Giraffes in My Hair: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Life (Fantagraphics)

giraffes-header.jpgBruce Paley teams up with his artist wife Carol Swain for a memoir documenting his years of hippie/punk excess and his friendship with New York Doll Johnny Thunders.


132 pgs. B&W; $19.99

(W: Bruce Paley; A: Carol Swain)


Artist Carol Swain brings a sober British reserve to her husband Bruce Paley’s tales of hippie and punk excess for a nostalgic feel with the winning Giraffes In My Hair: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Life.

The title’s a bit misleading—Paley was never a rocker (in fact he wound up a London comic shop owner, among other eventualities), but from the late ‘60s through the early ‘80s, his peripatetic adventures with drugs, women, and punker Johnny Thunders make for a series of fun, roguish vignettes.

The cover to Giraffes in My Hair. Click for a larger image.We begin with the 18-year-old Paley’s love for a girl of 16 and the couple’s abrupt flight from their families in the ‘60s. Then follows Paley’s mostly solo years of hitch-hiking, weed-smoking, Vietnam-avoiding, girl-chasing, Kerouac-worshiping, couch-crashing, and aimlessly wandering. It’s a heady time, but as drawn by Swain, there’s a lonely, melancholy vibe that entrances, too. At one point Paley finds himself alone on horseback in a snow-covered field—it’s one of those religious moments of calm and beauty.

Other moments are not so calm. Paley and friend, tripping on LSD, attempt to enter Disneyland. Swain’s pencil illustration of the theme park as Bosch-esque nightmare is terrific—it’s a crime not to let your eyes linger over the panel. Many of Paley’s jolly adventures are interrupted by the terror of dealing with cops, and one particularly sad escapade ends in the eventual suicide of a friend emotionally scarred from two months in a Moroccan prison after an attempt to smuggle hash goes very wrong.

The increasingly druggy, kooky pot and LSD adventures gradually yield to grimmer tales of heroin, as Paley’s hippie wanderings through rural America gradually yield to a life steeped in the concrete and punk of New York City in the ‘70s. Paley eventually becomes friends with seminal punk musician Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls and the Heartbreakers. Their brief time as pals ends in the pity of Thunders’ premature death (which may have been a murder—see his Wikipedia page for more).

Swain (Skin, Foodboy, Invasion of the Mind Sappers) uses pencil to understated effect, and works up a lyrical, nostalgic vibe. Her simple scenes arrange a loose chronological narrative into a warm experience conveyed as in a film or a song—at its best, Giraffes plays like Dylan’s "Tangled Up in Blue," if you will. One cavil, though—all Swain’s faces, no matter what book of hers we’re talking about, look the same. It may be a stylistic choice, but it may also begin to feel like an artistic limitation.

Maybe Swain and Paley work so well together here because they’re a couple. Regardless, she has a knack for lovely storytelling and bittersweet endings. The British artist has been praised as a visual-narrative counterpart to Raymond Carver, a minimalist capable of imparting a certain contemplative reserve. Swain and Paley shine when they’re funny, though, too, as when a friend advises Paley that he avoid being drafted for Vietnam by shoving a dead mouse up his ass just before an army medical inspection. Hello!

Giraffes is a satisfying collection of vignettes—so much so it made me wish for a more coherent memoir of Paley’s misadventures, with no jarring gap between his hippie and punk years. The sequence of romances and drug-fueled jags was rendered so movingly it could only be improved by smoothing over the breaks and turning it into a single, long, uninterrupted memoir. Then it would take on even more emotional resonance as a chronicle of life in all its highs, lows, and lulls.

Highly recommended. Definitely look for Swain’s forthcoming anthology of shorter pieces, Crossing the Empty Quarter, coming soon from Dark Horse. | Byron Kerman

Click here for more info and a 9-page excerpt, courtesy of Fantagraphics.

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