Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Weird Al the Book by Nathan Rabin and Al Yankovic

When it comes to things like music and movies, my siblings and I used to seldom agree. Growing up, one listened to country music, one to Christian rock, while I had the Beatles and the Doors in heavy rotation on my turntable (look it up). Rarely did we ever go out together for an event where one of us had to be dragged against his/her will. The only time I recall our willingness to be seen in the same place was when Weird Al Yankovic played the Florida Theater during his Off the Deep End tour. Funny how songs about television and food can unite a family. We haven't attended a concert as a group since.

On a message board dedicated to another music act we have a thread dedicated to the genius of Weird Al - yes, when you think about it, Al does more than switch out lyrics to popular songs. He writes funny original songs as well - some topical, some macabre (Al was singing about psycho Santas before it was cool), others sticking to the comfort zones of food and television. The amazing thing about Al, though, is that after 30+ years in the business he continues to dominate the comedy music genre. Singers come and go, and some stubbornly refuse to budge - we can argue that Lady Gaga replaces Madonna, and Taylor Swift replaces Shania Twain...but I can't think of one heir apparent to Al. He's got it locked.

When I saw Weird Al: The Book, I wondered if it was produced in similar vein to The Compleat Al, a parody documentary of Al's life which is (I think) out of print. It surprised me, therefore, to discover this is a serious (but not devoid of humor) biography of Yankovic presented in a pseudo-scrapbook format with Rabin's research interspersed with numerous pictures and input from Al - commentary and a selection of the singer's best Tweets. If you have seen the Behind the Music special on Al, you probably won't find anything new here aside from everything that's happened since the special first aired: marriage, family, and an untimely tragedy. As Al intimated at the beginning of the VH1 show, he was surprised anybody would want to profile him, given he hasn't lived a life of scandal and debauchery, which for many equates to interesting.

So, you won't find any crooked skeletons in Yankovic's closet - no dish from ex-girlfriends, no mug shots, no reports of squandering royalties on troll dolls. However, being Weird Al does not come free of headaches. I found his clashes with his record label interesting - you do come away learning a bit about how the industry works, and what some people will do to empty a consumer's wallet. You'll also learn that it doesn't always pay to be the biggest fish in certain ponds.

As it's written and presented, you get the impression Weird Al: The Book is for the fans, and if you're die-hard into Al you probably already own it and don't need me to review it for you. If you like Al's music, it's worth a read to gain more insight into the parody process - it's more involved than you think, and Al is more than just weird.

Rating: B+

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author and book blogger. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Who I Am by Pete Townshend

When Pete Townshend's book was initially released, I heard on my local classic rock station that he immediately regretted writing it, and wished he didn't. One can understand this - when you put your life in a book you expose yourself to the world and risk emotional infections. I write fiction, and while I don't have a readership the size of The Who's fan base I still feel queasy every time I announce a new title. Just as with non-fiction, and even song writing, there's a piece of yourself in everything you publish. As a lyricist, Townshend no doubt shared plenty of his life through song, and Who I Am serves to deconstruct his life in music and on the fringes of the industry.

He seems - to me, anyway - to tell his story with some hesitation. When my husband saw me with the book he cast me the patented "wink-wink, nudge-nudge" smile, as though expecting something sordid like recent musician bios I've read (*cough* Mick Jagger *cough*). Even if you have casually kept track of Townshend's career over the decade you've probably caught all the juicy bits - from the mystery of his sexual preferences to the addition of his name to a sex offender registry. These instances are covered in his book, though not dwelled upon for more than a few pages. Neither are the events of his youth ostensibly connected to these later issues revealed in great tabloid detail. Perhaps Townshend's memory has failed him when it comes to recalling the abuse he claims to have suffered at the hands of his grandmother and her friends, or maybe he deliberately chose to focus more on his professional life. If you are a die-hard Who fan and concern yourself more with musicianship than gossip, you will likely appreciate how the book is structured.

For somebody who seems reluctant to write his memoir, he offers a rather large product - Who I Am checks in at 500+ pages which breeze through a tense childhood with entertainer parents and the early days of The Who, through the peak of their stardom and Townshend's struggle to balance work, family, and various vices with his growing spirituality (just as The Beatles found enlightenment with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Townshend embraced the teachings of Meher Baba). There are gossipy anecdotes as well, including same-sex flirtations and one tale putting Townshend in the awkward position of distracting George Harrison while Eric Clapton made a play for Patti. The things we do for friends.

Some reviews I've read of Townshend's book complain there isn't enough information despite the book's length. I'm neither a casual Who fan nor a die-hard - I'm in the middle somewhere, I'll watch Tommy when Palladia runs it - but I enjoyed the book, more so than many of the memoirs and bios I've read this year. Being a writer, I suppose I appreciated Townshend writing about writing, songs and fiction and rock operas.  When he does open up about heartache, infidelity, and conflicts with band mates and others there is an air of honesty (and in some instances regret), and while you might not sympathize completely with him you may come away from reading Who I Am satisfied that you read a good story. I am.

Rating: A

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author and a book blogger.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Guest Review: No Regrets by Ace Frehley

Guest Review by Joe M.

I became a huge fan of KISS in the sixth grade. I find it amazing that a band gets to such popularity on word of mouth alone. The entire first wave of KISS took place without MTV, without YouTube and with very little radio airplay. I was a fan of Ace's, and I wanted to play guitar like him. He is the person who first inspired me to pick up the guitar more seriously. Later on they became too cartoonish for me, mostly due to the merchandising and Phineas T. Barnum-impersonating Gene Simmons.

I picked up Ace's book, No Regrets, because I was looking for another rock bio and my Amazon preferences led me here, as they say. My dear friend Kathryn reads and reviews them here, and somehow these have always proven to be great late-night conversation fodder for us. We enjoy sharing details of bands and their books and do, like most people, discuss what we read, watch, and listen to.

Ace starts his adventure in his youth and spends a lot of time talking about his seemingly nice middle class upbringing. He came from a loving home, had hard-working parents, went to Lutheran school, and all was a nice time growing up in the Bronx until he decided to join a gang. Ace's life moves more into juvenile delinquency, but all along he remains a student of the world and his surroundings. He can diffuse things with humor which he displays in abundance in this book with intelligence. Yes, I said it, intelligence. Ace is definitely a bright guy. Funny, too. He almost became a graphic artist instead of music, and even designed the KISS logo that we see today.

He takes us through the KISS story by letting us in on the early inner workings of the group. Gene and Paul were introverted, nerdy, and not the "ladies men" they would later turn into. Ace got his nickname by being the Ace, the one who got all the girls. He was a master at talking to girls. He had and still does have the gift of gab.

So does Ace let Gene have it in this book? I'd say he does, but he also is very kind. I won't reveal how the "Gene issue" goes but I think it's an interesting part of the book, but not all. Ace does not blame anyone for his misadventures except himself, and what misadventures! His drug use and abuse, alcohol, glue sniffing and car crashing is legendary. As someone who lives between where he lives and NYC we often heard stories by locals of Ace's misadventures. All are documented here.

The book is well-written, and he had help via Joe Layden and John Ostrosky, but having heard Ace speak in interviews the voice appears to be his. The events in the book, any of which could have taken his life, are described in vivid detail. He takes responsibility, and yes, this is a rehabilitated individual who chooses not preach about it. He's surprisingly sensible throughout and values his relationships and honors his family as much as humanly possible for a person in his state. There could have been more detail about KISS and his relationships in the band. This book is heavy on Ace and somewhat light on the rest of the band. There is great detail on the early days, and it gets lighter about the band as the book goes on. He does take the high road here, in a lot of places.

There is plenty of dirt, as these books are made for it, but there is not a lot of dirt on other people in here. Sure you'll get a good back story of the infamous Tom Snyder appearance (YouTube it, Ace was drunk and on fire!) but you won't get a lot of detail about Peter's departure or Gene's money-making schemes. Even with the lack of KISS dirt, this is a great read and I highly recommend it. It went fast, too fast, and was hard to put down. You don't have to be a KISS fan to appreciate it, the story of Ace is enough to carry the book because there is just so much story to tell. Amazing he has lived to tell it.

Rating B+

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Makeup to Breakup - My Life In and Out of Kiss by Peter Criss

I didn't become aware of KISS through the radio as I did with other bands, but through other kids during after-school care. Their older siblings had the records and merchandise, all of which trickled down to younger listeners. My earliest memory of seeing the band in the pre-MTV era was a television airing of KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, much talked about the next day among the elementary school set. Perhaps it's fitting, considering the direction of the band's early marketing efforts - it's no wonder that the band's original drummer expresses frustration in his memoir that he preferred to work as a musician in a band like the Stones rather than a commodity in a group like The Monkees. I don't profess to be a member of the KISS Army (I don't own a single album or compilation), so at best I'm a casual listener and often captive observer, considering how expansively the KISS brand is still advertised.

I picked up Peter Criss's book, Makeup to Breakup, after my closest friend told me he was reading Ace Frehley's book (look for a guest review on that one soon). He went into Ace's book already knowing much of the story, being perhaps a more avid fan, and from the notes we've compared it may be safe to say Criss's book delves a bit deeper into the "KISStory."

The story opens with a jolt more intimidating than any full makeup live show, where Peter briefly contemplates suicide after riding out a rough California earthquake. While an unwavering faith in God and devotion to family ultimately pull him back, this event seems to symbolize the shaky ground on which Criss has walked through much of his life, from early beginnings running with gangs to false starts with fledgling bands until his first meeting with Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley.

Criss and co-author Larry Sloman paint a rather vivid picture of the drummer's youth and pre-KISS days. As with other musician memoirs I've read in recent years (Sammy Hagar's for one), the requisite juvenile delinquency sets the stage for an interesting life. George Peter Criscuola stood out in school and in the neighborhood, and not necessarily in a good way. A stint in a gang helped toughen him for life on the road as a drummer, yet he left his tenure with KISS a victim in many ways.

Criss notes here that Simmons has painted him as the complainer in the group, and if Criss's word is to be accepted over the other band members he has good reason. Criss's desire to play in a band apparently conflicted with Simmons's desire to play up a brand - profits from the KISS-logo condoms, coffins, underwear, etc. aren't likely to hit Criss's bank account, and the resentment is strongly felt in this book. It's interesting to note, too, that Frehley had designed the iconic logo that the band markets with fervor.

But this is a review of Makeup to Breakup, not a critique of the band's marketing strategy. I find that as I read books like Criss's I become torn emotionally. The guy had millions at one point, and one might find it challenging to feel for him when he hits a low point personally and professionally, especially when you read of all the coke snorted, the women banged and tossed away, etc. In some chapters Criss appears unapologetic for certain actions, and when you come to the point where you want to close the book and leave him to reap what he sowed, you read about how the KISS machine drew him back in so they could make more money off the Catman, and you feel insulted right along with him.

What may win you to Criss's corner, KISS fan or not, is his unwavering appreciation for his fans. Criss may never see a dime from sales of lunchboxes and t-shirts, but at the end of the day he knows the KISS Army formed for a love of the music, and his contributions are no less important than the other members'.

I imagine hardcore KISS fans will debate over whether Criss is entitled to his financial share of the legacy or if Simmons and Stanley acted with benevolence in giving Criss a "second chance" after years of drug abuse on the job. Either way, fans now have a third point of view of the KISStory to consider, and it's worth reading.

Rating: B+

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author and book blogger.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The John Lennon Letters by Hunter Davies, ed.

I was fortunate enough to be in New York City when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame annex was still open and promoting their exhibit on John Lennon's years in the city. Like the mother museum in Cleveland, the annex also forbade photography so I'm unable to share images other than what I can describe. One display that particularly struck me was a collection of John and Yoko's writings. As my companion and I studied the entire case I noted with interest the snippets of Yoko's short, instructive poetry. "Would you look at that," I told my friend, "Yoko invented Twitter."

I've also read somewhere, and perhaps Yoko said it, that were John alive today he would have embraced social media and made frequent use of it. We can only imagine (sorry) a verified Twitter account for John or a Facebook page he might use as a soapbox for political and social commentary. Maybe, too, like George Takei he'd push the occasional funny LOL Cat picture, having had a fondness for felines toward the end of his life. It would be fun to follow him, but after having gone through The John Lennon Letters one has to wonder how much we have lost since the social media boom. A co-worker recently complained that one problem with smart phones and the rise of texting and photo sharing is that this growing activity nurtures a society of people who won't look each other in the eye. One could argue that a society that accepts information in 140 character increments may one day lose appreciation for the art of the letter, and conversation. This collection of Lennon's correspondence does more than offer the fan a more complete picture of the Beatle and activist, but reintroduces us through Lennon a fading culture.

Within this thick book you'll find an impressive collection of written history from Lennon's point of view: everything from memos to doodles, and postcards and short notes to more thoughtful letters. Many are personal and many are professional - if you have read earlier bios of Lennon and the Beatles, you may have seen some before. A few that strike out in memory include Lennon's early love letters to girlfriend/wife Cynthia Powell and a few scathing missives to Paul McCartney post-breakup.

Editor Davies, also a Beatles biographer and acquaintance of Lennon's, includes with each entry what information he could find behind each entry. While perhaps not a complete collection, Davies gives us the full spectrum of Lennon era, from youth to middle age. Reading some of these letters will reintroduce you to Lennon's quirky sense of humor while also showing a compassionate side other biographers don't always showcase so well. Just when you think you've read everything about Lennon, too, a newer book tends to offer a surprise or two. Without going into detail, I will add I found especially interesting what Lennon had predicted about his older son, Julian, as well as a sense of loyalty to his mother's relatives, with whom he corresponded when possible.

The John Lennon Letters has the look and feel of a coffee table book - you could probably jump back and forth reading the letters and notes, but reading all the way through creates a more rounded picture of Lennon by Lennon. If you are mostly a digital reader now, as I am, you'll find the price for hardcover well worth the investment.

Rating: A

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author and book blogger.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Cyndi Lauper: a Memoir by Cyndi Lauper

Buy at Amazon.

These days, it isn't enough to show admiration for a favorite musician or actor. You have to be on somebody's team. Are you Team Edward or Team Jacob, Team Gale or Team Peeta? Ever notice you don't hear much about Team Bella or Team Katniss - it's as though both need a man to be complete. But, I'm getting off track here. The reason I bring up the team concept in the first place is because one could argue it has its roots in the earlier pop culture. The Beatles versus the Stones, etc. I'm dating myself here, but I still remember reading in the teen pop magazines of this supposed rivalry between Cyndi Lauper and Madonna.

We were led to believe they hated each other, and vied aggressively for the same fan base - like there wasn't room for both in our Sony Walkmans (see the dating I did here). So it did come as some surprise to read in Cyndi's memoir that the two, while not the best of buds, actually got along in the brief moments their paths crossed. In reading the rest of the book, control appears to be a major theme in Cyndi's life, in particular a lifelong struggle to hold onto it and make the right decisions, even if they don't result in phenomenal professional success.

One thing I am reminded of in Cyndi Lauper is how her solo career exploded. We marvel now about Lady Gaga's meteoric rise to fame, but it's important to note Cyndi was no different thirty years prior. She's So Unusual was fricking huge for its time: four songs hit the Billboard Top 5, a feat no other solo female artist had managed before then. An album's release timed with MTV's infancy (and perhaps peak) only helped project her voice and unique style. As a middle school Catholic girl on the westside of Jacksonville, Florida, I was enthralled. People didn't look like Cyndi Lauper where I lived, or dance with reckless abandon down busy streets, not giving a damn what other people thought.

It was awesome.

Cyndi didn't display the blatant sexuality of Madonna or the endless string of clones that popped and fizzled in subsequent years, which was something I had always liked about Cyndi. Yes, she looked unusual, but she had the talent to back it up. It used to baffle me that she kind of disappeared after two albums. Yeah, she'd show up in a movie or TV show, but not the way Madonna did.

Well, now I know why. Cyndi's frank account of the progression of her career in music is laid out in her unfiltered voice. It's a true lesson for anybody who's sought the attention of a record label. When you read of her successes you want to be happy for her, but as Cyndi tells it even at the heights somebody wants to give you a reason to look down. It's not enough to have one of the biggest selling albums of decade - you have to carry home an armload of trophies and sell out every show. If you don't, and refuse the tow the line, the label finds another way to spend the marketing budget. Cyndi's determination to remain the architect of her career helped her grow professionally despite her superiors looking for artists who would play nice. What you do learn in this book is that Cyndi never went away. A harrowing history of abuse and disappointments helped toughen her for work conflicts, while life with friends in the early days of AIDS strengthened her compassion and determination to speak for equal rights.

Readers may be drawn to Cyndi Lauper the way fans are to reunion tours, as an opportunity to relish nostalgia. Reading Cyndi's autobiography not only sparked memories of a girl who wanted to have fun, but allowed me to appreciation a woman who continues to find her own fun, her way.

Rating: B+

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Clockwork Angels by Kevin J. Anderson and Neil Peart

When I first heard Neil Peart would collaborate with author Kevin J. Anderson on a fiction project connected to the latest Rush album, I was intrigued. For about two years, since the release of the band's single "Caravan," we waited for something - anything - resembling a larger project that might necessitate a tour for support. The hardcore fan base saw that wish realized with the release of Clockwork Angels the album (which I do enjoy) and the corresponding novel of the same name, which crafts the various themes of Peart's songs into a story that blends steampunk and fantastic imagery with the humanist ideals for which the band is known.

If you follow Rush religiously (sorry), you may find the former elements curious, since steampunk isn't something one would associate with them. Having browsed Anderson's bibliography, steampunk doesn't appear to be a major genre for him, and I would hesitate to place Clockwork Angels the novel solely in this category. As I read the story I didn't get a true sense of time to go with the settings - odd considering time is a primary theme. One could see this as a fantasy or dystopian adventure as well.

Anderson and Peart's clockwork world is comprised of a few major continents and cities with names drawn from mythology and ancient tradition: Posiedon City, Atlantis, and ancient name for the island of Great Britain. Here the people seem more apt to pursue manual labor, save for those who study at the Alchemy College. We are told that the country of Albion had suffered turmoil and crime before the appearance of the benevolent and enigmatic Watchmaker. For the following two hundred years through the present day, Owen's bucolic home of Barrel Arbor, the more cosmopolitan Crown City, and surrounding villages live in peace and punctuality. You can literally set your watch by everything that happens, from the distribution of national news to changes in the weather. All is for the best, as the Watchmaker is known to proclaim, and few people argue with those words.

The two who do challenge this order have different motives. Owen seeks adventure and the opportunity to live out a story he can tell his grandchildren one day; the legendary Clockwork Angels who parrot the Watchmaker's maxims draw him to Crown City, and the wonder of a traveling carnival entices him to extend his journey. The story's antagonist, the Anarchist, creates havoc in hopes of waking people to the realization that the Watchmaker doesn't exactly have Albion's best interests at heart. The way he carries on, of course, makes one wonder if the Anarchist's view of the world is any better.

In keeping with the story's connection to Clockwork Angels the album, an assortment of song lyrics and characters provide ample references, perhaps a bit much. A reader more familiar with Anderson's work than Rush's may be able to breeze through the book without making many connections, but I have to admit I found the Easter egg-style lines distracting at times. Anderson doesn't limit himself to the recent album, either, in this respect. A character shouts, "Presto!" and I know there's more to it than the parlor trick he's performing.

What disappoints me more about this book, however, is the overall style. Between the many instances of telling instead of showing (and this is not another song reference) and repetitiveness of narrative and dialogue (more than once the author has Owen recapping his adventures and echoing lines) made it difficult for me to appreciate the story. I get the impression, too, that maybe the author hoped to attract the YA reading audience in addition to Rush's older fan base. Owen's young age and the dialogue may imply that, but I think of other books I've read in the dystopian YA genre (most notably The Hunger Games) and find them more sophisticated in style and dialogue.

Clockwork Angels had the potential to deliver a thought-provoking adventure, but the writing just didn't grab me. When I think of the other Anderson/Peart collaboration, the story "Drumbeats" (reviewed on this blog), I find I enjoyed that more. For its length, "Drumbeats" is a tighter story with better dialogue - it is also in first person, which makes me wonder if Anderson had attempted Clockwork Angels in that POV would the story be improved.

Will you like this book more if you're a Rush fan? You certainly don't have to be one to read it. The book hasn't changed my perception of the album, but I do know I'll revisit the songs more than the story.

Rating: C-

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author and a book blogger.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Mick: The Wild Life and Mad Genius of Mick Jagger by Christopher Andersen

When I picked up my copy of Mick: The Wild Life and Mad Genius of Mick Jagger, I'd forgotten that I had read a previous work by the author. Christopher Andersen has made quite a living with biographies of political figures and select celebrities. This, in fact, is not his first book about Jagger, and since I have not read Jagger Unauthorized I cannot reveal whether or not Mick is a dressed-up revision of the former. I'm willing to bet not - though as I read the Goodreads summary of the previous book it pretty much details everything I have read in Mick. The only difference is that Mick continues Jagger's story through the new century.

It's amazing, too, that we're still talking about Mick and the Stones fifty years following their debut. Jagger remains relevant in song and pop culture - he recently hosted a season finale of Saturday Night Live, his name is practically synonymous with confident swagger, and the band plans to tour in 2013. I still have my stub from the Steel Wheels tour in 1989 - I'd thought that would be my last chance to see them live. Good thing I didn't bet money on that belief.

Back to the book. I finished this over a weekend. Where Mick is short on words (it's a good 200+ pages shorter than Keith Richards's Life, which I will read one day), it definitely makes up for the many instances of glossing over his young life by piling on the gossip. I would imagine, even if you don't follow the Stones religiously, you're aware of Jagger's reputation with the ladies. Here, you get names - lots of names. In fact, one could probably summarize this book as comprising:
  • The history of Mick Jagger's sex life.
  • The history of Mick Jagger's narcissism.
If you have followed Jagger's personal life and career, I doubt you'll find anything here to surprise you. As a moderate fan (one concert and ownership of a greatest hits compilation) nothing in this book shocked me. I'd heard the stories of bisexual romps and Jerry Hall's never-ending pursuit of a ring and a date, and while it appears Andersen attempted to arouse curiosity through a blind item about a tryst with two Shindig! regulars a trip to Wikipedia solved that mystery. This led me to question how well this book had been researched - among events presented as fact included the legendary Mars Bar incident of '67, which and others have refuted.

Readers are called upon here to merely accept many things happened - Mick slept with this woman, punched that photographer, then slept with that woman. Andersen's simple style actually left me bored as I read, which baffled me. Jagger hardly seems the boring type. Of course, I did find it a challenge to sympathize with him through chapters detailing his lack of parenting skills, and loyalty toward friends who didn't want Jagger messing around with their women. 

Philip Norman, whose bio of John Lennon I have read, publishes his Jagger bio in October. It will be interesting to read this take in comparison to Andersen's to see if there is more to this man.

Rating: D

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author and book blogger.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Amy, My Daughter by Mitch Winehouse

One might have shaken his head on hearing of Amy Winehouse's death last year. I will admit I was not familiar with her music when she was alive, and much of what I knew about her came from the tabloid press. For a time - to me, anyway - she seemed more famous for her antics and addictions than her talents. When somebody posted an "RIP Amy Winehouse" thread in a message board, however, my first reaction had not been one of expectation. I had genuinely thought it was a joke, because I thought she might just miss entry in the dreaded 27 Club. I don't know why I felt that way - I suppose I read enough entertainment news and see stories about people who abuse their bodies and systems yet continue to tick. Earlier today somebody on my Facebook timeline posted a picture of Keith Richards bearing the caption I've outlived Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, and Elvis. Betcha didn't see that coming.


These days, when a person of note dies you're likely to find Amazon swell with self-publish cut and paste jobs that cobble together Wikipedia pages and blog articles to create a "biography" of the dearly departed. A few people thought enough of Amy to try to make a fast buck off her name, but when I picked up a copy of Amy, My Daughter (AMZ) I noticed author Mitch Winehouse has pledged the money he makes from this book to the Amy Winehouse Foundation, established in 2011 to assist various charitable interests in the UK, in particular involving people suffering addiction. As one might expect of a memoir by a close relative, Daughter is part love letter, part therapeutic exercise. It is a short book, one you could probably read in a few days, and rather blunt in its execution. Winehouse does not wax poetic, but rather lays down what happened when, who was there, and how he felt at the time.

Some reviews I've seen of this book accuse Winehouse of presenting a one-sided story; really, would you expect different from a grieving father who claimed to invest his time and energy trying to help his daughter overcome drug addiction? Through much of the book he recalls cycles of abuse and regret, with "I'm going to stop" becoming a tired mantra of Amy's up until the end. There's also no love lost for her ex-husband, on whom he appears to have settled the blame for Amy's decline, or the ex's parents, dismissed as leeches who saw Amy more as a wallet than a member of the family.

As this story is not told from an unbiased point of view, it is difficult to get the full story, and Daughter reads like a diary in that you don't get the impression other people close to Amy contributed. It would be interesting to one day read Amy's story from different vantage points to get a fuller picture and determine one thing I didn't wholly glean from this book: how Amy started on this self-destructive path. One day early in her career she's smoking cannabis...what prompts her to start? Peer pressure, curiosity, a desire to fit in? Only one person can answer that, and unfortunately we'll never hear from her.

If you followed Amy's career more closely than I did, you may enjoy Daughter for what Winehouse likely intended it to be: a tribute. Even as he recalls moments of tension and embarrassment, there is an underlying tone of pride and love. Amy should be remembered for her music rather than the negative press, and in time hopefully history will allow for that.

Rating: B-

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author and book blogger.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Natural Woman: a Memoir by Carole King

I may have told this story on another blog, about the Christmas I was to receive my first "grown-up" stereo. I had asked for one that year, and gladly informed my parents that I required no more gifts other than the stereo if money was a deciding factor in whether or not I got it. Right now, I couldn't tell you the brand - it might have been Panasonic or any other name that's since been eclipsed by Apple - but it came with a built-in tape deck and turntable, and AM/FM tuner. If you're under twenty and reading this, you're probably wondering what the hell I'm talking about. In truth, I'm surprised you're reading this at all.

Getting off track here. Of course, with the stereo I required actual records and tape to play on it. I was long ready to graduate from the cast-off 45s from my parents' record collection (lots of Elvis and doo-wop groups) and crank up the music I wanted to hear. I was pleased to find in my stocking that year three wrapped cassettes to go with the stereo. I'd asked for Joan Jett's I Love Rock and Roll. I got ABBA's Waterloo (okay, I liked that one song), The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds (acceptable), and Carole King's Tapestry.

Who? asked the eleven-year-old for whom popular music didn't exist until the late seventies, and even then there was no Carole King on the radar. Not wanting to insult the gift givers (partly, perhaps because I feared I'd lose the stereo), I gave Tapestry an obligatory listen. Now, you'll probably expect the next sentence to explain how the music blew me away and changed my life forever, but actually what happened is I sat there listening to this mellow-70s schlock staring at some barefoot hippie chick and grousing that she neither looked or sang as cool as Joan Jett did.

The life-changing moment didn't happen for years - not until college when my appreciation for music broadened and Tapestry became a voluntary choice on my hit parade. I eventually played that cassette until King's voice warbled and stretched and the tape spilled from its casing, so badly I couldn't loop it back in. If you're under twenty and still with me you may not understand that last sentence, but there is a chance you're familiar with King's work.  As one of the most prolific songwriters of the rock era (over 100 Billboard Hot 100 hits to her credit or co-credit), her songs have been recorded from The Beatles to Amy Winehouse. If you watched Gilmore Girls, you know her music through the show's theme; if you've seen The Simpsons episode where Lisa sings "Jazzman," you know her music. If you watched Antenna TV's recent Monkees get the idea.

I looked forward to reading A Natural Woman as a sort of companion to another book that similarly covered the early to mid rock era, The Wrecking Crew. Where that book chronicled the history of the musicians who supported some of the biggest acts of the 50s-70s in the studio, King - alone and with various partners, including then-husband Gerry Goffin - handled the writing aspect of the business for artists who required it. King recounts rather quickly the circumstances that brought her from a childhood in New York City with aspirations to act to a position as songwriter for some of the top hit-makers in the country. Reading it, King makes it look so simple - you walk into an office with an appointment, show off a few demos, and you're handed a contract. Everything in life should happen so easily.

Years slip with great speed through A Natural Woman - there's marriage and kids, success in the early 60s like "Loco-Motion" and "One Fine Day," (through much of the book I'd blink and say, "I didn't know she wrote that one!") and professional growing pains. The threat of the British invasion - in particular bands who write their own material - is countered with King's association with Don Kirscher and a lucrative turn writing for The Monkees. I was a bit disappointed to see this era relegated to such a short chapter, as I've read in other books of tensions between Mike Nesmith and various songwriters. What valleys in her career and personal life King does share are done rather quickly.

The transition from cubicle songwriter to singer-songwriter and the classic Tapestry reads fast as well. It should be noted that King acknowledges in the beginning of her book that memory isn't as constant a companion as it used to be - indeed, her book reads like a chronological vignettes in short chapters. She jams with these artists, she meets James Taylor, she meets John and Yoko, etc. These bits of fascinating history weave into a (and please forgive this) tapestry of words and song lyrics.

I did come away from A Natural Woman with a greater appreciation of King's music, for others and her own work. I am reminded, too, that it's time to replace that worn cassette and add Tapestry to my iTunes roster. I did hope for more stories of the early part of King's career, but I did find this book a reference to a period of music history worth remembering.

Rating: B+

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author and book blogger.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll's Best-Kept Secret by Kent Hartman

While searching for a Monkees biography for a timely review, this title popped up in the recommended widgets. I had known for some time that the Monkees did not play in the studio for their first two albums, and it occurred to me other groups of the day would have made use of studio musicians. That the majority of the best-known songs recorded during rock and roll's first few decades had been performed by a core group left me wanting to know more, and author Hartman's meticulous biography of "The Wrecking Crew" traces their history from the days when popular music shifted from deep-voiced crooning to raucous rockabilly and on through the eclectic seventies. Some names are familiar, others not so much, but in a way that is probably fitting, given that the music (no pun intended) seemed to take center stage.

Kent Hartman's account of this group's evolution in The Wrecking Crew (AMZ) puts focus on a number of players, some within the crew and others the peripheral movers in the music business who benefited from their skills. Some names may be familiar with students of early rock -- drummer Hal Blaine who coined the moniker, the lone female Carol Kaye, and the rare crossover success story, Glen Campbell. For much of the 50s through the 70s, when singing groups tended the dominate the charts more often than actual bands, the Wrecking Crew handled the majority of studio performances, including songs by Simon and Garfunkel, Sonny and Cher, The Beach Boys (some of the crew would actually tour as ersatz members), The Monkees, The Grass Roots, The Fifth Dimension, and so forth.

The Wrecking Crew presents the evolution of the rock era through a series of vignettes that paint a colorful picture of the industry -- from tales of Sonny Bono's ballsy maneuvering into the business to dealings with the enigmatic Brian Wilson. The book presents a most fascinating history.

Rating: A

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author and book blogger.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Monkee Business by Eric Lefcowitz

I will not apologize for having been (and remaining, to some extent) a Monkees fan. I came into the mania during its third trip around the sun, in the mid to late 1980s. Some may argue this MTV-encouraged wave of Monkeemania served as the pop group's initial comeback, but others will confirm that a less-prominent renewal of interest in the band and accompanying TV show happened in the mid-70s when The Monkees enjoyed a healthy run in syndication. No doubt that gust of wind propelled Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones to team up with their prime songwriters - Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart - to tour. Of course, many people my age may remember what MTV did for them - good and bad. Sadly, with the recent passing of Davy Jones, we are reminded that subsequent reunions may become less likely with each passing year until the "final" reunion happens.

Back when MTV still aired music videos instead of tanned trash, they devoted a good amount of air time to Monkees  reruns to commemorate their 20th anniversary. Long story short - the network gifted the Pre-Fab(ricated) Four with a new audience, myself included. Seriously, I had it bad - I bought all the Rhino reissued vinyl, I collected the Tiger Beat and 16 issues devoted to them, I subscribed to Monkee Business fanzine, and I begged my mother to let me and my friend Angie go to Gainesville to see their reunion show. Fifteen years old, and granted permission to take my first overnight trip without adult supervision - just me, Angie, and her older sister...all to moon over three men twice our age. I still regard that experience as one of the best in my teen years - I still have the program, and a stack of dark photos taken a mile away of three Monkees blurs walking across a stage.

Now, we can argue about music quality and whether or not The Monkees deserve to be mentioned in the same breath with "real" musicians. As I understand it, Mike and Peter came to the Monkees with some musical ability - it wasn't really an issue of the Monkees being unable to play their own instruments, but rather were they allowed. This is one issue discussed in Eric Lefcowitz's Monkee Business, (AMZ) which is (according to a listing on a revised and expanded edition of his original book The Monkees Tale. I had not read the original version of Tale, which I will presume ended the story somewhere in the 70s since ads for the book had run on MTV during the mania period and therefore would not have included that comeback history. A similar book, Monkeemania by Glen A. Baker, came out around the same time and seemed more accessible - I'd received that one for Christmas instead of the requested Tale, but unfortunately I no longer have it. I'll have to rely upon my faded memories of that book and the Peter Tork chapter of Bruce Pollock's When the Music Mattered to make any comparisons to Monkees Business in terms of accuracy.

I recall Lefcowitz from the many "Monkee Minutes" that aired on MTV in the mid-80s. They seemed to set him up as the de facto expert on the band, and we'd learn little tidbits like the story behind the UK alternate title to the song "Randy Scouse Git," and how Stephen Stills auditioned for the group, etc. I came into Monkee Business knowing much of the trivia and hoped that a revised edition of Tale-cum-Monkee Business might offer deeper insight into the band's story. When you really think about it, The Monkees and the people behind the brand (Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, Don Kirscher, etc.) not only inspired much of what we see now on television and music ("boy bands", music videos) they pioneered practices that have influenced creative minds.

The TV series broke the "fourth wall" and allowed the band to speak to the public and expose the backdrop of their production. One scene where Micky leaves the set to talk to the show's writers probably worked as a gag on Family Guy at one point. I had hoped to read deep into the workings of the show and the creative process in the studio - one in which the group weren't necessarily encouraged to participate - but I have to admit Monkee Business left me wanting at times. The book was a quick read for me, one that gave the impression that I had read more of a detailed summary of The Monkees than a deep history.

To be fair, I'm writing this as somebody who went in knowing quite a bit about the show and group. A Monkees newbie may find Business a valuable source of information, and I will admit I learned a few things. I had not realized, for one, that many markets refused to air the show, and this contributed to lower Nielsen ratings. Also, while I'd assumed low ratings axed the series, I hadn't known that the group provided some push toward cancellation, and that the band still enjoyed some level of popularity in this time.

What struck me about the book, too, was the overall impression that most players in the story had been cast as unsympathetic. Rafelson and Schneider saw The Monkees mainly as a meal ticket and springboard toward better things (not untrue, Monkee profits in part allowed them to film Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces), while the band members themselves clashed personally and professionally. The suggestion of a long-running tendency toward self-sabotage did help me understand the dramatic career nosedive in the late 60s and again in the mid-80s - it still amazes me to think that one broken commitment to MTV spurred the network to shun the band altogether and foil any hopes of a lengthy comeback. A scene in The Simpsons has Marge discussing The Monkees with her therapist, who bellows that The Monkees weren't about music, they were about "rebellion"! Reading Business, one can see how that rebellion affected them negatively.

So, did I like the book? Well, yes and no. For me, Business served as a way to rejuvenate memories of my teen years and my free-fall into 80s Monkeemania. As a book, it didn't offer anything new to me aside from a few points of trivia and the revised, updated content, which covered the various reunions and projects in the 90s and early 21st century that I missed. Even then, all points seemed glossed over - they did this TV special, they made that album. They argued and split up again. For me, an ideal book on The Monkees would cover detailed anecdotes of show production and interaction with guest stars, and even recollections of actors who appeared as guests (Rose Marie and Monte Landis are still kicking, surely they have something to contribute). I remember in Monkeemania, for example, an incident where Mike Nesmith left Carole King in tears that was only glossed over in Lefcowitz's book. Were there more clashes between the front group and the wrecking crew working behind the scenes? What toll did Monkeemania in the 60s and 80s have on their relationships with family?

If you know absolutely nothing about the Monkees beyond the music they made and have come here by way of a search on Davy Jones's passing looking for more information, you will probably find something to enjoy in Monkees Business. The die hard fan like the ones who ran the fanzines and now operate the websites probably have more insight on the guys and would view this as a simple primer. As the band might put it, it's a stepping stone.

Rating: C

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author and freelance writer.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Shoulda Been There by Jude Southerland Kessler

After finishing a work of magic realism that focuses on the return of John Lennon to the world stage (John Lennon and the Mercy Street Cafe) I set my sights and my Kindle to another fictionalized Lennon story, this one quite ambitious in scope. Author Kessler spent more than twenty years researching the life of Lennon - interviewing people once close to the man and the band he help form, visiting landmarks and poring over countless Beatles archives - in order to take on the monumental task of telling Lennon's life story. There are plenty of biographies already, another one came out last year, but Kessler's take is unique in that her version of Lennon's life is novelized and thoroughly detailed, with practically every move made documented.

As I've gathered from the author's website and other sources, Kessler has intended to write three books to span Lennon's forty years. Shoulda Been There (AMZ) and Shivering Inside are currently available, and She Loves You is forthcoming. I've neither read nor investigated the second book, but I would argue that Shoulda Been There is probably the most ambitious of the three projects. This book alone chronicles half of Lennon's life, beginning with the day of his birth and taking the reader up to the "birth" of the Beatles' relationship with Brian Epstein. These two events bookend just over twenty years of history that include Lennon's childhood at Mendips, tensions between his mother Julia and Aunt Mimi, the evolution of the Quarry Men into the Beatles as they conquered the Hamburg music scene. Each chapter ends with an author's note that dissects fact from conjecture, and in some instances serves to correct myths that have surrounded the Beatles legend. Some readers may be put off by these notes appearing throughout the book, as though they might pull people out of the story. I didn't feel that happened to me, but the notes are rather short and not disruptive.

Having read several Beatles books and biographies over the years, I went into Shoulda Been There knowing the story. As a novel, Lennon's story makes for provocative prose, and Kessler is to be commended for undertaking such a project. Where the writing is concerned, Kessler does well in evoking a sense of place, though there were times I wondered if she relied on reader familiarity with the characters in play. Instances of point of view shifting, or head-hopping, proved distracting. One thing I would suggest if you are unfamiliar with the slang of time is to browse the helpful glossary Kessler offers at the end first before reading the book.

I found Shoulda Been There enjoyable and true to the Lennon history as I have known it. It's obvious Kessler takes great care in presenting her subject and is devoted to authenticity. With more than half of Lennon's life covered here, it will be interesting to see how the pace of the other books differ.

Rating - B+

Kathryn Lively is the author of Rock Deadly, a Mystery (Book One of the Rock and Roll Mysteries) .

Friday, January 20, 2012

Beatles Fiction in Review: A Date With Mercy Street

I should preface this post by explaining why the site hasn't been updated in a while. The short answer: I took a break from reading relevant titles, and when school started for the little one I lost track of my many leisure pursuits. During this time, I fully intended to revive the site and read more rock-related novels and bios, but few caught my attention enough to draw me to read. I started a Bob Dylan bio, set it down, tried a Tom Waits book, put it down, and so forth. I supposed I needed to be in the right frame of mind to pick up the genre again.

Recently, though, I learned that the New York Beatles Fest was coming back to the Meadowlands in March (yes, that's technically New Jersey, but anything in the area is labeled NYC for reasons I don't ask to have explained) and I'm planning a trip up with the little one. I've longed to attend a Beatles Fest for years - when I was a teenager in Florida I used to get the catalogs and newsletters from Mark Lapidos, and hoped one day to get to Chicago where the main event is held annually. I like that there's a second event in the NYC area because it's closer, and I like that Micky Dolenz is one of the headliners. Just sounds like an awesome event.

With the Beatles on the brain, I took advantage of the high and tucked into two quick novels, both inspired by the same subject but entirely different. John Lennon and the Mercy Street Cafe is a work some would call "magic realism" in that the contemporary setting is enhanced by something extra that can't be classified as fantasy or paranormal. The protagonist, advertising executive Amy Parisi, is dissatisfied with her work and her love life, and basically feeling low about everything that goes on in between the two frustrations. Who doesn't experience this, yes, but few people are able to find a diversion in a private John Lennon concert. Amy can't quite believe it herself when she happens upon a cafe situated on a street that isn't supposed to exist, and sees a man who is supposed to be dead strumming on a guitar and singing to empty chairs.

What is John Lennon doing back in New York nearly thirty years after his death? He isn't sure, either, and Amy isn't sure why she's the only one who can see him, and the cafe - which appears as an abandoned storefront to the rest of the world. A chance (or perhaps fated) meeting with a writer named David begins a journey for Amy...and David and Amy's ex-boyfriend and John as they try to determine the purpose of their existence. What does Amy truly want in life, for one, and why is John back?

It may sound odd for me to say now, "Here's where it gets weird." I've thought a long time on how to explain this book. It can be split into two sections: the Mercy Street period and what I'd call the Time Warp period. Without getting too much into detail, this motley crew ends up driving across the country and ostensibly through time, sharing John's music and ideals while John absorbs the influence of the times. When the trip comes full circle the impact hits home, and isn't exactly welcomed by everybody. Lennon's entanglements with the FBI are no secret, and author Hammett injects a bit of government intrigue into the story. In truth, I enjoyed the story while it stayed in New York, but got lost on the road trip. While I understood what the author intended to convey, but I suppose as a reader I was more interested in seeing Lennon experience the culture shock of returning home after thirty years to see what had changed - particularly among family and friends. Mercy Street Cafe is quite a trip, but it took a different route I didn't expect.

Compared to this work, A Date With a Beatle will probably take you less time to read because the prose is much simpler. I actually did read it in about a day, not necessarily because I found it riveting. It's a short book, with very short chapters, and it's just a quick read with a basic plot threaded through enthusiastic teen dialogue.

The protagonist is Jude, a hardly mild-mannered Beatlemanic determined to meet her one and only - quiet George. Marketing for the book implies this is a true story, and it may very well be, but there is a definite roman a clef feel to the book. Luckily for Jude, she is close enough to New York and other points on the map to cut school and con her way to the boys' hotel for a hopeful encounter. Along the way there is a scuffle with another "number one" Beatles fan and a few law enforcement officers who've had enough of the screaming girls.

Other reviews of Date I've seen compare the story to that of I Wanna to Hold Your Hand, a movie about a group of rabid fans trying to meet the Fabs. I've not seen the movie myself, but I'm sure author Kristen's book benefits from the personal experience and memory felt throughout the story. There really isn't much more I can say about it because it is simple. Boy is one of the four most famous people in the world, girl wants to meet him. Who didn't back then, or now?

Ratings: John Lennon and the Mercy Street Cafe -  B- ; A Date With a Beatle - C

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