The Book

Praise for "Off the Record"

Chapel Hill News (Sept. 29, 2000)
Truth and Lies in Rock and Roll, by Phil Venable

For those who lived through the Great Hype of the early 90’s, it’s safe to say that most people who had to deal with living and playing in The Next Seattle know that there’s a lot more to being in a band than getting onstage. In some ways, the music doesn’t even factor in to this equation.

Possibly one of the hardest things that all of us deal with in one way or the other is the loss of innocence. Most of us find out the hard way about compromise when our dreams interact with reality. Rock (for lack of a better term) is no exception and sometimes can provide the most jarring shocks in an art form that rests primarily on the audience’s willingness to go along for the ride.

Cameron Crowe’s latest move “Almost Famous” looks at what happens once a band gets off the stage. Using experiences drawn as a rock journalist, Crowe shows us that the idea of a bunch of friends with some ass-kicking music playing just for “the kids” is an illusion. While just about everybody can accept this fact in the abstract, when it’s up close and personal, it tends to be a little hard to take. Being used and tossed aside is a central theme in this movie as well as how little we actually know about the musicians that change and transform our lives as listeners.

However, the one problem with “Almost Famous” is that everyone is, well, nice. I mean don't get me wrong, there are heroes and villains just as in every movie. But even the sleazy promoter or the amoral managers are kinda likable. Not so in News & Observer music critic David Menconi's new book, “Off The Record.”

Deriving its title from a journalistic phrase that a reporter uses to describe information he can’t print, “Off The Record” (available at goes through the looking glass to imagine the worst-case scenario that could happen to a band. In this book, we watch as The Tommy Aguilar Band (which boasts a fictitious Blair Witchesque internet site at ) explodes and implodes as the members of the band encounter every sleazy and immoral angle that has ever been dreamed up by a manager, promoter, or critic. I won't give away the ending except to say something bad happens.

A lot of musicians and people who know the music scene in Chapel Hill and the Triangle are going to have a lot of fun digging out the reality from the fiction, but while this book is part absurdist fantasy, part black comedy, its central premise is the impact and loss of illusion for all participants in the music-making process. And it’s important to remember that you and I are part of the mythology that goes behind any band. We are the ones who make the icons.

While the book compresses reality and just about anything that could go wrong does, Menconi describes the book as “sorta filling in the blanks. This is what can really be going on behind the scene. The complete back story is far uglier than anything you've ever imagined.” Menconi took the shady rumors and unattributed stories he had heard over the past ten years and used those as a template to weave out a corrosive indictment of the quest for the brass ring in the music industry. But Menconi isn’t a glum sorta guy when it comes to area bands. As a matter of fact, he thinks that Superchunk has shown a way out of the rat race for bands. “It’s [Superchunk and their self-owned label Merge Records] a good bit more sensible and honorable. Limit your world in a realistic way. There was a time when I thought they’d made a mistake not taking the jump and singing a major-label deal. But if they'd had, they never would have made as many records as they have. They’d have broken up and be gone by now."

While “Off The Record” is over the top, it is a cautionary fable about confusing the image and illusion of a band with the reality of one. The central question to this book is, “Do you really want to know the whole story?” While there are a lot of people that love the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Superchunk and Ben Folds Five, it is worth noting that to even achieve a modicum of success, these people had to go through a painful growing process that took a severe toll. It’s also worth noting that as an audience, we should not mistake confusing the music with the musicians, who are all too human.


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