SONIC REDUCER I read the news the other day, oh boy, and the dimming days of early winter appear to have gotten darker: the Xmas lights have begun to twinkle down my street, above the Red Poppy House, but they can't draw attention away from the little shrine of bedraggled plastic balloons and dampened candles around the corner dedicated to 21-year-old Erick Balderas, who was shot to death at Treat Avenue and 23rd Street on Nov. 18. I hobbled home from No Country for Old Men and a lychee-infused cocktail just a few hours before he was slain only a block away, but I failed to hear the gunshots. Thinking about his death and that of 18-year-old Michael Price Jr., shot near the Metreon box office by, allegedly, another teenager, one wonders why nightlife has grown so deadly for the kids who can really use some fun.
Reading is a safe substitute. When going out seems to be getting more hazardous, who can blame a culture vulture for wanting to stay in and nest with a good book and a CD, preferably the two combined in one? Those in the market for juicy boomer-rock dirt will likely dig this year's Clapton: The Autobiography (Broadway), ex Pattie Boyd's Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Me (Harmony), and Ron Wood's Ronnie: The Autobiography (St. Martin's) survivor's tales all. But perhaps this is also the moment to revisit a musician who perished as violently and mysteriously as autumn's lost boys: Elliott Smith. Photographer Autumn de Wilde manages to skate between the coffee table and the fanzine rack with a handsome tome of photos, many snapped around the time of Smith's Figure 8 (DreamWorks, 2000).
Figure 8 was a divisive recording, alienating early lo-fi lovers and seemingly reaching out to the "Miss Misery" masses, and Smith looked self-consciously awkward slouching in front of the music store swirl that turned into a shrine after his death. Talking to friends, exes, family, managers, and producers who haven't gone on the record since Smith's death, de Wilde gathers snatches of intriguing info for instance, it was engineer ex-girlfriend Joanna Bolme who gave Smith the sorry bowl haircut that de Wilde documents and thoughts on the art of capturing spirits like Smith on the fly. Centering Elliott Smith (Chronicle) on images from her "Son of Sam" video, a poignant reworking of The Red Balloon, she finds the innocence that made Smith's songs and their anger over quashed hope possible amid the listener cynicism and the songwriter's lyrical bitterness. The kicker: an accompanying five-song CD of live acoustic solo Smith tracks, culled from 1997 appearances at Los Angeles' Largo, including a sweetly screwed-up rendition of Hank Williams's "All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down."
Another volume to really turn down the covers with is Wax Poetics Anthology, Volume 1 (Wax Poetics/Puma), a mixologist's spin cycle of stories from the great mag. Editor Andre Torres taps interviews with golden era hip-hop knob twirlers Prince Paul, the RZA, and Da Beatminerz, as well as pieces on James Brown's drummer Clyde Stubblefield, reggae producers King Tubby and Clive Chin, salsa giant Fania Records, Henry Chalfant of Style Wars, and much more than you can down in one chill evening. Extensive discographies aside, the only thing that's lacking here is a soundtrack.
Not so with the much slimmer but no less passionate new issue of Ptolemaic Terrascope zine, once financed by the Bevis Frond. Mushroom drummer and RuntWater Records consultant Pat Thomas has assumed the editorship. Apparently after 15 years and 35 issues, previous head Phil McMullen was "burned out, for lack of a better word," Thomas told me from his Oakland home, where he was happy to get away from a take-home exam on menstrual cycles.