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 muddle 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.

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 ( Pre-Order AMZ / BN) 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 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) 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

Pre-Order: AMZ / BN 

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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