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Helen Stapinski 
Baby Plays Around  
(Villard) 

review by Kristen Persinos
2004-04-26

December.  June.  Four Heads.  Recliner.  Star 69.  Speed Dial.  Bitter.  Panchino.  Gump.  Maraschino.  Tug.  Dish.  Reflector.  Stipend.  Slattern.  Slatternly.  Carmie.  Maxilla.  Shifter.  Resentful.  The Stevedores.

This is the pastime popular with musicians called the "name our band" game, as played by Helen Stapinski and her old bandmates in her memoir Baby Plays Around.  (My own band once considered "Jesus Streisand.")

The book chronicles a year or so in the life of 30-something Stapinski as she made her living as a freelance writer, played drums in an indie rock band based in the Lower East Side of New York City (with no prior band experience other than playing along to her favorite records as a kid) and faced marital problems.

Being a 30-something female in a rock band based in the Lower East Side myself, I was curious and armed for battle: What was her experience, her take on the male-driven popularity contest of the indie rock scene in NYC?  Would the book be much like most of the hipsters involved: puddle deep?  Would familiarity breed contempt?

Upon reading the first few chapters, it seemed that Stapinski and I share more in common than just age and the band thing. We both have older brothers who influenced our involvement with music. We both sometimes come off as tomboyish. We listened to some of the same records (REM's Murmur) growing up, and had some of the same rock heroes (Elvis Costello). And to top it off, much of the book's action takes place within a 10-block radius of my apartment. (One of her band's old haunts was a restaurant where I used to bartend.) After a few no shits - "no shit, that sounds familiar" and "no shit, that is a block from my house" - my claws began to retract and I ended up not being able to put the book down; not just for the cheap thrill of reading about my immediate surroundings and the things we have in common, it was Stapinski's self-effacing, wry sense of humor, her intelligence, and her sincerity.She is delightfully sarcastic, but also thoughtful, decent and ultimately fair. (Hey Helene, wanna play in my band?)  Her writing style is refreshing in its directness and its lack of masturbatory word play. She knows when enough is enough.

There are many witty moments in this book.  The chapter on her band's bass player auditions was funny and dead on, but you do not have to be a musician to appreciate the humor.

"There was another guy, who hadn't even listened to the tape.  'Why are you wasting our time?' Julie asked him.  He just shrugged, grinning like the teenager he actually was.  You could tell what was passing through his meager brain, as he nodded and looked us over: 'Chick band.  Cool.  Two chicks.  One guy.  Guy is me.  Hey.  Maybe I'll score.  Threesome!  Cool!'  I think he actually drooled on his bass guitar.  Unfortunately he was not electrocuted."

"Then there was the guy with the long ponytail who played New Age bass.  He was sent packing, back to the mother ship."

Later chapters in the book are touching as her relationships with her band mates and her estranged husband…well I wouldn't want to give it away, now would I?

So yes, I laughed ... I cried ... as her increasingly troubled marital life intertwined with her rocky (forgive me) band life, both marriages affecting each other with moments of ecstasy and despair as Helene powered through.

Readers who live in New York City, or just love it from afar, will enjoy reading about such landmarks as Katz's Deli, Ratners and the Lansky Lounge, as well as some of the popular rock clubs: Arlene's Grocery, Luna Lounge, and the now defunct Spiral and Brownies.

So, I'll do my best now to sound like a book critic and say that Baby Plays Around is a well crafted, entertaining book about the weathering of love found and love lost (and visa versa); dry but not without heart.





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