Infinite Tuesday, by Michael Nesmith****

infinitetues

Michael Nesmith is a veteran of the entertainment industry, but his name is most recognizable as the wool-beanie-wearing member of The Monkees. Nesmith has a treasure trove of experience and insight, and he’s very articulate. I really enjoyed this memoir, and if American musical and cultural history interest you, I recommend you get a copy when it comes out April 18, 2017. Thanks go to Net Galley and Crown Archetype for the DRC, which I received free of charge in exchange for this honest review.

Nesmith came of age in Texas, the child of a single hardworking mother, and was mentored by the profane elderly Uncle Chick, whose spoken cadence Nesmith would later find in his own sense of musical rhythm. Because Texas was the exclusive province, at the time, of country and gospel music, Michael and his pregnant girlfriend loaded themselves and Mike’s guitar into his mother’s car and took off for Los Angeles. It proved to be a good move.

Those that cannot remember the birth of rock and roll have no idea how polarizing it was. The cliché term “generation gap” represented a genuine source of friction and alienation in a lot of families; some parents decided that rock was not an art form but instead a type of devil worship. Some disowned their children over it and didn’t take them back later. I’m serious. And so when Nesmith credits his mother for her patience and forbearance—he actually didn’t ask if he could take her only car, for instance—he’s not just being gracious. Here, let him tell you:

 

It was unthinkable to everyone who had just fought World War II that the music…the whole cultural imperative of the victorious warriors would be torn down by their kids as if it were ugly curtains in the den.

 

Soon Nesmith would be chosen as a member of The Monkees, which catapulted four little-known young men to instant fame; Nesmith recalls that although seventeen to twenty-year-old Beatles fans were incensed by the TV imitation, the nine to twelve-year-old television kids—of which this reviewer was one—saw them as a fact:

What followed was what Nesmith calls “Celebrity Psychosis”, a sense of disproportion and entitlement caused by instant stardom, obsequious handlers, and bizarre social circumstances. He humorously recounts strange experiences, such as singing at a local school and being pursued by screaming adolescent girls, and being “sighted” shopping in a grocery store.

He recalls his experience as John Lennon’s house guest in London, and he cites Jimi Hendrix as the best rocker that ever lived. He also drops a rather nasty slam at Bob Dylan without any real explanation, and I confess that is part of the missing fifth star. What the hell?

Bette Nesmith, Michael’s late mother, invented Liquid Paper while he entered show business, and her fortune helped finance some of his creative products. Nesmith was a pioneer in the field of country rock as well as the music video. He produced movies and won a Grammy for “Elephant Parts”, an early music video:

 

He is also an ardent feminist, and his recollections show that he was one before it was cool. Thank you, Mr. Nesmith.

I have to admit that I find the first half of the memoir more interesting than the second half. The author goes on in the latter half of the book to speak at length about his spiritual experiences with Christian Science and the ways in which wealth distorts a person’s character, though he recognizes the latter doesn’t garner a lot of sympathy.  “Never complain about the air-conditioning a private jet.” He also does a lot of brow-beating about having stolen a friend’s wife, and attributes the failure of that marriage—his second, or his third maybe—to guilt.

Despite the aspects that I didn’t enjoy, I do recommend this memoir, because it eloquently describes a wide, enormously dynamic period in American film, music, and television. Nesmith unspools the last half of the 19th century with the wisdom of his experience, and it’s a perspective completely unlike any other I have seen.
Recommended for those with an interest in contemporary American cultural history, as well as to fans of Nesmith and The Monkees.

Petty, by Warren Zanes*****

pettyOh my my, oh hell yes! If Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is a band that lights your fire, you have to read this biography, which comes out Tuesday, November 10. You’ll be happiest if you can do it near a source of music, and the very best of all is to be near a desktop or other screen where you can view and hear the music videos as you read about their inception. Petty made it big just as I graduated from high school. By the time my first-born entered elementary school, I had a backseat full of little kids who bounced their heads along to the unquestionable rhythm of his music playing on the radio. And right about now I am supposed to tell you that I got this DRC free for an honest review, courtesy of Net Galley and Henry Holt Publishers.

Zanes has really done his homework here, interviewing Petty extensively, and also interviewing members of the band past and present, as well as other musicians (Stevie Nicks foremost among them) with whom he occasionally partnered. This was my first exposure to the Traveling Wilburys, a superstar group formed just for the sheer joy of it and consisting of George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, and Jim Keltner. Well, here:

and after Orbison died, his chair was represented in the circle, with his guitar (I assume it’s his anyway):

Petty’s story is one of the ultimate success in spite of everything. Born into the kind of messed up, abusive, impoverished Southern home that America’s shot-to-hell social work system can’t even begin to repair, with a father that got along better with alligators than children and a mother who was stricken with both cancer and epilepsy, Petty was ready to get the hell away from the swampland and Florida immediately if not sooner. Petty tried school several times, but English (oh yeah, poetry right?) and art were the only courses that held any magic for him. He had one marketable skill, and unlimited ambition. As it happens, that was plenty.

If you want to read his story, this is the place to get it. Zanes has filled it with lots of vignettes, some of which are very funny. When a particular episode or situation is remembered differently by different musicians, producers and what have you, he tells what each has to say.

What you won’t find much here is his family, and that is oddly appropriate. Petty himself recognizes that when a guy is a professional musician doing the album cycle—write the songs, record the songs, make whatever changes need to get made, release the album, then go on tour to promote the album, and come back and do it all over again—family just gets left out. His first wife Jane developed some serious problems with chemical dependency and mental illness, and he experienced serious guilt over leaving their two daughters with her, but what else was there to do? Taking them on the road wouldn’t exactly be a healthy environment. Even if he quit making music, who’d pay the bills then? And so it went. So his elder daughter Adria puts in her two cents here and there, but mostly this is a story of Tom’s life as a musician. But reading about Jane’s addiction issues and then watching this video gave me chills (not great for small children, if you have them near you):

There aren’t really any slow parts to this biography; the least interesting to me were the various bands he formed or joined prior to his success as a soloist and then as the leader of the Heartbreakers.

That much said, this is the first, the VERY first time this reviewer (and all the reviews on this site are mine) has ever gone back to read a galley a second time before reviewing it, not because I didn’t get enough notes (oy, the notes!) but because it was just so much fun to follow Petty’s music and read the stories behind the songs.

If you don’t like Tom Petty, I question why you are even still reading my review. But if you’re a fan, this is a great bio to read, intimate without being tawdry or prurient, carefully researched, tightly organized. I am glad I didn’t have to edit it, because he probably had a mountain of extra information that was either cut or not included in the first place. But from anyone that loves good rock and roll, it’s uplifting and absorbing.

The ultimate holiday gift for someone close to you that loves Petty’s music would be his giant discography, the Traveling Wilburys DVD and CD, perhaps the documentary (which is on my own Christmas list), and this book. Rock and roll forever!

Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir, by Linda Ronstadt***-****

simpledreamsI came of age just as Ronstadt’s career exploded. I was eighteen years old, headed down a winding staircase in the administrative building at Portland State University, when I first heard the song “Blue Bayou”. I was a music major at the time myself; her haunting vocals literally stopped me in my tracks. Fortunately, no one else wanted to use the staircase just then, because I could not move until the song was over. After it ended, I accosted fellow students going about their business, saying, “Excuse me”—pointing to the speakers through which music was piped into the common areas—“but who was that?” They looked at me like I was crazy. Who was who? What? They hadn’t been paying attention to the music.

Later, of course, I learned that the song was performed by Linda Ronstadt, and right away, I knew I had to have that platter. And when I saw that Ronstadt, by now a musical icon holding the record as the only female artist to have four consecutive platinum albums, had published a memoir, I knew I had to have that too. Sadly, I had barely begun collecting galleys and reading them to review, and I missed out. Happily, the Seattle Public Library came to my rescue. I got this book there, and I rate it 3.5 stars rounded up.

I finished reading the memoir about a week ago, and was impressed in some ways, ambivalent in others. What is it about musicians and other entertainers that makes their admirers want to gobble them up, body and soul? How much of her personal life is an entertainer morally obligated to share if she is publishing a memoir and wants the public to pony up what, in these times, is often the only disposable income a retired member of the Boomer generation may have in a given month?

Here’s what I came away with. Ronstadt tells us, right there in the title, that this is not going to be a prurient, tell-all bloodletting. She is giving us the history of her musical life, and that’s what she is giving us, period. And I think the unhappy reviews I have seen from many other reviewers, together with my own strange dissatisfaction when I turned the final page, comes not from her failure to give out personal information, but from her inconsistency in doing so.

As the memoir begins, she provides abundant personal details of her early life, filled with some really funny anecdotes. We see her born into a middle class, very musical family, with her sister turning to her brother and commenting on four-year-old sibling Linda: “I think we got a soprano here.” We read about her forming “mud huaraches” in the hot desert so as to go barefoot without burning her feet, and many, many anecdotes that have nothing, nothing, nothing at all to do with music. And so we bond with her, not just as a performer, but as a person, and we develop the expectation that we will at least hear the broad contours of her personal life and maybe some more fun anecdotes as her mainly-musical memoir progresses.

Before I go any further, I also have to say that she is a strong writer; no ghosts needed here. And her keen intelligence lights the pages as she takes us down her musical pathways.

Even in the 2000’s, women in the music industry have not reached parity with male performers; Ronstadt takes us back, back, back to the days of folk rock, and to a conversation she had with Janis Joplin at a venue where they would both be performing:

“Because of the phenomenal success of artists like the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan,
earthy funk was God, and the female performers in the folk pop genre were genuinely
confused about how to present themselves. Did we want to be nurturing, stay-at-home
earth mothers who cooked and nursed babies, or did we want to be funky mamas
at the Troubador bar, our boot heels to be wandering an independent course
just like our male counterparts? We didn’t know.”

Those with a strong interest in vocal music—not just as listeners, but as individuals who have studied the craft—will find her memoir more satisfying than those that just enjoy tapping the steering wheel while her songs fill the family car. I had already noted the problems with phrasing in her early work, and was gratified as I read the progression of her training. I was, and am still, dumbstruck by the professional risks she took. She had an established career, and yet dared to venture into areas of music where no one was making money. She had a solid country rock pedigree, yet decided to record orchestral, old-school music with Nelson Riddle. She performed in Pirates of Penzance, and you can bet she knew the finer points of musicianship by then! She released mariachi music, and it sold like crazy.

But the book’s ending feels tremendously abrupt. I respected the way she referred briefly, toward the middle of the book, to her liaison with Californian governor Jerry Brown (“keeping regular company”), and the fact that she didn’t drag us through their affair seemed appropriately modest to me; the woman isn’t a name-dropper, and her own editors had to tell her to put more musicians and fewer horses into her memoir before publishing it.

But at the end, she mentions staying at home with her two small children and we have no clue where they came from. Did she marry? Did she adopt? We don’t need all of the most intimate ends and outs of her personal relationships or her decision to become a mother, but she could toss us a paragraph or two. Even had she handled these more personal aspects of her later life as she did her relationship with Brown, with a mention here and a segue there, the entire thing would have flowed better, leaving the reader more satisfied, and less likely to feel, in some odd way, cheated.

Should you pay the full jacket price for this memoir? I guess it depends how deep your pockets are, and how much you enjoy a conversation that is, more than anything, the history of Ronstadt’s musical career, and those she knew professionally as a side bar of sorts. There was a time in my own life when I thought nothing of stopping by my favorite bookstore and coming out loaded down with bags of books. I bought anything I wanted, as long as each selection was under a particular dollar amount. Some teachers went on ski vacations or cruises, I figured; some smoked and drank, spending great sums in that manner; and as for me, all I wanted was a decadent chocolate bar and a vast trove of paperbacks. It didn’t seem so much to ask, while I was earning a professional’s salary.

These days it’s different. My pockets are a lot lighter, and I have much greater access to books I don’t have to pay for. So for me, this was a splendid library find, but I think I would have been put out if I’d spent jacket price on the memoir that sort of peters out at the end, with no satisfying resolution.

In the end, this book is recommended for those with a strong interest in the professional development of Linda Ronstadt, and of the genre of country rock. Those looking for a more personal glimpse will likely have to wait for an unauthorized biography to pop up.

MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson, by Steve Knopper****

MJthegeniusofmichaeljacksonJackson was a musical prodigy whose talent was almost limitless. His brilliant career was derailed by scandal, and his final 50 city tour was aborted by his death the night before it was to commence. Knopper does the best job of objectively recounting Jackson’s life and death that I have seen so far. His portrait is intimate without being prurient. Thanks go to Net Galley and Scribner for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review.

Jackson was born in the 1950’s, a time when the race barrier kept Black performers from being seen by a general audience, with only the rarest exceptions. Black folks could play music for Black folks, and nobody else. The family was terribly poor, with eight or nine people crowded into a house better suited to three or four. They lived in Gary, a steel town in which Black poverty was more the rule than the exception. His father was a struggling musician until it became obvious that his sons had inherited his talent plus some. By the time Michael was five years old, he was the charismatic center of the Jackson Five, who soon were contracted to Motown, the center of African-American music in the USA.

Knopper explains how the family’s progression from a Motown act, where they were not allowed to actually play their own instruments on stage and could not use music they wrote themselves; to an independent family act, apart from one son who chose to remain with Motown; to the final day when Michael got himself an agent and a lawyer and set out on his own, divorcing his family so that he could have full control over a solo act. Until he was independent, iconic creations such as Thriller and Smooth Criminal would most likely never have been launched. And he recounts the family drama that ensued, with bodyguards pulling guns to discourage Michael’s angry brothers when they tried to force their way past the gates of his estate, shouting that he owed them money.

As a fan of excellent music and performance, I was sucked into the maelstrom produced by the press both during his life and afterward. It’s embarrassing to admit how completely I was played. For years I would not permit Jackson’s music to be played in my home because I thought he was a sick creep who used his fame to gain private, inappropriate contact with smooth-faced young boys. Somehow it escaped me that he had never been proved guilty in a court of law; on the one hand, it made sense to pay one family off in order to take the heat off his career, and Knopper documents the advice experienced, famous musicians gave Jackson to do whatever he had to do to shut that shit down so he could go back to focusing on music. But the press was merciless, and the payoff, which came too late to do damage control effectively, was portrayed as a tacit admission of guilt. And I bought it.

A few months after Jackson’s death, I was in a hotel room on vacation with my family, and my youngest son, who is Black, turned on the television, and there was the second round that Knopper documents, the round of memorial tributes that brought a lump to one’s throat as we saw Jackson’s miraculous career unspooled. He pioneered music videos in so many ways I had failed to appreciate, and he employed so many Black musicians that might never have had a steady job, while at the same time reaching out to Caucasian performers as well, creating a bridge between Black music and Caucasian sounds, transitioning from disco-like R and B to the “King of Pop”. I was horrified at the way I had misjudged him.

About a year ago, I read Michael Jackson’s memoir, Moonwalk, and while I took parts of it with a grain of salt, I also came to believe that the guy just didn’t know what was socially appropriate at times because he had never had a normal childhood. I was sold. Poor Michael.

Knopper has a more realistic take on all this. He certainly should; he used over 450 sources, and he wasn’t anybody’s mouthpiece. And so the truth turns out to be more complicated.

What left me somewhat stunned, in the end, was not the sex scandal, and it wasn’t the postmortem resurrection of Jackson as some sort of musical saint. Instead, I was absolutely floored at the number of people that worked for the guy, some of them for a lot of years, who he left without paychecks for weeks, then months on end. Jackson had a tremendous load of debt, was on the verge of bankruptcy and was saved only by his investment in song publishing, a piece of advice given him by friend Paul McCartney that he had followed through on. Yet he continued to buy one extreme luxury estate after another, holding residences he would likely never use again, shopping extravagantly (the example of taking a new friend shopping and telling him to do it “like this”, as he swept entire shelves of merchandise into his cart, astounded me) while leaving his employees, regular working folk with bills to pay for the most part, with no paychecks. There was money for shopping, but not for them, and some of them took him to court for it. It made me a bit sick. This man knew what it was like to be poor, and he knew what hunger was like, but as long as he didn’t have to see the people that he had betrayed, he could continue to play out the Peter Pan thread, irresponsibly trashing the lives of those he had told they could count on him, then leaving them with empty wallets and eviction notices.

Maybe you think I have over-shared. I have news; this is only the tip of the iceberg. If you have followed this review all the way to its conclusion, you will like this book. It is available for purchase October 20.

Glory Road, by Bruce Catton*****

gloryroadBruce Catton was known as a popular historian when he first published books about the American Civil War, because of his narrative nonfiction format. All of the books being released digitally now are ones previously published in a non-digital age. This reviewer hunted down Catton’s three volume Centennial History of the Civil War at a used bookstore some time back, and although they were among the best I have ever read by anyone on this topic, I was convinced that anything he had published earlier on the subject was probably repackaged in this trilogy, and so I stopped reading Catton, thinking I was done. Thank goodness Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media posted the galley for this second volume of Catton’s Army of the Potomac trilogy. Now that I am disabused, I will have to find the first and third volumes also, because Catton is so eloquent that he can spin ordinarily dry-sounding military history into as good a read as the most compelling fiction.

Although his Civil War books are not written in academic format, there is no denying Catton’s research or his credentials. He was one of the founders of American Heritage Magazine, and served as its senior editor until his death. During World War II, he was the US government’s Director of Information for the War Production Board, then later worked in a similar capacity for the Department of the Interior and Department of Commerce.

Frankly, in order to spin the story of the three battles that comprise most of this volume out in such a conversational manner, dropping anecdotes in at just the right moments and then carrying on so as to make us feel as if he is a journalist traveling with the Union forces and we are concealed cleverly in his knapsack, bespeaks a remarkable amount of research. Only after reading the whole thing, spellbound, did it occur to me that for every vignette he included to make the telling more personal and more interesting, he must have edited out ten or twenty. The result is a masterpiece.

I came to this work as a former instructor in the field, and wished I had read his work in time to make use of it in the classroom. At the same time, it is sufficiently accessible that someone with no prior knowledge of the Civil War should be able to keep up just fine as long as they are able to read at the level of a high school senior or community college student. There is a definite bias toward the Union, which frankly is a requisite to my enjoyment of Civil War history. (Those that feel otherwise can go find Shelby Foote’s work.)

I never in a thousand years thought I would even consider rereading some of this war’s most painful battles—the battle of Fredericksburg being perhaps the most prominent in this regard—but Catton has some little-told things to say about these battles, and in particular about Burnside and that Tammany Hall political general, Sickles, that I hadn’t seen before. I had viewed Burnside as a failure from start to finish, but he makes a case that a lot of the mishandling of this situation was due to an ungainly Federal bureaucracy that wasn’t good at receiving information and passing it along in a prompt, useful manner. It gave me pause, and reminded me that we should never assume we know enough about something to call ourselves experts.

The Battle of Chancellorsville is likewise told in a manner fresh and readable, but the bulk of the text deals with that decisive, costly three day fight at Gettysburg. He gives an even-handed assessment of both Hooker and Meade, and again I learned some things I didn’t know before.

Catton’s writing is so engaging that it is destined to live for a long, long time after he is gone, educating subsequent generations. I found myself resolved, at the end of this volume, to look for other galleys of his work to read and review, and when there are no more left, to track down those still missing on my next pilgrimage to Powell’s City of Books.

For you, however, it is fortunate that Open Road is releasing this work digitally, so you won’t have to turn out the shelves of every used bookstore in the US in order to locate it. It will be available for purchase November 3, 2015 for your phone, computer, or e-reader, and is highly recommended to anyone with even a passing interest in the American Civil War.

Simply brilliant.

Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, by Peter Guralnick *****

CarelessloveThis is the second volume of the definitive biography of Elvis Presley, renowned as the king of rock and roll. The first volume is Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, which I have also reviewed. Biographer Guralnick spent 11 years with Presley, and he conducted hundreds of interviews in order to create a fond but balanced portrait of this key figure in American musical history. If you are going to read an Elvis bio, this is the one.

I came to read this through a combination of opportunity combined with respect for that historical role of this legendary musical figure. I was born too late to be much of an Elvis fan; he was falling fast as I was coming of age. By the time I was old enough to really hone my musical tastes, he had become a caricature who was mocked by stand up comedians. It was only recently, when I ran across the first volume in a used bookstore that I began to take a serious look at his career. I had read over 300 biographies and memoirs, and it seemed to me that anyone that takes contemporary musical history seriously ought to at least have a look at it, and so I did. I was amazed to find that before his tragic decline and death, he had enjoyed two decades of unparalleled success, outselling even The Beatles at one point. The first volume chronicled his rise to fame, and it was a lot more fun to read. This one is a like reading about the Titanic; it’s too huge to be ignored, but you know it isn’t going to end well.

Whenever I read a music bio, particularly of someone I did not follow closely, I get online and find the songs that are mentioned most often. As I read this one I moved from the book to my desktop and back again, checking out some of his work on YouTube…and I actually purchased one song, because it was catchy.

This volume takes up the life of our musician following his service during World War II. In Germany, he had met Priscilla Beaulieu, who was still in high school. Elvis was, for all his celebrity, not a real mature fellow, and she was just what he needed. He enjoyed her company while being careful not to break any US or military laws, nor damage either of their reputations. He wondered whether the American public would have forgotten him when he came back to the States, but thanks to the Colonel, his non-military manager who adopted the nickname for fun, he was very much in the mind of America’s teens.

“Colonel” Tom Parker was a real piece of work, a cold, calculating capitalist who would shove paperwork under the nose of Elvis’s grieving father the very day Elvis was buried lest the licensing of his image and music be usurped. Guralnick also gives a fair amount of detail to this old-school huckster, who nevertheless helped keep Presley’s musical career afloat for decades.

Elvis’s descent into the world of addiction and depression is a terrible thing to read about. Following the death of his mother, Gladys, who was the center of Elvis’s life, he struggled with insomnia. Though Guralnick never actually says as much, I got the feeling that he was afraid of the dark, and afraid of death. At night he always had a good-sized crowd of good ol’ boys ready to hang out with him at Graceland, rent the nearby movie theater during its off-hours for their private enjoyment, or enjoy the local entertainment when he traveled. Only when the sun rose did he sleep. And like so many celebrities that rose to fame before adulthood, he soon sank into a dark place where he had to travel with his pet physician, who would feed him Demerol and numerous other heavy-duty, hospital-grade drugs when there was nothing the matter with him that a decent diet and some exercise could not probably have cured, at first anyway.

The last years of Presley’s life were strange, and before he left us they became stranger. He did a lot of things commonly associated with bipolar disorder (my term, not the author’s): he couldn’t just buy a fancy car for his wife or girlfriend, but had to buy one for each of the guys, and then another for their wives. He bought houses for himself, and then he bought houses for others. He bought diamonds for himself, and each of the closer members of his entourage was given a giant diamond custom-set into a pendant with “TCB”, for “Taking Care of Business”, with his own signature lightning bolt all spelled out in smaller diamonds. He needed a ranch, so he needed a horse; then each of the guys needed a horse; they each needed a mobile home on the ranch and a truck to drive while they were there…and so it went. Vernon, Elvis’s father, was in charge of paying the bills, but when Elvis’s spending spun out of control, Elvis didn’t want to hear what his father had to say about it. He knew he was making money hand over fist, and the notion that he might truly go broke didn’t compute. Toward the end, as his life became more desperate, he decided he needed an airplane, customized inside so he could sleep while on board, and then he decided to buy one for the Colonel too.

It wasn’t just his spending that was bizarre. He developed a fixation on law enforcement, and he wanted to be a special private agent for the government so that he could turn in celebrities that used illegal drugs. (The irony would have been entirely lost on him, even had anyone had the guts to point it out.) He wanted a meeting with J. Edgar Hoover, and sent him an obsequious letter calling him the country’s greatest American. It didn’t work. He collected cop badges from departments in the cities where he performed; a few turned him down, but usually he could get them to give him one by cranking up the pressure while turning on the charm…and of course, as always, he gave a lot of gifts.

Then he decided to go to Washington D.C., and a desperate President Nixon, who had been spurned by nearly every celebrity musician and actor he’d ever had his people approach, invited him in and got him the badge he wanted.

But then, what’s a badge without the gun? Presley’s gun collection, together with his unsafe habits, sometimes firing a gun while he was personally loaded with a bellyful of narcotics just to get people’s attention in his home, frightened away the women that were in his life during and following his marriage to Priscilla and the birth of his daughter, Lisa Marie.

It just makes you want to sit down and cry.

The one time I visited New York City, I got a garrulous cab driver and asked if he had driven for celebrities. Indeed he had. There were some that were very rude to him, but he said Elvis Presley was a really respectful man, a true pleasure to drive around.

If you have never heard this legendary man’s music, get on YouTube or the streaming source of your choice and check out some of his work. Musically he was a genius, perhaps a savant, and that remained true for over a decade after he had served in the military. His place in musical history cannot be contested.

If you have a strong interest in music history and/or biographies, get this book, together with its companion mentioned above. It may be out of print, but used copies are not hard to come by. And keep a box of tissues nearby; this is one of the saddest endings you can imagine. A great legacy in spite of everything, and a tremendous tragedy.

The Sound of Music Story: How A Beguiling Young Novice, A Handsome Austrian Captain, and Ten Singing Von Trapp Children Inspired the Most Beloved Film of All Time, by Tom Santopietro ****

thesoundofmusicstorySince the enormously popular movie based on the story of the Von Trapp family was released 50 years ago, numerous books have been published about the family, the movie, or both. This reviewer tried reading Mrs. Von Trapp’s memoir many years ago and found it surprisingly dry. Not so with this humdinger by Tom Santopietro. When it comes out in February, you may want to read it even if entertainment history is not usually of interest to you. Because after all, The Sound of Music is not just any movie! Thank you, thank you to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for providing the ARC so that I could check it out and report back prior to the release date.

That said, if your entire life has been spent sad and deprived, or with your nose to a video game or hiding under a rock and so, somehow, you have never seen this movie, watch the movie first. It is a full three hours long, and not a single moment is wasted. In the tradition of Rogers and Hammerstein, the music forms a part of the narrative, rather than something inserted in between lines of a story which slow it down. Painstaking care was leant to avoid having a moment when the audience would collectively think, “Ho hum, I can see we’re about to burst into song here.” In fact, musicals were not much in fashion anymore, and religious films, which had enjoyed popularity just prior to this one, were now considered old and outdated. Extraordinary effort was taken to engage the audience, and it shows.

One reason it was even considered, odds being what they were, was that the stage version of The Sound of Music, which starred Mary Martin as Maria, had sold tickets like hotcakes. The possibility of a successful motion picture was intriguing. There was no way to use Martin for the film, though; she would have been past the age of fifty years when filming began, and things that can be obscured or disguised on stage tend to show up on camera. There could be no painted backgrounds for film—how cheesy! An entirely new script, with two additional songs added by the original composers, made it much more appealing than the stage version. A lot of money went into making this show work, and it was money well spent.

How the deal was struck to make the movie is explained thoroughly without trying the reader’s patience without a lot of extraneous or uninteresting detail. Each time I thought perhaps I was getting too much information—such as back-stories on the behind-the-scenes specialists—the narrative would lead from there into the aspects of the film that were their particular contributions, and then I would understand why I needed to know about that person. The creator of that gob-smackingly gorgeous wedding dress? Oh, hell yes! The choreographers who put together the whole nine-minute Do-Re-Mi music video…oh, yes I guess that was pretty amazing, so yes! And behind all of it was the genius of Robert Wise, a producer and director I had never even especially noticed before, but now will never forget.

I loved walking through the casting roster. Hmmm, who should play Maria? How about Angie Dickinson? (If you are old enough to remember her, you’ve got to find this pretty amusing.) Mia Farrow? She would’ve had the job if she could’ve sung better. Doris Day had a red-hot career going, but she turned this one down cold, accurately pointing out that her resume had been built by being the quintessential all-American girl, and just how was anyone suddenly going to think she was an Austrian nun? Point well taken.

Some of the others were fun, too. How about Yul Brynner as the captain? He really wanted that job. NO. And so it goes.

Interwoven throughout are the real family Von Trapp. Once she had accepted the deal and signed on the dotted line, the real “Sister Maria” was every bit as outspoken in real life as her fictional counterpart. In fact, she was so outspoken in her limitless suggestions as to how the film could be kept more in keeping with events as they unfolded that finally, a letter was sent off to her explaining, for once and all, that the movie was based “loosely” on her own story and was not intended to be a documentary. Stay out of the way; we’re making a movie here!

Which scenes were shot on a Paramount stage, and which were on location? Sometimes the difference is a matter of angle, with scenes being freely mixed. (The Von Trapp manse had several different locations, according to whether one was out front, out back, indoors, or in the gazebo.)

Imagine Maria skipping down that lane singing “I Have Confidence”…with fifty or so cameramen and other personnel following closely. And didn’t she make it all look easy? A clue: it wasn’t. That woman had an unstoppable work ethic!

And what of the Von Trapps now? Once they emigrated (not really through the Swiss Alps, silly; for one thing, to get there from Austria, you have to go through Germany!), they came to the United States, flat broke after a life of great comfort, albeit not as much luxury as depicted on film. They sang and toured till some of the “children” were sick to death of it and vowed to sink deep roots and stay put ASAP. Eventually they founded a ski lodge in Vermont, where the grand-Von-Trapps, at least some of them, still live and work.

Was Julie Andrews really that nice, or was she different off-camera? You have to read the book, and then you’ll know. Who else is remembered fondly by the cast, and who not-so-much? It’s all here.

Even less central aspects of the story, such as the campy sing along tradition that draws thousands anually, many in full costume (even dressed up as carburetors!) and likened to a nerdy version of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, are interesting and amusing.

What’s more, after you read the book, if it affects you as it did me, then no matter how many times you have watched the movie, you will need to see it again in order to appreciate everything you just read. Happily, we had the DVD ready to hand, and my daughter, who has also watched a number of times before, and I nestled next to the Christmas tree and re-watched it, with me pointing things out to her as we went along.

If you don’t have a date Friday night or prefer a less boisterous evening in the privacy of your own home, this movie just could be a great plan for you! Then you’ll be properly ready to read the book once it comes out around Valentine’s Day.

Mark your calendar. This story-behind-the-story is worth the anticipation.

Billy Joel, by Fred Schruers *****

BbillyJoelilly Joel is a legend. He has rocked this world from Leningrad to London, from Tokyo to New Orleans. His working class roots and his family’s history as survivors of Nazi Germany have kept a boxer’s spring in his step, on stage and in the wider world. Pretension irritates him, and he can spot it a mile away. And all of these aspects of who he is, together with an innate musical sense, have created some of the best songs this world will ever see. Someday the Piano Man will leave us, but his legacy will be with us forever.

My thanks to Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the chance to read and review this one in advance. It will hit the shelves October 28, just at the time you want to crawl into a warm place with a great book.
Joel began his musical career in adolescent garage bands. They didn’t really go anywhere, but he did. He would have been content, in the beginning, to write music for others to perform, but others counseled him that the artist needs to make a demo. And whereas musical greats like Carole King, Barbara Streisand, and Garth Brooks have performed hits he has written such as New York State of Mind, Shameless, and a number of others, his most outstanding work has been that which he has performed himself.
For this reviewer, his most memorable album is Glass Houses, which came out in 1980. In the mid-80’s, I had been married for nearly a decade, and when I turned thirty, it occurred to me with a startling immediacy that I could break free if I wanted to. The sound of breaking glass followed by the authoritative, take-charge chords and Joel’s sassy, do-what-I-feel-like voice was a tonic, and I listened to it over and over and over again. I can never think of that time period without hearing “You May Be Right”. Later I would dance at a high school reunion to “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.” And it was, and it is.
Joel has given so much of himself in his work that it is no surprise that he has in turn stepped into untold people’s lives as he did into mine. There seems to be a running joke between Joel and those around him about the number of weddings at which his music has been performed. And while this is just one more sign that the bond between Billy Joel and his audience is rock solid, it is also a little bit worrisome.
According to Schruers, every time something monumental has occurred in Joel’s life, he has headed for the piano. It has been his therapist and his source of cartharsis, and so for decades, his personal life and his innermost feelings have been out there on display in the work he performs. He isn’t the first to feel the best understood and maybe the most alive when communicating with fans that are listening to him perform. I could reel off a string of names, but I don’t need to, because the reader has probably already thought of half a dozen such people. Joel’s marriages to Elizabeth Weber; Christie Brinkley; and Katie Lee are all out there for the world to share. We bounce joyfully to “Uptown Girl”, and when he makes a joke at a concert where a fan is proposing marriage, telling the groom to get a pre-nup, everyone who isn’t Billy laughs.
So what happens when such a man reaches his sixties and finds that he now wants a modicum of dignified privacy? Many of those he loved best in his personal life have moved on and left him behind. His fans are ready to receive more, more, more, but there is a point in life when we become a little more reticent about spilling all the beans to whoever wants to know. And here it was inevitable, this being the time it is, that I think about Robin Williams, and about Michael Jackson. They gave us everything, and look what happened. And I think those who bond with the public in such an unfettered fashion are in a way set up for that kind of ending. It scares the hell out of me. I am not the weepy type, but I am struggling a little as I write this.
Billy Joel is a legend, a working class guy from Levittown who made good through hard work and immeasurable talent. He has used remarkable restraint in dealing with those who have shown him bad faith; have cheated on him romantically and financially; and in some cases, all but robbed him blind. He has climbed back, but of course it has cost him emotionally. He would have to be stupid to remain unaffected by it, and the man is anything but stupid.
He credits as his early influences Ray Charles, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Otis Redding, and a host of other musicians. His love of the classical causes him to reference Beethoven and Bach when he talks about music, and his album of classical piano music went straight to the top of the Billboard charts; I think I want that album. Apparently he has been called “derivative” at some time in the press, with which he initially had a similar relationship as one of my personal heroes, General Sherman. Derivative of what, and of who? He freely admits that the genre was begun by brilliant Black musicians, but does that mean nobody else can do that or go there? Of course not! And it should be noted that the press, from the New York Times to Rolling Stone to Billboard, lauded him unconditionally in more recent coverage.
The man has more than paid his dues. He has been around the block a time or two, and he knows more about the business and about life than when he was brand new to the world of professional music.
I recently wrote a review for Mark Kincaid’s bio of comedy king Bill Cosby. When Cosby’s manager was dishonest, Cosby solved the problem by handing the business end of his work to his wife, Camille, and it was a strong move. But Billy did the same thing, and it took the warnings of several trusted friends and associates to help him understand that his faith in his wife was misplaced; she too was robbing him blind, and putting plenty of resources into her own name in anticipation of the inevitable split.
What’s a guy gonna do?
After their separation, estranged wife Christie Brinkley and beloved daughter Alexa are injured in a helicopter crash in which Christie’s boyfriend died. Joel had them taken to his home, arranged for medical care and paid for everything, and came home one day to an empty house. Was there even a note? We don’t know.
There are two sides to every story, and I am sure the women who have loved him and left him have theirs. This writer grew up with two parents with serious alcohol problems, and so I know it isn’t easy. Brinkley’s heartfelt plea that he deal with it—though I question the public nature of the plea—hit a resonant chord for me.
At the same time, I want to cheer when Joel says flatly that he is an atheist, and there is no Higher Power to whom he wants to give his worries. He doesn’t want to let go and let god. WHO? Oh, hell no. And again, this reviewer remains close to two (other) family members who cast off the demon alcohol without any kind of religious juju, and without standing up in front of strangers to testify. It can be done, and if Joel hasn’t, I too hope he will.
But there we are again, in the middle of his private business. See what I mean?
In his path to glory, this iconic musician has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, honored at the Kennedy Center, has played with Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, and a host of others. He has collected Grammys like some folks collect baseball cards; in 1989 he was honored with the Living Legend Award. And since the baseball simile has arisen, let’s note that he was also there to close Yankee Stadium, and then help McCartney reopen it under its new carnation. Leonard Bernstein asked him to write musical scores. Joel not only has a record for the number of appearances in Madison Square Garden, he had, at the time the biography was written, a standing engagement there, for as long as his new, bionic hips and aging spinal column can hold on.
What then? Joel has developed side interests. He has customized motorcycles and also has a boat business. His financial empire has recovered many times over despite the double dealings he was dealt when he was younger and more trusting. And he has a bond with daughter Alexa that nothing can take from him.
And so, when it’s time to go home, when the last curtain comes down and Joel has had enough of life on the glittering stage, I hope that the satisfaction of a career well managed; a high road held both in terms of how he has dealt with the ticket-buying public, his former loves, and his former associates; his new, more physically manageable interests; and the love of his daughter and other family members, will suffice.
As for our scribe, Fred Schruers, I was initially taken aback by the lack of documentation and footnotes, but after reading the postscript, I came away reasonably satisfied that he had covered his bases. He sure knows how to tell a story.
And what a story it is!

Moon Walk, by Michael Jackson ****

1062902Moonwalk was written at the height of Jackson’s fame, in the wake of Thriller and the 25th anniversary Motown TV special. It is a fascinating read, and was the #1 New York Times bestseller at the time. I give it only 4 stars because there is a ghost writer here. It’s understandable; Jackson had his finger in so many pies at the time, and also was somewhat reluctant to breach his own privacy by speaking candidly about his own life. Ultimately, though, the writer-behind-the-writer says that Jackson decided it was time to set the record straight about some things. He still nearly pulled the plug at the dead last minute, after editing and approving the final copy, leaving his ghost writer with an immense amount of time and effort that nearly came to nothing. I’m glad he decided to follow through.

At the time this was written, Jackson had no children. His name is associated with more than one book, and I may see if I can get a copy of a later one.

I am not much of a pop music fan, but the sheer enormity of Jackson’s accomplishments and his role in music history makes his a must-read for a memoir reader like me.

I came out of this convinced that though (through the lack of a normal childhood) Jackson’s social skills were sometimes off a notch and his judgment not always sharp, he was not a pedophile. I believe him when he says that children are the only people he can talk to who don’t seem to have ulterior motives (beyond a particular circle of family members and close friends), and that he enjoys making them happy. I really do think he was naive enough to think that a child would find it fun to sleep in the host’s big bed rather than be all alone in a room he wasn’t familiar with (and assume that the oh-so-grateful parent would remain such). Beyond that, I think that at some level, his involvement with children had to do with his own lack of a childhood that involved the fun and freedom usually associated with that time. My best guess is that he brought kids home, or went to their homes and hospitals, and spoiled them rotten, and enjoyed the experience vicariously.

Jackson’s own upbringing, though he loved the music and turned out to have a genius for it, was grueling. He is diplomatic in the things he says about his father, and gives him credit for finding the resources to bring not only musical instruments but microphones into their 3 room home in Gary, Indiana, so that his talented tribe would understand how to handle them and move with them by the time they were on stage. They began with talent shows that had cash prizes, and worked their way up to auditions. They played in some really raunchy clubs at an age where most first-graders would not even be watching R rated movies. But Jackson took to the life, and grew close to his brothers. Motown signed them, and they were off to California.

Jackson was instantly enthralled by all things Californian. The trees had oranges, he says, and there was the ocean, and Disneyland! Welcomed to the “Motown family” by singing legend Diana Ross and by the vice-president of Motown, who lived just down the street, they were house guests until they were settled and established, and ran freely between the two fabulous homes. Ross was like a second mother to Jackson,and she introduced him to the art world, which would later become not only a love of his, but a source of smart investments also.

In Gary, he and his family had all been practicing Jehovah’s Witnesses, and he mentions this only briefly, to show that some of the corruption and profanity that young performers take on was not going to be part of his own life, because that was not how he was raised. He doesn’t mention the religion again after his move to California. This left me curious. Could a man like Jackson have truly believed that only a certain number of people are allowed to go to heaven?

He writes about his break with Motown,which he and some of his family precipitate when Motown is not receptive to having him write music, and about his lengthy, fond collaboration with Quincy Jones. He is able to get in on the ground floor once MTV breaks loose, and spends his own money in order to create music videos of the highest caliber. (“Bad” used real gang members from South Central LA; the massive security was loosened a bit once they found that since the gang members pretty much just wanted recognition, respect, and lunch and were getting all three, they were courteous and cooperative. I’ll admit I really liked this part, having taught young people with similar issues.)

His hair and skull catch fire due to negligent fireworks use while making a commercial for Pepsi. He knows he could have sued them and won big, but he chose not to.

Without a trace of irony or hubris, he states that he is thankful he never got involved using any sort of drugs, since he had seen what this does to others. (To be fair, he specifically refers to street drugs like marijuana and cocaine; I suspect that some of the drugs that would later plague him were due, in part, to the pain he experiences after accidents on the job such as the Pepsi adventure.)

A star like Jackson could have used his life story as a vehicle for payback, but he goes out of his way to avoid any semblance of that, and when he has to talk about people who did rotten things, such as a management-level person who stole from him, he does not name names. I thought this was really nice. He briefly mentions his father and the belt, but also gives the man credit for the early start he and his brothers had, and the fact that they were the first big family act to enter the pop scene.

Later he simply mentions that his father was no longer representing him at a point in the story. He makes no reference to the marital discord between his parents.

The one place we can almost see the hair rise on the back of his neck is when he speaks about the controversy regarding the changes in his facial structure. He owns that he had a nose job and a chin cleft added, and points out that entertainers all over Hollywood do exactly the same thing, and he asks why this is such a big deal, when after all, he is a musician. The man has a point. On the one hand, those with the most fame get the most scrutiny, but on the other, it also (though he never says it) sure seems as if a black man who makes it big gets more scrutiny than others. He adopts a vegetarian diet, and of course, as we grow older, our faces lengthen anyway, thus the harder planes to his face and loss of baby fat. And in thinking about some of the bizarre things printed in tabloids…who is really going to have the bones in his face broken and reset? Even if vain enough for something of that nature, it would be extremely risky, and involve a huge amount of time away from work.

I believe that Jackson is telling the truth; a nose job, a chin cleft, terrible acne as a teen that started the habit of hiding his face at times, and then later (not in this book), the skin disease. I think this is true, though it doesn’t make as good copy for selling sensationalistic news rags.

The one really unsettling note was that Jackson seemed to think it was a hilarious practical joke to surprise people who were afraid of snakes with Muscles, his boa constrictor, and chase them around the room. I have the same phobia, and once had (honestly) a science teacher who chased me around his 7th grade classroom with a big snake, ordering me to “touch it.” I did not, and I had nightmares for weeks. But it’s too late to tell Jackson that this particular thing is not funny.

Jackson’s songwriting partnership and friendship with Paul McCartney led the latter to recommend that he consider investing some of his money in song rights. This had not occurred to Jackson before, and turned out to be a strong move financially, as most of us now know. And he says that although he knows others in the business discourage their own children from performing, if he ever has children, he will tell them to follow their dreams, and if they want to perform, they should go for it.

The artist, with all his eccentricities and extraordinary talent, can’t talk to us anymore. For those who enjoy memoirs and autobiographies of musicians who have made historical strides in their field, this is highly recommended.