Not On My Dial

Not On My Dial
Reviewer: 2bitmonkey
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Left of the Dial:
Conversations with Punk Icons
320 pages
April 01, 2013
ISBN 10:
ISBN 13:

Interviews with leading figures of the punk underground and illuminates punk’s oral history with candor and humor.

I borrowed Left of the Dial from the library for one reason only – the title. Most readers probably would have been drawn in by the subtitle – “Conversations with Punk Icons” – but for me it was those other four words which swayed me. Those words – the title of a song by the Replacements – have become synonymous with indie rock music for over 25 years. It has become the norm to refer to anything related to independent music  as “left of the dial”, but in particular it is shorthand for a musical era/genre spanning 1981 (-ish) though 1993 (-ish) alternative rock. It doesn’t include the Sex Pistols or post-Bleach Nirvana, but it describes everything in between.

Unfortunately, after reading David Ensminger’s book, my conclusion is that it’s a crime that this fantastic title was wasted on such a weak addition to the music-literature landscape. Firstly, it’s important to note that when Esminger speaks of “punk icons” he is using the term extremely loosely. He did not interview Joey Ramone, John Lydon, Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry, Henry Rollins, Joe Strummer, or anyone nearing that level of fame. There are over twenty people whose full “interviews” (intentionally in quotes – we’ll get to that in a moment) are published in this book; at best, Jello Biafra (of the Dead Kennedys) and Ian MacKaye (of Minor Threat and Fugazi) might be considered icons. Others made meaningful contributions to the world of punk music (Mike Watt, Keith Morris, Dave Dictor); many more would normally be considered mere footnotes. Nevertheless, despite the misleading title (on multiple levels), with first-person accounts from so many people on the front lines of the punk music scene, this book had the potential to be an extremely interesting read. And so I carried on.

Early on it became apparent that Esminger did not conduct interviews. He made statements to his interviewees which they used as jumping off points to tell whatever story they felt like telling. Often he would import his own preconceived notions into the interview, making a declarative statement about his interviewee’s point of view, creative inspiration or the meaning behind their work, which the interviewee might refute as completely false. Moreover, while there are over 20 interviews, I suspect I could count the number of proper follow-up questions on one hand. Esminger simply is not a good interviewer.

Nor is he a good story-teller. There is no link made between the personalities covered in his book. Not only does the book not have a singular theme about punk music, it’s missing a basic portrayal of the scene which – coming from these insiders – would have been fascinating and is otherwise untold. The book is nothing more than the ramblings of random musicians from a particular time – very few of them essential to that time period – printed on consecutive pages (without any direction or cohesion from the book’s author), bound together to be called a “book.” (For example: The very first question posed to Biafra is “How do you feel about the encroachment of NATO on Eastern Europe?” Is this really the single most important question to ask Jello, especially in a book about punk music? Even if it is, who begins an interview this way?) Of course, a few of these interviews are extremely interesting – if you sample any random assortment of people and let them all speak pretty much extemporaneously, a few will have something really smart to say. Mike Watt (of the Minutemen and fIREHOSE) is brilliant. I could read an entire book written by Watt even if it had nothing to do with music. (Tony Kinman of the Dils is another person who comes across as very bright.) Immediately following Watt’s interview though is one of Shawn Stern (of the band Youth Brigade). He has a lot to say, but I have no choice but to conclude that Stern was included in this book because of his availability, not his intellect. (He complains about how easy it is for anyone to make a record nowadays, arguing that the democratization of music has eliminated the quality of it. Now there’s an argument you don’t see every day.)

A punk completist might want to read this book as a way of reliving a very specific time from the perspective of relatively little-known insiders. Everyone else can feel free to skip it.