Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney by Howard Sounes

As I look back on all the Beatle-related books I have read over the years, I'm a bit shocked to find I tend to gravitate either toward books on theory and band history, or books solely about John. I know this can't be attributed to a lack of material on the other three Beatles - surely there are as many biographies on Paul available now, and recently I learned of a new George bio due later this year. I suppose I've resisted all this time to read a Paul bio, at the very least, because he's still kicking and apparently making news...therefore his story is far from over. As it is, I already have a backlist of just Beatles-related books to read, though the pile is shrinking. Paul is Undead, a zombie fantasy picked up out of sheer curiosity - however - has unfortunately been transferred to the DNF pile for now. My dissatisfaction with that book encouraged this most recent dive into non-fiction and an oft-heard story.

I chose Fab mainly for its length (an impressive 650+ pages in hardcover, which amounted to well over 900 in the eBook version I obtained) and its recent publication, this version in October of 2010. One won't find the McCartney stamp of approval as given to the authorized tribute by Barry Miles, Many Years From Now, but the latter book misses out on the last decade of McCartney's life - when his ill-fated second marriage provided the stuff of pre-Twitter tabloid dreams. Fab is rather exhaustive, chronicling an impressive life from McCartney's birth to Jim and Mary in Liverpool, through the Beatle years and the flight of Wings and a predominantly happy and rural-toned marriage to Linda Eastman, finishing with his more recent and rejuvenated touring career and relationship with Nancy Shevell (their engagement was only announced this past spring).

It is the post-Beatles years that interested me most here. I wouldn't exactly say that I followed Paul to Wings - I own Wingspan and a few solo McCartney albums - but the second phase of Paul's career is no less fascinating, especially when you consider how it mirrors that of his friend and musical rival, John Lennon. Each sought to prove himself a superior songwriter on his own, even if unconsciously, and both incorporated their spouses into their business. Having gone through grade school at the height of Wings' presence, I didn't question Linda McCartney's talents or lack thereof, though Sounes in Fab almost takes pleasure in pointing out her shortcomings as a musician as well as other personal faults. Opinion on Linda runs hot and cold here, with interviewees referring to her as either a bitch or a saint. The question of who pursued whom is also called into question: where Peter Brown's The Love You Make affirms Linda as the aggressor in forging a relationship, Fab doesn't commit one way or the other. It's interesting to note, though, that Fab covers quite a bit of Paul's romantic relationships, including an on/off fling with actress Peggy Lipton that even the authoritative Wikipedia doesn't list.

In fact, you'll find more personal than professional history in this book, which is peppered with stories of McCartney's generosity toward friends and family (albeit at times reluctant, done more perhaps out of a sense of duty) and juicy Heather Mills gossip. One might suspect author Sounes writes with a thread of jealousy for his subject.

Reading Fab, you get the impression that the author is only a marginal admirer of McCartney, or else a jaded Beatles fan set out to prove that everything McCartney accomplished since pales greatly in comparison. The author comes off as highly opinionated with regards to which of McCartney's compositions and projects are sublime and which are marginal at best, and interestingly enough omits notice of many of the musician's honors awarded during and after the Beatles. You won't hear about the Beatles' Oscar for Let it Be, or McCartney's two subsequent Best Song nominations for "Live and Let Die" and "Vanilla Sky," nor any of his band or solo Grammy wins. In the author's defense, though, two of McCartney's more notable achievements - the Gershwin Prize and the Kennedy Center Honors - were awarded after publication.

Still, while Fab may be mainly factual, it doesn't read as an objective piece. A song is mentioned, and the author delivers an off-handed comment about how lousy it was, or how this album wasn't good, etc. While I don't expect McCartney to have lived as a saint, the author appears to have taken great care to highlight moments where McCartney most visibly acted like an ass. Fab isn't necessarily a character assassination piece, and while it need not read like a gushing love letter it seems as though the author put too much personal emotion into the work.

If you believe Macca can do no wrong, you're probably not going to like this book. I expect a thorough biography to pull up the occasional scab, but there are moments in Fab where the author appears to take great pleasure in doing so. It's off-putting, and given McCartney's life and body of work, it is deserving of a more objective presentation.

Rating: C-

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author whose titles include Rock Deadly and Rock Til You Drop.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway by Cherie Currie

Neon Angel had been sitting in my Nook reader for a while, purchased not long after I watched The Runaways, which is based on lead vocalist Cherie Currie's autobiography. While Currie's book was first published over two decades ago, this revised edition - now featuring an introduction by co-Runaway Joan Jett and, by Currie's admission, more material that pushes the book beyond the "young adult" reading age - coincided with the movie's release. Just to warn you now, if you have only seen the movie without the benefit of reading Currie's account, the book makes the film look rather tame by comparison. Though the Runaways' short history covers the first half of Angel, it's a harrowing story of exploitation in the name of sex, drugs, and rock and roll - part cautionary tale and part soap opera, and completely gripping.

First things first, I'd like to point out some of the differences between Currie's account of Runaways history and the film. One cannot expect every film based on fact to be 100% accurate, and while The Runaways portrays a number of truths there is some obvious creative license taken. If you don't want to be spoiled, hop off the train now and check out the movie and/or book, then come on back. Otherwise, you will know that:
  • In the film, Cherie is shown acquiring her iconic black and white corset in Japan and debuting it in concert there. This costume had actually been her signature look for the "Cherry Bomb" number for much of her career with the band.
  • The film seems to imply The Runaways toured the US primarily as a supporting act. Currie reveals in her book that The Runaways actually headlined here, with acts like Cheap Trick and Tom Petty opening for them.
  • The film plays up a heavy lesbian flirtation between Cherie and Joan Jett, hinting at more. In her book, Currie talks about a bi-curious one-nighter, one that happened before she met Joan. If anything happened with any of the Runaways, it's not in the book.
So, what did the film realize with more accuracy? I'd say most of the movie where Cherie is the prominent character is taken directly from the book. Within the short span of film we see Cherie's obsession with David Bowie and her relish for the wild LA nightclub scene up to her "discovery" by Kim Fowley - pretty much true to Cherie's account. Viewing the movie, I noticed Lita Ford's role in the film consisted solely of playing the guitar and screeching/cussing her entire dialogue, and to read Neon Angel you would think that fairly accurate as well. As I understand it, despite what resolutions came about following lawsuits to retrieve the band members their due compensation, there is still no love lost between certain people.

If you are a Runaways fan, I imagine this book will make you rather angry, and definitely hesitant to allow your daughter to pursue a career in entertainment. That Currie ended up on stage, promoted by Fowley as rebellious jail-bait, happened through a combination of lax parental guidance and Fowley's showmanship. Currie paints a sinister and ironic portrait here: for all the hype touting The Runaways as rebels with a "fuck it all" attitude, any girl in the group who tested those wings in Fowley's presence found them quickly clipped, shredded and forced back down her throat. Given that these girls were well underage at the time - I had to keep telling myself Currie was fifteen when this all started - it's a wonder the guy didn't land in jail. He definitely couldn't pull this off today.

Currie's post-Runaways story comprises the rest of the book, and it spills forth in a stream of alcohol and cocaine, blown opportunities and familial discord. An entire chapter devoted to a graphic, chilling encounter with a crazed "fan" left me open-mouthed, then wondering if this material had been left out of the original book. Through the stories of abuse and blown opportunities (Currie's attempts to parlay her Runaways fame into a solo acting/singing career quickly fizzled mainly due to her inability to stay sober), Cherie emerges a survivor, and eventual victor over her demons.

That she can look back and stand sure-footed provides inspiration to anybody suffering a low point in life, though in reading the book I thought the ending came rushed. The positive aspects of her life - her son, her new career, and her friendship with her ex-husband - all come summarized toward the end. I get the impression Currie is too protective of what drives her now to share it. I, for one, am glad she has it.

Rating B+

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author whose titles include Rock Deadly and Rock Til You Drop.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Starting Over: The Making of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Double Fantasy by Ken Sharp

There is a scene in a made for TV movie about John Lennon where the former Beatle is listening to the radio while lounging near the beach. He pauses on hearing a curious harmony punctuated by a high-pitched ululation that sends him to the nearest phone to call his wife, Yoko. "They're doing your act," he enthuses with apparent belief that his beloved's avant-garde approach to music is finally gaining acceptance. On this revelation, the scene cuts to a studio somewhere in New York City, where the Lennons commence an historic return to public life through the production of new material that will eventually comprise Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey. To look at those brief moments in a film that otherwise presents a relationship faced with various challenges, one might guess John had been at his happiest and most enthusiastic in that time.

I wouldn't doubt it. When Lennon and Ono entered the Hit Factory with The B-52's hit "Rock Lobster" no doubt ringing in their memories, they sought to put their own mark on the new decade. Ken Sharp's Starting Over attempts to record every detail of the making of Lennon's new music, and relies upon the memories of everybody involved in the production - from Yoko to producer Jack Douglas, guest artists Bun E. Carlos and Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, and a host of studio musicians and personnel, engineers, and music critics. Lennon himself is represented through interviews granted to various sources before his death.

The structure of Starting Over offers the play-by-play through a series of direct narratives from all involved parties. If you have read Live From New York, a history of Saturday Night Live as told by cast and crew, you will be familiar with the format. Here, readers bounce around a series of "he saids" and "she saids" where everything from Lennon's day to day mood and work ethic to the food delivered for lunch (sushi mainly, until the band rebelled and began to sneak in hamburgers) is revealed. Largely visible, too, is the overall perception of Lennon being somewhat insecure in his work despite the absence of pressure from labels. Because Lennon was not under contract to make the record, he opted for strict secrecy (it almost worked) and seemed ready to destroy everything if it didn't turn out to his satisfaction. One can only wonder the fate of the music that comprised Milk and Honey had he not died - would he have approved of that release?

Despite entering the relaxed atmosphere of the Hit Factory, a cloud did loom overhead - namely the pressure to live up to the Lennon name and reputation, as well as execute an impressive leap from the shadow cast by former band mate Paul McCartney, whose own 1980 album had gone gold. Some may view Lennon's decision to eventually sign with fledging label Geffen Records as opposed to McCartney's label (which, among others, courted Lennon) as a final act of non-conformity.

Few stories in the book, told from different angles, contradict one another. Yet, when it happens it happens big. The process of arranging tunes in playing order, as recalled by Yoko, might have resulted in a disadvantageous placement of her songs if others had gotten their way.

What I found most fascinating about Starting Over is the latter half of the story, the critical and public reaction to the finished Double Fantasy. As I read, I queued up the album to familiarize myself again with the music that seemed to dominate much of 1981 by virtue of our global mourning. Tracking responses by the major critics of the day, Yoko's work is singled out as the more innovative contribution to the album - interesting to note given that the bulk of Starting Over covers Lennon's involvement in the production. Lennon's songs, which mainly reflect his familial contentment and optimism, are dissected with great care, while explanation of Yoko's inspiration to write is hardly examined. I can only guess this lack of balance is attributed to Sharp's intention to offer Starting Over as a Lennon tribute, with the assumption that Yoko's story will be told in due time. This is not to say, however, that Yoko is shut out completely. We are reminded throughout Starting Over that two artists appear on the cover, and the story of how David Geffen finally won the most anticipated album of the new decade solidifies Yoko's importance in the project.

For readers interested in Lennon's later history with a concentration on work rather than gossip, Starting Over is a nice "oral" history, but may come off as a bittersweet read given how the story ends. Thirty years after the events, the stories remain as fresh as the music.

Rating: A

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author whose titles include Rock Deadly and Rock Til You Drop.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

FM for Murder by Patricia Rockwell

Recently I went on a book-buying tear at Amazon to burn down some gift card credit. Part of my goal was to stock up on some less expensive titles - given the recent boom of 99 cent eBooks, I thought surely I'd find some titles relevant to this blog. FM for Murder, part of a series starring an acoustics expert, held an interesting premise, and a good price.

Bear in mind, this is the second book in a series, so if you are the anal retentive sort who must start with A before going to B you may wish to see what else Rockwell has to offer. This book, FWIW, is written in a manner that doesn't give away anything important from its predecessor. That's a good thing in terms of spoilers, and to give Rockwell credit I didn't feel lost due to any inside references.

Getting to the story: the Black Vulture is, rather was, a popular local DJ who held court during a late-night shift of alternative rock and songs for the goth/emo set. His on-air murder sets off a ripple of shock and concern among fans, but for college professor Pamela Barnes the event rekindles her sleuthing desires. Not that she takes charge immediately - local authorities call on her expertise in sound recordings and voice to assist with digging up clues, and we find out quickly that her family is none too pleased with this moonlighting.

Meanwhile, a subplot involving Daniel Bridgewater, heir to a carpet manufacturing company a few hours away, takes the reader slowly through a familial conflict veiled in secrets. Desperate to mend ties between his ailing father and prodigal brother, Daniel tracks down the elusive David to discover a reunion is inevitable, but not in the way he expects. To go further into detail would give away too much of the story, so I will just say that Rockwell brings together both story lines the way one would slowly pull on a zipper. The lives affected do not cross so much as meet together at the right time for a resolution.

I personally would not consider FM for Murder a mystery in the traditional sense. The book is presented more like a crime drama, where the pieces gradually come together. You may get a sense of where the story is going as you read - I got to a certain point and figured out much of the revelations before they happened. Still, it didn't diminish what I enjoyed of the book - mainly Pamela's sleuthing. A sub-plot involving a co-worker's pending marriage - while likely used to shape Pamela's workplace and expand on characterization - didn't catch my interest as much. I felt that space could have better served in Pamela's corner.

As a quick read for a good price, however, FM for Murder just may satisfy readers of suspense.

Rating: B-

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author whose titles include Rock Deadly and Rock Til You Drop.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Good Rockin' Tonight by Colin Escott & Martin Hawkins

When I received the galley for the revised edition of Good Rockin' Tonight, my knowledge of Sun Records was minimal - I knew basically that it existed. I had known some of the legends of early rock and roll cut records with the label - Elvis, Jerry Lee, Roy - but I hadn't realized the richness of the label's history before now. While reading this book, what grabbed me the most was the sheer amount of minor record labels active in the 50's and 60's, and the preference of cutting singles as opposed to whole albums since one was likely to find more profit - a practice one sees now with iTunes, where one can buy individual songs.

I can remember, as a child, sifting through stacks of 45 RPM discs my parents had collected over the years. There may have been a Sun or two in the mix, but I recall quite a variety - Dot, Decca, Buddha, Stax...the music business doesn't appear that different from publishing, particularly in this time of transition. It is interesting to note how some labels operated to serve a specific market (in Sun's case, the South - perfecting what became known as the "Memphis Sound") and gain a following before broadening their reach. This makes sense when you think about it - popular music variety shows like American Bandstand and the Grand Ole Opry had roots in localized followings before expanding. Rockin' touches on the Sun Records connection to these national outlets, in particular with their more prominent artists.
When the original Sun studio opened, it had originally served as a place for musicians and organizations to make use of the equipment until it was realized that money could be made representing and distributing artists. Rockin' goes on to break down, chapter by chapter, the many relationships Sun and Phillips enjoyed with various artists and architects of R&B, rockabilly, and early rock and roll. The Sun histories of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison - some of them so brief - are recorded with academic detail and very little gossip. Though it's not revealed directly, as you run down the list of songs recorded and released by Sun you realize the butterfly effect Phillips had on rock and roll - one can argue that if not for the Sun discs making the rounds in the UK, where American artists of this period were quite popular, The Beatles may not have come into existence (indeed, check the Fabs' earlier albums for their covers of some of Perkins' Sun songs.).

Probably the juiciest tabloid-esque bits one can expect to find are Lewis's exploits, mainly because they resulted in nearly damaging his career while with Sun. Given the same amount of play here, though on the radio it was a different story, are the careers of second and third-tier artists like Charlie Rich, Malcolm Yelvington, Warren Smith, Billy Riley. You might not know the names, but perhaps if you had parents like mine who held a wealth of records you may recognize the music - a thorough appendix of Sun recordings at the end of the book provides the information you need to educate yourself.

A friend who has also read and enjoyed this book noted his amazement that Phillips not only had so much talent in his stable, but seemed to willingly let it go. The passages on Johnny Cash support this - one reads this entire book and wonders how a man of such innovation, who once had the organization so many others imitated, didn't seem perceptive enough to know he should hang on to the likes of Presley and Cash. Would Sun have survived the changing landscape of music in the 1960s if Phillips had been more aggressive in keeping certain artists? We can only guess at what might have been, but we do know the legacy left by one of the more influential independent labels in music history, and thanks to this book we know so much more.

Rating: A

(Book provided by publisher via NetGalley)

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author whose titles include Rock Deadly and Rock Til You Drop.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

John by Cynthia Lennon - Review

Not long before John Lennon's death, his first wife Cynthia published a memoir of their marriage called A Twist of Lennon, now out of print. The title provides more than one play on words - Cynthia had been married to her third husband John Twist at the time - and late in her most recent work John she admits that the first memoir wasn't wholly her idea. Strapped for cash, and pressured by Twist, she penned the tell-all much to John and Yoko's consternation. This might explain why Cynthia decided to re-tell her story rather than heavily revise Twist and resurrect that work in a time when many authors' back lists are enjoying new life in the Kindle age.

I also gathered toward the end of John that money is not a motive for this work, but rather a desire to contribute to the Lennon legend - that its publication nearly coincided with a Lennon milestone (the 25th anniversary of his death) shouldn't be lost on anybody, either. Yet, though she and John divorced, her perspective is certainly no less important than that of any other woman involved with the band.

As I look over comments on Lennon where his personal life was concerned, I definitely see split camps of opinion on Yoko Ono. You love her or you despise her - middle ground simply doesn't exist there. Regarding Cynthia, I had expected to find more sympathy than indifference towards her among Beatles fans, yet it surprised me to find Cynthia is not without her detractors. Some reviews on the book's Amazon.com page accuse the first Mrs. Lennon of repeating motives with her previous book - a money grab and an opportunity to complain. Having finished Patti Boyd's memoir (reviewed here) I thought it worthwhile to see Beatle history from another woman's angle.

Reading John, you essentially get as much of that as you did from Wonderful Tonight, which isn't what most fans would call definitive. John opens at the moment news breaks of Lennon's death. Cynthia, already stressed from yet another failing marriage and the pressures of running a business, is naturally devastated. Despite their distance and rare instances of communication, her love for this difficult man remains, as well as the link shared in their son. It's from this tragic moment that Cynthia segues into her earlier life with Lennon, which encouraged me as a reader because I had hoped not to turn a page to find the same Beatles story I've read in so many books. Yet when the story veered off tangent to Cynthia's pre-John years I felt disappointed. Bear in mind, it isn't because I'm not interested in Mrs. Lennon's early life, but as the book is named John I wanted the author not to lose focus.

We are introduced to early supporting players in the Beatles story, yet few receive as much page time as John's Aunt Mimi, with whom Cynthia had a tense, if not borderline civil, relationship. The picture painted here of John's foster parent reveals a bitter woman unmoved by any of Lennon's triumphs and perhaps jealous of Cynthia's presence - Kristin Scott-Thomas's portrayal of Mimi in Nowhere Boy seems much softer by comparison.

The early years are marked by Cynthia's memories of unjustified scorn and resentment - fans hated her because she had what they wanted, John was likely unfaithful in Hamburg, and Brian Epstein didn't want the world to know she existed. Mrs. Lennon does point out, however, that she never perceived Lennon felt trapped into marriage by her pregnancy. They never used protection, she writes, it wasn't something you did. As implied by her writings, a woman standing up for herself when she feels wronged is also on that list.

We are led through the early sixties with Cynthia in a state of stoic acceptance, not really showing strong emotion in the book until Yoko appears. By this time, however, it seems too late to take a stand, and the remainder of the memoir plays out in a tortured denouement, with Cynthia now reporting from the sidelines as she recalls her post-John life in a series of strained communications with her ex, bad relationship choices, and frustration over John's neglect of his oldest son. In writing about Julian's visits to the Dakota in John's lifetime, there are attempts to dispel the myth of Lennon's bread-baking househusband image. To be fair, harsher biographers of Lennon have noted discrepancies as well.

What I find most interesting about this book is that while John's friend "Magic" Alex Madras is mentioned, Cynthia downplays her involvement with him. Other books on the Beatles have claimed Cynthia and Alex had a fling after the Lennons' breakup, yet John denies the notion - Cynthia charges Alex sought to seduce her to give John ammunition during divorce proceedings, and she didn't play along. She doesn't outright say there was no sexual relationship, but it is curious to read in light of how this period is captured in other books.

I wanted to like John, and I had expected to see an ugly side of the former Beatle people want to remember for his music and peace activism. No man is without sin, and even the most revered of heroes carry the burden of being human. What I take away most from Cynthia's book is her insistence that John did love her, and a shocking final line that turns the entire book into a tale of regret. Mrs. Lennon's claim that John's method of dealing with difficult situations by simply cutting off contact with people and moving forward is a common theme throughout the book, and her concluding remarks imply she can't quite do the same.

I suppose, as fans, neither can we.

Rating: C+

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author who loves to read.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

My Favorite Band Does Not Exist by Robert T. Jeschonek

My first word of warning to anybody who is interested in buying the eBook version of My Favorite Band Does Not Exist: there are numerous instances where the book shifts to a "book within a book" that is presented in semi-graphic form with dog-eared pages and fancy fonts. Clicking through these sections of the eBook seems to slow the loading something fierce, to the point you might think there's something wrong with your reader or the eBook file. I opened the file in two separate eReaders and encountered the same issue, and I have to admit that waiting for pages to load proved irritating. I promise, though, the following review doesn't take that into account - I just note it here for the reader to be warned should anyone decide to buy e.

My Favorite Band Does Not Exist seeks to convey an adventurous spirit that takes readers on, literally, a whirlwind tour - imagine the Beatles' bubblegum tour bus and its passengers compressed into a paranoid teenager and his flight companion, then hold a mirror to the result for a parallel story. Idea Deity is on a mission to save his parents from going through with a public suicide pact to preserve and promote the cult movement they have founded. While Vengeful and Loving Deity (and these are perhaps the tamest of the names bestowed upon this book's characters) are measuring potions or knife lengths on the other side of the country, Idea has hooked up with the bubbly Eunice who assists in keeping him hidden from the Deitys' toughs. Slipping under their radar might be easier to do if Idea weren't already preoccupied with the plan he's set in place to upstage media attention the suicide might receive: he's fabricated a rock group with a viral following for which Lady Gaga would give up her meat bra, and Youforia has left Bic lighters aglow from sea to sea. This is despite having never cut an album, played live, or existing.

Cut to Reacher Mirage, who would argue the point of Youforia's existence. His band rehearses in secret, travels incognito, and deflects pressure placed upon him by management and band mates to do something besides nothing. It's when Reacher gets wind of website updates made without his knowledge and songs leaked through "YoFace" and other aptly named social media sites that he suspects something he's apt to fear more than playing in public.

Meanwhile, Idea can't understand why people are scalping tickets and making money off a band that exists only in his mind, crammed in his conscious along with the belief that he is a literal Truman Show - a character in a book set to die in Chapter 64. Certainly it's not the same book he's carried around on his quest: Fireskull's Reverent, a hefty tome that also has Reacher turning pages. Suddenly any determination to save his parents is forgotten as Idea and Eunice detour to track down those profiting from Youforia's, er, presence.

When realities and fiction collide, one would think things start to make sense, yet in reading My Favorite Band Does Not Exist I find the narrative off-putting and at times frustrating. Whether the saturation of odd character names (Wicked Livenbladder comes to mind) are there as some satirical commentary on goofy names dreamed up in typical YA fantasy I can not say, but having to take it all in - while juggling three parallel universes within the book - left me weary. There is a good germ of a story here, but one may end up re-reading chapters and passages to make it come together. I would dare suggest having too much of the novel within the novel made it difficult for me to follow the complete story - it's like David Lynch remade A Hard Day's Night.

As an adult reading this book, I may also concede a younger reader - the target audience of this book - will have little problem getting through the story and enjoy the irreverent humor and moments of slapstick. My Favorite Band reads like an acid trip Saturday morning cartoon, and though I don't consider a book like this my cup of tea I wouldn't mind mixing some that drug in with it.

Rating: C-

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author whose titles include Rock Deadly and Rock Til You Drop.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter by Randy L. Schmidt

Once upon a time, deep in my classic rock phase, my then boyfriend remarked that everybody has that one musical guilty pleasure they tend to hide from view, lest friends and family find a reason to mock that appreciation. He smiled slyly at me and guessed I probably had a Madonna album sandwiched between my Beatles and Doors collection (I did), but it never occurred to me that Madonna probably had a few Carpenters vinyl platters hidden away somewhere. Little Girl Blue, Randy L. Schmidt's look into the life of this tragic legend, intimates that Karen can count some of music's trend-setters as fans, and that's okay.

Repeat after me: it is okay to admit you like, even love, The Carpenters' music. Karen seemed to have held no shame in her role as a performer, and while reading Little Girl Blue (AMZ) I became more endeared to the woman behind the songs, even though I would still consider myself a casual listener. When The Carpenters enjoyed their peak recording and charting period, I was not likely representative of their audience demographic. By the time I developed an appreciation for popular music, it was all Duran Duran and MTV when The Carpenters would have been relegated to the easy-listening VH1 for moms and dads (you have to remember, this was way before VH1 essentially became MTV and MTV moved to Jersey). Nonetheless, when Karen died in 1983 I knew she was significant, and I watched the subsequent TV movie about her life. Blue reads somewhat like an extended version of that film, and it would appear both had been conceived under similar circumstances.

In fact, Schmidt begins Blue with a short history of the movie, and how the creators met with roadblocks in the form of Karen's family, who stood protective of Karen's image and history - reading the rest of the book and the treatment Karen endured, a bystander might view these actions as attempts by the family to protect themselves. In the early passages of the book it's revealed that mother Agnes is adamant that she did not kill Karen, and already you get the sense that you're about to read 300 pages of familial discord.

Oddly enough, it's almost happy discord. Despite having no support from the Carpenter family on this project (the parents have since passed, Richard Carpenter refused to help and Karen's husband is legally prohibited from participating), Schmidt manages to fill a book through interviews with close friends and associates and archived interviews given by The Carpenters. What we learn is really nothing one could not glean from the TV-movie: every move the family made served to help Richard's musical career. Mother Agnes acted as the driving force to ensure Richard's fame, leaving Karen literally to beg for a chance to participate. Her taking up the drums allowed her to share this family dream and stay in the background, but this posed a few problems in the plan. For one, Karen was quite good at it:

 For two, when Richard's band moved from jazz instrumentals to vocal compositions, the world discovered Karen's other talent, which is more synonymous with the group's sound than her drumming. Little Girl Blue records the group's career with care, detailing recording sessions and tours and interspersed romances Karen found difficult to maintain - the theme of Karen yearning to be loved intimately pervades the book as we read of her mother's distant affection and husband Tom's love for her money. The more you read, the more you definitely sympathize for Karen.

Of course, her eating disorder is covered, but unlike the movie which implies Karen's battle with anorexia began following a critical review of her looks after a performance (the article in question was later revealed to have been fabricated for the film) the book doesn't really pinpoint whether or not her anorexia and career pressures were related. It is possible, for even today actresses and performers are held to observe unreal standards for the sake of beauty, and unfortunately Karen could not be helped - as friends and family did seek to get her to eat and take better care of herself, what she did when backs were turned proved too deadly to reverse. As with many biographies I read here, general reviews are mixed.

Does Little Girl Blue do Karen justice? I think Schmidt did the best he could with what he had - some may argue that the absence of family involvement gives this book credibility, that at least nobody has tried to sugarcoat Karen's story or disavow her personal pain. I found the story interesting but not wholly engaging - there were times I put the book down and left it for days while I did other things, I didn't feel compelled to finish it in one sitting. As an addition to Carpenters lore it provides a more accurate picture than the film, yet reads dry in parts and falls short of the same level of enthrallment that drew fans to Karen. Of course, it's difficult to compete with something like that.

4/25 update: Since posting this review, I have since gone back and sought out the Karen Carpenter TV movie, which is available for viewing via YouTube. If I have intimated that this book parallels the film, I should stand corrected in parts. One glaring item I notice in the movie is the implication that Karen bore the brunt of the disintegration of her marriage, almost to the point that it was her fault entirely. The book relays the exact opposite. Also, very little is mentioned of Karen's efforts to produce a solo album - in the movie, it's portrayed as an idea that Richard quickly dismisses.

Rating: B-

Kathryn Lively misses the 70s.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Nowhere Man - Jordan Riley

Update, 2/12/12: I received a comment that the author of this work is Jordan Riley, not Scott Cardinal as previously posted. Since the copy on my Kindle app denotes Scott Cardinal as the author (happy to provide screen shots as proof), I'm leaving the review as is but noting here that this book is currently available by Jordan Riley. I do not know why the author's name changed on the book.

When you hear the words "Beatles" and "conspiracy" in the same breath, more than likely the next words that come to mind are "Paul is Dead." As a mystery lover, conspiracy theories tend to fall under that umbrella for me, and I'll admit I've enjoyed searching for faux Paul clues on the Beatles LPs I still have in the basement. Recently I watched a "documentary" called Paul McCartney Really is Dead, which displays the more obvious clues (and plenty of obscure, reaching ones) with nifty animated effects while an actor badly impersonating George Harrison explains each one. Whether the film was purposely filmed to present this oft-told legend in a cheesy, laughable manner is up for debate, but since I began this blog I have renewed my interest in Beatles lore. A search on Amazon.com to burn my remaining gift card credit landed on the sale page of a story with an interesting premise: the conspiracy to kill John Lennon.

I am sure there are people out there who insist Chapman did not act alone, and that Lennon's death was engineered by the US Government to quiet his activist ways. After reading the description of this short, I decided to take a chance on this view of this tragic moment in history. The low price point (the eBook sells for 99 cents) was a factor as well, though now I must admit this story might be overpriced.

Nowhere Man opens in a dark cell where two men - Robert and Drew - are held captive by unknown forces for unknown reasons. While the narrative provides a vivid sense of place, the author's decision to use an omniscient, present tense point of view frustrated me. This is a matter of personal preference - I'm not fond of this particular POV - yet I continued to read through one character's puzzling soliloquy on life and death until a third character appeared to set the story into action.

Brooke is young and naturally frightened, and suffering memory loss. She has no idea why she is imprisoned, and her cellmates (apparently jaded after their own lengthy tenures) provide little comfort. She is suspected of being a spy sent in to coerce secrets from the men. One man calls her a "cold-hearted wench" (huh?), while the other drops hints of his association with the Beatles.

This pretty much set the tone for two-thirds of the book. The hysterical Brooke screams and claws for a way out, while her companions tease and drop Fab references that don't gel with the story. After reading several pages of this, I start to wonder if the Beatles factor into the story at all, and it isn't until the last several pages where Drew finally reveals his connection to Brooke in a conversation that appears sorely out of place. The story's conclusion proves more confusing - the abrupt ending left me wondering if this poor girl had been punked.

One reason I believe Nowhere Man doesn't work is because it literally goes nowhere. The only interesting part of the story happens by way of hearsay. Had the author endeavored to write a story with Lennon as an actual character, taking part in the events that shaped this conspiracy, he might have had a more interesting story. As written, we leave with more questions, none of them answered.

The Beatles are no strangers to fiction. There are many novels based on their lives, some of which will be reviewed here, but if you are a fan thinking Nowhere Man brings something of relevance to the genre I think you will be disappointed.

Rating - F

Monday, April 4, 2011

Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock - Sammy Hagar

Buy Red at Amazon.

I didn't discover Van Halen until their 1984 album, and I have television to thank for that. I don't have an older brother who might have introduced me to many of these hard-rocking late 70s groups (as a number of my junior-high classmates did), so I had to rely upon the pre-Jersey Shore MTV to broaden my musical horizons. It helped, too, that during this time our cable system also came with WGN in Chicago, and "Jump" had been the unofficial theme of the Cubs. That summer I asked my conservative Catholic parents for a copy of 1984 for my birthday, and to my surprise I got it... and I actually played the whole thing for my dad because he wanted to hear that song. This may not seem odd to you, but in my house this defined surreal - the Cubs on mute while I sat in the living room with my 48-year-old, Eucharistic minister father blasting "Panama" and "Hot for Teacher" on the stereo.

During this time I had a vague idea of who Sammy Hagar was. "I Can't Drive 55" had come out then, and before that he had another song that enjoyed heavy rotation on MTV, called "Three Lock Box," which I - deep in my British 80s group phase - didn't care for:

This wasn't even the hit off that album, and I swear it's all I saw when I turned on the TV.

So when I hear that David Lee Roth left Van Halen and Sammy had been tapped to replace him, like many people I found that odd. It isn't common for a singer with an established solo career to join an established band, but after reading Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock you'll come to find that Hagar doesn't particularly embrace common. I recall wondering about Van Halen's future given the lineup change, but one day during my sophomore year I arrived at school to find half the student body wearing the 5150 tour shirt purchased from the concert at Jacksonville Coliseum the previous weekend. On the back in bold: VAN HALEN KICKS ASS.

Well, that answered that.

What inspired me to pick up Red, however, was not a fervent admiration of Van Halen. To this day 1984 is the only album I have of theirs, though when I married I inherited more - all Roth-era. Hubby will listen to solo Hagar and his stuff with the Cabos, but still resists "Van Hagar" for some reason. I don't ask why.

Being the avid Rush fan, I was more interested in Hagar's perspective with regards to dealing with Ray Danniels, brought in to manage the group following the death of their previous handler. Danniels has also managed Rush since the beginning of their career, along with a few other groups of fleeting significance. I had known for a while that there is no love lost between the two, but I figured reading Red might enlighten me further. Now, if you are a Rush fan thinking the same thing, I'll warn you that this part of Hagar's history doesn't appear until very late in the book. The singer's life from birth to that point, luckily, does keep you entertained.

Be ready to read closely, too, for Red comes off like a long, rambling conversation in a bar, with Hagar holding court. Everything from his poorer than dirt childhood in Fontana, California to his rocky relationships with his first wife, his Montrose bandmates, and later on the Van Halen brothers, is relayed in choppy sentences that read as though they've been arranged one way then another to make sure the story comes out right. There are moments in Red where Hagar seems to skip like a record, and you'll suspect contradictions. He does drugs, he quits. He's offered drugs and swears he's not interested, yet chapters later he's describing doing blow with This Rock Star and That Chick. That sort of thing.

As a "juicy" rock tell-all, Red has its moments, and you may come away with the idea that Hagar has a high opinion of himself as compared to others (definitely where David Lee Roth is concerned). He is confident, yes, and business savvy and quasi-spiritual - but you don't get the sense that he feels entitled to his success. From the stories he shares, it's clear he's worked his ass off to earn everything he has, and stands today as perhaps one of the best examples of the old school musicians who didn't sit around and wait for things to happen. In an age where somebody achieves instant fame through a fluke viral video (is it "Friday" yet?), one can appreciate a guy like Hagar.

The Van Halen brothers may be the only exception.

Rating - B- / C+ (Waffled on this - there is a good story here, but some may find the rough narrative jarring.)

Kathryn Lively has not seen any incarnation of Van Halen live. Sucks.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Drumbeats by Kevin J. Anderson and Neil Peart

Buy DRUMBEATS on Amazon.

If you know me in real life, you know I follow news on the band Rush. Look at the sidebar, I've written a novel starring a tribute band musician named Lerxst. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that I would include a review of this short, co-authored by the band's drummer and chief lyricist. In truth, I hadn't actively sought out this story because I didn't know it existed until recently.

What happened was that I was researching release information on Peart's latest travelogue, the upcoming Far and Away, when this title appeared in search. Asking around my circle of Internet friends and fellow Rush fans yielded little opinion on the story, but I did learn that this story had first appeared in an anthology of rock-themed horror called Shock Rock II, now out of print. I had not heard of the book, or it's aptly-named predecessor, but as far as I know this is the only story resurrected via digital publishing. The current buzz on Barry Eisler embracing the self-publishing bug comes as news to some people thinking he is one of the first big names to go rogue, but if you check the revised edition publishing dates on this story you'll know Anderson has him beat.

I'd heard it suggested, too, that Peart is or was embarrassed by this story. I cannot tell you if that's true, nor could I discern while reading Drumbeats how actively he participated in the writing. The short numbers about twenty-one pages, just enough to shape the story of a world-weary and renowned drummer for a popular band. When he isn't touring with his fellow musicians, he finds solace and inspiration traveling through remote area where the indigenous people aren't likely to bug him for autographs. Anybody who has read Peart's previous travel books, or at the very least reads his website journals, can plainly see the autobiographical tone of the story. The fatigue in Danny Imbro's narrative, coupled with a descriptive sense of place, sets the stage for some truly creepy juju.

No matter where he is, or what he's doing, Danny isn't far from his craft. In a village, while haggling over the price of tepid water, he hears a native beating on a drum. The sound mesmerizes, as does the drummer's rapt devotion to his instrument. When attempts to buy the drum off the skittish African fail, Danny manages to get directions to the drum's maker in another village.

What Danny finds there, aside from a crafty youngster named Anatole who seems protective of the stranger, is a chilling secret regarding the drums' true nature. Bargaining with the village chief and drum's maker lead Danny to learn the true meaning behind the term caveat emptor.

Drumbeats is short, and aptly priced at $1.99 for the eBook edition. As a horror story it does the trick in evoking discomfort and squeamishness in the reader. Some readers may argue whether or not Danny is a sympathetic enough character to deserve his fate - as the story is written in first person you don't feel as though Danny thinks he's entitled to a drum because of who he is in another society. He's just a guy in the wrong diaspora at the wrong time.

For a story written more than a decade ago, too, Drumbeats looks to have aged well. I cannot say if Anderson or Peart had revised any of the story before the re-release, but for what it is the story will appeal to fans of the music and genre. You may not look at a pair of bongos the same way again, just to warn you.

Rating: B-

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author who doesn't play the drums.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Baby's In Black - The Story of Astrid Kirchherr & Stuart Sutcliffe by Arne Bellstorf

Get Baby's in Black at Amazon.

The Beatles have inspired so much over their history. Countless musicians and artist cite them as the spark that ignited their own creative passions, and if there's one that often comes from their existence it's the endless "What If's." All through the last quarter of 2010 as we acknowledged the 70th anniversary of John Lennon's birth and the 30th anniversary of his death, we asked "What if?" What if he had lived...how much more music would he have created, would he be on Twitter constantly, and how would he have responded to 9/11? We can only speculate now and wish to see it for ourselves.

For me, a constant "What If" in the Beatles history prompts me to think about what might have gone down differently had Stuart Sutcliffe lived. If you're a die-hard fan who has followed The Beatles from The Quarrymen days to Let it Be, you know Stu was the true "fifth Beatle." He was John's best friend and a talented artist. In his very short life he made an indelible mark in the world of popular music - he helped name the band, and despite having very little musical talent he was deemed good enough by Lennon to join in the early glory, because no way did Lennon want a band that didn't include his closest friend. Some have speculated (or perhaps wished) that the Lennon-Sutcliffe relationship stretched past platonic into something more intimate - though no proof really exists of that. Philip Norman's John Lennon: The Life goes so far as to boldly suggest that Lennon had caused the aneurysm that claimed Sutcliffe's life - perhaps one of the few surprises that biography offered, one that is also quite difficult to prove.

What do we know about Sutcliffe? We know he accompanied John, Paul, George, and Pete (remember, this is the pre-Starr era) to Hamburg to pay the requisite starving musician dues in the Reeperbahn, which apparently in the late 50s, early 60s made Las Vegas look like Sesame Street. He met a local girl named Astrid - a kindred soul and eventual confidante - and chose to follow his heart. Sadly, his head didn't prove as healthy or as willing to stay, and he lives on mainly through stories that keep the band's early spirit alive.

It is only fitting, too, that the story of Stu and Astrid's brief yet iconic relationship be portrayed in a graphic novel. Baby's in Black was conceived and drawn by artist Arne Bellstorf. The title comes from the Lennon/McCartney song, a somber ballad that Astrid's loss inspired.

Black opens with an ominous dream of Astrid wandering alone in the woods, transfixed by something that doesn't belong there but ultimately does. She's awakened by friend (and former companion) Klaus Voormann, who has just come from a club in the Reeperbahn having experienced a phenomenon unlike anything he's seen: rock and roll, and more specifically the five-piece British band playing it. It's clearly life-changing enough to justify waking Astrid in the middle of the night to convince her to see the act. The moment she agrees sets in motion Astrid's own life-changing moment when she joins Klaus the next night and notices the quiet bassist hiding behind sunglasses as he tries to hide his musical inadequacies.

Black near-faithfully progresses with the courtship of Astrid and Stu, which flourishes despite a tenuous language barrier and the ever-present specter of Klaus, who seems to find consolation in actively supporting The Beatles' young career (Voormann would remain associated with the band for years in various roles). The black and white artwork nicely sets the atmosphere of postwar Germany - even in the merriest of places like Hamburg's red-light district there is an underlying seediness that simply cannot be expressed in color. The young Beatles are reproduced to recognition: Paul's expressive eyes, George's pensive brow, and John's wizened expression. Pete Best, another "fifth" in the band's lore, barely figures into the story.

If there are any complaints about Black, they may stem from the comparisons I keep wanting to make to the film Backbeat, which is the only other source I'm familiar with that focuses on this part of Beatles history. Where the film brought out tensions rising from Stu's defection, and perhaps a hint of resentment aimed at Astrid for "stealing" Stu, you don't get that in Black. Through much of the book, expressions do not furrow or pinch in anger - everything just seems to happen. Perhaps this was a quality of the existentialist attitude that influenced Astrid and Klaus's circle of friends back in the day, but having read other accounts of the band's Hamburg days (particularly Lennon's zealous attempts to incite the crowd with Nazi references) I have noticed much of that is downplayed in this book. Of course, this story belongs to Stuart and Astrid, so there is really no need for Lennon's antics to disrupt the flow.

Baby's in Black remarkably realizes this brief passage in modern music history. Simple dialogue and bold imagery speak out in a way no song can.

Rating: A-

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author whose titles include Rock Deadly and Rock Til You Drop.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Me - Pattie Boyd

Years ago when I purchased the gigantic The Beatles Anthology hardcover, one criticism I read bemoaned the lack of contribution from some of the more important witnesses to the band's history: the women. When I think of all the Beatles related books I have read, I realize I have read biographies written by people who were close to the band (Peter Brown) and others by those who merely saw the Beatles as the rest of us did - from a distance. They devoted more time researching the lore and sorting the truth from legend, and so far everything I've read appears to corroborate, give or take a few surprises.

Getting back to the Beatles' women, in the band biographies they are often relegated to the back seat. With solo stories, your mileage may vary. John Lennon: The Life presents the history of a man dominated by women. Well, two at least. I've not read bios of the other three yet, but it happened that I found a copy of Wonderful Tonight at a closing Borders and grabbed it for the TBR pile. Musically speaking, George was always my favorite, and all I know about him comes from Brown's memoir and what I've since found in rare interviews and, of course, the post-Beatles music. Pattie Boyd, George's first wife (and later, Eric Clapton's first), is long known as his first muse as well, having inspired some of rock music's best-known tributes. While she isn't the first wife/girlfriend to influence a Beatle into quality songwriting ("Here, There, and Everywhere" was allegedly written for Jane Asher), I'd always thought her the most interesting. It was my hope this long-awaited memoir lived up to the hype.

The one thing I immediately took away from Pattie's book, and this is something I'm guessing any reader would expect, was this unfortunate pattern of unhealthy relationships she endured. The beginning chapters recall, with lack of clarity, a young life in Africa in a semi-stable family. One might be envious to know a girl raised in such exotic environs, but instead we are told a story about passive parents and a father who gradually fades away, to be replaced by a stepfather who doesn't do any better for Pattie and her siblings. Adulthood proves her first opportunity to escape and achieve happiness and a sense of accomplishment, and it's this determination to succeed as a model that gets her the gig of a lifetime, a walk-on part in a Beatles film.

She's the blonde and has only one line. One word, actually, but behind the scenes it was a different story. Now, I can forgive how Boyd glosses over her childhood. She seems to imply, too, she only recalls so much, but the picture of life before George that she paints offers vivid glimpses into the hip sixties, where people of all classes socialized and interacted. A brief anecdote about inviting a famous dancer to her table sticks out in my mind - what she describes, I'm sure, doesn't happen much these days, even with celebrity accessibility via Twitter.

In some instances, though, I read a passage and wish Boyd had gone into more detail. The Beatle courtship also reads a bit rushed. Some of what Boyd relays I remember from other books and accounts of peak Beatlemania. I can also forgive her here, for she had come during the touring years and therefore didn't have much access to the scene beyond receiving hate mail from fans. It isn't until Clapton enters the picture that Boyd is freer with detail, yet reading through Wonderful Tonight I got the sense that there is still more to tell here.

Boyd's voice comes off as sadly wooden, as though she's telling us okay, you've bugged me for years to tell my story, here it is. Having lived the life surely exhausted her, perhaps to the point that there is no emotion left for the book. As other readers of this book confirmed, I had a problem with the time-hopping in this work. Boyd tends to jump back and forth with anecdotes - she may start with an event that happened in the mid-sixties and leapfrog a decade, then come back. If you're the type of reader who craves chronological order, Wonderful Tonight may give you a bit of a headache. If you believe Eric Clapton can do no wrong, too, you may not want to pick it up at all.

What emotion I do sense in the book comes forth as pain, mostly where Clapton is concerned. I wouldn't say that Boyd's account of her second marriage is scathing, but if what she writes is the truth then my opinion of the man musicians call God is now virtually non-existent.

Once we're past the marriages, Boyd's life seems to waver between self-doubt and spiritual search. While she claims not to have gained financially from her divorces (she claims to be overdrawn often at the bank), she apparently has enough income to travel extensively, and the remainder of the book reads like a gossip column. She had dinner with Mike Rutherford of Genesis, she stayed at Ron Wood's house, met this person and that. More time is spent talking about other people, and not Pattie Boyd. We know who Mike Rutherford and Ron Wood are, Pattie, who are you?

I wanted to love this book, but at best I liked that Pattie finally came forward open up about her life. I still get the sense there's more to tell, however. That this book came out after George died made me wonder if she waited on purpose, yet she still lives now as she did when she was Mrs. Harrison, then Mrs. Clapton: as a young woman doing her best to maintain balance and harmony in her environment, and living by merely accepting what happens. I hope that's not the case. A woman who would willingly hang-glide without a thought for the outcome shouldn't be afraid to bare her soul.

Rating: C

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author who reads and drinks wine.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life - Steve Almond

So, what have I learned after reading Steve Almond's Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life (AMZ / BN)?

(You might consider these spoilers. If so, read with your eyes shut.)

1) Apparently there was a time when Styx wasn't cool before Kilroy Was Here.

2) Toto's "Africa" may well threaten "We Built This City" as the Worst. Song. Ever.

3) In the 80s, everything came with cocaine, even tote bags.

4) When I, too, contemplate the timeline of modern music technology, I realize I feel old as the author does. One day my daughter is going to find one of the cassettes we have inexplicably hanged onto - though we no longer have anything with which to play it - and ask, "What is this?"

5) I pretty much agree with the author's list of Rock's Biggest A$$holes. Glad to see Rush didn't make the cut, but they didn't have a chance.

6) Weird Al apparently had groupies back in the day.

You do get the flavor of High Fidelity in this book - it reads as part memoir and part music theory, exploring the things people do in the name of rock and roll and how the music affects us and the way we live. Not a bad pick for a music club. I look forward to the discussion.

Rating: B

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author whose titles include Rock Deadly and Pithed: An Andy Farmer Mystery.