Thursday, December 24, 2015

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

Somewhere in the middle of Beatlebone (AMZ) the author squeezes in an interlude which explains the research that went into authenticating John Lennon's voice for this story, and the history behind Dorinish Island as once owned by the singer. Once you get to this part of the book you may think one of two things: 1) Uh, shouldn't something like this appear at the tail end of the story, like an Afterword?, or 2) Oh, thank God.

This is not to say the prose of Beatlebone will leave your eyes crossed. It's uniquely told, stream of conscious narrative married with rapid exchanges of dialogue, and given the focus of the book it's an appropriate presentation. I think that Barry's interlude in the middle works because it's unexpected, much like the things John experiences in this story, and perhaps unconsciously Barry tipped toward a similar "intermission" gag in the movie Help!

So it's 1978. Lennon hasn't cut a record of original material in about four years. He has a toddler at home and an island on the Western coast of Ireland, bought in the late 60s. He gets the idea if he spends a few days on this deserted floating rock and employs some Primal Scream therapy and chain smoking he'll rejuvenate his creativity. Getting there, though, is half the battle, most of the headache, and all over a trip more surreal than the back-masking on "Strawberry Fields Forever." Seems some of the locals are in no hurry to help John get to where he wants to go. In his de facto guide Cornelius, John find camaraderie and irritation in the same package. Cornelius wants to feed John blood pudding (not on a macrobiotic's menu) and drag him to a pub and help him dodge the press with a quick hideout in a hotel full of "ranters."

John just wants to get to the "fucken" island. What happens from there, a lost "album" spilling from John's mind like coming down from a magnificent high, is at once lyrical and bizarre. Makes you want to go back and find In His Own Write and Spaniard in the Works to see how they compare.

Barry writes in his interlude how he sees most Lennon-centric fiction as "character assassinations." It's easier to do when your subject can't speak up, but Beatlebone aims for an introspective John who doesn't treat everybody like crap. If you're looking for a more traditional narrative this book might drive you nuts, but it's worth the read if you can hold on.

Rating: B

Kathryn Lively did get to cross Abbey Road, but doesn't Scream.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Sinatra: The Chairman by James Kaplan

I hear the term problematic fave often now. It's applied to people largely admired for their achievements, talents, etc., yet for all the praise comes the reminder these people aren't saints. Oh, you like Joe Rock Singer, don't you? You realize he'd trade his first born for a bag of crack in a heartbeat, right? I'm not saying Sinatra would have done that, but as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth it's interesting to see all the tributes and memorials when in the back of some minds there's that voice, and it's not booming out "Come Fly With Me."

It's saying, Well, you know what he was like...

Problematic fave.

I can't say Frank Sinatra was a bad person. He did bad things, many of which are documented in Sinatra: The Chairman (AMZ) and in other bios. He also did many great things, acts of charity and kindness to friends and strangers. After another hundred years I doubt we'll have the man completely figured out.

My mother's family was Sicilian. I grew up with Sinatra on the stereo during the holidays. Beyond that, my knowledge of the man amounted to sensationalist bytes read in the supermarket tabloids found in my grandmother's house - each anecdote involved Frank in some night club or bar and a waitress getting his drink order wrong.

"I want that broad fired!" he said. And she was. That's how every story ended. I, young and newly feminist, even with little background on the circumstances that resulted in this juicy gossip, sympathized with the women who lost jobs over this and pictured a winding line of sequined dresses and ostrich plumes wrapped around the unemployment office on The Strip. I pictured children of single moms, reliant on tips for food and clothing, wondering over their next meal because some guy who hadn't had a hit record in years got all pissy about extra ice and Jim Beam in his rocks glass instead of Jack.

I vowed if for some reason I got a job as a cocktail waitress I would never serve the man a drink, ever. I take that back. I wanted to purposely get a job as a cocktail waitress and wait for my time. Come at me, old man. 

Closest I ever got to Sinatra was in 1993 at the Coliseum in Jacksonville for one of his last concerts. Still ambivalent about the man and music (come on, early 90s, we were trying to get REM tickets), but we went because Sinatra.

Jon Pinette (RIP) opened with his uproarious act. Shirley Maclaine followed and killed. The Voice finished and it held up, although haltingly. He was slightly stooped and relied on teleprompters, but the crowd cheered him all the while. My mother later said of the show that she saw him tearing up at the last ovation. What the crowd gave, he needed.

And just like that, I felt for him.

~

When I picked up Sinatra: The Chairman I didn't realize it's actually a Part Two. I opened the book to the aftermath of Sinatra's Oscar win for From Here to Eternity and am thinking, "Um, there was stuff before this, right?" Author Kaplan had written Frank: The Voice several years prior, and that book covered the life from birth through his first official "comeback" in the early 50s. What you get in Chairman is the rest of the story, of which twenty or so years are meticulously detailed. This is the genesis of the Clan, what later became the Rat Pack. This is the juxtaposition of professional successes in film and music and personal turmoil (losing Ava, Kennedy snubs). Every drink toasted, every woman romanced, every nerve set on edge due to Sinatra's impatience for retakes and rehearsals.

Chairman clocks in at close to a thousand pages, of which a hundred or so comprise the appendix. I'm reading at a steady clip, more than halfway through and curious how Kaplan handles the rest of Sinatra's life and is there room. If you want to read up on exploits post-Eternity through the mid-60s - struggling to stay relevant during Beatlemania, mediocre vanity film projects, Mia Farrow - you have a goldmine here. It's once the next decade begins, though, Kaplan seems to run out of gas. We go from a steadily detailed bio to a summary of Frank's sunset. Granted, one wouldn't consider the last twenty years of his life the peak of his productivity, but the bio at that point reads like a rapid downhill roll and gives it an all-too abrupt end. Did Kaplan strive to meet the centenary deadline or did he figure we weren't interested in the later years?

I did enjoy this book. My rating would be higher if not for the drop-off in the last quarter of Sinatra's life. I'm sure there's enough material to warrant a third part of the story if Kaplan were willing to commit to it.

Rating: B-

Kathryn Lively once visited Sinatra park in Hoboken. It's nice.




Sunday, November 29, 2015

I'll Never Write My Memoirs by Grace Jones

In my memory, Grace Jones never played on the mainstream radio stations in Jacksonville, Florida in the 70s-80s - not when I listened. I get the impression after reading I'll Never Write My Memoirs (AMZ / BN / KOBO) that this wouldn't have bothered Grace. Her albums and songs have charted in the US, and with greater success in other countries, but like with many acts it took the launch of MTV to introduce me to this slender cat woman in gray, creeping up a staircase in impossible heels and barking out "Demolition Man" like she ordered you to listen. Grace Jones was and remains badass.

When I saw this book you bet I put on the brakes and got a copy. Anybody who survived Studio 54, industry discrimination, and Dolph *drool* Lundgren has a hell of a story to tell, and while going in with my own perception of Grace the entertainer I came away with a higher respect for Grace the person. This book, presented in the "as told to" format through rock journalist Paul Morley, ebbs and flows through her life in a colorful narrative, and unlike previous memoirs I've read where one senses a reluctance to confess, Grace lays it all out. One will hear legends of Studio 54 where Grace walked around naked - this book has that feel. There's no shame in revealing moments of shyness, anger (justifiable at that, particularly when people try to screw you come payday), and frustration (we can't hire you because XYZ). Grace makes no bones about her influence in music, either - I'm still trying to figure out the mysterious "Doris" she speaks of, an entertainer wanting to emulate and collaborate. I have it narrowed to two possible suspects.

If you are stickler for timelines, know that Grace warns early on how she doesn't keep track of time. Not good if you're The Doctor, but one expects a person like Grace Jones to remain timeless. Her story may hop around but not enough to distract. It's a fun ride with bittersweet memories of people from an era long gone and a strong message: you deserve compensation for your talents.

Rating: B+

Kathryn Lively has never been to Studio 54. 

Friday, November 27, 2015

Van Halen Rising: How a Southern California Backyard Party Band Saved Heavy Metal by Greg Renoff

I have a few "missed concert" regrets, and pre-Hagar Van Halen will always have a place in the Top 5. Yeah, I know Dave's back more or less, but we'll likely never see the Mike/Dave/Brothers combo again unless somebody raises a billion dollars on Kickstarter. We still have the records, though, and video memories. Reading through Van Halen Rising (AMZ / BN / KOBO) may leave you tinged a tad green if you're in the same boat as me. Author Renoff built this book from interviews with over 200 witnesses to the early days - with Anthony as the sole cooperating VH alum - and scores of archived articles. The book is as exhaustive in detail of the band's beginning as the research done to complete it.

As the title implies, Rising sticks to the genesis of the band through the release of Van Halen and subsequent early marketing of the band. If you haven't studied the band's history, you may not only find this an invaluable resource but understand Rising as almost prophetic. Well before anyone considered Van Halen might be signed, friends and supporters give insight to personalities and quirks that shape the band's legacy.

You'll learn David Lee Roth had always been a showman, if not a thorn in the brothers' sides - both cheerleader and headache. You'll scratch your head at passages of well-known names who had the opportunity to sign them to their labels before ultimately passing. If you're a fan you might snicker and wonder who still kicks themselves. Moreover, you'll read a story that seems less likely to happen anymore, the gradual winning over of music fans and the industry by a band playing a style largely regarded by critics as "dead." Had they began in the YouTube age they might have eliminated the middle man like so many groups do now, but I enjoy reading stories like this.

While reading this I was reminded of my husband telling me about the first time he heard Van Halen on the radio. "Eruption." He had to pull over the car to catch his breath.The spectacle on display in their early tours no doubt left a lot of people feeling the same way. It's not easy to translate that to print, but Renoff does the band justice.

Rating: B+

Kathryn Lively writes books and drinks wine.

ARC received via NetGalley

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Psychedelic Bubble Gum Boyce & Hart, the Monkees, and Turning Mayhem Into Miracles by Bobby Hart

Ask me if I prefer authorized works/memoirs to unauthorized, and I'll hesitate. When I pick up a non-fiction book I hope to learn as much as possible about the subject, and when a public figure writes an autobiography you get what that person is comfortable revealing. When it comes to musicians, some are franker than others, and often those are the most fun to read. Going into Psychedelic Bubble Gum (AMZ / BN / KOBO / ITUNES), the most I knew about Bobby Hart involved the songs he wrote for The Monkees and the few hits he enjoyed with his partner, Tommy Boyce...that and they composed the Days of Our Lives theme. If you read this, you'll find Boyce and Hart (and Hart on his own and with other partners) claim a prolific legacy in popular music. Hart has gold and platinum records, an Oscar nomination, and other accolades to his credit, and an interesting story to tell.

However, all through Bubble Gum I got the impression Hart kept up his guard. Indeed, he ends the book on an upbeat note, focusing on the blessings rather than the hardships. The epilogue in which he talks about Boyce's death is very brief, though he seems to seed hints that foreshadow the tragic end of his writing partner throughout the book (see the frequent mentions of a particular song made popular by The Monkees). Speaking of the Pre-fab Four, Hart's memories of the group comprise a smaller percentage of the book than I expected. The mid-70s "reunion" tour of Dolenz, Jones, Boyce & Hart aside, there isn't much new information to learn there. Doesn't mean it's not interesting - one can sense Hart's exasperation with having to work with four unpredictable personalities - but I found myself more drawn to Hart's earlier history in music.

Like I said before, though, Bubble Gum lives up to its name in that it focuses more on the positive. Hart's spiritual journey takes up the latter third of the book, and while it's interesting to read how various forces came to influence him that wasn't the story I hoped to read. You won't find much in the way of salacious gossip here, and in some places Hart downplays a liaison or two. I respect that Hart likes to keep things positive, but it's not conducive to a well-rounded story.

Still, if you enjoyed the 60s pop era, and if you aspire to write music, you will find anecdotes here to enjoy.

Rating: C+

Kathryn Lively writes mysteries and books reviews.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Allen Klein: The Man Who Bailed Out the Beatles, Made the Stones, and Transformed Rock & Roll by Fred Goodman

Every time I read a Beatles-related book I find most players run hot or cold with critics. You either adore somebody or you loathe them. We can guess how assorted Beatles and personnel fall in the spectrum, and when it comes to Allen Klein you find a figure just as (or perhaps more) polarizing than Yoko Ono. Long story short, Klein was a money man on a mission: to manage the most popular band in the world. One could argue he obsessed over the idea of being their right-hand man, so much that he couldn't appreciate what he had with The Rolling Stones, no slouches themselves.

In the Afterword of Allen Klein: The Man Who Bailed Out The Beatles, Made the Stones, and Transformed Rock & Roll (Buy: AMZ / BN / KOBO / ITUNES) the author mentions the desire of Klein's family to clear the air, so to speak. Going into this book, all I knew of Klein was his work with the Stones and that three out of four Beatles wanted him to replace the late Brian Epstein. We may forever argue over who broke up the band, but if you read enough of the Beatle chapters here you may give Yoko a break and lean toward the theory of self-implosion. Klein's alleged reaction to Epstein's death as mentioned here could leave you cringing.

I'm not here to review Klein's character, though. Allen Klein the book, overall, is informative and detailed, and may find an audience in readers interested in the financial workings of the music industry. Klein's life work is a tangle of royalties and subsidiary rights and similar legalese, and promises to musicians with less business savvy to get the money they deserve. It used to baffle me to read of rock stars claiming to be broke, but as Goldman breaks down how music publishing works, and how managers earn their share, I understand it. Maybe those who dream of fortune should put down the guitars and get accounting degrees.

I found the book is most interesting when the story focuses directly on Klein's interaction with the musicians he manages: Sam Cooke, John Lennon, Mick. At times the narrative splintered into tangents, delving here into Andrew Oldham's story, then over there to talk about somebody else. While it interested me, another reader might think there wasn't enough about Klein to make a book. Once Klein loses Lennon as a client, his story seems to wrap up rather quickly.

Allen Klein is a book for hardcore Beatles and/or Stones fans, readers who likes to crunch numbers and crave a side of classic rock gossip.

Rating: B-


Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night by Anthony Haden-Guest


The Last Party (AMZ / BN / KOBO / ITUNESwas originally published in 1997. By coincidence, it came out around the same time filming of 54 with Michael Myers began, but one did not beget the other. I read the book when it first came out, and eighteen years later I'm transferring entries on my hand-written book log to Goodreads. Now, the log had four stars on this entry, but after some digging I found what I had written on Amazon all those years ago:

I admit it was the subject matter that prompted me to pick up this book, but I was disappointed. If anything, The Last Party is a much better chronicle of 54's history than that Michael Myers film, but it is essentially a slow-moving story.

That doesn't sound like a four-star review I'd write, so when I see Party has been re-released this year and slightly updated, I figure why not re-familiarize myself with the story and see if my opinion has changed. Journalist Haden-Guest (half-brother of Spinal Tap's Christopher) may be better known in some circles as a frequent guest, and while The Last Party chronicles the "Nightworld" as a whole - its early chapters a brief guide to popular discos of the time - it's clear in the 70s there was only place to party.

Party, though, isn't exclusive to Studio 54. Studio is perhaps the best known of the New York clubs that thrived in the brief disco era, but Haden-Guest touches on a myriad of imitators and (often unsuccessful) competitors. Party reads like a hybrid of micro-history and memoir, as Haden-Guest injects his personal experience in numerous vignettes within the book. It's a muddled story that plows through Studio 54, which enjoyed a life akin to a shooting star - an incredibly bright flame out and gradual fizzle into darkness. As you read a book like this, you might expect gossip to turn your hair white. You get snatches (heh) of it, but overall the book is a roll call of club promoters, developers, and people who are more New York/nightlife famous than world famous. There's a lot to muddle through and if you stick with Party you may ask yourself how a book about a place once considered the most exciting on the planet comes off so dull.

Yes, the slow-moving assessment remains. The book isn't much of a party for me, but if you're into peeling back glitter for the seamy underbelly of nightlife you'll get more tales of creative accounting than blind item coke snorting here.

Rating: C-

Kat Lively writes and reads, but doesn't snort.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

You Should Be Dancing: My Life with the Bee Gees by Dennis Bryon

My husband met two or three of the Gibb brothers once at a party. This would have been around the mid to late 1980s - he was a personal trainer with some rather well-off clients, one of whom was the wife of the heir to a specific brand name product. Long story short, her hubby was indisposed and she needed an escort to this party at the Gibbs' Miami home. I have no further details beyond "they seemed like nice guys," so don't ask if people were doing blow on glass-topped coffee tables before Crockett and Tubbs kicked down the front doors.

Anyway, I'd had this one Bee Gees biography on my radar for a while, but after seeing a number of negative reviews, including one detailing a mile-long list of factual errors, I mentally shelved it. Dennis Bryon's You Should Be Dancing: My Life With the Bee Gees (AMZ / BN / KOBO / ITUNES) came up for review and caught my eye. I hadn't seen the group's 1979 Spirits Having Flown show, but my husband (14 at the time) had, and still points to it as one of the best live shows he's ever seen. Bryon toured as drummer then, and his book provides detailed insider information when the Bee Gees peaked in sales and popularity. When I think of the Bee Gees, I tend to focus on the songwriting and vocal harmonies. A non-musician fan like me might forget that for five years they were supported by a solid band on stage and in the studio, so a book like this helps me appreciate the people who contribute to great music.

Before the Gibbs, Bryon grew up in Wales and dreamed of a life which didn't chain him to work as an electrician. After taking up the drums, he enjoyed success with the Amen Corner, a Wales-based rock/blues group better known in their native country. They rode high for about three years, then poof. Done. Bryon doesn't dwell much on the band's demise, hinting perhaps at a restlessness among some musicians and a desire to try new things. The band's split leaves him scraping for any work in the music industry, and he comes close to taking a tour manager position before a former bandmate steers him toward the Gibbs.

The heart of Dancing, of course, chronicles his tenure in the Bee Gees' band with Alan Kendall and Blue Weaver, arguably at the pinnacle of their career. Bryon's memory appears photographic at some points - there are passages where he describes the layout of a studio right down to the screws in the door hinges. He's kind to all the Gibbs and extended family, assigning personalities we probably would have guessed for each: Barry the devoted family man, Robin the quiet one, Maurice the joker. Every occurrence in this five-year period happens in Bryon's recall as though everybody involved wrote and rewrote music history with the greatest of ease. Of course, it's not entirely untrue given the success of Saturday Night Fever in this time.

Post-Bee Gees anecdotes are equally interesting, particularly his work with the doomed younger brother Andy. The aforementioned Bee Gees biography weathered criticism over a perceived vitriolic portrayal of Andy, but I found Bryon's memory sympathetic without being sugar-coated. Had Andy survived his addictions, who's to say Bryon's drumming career wouldn't have lasted several more years. (If you're tooling around Youtube tonight, Bryon appeared in the Andy Gibb episode of Gimme a Break! There's low-quality video here, he's at 1:02; then again here at 3:26 where he delivers a line.)

Overall, Bryon's narrative throughout Dancing comes off so positive, when you read about his unceremonious firing (via a phone call from a non-Gibb - a rather cowardly act), he doesn't seem angry enough. When you read about a guy going from six-figure advances for an album to zip you'd expect some anger to singe your fingers as you turn pages. You get the impression Bryon, though frank about money and marriage troubles later in life, takes a zen approach to things. He could hug Barry after putting time between the wounds, but while Bryon ends his story touching on the whereabouts of a few close friends there's no mention at all of the deaths of Maurice and Robin.

Another question lingering in the air: does Bryon feel his dismissal from the band affected the Bee Gees' popularity? General opinion points to the demise of disco, dragging the Gibbs into the pit with all the discarded mirrorballs, but it's important to note they continued to write several hit songs in the 80s...for other people. We can also look at numbers. Prior to Bryon joining the band with Alan Kendall, the Bee Gees released 11 eleven albums, only four of which charted in the US Top 20. Their next effort, Mr. Natural, barely cracked the Billboard Top 200, but here's the rundown with the Bryon/Kendall/Weaver combo (stats via Wikipedia):
  • Main Course: Gold (US); Platinum 2x (CAN)
  • Children of the World: Platinum (US & CAN)
  • Here at Last: Bee Gees Live: Gold (US, CAN, UK)
  • Saturday Night Fever: Platinum 15x (US); Diamond (CAN) - Number One in at least 9 countries
  • Spirits Having Flown: Platinum (US & UK); Platinum 4x (CAN) - Number One in at least 7 countries
Aside from the Staying Alive soundtrack and a greatest hits package, the Bee Gees haven't had a Top 10 album in the US since the dismissal of the Bryon/Kendall/Weaver grouping. Maybe changing the band played a role in sales, maybe not. The music made during this five-year span stands up well, and has a great beat.

An ARC was provided by the publisher for review.

Rating: B

Kathryn Lively writes, and reads.



Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Ringo: With a Little Help by Michael Starr

Does Ringo Starr get enough credit as a musician? Other professionals have cited his influence on them, mainly by virtue of The Beatles' reach and an equal focus on all four members. Think of how many kids watched the band on Ed Sullivan and went on to pursue music - not all of them became guitarists.

Others may argue that Ringo is no Buddy Rich or Neil Peart - then again you can reverse that argument. How well would Neil and Buddy have paraded through A Hard Day's Night or mugged through Help! and The Magic Christian without Ringo's effusive charm? Legend has it Buddy once told a young fan, "fuck off, kid," so it's safe to say we wouldn't have heard him narrating any Thomas the Tank Engine stories.

Ringo was/is a drummer, memorable enough to make Best Of lists, and more so an entertainer. Think of each of the Beatles movies: Ringo has a significant side story in AHDN, is practically the focus of Help!, and opens Yellow Submarine and Magical Mystery Tour. Sometimes people debate over rock groups and the possibility of expendable members. Ringo isn't one of them.

Ringo the musician is not without his critics, but it's not enough to dismiss his skills entirely. He can claim a fair number of fans in the industry. While he didn't enjoy lasting solo success on the music charts compared to the other ex-Beatles, he never had a problem lining up capable sidemen for his albums. Check the liner notes of any of his records - each is a who's who in classic rock. I can't say if these music makers expected high sales, but it's clear they believe enough in Starr's talent to give their time to him.

Despite five decades in the public eye, you don't find much in the way of detailed biographies on the man. Look on Goodreads, and you'll see his photography collections, and a few bios with negative reviews - claims of poor writing and research. Michael Starr's Ringo: With a Little Help (AMZ / BN / ITUNES) may very well set a precedent. Like other Beatle biographies, this is an unauthorized work - author Starr (no relation, of course) even notes a Facebook post from Starr's official page denying any participation in the book's creation. It's possible Starr isn't interested in having his whole life story told, which makes sense considering the professional and personal nadirs revealed here.

The tone of Ringo, however, is kind. Ringo reads quite the opposite of Howard Sounes's Fab:An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney (reviewed here). Where Sounes's biography teeters between disappointment of and scorn for its subject, Ringo is almost apologetic in recounting post-Beatle struggles, as though the author doesn't want to put the star in a bad light. Even so, consider the content to work with: a string of low-charting solo albums (when they did chart), low-grossing movies and failed TV pilots, and a decade's worth of drunken debauchery. Hey, it happened, but Ringo survived. His All Starr Band is on it's thirteenth tour, and he's about to be inducted solo into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Granted, it's being done not as a performer but under the title of Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence or whatnot, but the Rock Hall could simply have let the Beatles induction suffice for him.

On top of all this, he's 75 and looks 40. Eat your broccoli, kids.

As a biographer, author Starr appears to have done his homework. Ringo comes with an extensive bibliography and list of cited sources, though it looks as though he relied heavily on certain ones - specifically Beatles books I've read for the first third of the history. You won't find many new revelations in the Beatles era, beyond the hints of reunion in the following years. One nit pick: the book states the claim of a near crime-free evening in New York during the Sullivan show, which the people at Snopes have debunked.

Ringo's post-Beatle debauchery well matched, if not surpassed, the decadence of Lennon's fabled Lost Weekend, only in his case it's a Lost Decade or two. You would expect a more rounded portrayal of Ringo here, and experience his frustration of wanting to move on from the past. I get the impression, though, author Starr is more interested in protecting Ringo and downplaying some of the uglier public moments. They exist.

With the new tour and Rock Hall honors, and every year until 2020 will be the 50th anniversary of something Beatle-related, Ringo is a timely release, one for fans interested in more about the man who inspired so many to pick up sticks.

Rating: C+/B-

~


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Friday, March 27, 2015

Blood, Sweat, and My Rock 'n' Roll Years: Is Steve Katz a Rock Star? by Steve Katz

Buy: AMZ / BN / KOBO / ITUNES

The more I read rock and roll memoirs, the more I'm convinced it's required for at least two chief members of a successful group to butt heads and fall out with spectacular hand gestures and bitter, four-letter words. Lennon sniped with McCartney, Stanley rolls his eyes at Simmons's every PR stunt, and Perry seems to barely tolerate Tyler (you get that impression from his book). Everybody has a frenemy in the business, the person with whom you work while you look at your watch to check for quitting time, and for Steve Katz that man would be Al Kooper.

Or Lou Reed.

Or David Clayton-Thomas.

Or his brother Dennis.

The difference between the aforementioned rock duos and Katz and company, though, is you get the impression at the end of the day John and Paul, etc. can bury the hatchet. After reading Blood, I envision Katz using the hatchet to hack the bridge into firewood before tossing back a lit match as he walks away.

I picked up this book because I wanted to read about a musician and a group about whom I know next to nothing. Katz helped form two popular bands of the 1960s: first The Blues Project and later Blood, Sweat & Tears. I know exactly three BS&T songs. I thought I knew four, but the last one turned out to be a Guess Who hit. Soon as I'm done here I'm firing up Google Play to listen to both groups. Anyway, if die-hard BS&T fans exist who live to takes sides with Team Katz or Team Kooper, I'd recommend this book to all of you because now you have a counterpart to Al's book.

If you're not a die-hard and want to read an insider's story of the industry as a musician and executive, you'll find here a rough blend of memories - blunt, happy and bitter. There are early heartbreaks that make you want to give the guy a hug (read: Mimi Baez), and fun brushes with celebrity like Bob Dylan and not-yet-Hutch David Soul. Katz doesn't suffer fools as he relates his tenure with fame, multi-million record sales and Grammy Awards, all the while dealing with an ego he had to humble to improve the band (Kooper) and the replacement singer he wanted to throttle (Thomas).

BS&T, however, only accounts for a fraction of Katz's story, given that he left the band in 1973 (by '77, the last founding member cycled out and a bazillion other people have performed in this group since). I found the second part of the book more interesting as Katz transitioned from musician to producer, namely with Reed, to A&R during the musically volatile 70s and 80s. How does the co-founder of a jam band and a jazz-rock band head hunt disco acts for a record label? With the knowledge he's getting a much-needed paycheck.

Blood, Sweat, and My Rock 'n' Roll Years opens with a great hook and scatters through several decades of headaches and musical triumphs and disappointments. One might call it a cautionary tale, though I have to wonder how much Katz would do all over again given the choice.

ARC received from the publisher via NetGalley.

Rating: B-

Kathryn Lively writes, and drinks.

~




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Friday, February 13, 2015

Let's Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain by Alan Light

Buy Let's Go Crazy (AMZ / BN / KOBO / ITUNES)

We can argue whether or not Purple Rain remains the pinnacle of Prince's lengthy career, but in a short period of time when a handful of performers took that step from gold record to legend (Springteen, Madonna, Michael Jackson), Prince seemed destined to fill out that musical Rushmore. In 1984 he simultaneously had the top film, album and single in the nation, and I don't know if that feat's been matched. Maybe in the UK with the Spice Girls, but likely not here.

Author Light was one of the few journalists with access to Prince in the 80s and 90s. Though Prince contributed nothing new to this book, Light includes archived sound bytes and new insight from former members of The Revolution, Questlove (who taught a course on Prince's music at NYU), and others involved in the film's production. The story of how Purple Rain the film came to be greenlit, and how Prince convinced his entourage of musicians to come into this medium with no acting experience could make for an equally interesting, if not more dramatic, film. When you peel away the aloof exterior (gossip at the time pegged Prince at various points on the egotistic spectrum, from mysterious to cold-as-stone to unprintable) you find a performer determined to work twenty-fours without sleep if it means expanding his reach beyond R&B radio, where record labels seemed content to place him. That he succeeded in negotiating a movie deal in tandem with new music speaks for his determination and savvy, and for the good insight of certain people in the industry.

Light tells the story well in Let's Go Crazy - it's not a lengthy book but the cast and crew only had so such time to film. Purple Rain takes much of the focus in this microhistory of the 80s music scene and even clarifies a few misconceptions of Prince's character (read: the "We Are the World" debacle). I do take off a few points for the instances where Light injects personal bias into the story. Light admits his admiration and fan status, but in a few places the book treads into memoir territory, and that might turn off a few people. Other than that, I liked this book for its nostalgia value (though I feel pangs for reaching an age where I can be nostalgic about anything), and one of these days I'll get to see the movie on the big screen as intended.

Rating: B

Kathryn Lively writes, and drinks.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Snodgrass and Other Illusions by Ian R. MacLeod

I found Snodgrass and Other Illusions (AMZ / BN / KOBO / ITUNES) by accident. I had a credit to redeem for a free book on [defunct ebook site], and Open Road Media is one of the major publishers that accepts it. I've purchased a number of reprints from the house, and when this purple floating mirage of cartoon Lennon appeared on my screen I bit. This is a collection of stories from acclaimed author MacLeod, speculative and science fiction, yet Snodgrass is presented at the forefront not necessarily because of the Beatles link, but due to a recent UK television adaptation. For this review, as we're a rock and roll book blog, I'm only reviewing this story.

Despite my trigger Buy Now finger, I remain wary of Beatles fiction. I've read some interesting takes and I've seen some shit. With the exception of John Lennon and the Mercy Street Cafe, everything I've read stays within the boundaries of band history. Some have classified Snodgrass as science fiction, but it's more alternative history. It's a What If that has a middle-aged Lennon - having missed the acorn planting, war is over if you want it phase - living hand to mouth in Birmingham. Cynthia and Julian exist, but you only hear of them in passing as John left them long ago. Them and the band. In this timeline, creative differences prompt John to quit The Beatles on the cusp of their international breakthrough. In 1990, Lennon can barely buy smokes and The Fabs have plugged along for decades, presumably with no Lennon versus McCartney tension to inspire a break-up.

It's a bleak story, and after reading I still can't decide who is worse off in this speculation: John for having left the band in 1962, or The Beatles for maintaining commercial popularity yet not achieving that level of influence that other bands can't touch. Lennon comes off as grouchy and sardonic, a shell of the younger man whose dark sense of humor is legend.

I liked the story - it's definitely one of the better Beatle fictions I've read. I'm slowly working through the rest of the book to see how other stories compare.

Rating: B

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