I’ve been waiting for someone to publish a full compendium of the music writings of BYRON COLEY, the first “rock writer” that ever blew my proverbial reader’s mind with a turn of phrase. After devouring this excellent little volume in the 90 minutes it took me to plow through it, I’m still waiting, of course, as this covers a small smattering of writing spanning 1978-1983. Perhaps this will not only whet the palate of those unfamiliar with Mr. Coley’s prose, but also convince a true publisher of note to get cracking – not simply a tiny Quebecois press like L'Oie De Cravan, who should nonetheless be applauded for putting this together in both French and English, in the same book no less.
I first came across Byron Coley’s writings, as many of us did, in FORCED EXPOSURE, a fanzine I wrote extensively about on my old blog here, here and here. Soon thereafter I started seeing his stuff in more highfalutin places, like SPIN, for instance, and then in back issues of early 80s fanzines that I would hoard like TAKE IT!. I think what struck me the most at an impressionable age was that he held an opinion on pretty much everything, and made no effort to be magnanimous in his reviews if that band or act in question were one he held in low regard. In fact he’d cleverly eviscerate cheapo hardcore bands, goth doomsayers and bland college-rock bands with a severely biting pen – which was fun, even when it was done to bands I dug. Coley seemed to hear every record and could weigh in on them in 4-6 sentences better than anyone I’d ever read before. When he liked something, really liked it, you wanted to go out and buy it – in fact he, and to a lesser extent, his Forced Exposure co-editor Jimmy Johnson had such strong BS detectors that if they recommended it, it almost always ended up ruling once you tore off the shrink-wrap & had it on the turntable. They certainly didn’t invent opinionated rock journalism, but they were far & away the leading practitioners of it in the 1980s.
I was about 18, 19, 20 years old and totally immersed in the Forced Exposure bands and ethos. I personally developed a set of snarky, dismissive opinions about bands that were half faux rock-snobbery and half very learned expressions that I’d still stand by today. This is a stance I almost completely attribute to Coley’s writings and my newfound confidence that I was listening to (and pontificating on via college radio and my college paper) the music that truly mattered in 1985-88. I remember with clarity a ludicrous, over-the-top argument I foisted upon my cousin Doug and our friend Linda in which I savaged The Replacements, a band whom they liked and a band Forced Exposure was routinely taking to task. So certain of myself, I drunkenly pissed off my friends and walked out of the house triumphant that I’d won the argument about whether or not the band mattered. If that was Coley’s sole legacy – champion and summary dismissal expert of underground rock bands for late-teenagers with chips on their shoulders - then 25 years later we wouldn’t have a lot to talk about, would we? Aha – that’s where you’d be wrong, as this book shows us.
My big surprise in reading the collected writing in “C’EST LA GUERRE” was how fully-formed Coley’s stuff was even back in the late 70s. The guy was as good, and as funny then at age 21-22 as he is today. I think I had assumed that his pieces for the NEW YORK ROCKER and other underground papers of the day would suffer from the full-blown Richard Meltzerisms that even Coley cops to in this volume, and that plagued/enhanced (pick ‘em!) his work up until about 1985 or so. You know, the “yr a pud” style of writing, which I thought was so great back then yet which seemed to drive many others bananas. Well, he wasn’t doing that in ’78 – it was an early 80s “phase” of his, akin to other phases that wayward young men go through.
The pieces in “C’EST LA GUERRE” span from a ripping takedown of David Bowie to wild-eyed and erudite build-ups of Devo, The Minutemen, The Germs and many in between. Yes, Devo! The book prints some great letters from Coley to a friend that are a cross between a personal diary and a scene report, and it was kinda cool to see the guy’s musical taste long before it was codified – if indeed it ever was. Psychotic Pineapple & Blondie even get the yeah-hups. His style was one that relied very heavily on humor, wordplay, unorthodox sentence construction, opinion, and at the end of the day and unlike Meltzer, full readability. You read a Coley piece, and if you’re not familiar with the band, you’ll want to be. I never have wanted in any way to cop to having any sort of “style” of my own, as I am by no means a writer by trade and am simply a humble blogger in my spare, non-professional time. But I know I stole from him, in that I try to write my pieces in a “consumer’s guide” manner, with the aim of convincing you that I’m right and why you need to make the purchase. I got that from Coley, and I’m pretty sure he didn’t get that from anyone but himself and maybe just a teensy bit from Lester Bangs.
So it’s about 1991, and I’ve just put out the first issue of my own SUPERDOPE fanzine. I’ve gotten to know Brandan Kearney, then the guitar player from one of my favorite local bands, WORLD OF POOH. Seems that Byron Coley had come to town (San Francisco) and was record shopping with Kearney, who talked him into buying my fanzine at a particular store. Weeks later I received an unsolicited personal letter from Coley, giving me kudos and the old thumbs-up, and even offering to make me tapes from his extensive stash of Flesh Eaters live & demo recordings. It was pretty validating, to say the least. Since that time I’ve been hoping that someone would take the reins of a publishing project of the guy’s work, or even just collecting all the Forced Exposures into a single coffee-table book. We’ll have to settle for “C’EST LE GUERRE” for now – but don’t tarry, they only made 750 copies of this slim volume so you’ll want to start clickin’ and shoppin’ right here.