Bryan Charles' author blurb on the back of his book about Pavement's Wowee Zowee is short and direct: "Bryan Charles is the author of the novel Grab On to Me Tightly as if I Knew the Way." That's all the ethos we get going into this book. We don't see any affiliation with Pitchfork, or The Village Voice, no ties to the actual music business. All that the blurb tells us is that Bryan Charles is a novelist, a writer. As such, fans of hardcore music journalism might be a bit hesitant in approaching Charles' take on Wowee Zowee. Let's hope they aren't, though, because Wowee Zowee is a fun, compelling read, and is easily one of the best books in Continuum's 33 1/3 series. This is a bold claim to make, I know. What, with a writer penning the book instead of a rock critic, not to mention the fact that this is the seventy-second entry in the series, usually a sign that the good albums and ideas are all-dried up. Rather, Bryan Charles' Wowee Zowee is a perfect example of why the 33 1/3 series is so successful and has had such long legs--with every volume there is the chance at greatness. Not every volume is great, and a few are downright boring, but Charles' sharp writing, self-referential framework, and measured earnestness make his book one of the series' biggest successes, and a great piece of rock journalism.
On the surface, Charles' Wowee Zowee might sound like any other 33 1/3 book; the volume combines personal fandom, band interviews, analysis, and a brief track-by-track walk-through in its attempt to get at some sense of truth or understanding about the album. What sets the volume apart from its peers, though, is Charles' engaging prose, and his ability to wind the book's disparate parts into compelling narrative threads. What are these narrative threads? First, we get the author's story, how he came to Pavement, how he, more reluctantly, came to Wowee Zowee, and then how the album unfolded throughout his life. Not always gripping subject matter, but in the hands of a sharp writer with an unique eye for detail and a fiction writer's narrative chops, the memoir elements of the book pop. Second, we get a research narrative, of sorts, complete with a thesis that Charles sets out to either prove or disprove: "Underdog rock record greeted with head-wags and confusion stands the test of time to become fan favorite and indie rock classic" (22). With this thesis in mind, the author digs up old reviews and articles, then sets out to interview band members, label heads, and studio technicians. Rather than delving into straight rock journalism, however, a funny thing starts to happen--Charles' Pavement fandom, the importance of the record to the man, begins to bleed into the research narrative. We read as he stalls on his project due to nerves, chuckle at his frustrations dealing with Matador Records' curmudgeonly Gerard Cosloy, and feel awkward for him when he trips up Stephen Malkmus with a question about lyrics.
Charles' volume on Wowee Zowee is so successful because he strikes the perfect balance between fan enthusiasm and rock journalist curiosity. Nothing is too giddy, or too factual--both of these narrative threads bleed together as one man's attempt to get at the heart of an album he loves. Even the song-by-song, a pet peeve of mine in many 33 1/3 volumes, is handled admirably. The section closes the book, not with section headings and dry explication, but with a stream of conscious rant that ties each song to moments and ideas from the author's life--moments and ideas that tie back to early moments from the book, heightening the ethos that the jacket blurb only hints at. The book is at turns touching and funny (try to read the side-by-side comparison of Billy Corgan and Stephen Malkmus without losing it), and encompasses the best qualities of 33 1/3's finest moments.