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Sunday, March 19, 2006

Staring at Sound

After months of struggling to get through one book (The Trouble With Music and Hit Men have been especially tough), I finished Jim DeRogatis' Staring at Sound in less than a week. Not since the last Harry Potter book have I been this fast in reading. Maybe that's because I've been waiting to read this book for about six months.

Staring at Sound is DeRogatis' take on the history of the beloved Oklahoma rockers, the Flaming Lips. As someone who has been a casual fan of the band since 1993's Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, but was really blown away by the band's story via the The Fearless Freaks documentary, I was very curious to see what all DeRogatis added to the story. At 232 pages, he adds plenty.

Starting from the ground up with the childhoods of original members Wayne Coyne and Michael Ivins, a lot of the seeds of how the band has conducted themselves throughout their careers are planted in these first few chapters. Going album by album, every line-up change and every other crucial detail in the band's development, DeRogatis cuts right to the center by not getting all poetic or gushy. DeRogatis has been a fan of the band for a long time and it's apparent on every page, but he's not a cheerleader. Poking holes in the band's Boom Box Experiment shows are just some of them, but he isn't focusing on the negative. He gives a more balanced form of constructive criticism that doesn't tip towards extremes.

I think all great rock bios shed more light on things that the fan didn't know and Staring at Sound is no exception. Information on things like the supposed spiderbite that drummer/multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd had (as discussed in "The Spirderbite Song") wasn't a spiderbite at all, how the tour with Beck wasn't all smiles and how the band stayed on Warner Bros. for so long really interested me. This was fascinating and it didn't feel like tabloid-ish gossip.

Another by-product of great rock bios is when the reader gets the urge to hear the spotlighted band's music. It had been a few months since I had listened to Clouds Taste Metallic, The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, so I figured I'd put them in my CD wallet. This helped keep the band's music on my mind as I read more and more about their story, creating the always cool, multi-level fan experience.

In all, Staring at Sound was what I hoped when I first heard about it. Just like Greg Kot's Wilco:Learning How to Die, DeRogatis gives us curious observers something to really sink our teeth in without having to know the band's music by heart. These kinds of books are great inside looks, but they aren't solely for hardcore fans. There's so much insight and philosophy that comes out of Wayne Coyne's mouth that can inspire so many; even the ones that can't stand his music. It's good to add another piece of that now in the rock bio category.

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