Rock and Roll Book Club: Jessica Hopper's 'Night Moves'

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Jessica Hopper's 'Night Moves.'
Jessica Hopper's 'Night Moves.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Jessica Hopper's Night Moves is one of this fall's most-anticipated books for music fans, but it's not mostly about music. It's certainly not about Bob Seger, although an opening epigraph quotes his song lyrics.

Ain't it funny how the night moves
When you just don't seem to have as much to lose

Hopper is one of the most important music writers to emerge from the tail end of generation X. Her book The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic (2015) has a title that's almost literally true, a testament to the scope and importance of her achievement as a writer and editor at a range of publications. A Twitter thread she started became one of the key early documents of the #MeToo movement in the music industry.

She got her start on the zine scene in the Twin Cities, but she's been based in Chicago for most of this century. Night Moves is a series of brief vignettes focusing on her first years in the Windy City, from 2004 to 2009.

As a journalist, Hopper knows that details are crucial to any story. Night Moves is almost all details. Each short section, usually running just a couple of pages, is dated and homes in on a specific encounter or impression. The titles of the book's three sections allude to Hopper's themes: "friends, bikes, the long night"; "bands, shows, water with ice"; "Chicago."

The latter is most significant, and where this book will likely find most of its fans. A frontispiece maps 15 square blocks in the Wicker Park neighborhood, where most of the book's events took place. 30 landmarks are indicated: Reckless Records, "old man Polish bar," "guy peeing on roof." The more intimately you know this territory — both in geography and in substance — the more you'll smile in recognition at Night Moves.

For the rest of us, the book adds up to a portrait of a place in life as much as in a city. Everyone has those periods when things just seem a little more alive, when possibilities just seem a little wider, when a coffee shop or a park or even a fading sign on a brick wall can become iconic. For Hopper, it seems, this is where and when she found her place in the world.

She was younger — weren't we all? — but she wasn't a kid. Having experienced my own 30-something Rumspringa, I identified with the unique and intoxicating sensation of being fully adult, but feeling as free as a kid. Of course, in my case I often was in fact intoxicated, but Hopper wasn't drinking. That doubtless helps to account for the clarity of her memories, and her reflectiveness regarding her circumstances.

There's almost a sense of relief in the freedom of these passages from a contextualizing framework. The book's format allows Hopper to highlight particular memories without tying them to a conventional narrative, or any obligation to cover the parts of her story that might seem most "important." She was in bands, but she doesn't mention that too often: after all, she wrote another book about it. Her career as a music journalist? Those clips have been compiled as well.

So, Night Moves is where we can read about her dirty kitchen, and her friends, and the weirdness of summertime parties in the winter, and the fights outside her window, and her love for "Chicago as it is, burnished perfect from years of disrepair." Yes, and the guy peeing on the roof.

There are passing references to Hopper's Minnesota past: a memory of standing in her Minneapolis front yard with Craig Finn as she sold all her possessions to fund an ultimately ill-fated move to the West Coast.

I was heading to L.A. to be with a boyfriend. While Craig was standing there, the boyfriend called; I had not heard from him in two weeks. He told me he was in love and getting married. To a woman he had met three weeks earlier. Who was thirty-six. They were shooting drugs and living in a motel on Sunset and he said he hoped I could be happy for him. Craig made the kind suggestion that maybe I not move to L.A. in light of this development. I took his picture. I moved to L.A. anyway.

Later, Hopper appeared in a Hold Steady video, holding Finn's BlackBerry and prank-e-mailing his bandmates "detailing, in florid language, just how special I thought our relationship was and how much I thought being in a band with them was a fun experience."

Another vivid chapter describes a 2005 show by Har Mar Superstar ("the solo project of the drummer of my high school band"). Har Mar was in high form for "a packed house of horny, horny women" who got jealous when he gave one superfan "a rabid bit of mouth-to-mouth" during Karen O's parts of "Cut Me Up." He sprinkled stray pubic hairs on the crowd "LIKE PIXIE DUST," which "made all the women go nuts unlike anything I have seen at a show previously."

When I spoke with Hopper in 2014, she described her work covering the Chicago music scene in terms that could have described her own life a decade earlier.

I've grown to be a great appreciator of amateurs and upstarts and those things that people are trying to foster and get going at a very sub-ground-roots level. They're still very much basement bands and barely playing out. The questions and the concerns about it are durable. They're always the same: feeling like you're just trying to get something going and you're just trying to help create a scene among your friends and you're trying to separate yourself from whatever is the trend you think is stupid in town.

Jessica Hopper will be presenting Night Moves in conversation with Danez Smith at Milkweed Books in Minneapolis on Sept. 23.

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