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 (ARe / 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 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.