What he lacks in cool, he makes up for in indie rock enthusiasm
Writing a book about indie rock is like praising technological innovation. By the time your book is printed, your subject may be obsolete.
But the difference is that in the case of technology, it's actually possible that a more useful device will have come along. In the case of indie rock, the adoring crowd has probably just moved on to the "next big thing."
"Indie rock" developed as a catchall term for artists who release material on independent labels. But today the label "indie" has come to mean not only a relationship with record companies, but also a generally more mellow sound.
Likewise, thanks to MySpace and music blogs, indie fans have evolved a distinct style of their own, becoming known as arrogant elitists, always on the prowl for that band that no one else has ever heard of.
Given this relentless snobbery, there are really only two things a chronicler of indie rock can do to spare himself the harsh judgment of the fan base. One is to beat the snobs at their own game and drop the names of as many obscure bands as possible. (Although chances are that at least one of those bands will start making headlines before the book makes it off the press.)
The other is to admit you are not up to speed with music hype, mock yourself, and then go to extreme lengths to prove your bona fides by writing about partying with indie legends. And this is exactly what John Sellers does in his delightfully quirky music memoir Perfect From Now On: How Indie Rock Saved My Life.
The book, named after a Built to Spill album, is made up of roughly two parts. The first is dedicated to Sellers's youth and college years in Michigan, and spans almost two decades, from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, when for a long time Sellers's musical tastes ranked him barely above the kid swinging a ninja sword (in other words, at the bottom of the social ladder).
The final part of the book focuses on Sellers's obsession with Ohio-based Guided by Voices (GBV), a band fronted by a beer-drinking former algebra teacher who wrote more songs in a year than some artists release during their whole career.
By the time Sellers's girlfriend introduced him to the band, he had already decided indie rock was largely responsible for his adult self. But, although well into his 30s, Sellers was not ready to abandon his obsession with music and turn to the rat race or to raising a family. After all, he was still looking for that ultimate validation of his musical choices, which comes when he gets to hang out with GBV and attend a bunch of shows on their 2004 farewell tour.
One doesn't have to be familiar with the output of GBV's Robert Pollard, the tragic story of Joy Division, or the albums of Pavement to enjoy the book, but an inordinate passion for music may be a requirement. Otherwise, Sellers's pilgrimage to Manchester – home of The Smiths, The Stone Roses and Factory Records – and his ramblings about finding that perfect indie-girl who could guide him to new musical discoveries might come off as too self-absorbed.
Yet being simultaneously self-absorbed, and self-effacing is what makes Sellers endearing. He doesn't just love music, he is obsessed enough to check how many times he played a particular song in his digital collection. He makes lists ranking everything from his top albums to the most skilled indie guitarists to the 12 bands he could have written more about in the book but didn't.
The enthusiasm Sellers brings to his musical memories is just enough to take your mind off the endless footnotes (a couple of entries go on for about four pages), which are meant to be fun, but are largely a distraction.
Music memoirs seem an easy task, but exposing intimate musical secrets takes guts. When Sellers talks about liking Journey, ZZ Top, and later, Duran Duran during the early 1980s, the reader can't help but cringe. But he grows out of that phase and eventually learns the gospel of indie rock, which often requires seeing the world in black and white.
Punk, yes. Pop, no. The Pixies, yes. Billy Idol, no. After all, as Nick Hornby's character mutters in the music-saturated "High Fidelity": It's what you like, not what you are like, that matters.
Sellers, a pop culture writer and blogger, is not what you'd call a hipster (a term describing today's early adopters of music or fashion). He admits as much himself when writing about being consistently late to the latest "it" band.
But when he does embrace a new band, he loves it with the consuming passion that can change not only your listening habits, but your whole life.
• Cristian Lupsa is an intern at the Monitor.