Sunday, April 23, 2017

Kicking and Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock and Roll by Ann and Nancy Wilson with Charles R. Cross

Once upon a time I had about a hundred eBooks housed in a library connected to an online retailer. If you know the site of which I speak, you know they folded at the turn of the year and gave customers a short window of opportunity to download and save. I managed to get twenty books to safety but unfortunately one of them wasn't my copy of Kicking and Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock and Roll, which I had purchased a few years back with the intent of reviewing here. I'm slowly working to replace what I lost, what I remember buying, anyway.

Not unlike the reading of the book, I seem to fall behind where Heart is concerned. I had become aware of their existence in the early 80s but didn't give thought to the singles out at the time. "Tell It Like It Is" and "This Man is Mine" were a bit too doo-wop and ballad-y for my tastes then, despite Ann's killer vocals, and I hadn't realized these songs weren't necessarily representative of the overall Heart sound. Then by the mid-80s they'd launched into this MTV, male-gaze video era with the gold corsets, big hair, and bouncing boobies before a backdrop of flashpots and lightning. It appeared a bit much, but that was the point of the 80s - excess for success, and Heart was a 70s band pushed to take those extremes to stay relevant and solvent. In a way it worked, because the frequent radio play encouraged me to seek out their earlier hits. It wasn't until a few years ago, though, I took the opportunity to see them live - both shows post-Hall of Fame victory laps. My daughter and I loved them, but with these recent family fallouts happening I fear there won't be other concerts.

Well, I got a replacement copy of the book. Upon finally reading it I find it's presented in "oral history" format with Ann and Nancy on a round robin storytelling pattern. There are a few books reviewed here that employ this writing method (VJ, Starting Over, Nothin' To Lose) and while it's not my favorite style I find it's effective when you have several voices in the chorus. Oral history books risk a breakdown of cohesion in telling a story, but more perspectives help to create a large picture and a better sense of time and setting, even if dates aren't exact. But for a few "guest shots" in this books - collaborators and former bandmates - the book is mostly Ann and Nancy, which is appropriate in a way, considering they are the most visible faces in Heart. For years I used to think Heart was strictly a duo. Shows what I know.

Kicking and Dreaming tells the evolution of the Wilson sisters' career in their own words, starting with a shared mobile military-family childhood through thankless gigs in Canadian bars and early battles with their first label. Similar to points in lives like Lita Ford's, the sisters contended with sexism in the industry (even from female execs - e.g. the corset years) and not-always faithful companions. They have great anecdotes to share, particularly about early touring years and the struggle to become known for original work rather than covers. One such story about John Mellancamp may encourage you to whack him upside the head when you seem him next.

For everything interesting in Ann and Nancy's journey, though, I tended to be pulled away from it at times due to the book's presentation. I note there's a third author listed and I'm not sure of his purpose, given the spots of spelling and syntax errors throughout the book. Other reviewers have noted continuity errors - incorrect release dates and such - but if I don't intimately know a band's discography I'm willing to forgive such things. Memories may challenge us, and I got the impression Kicking and Dreaming came out as a transcript with a perfunctory polish.

I appreciate Heart more than I did in my youth. Rock music is a male-dominated industry and I suppose we're conditioned to gravitate more toward male artists. Ann and Nancy challenged that norm early on by fronting a band, writing songs and playing their instruments. We see more women leading groups as a result, and if more are able to catch breaks in this business they have the women in Heart to credit. Kicking and Dreaming is a rich history with rough spots, but worth reading.

Rating: B-

Kathryn Lively is slowly recovering.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Spring Reading: Mama and Junior

Remember me? Yes, it's been quite a while since I last opined on a rock star memoir. Believe me when I say I hadn't intended to let Chez BTRU go stale, and though people who advise on the proper way to live as a blogger tell you not to explain long absences, I feel I owe one.

Since starting this blog I've posted reviews every other month - sometimes the gap is wider, but I deliver something. After posting my last review in June I had another book in my TBR and plans for a summer vacation of reading. Then in July, on the day we woke to leave for our trip, we were told my mother-in-law died. Helping to settle her affairs took the rest of the summer.

Fall brought school, more estate stuff, and the day job. During Christmas vacation I felt enough time had passed that I could resume reading and blogging...then I got laid off. The day after Christmas, no less. I lost January looking for work, and February and March dealing with two separate health crises in the immediate family.

So 2016 took some family, a job I loved, and all the cool celebrities, and the gloom left me sliding into 2017 with little desire to do anything. We're almost into April and I'm once again working to resume a productive life - productive in the things I enjoy. This past week I went book shopping and found a few gems to share.

Book Riot clued me in to California Dreamin' by Pénélope Bagieu, a graphic novel covering the first two-thirds of the life of Cass Elliot. As one fourth of the harmonious 60s group The Mamas and the Papas, Cass offered an amazing voice to the music scene. I'm not a die-hard fan, but I could probably name about a dozen hits off the top of my head as they were one of the more important bands of the era, bridging folk to pop and offering serious competition to the British invasion. Had Cass lived, I don't doubt she'd have continued a successful post-Mama career, if not in music then some hybrid of stage, cabaret and TV - hell, maybe a cartoon spinoff from that Scooby Doo special she did. She'd have been a riot on Twitter, too.

Bagieu's illustrative biography is more of a serial in that Cass's story (from early to age to the cusp of TM&TP's breakthrough) is told from the perspectives of the important supporting players in her life. Her sister gets a chapter, then her school BFF, collaborators, would-be lovers and rivals chime in to reveal the evolution of Ellen Cohen to Cass Elliot. Bagieu's artwork is loose and lush, not completely detailed scene for scene, but she gives enough distinction for each person portrayed - Cass's wide-eyed awe, John Phillips' austerity, Michelle's pixie beauty, and Denny Doherty's shaggy hippie charm. It's like Bagieu sketched out Cass's story as gently as possible, as though to provide some comfort to the young woman who put up with so much BS throughout her short life. I enjoyed reading Dreamin', but I would advise if you want to read this spend the money and buy it in print. Reading graphic novels via Kindle, even through the web reader, is a pill.

Rating: A

~

I picked up Matt Birkbeck's Deconstructing Sammy after seeing it marked down through an eBook deal newsletter. It's not so much a biography of Sammy Davis, Jr. as it is a cautionary tale. I've read similar stories about entertainers, how one can generate millions of dollars over a storied career yet have nothing to show for it by the end. You can have an amazing voice, dance on ceilings without wires, and recite Shakespeare to make people cry, but if you don't have any money sense you're toast. TL;DR - If you want to major in drama, minor in business and read everything you sign.

Deconstructing is the more the story of Albert "Sonny" Murray, a former federal prosecutor whose involvement in settling Davis' IRS entanglements came at the behest of family and friends on behalf of Davis' widow, Altovise. Similar to the aftermath of James Brown's death, as told in James McBride's Kill 'Em and Leave (reviewed here), Davis died with his estate in dire straits, and survivors fighting over rights to exploit. Altovise wanted her Hollywood lifestyle back, Sammy's daughter wanted a musical made, but until the IRS got theirs nobody got anything.

Fixing the seemingly impossible fell to Murray, and as you read you may want to root for him the most, considering how the deeper he gets into Davis' "afterlife" the more unpleasant surprises await him. Davis proves as interesting in death as he did alive, in every sense surrounded by people stuffing their pockets. Birkbeck balances the timelines of Davis' life of extravagance and strife with Murray's determination to finish a job and frustrations in bringing his parents to financial solvency by helping to save their inn - the first in the Poconos to cater to black tourists. It's fascinating to read.

As I write this I'm not yet finished with the book. I wanted to contribute to the blog, and these titles seem to go together in that each tells a bittersweet story, in that you wonder what could have been with a longer life for Cass and a broader legacy for Sammy, a huge star in his time who hasn't enjoyed the exposure of a Sinatra or Elvis after his passing, but certainly warrants it. For now I'm giving the book a B but that rating might change when I finish.

Kathryn Lively is back...for now.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Living Like a Runaway by Lita Ford

When it comes to band histories, I like to read differing viewpoints from band members. It's why you'll find reviews of 3/4ths of KISS here, and when I first heard about Lita Ford's book I couldn't wait for it. Looking back at my review of Cherie Currie's Neon Angel and thinking about the Runaways movie, I wondered if I might have been unfair to Lita. Aside from her two big hits I know little of her solo career, and that movie barely portrayed her as anything beyond an uncooperative banshee. Subsequent reading about The Runaways' history, in particular a harrowing account by Jackie Fox (TW: rape) left me willing to give Lita the benefit of the doubt when I read her book.

Now, if you've followed up on recent news about Lita, you'll know this book had been delayed because reasons. Many speculate her ex-husband is involved, and toward the end of the book Lita touches on some of the conflicts that split her family. I don't know the real reason for the delay - be it post-marital gag orders or dissatisfaction with ghostwriters - but the book's out and nearly matches Cherie's in terms of explicitness and cautionary anecdotes.

Unlike Neon Angel, Living Like a Runaway (AMZdevotes only half the book to the Runaways. We are guided through a very supportive family to guitar lessons and discovery by Kim Fowley to a brief period of hard work and little, if any compensation. Lita stresses in this time (and pretty much through the entire book) about how serious she is about playing the guitar and striving to shatter ceilings and stereotypes. In a way, that's good. Metal and hard rock needed Lita Ford, and aspiring female musicians needed to see Lita in a position where she could give the old masters like Iommi and Blackmore and (insert your guitar god here) a run for their money. Lita tells her story with pride, but I get the impression it comes at the expense of others. She claims to be the only member of The Runaways serious about music, and while she's welcome to that opinion one can argue for Joan Jett and her multi-decade career.

The second half of Runaway covers the struggle to stay on top amid misogyny and apathy in the music business. I don't doubt Lita here. Cyndi Lauper's memoir covers similar frustrations with labels and managers who didn't necessarily have her best interests in mind. Even hiring a female manager - Sharon Osbourne, no less - didn't solve problems in this regard. You can't help but feel for a woman who can garner the Grammy nods and critic praise yet keeps tapping that ceiling. She claims people didn't know what to do with her. Uh, put her on stage and let her play?

Runaway is also full of juicy, sometimes sexy and sometimes squicky, hell-yeah-rock-and-roll moments. I won't reveal the conquests - have to leave something to the imagination - but they come in spurts and asides as though Lita's trying to balance the business side with the glitter. You may come away with a lower opinion of certain people in her life; I certainly did.

Living Like a Runaway is not a bad book, not a great book, either. Between the horrors of Kim Fowley and the ex-husband she doesn't name (Wikipedia it if you must know) and the Spinal Tap-esque road stories it will jerk your emotions. I still think Lita should go into the Hall of Fame as a Runaway, if not as a solo act. Maybe this will help.

Rating: C

Kathryn Lively is not the Queen of Metal. Maybe the Queen of Meh.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Kill 'Em and Leave: Searching For James Brown and the American Soul by James McBride

First things first: James McBride wrote an excellent, excellent memoir called The Color of Water. Go read it.

Second, don't expect a traditional biography when you open Kill 'Em and Leave (AMZ). Authors of biographies concern themselves with facts, typically in chronological order. That's not to say McBride isn't interested in the truth about James Brown; this book features input from many people involved in Brown's inner circle and some on the fringes: musicians, money men, friends and family. How McBride presents what truth he finds happens in a narrative that's personal and evokes an almost spiritual journey.

Explaining James Brown equates, one could argue, to trying to explain what Jesus actually looked like. Different versions of the Brown story/legend exist because, as we see in McBride's book, it's how Brown wanted it. For a man who enjoyed the spotlight, he craved the mystery and privacy just as much. The title of this book comes from advice Brown was fond of giving and sticking to: knock their socks off, and go. Kill 'em and leave. As McBride writes, "James Brown's status was there wasn't no A-list. He was the list." Watch any clip of him on YouTube and try to argue.

McBride's narrative reminded me in part of Citizen Kane and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, in the respect that you have a person searching for story, looking for an answer (What was Rosebud? Who was the real James Brown?) and in the process you come across a variety of people whose interpretations not only magnify the legacy of the subject, but make them people you want to know better. McBride talks to the last surviving member of The Flames, Brown's early group; his first wife Velma; the man who helped save Brown from the IRS; surrogate son Al Sharpton; and Miss Emma, a devoted friend for decades. Their stories are raw and engaging and bring pieces of Brown's life together like a puzzle we're amazed to see at the end. It's more than a story about one the great soul singers, it's a history of black music and a social commentary about how we treat people, and how we revere some after death...and how greed makes us blind to the need of others. The story of James Brown after his death - the multiple funerals, the fight over his estate, the midnight visit from Michael Jackson - would make one hell of a movie on it own.

This is a book that will stay with you. It's awesome. Just read it.

Rating: A

ARC received from NetGalley.

Kathryn Lively feels good, like she knew that she should.