Thursday, December 20, 2018

Music Music Music

There are those great universal questions that people will ask during a variety of social situations that are the great level setters that measure our commonalities. You might ask a new acquaintance in a business networking setting “what do you do for a living?” Or in a more fun social setting, you might ask “what kind of music do you listen to?” It was a question that I either love or hated, because my tastes run a wide gamut and if I went on a dissertation it often results in an eye-glazing stare or I would go generic and say “say I listen to everything and anything.”

The simple fact that there is so much music out there and the fact while it’s so different there is still an inherent connection that ties it all together. Three excellent new books celebrate not only the diversity of music, but the commonality that ties it all together.

Bring It On Home: Peter Grant, Led Zeppelin, and Beyond – The Story of Rock’s Greatest Manager – Mark Blake (Da Capo Press)

As I started this book the thought occurred to me, How many managers of rock bands, people behind the scenes and not in the spotlight by design, are the subject of biographies? On reflection, I could come up with Brian Epstein, the manager of the Beatles who was dubbed “the fifth Beatle” was an obvious one. Then there are what I can best describe the outrage merchants, like; Malcolm McLaren, of the Sex Pistols and Kim Fowley who managed and abused the teen girls who made up the Runaways.

So what qualifies a rock band manager – a job that doesn’t really come with a job description- to have a biography detailing their story written? A book detailing the inner-workings of running the day to day operations of even a huge, world famous rock band would be a bore. I think the magic ingredient is having a veritable mountain of larger than life stories that are just outrageous enough to stretch credulity. Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant clearly qualifies!

The new book, Bring It On Home: Peter Grant, Led Zeppelin, and Beyond – The Story of Rock’s Greatest Manager, from London based rock writer Mark Blake, does an amazing job of capturing the extravagant, flamboyant man who not only managed Led Zeppelin, but became the band’s most strident and dedicated advocates. Grant’s zealous representation made him one of the most feared men in an industry that is chock full of power players. In the process he truly became one of those folks never to be trifled with in the business.

Blake offers up great insight into the behind the scenes machinations and some of the infamous stories about the comings and goings of Led Zeppelin that will make this a must read for the band’s fans. Bring It On Home, cements Grant’s status as a true legend and may rank among the most entertaining bios of a band manager.

Smash!: Green Day, The Offspring, Bad Religion, NOFX and The 90s Punk Explosion – Ian Winwood – (Da Capo Press)
One of the things I love about discussing and debating music with friends are those friendly throw downs about band’s and genres. One of the more entertaining ones revolves around whether or not the so-called 90s punks were truly…well…punks? It is that 90s era that is in the spotlight in the new book Smash!: Green Day, The Offspring, Bad Religion, NOFX and The 90s Punk Explosion, by veteran Brit rock writer Ian Winwood.

I think the quote from Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, “Woodstock [94] was about the closest thing to anarchy I’ve ever seen in my whole life. And I didn’t like it,” really tells you all you need to know about these punk wannabes. I think that true punks like Johnny “Rotten” Lydon of the Sex Pistols or the Ramones would have reveled in the raucous outbreak of rioting that occurred at the pre-fab, over-commercialized version of the original organic event. Highlighting the dramatic difference between authentic punks and those who play outsized festivals featuring $10 bottles of water.

While my personal thoughts are that these 90s era guys are not true punks…that does not diminish their place in music history. Smash! delivers the goods on what amounts to some of the most important bands of the genre, in that era. It is a balanced mix of the success these band’s enjoyed and the impact they had on that and future generations. It really paints a picture of the evolution of the hard driving punk sound, with for lack of a better term, a more enlightened attitude.

Wasn’t That a Time: The Weavers, The Blacklist and the Battle for the Soul of America – Jesse Jarnow – (DaCapo Press)

No matter what the era, music has always been the vehicle for the voice of the time. Sometimes it played as the soundtrack that backed the times, while at others it moved squarely to the forefront and drove change through social commentary. Some of the greatest songs in music history have spurred a social evolution/revolution.   

In Wasn’t That a Time: The Weavers, The Blacklist and the Battle for the Soul of America, Jesse Jarnow, who writes on a diverse range of topics including music and technology, turns an almost historians eye to the subject of not only the band, the Weavers, which featured the legendary Pete Seeger, but their place beyond just music but in society as a whole.

Jarnow paints a vivid portrait of the time against the backdrop of the so-called Communist Red Scare. While bands from all eras and styles have engaged in a fight the power type struggle, The Weavers personal lives and beliefs were the foundation on which their music was based. There was no playing a part/role; these were true believers who often ran contrary to the popular beliefs of the time/country and they stuck to their guns with no concerns about being Dixie Chicked. 

Thursday, December 6, 2018

007 and Friends

Forever and a Day – Anthony Horowitz – (Harper)

I can’t imagine what a daunting task it must be to be tapped by any writer’s estate to pick up the mantle and continue the life of a signature character; the expectations of fans have to be off the charts. It happens with some regularity nowadays with cornerstone characters like Boston PI Spenser, CIA tough guys Mitch Rapp and Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne continuing to live on after the passing of their creators.

I can’t think of a more difficult task than continuing the life and adventures of legendary British spy, Agent 007, James Bond. Bond has been part of the literary and film lexicon since Ian Fleming debuted him in 1953’s Casino Royale. Since Fleming’s passing, no less than eleven writers have taken on the task of continuing the Bond saga, if you include a Bond biography and the series of so-called “Young Bond” books.

Bestselling author Anthony Horowitz is the latest to take on Bond – first with 2015’s Trigger Mortis and now with the audacious, prequel to Casino Royale – Forever and a Day. Horowitz skillfully sets the table and gives us the roots of not only Bond’s earning his license to kill, but also the source of his preference for bruised alcohol; shaken, not stirred.

Horowitz also had the benefit of some original material from Ian Fleming, which helps him ratchet up the excitement from what is a pretty straight forward storyline. As with most Bond stories, Horowitz succeeds by creating memorable characters that move through the Bond-sphere, including the femme-fatale, Sixtine. Horowitz is a master and Forever and a Day ranks among the year’s best.

The Moscow Sleepers – Stella Rimington – (Bloomsbury)

Not so much Bond here; strikes me a bit more from the world of John leCarre. Stella Rimington spent her professional career working for MI-5, the British internal security service. She worked the range from counter-espionage, subversion and terrorism; becoming the service’s first ever female director general.

It is from that base of experience that she builds her Liz Carlyle novel series and lends the stories a sense of realism. In her latest, The Moscow Sleepers, Rimington’s characters are realistically vivid to the point that I am certain her former colleagues must see more than small bits of themselves in her portrayals.

The international spy game is on full display, with a taste of intrigue on the side and with plots and conspiracies unfolding on both sides of the pond. Carlyle and her side kick Peggy Kinsolving pull on the loose threads to try to unravel a Russian plot to destabilize the German government with a rotating band of under-deep-cover operatives.

While it’s hard to communicate in the written word the intensity of say the “sleepers” on the TV program The Americans, Rimington does a nice job of imparting the hunt to track down the folks in play and give it a realistic feel.

The Spy Who Was Left Behind – Michael Pullara – (Scribner)

If you prefer your spy stories with more than just a dose of reality, with healthy pinch of murder mystery and a splash of tenacious, ballsy lawyer than, The Spy Who Was Left Behind, from Michael Pullara, the aforementioned testicular fortitude laden attorney, might be right up your alley.

To say that Pullara became obsessed with trying to track down the truth behind the 1993 murder of CIA branch chief Freddie Woodruff, in the crumbling former Soviet state of Georgia. At its heart this is a tale built on a frightening number of layers including the unraveling of the USSR, the U.S. trying to figure their place in the new world order, a ham fisted cover up and one man’s search for the truth.

With 20 years of material, countless interviews with KBG and CIA spies, government officials from both sides and even some newly uncovered witnesses, Pulara does a wonderful job of coherently working the story so it hangs together and moves forward at a steady pace – miraculous for a first time author.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Classy Rustic Baking

Red Truck Bakery Cookbook – Brian Noyes with Nevin Martell (Clarkson Potter)

There is an interesting story (maybe a bit too much) about the launch of the Red Truck Bakery, how a city mouse, became a country mouse and found success serving up classic, rustic baked goods and more. Brian Noyes is a newspaper man at heart, but turned his second love, baking into a successful business.

The business, Red Truck Bakery, takes its name from the lovingly restored, classic, 1954 Ford D-100 pickup truck that was purchased from designer Tommy Hilfiger, and was utilized to deliver Noyes initial forays into selling his wares. There is a heartland feel and flavor to the story and the recipes contained in the Red Truck Bakery Cookbook, that Noyes compiled with Nevin Martell.
I thought it was a nice touch that Noyes gives you the lay of the land up front, spelling out the specifics of his ingredient choices and tools of the trade; mixers, knives, cutters, etc. He also doles out some useful kitchen advice upfront, before you get too far along in the proceedings.

When you do finally bust into the goods, it runs the gamut from breakfast goodies to pies, cookies, bars, cakes and even buckles. While I can hold my own in the kitchen when it comes to main courses, I fully admit to struggling on the baking side of things, so a buckle, a streusel toped fruit-based desert was a new one for me.

By in large, I found most of the recipes pretty easy to follow and none of the ingredients were so far off the reservation that they would not be in easy reach for most bakers, with no need to special order from far flung places. The photography that accompanies the recipes are rich and beautiful. A couple of the recipes I tested won me thumbs up reviews from friends and family at the Thanksgiving festivities, so it’s likely I will be back to delve deeper into the Red Truck Bakery Cookbook.