Monday, March 28, 2011

Drumbeats by Kevin J. Anderson and Neil Peart

Buy DRUMBEATS on Amazon.

If you know me in real life, you know I follow news on the band Rush. Look at the sidebar, I've written a novel starring a tribute band musician named Lerxst. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that I would include a review of this short, co-authored by the band's drummer and chief lyricist. In truth, I hadn't actively sought out this story because I didn't know it existed until recently.

What happened was that I was researching release information on Peart's latest travelogue, the upcoming Far and Away, when this title appeared in search. Asking around my circle of Internet friends and fellow Rush fans yielded little opinion on the story, but I did learn that this story had first appeared in an anthology of rock-themed horror called Shock Rock II, now out of print. I had not heard of the book, or it's aptly-named predecessor, but as far as I know this is the only story resurrected via digital publishing. The current buzz on Barry Eisler embracing the self-publishing bug comes as news to some people thinking he is one of the first big names to go rogue, but if you check the revised edition publishing dates on this story you'll know Anderson has him beat.

I'd heard it suggested, too, that Peart is or was embarrassed by this story. I cannot tell you if that's true, nor could I discern while reading Drumbeats how actively he participated in the writing. The short numbers about twenty-one pages, just enough to shape the story of a world-weary and renowned drummer for a popular band. When he isn't touring with his fellow musicians, he finds solace and inspiration traveling through remote area where the indigenous people aren't likely to bug him for autographs. Anybody who has read Peart's previous travel books, or at the very least reads his website journals, can plainly see the autobiographical tone of the story. The fatigue in Danny Imbro's narrative, coupled with a descriptive sense of place, sets the stage for some truly creepy juju.

No matter where he is, or what he's doing, Danny isn't far from his craft. In a village, while haggling over the price of tepid water, he hears a native beating on a drum. The sound mesmerizes, as does the drummer's rapt devotion to his instrument. When attempts to buy the drum off the skittish African fail, Danny manages to get directions to the drum's maker in another village.

What Danny finds there, aside from a crafty youngster named Anatole who seems protective of the stranger, is a chilling secret regarding the drums' true nature. Bargaining with the village chief and drum's maker lead Danny to learn the true meaning behind the term caveat emptor.


Drumbeats is short, and aptly priced at $1.99 for the eBook edition. As a horror story it does the trick in evoking discomfort and squeamishness in the reader. Some readers may argue whether or not Danny is a sympathetic enough character to deserve his fate - as the story is written in first person you don't feel as though Danny thinks he's entitled to a drum because of who he is in another society. He's just a guy in the wrong diaspora at the wrong time.

For a story written more than a decade ago, too, Drumbeats looks to have aged well. I cannot say if Anderson or Peart had revised any of the story before the re-release, but for what it is the story will appeal to fans of the music and genre. You may not look at a pair of bongos the same way again, just to warn you.

Rating: B-

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author who doesn't play the drums.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Baby's In Black - The Story of Astrid Kirchherr & Stuart Sutcliffe by Arne Bellstorf

Get Baby's in Black at Amazon.

The Beatles have inspired so much over their history. Countless musicians and artist cite them as the spark that ignited their own creative passions, and if there's one that often comes from their existence it's the endless "What If's." All through the last quarter of 2010 as we acknowledged the 70th anniversary of John Lennon's birth and the 30th anniversary of his death, we asked "What if?" What if he had lived...how much more music would he have created, would he be on Twitter constantly, and how would he have responded to 9/11? We can only speculate now and wish to see it for ourselves.

For me, a constant "What If" in the Beatles history prompts me to think about what might have gone down differently had Stuart Sutcliffe lived. If you're a die-hard fan who has followed The Beatles from The Quarrymen days to Let it Be, you know Stu was the true "fifth Beatle." He was John's best friend and a talented artist. In his very short life he made an indelible mark in the world of popular music - he helped name the band, and despite having very little musical talent he was deemed good enough by Lennon to join in the early glory, because no way did Lennon want a band that didn't include his closest friend. Some have speculated (or perhaps wished) that the Lennon-Sutcliffe relationship stretched past platonic into something more intimate - though no proof really exists of that. Philip Norman's John Lennon: The Life goes so far as to boldly suggest that Lennon had caused the aneurysm that claimed Sutcliffe's life - perhaps one of the few surprises that biography offered, one that is also quite difficult to prove.

What do we know about Sutcliffe? We know he accompanied John, Paul, George, and Pete (remember, this is the pre-Starr era) to Hamburg to pay the requisite starving musician dues in the Reeperbahn, which apparently in the late 50s, early 60s made Las Vegas look like Sesame Street. He met a local girl named Astrid - a kindred soul and eventual confidante - and chose to follow his heart. Sadly, his head didn't prove as healthy or as willing to stay, and he lives on mainly through stories that keep the band's early spirit alive.

It is only fitting, too, that the story of Stu and Astrid's brief yet iconic relationship be portrayed in a graphic novel. Baby's in Black was conceived and drawn by artist Arne Bellstorf. The title comes from the Lennon/McCartney song, a somber ballad that Astrid's loss inspired.

Black opens with an ominous dream of Astrid wandering alone in the woods, transfixed by something that doesn't belong there but ultimately does. She's awakened by friend (and former companion) Klaus Voormann, who has just come from a club in the Reeperbahn having experienced a phenomenon unlike anything he's seen: rock and roll, and more specifically the five-piece British band playing it. It's clearly life-changing enough to justify waking Astrid in the middle of the night to convince her to see the act. The moment she agrees sets in motion Astrid's own life-changing moment when she joins Klaus the next night and notices the quiet bassist hiding behind sunglasses as he tries to hide his musical inadequacies.

Black near-faithfully progresses with the courtship of Astrid and Stu, which flourishes despite a tenuous language barrier and the ever-present specter of Klaus, who seems to find consolation in actively supporting The Beatles' young career (Voormann would remain associated with the band for years in various roles). The black and white artwork nicely sets the atmosphere of postwar Germany - even in the merriest of places like Hamburg's red-light district there is an underlying seediness that simply cannot be expressed in color. The young Beatles are reproduced to recognition: Paul's expressive eyes, George's pensive brow, and John's wizened expression. Pete Best, another "fifth" in the band's lore, barely figures into the story.

If there are any complaints about Black, they may stem from the comparisons I keep wanting to make to the film Backbeat, which is the only other source I'm familiar with that focuses on this part of Beatles history. Where the film brought out tensions rising from Stu's defection, and perhaps a hint of resentment aimed at Astrid for "stealing" Stu, you don't get that in Black. Through much of the book, expressions do not furrow or pinch in anger - everything just seems to happen. Perhaps this was a quality of the existentialist attitude that influenced Astrid and Klaus's circle of friends back in the day, but having read other accounts of the band's Hamburg days (particularly Lennon's zealous attempts to incite the crowd with Nazi references) I have noticed much of that is downplayed in this book. Of course, this story belongs to Stuart and Astrid, so there is really no need for Lennon's antics to disrupt the flow.

Baby's in Black remarkably realizes this brief passage in modern music history. Simple dialogue and bold imagery speak out in a way no song can.

Rating: A-

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author whose titles include Dead Barchetta and Pithed: An Andy Farmer Mystery.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Another "Definitive" Lennon Biography Coming


September, 2011 will mark the 40th anniversary of John Lennon's iconic song, "Imagine." To coincide with the celebration, Virgin Books will release Tim Riley's Lennon: The Man, the Myth, the Music: A Definitive Life. (More from The Bookseller) Virgin has obtained UK and Commonwealth rights to the book; Hyperion appears to have US rights, but I've found no word on an American release. Riley is also the author of Tell Me Why, an analytical look at The Beatles' songs.

Having read a number of Lennon biographies over the years - from sanitized stories written for young adults to Albert Goldman's tell-all - I'm curious to know if Riley's tale will truly be noted as the definitive of all the "definitive" works out there. Lennon is probably one of the most written about men of the 20th century, and when you think the story has been completely told, there are more books.

Have you read a Lennon biography, or one of Lennon's books? Which would you recommend readers add to their TBR list?

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author whose titles include Dead Barchetta and Pithed: An Andy Farmer Mystery.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Me - Pattie Boyd

Years ago when I purchased the gigantic The Beatles Anthology hardcover, one criticism I read bemoaned the lack of contribution from some of the more important witnesses to the band's history: the women. When I think of all the Beatles related books I have read, I realize I have read biographies written by people who were close to the band (Peter Brown) and others by those who merely saw the Beatles as the rest of us did - from a distance. They devoted more time researching the lore and sorting the truth from legend, and so far everything I've read appears to corroborate, give or take a few surprises.

Getting back to the Beatles' women, in the band biographies they are often relegated to the back seat. With solo stories, your mileage may vary. John Lennon: The Life presents the history of a man dominated by women. Well, two at least. I've not read bios of the other three yet, but it happened that I found a copy of Wonderful Tonight at a closing Borders and grabbed it for the TBR pile. Musically speaking, George was always my favorite, and all I know about him comes from Brown's memoir and what I've since found in rare interviews and, of course, the post-Beatles music. Pattie Boyd, George's first wife (and later, Eric Clapton's first), is long known as his first muse as well, having inspired some of rock music's best-known tributes. While she isn't the first wife/girlfriend to influence a Beatle into quality songwriting ("Here, There, and Everywhere" was allegedly written for Jane Asher), I'd always thought her the most interesting. It was my hope this long-awaited memoir lived up to the hype.

The one thing I immediately took away from Pattie's book, and this is something I'm guessing any reader would expect, was this unfortunate pattern of unhealthy relationships she endured. The beginning chapters recall, with lack of clarity, a young life in Africa in a semi-stable family. One might be envious to know a girl raised in such exotic environs, but instead we are told a story about passive parents and a father who gradually fades away, to be replaced by a stepfather who doesn't do any better for Pattie and her siblings. Adulthood proves her first opportunity to escape and achieve happiness and a sense of accomplishment, and it's this determination to succeed as a model that gets her the gig of a lifetime, a walk-on part in a Beatles film.



She's the blonde and has only one line. One word, actually, but behind the scenes it was a different story. Now, I can forgive how Boyd glosses over her childhood. She seems to imply, too, she only recalls so much, but the picture of life before George that she paints offers vivid glimpses into the hip sixties, where people of all classes socialized and interacted. A brief anecdote about inviting a famous dancer to her table sticks out in my mind - what she describes, I'm sure, doesn't happen much these days, even with celebrity accessibility via Twitter.

In some instances, though, I read a passage and wish Boyd had gone into more detail. The Beatle courtship also reads a bit rushed. Some of what Boyd relays I remember from other books and accounts of peak Beatlemania. I can also forgive her here, for she had come during the touring years and therefore didn't have much access to the scene beyond receiving hate mail from fans. It isn't until Clapton enters the picture that Boyd is freer with detail, yet reading through Wonderful Tonight I got the sense that there is still more to tell here.

Boyd's voice comes off as sadly wooden, as though she's telling us okay, you've bugged me for years to tell my story, here it is. Having lived the life surely exhausted her, perhaps to the point that there is no emotion left for the book. As other readers of this book confirmed, I had a problem with the time-hopping in this work. Boyd tends to jump back and forth with anecdotes - she may start with an event that happened in the mid-sixties and leapfrog a decade, then come back. If you're the type of reader who craves chronological order, Wonderful Tonight may give you a bit of a headache. If you believe Eric Clapton can do no wrong, too, you may not want to pick it up at all.

What emotion I do sense in the book comes forth as pain, mostly where Clapton is concerned. I wouldn't say that Boyd's account of her second marriage is scathing, but if what she writes is the truth then my opinion of the man musicians call God is now virtually non-existent.

Once we're past the marriages, Boyd's life seems to waver between self-doubt and spiritual search. While she claims not to have gained financially from her divorces (she claims to be overdrawn often at the bank), she apparently has enough income to travel extensively, and the remainder of the book reads like a gossip column. She had dinner with Mike Rutherford of Genesis, she stayed at Ron Wood's house, met this person and that. More time is spent talking about other people, and not Pattie Boyd. We know who Mike Rutherford and Ron Wood are, Pattie, who are you?

I wanted to love this book, but at best I liked that Pattie finally came forward open up about her life. I still get the sense there's more to tell, however. That this book came out after George died made me wonder if she waited on purpose, yet she still lives now as she did when she was Mrs. Harrison, then Mrs. Clapton: as a young woman doing her best to maintain balance and harmony in her environment, and living by merely accepting what happens. I hope that's not the case. A woman who would willingly hang-glide without a thought for the outcome shouldn't be afraid to bare her soul.

Rating: C

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author who reads and drinks wine.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Upcoming Books of Interest

Update: correcting a date error on this post. Lost the mail from the person who pointed it out. Whoever you are, thanks!

While I'm reading through Pattie Boyd's biography, here's a list of upcoming books that rock to add to your wishlist.

Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock - Sammy Hagar (Author) - Out March 15, 2011

For almost forty years, Sammy Hagar has been a fixture in rock music. From breaking into the industry with the band Montrose to his multiplatinum solo career to his ride as the front man of Van Halen, Sammy's powerful and unforgettable voice has set the tone for some of the greatest rock anthems ever written—songs like "I Can't Drive 55," "Right Now," and "Why Can't This Be Love."

In Red, Sammy tells the outrageous story of his tear through rock 'n' roll, detailing the backstage antics and nonstop touring that have made his voice instantly recognizable. Beginning with his musical coming-of-age in the blue-collar towns of California, Sammy traces his rough and determined rise to fame, working harder than anyone else out there and writing songs about the things he loved—fast cars, loud parties, and lots of good times.

But solo success was just the start, a prelude to his raucous and notorious decade as the front man for Van Halen, one of the biggest-selling rock groups in history. Filled with behind-the-scenes stories from his time with the band, Red offers the Van Halen story as Sammy saw it, holding nothing back about the worldwide stadium tours, the tensions with Eddie, the messy parties, the divided friendships, and, of course, his controversial and widely disputed exit from the band.

After Van Halen, Sammy changed directions again, throwing himself headfirst into the tequila business and creating Cabo Wabo, one of the most successful tequila brands in the world. And all the while he continued to rock, touring the country with his bands the Waboritas and Chickenfoot, and eventually reuniting with Van Halen for a tour that became both a box-office smash and a personal catastrophe.

From the decadence of being one of the world's biggest rock stars to the unfiltered story of being forced out of Van Halen, Sammy's account spares no one, least of all himself. His is a tale of a true rock 'n' roller—someone who's spent decades bringing the party with him wherever he goes but always headin' back to Cabo for mas tequila.



Eddie Trunk's Essential Hard Rock and Heavy Metal - Eddie Trunk (Author), Andrea Bussell (Editor) - Out April 1, 2011

Known as a leading expert on all things hard rock and heavy metal, Eddie Trunk continues to entertain fans on the radio and as the host of VH1 Classic's hit television program That Metal Show with his passion for music. In his debut book, Eddie discusses his most essential bands, his unique personal experiences with them, his favorite "Stump the Trunk" anecdotes and trivia, as well as his favorite playlists. Whether you're a classic Metallica or Megadeth metalhead or prefer the hair metal of old-school Bon Jovi or Poison, Eddie Trunk's Hard Rock and Heavy Metal salutes all who are ready to rock!



Far and Away: A Prize Every Time - Neil Peart (Author) - Out May 1, 2011

Following in the tradition of Ghost Rider and Traveling Music, Rush drummer Neil Peart lets us ride with him along the backroads of North America, Europe, and South America, sharing his experiences in personal reflections and full-color photos. Spanning almost four years, these twenty-two stories are open letters that recount adventures both personal and universal—from the challenges and accomplishments in the professional life of an artist to the birth of a child. These popular stories, originally posted on Neil’s website, are now collected and contextualized with a new introduction and conclusion in this beautifully designed collector’s volume.

Fans will discover a more intimate side to Neil’s very private personal life, and will enjoy his observations of natural phenomena. At one point, he anxiously describes the birth of two hummingbirds in his backyard; at the same time, his wife is preparing for the birth of their daughter — a striking synchronicity tenderly related to readers.

A love of drumming, nature, art, and the open road threads through the narrative, as Neil explores new horizons, both physical and spiritual. This is the personal, introspective travelogue of rock’s foremost drummer, enthusiastic biker, and sensitive husband and father. Far and Away is a book to be enjoyed again and again, like letters from a distant friend.

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author whose titles include Dead Barchetta and Pithed: An Andy Farmer Mystery.