Sunday, November 24, 2013

27 X 50

27: A History of the 27 Club Through the Lives of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse – Howard Sounces (Da Capo Press)

Simply stated; it’s not natural for anyone to die at the age of 27. When people squarely in the public eye die at the age of 27 from some unnatural cause there are always questions and from those questions come legends and from those legends come great mythology.

The mythology, as well as the reality surrounding some of the prime members of the so-called 27 Club, those rockers and musicians who died at the not so ripe old age of 27 years; is the subject of Howard Sounces new book; 27: A History of the 27 Club Through the Lives of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse.

Sounces has actually gone so far as to gather a list of the 50! members of the 27 Club, which includes the famous and the not so famous. So much has been written over time about the six that are the prime focus of this book that many of the stories and theories about their passing have taken on a life of their own. Sounces does an admirable job of cutting through a lot of the drama without claiming to have definitive answers for some of the speculation.

The intersections of their lives and the crossing of paths that are part of Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison’s story, coupled with the fact that they died in such a close time span just seems to add to the drama of the story. Were they somehow obsessed with death, convinced that they were tagged for an early departure, makes for interesting speculation, but in the end it seems to boil down to each having a major part in their own early demise.

Clearly Sounces was impacted by the death of Amy Winehouse; he spends a lot of focus on her final days and brings an almost fan boy approach to his writing about her. While each of these artists have their own distinct profiles and demons, they seem to share an inability to deal with their fame and an almost sad, lonely quality to their existence. It is the way they attempt to fill that empty space that contributes to their early deaths.

27, is thoroughly researched and features many new interviews with the principals who were in the inner circle of the six featured individuals. Sounces list of the 50 members will often jog the memories of rock fans to the club’s less famous, but equally tragic members.  

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Game Changer

Dr. J: The Autobiography – Julius Erving (Harper Books)

So much has been written and said about the NBA era of Magic, Bird and Jordan, often described as the heyday of the league, a marketers dream for promoting the sport to lofty new heights. What is often overlooked is the man who almost singlehandedly changed the game from being one of bump and grind big men and hot shot artists on the perimeter to one of high flying vertical action. Julius Winfield Erving, better known to all a Dr. J was that game changer.

In his new autobiography; Dr. J: The Autobiography Erving looks back with great fondness at not only his career on the hardwood, but his meteoric rise to being a first round draft pick, his time as the face of the upstart American Basketball Association (ABA) where he won multiple championships and was the league’s dominant force and MVP.

What sets this amazing autobiography apart from so many others is the pride Erving takes in his amazing career on the court and his continued success after basketball. He is almost wholly unique based on the fact that he professes that his success is at least in part due to the opportunity that is presented by being born in the United States; a confession of sorts that is sure to chafe many African American race pimps who blame the U.S. for somehow holding them back. Erving is equally unique in that he chooses not to blame others for any problems he’s has been confronted with; taking personal responsibility for his faults and his successes. In short, Dr. J did build that!

Dr. J is clearly a man of honesty, integrity and class, something that is in short supply in this country and in notably in the sports world. It is those attributes that shine through and make this one of the best sports biographies to ever hit the shelves. Truly a winning effort from a man who has made a career of being a winner and who truly has left a lasting impact not only on the sport, but on those he has crossed paths with.

Monday, November 18, 2013

50 Years of JFK Assassination

The Hidden History of the JFK Assassination - Lamar Waldron (Counterpoint)

 If Kennedy Had Lived  - The First and Second Terms of John F. Kennedy: an Alternate History – Jeff Greenfield (Putnam)

Top Down – A Novel of the Kennedy Assassination – Jim Lehrer (Random House)

Dallas 1963 – Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis (12 Books)

Over the course of the last fifty years there has been a cottage industry created around a steady stream of books, movies, DVDs, special edition magazines and a virtual library of  number of television specials that all purport to tell the “real” story of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. With the 50th anniversary of that event set to take place later this week there has been a noticeable uptick in new JFK assassination books; this set ranges from another spin on the assassination conspiracy, a speculative “history” of what might have been, a novelization of the event and a book not so much about the event, but focused on the location the event took place.

Lamar Waldron has been dubbed the “ultimate JFK historian” and it’s clear that he has spent a fair amount of time delving into the mountainous public record that was generated about the event. Waldron offers up some interesting revelations in the new book, The Hidden History of the JFK Assassination , including some material from recently released files. Based on the fact the a huge cache of documents are still kept under lock and key this is a story with seemingly no end and plenty of revelations still to come.

While there are countless theories as to what “really happened” Waldron makes the case that Mafia godfather Carlos Marcello had “the means, motive and opportunity” to assassinate JFK. He does a masterful job of stitching together a case against Marcello based on interviews and case record. Is this the real deal? Your guess is as good as Oliver Stone’s.

Veteran television news reporter/commentator Jeff Greenfield offer up an interesting take on the events of November 22, 1963, speculating not on who committed the crime, but on what might have happened if Kennedy had lived . While purely a speculative proposition, If Kennedy Had Lived  - The First and Second Terms of John F. Kennedy: an Alternate History, plays what if through a series of three scenarios.

Among the more interesting twists Greenfield proffers are: the United States choosing not to commit to more troops in Viet Nam, that the Civil Rights act of 1964 would not have passed and that Ronald Reagan would have been the Republican presidential candidate in 1968 in place of Richard Nixon. While many members of the mainstream media have spent plenty of time and ink to mythologize JFK, Greenfield also speculates that like many second terms, it’s likely Kennedy may have ended up mired in controversy.

Another television newsman, Jim Lehrer offers up a novel approach with Top Down, which features a Washington newsman (go figure) and a Secret Service agent trying to come to grips with the decision to remove the protective shield from the Presidential limousine.

Lehrer is an accomplished and entertaining novelist, unfortunately here the story ends up being a little thin plot wise and ends up falling short of the mark.

Veteran Texas newspapermen Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis have taken a swing at adding a new perspective on the event with their book, Dallas, 1963. The Kennedy assassination is a bit player in the story has the authors try to breakdown the city, the players and powerbrokers who populated Dallas in the time leading up to the events of 1963.

While conceptually the book offers a unique read on the event and the era, it tends to drift at times when Minutaglio and Davis’ liberal skirts starts to show and it makes it difficult to take seriously.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

A Random Act of Journalism

Extortion: How Politicians Extract Your Money, Buy Votes, and Line Their Own Pockets – Peter Schweizer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Writer Peter Schweizer is one of a truly rare breed; an investigative journalist. There are pretenders who lay claim to the moniker; those in nice suits, with perfect hair and faces that look serious into the camera as they deliver their story, but in the end are, just more empty entertainment for the low information types.

Schweizer is the real deal. He digs deep into his research and then knits together the pieces of the puzzle to tell his story in a way that has become all too rare; the random act of journalism. In his latest effort, Extortion: How Politicians Extract Your Money, Buy Votes, and Line Their Own Pockets, Schweizer carefully builds the premise that both political parties are guilty of creating a system that has become a self-perpetuating organism that keeps politicians in what he rightly call the “permanent political class.”

Have you ever wondered why nothing of any substance ever seems to get done in Washington? It’s not because of gridlock or a lack of bipartisanship that we hear about everyday from the non-journalist media; it stems from what Schweizer describes as “tollbooths” and “milkers” those seemingly perpetual “issues” that Washington seems to recycle every couple of years. Party A has constituents that are in favor of some legislation, while Party B has folks who are against it; Party A will bring up the issue so they can milk donations from their side while Party b will erect a “tollbooth” to block the way and garner donations from their side of the equation. Nothing gets done and in a few months or years, likely around the time that Congress runs for reelection the whole process of milking and blocking starts all over again.
It’s good work if you can get it! You’ll noticed I used party A and B, not D(emocrat) or R(epublican) because both parties are guilty of this practice that results in nothing but keeping them in place in Washington. In fact there are examples where they have traded places on issues, one time being in favor and the next against a piece of legislation, based simply on who was ponying up the bucks!

Schweizer also lays out the case of self and family enrichment being part and parcel of this whole process. Ever wonder how Senator Harry Reid, who grew up poor in tiny Searchlight, Nevada suddenly, became one of the richest members of Congress with a $1 million condo in the DC Ritz Carlton? Schweizer lays out the details of the rise of not only Reid’s power, but the wealth of not only of the Senator, but of his family members. To be fair he also details the power brokering, Republican Blunt family in Missouri. These are not rare stories. The stories of families being enriched by having a Washington powerbroker in the clan like the late Arlen Specter, the late John Murtha, former speaker of the house Dennis Hastert among many other is the stuff of legend.

While the story that Schweizer weaves may lead you to throw your hands up in disgust and despair over having no way to fight the power, he also lays out the case for how this pervasive issue can be addressed by the voters. For those who are doubtful about the details included here, rest assured that Schweizer has included a plethora end notes and original documents in the book. This is a must read for any citizen concerned with trying to change the system which seemed stacked against us.

Monday, November 11, 2013

You’re Gonna Carry That Weight…A Long Time

Becoming Mr. October – Reggie Jackson (Doubleday Books)

Growing up I spent summer vacations visiting with my grandparents and invariably my grandfather and I would end up with the television tuned to a baseball game. There was a long running, good natured debate about who the best player in the game was at the time. Pap was a fan of “Charlie Hustle” Pete Rose; while gravitated toward Reggie Jackson, first with the multiple World Series champion Oakland A’s and later with the Bronx Bombers, The New York Yankees.

I vividly remember watching an All Star game in Detroit when Jackson slammed a monster home run off a lighting tower transformer and who could forget the 1977 World Series three home run game. It was Jackson’s on field exploits that won me over. My judgment was based on the content of his ability, not the color of skin.

That is way I was so disappointed that so much of Jackson’s new autobiography, Becoming Mr. October is focused on his claims that pervasive racism impacted him throughout his career to the point that he feels he never earned the credit or accolades he felt he deserved. That’s a bit hard to reconcile for a man who was at the time the highest paid player in major league baseball, was a regular member of All Star teams and was a World Series MVP.

Jackson came to the major leagues in an era where we as a nation where going through the civil rights movement, so race certainly played a role in his career path, but certainly wasn’t shorted in accolades or financial remuneration. As to his claims about Yankee team mates being less than welcoming, I think like superstars of any era, Jackson was not short on high opinion of himself; egos in sports…who woulda thunk it?!

Jackson does offer some interesting insights into his fire and gasoline relationship with Billy Martin, the personality challenged, egomaniac, Yankee skipper. The level of bitterness that Jackson carries after all these years is striking; it’s a weight he carries that negatively impacts his post baseball life.
Jackson remains one of the greatest to ever play the game and nothing can ever take that away from him and he should revel in that fact.   

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Many Shades of Pink Floyd

Pink Floyd: Behind the Wall – Hugh Fielder (Race Point Publishing)

How do you possibly go about chronicling a career that has spanned nearly 50 years, through numerous incarnations, an ever evolving sound and resulted in album/CD sales in excess of 250 million copies and hundreds of millions of dollars in concert ticket sales by what is arguably one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands ever?

That is the Herculean task that was undertaken by music journalist Hugh Fielder in Pink Floyd: Behind the Wall. Along the way Fielder approaches things from a variety of perspectives including that of a music journalist, a historian and notably a fan. It is that loving fan’s perspective that serves Fielder so well when he delves in the pressing questions that have been left unanswered for many when it comes to the band’s parting ways with founder Syd Barrett and the internal machinations and infighting that lead to the band’s seemingly final dissolution. He does a nice job of recapping Barrett’s post Floyd life and eventual death in 2006.

Even those who are casual or non- fans of Pink Floyd would have to be intrigued what went into the making of the band’s hallmark alum, Dark Side of The Moon, a decades long fixture on the Billboard Album chart, that still racks up sales of over 250,000 copies annually. Fielder delves neatly into the nuts and bolts of the making of the album and that impact that it had on the band.

Pink Floyd is one of the most visually accomplished live acts in the live setting, so it would be nearly impossible to tell their story effectively without a wide range of images and Pink Floyd: Behind the Wall delivers a stunning array of over 250 images and illustrations. Along the way Fielder dissects the band’s recordings and recaps their efforts with a complete discography.
While the task may have seems insurmountable at the start, Fielder has done yeoman’s work in putting an epic dent with an effort that scores points on all fronts. Well done.


Newsflash!: Brandman is Not Parker

Robert D. Parker’s Damned If You Do – Michael Brandman (Putnam)

I have said it here many times; I am a huge fan of author Robert B. Parker. The Spenser series is what got me reading for fun way back when I was in college. When Parker served up the Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall books; I was all in. Heck I even grabbed the Cole and Hitch books despite not being a fan of westerns. In short, Parker was my favorite writer and news of his passing certainly had an impact on me.

Since that time there have been a steady stream of Spenser, Cole and Hitch and Jesse Stone books that have been penned by authors selected by the Parker estate to carry on these series. I have read most of the new books and been entertained and generally happy that these characters will continue. While I am not surprised by the reaction, I really don’t get the vitriol that has been directed at the brave writers who have been asked to pick up the reins and carry on these stories.

Michael Brandman is the producer that worked with actor Tom Selleck to bring the movie adaptations of the Jesse Stone books to television so he seemed a natural choice to carry on the Stone books; the latest of which is Robert D. Parker’s Damned If You Do. Based on the reactions from fans, it’s certainly a fitting title! Here’s a newsflash…Michael Brandman is not Robert B. Parker! And quite frankly, there is nothing wrong with that! Brandman clearly knows the characters and knows the storylines from prior books and does a nice job of threading the two together.

I find the complaints about thin plotlines and how quickly this story can be knocked out more than a little disingenuous from Parker fans. Anyone who is honest would have to admit that over the years even Parker leaned a little bit heavier on the formula that he had developed for plotting his storylines; overcoming shortfalls with great characters and his ability to write great action sequences.

Brandman does a nice job of serving up just enough of the usual suspects and mixing in some new players to keep the storyline moving forward and keep things entertaining. And in the end, isn’t that what Jesse Stone, Spenser, Sunny Randall and Cole and Hitch are really all about?  


Man Vs. The Mountain

The Mountain: My Time on Everest – Ed Viesturs with David Roberts (Touchstone Books)

Incredible. Legendary. Super-human. These and many other adjectives are used to describe individuals and their feats on a nearly daily basis. When it comes to athletic endeavors those words are often overused and more often than not misused.

In the case of the feats of mountaineer Ed Viesturs those words are rightly used and yet somehow fall short of the mark. Viesturs is the first American climber to reach the summit of the world’s 14 mountains that reach above 8000 meters without the use of supplemental, bottled oxygen; a feat so amazing that he should easily be included in any conversation about who are the all time greatest athletes.

Viesturs and writing partner David Roberts look back and recount the nearly two years of his life he spent endeavoring to reach the summit of the most mythologized mountain in the world, Mount Everest. While Viesturs has written about Everest in the past, in The Mountain: My Time on Everest he details and laments not only the times he reached the top of the highest peak, but also the times he was stymied or simply walked away from summit attempts due to unsafe circumstances on the way to the top of world.

It is that iron grip on rationality that separates Viesturs from so many others that write about climbing to the top of the world with some romantic notion of man conquering adversity and nature. Viesturs has reckoned with that challenge, possibly more than any other climbers, and yet has treated those confrontations with an abiding respect not only for the challenges of the mountain, but for the lives that have been lost in pursuit of the summit.

In conversation with Viesturs a few years back he expressed that soft-spoken respect and in the book’s epilogue he bids the mountain a fond farewell, while expressing concern that some may have begun to treat climbing Everest as a trip to a high end amusement park and the danger that that attitude presents.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

From Scratch: Inside The Food Network – Allen Salkin (Putnam Books)

Ah guilty pleasures.

It may seem hard to believe that the hulking giant responsible for this review is actually a huge fan of television cooking shows! Just so my man card doesn’t get revoked; I want to be on record very clearly that I love football, hockey, NASCAR and action adventure movies!

So why do I watch the Food Network? Heck, one look at me and you’ll know that I love to eat, so I have to know how to cook too! So I was intrigued when I started reading Allen Salkin’s new book, From Scratch: Inside The Food Network because to be honest, I didn’t know exactly how the network got started. I became a big fan of Emeril, who truly was the network’s first recognizable superstar.

While I’m not certain that there is a whole lot of inside scoop to be had in the pages of From Scratch, it is interesting to see how the network developed from its earliest days and the transition, continuing evolution and its ability to grow a legion of superstar chefs. That title alone, superstar chef, speaks volumes about the personality focus that the network has been able to generate.

Salkin gives interesting insight into Emeril’s departure from the network’s nightly lineup that for whatever reason I didn’t comprehend when it was occurring; he was there one day and gone the next. While I thought it was a case of his status as a superstar plus his growing business interests that was at the root of his departure, this book gives a different side of the story.

 From Scratch: Inside The Food Network makes for an interesting history of the network with just a pinch of behind the scenes machinations to spice things up.


Saturday, November 2, 2013

Not So Steely Don

Eminent Hipsters – Donald Fagen (Viking Books)

Donald Fagen, one half of the duo that makes up Steely Dan is out with an interesting variation on the standard rocker biography. While most of these bios end up with the artist fixated on his exploits of a sexual, chemical ingesting or financial nature, I have to give Fagen a few points for Eminent Hipster not being focused solely on his manhood.

While the early portion of the book focuses on Fagen’s youth and his coming of age as a musician, I guess the title of this little tome should have been more of a tip off for me than it ended up, cause in the end Fagen still manages to come off as an over-privileged, whinny, liberal.

The section of the book where Fagen publishes his 2012 tour journal, detailing his jaunt with Michael McDonald and Boz Skaggs under the handle the Dukes of September starts out in an entertaining fashion, detailing the grind of life on the road. It quickly spirals downhill into a series of complaints about accommodations, transportation and the venues the band ends up playing, which aren’t close to the level that Steely Dan would find themselves playing.

It is his complaints about the fans who show up at the band’s gigs, as he derisively labels “TV Babies” who oddly enough attend with the quaint notion of seeing the three aging rockers perform the songs that made them famous. Apparently these folks don’t share the hipster vision that Fagen has for the ensemble who are out to perform classic soul and R & B numbers. It’s a little hard to take his bitching about the people who are buying the tickets and paying his bills.

I have never quite understood artists who feel the need to flaunt their liberalism (or for that matter conservatism) and downgrade what amounts to roughly half of the people who make up their audience. Fagen’s supercilious rant about Republicans is typical of liberals who think they are the smartest folks in the room. Sorry, but in the end Fagen ends up sounding like just another whinny little shit; eminent hipster indeed.

The Beatles, The Beatles, The Beatles and more The Beatles

The Beatles – The BBC Archives: 1962 – 1970 – Kevin Howlett  (Harper Design)

The Beatles: Solo – The Illustrated Chronicles of John, Paul, George, and Ringo After The Beatles  -  Mat Snow (Race Point Books)
Standing In The Wings: The Beatles, Brian Epstein and Me – Joe Flannery (The History Press)
When They Were Boys: The True Story of the Beatles’ Rise To the Top – Larry Kane (Running Press)

Just when you thought that everything that could ever be written, spoken, recorded or graphically depicted about The Beatles had already been released, we are treated to yet another overwhelming round of books detailing another slice of the Fab Four’s life.
One of the more ambitious and beautiful entries into the new batch of Beatles books comes from longtime BBC producer Kevin Howlett in the form of  The Beatles – The BBC Archives. This lavish, heavy collection comes housed in sturdy box that features the design and look of a classic reel to reel tape box complete with a printing motif that makes it appear to be a vintage piece straight from the dusty vaults of the BBC.

2013 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Please, Please Me, The Beatles first album and this set truly showcases just how influential both the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) Radio and television were in promulgating the band’s wild success. Howlett’s brings a true loving historians approach to recounting the band’s work with the BBC. While so much has been written and so many recordings released, it seems clear based on what’s included here, that much more material has been lost, destroyed, stolen or recorded over.

I have always been a fan of books that include reproductions of unique materials that can transport fans back to another era and this collection certainly does not disappoint. The transcripts of the BBC sessions offer amazing insight into the behind the scenes, inter-workings of these sessions. This is an incredibly well done package and make a perfect gift for a Beatles fan.

It is post-Beatles, that is the focus of the book The Beatles: Solo – The Illustrated Chronicles of John, Paul, George, and Ringo After The Beatles from author Mat Snow. A couple of things seem pretty clear early on; the word illustrated in the title should be taken in bold print; this collection is loaded with tons of images, most of which have been published widely in other offerings and much of the writing may disappoint long time Beatle collectors.

This isn’t to say that the writing is off the mark, it’s just not the kind of in depth writing that Beatle fanatics may be expecting from a collection that comes housed in a very cool slip cover and carries a pretty healthy price tag. This would be a nice addition to a newbie fan of the Beatles who are looking to explore their post Beatles output. It’s a good starter set, although I will admit to having some difficulty negotiating the electronic version the publisher sent me…where are my Excedrin migraine at?!

A couple of the new entries in the Beatles book derby focus on the band’s earliest days. Joe Flannery made a career out of managing a variety of musical acts including the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. While many folks have been handed or taken Beatle related monikers, Flannery was dubbed the “Secret Beatle” and his new book, Standing In The Wings: The Beatles, Brian Epstein and Me offers some unique perspective not only on the band, but on his working relationship with Epstein, the man widely credited with guiding the Beatles to massive success.

Standing In The Wings is also an interesting recounting of the era when the Beatles first came to prominence. His insights into the band’s early evolution and some of the folks involved in that development offer to the best of my knowledge never before published accounts of that process. Flannery’s take on the impact of playing at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany and insider’s perspective on one of the band’s early, pivotal moments; the dismissal of drummer Pete Best are very intriguing.

Long time news reporter/anchor Larry Kane was there at the beginning of the Beatles U.S. success, reporting on the band’s first tour of the States in 194, when he was a mere lad of 21 himself. Kane was also along for the ride in 1965 and then again in 1966 on what would become a very ill-fated tour. Kane’s latest Beatles book is, When They Were Boys: The True Story of the Beatles’ Rise To the Top.

Kane sets out to trace back the band’s Liverpool roots and tell the tale of how the Beatles became the Beatles. Clearly Kane spent some time and effort tracking down folks for new interviews to recount and era and a story that has been covered eight ways to Sunday. And therein lies the rub. So much has been written about the bands earliest days from musical historians, family members and friends that a mountain of contradictory information exists.

Even some of Kane’s off hand comments have been challenged. His claim that John Lennon’s oft-written about Aunt Mimi dodging air raids to visit the hospital the night John was born is easily disproven by quick check of history. While that isn’t the only instance, and it may seem nitpicky, diehard Beatles fans literally eat, sleep and breathe this stuff and will shoot you down very quickly. In the end, I am not certain that Kane doesn’t over-reach with his claim that this is the “true story.”