“I don’t wanna stay at your party/I don’t want talk to your friends/I don’t wanna vote for your president/I just wanna be your tugboat captain.” Over simple chords, and a shaky voice listing in an ocean of reverb, it was with those words that first signalled the arrival of a little known Boston, Massachusetts band called Galaxie 500.
Dean Wareham wrote the words, played the guitar and sang the songs, along with fellow Harvard University friend Damon Krukowski on drums and his girlfriend Naomi Yang on bass. Both of whom were of equal importance and input, but Wareham was most assuredly its tugboat captain. When he suddenly decided to jump ship, it was not only as much of a shock to their fans as it was to the rest of the band, who were left rudderless without their meal ticket. Black Postcards opens with a disparaging quote from Krukowski discussing Wareham’s behaviour toward the end of Galaxie 500’s tenure where under a supposed prearranged spotlight, Wareham walks to the front of stage to engage in a little rock posturing. An event that flew so far against the grain of the un-rock Galaxie 500 that left Krukowski disgusted. To begin an autobiography with such an unflattering endorsement sets the scene for an honest and candid appraisal of one’s musical career.
Black Postcards charts Wareham’s early beginnings in New Zealand and Australia, before settling down in Manhattan in 1977, finding the teenage, music-curious Wareham in the midst of a musical explosion. From his attendance at CBGBs watching bands like Richard Hell and the Voidoids and Pere Ubu, to the Paisley scene that would give rise to the Dream Syndicate and Opal, bands that would influence the sound of the nascent Galaxie 500. From their first single, the aforementioned “Tugboat” released in 1988 to their third and final album This Is Our Music released in 1990, Galaxie 500 grew from being a disregarded act in their own hometown to playing festivals across Europe and sold-out shows in London and New York. From scribbled diary entries, Wareham charts the success of the band growing in inverse proportion to his own happiness, wholly aware that as the band became a business, any democratic decision-making became impossible when two-thirds of your band are in a relationship.
In the wake of Galaxie 500, Wareham formed Luna, a more livelier, psychedelic extension of the Galaxie 500 sound, this time comprised of four males and not a couple among them. Arriving during the grunge explosion of the early 90’s, Luna found themselves, like Australia’s The Go-Betweens, being one of the quintessential great rock bands you’ve never heard before. In an era when Pearl Jam and Nirvana were ushering in a new era, disenfranchised youth may have understood the meaning behind “In my dreams I slash your tires,” but were lost in stoned confusion at “Are you a fox or a hedgehog?” Despite all attempts to the contrary, the acclaim Wareham encountered on a small label with Galaxie 500 would never transfer to that of a major label. They managed to survive throughout that decade within their niche of hardcore fans, but that didn’t quite equate to the amount of sales required to keep a big label from dictating decisions for you.
There are elements of schadenfreude and soul-searching throughout Black Postcards, from returning to hotels you swore you’d never spend another night in, to grown men trading infantile jabs in a packed econoline van to alleviate boredom. Wareham frequently relates to rock bible film This Is Spinal Tap but to me his adventures are more akin to National Lampoon’s European Vacation with Wareham playing the role of Chevy Chase, as the uncertainness of touring in foreign countries mounts up with the long drives, cheap hotels, bad food, petty arguments, and the knowledge that a year from now you’ll be playing to the same place playing to the same people, while your records sell in ever dwindling amounts. From massaging the ego of a guitarist who needs to be constantly placated to dealing with his own post-groupie guilt, Wareham had to master the role of democratic band leader and also be accountable for his own imperfections.
An awkward and unexpected turning point in both the band and Wareham’s personal life occurs when original bassist Justin Harwood quietly quits the band returning to New Zealand. After a few auditions, the settle on the dazzling and demure Britta Phillips to fill the bass shoes — a no-brainer decision if there ever was one. Wareham instructs the rest of the band: “No hanky panky. If anyone gets involved with her they’re out,” before going on to guiltily devour his own words, breaking the cardinal rock ‘n’ rule of “don’t fuck the bass player,” knowing that such an action would not only change and inform the dynamic of the band (as it did with Galaxie 500) but also bring forth a disintegration of his marriage.
Black Postcards is as much a personal memoir as it a diary of a rock and roll band. At times a truly depressing read, and a more than valid shattering of the myth that ‘living the dream’ does not automatically make for an easy bed, especially when those moments of being onstage for 90 minutes barely add up to the days and weeks in limbo where you try to exist as best you know how. Much will be said about Wareham’s lonely encounter with an Amsterdam prostitute, though while this would barely raise an eyebrow with your hard partying rock and roller, it’s an unexpected and awkward admission, but what Wareham highlights with this is that there are no hard and fast rules to life on the road. You are tested, physically and emotionally, and in cases presented in these pages, you often find yourself wanting.
With the wealth of music autobiographies appearing written by contemporary musicians, Black Postcards finds its own niche amongst the excess and success, highlighting the plight of the mid-level band, where youthful exuberance belongs in a different decade and paying the bills becomes the prime motivation in hitting the road. The highs never seem quite high enough and the lows become your own personal demons, saved for your therapist, or in this case, your publisher. One can only hope that the subtitle of this biography, “A rock and roll romance” stays true. Wareham is too good to let it go to waste.