Helene Stapinski, who grew up in Jersey City among people and practices that either defy or define the core values of American life, has wanted two things, most of all, out of life: To write and to play drums. I have never heard her play. But this I know: She writes with the power and promise of a master, a developing virtuoso.
I must confess, insist, that I am not a contemporary memoir fan. There is a movement, especially in writing schools and courses, to encourage self-referential exhibitionist onanism. This turns up both in memoirs and in "life-based fiction," which often amounts to penciling up a series of daily-journal entries and changing names and maybe a place or two. Most of it is thoroughly bad. There are few Prousts in history and I know of none today.
So I am particularly joyful, redeemed, when I discover a memoir of artfulness, purpose and substance.
Such a book is Baby Plays Around: A Love Affair with Music, by Helene Stapinski (Villard, 304 pages, $23.95). I am not surprised. Her previous book, Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History (Random House, 288 pages, $23.95), published in early 2001, was a saga of growing up amid the graft and grime of industrial suburban New Jersey, where theft, violence and family solidarity were a way of life. I loved it, and wrote about it here with high praise and enthusiasm, one of my favorite books of that year.
This memoir follows the first. It is about her life from her first job in a newspaper newsroom, straight out of graduate school, through marriage and several years of free-lance writing interwoven with intensely playing drums in a four-person rock band that ultimately did not make it. It ends with the birth of the first of her two sons. From the outset, the tale is clean and honest to the point of pain, but unrelenting, musical and sparkling with little surprises: "Myra [a magazine editor] scared me like my math teacher in fifth grade had scared me. Miss Bertha was ancient and crumbly, with bug eyes and wrinkles, the first hard woman I had ever known. Myra made Bertha look like a cherub."
I spent an enchanting, if weirdish, year as executive editor of SPIN in the early 1990s. I read an awful lot of words about rock and roll, rewrote a lot of them and argued, pleaded and banged my fists on various tables and desks about making the words work, making them explain, making them sing. I can't remember reading much of anything -- anything, maybe -- about the world of rock music that got it better than Stapinski does in this book.
If you wonder why listening and relistening to rock music intensely is important to a great number of Americans -- of almost all ages -- read this book and you will never doubt again. Stapinski meets Julie, a singer with a burgeoning band that needs a drummer:
"We talked about when we were teenagers, when music still mattered, when it was an integral part of your life, like water, air, or food. The music you played wasn't background music, but was the soundtrack to your life. It made all the difference in the world which songs you chose, because the plot -- your plot -- would be affected by the tempo, the mood, and the lyrics. ... Rock and roll explained what it was like to be a teenager, to hold on to those last, panicked moments of childhood lost, the magical time when escape was imminent, your parents were stupid, and the world was yours for the taking. Adolescence was the first twilight in your life, the first intermission between acts, the one that seemed the most painful, only because it was the first."
Stapinski goes on to discover other twilights and intermissions and pains. She writes of her wedding as a flashback almost halfway through the book, and does it in a way that is utterly convincing and irresistibly moving. Her description of serving for a semester as an unpaid intern at Musician magazine -- surrounded by misogynistic music geeks -- is riotously funny, crisp, spare. She bangs on drums throughout the saga, and all around, but specifically the title of the book comes from the title of a song that Elvis Costello and his then wife, Cait O'Riordan, had written and which was on Costello's record "Spike" when Stapinski met her husband-to-be, working on a daily newspaper.
The narrative gets a bit thin, a bit overtold, after the main, first crisis. There's a trip to Minneapolis, encountering a mad Japanese rock fan who works three jobs in order to take trips to the United States to follow obscure American bands in obscure venues, communicating in incomprehensibly fractured English and kinetic passion. Charming as Yoko is, there's a sense here of unloading more of a good diary notebook than serves the energy of the overall piece. But the tale picks up again with a few dozen pages and in the last third again become driving, vibrant.
Stapinski writes about two crises, each of which in its time and its way was cataclysmic to her sense of her own meaning and purpose. She writes of rancor and rage that may be fairly common in lives of all but the most calloused, but which she makes extraordinarily raw -- herding the reader, or this one anyway, into almost unbearable empathy. It is a story of betrayal -- of betrayals -- and resolutions, in music, marriage and love. There is pain and fatigue and maybe -- but only maybe -- wisdom gained. It ends in 1998:
"So Martin and I started over, leaped from the plane one more time and hoped for a safer landing this time around. The thing about skydiving [which plays no other role in the book] was that the more you practiced, the better you got at tucking and rolling. It took a lot of courage to make the leap with those mending broken bones, but because of them, you were all the more careful the next time around."
It ends with finality, a fully developed, wonderfully shaped, powerfully driven story. Its weaknesses are minor. Its strengths are muscular and sustained. It's a book full of courage and candor -- above all, truth, truthfulness. That's the hardest thing to write. And the best.