Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Beautiful Ones by Prince

Oh, where do I even begin?

Don't take that the wrong way, now. The Beautiful Ones is many things. It's a glimpse into the life of one of the most fascinating people of our time. It's a weighty delight, filled with snapshots in muted 70's colors. It's a revelation, a peek at the foundation of what we loved best about Prince.

More than that, it's an attempt at something big, and a sad reminder of mortality. Prince's name is above the title, and his spirit is present here, but one can only wonder what we could have had if he lived long enough to put more of himself into this book.

Prince was to have collaborated with journalist Dan Piepenbring on The Beautiful Ones. In reading Piepenbring's lengthy introduction, we learn that Prince had several handwritten pages and a specific vision for a book. Prince wanted to end racism with it, and in asking Piepenbring to define "racism" he got a textbook answer. Despite that, he agreed to work with the man.

If you were to ask me what racism is, I would say fear. Fear is an amazing motivator that drives one to self-preservation. Fear of poverty, for example, might lead a person to hoard money and buy generic, rent movies from the library and pack lunches. I believe some take it further through aggressive behavior designed to keep certain people from succeeding, if only to maintain one's higher (safe) status. I can't speak for Prince, but maybe he wanted to eliminate that fear through his work, as though to say we can all stand in the same place without worry.

We will never know the true content of this book. What we have is a story in four parts, one of which belongs to Piepenbring. I doubt we'd have seen such a long introduction had Prince lived, and in this intro is the concern that a book without Prince would become nothing more than a collection of things.

That's what we have here, though. It's nice to see the pictures and the original treatment of Purple Rain, but I thought the heart of the book rested in the actual pages Prince wrote, which are presented here as scans of his handwriting and in text. This is a graphic heavy book, best read in print or in a good reading app, and once you pass this section you may be tempted to skim the rest if squinting to read cursive isn't your thing.

I enjoyed what I read, but on the same note I mourned what could have been. That's why I find it challenge to rate The Beautiful Ones. An A for content and especially Prince's contribution and B- for execution, though I can't fault Prince or Piepenbring for that. I don't want to make a habit of not rating books, but in this case (like with Neil Peart's Far and Wide) I'm abstaining.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Far and Wide: Bring That Horizon To Me by Neil Peart

We lost Neil Peart. Several days after the fact, I can think of very little to say about it except, "Fuck."

Since the news broke almost ten days ago, I've read many lovely tributes from fans and close friends, musicians and industry people. There's a sad consensus in all of the eulogies: Peart was a professional in every sense, not necessarily a person who chased fame but acknowledged that much of what he had came from it. Even that wasn't enough to stop death. Rush fans grudgingly accepted the band was done as far as records and tours, but that didn't mean the actual end. I had known there were hopes to see film adaptations of some of Neil's books. Ghost Rider had been optioned at one point, and members of a fan board had Tom Hanks cast in the lead. That was years ago, though. Colin Hanks would be a more logical pick now.

Neil was not as public as his bandmates, and that's okay. In life he slipped away from us after shows; a quick wave and off to the nearest exit to ride away while the rest of us stayed for the outro video. He kept it up until the very last day.

There's a passage in his last travelogue, Far and Wide, that talks a bit of other drummers to whom Peart is compared and listed among best of the best - Dennis Wilson, John Bonham, Keith Moon. Each suffered an untimely end due to different excesses, none of them making it to 40. Rush fans, having followed the exploits of "our boys" for decades, wouldn't expect any of them to meet a tragic fate of the rock and roll variety, but I think it's safe to say nobody expected cancer to fell our drummer.

At 67. Three years after retirement. In the brain. We call him The Professor for a reason, and for cancer to strike him there has quite a cruel edge to it. It fucking sucks.

I've read most of Peart's books; not all are reviewed here. Some I've enjoyed, others I've critiqued. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be one of the Far series. I finished Far and Wide recently as part of a book group read, a spontaneous choice following Peart's death. It's an optimistic book, one that's almost painful to read given the context. Wide collects Peart's road essays covering the final tour, and is laced with wistful memories of roads already traveled and the revelation that he will enjoy the time spent with his young daughter more.

I said this fucking sucks, right? It's not entirely clear how long after the tour Peart learned of his illness, but it's safe to say he spent what should have been his well-earned retirement fighting it. Wide appears to have been produced as a work of promise for a new journey, but I worry it may be looked on more as a bittersweet coda. Like when Charles Schulz died after drawing his last strip.

It also happens that my reading this coincides with my own father's declining health. I was fortunate to have him around longer, but the loss is no less painful for me. A lot of memes circulating my social feeds implore us to not feel sad, but to smile for having breathed the same air as Rush, and having the music. I should feel the same way about my own dad, and perhaps the pain will lighten in time.

For young Olivia, too.

I won't rate this book right now, but I do recommend it.

Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and Pop by Marc Myers

If you aspire to write songs, you may look on Anatomy of a Song as part guide and part inspiration. This book is a collection of select columns penned by Marc Myers for The Wall Street Journal, which - if they are produced intact here - feature more input from the songwriters than the columnist. The 45 songs chosen, as noted in the introduction, aren't offered as a "best of" list of popular songs but an assortment from which readers can learn of different processes and perhaps discover a new-to-them artist.

It's definitely an interesting lineup. You'll hop from the harmonious early 60s hit "Chapel of Love" to the Kinks' "You Really Got Me," on down through the decades to land on REM's "Losing My Religion." Depending on your tastes, you'll be drawn to some stories more than others - I paid more attention reading up on Steely Dan, Aerosmith, and other acts toward the end of the rock spectrum. I don't which columns didn't make the cut, but I had few quarrels with the table of contents. I mean, I like Bonnie Raitt fine, but I'm not sure how "Nick of Time" qualifies as a song that changed rock. It certainly changed the course of her career, but maybe that was the point.

Rating: B+

About the Book

Every great song has a fascinating backstory. And here, writer and music historian Marc Myers brings to life five decades of music through oral histories of forty-five era-defining hits woven from interviews with the artists who created them, including such legendary tunes as the Isley Brothers’ Shout, Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love, Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz, and R.E.M’s Losing My Religion.

After receiving his discharge from the army in 1968, John Fogerty did a handstand—and reworked Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to come up with Proud Mary. Joni Mitchell remembers living in a cave on Crete with the mean old daddy who inspired her 1971 hit Carey. Elvis Costello talks about writing (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes in ten minutes on the train to Liverpool. And Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page, Rod Stewart, the Clash, Jimmy Cliff, Roger Waters, Stevie Wonder, Keith Richards, Cyndi Lauper, and many other leading artists reveal the emotions, inspirations, and techniques behind their influential works.

Anatomy of a Song is a love letter to the songs that have defined generations of listeners and “a rich history of both the music industry and the baby boomer era” (Los Angeles Times Book Review).