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 72 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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Friday, February 13, 2015

Let's Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain by Alan Light

Buy Let's Go Crazy (OMNI / AMZ / BN / KOBO)

We can argue whether or not Purple Rain remains the pinnacle of Prince's lengthy career, but in a short period of time when a handful of performers took that step from gold record to legend (Springteen, Madonna, Michael Jackson), Prince seemed destined to fill out that musical Rushmore. In 1984 he simultaneously had the top film, album and single in the nation, and I don't know if that feat's been matched. Maybe in the UK with the Spice Girls, but likely not here.

Author Light was one of the few journalists with access to Prince in the 80s and 90s. Though Prince contributed nothing new to this book, Light includes archived sound bytes and new insight from former members of The Revolution, Questlove (who taught a course on Prince's music at NYU), and others involved in the film's production. The story of how Purple Rain the film came to be greenlit, and how Prince convinced his entourage of musicians to come into this medium with no acting experience could make for an equally interesting, if not more dramatic, film. When you peel away the aloof exterior (gossip at the time pegged Prince at various points on the egotistic spectrum, from mysterious to cold-as-stone to unprintable) you find a performer determined to work twenty-fours without sleep if it means expanding his reach beyond R&B radio, where record labels seemed content to place him. That he succeeded in negotiating a movie deal in tandem with new music speaks for his determination and savvy, and for the good insight of certain people in the industry.

Light tells the story well in Let's Go Crazy - it's not a lengthy book but the cast and crew only had so such time to film. Purple Rain takes much of the focus in this microhistory of the 80s music scene and even clarifies a few misconceptions of Prince's character (read: the "We Are the World" debacle). I do take off a few points for the instances where Light injects personal bias into the story. Light admits his admiration and fan status, but in a few places the book treads into memoir territory, and that might turn off a few people. Other than that, I liked this book for its nostalgia value (though I feel pangs for reaching an age where I can be nostalgic about anything), and one of these days I'll get to see the movie on the big screen as intended.

Rating: B

Kathryn Lively writes, and drinks.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Snodgrass and Other Illusions by Ian R. MacLeod

I found Snodgrass and Other Illusions (OmniLit / AMZ / BN / KOBO) by accident. I had a credit to redeem for a free book on OmniLit.com, and Open Road Media is one of the major publishers that accepts it. I've purchased a number of reprints from the house, and when this purple floating mirage of cartoon Lennon appeared on my screen I bit. This is a collection of stories from acclaimed author MacLeod, speculative and science fiction, yet Snodgrass is presented at the forefront not necessarily because of the Beatles link, but due to a recent UK television adaptation. For this review, as we're a rock and roll book blog, I'm only reviewing this story.

Despite my trigger Buy Now finger, I remain wary of Beatles fiction. I've read some interesting takes and I've seen some shit. With the exception of John Lennon and the Mercy Street Cafe, everything I've read stays within the boundaries of band history. Some have classified Snodgrass as science fiction, but it's more alternative history. It's a What If that has a middle-aged Lennon - having missed the acorn planting, war is over if you want it phase - living hand to mouth in Birmingham. Cynthia and Julian exist, but you only hear of them in passing as John left them long ago. Them and the band. In this timeline, creative differences prompt John to quit The Beatles on the cusp of their international breakthrough. In 1990, Lennon can barely buy smokes and The Fabs have plugged along for decades, presumably with no Lennon versus McCartney tension to inspire a break-up.

It's a bleak story, and after reading I still can't decide who is worse off in this speculation: John for having left the band in 1962, or The Beatles for maintaining commercial popularity yet not achieving that level of influence that other bands can't touch. Lennon comes off as grouchy and sardonic, a shell of the younger man whose dark sense of humor is legend.

I liked the story - it's definitely one of the better Beatle fictions I've read. I'm slowly working through the rest of the book to see how other stories compare.

Rating: B

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