Showing posts with label B Reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label B Reviews. Show all posts

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Summer Reading in Rock


Every summer I say I will read more, and every summer I flop on the couch and pray for winter to hurry up. If it's possible to feel too hot to read, I've achieved it. I fear I've reached a point in my life where I have to psych myself not only to read a book, but discuss it. Typically I pledge to read 150 books a year on my Goodreads account. This year I shot low - 50 - but I'll surpass that number. By how much, I can't say.

I've bought rock books, reserved them at the library, and put them away. I apologize for hitting the low curve of the cycle once again, but I have finished a few titles and have thoughts. I look forward to the later half of this year when biographies of Stevie Nicks and Artimus Pyle are released. In the meantime...

The Beatles Play Shea by James Woodall
a Kindle single - buy at Amazon


This title is short. I picked it up during a Kindle Unlimited trial that included The Handmaid's Tale and a Fred Stoller memoir. The sub-title on the cover misled me at bit. I had expected to read an actual history of the landmark concert at Shea Stadium and instead came away learning very little. There's buildup to the event but little substance, and at times the narrative strayed to other topics distantly relevant to the event.

Most Kindle singles tend to be essays that may appear in parts in magazines, or long chapters of current or future works. I get the impression it's the case here. Had I purchased this title instead of taken advantage of it during the KU trial, I would have been more disappointed.

Rating: C-


Altamont: The Rolling Stones, The Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock's Darkest Day by Joel Selvin
Buy at Amazon


I can't explain what it is about the Altamont concert that attracts me. I've seen Gimme Shelter and read other accounts of the day (there's a Kindle single about this, too, reviewed here). Somebody even made a short documentary about Meredith Hunter, the man stabbed by a Hell's Angel security guard. It's all history seems to tell about the day, but if the topic is new to you this book covers everything from the initial plans for the concert to its multiple tragic aftermaths.

I hadn't realized Hunter wasn't the sole casualty at Altamont, and I won't spoil the book's contents. It's an engaging tangle of ambition and opportunity in a time when the Stones struggled to compete for face time - with the Beatles fading from the picture, now they had to deal with the California sound and recent Woodstock alumni. Altamont was to have been the West Coast answer to the festival, and this book offers up a nice guide on how not to plan a free concert. It's a story that may make you angry as well, particularly when you read of Hunter's story and that of friends and family after the show.

Rating: B




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

~

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.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

Somewhere in the middle of Beatlebone (AMZ) the author squeezes in an interlude which explains the research that went into authenticating John Lennon's voice for this story, and the history behind Dorinish Island as once owned by the singer. Once you get to this part of the book you may think one of two things: 1) Uh, shouldn't something like this appear at the tail end of the story, like an Afterword?, or 2) Oh, thank God.

This is not to say the prose of Beatlebone will leave your eyes crossed. It's uniquely told, stream of conscious narrative married with rapid exchanges of dialogue, and given the focus of the book it's an appropriate presentation. I think that Barry's interlude in the middle works because it's unexpected, much like the things John experiences in this story, and perhaps unconsciously Barry tipped toward a similar "intermission" gag in the movie Help!

So it's 1978. Lennon hasn't cut a record of original material in about four years. He has a toddler at home and an island on the Western coast of Ireland, bought in the late 60s. He gets the idea if he spends a few days on this deserted floating rock and employs some Primal Scream therapy and chain smoking he'll rejuvenate his creativity. Getting there, though, is half the battle, most of the headache, and all over a trip more surreal than the back-masking on "Strawberry Fields Forever." Seems some of the locals are in no hurry to help John get to where he wants to go. In his de facto guide Cornelius, John find camaraderie and irritation in the same package. Cornelius wants to feed John blood pudding (not on a macrobiotic's menu) and drag him to a pub and help him dodge the press with a quick hideout in a hotel full of "ranters."

John just wants to get to the "fucken" island. What happens from there, a lost "album" spilling from John's mind like coming down from a magnificent high, is at once lyrical and bizarre. Makes you want to go back and find In His Own Write and Spaniard in the Works to see how they compare.

Barry writes in his interlude how he sees most Lennon-centric fiction as "character assassinations." It's easier to do when your subject can't speak up, but Beatlebone aims for an introspective John who doesn't treat everybody like crap. If you're looking for a more traditional narrative this book might drive you nuts, but it's worth the read if you can hold on.

Rating: B

Kathryn Lively did get to cross Abbey Road, but doesn't Scream.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

You Should Be Dancing: My Life with the Bee Gees by Dennis Bryon

My husband met two or three of the Gibb brothers once at a party. This would have been around the mid to late 1980s - he was a personal trainer with some rather well-off clients, one of whom was the wife of the heir to a specific brand name product. Long story short, her hubby was indisposed and she needed an escort to this party at the Gibbs' Miami home. I have no further details beyond "they seemed like nice guys," so don't ask if people were doing blow on glass-topped coffee tables before Crockett and Tubbs kicked down the front doors.

Anyway, I'd had this one Bee Gees biography on my radar for a while, but after seeing a number of negative reviews, including one detailing a mile-long list of factual errors, I mentally shelved it. Dennis Bryon's You Should Be Dancing: My Life With the Bee Gees (AMZ / BN / KOBO / ITUNES) came up for review and caught my eye. I hadn't seen the group's 1979 Spirits Having Flown show, but my husband (14 at the time) had, and still points to it as one of the best live shows he's ever seen. Bryon toured as drummer then, and his book provides detailed insider information when the Bee Gees peaked in sales and popularity. When I think of the Bee Gees, I tend to focus on the songwriting and vocal harmonies. A non-musician fan like me might forget that for five years they were supported by a solid band on stage and in the studio, so a book like this helps me appreciate the people who contribute to great music.

Before the Gibbs, Bryon grew up in Wales and dreamed of a life which didn't chain him to work as an electrician. After taking up the drums, he enjoyed success with the Amen Corner, a Wales-based rock/blues group better known in their native country. They rode high for about three years, then poof. Done. Bryon doesn't dwell much on the band's demise, hinting perhaps at a restlessness among some musicians and a desire to try new things. The band's split leaves him scraping for any work in the music industry, and he comes close to taking a tour manager position before a former bandmate steers him toward the Gibbs.

The heart of Dancing, of course, chronicles his tenure in the Bee Gees' band with Alan Kendall and Blue Weaver, arguably at the pinnacle of their career. Bryon's memory appears photographic at some points - there are passages where he describes the layout of a studio right down to the screws in the door hinges. He's kind to all the Gibbs and extended family, assigning personalities we probably would have guessed for each: Barry the devoted family man, Robin the quiet one, Maurice the joker. Every occurrence in this five-year period happens in Bryon's recall as though everybody involved wrote and rewrote music history with the greatest of ease. Of course, it's not entirely untrue given the success of Saturday Night Fever in this time.

Post-Bee Gees anecdotes are equally interesting, particularly his work with the doomed younger brother Andy. The aforementioned Bee Gees biography weathered criticism over a perceived vitriolic portrayal of Andy, but I found Bryon's memory sympathetic without being sugar-coated. Had Andy survived his addictions, who's to say Bryon's drumming career wouldn't have lasted several more years. (If you're tooling around Youtube tonight, Bryon appeared in the Andy Gibb episode of Gimme a Break! There's low-quality video here, he's at 1:02; then again here at 3:26 where he delivers a line.)

Overall, Bryon's narrative throughout Dancing comes off so positive, when you read about his unceremonious firing (via a phone call from a non-Gibb - a rather cowardly act), he doesn't seem angry enough. When you read about a guy going from six-figure advances for an album to zip you'd expect some anger to singe your fingers as you turn pages. You get the impression Bryon, though frank about money and marriage troubles later in life, takes a zen approach to things. He could hug Barry after putting time between the wounds, but while Bryon ends his story touching on the whereabouts of a few close friends there's no mention at all of the deaths of Maurice and Robin.

Another question lingering in the air: does Bryon feel his dismissal from the band affected the Bee Gees' popularity? General opinion points to the demise of disco, dragging the Gibbs into the pit with all the discarded mirrorballs, but it's important to note they continued to write several hit songs in the 80s...for other people. We can also look at numbers. Prior to Bryon joining the band with Alan Kendall, the Bee Gees released 11 eleven albums, only four of which charted in the US Top 20. Their next effort, Mr. Natural, barely cracked the Billboard Top 200, but here's the rundown with the Bryon/Kendall/Weaver combo (stats via Wikipedia):
  • Main Course: Gold (US); Platinum 2x (CAN)
  • Children of the World: Platinum (US & CAN)
  • Here at Last: Bee Gees Live: Gold (US, CAN, UK)
  • Saturday Night Fever: Platinum 15x (US); Diamond (CAN) - Number One in at least 9 countries
  • Spirits Having Flown: Platinum (US & UK); Platinum 4x (CAN) - Number One in at least 7 countries
Aside from the Staying Alive soundtrack and a greatest hits package, the Bee Gees haven't had a Top 10 album in the US since the dismissal of the Bryon/Kendall/Weaver grouping. Maybe changing the band played a role in sales, maybe not. The music made during this five-year span stands up well, and has a great beat.

An ARC was provided by the publisher for review.

Rating: B

Kathryn Lively writes, and reads.



Friday, February 13, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: B

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Snodgrass and Other Illusions by Ian R. MacLeod

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

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

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

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

Rating: B

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

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story by Vivek Tiwary, Philip Simon (Editor), Andrew C. Robinson (Illustrations), Kyle Baker (Illustrations)

ARC received via NetGalley.

Buy the book at Amazon.com.

One thing I've noticed in what's become my scholarly study on The Beatles is that one can find a wealth of information on the band, the individual members, and their chronological history. I may know more about John Lennon than I do my current president, and yet information on their manager, Brian Epstein, remains scarce. Pretty much everything I know about Epstein came from Peter Brown's memoir, The Love You Make. I know I tend to hold up that book as the standard, but years and years after I've read it, the memory is fresh.

There are Epstein-centric books, though, none of which I have read: among them a ghostwritten autobiography published at the height of Beatlemania that is likely sanitized to appeal to young fans, and a more in-depth history from Lennon biographer Ray Coleman. One could guess the lack in reading material about Epstein corresponds to the short time he worked with the band and the fact he died so young. I see pictures of Epstein and imagine a man beyond his years - always mature and serious - when in fact he was only six years older than John.

We can imagine the stress of managing an extremely popular group aged him prematurely. Not only that, Epstein dealt with social prejudices that rendered him depressed and unable to sleep. A public figure comes out as homosexual today and it may not be a big deal, but in 1962 to be gay and Jewish in a tiny English port town equated to painting a large target on your head. The Fifth Beatle, a new graphic novel fictionalizing the life of Epstein, opens with the grim image of Epstein suffering a violent act in what appears to be a hustle gone wrong in a dank Liverpool alley. It's a specter of shame and unrequited feelings that follow him through his short life, terrors he seeks to replace with success.

Fans know the legend - Epstein had little to no talent management experience, but knew the music business through the family chain of record shops. He attends a live show at the Cavern after hearing of the Beatles, and you know the rest. The Fifth Beatle vividly recreates this and other key scenes in Epstein's relationship with The Beatles with sharp characterization and moody colors. Unlike another graphic novel reviewed here (Baby in Black), representations of main and supporting players take on appearances that match their personalities - genuine and assumed. Brian comes off as enthusiastic despite weary expressions, John is sharp and smirking, and Paul exudes a gee-whiz cuteness. Darker scenes position people like Colonel Tom Parker in a demonic setting and Ed Sullivan as wooden (you'll see it soon enough), and Yoko Ono in an eerie cameo.

All through the adventure, Brian has a right-hand woman named Moxie. Whether she existed as a composite of personnel assisting the band and Epstein or as a figment of the imagination (not unlike Jessica Lange's angel/confessor in All That Jazz) remains up for debate. Her role in the story serves to heighten one thing we've always known about Brian Epstein - he was lonely. He had friends and family, and while he may not have been the savviest of managers he had the respect of four lads from Liverpool for a time. Nonetheless, he had no partner with whom to share his success, and that knowledge makes this story all the more bittersweet. His premature death in 1967 is arguably the beginning of the end of The Beatles - that's something I've believed for a long time. We can blame Yoko, but the smoke ignited when the band found themselves without management and couldn't easily decide on a successor.

Anyway, I've followed the progress of The Fifth Beatle for the better part of a year and looked forward to reading it. Overall, I liked the story and the illustration. Fans will easily spot the lyrical Easter eggs in the dialogue, but I find things like that take me out of the story and make it a challenge to take seriously (Clockwork Angels had this same issue). I will admit, too, there are known scenes of Epstein's life that didn't make it to this book. George is barely represented here, Ringo even less, and Pete Best isn't on the radar...unless you count blurred background Cavern images. Also missing or downplayed are moments of John's cruel humor, anti-Semitic and anti-gay slurs that reportedly drove Epstein to tears.

The Fifth Beatle is a welcome tribute to a figure sometimes marginalized in Beatles history. Petitions to get Epstein inducted as a non-performer in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame continue to circulate, and perhaps a book like this will bring more attention to the cause.

Rating: B

Kathryn Lively is the author of Killing the Kordovas, The Girl With the Monkee Tattoo, and The Rock and Roll Mysteries. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Nothin' to Lose: The Making of KISS (1972-1975) by Ken Sharp with Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley

ARC received from the publisher via Edelweiss.

Get this book now. 

As I sit to write this review, KISS is scheduled to perform where I live. Being elsewhere at the moment, it appears the opportunity to see the band play live has eluded me once more. I will admit, though, (and not to slight Eric Singer and Tommy Thayer) if the day does come I hope I get to see the original lineup. It would take a miracle, I know, but such sentimentality keeps me from spending money on acts that have replaced key players. When Rush puts Darren Stephens in place of Alex Lifeson, I'll know it's the end.

On this blog you'll find reviews of both Ace and Peter's memoirs. Where these books cover the entire span of KISStory and beyond, Nothin' to Lose does as advertised: it's a lengthy eyewitness account of the band's birth told in the oral history fashion similar to Sharp's other effort, Starting Over (also reviewed here). While this method of storytelling brings many voices to the forefront, I find this style risks the loss of an objective point of view. The book's introduction about KISS reads like a gushing fan letter, which didn't irritate me but did leave me wondering if any unflattering remarks or anecdotes didn't make the cut under the watchful eyes of Gene and Paul.

Nothin' compiles the memories of a huge cast involved in the band's genesis as Wicked Lester through their early association with Casablanca Records. More than thirty years after his death, Neil Bogart represents an enthusiasm for KISS's showmanship and drive through archived interviews - you also hear from early fans (many relatives and close friends of the original members), early road crew, former managers, and other musicians. Yes, I do give them points for an extensive section on the Rush/KISS connection, the Bag Man story, and an amusing picture of Geddy Lee covered in whipped cream that a few people I know will want to see.

You might wonder, how are Peter and Ace represented here? They do have voices, though Peter's contribution to Nothin' isn't as large as Gene and Paul's, and Ace appears less frequently. Nothin' to Lose offers a view of the early days of KISS with little evidence of in-fighting - maybe a few vocal concerns about drug and alcohol, but otherwise everybody plays nice. This doesn't mean you won't find gossipy bits to enjoy; I came away from the book with the perfect Boogie Nights image in my head about Casablanca. Nobody can accuse the 70s of being boring, and despite the healthy size of the book I wanted to read more. 1975, where the book technically ends, marks the beginning of the golden age of KISS. Tales of the humble start, from the tiny clubs and an odd Seinfeld connection, provide a wealth of memories for fans - perhaps this book's success will inspire a second volume.

Rating: B

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author who still hasn't seen KISS live.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin by Leslie Woodhead

Buy now from Amazon.

I will confess when it comes pop culture and music, I often take an American-centric point of view. If a band suddenly drops of the radar, I might assume they broke up or fell out of favor with their label, forever relegated to sixth-billing at state fairs. It may not occur to us that certain musical acts sell well in other countries. I know somebody who co-wrote a song that became a number one hit in South America. The US market is important, surely, but it's not the only game in town.

One can imagine what kids in the USSR did for entertainment, and if they even heard of The Beatles during the band's prime. As it turns out, the Fabs managed to breach the Communist bloc, serving as unofficial ambassadors of the West. Filmmaker Woodhead, responsible early in his career for one of the first clips of the Beatles in action (which you can view on the author's website), would discover the group's impact on Soviet youth as he filmed documentaries. His interactions with fans and stories of government-approved (and illegal) acts influenced by the Beatles are compiled in How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin.

If there's one appealing thing I found about this book, aside from the Russian perspective of The Beatles, is the author's honesty from the beginning - many Beatle books I've read are authored by fans...die-hards. Woodhead doesn't claim a high level of fanaticism, and I like that it lends an objective voice to this first-person narrative. Woodhead takes us through the Soviet Union, then later Gorbachev's post-glasnost Russia, to meet some of the more avid Beatlemaniacs of the East. Where my aunts could easily buy the Capitol-released albums at any store in South Florida, these comrades waited for contraband records to come in via various sources (sometimes first through port towns, though the children of the privileged class were able to get their hands on the music). Many learned English via the Beatles, and took up instruments in an attempt to keep the music alive behind the Iron Curtain. Then there's the guy with the Beatles shrine (the pictures included in the book likely don't do it justice) whose admiration of the band certainly rivals that of the most fervent comrade's devotion to the Party.

What you won't find in this book (aside from personal experiences relayed by the author) are stories of interactions with actual Beatles. McCartney's historic concert is covered, and serves as a bittersweet coda for those denied the opportunity to see the entire band and follow them as the rest of the world did. The true stars of Kremlin, however, are the fans who closely guarded their admiration for the Beatles in an unaccepting atmosphere. When I recall reading stories of "Beatle burnings" in certain American communities in reaction to John Lennon's "more popular than Jesus" remark, I find it interesting how people in the Soviet Union probably would not have had the opportunity to choose to burn a record - the government would make that decision. Yet, despite an ever-present government and rules, the Beatles managed to sneak through, proving nothing short of immortal (or divine) is impenetrable.

How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin is for the serious Beatles scholar, a fascinating history lesson about the power of music gradually chipping away at oppression. When you begin to read, you may get the impression you're in for some dry reading, but it is the enthusiasm of the Russian fans with whom Woodhead interacts that helps the book come alive. Fifty years after those four young men rocked the Cavern, they continue to rock the Kremlin, the British Isles, the States, the Internet...and that enthusiasm keeps the music alive. Sometimes, all you do need is love, and I know one place to find it.

An advanced review copy was provided by the publisher.

Rating: B

Kathryn Lively is the author of the Rock and Roll Mysteries featuring Lerxst Johnston: Rock Deadly and Rock Til You Drop, and of the collection of short stories, The Girl With the Monkee Tattoo.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV's First Wave

An advanced review copy was provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

When MTV joined the Cablevision lineup, it was the first stop I scrolled to on our cable box, the magical beige rectangle that increased our TV viewing options from six to FORTY-TWO channels. Oh, we were living large. MTV introduced me to music and bands that I rarely, if ever, heard on Jacksonville radio. Even in its infancy, MTV scooped radio by introducing us to artists who would eventually conquer several media. That girl with half her head shaved, leading a conga line through New York City? That Australian band playing in their underwear? I didn't hear them on the radio first.

To hear my parents tell it, you would have thought Satan purchased a TV network and started broadcasting on cable. Of course they hated it - I still remember the stunned, WTF expression on my father's face when Motley Crue's "Looks That Kill" aired one Saturday morning, and we couldn't switch to the next channel fast enough when my mother entered the den. They didn't want us watching MTV; they believed some videos with questionable content were too racy and/or violent for us impressionable youths. In the network's defense, I disagreed (but it's not like a ten-year-old had a vote in this situation). Early on, many videos amounted to footage from concert films and appearances elsewhere on television. Other promotional videos may have simply featured the band in a studio or on a stage with no bells, whistles, or whores (pretty much every video Rush filmed). Also, none of us kids ended up as juvenile delinquents or criminals as a result of prolonged exposure to MTV. One of us is a vice-president of something.

Today, I couldn't tell you on which channel you'll find MTV, or MTV 2 and whatever else has spawned. It's mostly crap now, and while I'm partial to good crap I go elsewhere for it. When I want to ride my mid-life crisis, I cruise through my YouTube playlists. One might argue we don't really need MTV anymore - it's no different from half the networks dependent on reality shows for ratings - and some may feel we might have done just fine without it. I personally wouldn't mind a rebirth - not necessarily to feed my appetite for nostalgia, but for an artistic marriage of video and music.

When I saw VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV's First Wave available, I knew I had to review it for the blog. In defending my desire to watch MTV, I had placed the original five VJs as Exhibits A through E - they looked like normal people you'd have over for dinner. There were no visible skull tattoos or piercings. You'd think between perky Martha Quinn and boyish-next-door goofball Alan Hunter I'd have a good argument for MTV not spearheading the decline of Western civilization. Thirty years later, I open to the first chapter of this book and Alan and Mark recall doing blow with various rock stars. I wonder if my mother would allow me to watch MTV now.

VJ, like Starting Over, is presented as an oral history, in that the four surviving VJ pioneers (the fifth, J.J. Jackson, is sadly no longer with us) round-robin their memories of the network's genesis and first half-decade. Of the quintet, Jackson and Goodman came to the network with the strongest backgrounds in radio and music knowledge, while Hunter, Blackwood, and Quinn were likely recruited to appeal to specific viewer demographics. Talk of money quickly establishes that this operation didn't work like Friends - it wasn't "all for one, one for all" when it came to salaries or perks. In fact, it surprised me to read how bare-bones the first VJs had it. Everybody learned on the air through trial and error, whether it was ad-libbing to fill space or appeasing a record label in order to broadcast videos. In my memory MTV seemed to run seamlessly from VJ intro to video, and back again. Bear in mind, it has been many years, and likely the VJs didn't get as much air time as I recall.

If you enjoy rock gossip without having to decipher blind items, you'll find plenty to like in VJ. You'll live vicariously through four voices regaling us with tales of sex (and failed attempts at it), drugs, and awkward interviews. Want to know which of your idols was an asshole, and which Top 10 ballad Nina Blackwood inspired? There are answers within. In between the juicy bits and personal vignettes, VJ provides a nice history of the network itself and its evolution from 24/7 music to a major influence on the entertainment industry. I especially found the chapter on MTV's coverage of Live Aid interesting, since for years I had been angered by how the VJs monopolized camera time during such an event. I could see Martha Quinn on TV every damn day...why would I want to watch her dancing while Paul Frickin' McCartney was playing "Let It Be" during the London finale? It's some comfort to know that cutting to her wasn't her call.

That said, I was also disappointed not to see any information on how MTV revived The Monkees. It did happen toward the end of Quinn's and Hunter's tenures, and how MTV handled the band following a FTA at an event (covered in Monkee Business) spoke volumes of the network's power to make and break musicians at the time. I am still interested in their perception of MTV as a music influence and if any other artists suffered due to the network's neglect. In the book there's mention of how MTV likely nurtured a short-attention span mentality, something that became evident personally when certain VJs left the network. Despite our general tendencies to find distraction, my memory of MTV's glory years remain strong. VJ is a fun reminder of the days video killed the radio stars...though I wonder if video is looking over its shoulder now.

Rating: B

Kathryn Lively is the author of the Rock and Roll Mysteries featuring Lerxst Johnston: Rock Deadly and Rock Til You Drop, and of the collection of short stories, The Girl With the Monkee Tattoo.





Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Rolling Stones Discover America by Michael Lydon

Buy The Rolling Stones Discover America (Kindle Single)

True story: when it was announced that The Rolling Stones planned to bring the Steel Wheels tour to my home town, I drew the short straw to get tickets. Now, this happened way before the Internet and refreshing Web pages on LiveNation to get good seats. I had to drive to Turtles Records and Tapes about an hour before the sale began and pluck a strip of paper from a hat as part of the "lottery" system. There were rules, too: you entered the store when your number was called, and you took the tickets they gave you. Fine. We all thought this was the Last. Stones. Tour. Ever. I'd play ball.

As my number is called and I'm walking toward the store, this guy stops me. Would I buy three more tickets for him and his friends. A store clerk sees this and says, "Do you know him? You can only buy your tickets. No cuts." You have to understand I was a good Catholic teenager who couldn't deceive anybody. Catch me in crosshairs and I start blubbering. At the same time, I'm thinking this stranger is about to screw up my only chance to see the Stones. My memory is blurry, but somehow I managed to get past the checkpoint and buy six tickets. The show sold out in about a week. We sat in the boonies and loved it, because we thought these guys were winding down and would, contrary to a song they covered, fade away.

That was 1989.

As I'm reading The Rolling Stones Discover America, I experience a touch of deja vu, even though this Kindle single recounts an earlier tour of America. After a long hiatus from the road, the band has decided to resume live shows, and the reaction is similar to the Steel Wheels frenzy. I imagine many fans scrambling to see the 1970 tour figured it was a brief gift before an eternal exile to the studio, a la The Beatles. Rock journalist Lydon covers the journey in Discover, a longish essay that paints vivid pictures of the people and places along this journey. It reads like a series from Rolling Stone Magazine, too, which makes sense as Lydon was a founding editor.

The further you read into Discover, you may think the real story lies in the periphery of the band - the fans, the media, the family, and the gofers and manager who orbit the group. Names are dropped, and some snippits of conversation provide amusement - like when Keith Richards predicts nobody in the band will get an MBE like John Lennon (no, but Mick would be knighted). You'll read a line about Janis Joplin and Tina Turner hanging out after a show and wish for more details. When you first get into the chapter on Altamont, you get the impression people sensed the show was doomed. And just as quickly as the action happened there, so it is as quickly retold.

This is a quick read, not necessarily about The Rolling Stones but the climate in which they existed - a time in music where bands and listeners straddled the fine line between mop-top innocence and free-love hippiedom. It is a prelude to future explosions - civil rights movements, Vietnam, etc. It's certainly not meant to be a definitive story on the Stones, but it makes an interesting chapter in their careers worth reading.

Rating: B

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author and book blogger.


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life - Steve Almond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: B

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