If you blinked in the late 1980s, you might easily have missed Galaxie 500. The trio of Harvard graduates -- New Zealand-born Dean Wareham on guitar and creaky, sing-song lead vocals; and romantic partners Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang on drums and bass, respectively -- released three albums in as many years, toured the United States and Europe to modest but devoted audiences then quickly, bitterly, disbanded, Wareham writes in “Black Postcards: A Rock & Roll Romance.”
Galaxie 500 took the ethereal acoustics of such underground British groups as the Cocteau Twins -- the sort of music romantically inclined college students of the day listened to while lying on dorm beds with the lights out, an incense cone burning nearby -- and fused it with the hypnotic guitar rock of the Velvet Underground and Jonathan Richman. The result was lush and layered but also watery, metallic; Galaxie’s three indie albums sounded as if they were recorded in a flooded basement. Wareham’s lyrics were mostly nonsense (“I wrote a poem on a dog biscuit / And your dog refused to look at it”). This was music as atmosphere, songs to climb inside and explore.
But the late ‘80s were an age of earnestness (Tracy Chapman) and shiny, shallow pop (Debbie Gibson). Even the era’s flagship alternative bands, such as R.E.M. and the Cure, embraced slicker production; Galaxie’s lo-fi aesthetic didn’t stand a chance. Still, after the band imploded, its reputation grew, and its drifting, druggy sound still influences American indie rock.
If you blinked during the 1990s, by contrast, you would not have missed Luna, the New York-based band Wareham formed after Galaxie 500’s dissolution. With Nirvana clearing the way for armies of underground musicians, Luna hit the big time, sort of. The band spent more than half its 14 years on major labels and got recording budgets that Galaxie 500 members could never have dreamed possible. Luna sounded more polished, more prettily melodic, a little less inspired. Wareham’s deadpan vocals were a fitting match for the era’s collective enervation. His songwriting remained gently witty and more or less content-free (“Is there a doctor in the house? / Is there a doctor in the house of pancakes? / I got a banana split personality”).
Luna plugged along, but by the century’s end the dream of an alternative music nation had begun to curdle. Shiny, shallow pop made its return. Wareham finally broke up the group in 2005, after leaving his wife for the band’s bass player, Britta Phillips. He and Phillips have made a few records as Dean and Britta.
Wareham would seem to have a heck of a story to tell: more than 20 years fronting two of rock’s most revered alternative groups, endless touring, collaborations with such musical legends as Tom Verlaine and Sterling Morrison, intraband conflict, a messy affair and divorce, not to mention the rise and fall of the music industry as seen from the passenger’s seat. It’s a shame, then, that Wareham’s memoir is sunk by his flat-line writing style and his use of the book to settle old scores.
Wareham has perfected a kind of bob and weave for writing about his former bandmates. He concedes that his Galaxie 500 partners were “both brilliant in their own ways” and that “they weren’t bad people.” But Krukowski was “controlling” and “quite prepared to make a scene if something wasn’t to his liking.” Luna’s “brilliant” second guitarist, Sean Eden, is lampooned for being indecisive, a perfectionist in the studio -- “You have to share,” Wareham insufferably lectures; “You have to let go” -- and for making macaroni and cheese from a box.
Byron Guthrie, who played drums briefly for Luna in the early days, is given a pasting for not owning a drum kit and for forgetting to bring his sticks to a show. His replacement, Wareham writes, made the band sound “ten times better.” Couldn’t Guthrie be left in peace without having old embarrassments cast in print?
Early in “Black Postcards,” Wareham writes that when his older brother, Anthony, stole some Life Savers, he ratted him out to the shop owner. Wareham was rewarded with a chocolate-covered marshmallow fish. He learned his lesson well. He lays out the dirty linen of his marriage, divorce, on-the-road affairs, his colleagues’ foibles and his brother’s drug use. Sandwiched between these sour stories is an exhausting catalog of concerts seen and played, of cars owned and why they were great, of crummy hotels, of drugs snorted and food eaten.
Could even the most passionate Wareham fan care that on tour in Cincinnati he ate some chili with spaghetti and grated cheese? That the movie “Erin Brockovich” made him sad? Or that in London the handle fell off his carry-on suitcase and he had to rig a new one with string? I mean, that happened to me once too.