The Smell of Death by Bruce Duff: A Book Review

If you ever wondered why every band member in every band in every photo from every gig on every tour in the entire history of rock-n-roll invariably looks haughty, cool and bored with the entire effin thing, it's because they are. Bored, that is. Like mind-numbing boredom. As if touring has them stuck in this mindless limbo stupor of nothingness on a never-ending loop for approximately twenty-two hours a day, every day, for as long as the tour lasts. The other two hours? They're spent purging pent-up energy performing onstage to locals who may or may not give a shit, dancing in a drunken haze with the same said locals, playing tourist whenever the opportunity arises and they're able to escape the confines of their venue prisons, and the cliched one-night-stand romp in the sheets with that one rare random female nestled among their mostly male audiences.

At least this is the way it was for Bruce Duff, musician, concert publicist for Knitting Factory Management and former music journalist for such notable publications as LA Weekly, Billboard and Creem, when he toured as the bass player with the Jeff Dahl Band for two months on a EuroBlur tour in the winter of 1993, only a few years after the fall of the Berlin wall and before the advent of cell phones, Internet and GPS.

The Smell of Death, is a laugh-out-loud behind-the-scenes look at the stark realities of touring small town Europe among frozen turds, haunted hotel rooms, questionable promoters and accommodations, hypodermic needles, stalker groupies, and bread and cheese. A lot of bread and cheese. At a time when rock-n-roll was still enjoying a primary popularity and people actually paid money for music. "Do you believe rock-n-roll is really dead? Is that what the 'death' references are about?" I asked Bruce Duff, in an effort to understand the meaning behind the metaphor of the book title and the multiple references to death, ghosts and cemeteries throughout the book. He explained the imagery stems from him being a "lifelong horror fan and finding that imagery very striking."

As for whether or not rock-n-roll is really dead, he's firm in his conviction that it isn't, "I don't think rock-n-roll is dead... I think that the zenith of its popularity has passed, and I don't necessarily see that as something to cry over." Referring back through history, he's satisfied rock-n-roll enjoyed a longer than normal success at the top among music trends, and that it will always enjoy a place somewhere at the table while other trends emerge. "Music will continue to evolve and recycle," he says, "Whoever they [musicians] reach will determine who is niche and who is mainstream."

With the demise of that intimate emotional relationship with the music and the musicians, due to the one-hit single landscape of today's music scene, disconnecting the music and spreading it out so thin the fans never really get the chance to become emotionally attached to any artist, their music, or even a single song long enough to care, Duff admits, "Personally, I find that I'm hearing most new music through Spotify and Pandora and hence I'm not purchasing, I'm just putting it in playlists," becoming less attached to the artists. "I'm not looking at the packaging, not checking the credits. On a download, there are no credits--who produced, who did the lead solo, where it was recorded, this is never learned, so I'm never connecting on a deeper level to music I otherwise enjoy." He offsets this problem by focusing on the recent popularity in vinyl records, buying more new releases on vinyl. "... trying to get that two-way relationship rekindled. That probably sounds ridiculous." but "... I think it's still evolving, and things like the vinyl comeback can affect it."

Featuring an Introduction and Afterword by punk rock veterans Cheetah Chrome and Tony Adolescent, who trip down memory lane in a priceless recap of their own touring highlights (and downlows) with cynical advice to newbie musicians just starting out and a jaded, hysterical resignation of what it's really like once you step beyond the stereotype, The Smell of Death conjures nostalgia for the classic rock experience, but is proof certain aspects of touring never change. Though the convenience of GPS probably makes it easier to find the hotel.


"It was, I came to believe, the smell of anguish, self-immolation, hatred, lack of belief in anything, and disrespect for everything... It was the Smell of Death: final, brooding, unforgiving, uncaring... Not to be melodramatic or anything (not me!), but this smell, this feeling, and the underlying apprehension that accompanies it, is the essence of what is on the heels of every musician traveling on a low-budget van tour. It's as if the modern independent econo-musician is stalked by specters: unnamable illnesses a step behind, venereal diseases to the right, psychosis, loneliness, and paranoia to the left. Dead ahead: a skanky bar in Any Town with Your Band's Name on the tiny, battered
marquee--misspelled... the calling card of the Grim Reaper himself." - The Smell of Death by Bruce Duff

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