Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Review: Weird Al the Book by Nathan Rabin and Al Yankovic

When it comes to things like music and movies, my siblings and I used to seldom agree. Growing up, one listened to country music, one to Christian rock, while I had the Beatles and the Doors in heavy rotation on my turntable (look it up). Rarely did we ever go out together for an event where one of us had to be dragged against his/her will. The only time I recall our willingness to be seen in the same place was when Weird Al Yankovic played the Florida Theater during his Off the Deep End tour. Funny how songs about television and food can unite a family. We haven't attended a concert as a group since.

On a message board dedicated to another music act we have a thread dedicated to the genius of Weird Al - yes, when you think about it, Al does more than switch out lyrics to popular songs. He writes funny original songs as well - some topical, some macabre (Al was singing about psycho Santas before it was cool), others sticking to the comfort zones of food and television. The amazing thing about Al, though, is that after 30+ years in the business he continues to dominate the comedy music genre. Singers come and go, and some stubbornly refuse to budge - we can argue that Lady Gaga replaces Madonna, and Taylor Swift replaces Shania Twain...but I can't think of one heir apparent to Al. He's got it locked.

When I saw Weird Al: The Book, I wondered if it was produced in similar vein to The Compleat Al, a parody documentary of Al's life which is (I think) out of print. It surprised me, therefore, to discover this is a serious (but not devoid of humor) biography of Yankovic presented in a pseudo-scrapbook format with Rabin's research interspersed with numerous pictures and input from Al - commentary and a selection of the singer's best Tweets. If you have seen the Behind the Music special on Al, you probably won't find anything new here aside from everything that's happened since the special first aired: marriage, family, and an untimely tragedy. As Al intimated at the beginning of the VH1 show, he was surprised anybody would want to profile him, given he hasn't lived a life of scandal and debauchery, which for many equates to interesting.

So, you won't find any crooked skeletons in Yankovic's closet - no dish from ex-girlfriends, no mug shots, no reports of squandering royalties on troll dolls. However, being Weird Al does not come free of headaches. I found his clashes with his record label interesting - you do come away learning a bit about how the industry works, and what some people will do to empty a consumer's wallet. You'll also learn that it doesn't always pay to be the biggest fish in certain ponds.

As it's written and presented, you get the impression Weird Al: The Book is for the fans, and if you're die-hard into Al you probably already own it and don't need me to review it for you. If you like Al's music, it's worth a read to gain more insight into the parody process - it's more involved than you think, and Al is more than just weird.

Rating: B+

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author and book blogger. Her next book, The Girl With the Monkee Tattoo, will be published in January, 2013.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Review: Who I Am by Pete Townshend

When Pete Townshend's book was initially released, I heard on my local classic rock station that he immediately regretted writing it, and wished he didn't. One can understand this - when you put your life in a book you expose yourself to the world and risk emotional infections. I write fiction, and while I don't have a readership the size of The Who's fan base I still feel queasy every time I announce a new title. Just as with non-fiction, and even song writing, there's a piece of yourself in everything you publish. As a lyricist, Townshend no doubt shared plenty of his life through song, and Who I Am serves to deconstruct his life in music and on the fringes of the industry.

He seems - to me, anyway - to tell his story with some hesitation. When my husband saw me with the book he cast me the patented "wink-wink, nudge-nudge" smile, as though expecting something sordid like recent musician bios I've read (*cough* Mick Jagger *cough*). Even if you have casually kept track of Townshend's career over the decade you've probably caught all the juicy bits - from the mystery of his sexual preferences to the addition of his name to a sex offender registry. These instances are covered in his book, though not dwelled upon for more than a few pages. Neither are the events of his youth ostensibly connected to these later issues revealed in great tabloid detail. Perhaps Townshend's memory has failed him when it comes to recalling the abuse he claims to have suffered at the hands of his grandmother and her friends, or maybe he deliberately chose to focus more on his professional life. If you are a die-hard Who fan and concern yourself more with musicianship than gossip, you will likely appreciate how the book is structured.

For somebody who seems reluctant to write his memoir, he offers a rather large product - Who I Am checks in at 500+ pages which breeze through a tense childhood with entertainer parents and the early days of The Who, through the peak of their stardom and Townshend's struggle to balance work, family, and various vices with his growing spirituality (just as The Beatles found enlightenment with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Townshend embraced the teachings of Meher Baba). There are gossipy anecdotes as well, including same-sex flirtations and one tale putting Townshend in the awkward position of distracting George Harrison while Eric Clapton made a play for Patti. The things we do for friends.

Some reviews I've read of Townshend's book complain there isn't enough information despite the book's length. I'm neither a casual Who fan nor a die-hard - I'm in the middle somewhere, I'll watch Tommy when Palladia runs it - but I enjoyed the book, more so than many of the memoirs and bios I've read this year. Being a writer, I suppose I appreciated Townshend writing about writing, songs and fiction and rock operas.  When he does open up about heartache, infidelity, and conflicts with band mates and others there is an air of honesty (and in some instances regret), and while you might not sympathize completely with him you may come away from reading Who I Am satisfied that you read a good story. I am.

Rating: A

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author and a book blogger.