Book reviews: Dylan and Trynin (no, not Drivin’ and Cryin’)

I’ll pretend this is a traditional book review and start by giving stars …

Bob Dylan, Chronicles — 3 stars (out of 5)
Jen Trynin, Everything I’m Cracked Up To Be — 4,613 stars (out of 4,615)

The bigger book of these two musicians’ memoirs is, of course, the Dylan book. And there’s no disputing that it should be. Among pop/rock musicians, he’s among the most important — and most enigmatic. When he finally decides to speak, you can’t blame people for being interested.

And it’s … interesting. Just not particularly illuminating. He does confess, as critics often guessed, that a couple of his records were attempts at deflating his own image so he wouldn’t carry the “voice of a generation” baggage forever. He offers a bit of insight into the recording process, though it’s curiously all about one of his later albums with Daniel Lanois, and it’s an abrupt leap forward from the early ’60s. Then he leaps right back to the early ’60s.

What does he say about the early ’60s? Not much. He was recording folk music. He read a lot. He was enamored of various women. Somewhere, a critic is deconstructing every word so that it’s a grand statement on the rights of artists to make grand statements on the rights of artists. I just didn’t have the energy.

It’s entertaining, at least in places, and I wouldn’t tell anyone not to read it. I’d just say that if you’re going to read one book on the music biz this year, skip Dylan’s work and pick up this next one instead.

I’ve been waiting for Trynin’s book to be published for about a year and a half. Her debut album Cockamamie was one of my mid-’90s favorites, so full of good songs that it keeps resurfacing in my iPod years later. Critics loved her. The public seemed to like her but got so caught up following the Lilith Fair and Alanis Morissette that she was left out of the mix, and the album didn’t sell particularly well. Her follow-up sold less. She never made a third, settling instead into family life, and I was always curious to know why we had never heard from her again. So when I heard she was writing a book about the experience, I said, “Where do I sign up?”

(The answer, of course, is “at Amazon,” but I somehow neglected to do this. A week or two after Torino, the alarm sounded in my head, and I got it shipped right away.)

This was worth the wait.

At first, it was a little bewildering. Like Dylan, she writes in an unconventional, occasionally stream-of-consciousness style. It works. If I were writing the same book, I’d have boring paragraphs describing how I felt. The way she writes, she makes you feel the way she did. Usually dizzy. Not quite confused, but definitely not in full control of your senses.

For weeks, she’s in a whirlwind. Her indie release of Cockamamie has created a huge buzz in the industry, and every record exec, lawyer and manager lines up to woo her. She tells some great stories in the process, but the overall effect is overwhelming. She’s in a situation beyond her control, and she has no illusions about it.

Aside from a few pseudonyms that don’t really disguise the people in question, she spares no one. Not even herself. You have to sympathize with her, of course, but you don’t always agree with her. Sometimes, I found myself wanting to reach through the page to tap her on the shoulder — OK, Jen, don’t fool around with the bass player when you have a great boyfriend. Don’t piss off the local DJ. And could you put off your suspicion of all-female bills long enough to play at Lilith Fair?

She’s clearly not out to get anyone in particular. In retrospect, she sees the humor in the situation, and she recognizes that the business itself is a tough one.

In a sense, reading the book is like watching Apollo 13. You know how it’s going to end. (Or maybe Titanic would be more appropriate, but I didn’t see Titanic.) When she gives the details of how much she has to sell to earn money beyond her substantial advance, you have to cringe — if she had sold that much, she’d be many times more famous, even today.

It’s still unfair. I wouldn’t see an album like Cockamamie as a multiplatinum smash because her voice isn’t quite as polished as Kelly Clarkson’s or as distinctive as Alanis, but it deserved better than it got. The songs are brilliant, and she has a knack for hooks that are both catchy and inventive. (Guitar geek alert: Check out the way she blends harmonics into the riffs on Snow.)

Perhaps we should all blame the record execs who got in a bidding war and therefore created absurd expectations, making it impossible for her to have a long career as a modestly successful indie artist. But the expectations were built up because they heard something special in the music. Given that, it’s hard for me to be so angry.

Sure, we meet our share of buffoons along the way, and she struggles to suffer fools gladly. We see what a mess commercial radio can be — she’s literally left stranded on the air at one point, a situation she amusingly handles by interviewing herself.

One person who comes across quite well in the book under her own name, though she’s a peripheral character, is Aimee Mann. Trynin’s boyfriend-turned-husband, who DOES get a pseudonym even though anyone with Internet access can find out who he is, has produced much of Mann’s solo work.

Mann pops up again at the end, in fact. Two heralded solo artists — one still going strong, one out of the business.

Or is she? Trynin popped up again as a guitarist in a band called the Loveless, which released something in 2003. She doesn’t mention this in the book whatsoever, though her career with this outfit — which probably wasn’t built to repeat the same ascend-and-plummet cycle that Trynin’s already experienced — would have overlapped with the years she spent writing this book.

That’s not necessarily odd. Trynin devotes the bulk of the book to her whirlwind courtship and the aftermath of her first album. She rushes through the second album, focusing only on a couple of key incidents along the way. I was disappointed at first, but it makes sense because Trynin, not a dumb woman, has already figured out by the end of her big Cockamamie tour that this isn’t going to work. She doesn’t dwell on the aftermath. No need.

Unless she wants to write a sequel. Just let me know so I can remember to pre-order the damned thing this time around.

I’m hoping she gets enough of an audience to encourage her to continue. I’m not particularly encouraged by her Amazon rank of 10,322, but at least it’s climbing. Maybe she’ll catch Dylan.

Want to hear a bit? She’s apparently had a bit of this book done for almost three years, judging from the URL of this page, which has an audio excerpt of her reading one of the funnier bits. It does raise a question for me, though — I recall from reading that the self-interview incident happened with a different DJ. But I’m not planning to yell “James Frey” on her. DJs have always been interchangeable. Musicians — and authors — like Trynin don’t turn up that often.

And at long last, I can conclude that I have no regrets about failing to pursue my dreams of a rock career. At age 17, when my guitar skills were at their peak, I would’ve believed all that crap.

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