Sunday, November 27, 2011

Butch Walker - Drinking With Strangers (Book Review)

"Your youth is the most important thing you will ever have. It's when you will connect to music like a primal urge, and the memories attached to the songs will never leave you. Please, hold on to everything. Keep every note, mix tape, concert ticket stub and memory you have of music from your youth. It'll be the one that might keep you young, even if you aren't anymore. Let the music play..."

The above words sound something like the thoughts that have shot through my mind on thousands of occasions, listening to my favorite songs or albums, or to songs that have become so connected to a time of my life that they become an actual part of me. I didn't write those words though, they come from the final moments of Butch Walker's brand new memoir, entitled Drinking With Strangers. I've written a lot about Butch already on this blog: he's probably at the top of the list of those artists mentioned above, the artists who make music that becomes a part of me, and I've been a huge fan of his since that day nearly seven years ago when I stumbled upon a live version of "Mixtape" on Limewire. Since then, his songs and albums have not only become favorites of mine, but they've become soundtracks for so many important (and not-so-important) moments of my life that it's impossible for me to imagine where I'd be without them. Butch's music formed my foundation: it took me from loving music to being absolutely insane about music, it inspired me, countless times, to pursue music myself, and is pretty much the reason that I'm where I am today. Obviously, I've read a lot about Butch and about his story over the years, but reading it all in one place, from his youth all the way up to his 2008 masterpiece Sycamore Meadows (and even a hair after), proved itself to be one of the most enjoyable reading experiences of my life.

I wish more of my favorite artists would do something like this. Hearing Butch tell his own story makes it funnier, more honest and more heartfelt than it possibly could be if it were written by anyone else, and even though there are plenty of biographies for the likes of Springsteen, I would kill to read him tell his own story like Butch has here. The stories behind his songs and albums are only the beginning: it's his experience in the music industry in general, both with his own bands and with others, that provides the meat of the story. Butch was screwed over by the major label system not once, but twice (with a few more stumbles along the way), so it's no surprise that a cynicism towards the industry pervades most of the book. At it's heart though, Drinking With Strangers is about one man's struggle to overcome countless obstacles in an unforgiving industry, and that he somehow manages to battle through everything thrown his way and create both a successful career as a producer/songwriter for hire and as a true-life artist with one of the most fiercely loyal fan bases on the planet is nothing short of triumphant.

Butch has encountered a lot of people throughout his years in the industry, and unfamiliar readers will be especially surprised at just how many big music names make an appearance in his story. Many of my favorite artists have their names turn up somewhere in this book, from Springsteen to U2 to Sister Hazel (and even Andrew McMahon), while many of pop's biggest stars play even bigger roles, since Butch has produced and/or written for the likes of Pink, Avril Lavigne, Weezer, Dashboard Confessional and Katy Perry, and even played at the Grammys with Taylor Swift and Stevie Nicks. Butch tells all these stories with a comedic slant that makes them not only entertaining but, in many cases, laugh out loud hilarious. There are actually quite a few funny moments in this book, from nightmare studio sessions, to adventures with a few of Butch's childhood idols, to anecdotes about just how clueless the recording industry has become, all the way to the stories that give the book it's title, while his tendency to be quite blunt about his views on some of popular music's worst trends and bands make the book feel that much more honest and real. Butch covers a lot of emotional ground here, describing perfectly the fear that comes with following your dreams to unfamiliar territory, the strange euphoria of hearing yourself on the radio for the first time, or the betrayal and rage he felt when a song he wrote got stolen by the guy who's become the biggest songwriter in pop.

However, perhaps the most striking moments of the memoir hit with the tragic loss of Walker's home and all of material possessions in a late 2008 California Wildfire. Fans will be familiar with the story: how his house burned to the ground, taking with it everything he'd ever owned, from master tapes to his home studio to his collection of guitars, but the way he writes about how he first heard about the fire and about everything that happened in the days following is both moving and heartbreaking. The fire functions as the book's climax, with the album it inspired, Sycamore Meadows, named for the street on which he lived, painted as a true rise-from-the-ashes moment. It's a confessional chapter, one where Butch ponders the devastation as a transformative and life-affirming experience, and reading it made me tear up a bit. Meadows has always been an album that I've loved, but reading Walker's story adds a new personal depth to those songs: it's not hard to see why he still plays them regularly.

Overall, it was pretty much a given that I was going to love this book. Butch Walker is my favorite guy in the music industry. He's someone who I've always thought of in terms of his songs and his ridiculous live shows, but not one I ever expected to write a book. The fact that he actually sat down and got his entire story down on paper makes me respect him even more. Drinking With Strangers has a few grammatical missteps every now and then, but I almost think that's how it was supposed to be. It's unpolished and raw, ridiculously honest and so instantly enjoyable and accessible that it feels (probably intentionally) more like a conversation with him at a bar than it feels like a book. Butch writes with a great voice, alternating between raucous humor and genuine heart and offering a ton of advice and insight on one of the most challenging industries out there. It goes without saying that this is a must read (probably multiple times) for all Butch fans, hardcore and casual, but I'd also recommend it to all music fans in general, or to any musician who's thinking about trying their hand in the music industry. Once again, I wish more of my favorite artists would do something like this, but if I had to choose one, Butch would probably be at the top of the list, so I'm absolutely thrilled to have this book: I'm sure it's one I will revisit, time and time again. 

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