Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Book Series Review: The Garden of Allah by Martin Turnbull

The good news is I'm not dead. It's been an interesting Spring/Summer - a trip to Sicily, a book contract, pages of writing completed, and melting in the sun. I'm reading a storm, too, but lately I haven't touched any rock books. It's not for lack of titles: the books are there, and the ones I really want to read aren't out yet. I suppose I've hit a slump where I simply can't get into the subject. I have two on my TBR pile - another Kiss book and another Beatles book. I've done plenty of them, and I truly want to add some variety here.

I won't abandon those bands entirely, or rock books, but in the interest of keeping this blog from the stagnant, mosquito infested stage, I'm going to broaden the scope a bit and include reviews of books that focus on pop culture in general - music, film, TV, and some fiction. Recently I finished the latest novel in a series I can't recommend enough.

I picked up The Garden of Allah by Martin Turnbull after happening upon it after a round of Amazon roulette. The premise grabbed me immediately: three friends with ambitions in young Hollywood become acquainted in the lush community ruled over by actress Alla Nazimova. IRL, Nazimova owned property on which a mansion/hotel and a few dozen villas were built. She rented out to people in the industry - writers, actors, general gadabouts doused in whiskey and gin. You've heard of the Algonquin Roundtable, consider this Algonquin West. In this mix Turnbull places Kathryn the aspiring journalist, Marcus the aspiring screenwriter, and Gwendolyn the aspiring actress. Throughout the series they experience career and personal peaks and valleys and cross paths with the big names of the day: Mayer, Warner, Selznick, Flynn, Hearst, Garbo, Welles.

The Garden of Allah sets the series with this trio of friends working to gain footholds in their respective fields. Naturally it doesn't come easy, and you learn quite a bit about studio politics in the early days of film. The Trouble With Scarlett takes them through the greatest casting search in film history, with Kathryn longing to scoop the top dog gossips on GWTW news and Gwendolyn plotting to play the lead. By Citizen Hollywood, we're all struck by the cinematic genius of Citizen Kane...even those who'd kill to suppress the film.

Seriously, if you have a yen for Old Hollywood stories, you'll like these. I heard there are six more books planned, and I wonder how far Turnbull plans to take his characters. Will we see the infancy of Marilyn Monroe's career, or get caught up in Black Dahlia's murder all over again. I'm stuck waiting, but you can catch up.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Face the Music: A Life Exposed by Paul Stanley

Buy Face the Music: A Life Exposed from Amazon.com!

So for several weeks leading up to this year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction I saw KISS trending in nearly news site I follow. I get updates from Ultimate Classic Rock, and I received a KISS e-lert nearly every damn day for a month. Lot of yakking back and forth. "Paul did this to us," whined somebody. "Ace is still a damned drunk." Yada yada. I asked my KISS-fan friend Joe if they got this much press at the peak of KISS-mania and he said no. "Mainstream media hated their guts," he told me.

In this book, Stanley touches a bit on the derision and odd looks they endured from the beginning - from labels, critics, and peers. To read how he looks back on the past, it's clear he's not embittered by it. "No Drama" fast becomes a theme, but it's difficult to avoid. Stanley does admit his unwillingness to put up with the two-faced sort (using a blow-up with Slash as an example) and the desire to show up past naysayers (as illustrated in an anecdote about a high school reunion), but for the most part Face the Music is what happened and where with KISS, from inception to almost present day, as Stanley remembers. If you're expecting four hundred pages of "screw Ace and Peter" you will be disappointed - probably because recent media hype of this book may have lead you to believe it's a bash-fest. Face the Music isn't all prancing unicorns, either, but it is brutal and engaging in its honesty.

Now, I reviewed Peter's book and I enjoyed it, too. I'm not yet on the KISS Army caravan but I own more albums now than I did in 2012. Since it's been two years since reading Makeup to Breakup my recall is shot, but I don't need to reread it to tell you how differently Peter and Paul tell their sides of the story. Before we get into that, though...

Stanley's pre-KISS years are marked by physical and emotional problems, everything from a dysfunctional family to a disability that luckily did not affect his musical ability. As with Criss, school offered little in terms of a future, and music proved the greater draw. Early interactions with Gene Klein/Simmons tell of a combined curiosity and skepticism that leads to a more "functional" dysfunctional relationship that remains intact.

Early KISS antics roll through the seventies on mounting credit bills and a steady climb toward fame that explodes with the release of Alive! - and the subsequent buffet of women and expensive things. I get from this book Stanley had more fun recalling sexual conquests than dealing with financial problems that plagued much of their career (understandable). Where Criss had issues with KISS merchandise threatening to undermine the band and make them appear cartoonish, for example, Stanley argues the decision wasn't any different from how The Beatles were merched a decade before them. People still go for their music, right?

When you get to the chapters on the big reunion and tours, you may think you have to choose sides. Were Ace and Peter used to generate cash, or were they asked back to recapture old magic in a setting that stood to benefit everybody involved? Stanley argues for the latter - despite having two other musicians on the payroll, the full costume/makeup tour with the original four happened as a way to end that lineup on a strong note. From Stanley's view, that was the hope, and it didn't work out that way.

And the accusations on racism that caused all the recent press? It's maybe three or four sentences, one of which is vaguely worded. Early on in this book you feel Stanley's discomfort as he remembers his first encounter with anti-Semitism (which involved neither Ace nor Peter), and it's Stanley's perception of his bandmates' overall behavior that likely prompted the remarks, if only to create a bigger picture of conflicts within KISS as you read. I can't say what Stanley thinks of Ace and Peter beyond what I have read here, but the passages read more like observation than accusation.

What he has to say about Gene, now... no, nothing to do with race or creed. I'll leave you with something to anticipate.

I enjoyed Face the Music. Stanley's enthusiasm for KISS as an entity, more than a band, is infectious. It ends in a good place, too. This went out before the HoF ceremony, and some might think that would make for a good coda to any story, but you read Paul's book and know he's nowhere close to finished.

Rating: A-

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author, editor and avid reader. 


Thursday, March 13, 2014

Wild Tales: A Rock and Roll Life by Graham Nash

I admit I am slow on the uptake at times. I hadn't realized Graham Nash put out a memoir until I saw it listed on the front of my library's Overdrive page. I had intended to read first a Bob Dylan bio (second attempt, different book - it will happen one day), but since I go through eBooks rather quickly I snatched up Wild Tales before somebody else did. I do like The Hollies, and we enjoy CSN(Y). My husband can scratch out a nice rendition of "Southern Cross" on his guitar; I wish I could say we were able to nail down the harmonies as well.

Before Nash delves too deeply into his personal history, he opens Tales with the story of perhaps the most important point of his career, where he comes to a crossroads (by air, on the way to LA) and must decide to divorce not only The Hollies, but his estranged wife. Waiting for him in California are his new love, Joni Mitchell, and Stephen Stills and David Crosby. Yeah, no big deal - three major hitters of late 60s music are chillin' in the same space. What's even more amazing are the collective resumes of this cast: Crosby has left The Byrds, and Stills is recently out of Buffalo Springfield. One can argue that CSN are the original supergroup. Take that, Damn Yankees.

So, anyway, Wild Tales chugs along quite smoothly and you could probably get through it in a day or two. Books like that are either so compelling you can't stop, or lack substance so you kind of speed through it. Nash's story kind of teeters. He doesn't spend a lot of time on his youth, which seems a parallel a bit with that of John Lennon - young man grows up in an industrial English town, befriends a future music partner (in Nash's case it's former Hollie Allen Clarke), discovers American rock and roll, and takes up the guitar to escape an inevitable future in a mill or mine. It's interesting to read how Nash and the Beatles cross paths throughout their earlier careers, and Nash's eventual dissatisfaction with commercial pop, which brings him to Joni Mitchell's door as relayed in the beginning of the book.

The first few chapters pertaining to CSN(Y) read like a description of the longest dysfunctional yet successful open marriage ever. Nash maintains the group remains active to this day, even if people don't speak to each other for years and tour with different bands and nah. It's a turbulent love story co-starring more than a few female lovers in common, money gone missing...all liberally dusted with enough blow to fill a canyon. You listen now to harmonious ditties like "Helpless" and "Long Time Gone" and wonder how they were able to keep the tempo slow when they were all jacked up.

The last quarter of the book summarizes Nash's activism and recent honors (HoF, OBE, etc.). If you're into the Tea Party, you probably will leave Wild Tales pissed off. As a memoir, though, Wild Tales lives up to the title. If you enjoy good dish and name-dropping, even if you're not into the music scene of this time, it's an entertaining read.

Rating: B-

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Kathryn Lively is the author of Killing the Kordovas and the Rock and Roll Mysteries, Rock Deadly and Rock Til You Drop.