Clinton Heylin 

From the Velvets to the Voidoids: The Birth of American Punk Rock

Clinton Heylin's From the Velvets to the Voidoids chronicles the era circa 1967 to 1978 when bands like Television, Blondie, and the Ramones went from struggling for gigs to sparking a cultural phenomenon. Vacillating between NYC's Bowery and the mean streets of Cleveland, everyone from Suicide to Pere Ubu gets equal props. Detroit isn't left out, either, as Heylin pays homage to the MC5 as well as Iggy and the Stooges. In their respective neck of the woods, all made waves by reshaping rock music's below-the-belt impulses into the explosive, art-driven extensions of punk.

Heylin stacks his own eulogizing blocks of text to support quotes from the likes of Lou Reed, Debbie Harry and Joey Ramone. But in the artists' own words, talk of drugs, deceit and infighting are breezed over in the most democratic manner possible. Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell won't admit to what a couple of psycho ninnies they were in Television's early days. Nor will Debbie Harry recall her prissiest moments.

A slapdash "postlude" gloats that since the book was first published in '93, nearly every group it covers has embarked on reunion tours while revisiting their catalogs and archives. What Heylin doesn't see is that these fleeting comebacks cheapen the groups' legacies. Rocket from the Tombs' guitarist Peter Laughner died in 1977. Heylin romanticizes him as the Tombs' "guiding light" before praising the group's 2004 reunion, resurrecting a band that was together only nine months. Without Laughner, the "Rocket Redux" comes off as a cover band, devaluing the legend of the original name. It's no small metaphor that since reissuing the book, formerly subtitled Pre-Punk History for A Post-Punk World, which at one time fetched $50 in used bookstores, it has plummeted to a fraction of the cost.

The book unravels everything you ever wanted to know about the origins of American punk rock but were afraid to ask because it might hurt your street credibility. Taking shape as a Punk 101 textbook rather than a fast, fun read, Heylin's book is a dry, historical document that's an essential volume in any committed punk's library.



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