Monday, December 6, 2010

Book Review: 33 1/3 #73 Highway to Hell

Let me begin by disclosing two pieces of information: first, I don't really like AC/DC and second, I won a signed copy of this book from a contest on the 33 1/3 blog. Ideally, these two bits of information will cancel each other out so that this review comes off as fair and even-handed. That being said, I don't mind reading about bands I don't like, and in order to win this book I spent a good forty-five minutes writing and revising a paragraph on why I kind of hate AC/DC, so it's not like I got the book for nothing. So maybe I didn't need to disclose anything at all. I have to admit, though, that I feel a bit funny about sitting down to review this book with the author's signature looking back at me from the cover page. He even wrote my name in the inscription!: "Hey, James--" it says. And now, here I am sitting down to write about his book that has a little more aura than all of the other 33 1/3 books I've previously reviewed. A such, I wish I could say that Joe Bonomo's Highway to Hell is a smashing success. The book certainly has its fair share of successes, but it also falls into some common 33 1/3 series traps, and misses a couple of brilliant opportunities in the process. But let's start by talking about what Bonomo does right.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Bonomo's Highway to Hell is the author's consistently tight and easy prose. Outside of the occasional clunker like, "...Angus reaches deep into his love of blue-styled playing and offers affecting, evocative playing," Bonomo manages to capture the raw excitement of AC/DC and what it meant to be a fan of the band. Bonomo is also particularly successful at providing a reasonably thorough survey of AC/DC's early days, up to Bon Scott's death, and manages to provide a brief overview of what came next (and really, isn't that all we really need?). I'll admit, my lack of familiarity with AC/DC made the book's historical elements particularly interesting and rewarding. Bonomo's passion for the band and the excitement with which he tells their story convinced me to go back and check out some of those early albums, and I was pleasantly surprised by how fresh and exciting some of the songs sound. Along with providing a brief history of AC/DC, Bonomo also discusses the problem of classifying the band (including some early classifications as punk!), the occasional guilt resulting from listening to some of Scott's more misogynistic or violent lyrics, the disconnect between rock critics and AC/DC fans, the raw enthusiasm of AC/DC fans, the album's cover art, youthful bad behavior and AC/DC, growing old as an AC/DC fan, a selection of photos of AC/DC, production history of the album, sales figures, etc... etc...

And there in lies the biggest flaw in Bonomo's Highway to Hell--while each section of his book is interesting, as a whole it is unfocused. Early in the book, Bonomo takes to a track-by-track discussion of Highway to Hell using each track as a point of entry into discussions surrounding the band--"Shot Down in Flames" leads to a discussion of the band's self-satirizing and machismo, "If You Want Blood (You Got It)" to a discussion of social issues in Scott's lyrics, and "Night Prowler" to a discussion of the serial killer of the same name, and the uncomfortable violence that sometimes crept into the band's songs. The book's movement from one song to the next, and the brief exploration of each tangent, makes the book feel more like a series of blog entries as opposed to a clearly focused book. This isn't uncommon in the 33 1/3 series and it can end up being frustrating at times.

Bonomo's Highway to Hell is a little extra frustrating as, in the book's last quarter, the author hits on particularly fertile grounds for exploration--the passion of AC/DC fans, and how the fans grew up with the band's songs. In these sections, Bonomo discusses Heavy Metal Parking Lot, contacts old school friends for their reflections on Highway to Hell, and talks about contemporary AC/DC fans. Bonomo's exploration of AC/DC fandom through the decades is where his book finds its strongest voice, and its heart. Even the volume's jacket copy highlights this angle in its first sentence: "Joe Bonomo strikes a three-chord essay on the power of adolescence, the durability of rock & Roll fandom, and the transformative properties of memory." Once the book turns to these topics, it is essential 33 1/3. Until then, despite Bonomo's solid prose, the book struggles to find its focus, trying to move in too many directions at once and too often settling to be a report about AC/DC's past instead of getting at something new.

Next up, Scott Tennent's take on Spiderland. I've been dying to read this one. Look for my review in a few weeks (the end of the semester is crazy, and we'll be posting our AOTY lists soon).

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