Thursday, August 15, 2013

Thursday Book Club: Special Shoes for Industry Edition

As you may have heard, the proprietor of this here blog has written a quite brilliant rock-band bio of Shoes.

I was lucky enough to make a small contribution to it, and here -- with Mary's permission -- it is.


If truth be told, when the lovely and talented Mary Donnelly asked me to contribute some introductory words to the book you now hold in your hand (or whatever the phrase is if you're reading it via some sort of digital device). I was more than a bit hesitant. For a couple of reasons.

The first, of course, is that I consider Mary a good friend. Secondly, if you've read any of my poor scribblings about rock music and pop culture over the last couple of years, it's almost entirely due to the fact that Mary trusted me enough to give me a spare set of keys to the car, metaphorically speaking, over at PowerPop, the website she created in 2004, and I am thus eternally in her debt on a professional level. Both of these facts, of course, might lend a certain credence to the idea that anything nice I have to say about Boys Don't Lie would fall into the category of what SPY magazine used to refer to as "logrolling in our time." You know -- a little, uh, self-serving.

Another, and probably the more important, reason I was initially reluctant to contribute to the project is that the greatest foreword to a music tome of all time has already been written, so, like, what's the point? I refer, of course, to the work of legendary Irish playwright and pub crawler Samuel Beckett, who in a prefatory note to the first (or maybe third) edition of Nick Tosches' Unsung Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll called it "the only book about rock 'n' roll that knows what it's talking about", a claim (and essay) that while almost certainly actually penned by Tosches (the Great Man himself being probably dead at the time) is unlikely to be bettered any time soon, at least not by a white suburban punk like me.

All that said, however, the fact remains that Boys Don't Lie is an exemplary rock-band bio and then some. On the most basic level, it's brilliantly researched, to the point where one suspects its subjects learned all sorts of stuff about themselves they didn't know. It also puts Shoes' now decades-long saga into a historical/cultural/music-biz context in a way that nobody's had the wit or temerity to do before, which is to say that apart from a passionate (and convincing) critical argument for just why these guys' music is important, it also makes clear where it came from along with the real-world strictures that led them to creating it. In other words, this band may have been hermetic and out of step with the pop mainstream on some level, but in fact none of their albums were, as Robert Christgau famously suggested, written and recorded by elves.

This is also a book about pop obsessions, by which I mean there are cult bands, there are Cult Bands, and then there are Shoes. Shoes have been a life changer for a lot of people (Mary included, obviously) over the years, but it's not exactly news that they've never sold a lot of records (at a level, say, commensurate with their critical accolades) since their debut LP Black Vinyl Shoes appeared to a world in equal parts baffled and delighted by it. The subtext of Boys Don't Lie is how that process works, how three guys working in a sort of provincial-but-not-really isolation (their Zion, Illinois roots turn out to be far more important and interesting than I for one had realized) came up with the equivalent of a secret language that spoke first of all to themselves and then, in ways that must have surprised them, to a small subset of humanity that got the message in an instant.

Which means, now that I think of it, that Christgau's elves formulation was not completely off the mark, and that what makes Shoes unique -- for those who also speak that secret language -- is that they sound, simultaneously, like nothing you've exactly ever heard before and something you seem to have heard heretofore only in your head. Last summer, discussing the work in progress over a Japanese dinner, Mary asked me, "Have you ever turned anybody on to Shoes by playing the albums for them?" It seemed a silly question, at first, until I realized -- no, in fact, I never had; the people I knew who loved the band had, to a person, discovered them on their own, without prompting from me or any other fans. And I was reminded of what Jules Feiffer said about the pop obsession of his youth -- the first generation of American comic books. "When Superman at last appeared," Feiffer wrote in The Great Comic Book Heroes, his definitive history of the all-in-color-for-a-dime stories that changed his life, "he brought with him the deep satisfaction of all underground truths. Our reaction was less 'How original!' than 'But, of course!'"

If ever there was an "of course!" band, Shoes is it.

But enough, as it were, of my yakking; the band's story, and much, much more, awaits you. In Boys Don't Lie -- which, despite what that probably-dead drunken Gaelic lout had to say earlier, actually is the only book about rock & roll that knows what it's talking about.

-- PARIS 2013

Delightful as that is, if I do say so myself, the rest of the book is way, way better. Trust me.

Also -- order a copy over at Amazon HERE.

And in case you were wondering what the fuss is all about, (and in which case, I can't imagine why you're currently haunting this here blog) please enjoy the 1979 video for Shoes' "Too Late."

You're welcome.


Sal Nunziato said...

That really is
"delightful." Fantastic job, Steve.

Kara said...

I discovered Shoes' online presence (at the time, in 2002. My love of Shoes to that point had only been fostered through my most played LP of all, Present Tense, and my memories of videos on MTV.

My now 14yo daughter was 2 going on 3. After having bought ALL their available CDs, I loaded up my CD changer and played Shoes whenever we went driving hither and yon. They stayed in my car for nearly a year. Mel became very good at singing along to nearly every song on Present Tense - still my favorite.

Also, my now 23yo daughter will message me whenever she hears a song from Yuletunes play during the Holiday season. (We mainly hear Shoes and The Idea.)

So, yes, I have introduced other people to Shoes by playing their music for them. It's also called "Raising your kids right."

I look forward to getting this book into my hands.

Anonymous said...

Cults? Hermeticism? Secret Language? Elves? Life-Changing? Obsession?:-)

Fairies Wear Boots. What kind of Shoes do the Elves wear in Zion? Black Vinyl Shoes?

Anybody else have an original Black Vinyl Shoes on vinyl? I do, and I'm really unworthy because I'm not a true believer. These guys are OK, but they don't exactly set my pants on fire.

I like my power pop with a little more power. Their craft is fine and the harmonies on the records are nice. But where are the huevos? The lead vocals just aren't passionate enough for me. So I guess I'm not hip to the secret language.

"Too Late" is a decent song. I guess it's their nearest "hit", but the, oh so precious vocals, leave me wanting.

Nevertheless, I'd be interested in reading about these guys. Mainly for their ability to persevere with a DIY ethic. At nearly 500 pages, the book must be very exhaustive. That's more than major artists sometimes get.

Back in 1979, when Present Tense came out, I unfortunately did a short stint working in a record store. As much as I love music, I can't stand working in record stores. But I had to do something in between legal secretarial jobs. I just had a falling out with my previous firm when I got transferred to a new attorney who was a Bob Filner type. Need I say that there was no chemistry between us?

Present Tense came out around the same time as Fleetwood Mac's Tusk and Tom Petty's Damn the Torpedos. I know because they had me putting together the store displays in the Music-Plus I worked at. Such fun.

Elektra must have spent a bit of money promoting the Shoes because they provided us with all kinds of album flats and other stuff for store display.

Employees were also instructed to play the album in store. Corporate bought quite a few copies of the LP. But given the effort put into promoting the album, it didn't sell that well.

New Wave was all the rage and the Shoes got put in that bag. Hell, even Tom Petty did at first. But those customers were buying the latest efforts by Joe Jackson and The Boomtown Rats. Plus Tusk, Damn the Torpedos and The Long Run were being bought by nearly everyone who walked in the store.

The Shoes lack of success, whether you consider it just or not, certainly wasn't because of non-promotion. At least not for Present Tense. Nevertheless, it ended up as a cut-out all over town because stores overbought due to the sales drive.

Personally, I feel they weren't dynamic enough to catch anyone's attention. They certainly weren't up to the level or humor of Cheap Trick, The Pop, The Beat, The Boomtown Rats, Joe Jackson, Tom Petty, The Motels, Dwight Twilley, Graham Parker, or Elvis Costello. And that was the competition among the newer acts that were being lumped together at the time.

Vickie Rock

steve simels said...

Marcus Licinius Crassus: Do you eat oysters?

Antoninus: When I have them, master.

Marcus Licinius Crassus: Do you eat snails?

Antoninus: No, master.

Marcus Licinius Crassus: Do you consider the eating of oysters to be moral and the eating of snails to be immoral?

Antoninus: No, master.

Marcus Licinius Crassus: Of course not. It is all a matter of taste, isn't it?

Antoninus: Yes, master.

Marcus Licinius Crassus: And taste is not the same as appetite, and therefore not a question of morals.

Antoninus: It could be argued so, master.

Marcus Licinius Crassus: My robe, Antoninus. My taste includes both snails and oysters.

Anonymous said...

You have a great memory, Vickie - nailed that particular era of record-merchandising. I also agree with your assessment of the Shoes - while I love the albums and hearing the songs, they are a sort of confection. By the fourth album, Tongue Twister, the songs got a little crunchier, but they still existed out of the mainstream.

Remonster said...

Steve Simels is so gaiiiii!!!! Well maybe half gaiii.

steve simels said...

Oscar Wilde only WISHED he was as gaiii as me, pal.

Anonymous said...

Get the Knack was also really taking off at the time because of My Sharona being a huge Top 40 hit. So yeah, lots of competition for that “new wave” record dollar in the Fall release of 1979.

I also forgot to mention Blondie's Eat To the Beat, which was another display I had to put up during that wretched month-long stint at Music-Plus. I had a personality clash with the inept store manager, also a woman.
She knew how over-qualified I was for the job and, ridiculously, considered me a threat to hers. As if I wanted my career at Music-Plus. Therefore, she abused her authority and made me the store peon. I always got stuck vacuuming or other tedious shit like that.

To top it off, she had really shitty taste in music too. And I got sick of hearing about her migraine headaches and yeast infections. Did I mention that she was ugly too? And in every way – spirit, mind, body.

Anyway, I copped the stand-up for Eat To the Beat. Still have it on display in the game room of my home along with a bunch more framed rock 'n' roll memorabilia.

There's also a Rolling Stones pinball machine in there from around the same time frame. Plus a Wurlitzer 100 CD jukebox with all homemade discs inside, Foosball, and even a slot machine. And the conjugal pool table, of course. Sometimes a firm bed just isn't enough.:-)

It's a lifelong dream I was able to achieve about twenty years ago. Having kids only made me pursue it more. People tend to be happy and forget their cares in that room. My kids and I are very fortunate.

Thankfully my stay in record store hell was brief. I got a kick-ass job with a prestigious legal firm in Los Angeles. The lawyer I worked for was in his early thirties and was a Duke graduate. He was super cool and handsome.

We were both single and had a non-exclusive thing for a couple of years. When he had cases out of town we traveled together and made the most of it.

Everything was cool until the dumb shit asked me to marry him. Why did he have to fuck up a good thing by doing that? I was twenty-five and felt no need or desire to settle down. Plus I had just begun a thing with this witchy guitar player who, I found out later, was a major big time drug dealer.

For those reasons my romantic involvement with the barrister very gradually fizzled out. But he understood and was cool about my clear and unmitigated rejection of his proposal.

I did protectively tell him that if he was going to "pop the question" to any other woman, he needed to run her by me first to see if she was worthy. He agreed. He respected my insight into people's characters and I loved him enough to look out for his best interests. That's what good legal secretaries do.

But, boy, do I digress all over the place. With regard to the Shoes, I agree the tunes got a little crunchier later but the vocals really don't. At least for me.

It's funny, I'm looking at the comments and blending them together in an awful mixture of confection, oysters and snails.

I like the confection comparison because these guys are sweet. The melody lines are tasty, some of the guitar parts are interesting but it's just a little too airy and ambrosial for this girl.

Oysters and snails are an acquired taste for most. So maybe that works too. Though their sound is quite accessible, there is a lot to listen into.

Btw, I love Spartacus too. Kirk, Kubrick and Trumbo – now that’s a winning combo. And, of course, Olivier and Curtis. I get your point. Douglas has been in some great ones. One of my faves of his is Ace In the Hole. Jan Sterling’s adorable in that one.

Vickie Rock

Anonymous said...

With regard to snails and little else: That Playboy Bunny named Nancy, who my uncle used to date and I precociously club-hopped with, had an interesting experience with them. The two of us were at the Rainbow, which was still rather new at the time (It used to be the Villa Nova). This was early Seventies, circa Spring 1973.

The Rainbow is one of my favorite places to hang out. The ambiance is beyond amazing and the food is really underrated. Plus where else can you order pizza/burgers/ sandwiches/Italian/Mexican/several types of chicken/steak/seafood all under the same roof? I love their steak and lobster. The stuffed mushrooms are pretty wicked too.

So, when Nancy and I went on this occasion, I ordered escargot as an appetizer. She had never had snails before.

I did the honors removing them from the shells. They were sauteed in major butter. I fed her one.

At first she enjoyed the buttery goodness. But, as she continued to chew, she got down to its gritty essence. It revolted her and her face gave her away. She was grossed out and disgusted.

Next thing you knew, she hurled all over the top of the table. Now, I have to say, as far as barf goes, Nancy's wasn't that disgusting. We had been drinking coffee and that's what it looked like. It didn't smell awful or have chunks in it.

But that didn't make it any less embarrassing for her. The auburn haired lass's face was beet red. I felt her pain. You have to realize that on a scale of 1 to 10 this girl is a 20. Barfing all over the table devastated her. As sympathetic as I was, I couldn't help but see the humor in it and I started nervously laughing. At least it wasn't me.

I summoned a waitress and they brought a bunch of bus boys with towels to clean up the mess. There really wasn't that much barf. Like I said, it looked more like someone had spilled coffee than anything else. But there was that chewed up wad of snail in the middle of it.

The main guy, who knew us both visually from previous visits, asked what the problem was. I explained that Nancy wasn't very fond of the escargot.

Even though I insisted they didn't, they comped both of our meals.

For two decades after that, anytime I came in the place and ordered a dinner, the maitre d' gave me free escargot.

So the moral of the story is, sometimes it pays to throw up all over your Shoes.:-(

Vickie Rock

Remonster said...

Well hmmm... been awhile since I have been in this neck of the hood and it looks/reads like an old English major with puppetry allusions up the yangyang has found an outlet to shove their mealy hand up into. Santa Claus iz dat jew?

Mark said...


No truer words were ever written to describe why cultural criticism in general, and pop culture criticism in particular is important, and those words are yours: "{To create} a passionate (and convincing) critical argument for just why these guys' music is important."

The WHY part is what makes criticism real.

Not unlike VR, I prefer my power pop with a tad more crunch. But Shoes (and for example, Teenage Fanclub) are so good at what they do that upon each new release by either band, I'm reminded of two things: 1. that each band created a template that influenced other bands that followed, and, 2, to paraphrase an old Odds song, if there are radios in heaven, then music by Shoes can "make a heathen feel at home."

Mrs. Peel, we're needed said...

This place has become a bit odd.

Anonymous said...

Shoes for defense!

Brooklyn Girl said...


Since you seem to go back to old threads, I feel compelled to say something here, after everyone else has probably gone.

This is Mary's blog. This is Mary's book. She's a great writer; the book is a great read. She put a lot of the proverbial blood, sweat and tears into it. You might consider respecting that.

It's not cool to be a guest in someone else's house and sneer at what they put in it, especially if they filled it with things of great personal value.

You have a lot of stories and a lot of opinions to go with them. As other people have said, perhaps you should start your own blog. While you're hanging out at this one, please try to remember that this place isn't about YOU.

Anonymous said...


I never once sneered or spoke unfavorably of Mary's book. Quite the contrary. I said I'd be interested in reading about these guys. I even ordered the book from Amazon. I'm happy the book exists.

I merely expressed my frustration with the lack of emotion in Shoes music. And I'm not the only one.

I also gave Steve a few teasing pinches regarding his foreward. I couldn't help it. Just call me irreverent. But always playful. Life's much too important to be taken seriously, as the saying goes.

I harbor no ill will to Mary. I only gave my honest assessment of the band. What do you want me to do? Pretend I think they're the greatest thing since the We-Vibe 2?

And I digress all over the place. I know. But anyone can skip over it. How many people read this stuff anyway? Just write me off as the lunatic bimbo from SoCal. I don't care. Ignore me. That's how you ensure that this blog isn't about me.

I'm fully aware that this blog is not about me. But I'm a very gregarious person and music sets me off in several different directions at once. Music's always the impetus of my ramblings. I live and breathe it.

Any time somebody takes a chance and bares their soul in public, they better expect what follows. I can take it. I'm sure Mary can as well.

But I did get censored/removed when I made a non-obscene comment about the live video Mary posted when advising us her book was done. I thought the vocals were way off key and the performance was lackluster. I said that between the four guys in the band, I couldn't find one testicle. Someone didn't see the humor in that, took it personally, and removed it. Their right, of course. But not very tolerant of differing viewpoints.

You seem to be a very private person. I respect that and I'm sure you have your reasons. I, on the other hand, don't care. Some chump at the NSA is filing all our communications away for potential exploration later anyway. Might as well make it entertaining for them.

I don't have the right to judge Mary's book till I read it. And I have made no such judgments precisely for that reason. She'll never make a convert out of me, since only the Shoes can do that, but I still might find their story fascinating.

And some of my money's in her pocket now. I don't care if you bite the hand that feeds. But don't expect me not to playfully bite back.

Let's get together.

Vickie Rock

P.S. I take it that you've actually read Mary's book. Mine hasn't arrived yet.

Anonymous said...

Vickie Rock Please go FUCK yourself

NYMary said...

The cold fact is that the entire record industry crashed in 1979: Christgau called it "The Great Disco Disaster." Overnight, cash cows turned into lemons.

And Vickie's arguments would make sense if any New Wave group except Blondie and the Cars had had anything like a consistent career. Shit, the Knack were over by 1980. (The fact that some other acts, like Petty, were classed as power pop is not germane here.) The fact is, the industry was desperate, they pushed these bands hard, and most of them crashed spectacularly, not because they sucked, but because they didn't hit big enough for their corporate overlords. Present Tense was a terrific record--as evidenced by the fact that, when these videos were shown at MTV's launch, 2 years later, record stores were scrambling to restock it--and I see Shoes as more a victim of their historical moment than anything else.

I'm sorry this has all been so wounding for you, Vickie. But honestly, that's not Shoes' fault.

Anonymous said...


I merely stated from my experience working in a record store at the time, that Elektra was pushing the album. And this was more so than some other albums in the genre which, in fact, sold better. I simply stated that Present Tense did not under perform from lack of promotion. And my theory was that compared to other bands of the era, they weren't as dynamic. That's an opinion. Why jump all over me because of it?

Mary, I'm sure you make the case that the Shoes "were the victims of their historical moment" in your book. I'm looking forward to reading it. They're just not my favorite band. I think they lack balls. Shouldn't that be OK?

Best of luck with your book. I'm looking forward to reading it and gaining some knowledge about the inner workings, or shall we say, the sole of the Shoes.:-)

You needn't worry, Mary, this hasn't been wounding for me. On the contrary, it's been quite enlightening.

Also, whomever the coward is hiding behind the anonymous moniker and telling me "FUCK yourself," is only confirming what I said earlier regarding intolerance of differing viewpoints.

In the meantime, feel free to keep wishing me into the cornfield. Is that the way it works around here? Toe the line or get lost?

Is this a fiefdom of sycophants?

Vickie Rock

Anonymous said...

Coward, really. I'm pretty sure Vickie Rock isn't your real name. Just a moniker of your own. You are welcome to your opinion just get to the point. No one likes an opinionated blow hard that talks just to hear themselves talk. You must be a real hit at parties.

Victor Rock

Anonymous said...

Vickie Rock is my real name, Victor/Victoria. I've grown quite fond of it over the years. Even though I'm married, I never adopted my husband's name. But his last name's really cool too.

I am quite the hit at parties for a variety of reasons. And yes, I do blow hard. If you need any tips I can show you how it's done properly.

Vickie Rock