Read: Byron Coley 1978-83 Anthology

 

For the
half-decade represented here, there wasn’t a sword shinning any brighter than
Byron Coley’s pen. 
C’est la guerre: Early Writings:
1978-1983 (published by L’Oie de Cravan) collects the rock ‘n’
roll contrarian’s greatest early hits.

 

By Logan
K. Young

“I finally gave up
trying to advance through the ranks at McD’s, so I guess I’ll never be
a burger magnate. C’est la guerre.” — Byron Coley, Letter from San Francisco # 3,
Feb. 1979

Fuck Marcus. And
forget “Xgau.” Save for Dylan, what do they know, anyways? You can have Niki
Cohn, maybe even Lester. At this point, Boze Hadleigh reads truer. Next to
early Tosches or the SUNY-cum-Yale aesthetics of Meltzer, Lord Byron’s the one,
true Dean of American rock critics. And as this back pocket zine from Québécoise imprint L’Oie de Cravan makes sure, he’s a badass en français, aussi. Still standing – and not just on Twitter or some SEO-forsaken blogspot – the
man and his soul patch are national treasures worthy of another Nick Cage
franchise. Hell, this cobbling of would-be ephemera was brought to my door by
the good fellas at Forced Exposure, who themselves would be nothing were it not
for Coley. As the Plaid Piper of Pedro himself, Mike Watt, writes in the
lowercase intro: “give byron coley a piece of rope and he’ll be ready to tell
you about knots. give him enough rope and he’ll string some knots up for you,
all kinds – he’ll get creative.”

 

But,
of course, he didn’t start out that way. “This is an example of my writing at
its shittiest,” reads the preface to his NY Rocker ‘82 review of the
Dü’s Land Speed Record. (Literally, he spends half his word count waxing
how the French would shove shrapnel in enemy bungholes to fashion human bombs.)
“…none of the lousy grammar or questionable word usages have been altered to
cover my ineptitude,” he writes before the longest piece herein. His first
non-gratis burping, it’s a Pernod-induced, yet undeniably DEVOted tour diary of
that band’s Warner-funded degeneration through the great cities of the East
Coast. Entitled “Where the Rubber Met the Road,” and published in the January
1979 edition of Andy Schwartz’s Rocker, Coley notes, “I believe that
behind those rubber suits are some incredible songs that could and will
catapult this band to stardom, if they’re heard as the stompers they actually
are rather than as the proselytizing of an intellectual clique from Akron.” Boy oh Booji Boy,
I could not agree more with the then twenty-something. That he’s so willing to
share the ecstatic yod of what’s basically his journalistic juvenilia proves
just how cocksure he’s become. (I, for one, am still trying to bury the purple
prose of my fledgling scribbles; alas, the cub Coley never had to battle
Google.)

To wit, there are
some really fantastic pieces I’d’ve been proud of at any age. A man of letters
first, the five epistles to Angela Jaeger included document his own papal
flight, via bus, to the Yes Wave climes of San Fran. And if you want to get to
know Byron the boy – who, truth be told, is every bit as enlightening as Coley
the present-day man – I suggest you start here. His Selby, Jr. truncations and
abbreviated txt speak (long before cell phones came in bags, even) subscribe to
that old Orwellian adage from Strunk & White. Namely, if you can leave out
a word, then… His fat black slagging of The Thin White Duke from LA Weekly is probably the most well-known clip of the lot. And honestly, re-reading
it now, it does make me think. Calling Bowie “the Gloria Vanderbilt of the
electric guitar” and “a dink so bereft of emotional musculature,” he further
calls into question the very notion of change in rock. “You can call that
progress and exploration if you will, but I’ll call it the vacillation of a man
who has no center,” he argues. Le ouch, Maître Coley!

 

But this handsome
collection, the cover drawn and silkscreened by one Simon Bossé, is more than
the letters of a young contrarian run amuck. Like any rock scribe worth his
stylus, Coley’s a brilliant pure writer, too. If the two book reviews reprinted
here don’t convince you, his record store retelling of O. Henry’s “The Gift of
the Magi” from Xmas ‘83 certainly will. Furthermore, as we see in many of the
sidebars, he’s also got a way with doodles. (And in the case of his typewriter
ode to The Velvets’ Sterling Morrison, Coley’s got an eye for poetry concrète as well.)

 

Whether
knocking Suicide’s Marty Rev on his ass or a drunk Fred Frith knocking into his
pinball game, or Coley himself knocking back some rum and a couple Quaaludes,
in these early scribblings he posits himself as just another rock ‘n’ roll
raconteur. Heir apparent to those bloated names I first dropped, before I
myself had even learned to speak, if Coley never penned another Beefheart
screed, another paean to ½ Japanese – truthfully – I doubt I’d be writing this
now. That kind of self-indulgent, gonzo whippersnapperism gets old faster than
psycho-reactive carburetor dung.

 

What
makes Coley still worth reading today, in the present, is that while he’s no
doubt grown and matured into our best rock writer, he’s retained just enough
piss from his l’enfant terrible birthright. All is fair in love and guerre,
and for the half-decade represented here, there wasn’t a sword shinning any
brighter than Byron Coley’s pen. 

 

 

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