Cheap Trick show clamoring to hear Cheap Trick’s cringe-inducing sellout track, “The Flame.” So, the members of Cheap Trick just buck up and play the damned thing – as they will continue to do for the rest of their days. C’est la vie and all that crap. Even fucking KISS bears the burden of “Beth” at every show. The customer is king.

And here’s where the old art-versus-commerce thing comes in. Both “Lust for Life” and “The Flame” reaped (and continue to reap – in the present tense) filthy lucre for the artists. So even if the artists hate the song (I daresay Iggy doesn’t hate “Lust for Life” and the members of Cheap Trick at least kinda/sorta hate “The Flame”), there’s a rationalization for playing it. Then there are the lesser known artists who never had a hit (or the accompanying filthy lucre) whose fans nevertheless have expectations that the artist plays their death grip/fixation songs – even when the artist’s not necessarily crazy about them, at every concert for all eternity.

For former dB’s auteur, Chris Stamey, there’s the bulk of the songs on The dB’s first album, Stands for Decibels, a work that “has not worn well for me [Stamey], frankly.” In fact, the whole “power pop” mantle has become something of a Sisyphean onus for Stamey, even though he’s considered, for better or for worse, a figurehead of the genre. I mean, if you look in the Webster’s Dictionary under “power pop,” there’s a picture of Stamey. (Well, not really. If there were a picture of an individual personifying power pop in the dictionary, it would probably be Saint Alex, or maybe The Knack’s Doug Fieger. I digress.)

Stamey spends a goodly portion of his memoir, A Spy in the House of Loud: New York Songs and Stories, denouncing or at least deconstructing his legacy and the constrictions of what he defines “the power pop box.”

Stamey writes: By the early eighties, power pop practitioners seemed to us [The dB’s] to be overly reverent of the past, with slight chips on their shoulders, a British gear fetish, and hair dryers at the ready. …We were too scruffy, too “disheveled,” and our tastes were too catholic. Some of the dB’s tracks could undoubtedly fit in that power-pop box, but for every one that did, another would be busy punching holes in the paper.

Yeah, Stamey’s the power pop guy. And yeah, Stamey doesn’t necessarily like much of his beloved-by-fans, early ’80s material – or being classified as power pop. And yeah, it frustrates him when people want to hear those old songs again and again and again. I get it.

Sorry, Chris, but people like your old stuff. And I’m also sorry, Chris, but power pop is what you’re really good at. Buck it up, get over it, and play “I’m in Love” one more time.

House of Loud is a pretty cool book, yet another retelling of NYC’s fabled protopunk downtown scene – but this time the story is told from more of a southern-outsider-who-lives-uptown perspective. The problem, however, is that Stamey oftentimes tries too hard to prove how learned and urbane he is, lunging for a certain gravitas of sophistication and expertise that just barely exceeds his grasp.

The book is laden with waaaaaay too much gearhead studio shop talk – and gearhead songwriting shop talk, too. Stamey continually blunders into conceptual cul de sacs with artsy fartsy pontifications likening his songwriting to William S. Burroughs’ cut-up technique and explaining how elements of the dB’s classic (power) pop nuggets were influenced by the compositions of Terry Riley, John Cage, Harry Partch, Stockhausen, and Charles Mingus. And throughout the book, Stamey tirelessly remind readers that he’s, like, a “real” musician who can write music and read charts and stuff. He claims he can play chord progressions on studio recordings as they are being played backwards. (Now, why on earth would anybody do that, anyway?) And there’s a baffling passage where Stamey claims that “although I had satisfied the requirements for a music degree at UNC Chapel Hill, I had never completed the swimming requirement [?] and a few other things.” (Granted, Stamey did complete a BA in Philosophy at NYU, which is no small potatoes.) And then there are the annoying bits where he uses the Italian term “tempi” for “tempos.” I mean, well, bitch, please. That Stamey tries so hard to convince readers he’s, like, a real intellectual who can capably use Italian words and stuff belies that he’s not as confident and cultured as he would like to be perceived. I mean, what the hell?

In spite of the aforementioned self-aggrandizing windbaggery, Stamey’s a good prose writer, a sometimes-great musician (but not that good of a live performer), and a charming, erudite and truly cool guy. And there is a lot to like about House of Loud. Stamey has an interesting story to tell. There’s just something…well…a lot of things that are more than a bit grating about the book’s construction and delivery.

House of Loud is broken into a series of chapter-long vignettes themed around his songs, peppered by “Jukebox” selections analyzing songs of other artists that were popular in NYC Clubland, circa early ’80s. (To his credit, Stamey acknowledges the pivotal importance of Pylon in one of the “Jukebox” sections.) The “songbook” format, unfortunately, erodes the cogence that a linear narrative would have yielded. I wish he would’ve just told his story from point A to point Z, toploading it with front-end info about his halcyon North Carolina-to-NYC daze with the dB’s and toning down the later stuff about his time as a member of the Golden Palominos, solo artist and producer. In other words, I wish Stamey would have just delivered the hits.

Still, Stamey’s an interesting guy. While he was not exactly part of the punk thing in NYC ’77, he was there, on the periphery, working with other peripheral-to-punk artists (Chilton, Chris Bell, Mitch Easter, Richard Lloyd, Lester Bangs, and of course the dB’s), all of whom (except for Lester Bangs) laid ground for the burgeoning “college rock” thing which would later pay off in the form of massive radio hits for a certain Georgia band you might have heard of called R.E.M. Stamey’s story is a “southern thing” that could have only happened in New York, a form of creole, if you will. Stamey writes: Looking back, I think the dB’s ‘punk roots’ at the time were actually NRBQ and Richard Thompson as well as Television, and with a little of Peter’s faves Kid Creole and the Coconuts – not really very solid ripped shirt credentials.