NOMEANSNO: FROM OBSCURITY TO OBLIVION, AN ORAL HISTORY
Where: Bolen Books, 1644 Hillside Ave., Hillside Shopping Centre
When: Tuesday, Feb. 6, 7 p.m.
Admission: Free (to register, visit bolenbooks.com)
Victoria radio host Jason Lamb wasn’t going to write a book about NoMeansNo without their involvement. It was the only way the lifelong fan of the beloved Victoria punk group could ensure the job was done properly.
His need to have the band involved is partially why NoMeansNo: From Obscurity to Oblivion: An Oral History took four years to complete. The band spent its career avoiding press and publicity whenever possible, and remained disinterested in trivial pursuits from its formation in 1979 until its retirement in 2016 — even when it would have bettered their career. NoMeansNo’s art-or-nothing credo is part of their legend, forever tied to their hard-charging, uncompromising punk.
That was a big reason why the book needed to be written, according to Lamb. “I felt like nobody, including myself, knew the real story. They were so purposefully coy. I thought it would be really cool to tell the real story, because I knew it was really interesting.”
The members no longer live in Victoria — singer-bassist Rob Wright is based in Burnaby, guitarist Tom Holliston and drummer John Wright live near Powell River, and guitarist Kerr is stationed in Amsterdam — but they recognize Victoria as the birthplace of NoMeansNo. Lamb, who hosted a punk show on The Zone for several years, felt like he had an inside track in that regard, as the members went to high school or university in Victoria. He pitched the book to the band as an oral history by its peers and close friends, written by someone born and raised in their hometown.
He succeeded where others could not.
The band has been pitched similar projects in the past, the majority of which were soundly ignored or flatly refused. Only one book, 2012’s NoMeansNo: Going Nowhere, has been written on the topic, but that tapped out at 104 pages. From Obscurity to Oblivion, at 336 pages, is much larger and more comprehensive, with upwards of 500 people interviewed for the book. “It was either tell half the story or tell the whole story,” Lamb said of his efforts.
A few myths were shattered during the writing process. For starters, the members are far warmer than their reputation would suggest. “I was super intimated the first time I ever talked to Rob, and I’d never met or had any contact with Andy up to that point,” Lamb said. “But I became closer and closer to these guys, and less and less scared of them. All four of them ended up being a huge part of it all.”
Lamb is hosting an event tied to the release of the book today at Bolen Books, with the participation of John Wright. Mudhoney guitarist Steve Turner and Victoria author Adem Tepedelen will also participate in the book signing and Q&A session. Turner co-authored his memoir, Mud Ride: A Messy Trip Through the Grunge Explosion, with Tepedelen, and is a big fan of NoMeansNo, according to Lamb.
It wasn’t all wine and roses during NoMeansNo’s lifetime; some members of the band could be cold and dismissive, even to close friends. But the power of the music — sinewy and ferocious — has remained undiminished by time or trends. That was a recurring theme during the writing process, during which Lamb was aided by editor Paul Prescott. When word got out amongst musicians that a NoMeansNo book was in the hopper, everyone wanted to talk — including some of the biggest alternative rock bands of the last 40 years.
Lamb spoke with members of Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Dead Kennedys, Fugazi, Faith No More, and Black Flag, all of whom were effusive in their praise for NoMeansNo (he also learned, by proxy, that Green Day, Johnny Depp, and actor-comedian Bill Hader are big fans). That the band was an independent act for the entirety of its career, despite receiving worldwide acclaim for its fourth album, 1989’s Wrong, makes their reach all the more impressive.
“NoMeansNo are completely unique,” Lamb said. “I can’t think of any other band that is quite the same. And because they were intent on doing everything their own way, and intentionally saying no to some very lucrative offers — sometimes to their detriment —they managed to get the very deep respect of their fans and fellow musicians. Everybody feels like NoMeansNo is due.”
Lamb tried in vain to get Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters, who is perhaps the world’s highest-profile NoMeansNo fan, though he did land former Saturday Night Live cast member Fred Armisen, who wrote the foreword. Grohl said he was eager to talk, but their schedules never aligned, Lamb said. Nonetheless, the former Nirvana drummer is on record, during a 2010 Rolling Stone magazine interview, saying that the NoMeansNo song, It’s Catching Up, is among his personal Top 10 of all-time.
“It’s hard being a fan of NoMeansNo, because you want everyone in the world to know who they are,” Lamb said. “But you also kind of don’t. You want to keep them to yourself.”