Are oral histories a good way to write about music?

Are oral histories a good way to write about music?

“We were in L.A., but we all hated glam,” says Slayer’s Jeff Hanneman in the new book Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History Of Metal. “I was listening to a lot of hardcore, but I still loved classic metal like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. Kerry [King, also a guitarist in Slayer] was more into the metal. So when we started writing songs, we combined the best of both.”

Louder Than Hell comes out this week, but Hanneman won’t get to see it. He died on May 2 at the age of 49, his trailblazing career cut short by liver failure. The book’s authors, Jon Wiederhorn and Katherine Turman, surely had no idea that Louder Than Hell would serve as one of many eulogies for Hanneman. Yet that’s partly what it is. Instead of waxing grandiosely about Hanneman’s innovations and songwriting, though, Wiederhorn and Turman let the man speak for himself. 

Like the subtitle says, Louder Than Hell is an oral history. Hanneman’s memories of Slayer’s formation are offered without intrusion or interpretation. That’s the nature of such books: to allow their subjects to tell their own stories. Unlike standard music biographers who fold quotes into their prose, oral-history authors—if they can truthfully be called authors—do research, conduct interviews, collate transcriptions, and determine what material will make the cut. In essence, their job ends where most music biographers’ begins: with the actual writing of a book.

That’s not to denigrate the work of Wiederhorn and Turman. They’re veteran music journalists, and Louder Than Hell is both a great read and an instant classic, covering the history of metal and its many subgenres from the late ’60s to today. It has flaws—most glaringly, a lack of depth in key spots, particularly regarding this millennium’s metal renaissance. But overall, it’s an excellent book. Reading Louder Than Hell, though, I kept imagining how much better it might have been had it not been an oral history.

The first oral history that made an impact on me was Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History Of Punk. Published in 1996, it helped kick off a trend in music biographies that stitched together pieces of interviews in an attempt to chronicle an entire music genre or era. In Please Kill Me’s case, authors Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain tackle the legendary New York underground scene of the late ’60s and ’70s, which encompasses everything from The Velvet Underground to The Ramones to Blondie. At the time, the people involved in that scene had told their stories a million times. I already knew the basic facts of New York’s rise from artsy noise to street-tough rock to platinum pop. 

What struck me about Please Kill Me was the voice—or rather, where the voice was coming from. Music histories tend to be top-down affairs. Most of the attention is given to the star players of any given scene, and their stories are framed in the author’s own views and words. The oral history, on the other hand, is a platform for the underdog. Groupies, drug dealers, managers, industry insiders, forgotten musicians who were ejected from bands before those bands became famous: Not only are they granted more page-time in oral histories, they can offer a refreshingly myth-deflating take on things. And it is kind of punk for the writers to reject their own authority and become more or less invisible. That said, the most notorious New York music critic of the ’70s, Lester Bangs, never would have suppressed his authorial voice, gonzo as it is. Ironically, Bangs—who died in 1982, long before anyone was writing lengthy histories of New York punk—is mentioned frequently in Please Kill Me. Who knows how he might have felt about the book. Or how he might have reacted to seeing his fellow music journalists willfully erasing themselves from their own medium.

Oral histories have since become popular, but they haven’t seriously threatened the health of prose-based music biographies. In fact, the successes of books like Please Kill Me have done their part to sustain book-length music journalism as a whole. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, Will Hermes’ 2011 book Love Goes To Buildings On Fire existing without the precedent set by Please Kill Me, seeing as how both cover much of the same territory. But where Please Kill Me is a quilt of quotes and anecdotes, Love Goes To Buildings is a far richer and more cohesive composition of creative nonfiction. Hermes balances personal memories, sociological insight, urban theory, and even brief glimpses of the cosmic into his account of New York’s music scene between 1972 and ’77. It doesn’t pretend to give everyone a fair hearing. It fearlessly sculpts an elegant narrative out of a raw block of space-time, and it’s better because of it.

Also published in 2011, Mark Yarm’s Everybody Loves Our Town falls on the opposite end of the spectrum from Hermes’ book—not to mention the opposite end of the continent. Everybody Loves Our Town is an oral history, and it’s about the Seattle grunge scene. It’s also a fantastic work of journalism, one that punctures a lot of the mythology surrounding the town and sound that Nirvana supposedly built (but really didn’t). Besides giving a soapbox to various grunge-era lunatics and movers-and-shakers alike, it’s not afraid to show some of its subjects contradicting each other. Or in the case of Courtney Love, lashing out at Yarm as he interviews her. But Love’s brief poke through the fourth wall is the only time Yarm’s presence can be felt. That is, apart from his brief introduction, which only diminishes him further by alerting readers that the author should not be confused with Mudhoney singer Mark Arm, who’s featured prominently throughout the book.

Don’t look at me—look at them. That’s the underlying author’s statement of the oral history. On the plus side, that makes for a fun, breezy read. Even when Please Kill Me and Everybody Loves Our Town get bogged down in boring tangents, egotistical grandstanding, and blatant revisionist history, they’re a treat to devour. But the more oral histories I read, the emptier those calories feel. I crave context, evaluation, and an authorial point of view. In other words, the things music critics are paid to provide. I don’t have to agree, and that stance can be misguided as hell. That’s the risk a critic takes, but that’s also the meat readers get to lock their jaws on. I also want a story—and no amount of crafty quote-juggling can impart the same satisfaction that comes from a strong narrative through-line.

One of the strengths of Louder Than Hell is the fact that it’s a bit of a hybrid. It’s an oral history, for sure. But unlike most books with that format, it’s sprinkled with paragraphs written by the authors. Mostly those chunks of text serve to fill in the gaps left by the interviewees. They flesh out the backdrop and provide vital flashes of exposition. Even better, Wiederhorn and Turman actually use them to express their opinions: how they define doom metal, how they measure Cliff Burton’s contribution to Metallica, how they feel about Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction. Granted, there’s a general point of view that can be inferred from the title of the book, not to mention the subjects that the authors choose to dwell on. For instance, their decision to include a chapter on industrial music is one that couldn’t have been made lightly—nor will it fail to spark plenty of debate once the blogosphere picks up the book. 

If Louder Than Hell was a more conventional oral history, though, it’d still be a compelling piece of music journalism. The death of Jeff Hanneman underscores this. Writers have been falling over themselves to top each other in extolling his virtues, and although he deserves the adulation, it’s become a buzz of white noise. Having a new opportunity to read Hanneman’s own words concerning Slayer’s place in music history—plainspoken and unadorned—couldn’t be a more fitting eulogy. Still, here’s hoping Louder Than Hell is a springboard to a future book about Slayer, or metal in general, that’s more like Love Goes To A Building On Fire: as distinct, idiosyncratic, and powerful as the music it captures.

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