Slanted is not a book to read before bed. Despite being a memoir that rolls up its sleeves and digs into the finer points of intellectual property law, musician and activist Simon Tam’s prose has a fist-pumping, rock ’n’ roll romanticism that makes you wanna get up and kick things.
After reading Tam’s other books—Music Business Hacks and How to Get Sponsorships and Endorsements—I anticipated Slanted would be written this way. His style is clear above all else, yet there’s a ton of personality and voice in there, too. What I didn’t expect was so much gossip.
Beginning in 2009, Tam repeatedly tried to trademark the name of his Portland dance-punk band the Slants, but the US Trademark Office denied his application due to a provision of the Lanham Act, which rejected registrations if they were considered “scandalous, immoral, or disparaging.” It didn’t matter that Tam and his bandmates were Asian Americans. In fact, as Tam’s attempts continued, the Trademark Office used the band’s ethnic identities against them, to prove they were referencing the slur usage and not some other meaning.
In Slanted, Tam takes readers through nearly 10 years of applications and appeals, but the pacing of the memoir makes it feel like someone recounting the ins and outs of a dramatic break-up—in a good way. You can read this book and understand what’s happened, and you will want to know what happened because THEY DID WHAT? OH NO THEY DIDN’T. Along the way, he also dishes on years of band drama, the racism of the music industry, and a couple of his more serious relationships.
Tam’s memories of his first relationship, with Perla Cabral, are undoubtedly influenced by her tragic, accidental death in 2013. And he should have made that plain in the first part of the book so readers could forgive him the intense sentimentality he employs to describe their time together. (Who can be objective about their exes? I feel very Johnny Thunders about it: “Don’t try.”) The result is that their post-break-up conversation in a Denny’s feels like it’s straight out of an episode of 7th Heaven. In fact, every time Slanted’s narration breaks out into dialogue, Tam loses me, but I’m won back with other parts, like the image of his family sitting together and crying over his decision to move to Portland, or his description of a crowd in Eastern Europe going wild for the Slants’ cover of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”
There’s a method to the emotional exposure of Slanted. Tam is not simply recounting why he appealed that first trademark rejection. He’s talking about why he kept pursuing it, and all the instances in his life that made it impossible for him to put the case down. It ends up being a personal story, as well as an ideological one, and Tam paints it all with the big, romantic brush of rock ‘n’ roll.