Sunday, October 26, 2014

Billy Joel by Fred Schruers

About four years ago, Billy Joel was to have published a memoir. The Book of Joel had gone to the pre-order on Amazon stage, with a cover and final manuscript turned in to the publisher. Two months before go time, Joel pulled the plug. I'll repost his quote as seen in an article about it:

"It took working on writing a book to make me realize that I'm not all that interested in talking about the past, and that the best expression of my life and its ups and downs has been and remains my music," he said.

Schruers had been hired by Joel to help with the project. An interview in Newsday details the journey from memoir to "semi-authorized" biography - the author notes in the book that while Joel contributed thoughts and clarifications, he left Schruers to his work.

Rather extensive, at that. Billy Joel (AMZcomes together through multiple interviews with friends, associates, ex-wives, and archives of articles and interviews with the Piano Man. The more you read, you do realize Joel had a point with regards to his music telling his story, and Billy Joel could be read in tandem with a binge listen of Joel's music. One would be hard-pressed to think of another American singer/songwriter with an equally extensive, autobiographical catalog. More telling that the story "stopped" twenty years ago with Joel's last album of original work, River of Dreams. Why that is, I won't spoil it.

You come to understand Joel as a private person with a very public career, and while he has no interest in rehashing the past it doesn't make the life lived any less interesting. Schruers documents everything from family struggles in Nazi-occupied Europe to the heartaches turned tabloid gossip: money mismanagement, divorces, substance abuse. Rock and roll problems suffered by one who doesn't necessarily lead the fabled lifestyle to match. It may be why, compared to stories of other musicians, I am more sympathetic toward Joel's struggles. He doesn't have to worry about his next meal, but he's still just like us

I enjoyed this book. It is detailed without being gossipy. You might come away realizing you're more of a Joel fan than you initially thought.

ARC received via NetGalley.

Rating: B+

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author and a book blogger. Her latest title is Killing the Kordovas.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Sound Man by Glyn Johns

It's rare that I have found a recent work for this blog that isn't a rock star memoir. While Glyn Johns had a very brief career as a singer (with modest success in non-English speaking Europe), he is known more as a producer and engineer. He had the great fortune of being present at the creation of many now-legendary albums. Can you imagine hearing Led Zeppelin for the time ever, before the records are even pressed? Johns has this enviable place in history, and when you pick up Sound Man (AMZ) you might expect a vivid portrait of 60s and 70s rock as it evolved and how the people who created the sound lived.

You do find it, to some extent. As Johns explains in Sound Man, he came to music with the intent of singing and performing when circumstances led him to the engineer's booth and kept him there for better part of four decades. This book, though, is more technical than dramatic, with Johns focusing less on his personal life (and therefore his relationship with many of the players) in favor of the mechanics of recording music. If you'd prefer to know the equipment and recording methods used to create Let it Be and Sticky Fingers you struck gold. If you want eyewitness accounts of groupies and candy bar urban legends...sorry. At best, you'll receive hints of behavior in the studio and notes on personalities Johns liked and disliked. He doesn't seem afraid to call out a unpleasant person or his opinion of how Phil Spector "puked all over" Let it Be.

If the science behind recording music fascinates you, you will enjoy Sound Man. You won't find any more personal insights on your favorite musicians that can't be read elsewhere, but the light personal touches and style of the book make it easy and interesting to read.

ARC received from the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: B

Kathryn Lively is an author and book blogger.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Rocks: My Life in and out of Aerosmith by Joe Perry with David Ritz

I like Aerosmith. I'm not die-hard Blue Army, but when I settle in for a long night of writing I always put "Back in the Saddle" at the top of my writing playlist to get in the mood. I can credit the band for jump-starting my last three books in a way, and I'm certain they'll be around for the next three.

I've not seen Aerosmith live but they're on the bucket list. As it happens, Aerosmith seems to be cursed where my town is concerned. At least three shows that I can recall had been postponed and/or canceled - one because of 9/11, one because of illness, and one because of a hurricane. I don't shake my head at juju, either. I genuinely fear for these guys if they ever do show up at the beach, like somebody will have a bad crabcake and pay dearly for it onstage.

Since I haven't followed their career, I see what I see, and most of the time it's Steven Tyler (I didn't even know the drummer's name until the Flaming Moe ep on The Simpsons). The flash, the scarves, the lips...a neophyte would think him the heart of the band. At the very least, a lung. I looked forward to Perry's memoir, Rocks (AMZ), because I'd get to read about a band on my rotation that I don't know very well. I enjoy reading these stories more to compare how these musicians rose from youth to legend. While Perry seemed to have come from familial stability, he didn't embrace his parents' zeal for academia but benefited from their support for his career choice. Deeper into the book you find Aerosmith's story doesn't really differ from other bands - dodgy management, waffling support from labels, and tension among band members. Every time I think I've read the epitome of the dysfunctional "brotherhood" (the Van Halens, Gene and Paul, Paul and John) somebody comes along to top it. Perry's frank description of Tyler's shenanigans make for the book's more interesting anecdotes, and I have to wonder how Perry made it this far putting up with him.

Rocks reads more eloquently than similar memoirs. I can't say if that's the influence of Perry's co-writer, but as I'm not familiar with Perry I don't his know voice beyond Aerosmith's music. One might seem put off in that it doesn't match the band's persona, but it didn't distract me from Perry's story. I got the impression Perry wants to reassure us that despite the history of drugs he is a "good guy." There's emphasis on his disdain for groupie collecting, for one.

Rocks will best serve the die-hards who love Aerosmith, and those who consider Perry an influence. There are pockets of good gossip here and there, but the narrative holds it back enough so it doesn't read as sleaze. An extended acknowledgements section about Perry's and Aerosmith's equipment reads like guitar pr0n for the musicians, emphasizing this book as one for those into the music.

ARC received via Netgalley from publisher.

Rating: B

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author and book blogger.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Summer Reads: The Spaceman and The Capeman

If you have followed this blog for a time, you know it happens in fits and starts. I prefer to read books published within a year or less at time of reading, and lately I've found it challenging to sit down and read for leisure. Work intervenes, family intervenes...everybody got the summer off but me. When I do get the opportunity to read it's close to bedtime and I hate to fall asleep and lose my place. We're already into August and I've managed to finish two books relevant to the blog, and in the interest of sharing my thoughts I decided on a catch-all summer reading post.

Since my friend Joe already reviewed Ace Frehley's book, No Regrets (AMZ / BN / KOBO / ITUNES), on this blog, I hadn't intended to read it for myself. A few months ago, I happened upon the book at a discount store, heavily marked down, and my husband bought it for me. I figured, having read Paul's and Peter's memoirs and one work where Gene's point of view is largely present, I should complete the set. This didn't take long to finish - it's a short book compared to the others and the style is easy and flows. One thing I did notice with regards to Ace's early life compared to his former bandmates is that he seemed to have come from a more stable home environment, with supportive parents and siblings. Nonetheless it wasn't enough to keep him out of trouble.

Like the memoirs of other KISS folk, Ace recalls his side of the story in chronological order - granted his history is shorter than others - and unlike others with a fair amount of brevity. No Regrets reads quickly, not so much because it's a compelling story but that Ace doesn't go too deeply into details (though he admits the memory is fuzzy due to abuse of various substances). For lack of another way to put it, too, the book doesn't read much as a general complaint of his treatment by Paul and Gene post-KISS. You read this and get the attitude you might expect from Ace if you met him personally - everything just rolls off his back and he soldiers on. If any resentment exists, Ace saves it for his perception of how the KISS machine unfairly treated friends and family, in particular his daughter.

In No Regrets, Ace insists friends and family address him by his real name, Paul. He definitely sits on the other end of the spectrum from the other Paul I've read this month. I wouldn't call Paul Simon: An American Tune (AMZ / BN / KOBO / ITUNESby Cornel Bonca a proper biography of the singer/songwriter, though the author touches on important events in Simon's life as they relate to his career. Tune is foremost a scholarly work, and thankfully not a wholly biased one because it allows the readers to study one interpretation of Simon's music, then decide if it's worth a listen.

Compared to Marc Eliot's 2010 biography (which I haven't reviewed here, but you can read my thoughts of it on Goodreads), Tune is a treat for die-hard Simon fans in that it appears better researched and less sensationalist. If you come to this expecting the standard unauthorized biography gossip - the failed marriages, the Garfunkel angst, that unsettling tiff with Edie Brickell earlier this year - you'll leave disappointed.

That's not to say Bonca doesn't explore the personal aspects of Simon's career. Not unlike his peers (Bob Dylan mentioned most often), Simon draws from real life to create, and Bonca deconstructs Simon's song catalog while interspersing brief histories of Simon's progression in his career. As you read Tune you may find amazement in the balance of Simon's failures and successes. Simon, and to some extent Simon and Garfunkel, has always seemed ever-present in pop culture since the 60s, but Tune points out the many struggles Simon faces to stay relevant, especially with the changes in music trends. How does a counter-culture folk/pop star thrive in the early MTV-era? Bonca concedes while Simon is not as prolific as some of his peers, the messages in his song holds relevance. I have to agree with that - the first original episode of Saturday Night Live to air after 9/11, and who performs?


So this is my summer so far. I also got my hands on an advanced copy of Joe Perry's memoir, and I'll be looking for Billy Idol's book in the near future. Just to be straight: you want Paul Frehley for the sexy rock gossip and the Paul Simon for the fascinating music history and criticism.

Paul Simon: An American Tune was received via NetGalley.

Ratings: B- for No Regrets; B for Paul Simon: an American Tune

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Book Series Review: The Garden of Allah by Martin Turnbull

The good news is I'm not dead. It's been an interesting Spring/Summer - a trip to Sicily, a book contract, pages of writing completed, and melting in the sun. I'm reading a storm, too, but lately I haven't touched any rock books. It's not for lack of titles: the books are there, and the ones I really want to read aren't out yet. I suppose I've hit a slump where I simply can't get into the subject. I have two on my TBR pile - another Kiss book and another Beatles book. I've done plenty of them, and I truly want to add some variety here.

I won't abandon those bands entirely, or rock books, but in the interest of keeping this blog from the stagnant, mosquito infested stage, I'm going to broaden the scope a bit and include reviews of books that focus on pop culture in general - music, film, TV, and some fiction. Recently I finished the latest novel in a series I can't recommend enough.

I picked up The Garden of Allah by Martin Turnbull after happening upon it after a round of Amazon roulette. The premise grabbed me immediately: three friends with ambitions in young Hollywood become acquainted in the lush community ruled over by actress Alla Nazimova. IRL, Nazimova owned property on which a mansion/hotel and a few dozen villas were built. She rented out to people in the industry - writers, actors, general gadabouts doused in whiskey and gin. You've heard of the Algonquin Roundtable, consider this Algonquin West. In this mix Turnbull places Kathryn the aspiring journalist, Marcus the aspiring screenwriter, and Gwendolyn the aspiring actress. Throughout the series they experience career and personal peaks and valleys and cross paths with the big names of the day: Mayer, Warner, Selznick, Flynn, Hearst, Garbo, Welles.

The Garden of Allah sets the series with this trio of friends working to gain footholds in their respective fields. Naturally it doesn't come easy, and you learn quite a bit about studio politics in the early days of film. The Trouble With Scarlett takes them through the greatest casting search in film history, with Kathryn longing to scoop the top dog gossips on GWTW news and Gwendolyn plotting to play the lead. By Citizen Hollywood, we're all struck by the cinematic genius of Citizen Kane...even those who'd kill to suppress the film.

Seriously, if you have a yen for Old Hollywood stories, you'll like these. I heard there are six more books planned, and I wonder how far Turnbull plans to take his characters. Will we see the infancy of Marilyn Monroe's career, or get caught up in Black Dahlia's murder all over again. I'm stuck waiting, but you can catch up.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Face the Music: A Life Exposed by Paul Stanley

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So for several weeks leading up to this year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction I saw KISS trending in nearly every news site I follow. I get updates from Ultimate Classic Rock, and I received a KISS e-lert every damn day for a month. Lot of yakking back and forth. "Paul did this to us," whined somebody. "Ace is still a damned drunk." Yada yada. I asked my KISS-fan friend Joe if they got this much press at the peak of KISS-mania and he said no. "Mainstream media hated their guts," he told me.

In this book, Stanley touches a bit on the derision and odd looks they endured from the beginning - from labels, critics, and peers. To read how he looks back on the past, it's clear he's not embittered by it. "No Drama" fast becomes a theme, but it's difficult to avoid. Stanley does admit his unwillingness to put up with the two-faced sort (using a blow-up with Slash as an example) and the desire to show up past naysayers (as illustrated in an anecdote about a high school reunion), but for the most part Face the Music is what happened and where with KISS, from inception to almost present day, as Stanley remembers. If you're expecting four hundred pages of "screw Ace and Peter" you will be disappointed - probably because recent media hype of this book may have led you to believe it's a bash-fest. Face the Music isn't all prancing unicorns, either, but it is brutal and engaging in its honesty.

Now, I reviewed Peter's book and I enjoyed it, too. I'm not yet on the KISS Army caravan but I own more albums now than I did in 2012. Since it's been two years since reading Makeup to Breakup my recall is shot, but I don't need to reread it to tell you how differently Peter and Paul tell their sides of the story. Before we get into that, though...

Stanley's pre-KISS years are marked by physical and emotional problems, everything from a dysfunctional family to a disability that luckily did not affect his musical ability. As with Criss, school offered little in terms of a future, and music proved the greater draw. Early interactions with Gene Klein/Simmons tell of a combined curiosity and skepticism that leads to a more "functional" dysfunctional relationship that remains intact.

Early KISS antics roll through the seventies on mounting credit bills and a steady climb toward fame that explodes with the release of Alive! - and the subsequent buffet of women and expensive things. I get from this book Stanley had more fun recalling sexual conquests than dealing with financial problems that plagued much of their career (understandable). Where Criss had issues with KISS merchandise threatening to undermine the band and make them appear cartoonish, for example, Stanley argues the decision wasn't any different from how The Beatles were merched a decade before them. People still go for their music, right?

When you get to the chapters on the big reunion and tours, you may think you have to choose sides. Were Ace and Peter used to generate cash, or were they asked back to recapture old magic in a setting that stood to benefit everybody involved? Stanley argues for the latter - despite having two other musicians on the payroll, the full costume/makeup tour with the original four happened as a way to end that lineup on a strong note. From Stanley's view, that was the hope, and it didn't work out that way.

And the accusations of racism that caused all the recent press? It's maybe three or four sentences, one of which is vaguely worded. Early on in this book you feel Stanley's discomfort as he remembers his first encounter with anti-Semitism (which involved neither Ace nor Peter), and it's Stanley's perception of his bandmates' overall behavior that likely prompted the remarks, if only to create a bigger picture of conflicts within KISS as you read. I can't say what Stanley thinks of Ace and Peter beyond what I have read here, but the passages read more like observation than accusation.

What he has to say about Gene, now... no, nothing to do with race or creed. I'll leave you with something to anticipate.

I enjoyed Face the Music. Stanley's enthusiasm for KISS as an entity, more than a band, is infectious. It ends in a good place, too. This went out before the HoF ceremony, and some might think that would make for a good coda to any story, but you read Paul's book and know he's nowhere close to finished.

Rating: A-

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author, editor and avid reader. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Wild Tales: A Rock and Roll Life by Graham Nash

I admit I am slow on the uptake at times. I hadn't realized Graham Nash put out a memoir until I saw it listed on the front of my library's Overdrive page. I had intended to read first a Bob Dylan bio (second attempt, different book - it will happen one day), but since I go through eBooks rather quickly I snatched up Wild Tales (AMZ) before somebody else did. I do like The Hollies, and we enjoy CSN(Y). My husband can scratch out a nice rendition of "Southern Cross" on his guitar; I wish I could say we were able to nail down the harmonies as well.

Before Nash delves too deeply into his personal history, he opens Tales with the story of perhaps the most important point of his career, where he comes to a crossroads (by air, on the way to LA) and must decide to divorce not only The Hollies, but his estranged wife. Waiting for him in California are his new love, Joni Mitchell, and Stephen Stills and David Crosby. Yeah, no big deal - three major hitters of late 60s music are chillin' in the same space. What's even more amazing are the collective resumes of this cast: Crosby has left The Byrds, and Stills is recently out of Buffalo Springfield. So technically CSN are the original supergroup. Take that, Damn Yankees.

Wild Tales chugs along quite smoothly and you could probably get through it in a day or two. Books like this are either so compelling you can't stop, or lack substance so you kind of speed through it. Nash's story kind of teeters. He doesn't spend a lot of time on his youth, which seems to parallel a bit with that of John Lennon - young man grows up in an industrial English town, befriends a future music partner (in Nash's case it's former Hollie Allen Clarke), discovers American rock and roll, and takes up the guitar to escape an inevitable future in a mill or mine. It's interesting to read how Nash and the Beatles cross paths throughout their earlier careers, and Nash's eventual dissatisfaction with commercial pop, which brings him to Joni Mitchell's door as relayed in the beginning of the book.

The first few chapters pertaining to CSN(Y) read like a description of the longest dysfunctional yet most successful open marriage ever. Nash maintains the group remains active to this day, even if people don't speak to each other for years and tour with different bands and so forth. It's a turbulent love story co-starring more than a few female lovers in common, money gone missing...all liberally dusted with enough blow to fill a canyon. You listen now to harmonious ditties like "Helpless" and "Long Time Gone" and wonder how they were able to keep the tempo slow when they were all jacked up.

The last quarter of the book summarizes Nash's activism and recent honors (HoF, OBE, etc.). If you're into the Tea Party, you probably will leave Wild Tales pissed off. As a memoir, though, Wild Tales lives up to the title. If you enjoy good dish and name-dropping, even if you're not into the music scene of this time, it's an entertaining read.

Rating: B-


Kathryn Lively is the author of Killing the Kordovas and the Rock and Roll Mysteries, Rock Deadly and Rock Til You Drop.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Please Be With Me: A Song for My Father, Duane Allman by Galadrielle Allman

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I should know more about The Allman Brothers Band than I do, which (until I read this) isn't much. I've lived my entire life south of Mason Dixon - with half of that spent in areas still affected by Allman influence. Indeed, while reading Ms. Allman's biography it surprised me to find so many coincidences:
  • The author and I share a birthday, though we're separated by a few years.
  • Her uncle Gregg received a liver transplant at the Mayo Clinic right around the time my father did.
  • She lived eleven years in Jacksonville, FL. I lived there for 22.
  • Duane and Gregg Allman lived very briefly in Virginia Beach as children, where I live now.
  • In the book's prologue, Ms. Allman talks about finding a Rolling Stone with her father on the cover in an Athens, GA thrift shop. I lived in Athens for a time, and I have a good idea which store she mentions.
Spooky, eh? Maybe the last two tibits are a stretch, but seeing the birthdate was pretty wild. I also share the day with Gene Simmons and Gopher from The Love Boat.

Coincidences aside, I still acknowledge I should know more about The Allman Brothers. While not a Jacksonville-based band like Skynyrd and Molly Hatchet, the ties the brothers had to the music scene there shaped the legend. Perhaps for a long time, Ms. Allman knew as much about her father as I do - she was only two when Duane Allman perished in a motorcycle accident in the early 70s, a few years shy of the mystically unlucky 27 that stalks troubled musicians, and shortly after the band's grand commercial breakthrough. Please Be With Me is the culmination of her journey to meet a man everybody else (even strangers) knew and loved. 

To complete the puzzle, Ms Allman relies on the memories of colleagues, family friends, and relatives to recount Duane's life story in vivid, lyrical prose. You can taste the salty air of Daytona Beach, where Duane picked up chords through his adolescence, and follow the scents of bougainvillea, whiskey, and weed all the way to Macon and back. When you read stories of rock legends, however, you wonder about the accuracy of detail when everything comes to you second and third-hand. One reviewer on Goodreads of this book voiced some skepticism that Ms. Allman's book holds 100% accuracy. I don't know if this opinion is based upon further research on Duane and the Allmans, or just conjecture. I say, sometimes an urban legend holds a kernel of truth. Did a brother really arrange to severely injure himself to get out of the draft? Were there tensions with the Grateful Dead and in Clapton's Layla sessions? Chances are, you'd learn of different opinions as these events happened.

I thoroughly enjoyed Ms. Allman's book, which is partly a biography and partly a tribute not only to her father but the family that surrounded them. The strength of the narration carries you deep into the story that, for a moment, you almost forget the tragic outcome and want to remain where the music plays.

Rating: A

ARC received from NetGalley

Kathryn Lively is a mystery writer and book reviewer.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Eminent Hipsters by Donald Fagen

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Over ten years ago I wrote a short mystery novel called Pithed: An Andy Farmer Mystery. The protagonist is a middle-aged high school teacher who, in one scene, comes to adopt a rescue dog his son brings home during a free weekend from college. The dog's name is Becker, named for one-half of Steely Dan, but since Andy prefers the name Steely Dan that's what he ends up calling the dog. What does this have to do with my reading Donald Fagen's book? Not much - it's just that I usually preface these reviews with some kind of relevant anecdote, and this is the best I could do. Either that, or I could complain about having misplaced my copy of Fagen's Morph the Cat CD after only one listen. At least this way I've plugged a book, and I could use the money.

Anyway, I've had Hipsters out from the Virginia Beach library for about two months. It would come up for return and I'd renew it. It traveled with me during Christmas break, when I chose to read Doctor Sleep and a few books for my Pulitzer bucket list instead. No slight on Fagen, but there's something about the winter weather that takes the piss out of me. I don't want to do much of anything, and as I'd just come off a long writing jag I suffered a deeper exhaustion. This past weekend, facing yet another e-mail from the library, I picked up Hipsters and finished it in a day and a half.

This is not exactly a memoir. There are vignettes where Fagen recalls life as a teenager in New Jersey as an underage patron of jazz clubs, as a fan of subversive late-night radio, and as a hapless victim of G. Gordon Liddy's zeal. Most interesting is his piece on Jean Shepherd, which Slate reprinted in December. Like Fagen, I'd been aware of Jean Shepherd before A Christmas Story, yet this essay is not unlike peeling back a scab. Fagen's disappointment in his discovery of Shepherd as a grouch unhappy with the direction of his career is palpable, and perhaps a reminder that meeting our idols isn't always a good idea. What's especially interesting is to read the second half of this book, a day-by-day journal of Fagen's tour with Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald, to see how Fagen exhibits similar curmudgeonly behavior. He plays to audiences that either look as though "they'd been bused from nursing homes" or are comprised of "TV Babies," anybody born after 1960 waiting patiently for "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" and likely leaving disappointed. I should take offense at Fagen's alleged derogatory term, but I have to smile at the imagery he paints and can almost smell the Ben-Gay.

Eminent Hipsters might disappoint Steely Dan fans looking for something more substantial about band history. I liked this book because I can relate somewhat to Fagen's youth and middle-aged frustrations. I stole many a night listening to "subversive" radio (only for me it was Dr. Ruth, not Jean Shepherd) and enjoyed music and books beyond my years. There are no eminent hipsters in my history to speak of, but I suppose that means I'm due to become one.

Rating: B+

Kathryn Lively is an author of mystery and romance. Her latest novel is Killing the Kordovas.