As a singer-songwriter, Jay Farrar has become deservedly renowned for crafting gravelly, earnest, no-frills Americana. It goes to follow that his memoir, Falling Cars And Junkyard Dogs, is equally gravelly, earnest, and free of frills. Sadly, it’s also free of thrills. And chills. And insight. And dimension. And most of the things, really, that people read memoirs for. Worse than that, Falling Cars commits the most glaring crime a musician’s memoir can: speaking very little about its subject’s music, to the point where Farrar’s most beloved and influential group, the alt-country legend Uncle Tupelo, is mentioned by name only twice.
As far as Uncle Tupelo fans are concerned, that may be a blessing. Falling Cars is a skimpy collection of vignettes—most of them a page or two—that dwell on various aspects of Farrar’s life, from boyhood in East St. Louis to fatherhood in New Orleans. Included are character sketches of various people he’s met throughout his life, meditations on music and literature, and memories of various events, happy and not. They’re consistent in one way: They have all the impact of a sixth-grader’s “what I did last summer” essay. The writing is stiff to the point of rigor mortis, as evidenced by phrases like, “a deep sense of foreboding settled in after that repugnant declaration” and, “Corvettes were the ubiquitous phallic symbol fast cars of the day.” And Farrar has no idea how to end his vignettes, the vast majority of which land with either a dull thud or a lazy platitude. (“Time heals, but there is a scar to mark the time and place.”)
Then there are the utterly useless bits—including an excerpt of items from a diner menu (offered without explanation or comment) and a piece titled “Dialectic Of Country And Communism,” which, as promised, presents a dual-column, four-page chronology of country music and communism throughout the 20th century. The idea is that there’s some synchronicity between the two, yet there isn’t. Filling out the filler are bland, inconsequential episodes about the heroes he’s met: Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt, Roger McGuinn, and Alex Chilton, to name a few. Farrar’s strengths as a songwriter don’t translate well into prose—although a handful of vignettes squarely hit the mark, including a poignant recollection of a car accident he survived when he was 21, and how he still has the bloodstained mixtape (one side Hüsker Dü, the other side The Replacements) he was listening to at the time.
If only he bothered to draw such intimate connections to his own music. Farrar’s two mentions of Uncle Tupelo are incidental, merely to provide a backdrop for some trivial anecdote that has nothing to do with the band itself. When he finally gets around to telling an actual story about Uncle Tupelo, it stinks of sour grapes. At least he picks a good story: In the book’s eponymous vignette, he talks about the group’s acrimonious 1994 breakup. It isn’t a new tale; Uncle Tupelo’s other major player, Jeff Tweedy, went on to form Wilco (a band that’s become far more popular than Farrar’s excellent post-Tupelo act, Son Volt), and Tweedy has spoken often of the breakup. Farrar refuses to name Tweedy, referring to him as simply “the bass player.” Not only is it a dick move, it isn’t entirely accurate. By the time Farrar quit Uncle Tupelo, Tweedy had become second guitarist, and he’d always been co-songwriter and co-lead singer. In spite of Farrar's own fudging of the truth, he criticizes Tweedy for publically massaging the facts of the breakup to make himself look good. One thing can be said for Farrar: Making himself look good is clearly the last of his concerns.
In the book’s final pages, Farrar takes a parting jab at Tweedy, but in the most roundabout way imaginable. “How many times I’ve heard the expression ‘could have been a star,’” he gripes, while reminiscing about a fan who stopped him on the street to take his picture. “What’s a star? Isn’t ‘being a star’ subjective? Being an observer seems paramount to me, and anonymity is priceless.” In other words, the only reason he isn’t as successful as Tweedy is because he’s above such petty things. If the frustrating Falling Cars And Junkyard Dogs is any indication, Farrar’s newfound vocation of “observer” isn’t going to be any more successful.