Sunday, April 23, 2017

Kicking and Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock and Roll by Ann and Nancy Wilson with Charles R. Cross

Once upon a time I had about a hundred eBooks housed in a library connected to an online retailer. If you know the site of which I speak, you know they folded at the turn of the year and gave customers a short window of opportunity to download and save. I managed to get twenty books to safety but unfortunately one of them wasn't my copy of Kicking and Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock and Roll, which I had purchased a few years back with the intent of reviewing here. I'm slowly working to replace what I lost, what I remember buying, anyway.

Not unlike the reading of the book, I seem to fall behind where Heart is concerned. I had become aware of their existence in the early 80s but didn't give thought to the singles out at the time. "Tell It Like It Is" and "This Man is Mine" were a bit too doo-wop and ballad-y for my tastes then, despite Ann's killer vocals, and I hadn't realized these songs weren't necessarily representative of the overall Heart sound. Then by the mid-80s they'd launched into this MTV, male-gaze video era with the gold corsets, big hair, and bouncing boobies before a backdrop of flashpots and lightning. It appeared a bit much, but that was the point of the 80s - excess for success, and Heart was a 70s band pushed to take those extremes to stay relevant and solvent. In a way it worked, because the frequent radio play encouraged me to seek out their earlier hits. It wasn't until a few years ago, though, I took the opportunity to see them live - both shows post-Hall of Fame victory laps. My daughter and I loved them, but with these recent family fallouts happening I fear there won't be other concerts.

Well, I got a replacement copy of the book. Upon finally reading it I find it's presented in "oral history" format with Ann and Nancy on a round robin storytelling pattern. There are a few books reviewed here that employ this writing method (VJ, Starting Over, Nothin' To Lose) and while it's not my favorite style I find it's effective when you have several voices in the chorus. Oral history books risk a breakdown of cohesion in telling a story, but more perspectives help to create a large picture and a better sense of time and setting, even if dates aren't exact. But for a few "guest shots" in this books - collaborators and former bandmates - the book is mostly Ann and Nancy, which is appropriate in a way, considering they are the most visible faces in Heart. For years I used to think Heart was strictly a duo. Shows what I know.

Kicking and Dreaming tells the evolution of the Wilson sisters' career in their own words, starting with a shared mobile military-family childhood through thankless gigs in Canadian bars and early battles with their first label. Similar to points in lives like Lita Ford's, the sisters contended with sexism in the industry (even from female execs - e.g. the corset years) and not-always faithful companions. They have great anecdotes to share, particularly about early touring years and the struggle to become known for original work rather than covers. One such story about John Mellancamp may encourage you to whack him upside the head when you seem him next.

For everything interesting in Ann and Nancy's journey, though, I tended to be pulled away from it at times due to the book's presentation. I note there's a third author listed and I'm not sure of his purpose, given the spots of spelling and syntax errors throughout the book. Other reviewers have noted continuity errors - incorrect release dates and such - but if I don't intimately know a band's discography I'm willing to forgive such things. Memories may challenge us, and I got the impression Kicking and Dreaming came out as a transcript with a perfunctory polish.

I appreciate Heart more than I did in my youth. Rock music is a male-dominated industry and I suppose we're conditioned to gravitate more toward male artists. Ann and Nancy challenged that norm early on by fronting a band, writing songs and playing their instruments. We see more women leading groups as a result, and if more are able to catch breaks in this business they have the women in Heart to credit. Kicking and Dreaming is a rich history with rough spots, but worth reading.

Rating: B-

Kathryn Lively is slowly recovering.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Spring Reading: Mama and Junior

Remember me? Yes, it's been quite a while since I last opined on a rock star memoir. Believe me when I say I hadn't intended to let Chez BTRU go stale, and though people who advise on the proper way to live as a blogger tell you not to explain long absences, I feel I owe one.

Since starting this blog I've posted reviews every other month - sometimes the gap is wider, but I deliver something. After posting my last review in June I had another book in my TBR and plans for a summer vacation of reading. Then in July, on the day we woke to leave for our trip, we were told my mother-in-law died. Helping to settle her affairs took the rest of the summer.

Fall brought school, more estate stuff, and the day job. During Christmas vacation I felt enough time had passed that I could resume reading and blogging...then I got laid off. The day after Christmas, no less. I lost January looking for work, and February and March dealing with two separate health crises in the immediate family.

So 2016 took some family, a job I loved, and all the cool celebrities, and the gloom left me sliding into 2017 with little desire to do anything. We're almost into April and I'm once again working to resume a productive life - productive in the things I enjoy. This past week I went book shopping and found a few gems to share.

Book Riot clued me in to California Dreamin' by Pénélope Bagieu, a graphic novel covering the first two-thirds of the life of Cass Elliot. As one fourth of the harmonious 60s group The Mamas and the Papas, Cass offered an amazing voice to the music scene. I'm not a die-hard fan, but I could probably name about a dozen hits off the top of my head as they were one of the more important bands of the era, bridging folk to pop and offering serious competition to the British invasion. Had Cass lived, I don't doubt she'd have continued a successful post-Mama career, if not in music then some hybrid of stage, cabaret and TV - hell, maybe a cartoon spinoff from that Scooby Doo special she did. She'd have been a riot on Twitter, too.

Bagieu's illustrative biography is more of a serial in that Cass's story (from early to age to the cusp of TM&TP's breakthrough) is told from the perspectives of the important supporting players in her life. Her sister gets a chapter, then her school BFF, collaborators, would-be lovers and rivals chime in to reveal the evolution of Ellen Cohen to Cass Elliot. Bagieu's artwork is loose and lush, not completely detailed scene for scene, but she gives enough distinction for each person portrayed - Cass's wide-eyed awe, John Phillips' austerity, Michelle's pixie beauty, and Denny Doherty's shaggy hippie charm. It's like Bagieu sketched out Cass's story as gently as possible, as though to provide some comfort to the young woman who put up with so much BS throughout her short life. I enjoyed reading Dreamin', but I would advise if you want to read this spend the money and buy it in print. Reading graphic novels via Kindle, even through the web reader, is a pill.

Rating: A

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I picked up Matt Birkbeck's Deconstructing Sammy after seeing it marked down through an eBook deal newsletter. It's not so much a biography of Sammy Davis, Jr. as it is a cautionary tale. I've read similar stories about entertainers, how one can generate millions of dollars over a storied career yet have nothing to show for it by the end. You can have an amazing voice, dance on ceilings without wires, and recite Shakespeare to make people cry, but if you don't have any money sense you're toast. TL;DR - If you want to major in drama, minor in business and read everything you sign.

Deconstructing is the more the story of Albert "Sonny" Murray, a former federal prosecutor whose involvement in settling Davis' IRS entanglements came at the behest of family and friends on behalf of Davis' widow, Altovise. Similar to the aftermath of James Brown's death, as told in James McBride's Kill 'Em and Leave (reviewed here), Davis died with his estate in dire straits, and survivors fighting over rights to exploit. Altovise wanted her Hollywood lifestyle back, Sammy's daughter wanted a musical made, but until the IRS got theirs nobody got anything.

Fixing the seemingly impossible fell to Murray, and as you read you may want to root for him the most, considering how the deeper he gets into Davis' "afterlife" the more unpleasant surprises await him. Davis proves as interesting in death as he did alive, in every sense surrounded by people stuffing their pockets. Birkbeck balances the timelines of Davis' life of extravagance and strife with Murray's determination to finish a job and frustrations in bringing his parents to financial solvency by helping to save their inn - the first in the Poconos to cater to black tourists. It's fascinating to read.

As I write this I'm not yet finished with the book. I wanted to contribute to the blog, and these titles seem to go together in that each tells a bittersweet story, in that you wonder what could have been with a longer life for Cass and a broader legacy for Sammy, a huge star in his time who hasn't enjoyed the exposure of a Sinatra or Elvis after his passing, but certainly warrants it. For now I'm giving the book a B but that rating might change when I finish.

Kathryn Lively is back...for now.