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 / OMNI). 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.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Interlude: Read and To Read

If you're curious about the inner workings here at Chez BTRU, I'm happy to take a few moments to talk/write about it. If you've hung out for a while, you realize it's not a regularly updated blog. I stick to reviews of books about popular music and artists here, but as a reader I don't limit myself to this type of non-fiction. I tend to choose books that interest me as a reader and wannabe historian, and as I work in the industry I read to keep up on current releases and "buzz" books. Often that takes me into fiction, outside of this realm. Once I get my hands on a book fitted for this blog, I'm going to give it my full attention.

With this blog, too, I strive to review recent releases - books no more than a year old. So if you've wondered why I haven't reviewed a certain title, say Neil Peart's first books or something else, that's why. In time, though, I'd like to look into older books maybe for round-up posts about a particular topic/artist. There are a few things I'd like to do with this blog to make it more interactive.

For now, though, here's what I've read lately and what you can look forward to in the future:

Read: Frank: The Voice by James Kaplan
OmniLit ~ Amazon

I read the second book of Kaplan's two-part Sinatra bio first (reviewed here). Having done this, I think if you haven't read either book you should read The Voice first if you want to better appreciate it. Reading Sinatra: The Chairman first, I found I enjoyed the second book more because I saw this era of Sinatra's life as more interesting - this despite the rapid drop-off in 80-90s Sinatra history.

In The Voice, there's so much to muddle through and it's not all happy. To me the book didn't really start rolling until he met Ava, and right when it gets to a pivotal moment in his life, the book's over.

If you're really that interested in Frank's first thirty years, pick it up. You may appreciate The Chairman more for it. Rating: C+

To Read: Kill 'Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul by James McBride
OmniLit ~ Amazon

I read McBride's The Color of Water  many years ago. Excellent book. Pick it up if you haven't yet.

From the blurb: Kill 'Em and Leave is more than a book about James Brown. Brown's rough-and-tumble life, through McBride's lens, is an unsettling metaphor for American life: the tension between North and South, black and white, rich and poor. McBride's travels take him to forgotten corners of Brown's never-before-revealed history: the country town where Brown's family and thousands of others were displaced by America's largest nuclear power bomb-making facility; a South Carolina field where a long-forgotten cousin reveals, in the dead of night, a fuller history of Brown's sharecropping childhood, which until now has been a mystery. McBride seeks out the American expatriate in England who co-created the James Brown sound, visits the trusted right-hand manager who worked with Brown for forty-one years, and sits at the feet of Brown's most influential nonmusical creation, his "adopted son," the Reverend Al Sharpton. He reveals the stirring visit of Michael Jackson to the Augusta, Georgia,funeral home where the King of Pop sat up all night with the body of his musical godfather, spends hours talking with Brown's first wife, and reveals the Dickensian legal contest over James Brown's valuable estate, a fight that has destroyed careers, cheated children out of their educations, cost Brown's estate millions in legal fees, sent Brown's trusted accountant, David Cannon, to jail for a crime for which he was not convicted, and has left James Brown's body to lie for more than eight years in a gilded coffin on his daughter's front lawn in South Carolina.

To Read: Fleetwood Mac on Fleetwood Mac Interviews and Encounters by Sean Egan
OmniLit ~ Amazon

I've wanted to get in a Fleetwood Mac book here for some time. I had my hands on Mick Fleetwood's memoir a while ago but for some reason didn't finish it. Will have to try again.

From the Blurb: Fleetwood Mac was a triumph from the beginning—their first album was the UK’s bestselling album of 1968. After some low points—when founder Peter Green left, some fans felt that the band continuing was sacrilege—Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined, and the band’s 1977 album Rumoursbecame one of history's immortals, a true classic that remained in the charts for years and public affection forever. In the press, the ethereal Californian Stevie Nicks, the tormented rocker Lindsey Buckingham, the dignified English rose Christine McVie, the blunt-speaking John McVie, and the loquacious Mick Fleetwood have all regularly been astoundingly candid. This collection of interviews across the entirety of Fleetwood Mac’s career features articles from such celebrated publications as Crawdaddy, New Musical Express, Circus,Creem, Mojo, Goldmine, Classic Rock, Blender, and Elle, as well as interviews that have never previously appeared in print. In it, readers will learn the Fleetwood Mac story from the band members’ own mouths, and experience it contemporaneously rather than through hindsight.

~

So that's what I have on deck, and of course I'm still waiting for Lita Ford's book...if and when.


Friday, January 1, 2016

2113: Stories Inspired By the Music of Rush by Kevin J. Anderson and Josh McFetridge, eds.

Pre-order 2113 on Amazon.

Andy Rooney said, "Writers never retire." Drummers...well, it happens and it's not always voluntary. We know Neil Peart can't rock the solos forever, short of having bionic arms installed (don't think somebody hasn't suggested it), and if you've read recent interviews you know what's on his mind. Family. Writing. Somewhere he's said he hoped to adapt Clockwork Angels the novel to film. So yeah, he's not going anywhere in a sense.

While I didn't love the Clockwork Angels novel, I think there's strong potential in a film. Tighten the story and give it to right director, and I'll go see it. I haven't yet read the followup, because to be honest 2113 intrigued me more. Multi-author anthologies, for me, are a mixed bag in terms of quality, but this being a collection of stories - 16 of which are inspired by Rush songs - proved too tempting to resist.

Of the 18 authors included in the book, I've read three prior, including Kevin J. Anderson and Mercedes Lackey (I'd read somewhere she based the character Dirk from the Valdemar novels on Geddy Lee). Most die-hard fans have searched the Internet to read "A Nice Morning Drive" by Richard S. Foster, which inspired Neil to write "Dead Barchetta." It is part of this collection, and Fritz Leiber's "Gonna Roll the Bones" is the other reprint.

So we have 18 stories, each connected to a specific Rush song. The cover and roster suggest all science fiction, and you'll find everything from hard SF to futuristic drama here, but 2113 also showcases some paranormal mystery and noir. For the most part, Easter eggs of Rush lyrics are scarce - which suits me fine. The stories flow nicely, much like in Rush albums where the individual songs connect to form an all-encompassing concept.

Highlights for me in 2113 include:

"On the Fringes of the Fractal" by Greg Van Eekhout - Futuristic YA about loyalty and friendship, a willingness to sacrifice social standing for a friend.

"A Patch of Blue" by Ron Collins - Another theme of "deviating from the norm," as one Rush song goes, where creators in two different realms take similar paths for what they believe is right.

"The Burning Times, V2.0" by Brian Hodge - Like Fahrenheit 451 crossed with Harry Potter; a young fights censorship and as a result has to save himself.

"The Digital Kid" by Michael Z. Williamson - A dreamer's journey to overcome disability.

"Some Are Born to Save the World" by Mark Leslie - The story of a superhero's mortality.

I won't reveal which songs inspired which stories. As noted in the book's introduction, one doesn't need to be familiar with Rush's music to enjoy the book. That the majority of the contributing authors have backgrounds in SFF keep the stories cohesive. A fair number of Rush fans I know enjoyed Clockwork Angels, but I think they will appreciate this book as much, if not more.

My only nitpick with this collection: only one female author in the bunch. If the boys sanction this as a franchise, perhaps 2114 could feature a few more women writers. Lady Rush fans do exist.

Rating: A-

Kathryn Lively is a lady Rush fan.





Thursday, December 24, 2015

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

Somewhere in the middle of Beatlebone (AMZ / OMNI) 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.