Showing posts with label John Lennon. Show all posts
Showing posts with label John Lennon. Show all posts

Monday, November 27, 2017

Once There Was a Way: What if The Beatles Stayed Together? by Bryce Zabel

Buy Once There Was A Way at Amazon.

Read author Zabel's biography on Goodreads, and you'll find an impressive resume steeped in sci-fi and speculative fiction, and it's not limited to book format. Once There Was A Way is an alternative history, and while it is a work of fiction I hesitate to call it a novel. It's not a narrative in the traditional sense, like previous Beatle-related fiction reviewed here. Ian R. MacLeod's Snodgrass stands out in my mind because it also asks "what if?" That story followed John Lennon in a life of near squalor, having left The Beatles before reaching any level of international fame. Once offers not just a "what if" but "what could have been."

The book begins in 1968 at the dawn of the Apple age, with John and Paul about to announce its genesis on The Tonight Show. Immediately the trajectory veers from actual history. Reality shows (or it would, if the full footage still existed) John and Paul had to settle that night for a substitute host, Joe Garagiola. Book John and Book Paul have enough sense to hold out for the real thing, and Carson jumps.

From there we're treated to a story laid out in lengthy Behind The Music style as The Beatles flirt with divorce but ultimately agree to probationary periods of togetherness for the sake of keeping Apple viable and solvent. They agree to completing film and album commitments, yet take turns gazing longingly at the exit. Unlike bands that stay together for the paycheck despite passing their prime, The Beatles continue to spin gold.

Zabel threads in non-events ingrained in band lore (the invitation to Woodstock, the Lord of the Rings adaptation) and makes them happen. As the band's life span lengthens, so some of the individual achievements in song become those of the group. Some moments in the story seem almost too far-fetched and Forrest Gump, even for speculative fiction, but as escapism it inspires a smile.

My big issue with the book was the style. Once I realized I didn't have a straight narrative story I felt apprehensive about following through. The strength of Once There Was A Way comes in the characters. If you're big on The Beatles you're more likely to enjoy this than a non-fan. After getting through the initial chapter about The Tonight Show, I found my groove and finished this with good speed.

As for how long The Beatles remain together in this book, and who survives to the end, I won't spoil it. I will say Zabel's ending probably reflects the feelings of a number of fans who had hoped for more after 1970.

An ARC from Netgalley was received from the publisher for the purpose of this review.

Rating: B-

Kathryn Lively is looking for her next book to read.

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.

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

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. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

When They Were Boys: The True Story of the Beatles' Rise to the Top by Larry Kane

ARC received from NetGalley.

Purchase the book from Amazon.com.

Some of you may be groaning to see yet another Beatles book reviewed on this blog. What can one possibly learn from a new title, and how can we be sure this is the true story of the Fab's early years? Having read so many books over the decades, one would think I could recite the story by heart. So many Beatle "insiders" and witnesses to the early days of Hamburg and Liverpool - it's nice to know so many are still kicking after fifty-plus years - and it appears that journalist/writer Kane has attempted to include as many as possible in When They Were Boys. This book doesn't cover the whole of the Beatles' career, but concentrates on the beginnings of the Quarrymen through the mid-1960s at the stirrings of the takeover of America.

Beatle die-hards know Kane's name - he traveled with the Beatles as a reporter during their 64-65 American tours, and he's authored other books on the band. Personal encounters with the boys are represented here in conversations peppered throughout, but you won't find current cooperation from the surviving members. When They Were Boys instead calls on the memories of those present before the record deals, names already familiar to die-hards: Astrid Kircherr, Pete Best, John's sister Julia Baird, Bill Harry (who published Mersey Beat), and Horst Fascher (performer and club owner in Hamburg). Voices of the departed - Neil Aspinall, Mal Evans, Mona Best, etc. - are also present, as is input from Yoko Ono, speaking from memories of conversations with John.

With all of this participation, and the author's personal experience, one could argue this is a thorough account of early Beatles history. Some stories are familiar, others appear revealed as Kane charges that some biographers may have attempted to rewrite the story by omitting certain points. As much as I've read of Mona Best's involvement, I don't often hear of her reaction to her son's dismissal/resignation from the band, or of exactly how popular Pete was during these years. Kane also takes the time to point out how some biographers want to minimize May Pang or erase her entirely, but it's not something I've seen in Lennon biographies.

The narratives aren't the most compelling as compared to other Beatles biographies and histories, and some may bristle at mentions of Paul and Ringo's lack of cooperation/interest in the this project. To note that neither attended a funeral of an insider, for example, seemed almost chiding. Nonetheless, Boys is informative, and a book new students will appreciate.

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.

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.

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, 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.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: A

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

Sunday, May 1, 2011

John by Cynthia Lennon - Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I suppose, as fans, neither can we.

Rating: C+

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author who loves to read.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Nowhere Man - Jordan Riley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating - F