Tag Archives: 1991

The Unexplained

A Unexplained Death: The True Story of a Body at the Belvedere by Mikita Brottman (Henry Holt and Co., $28.00, 288 pages)

an unexplained death

Author Mikita Brottman lives at the Belvedere Hotel, a Baltimore landmark with a long history of strange occurrences, suicides, and mysterious deaths.  Brottman here professes her fascination with the occult, tarot cards, and suicide so the examination of the apparent 2006 suicide of Rey Rivera – a once-fellow resident of the Belvedere, would seem to be a perfect topic for her writing.

Brottman’s account of events, An Uexplained Death, provides numerous details surrounding Rivera’s death as well as a tremendous amount of conjecture on her part.  What it fails to do is to provide clarity or new information beyond what was already known or presumed. (The authorities found the death to be a suicide.)  Brottman goes on – in what seems like a stretch – to explore cultural attitudes about suicide from around the world, and she provides her personal views on various matters whether related or not.

Rey Rivera was a tall and attractive aspiring film maker who moved to Baltimore from Los Angeles with his new wife, Allison.  He joined with Porter Stansberry of Agora, publishing newsletters offering financial advice.  His death happened to come at the time when he had borrowed money to produce his own film, was getting ready to quit Agora – which was engulfed in an SEC investigation – and was about to move back to L.A.

Did Rivera jump from the roof of the Belvedere, falling through a skylight at the top of a space which once housed the hotel’s swimming pool, or was he running from someone intending to do him harm?  Brottman investigates various alternatives to suicide possibilities, but none of them seem either likely or probable.  She wonders aloud whether Rivera was depressed about the Agora investigation or whether he became entangled in a homosexual affair.  It’s all so much smoke and mirrors because each such alternate explanation is discarded shortly after being raised.  And Brottman’s conclusion of this strange, quasi-fictional investigation of a real-life death provides nothing of substance.

The story is slightly compelling during the few periods in which Brottman sticks to the subject matter at hand.  But she spends far too much time writing about herself, her life, and her obsessions.  Oh, but for an editor!

The typical reader is unlikely to find Brottman’s affinity for rats very endearing.  The same is true concerning her fascination with strangely committed murders, and the time she spends imagining herself in another person’s shoes (such as Allison Reyes’s).  All in all, this is a book of rambling distractions, which is as generally uninteresting as it is undisciplined.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent in Illinois and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

Notes:

The Beaux Arts style Belvedere Hotel was opened as Baltimore’s first luxury hotel in 1903 and was converted to residential condos in 1991.

I read the book and wondered why the writer spent an obsessive amount of time attempting to solve a crime which the local authorities had already solved, resolved and literally closed the book on.  – Joseph Arellano

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Take It As It Comes

The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years by Greil Marcus (PublicAffairs, $21.99, 210 pages)

“There were thick-headed, battering horns all over the album…  they didn’t make the music better…”   Greil Marcus on The Soft Parade by The Doors

This collection of short essays by Greil Marcus might have been subtitled, The Random Things I Think About While Listening to The Doors.   It is not a band biography, nor a definitive account of their music, so it won’t be of much use to those just discovering the songs and albums of this group; nor will it interest Doors fanatics, as there’s virtually nothing new included here.

With Marcus, it seems to always be hit and miss…  He earlier produced a great collection of essays about Van Morrison which seemed to capture the essential nature of the musician, but when he attempted to do the same with Bob Dylan, it was pretty much a complete failure.   The Van Morrison book was a grand slam – the one on Dylan was a quick strike-out.

Before going further, I need to put my cards on the table about The Doors.   I felt they were one of the most over-rated bands of their time, and the critics have remained strangely kind to them through the years.   (A late-November 2011 article in The Wall Street Journal wondered aloud why the group’s music is still popular.)   Except for some clever placements on movie soundtracks, I don’t see – or rather, don’t hear – their music as having aged well.   That is, it does not adapt well to current times perhaps because when it was originally recorded it seemed to provide a sense – or rather, a preview – of music’s future.   But the promise of The Doors’ first two albums (neither of which hit number 1 on the U.S. music charts) never materialized in what was to follow.   They produced two essentially tedious albums – Waiting for the Sun and The Soft Parade – that included singles so bad (Hello, I Love You; Touch Me) that Jim Morrison usually refused to sing them on stage.   It’s true that they had a sense of redemption before the end, with the decent Morrison Hotel and close-to-excellent L. A. Woman albums, but they nevertheless ended up as a slight version of the music revolutionaries they once threatened to be.

One of the issues with Greil’s approach is that he – being a Berkeley resident – lumps them in with the San Francisco bands of the time in terms of their somewhat psychedelic approach to their music and their lives.   Yes, Marcus is fully aware that they were a Los Angeles band (Morrison being a UCLA graduate) but he never seems able to capture the relationship between their place and their music.   He does try, in an essay about the L. A. Woman album, one which is interesting reading but empty on the actual mental nutritional calories it offers.

In discussing the band and southern California, Marcus also falls into the trap of seeing some kind of connection between their songs (Break On Through, The End, Riders On The Storm) and the violence of the Manson Family.   Which is nonsense, as Charles Manson made clear that he was irrationally influenced by the music of The Beatles on the White Album (specifically Helter Skelter) but never by The Doors.   It’s an interesting straw man argument that Marcus sets up, but it is essentially such a weak one that there’s no need to do more than set it aside.

Well, then, should one read Greil Marcus because he does such a valiant job of retaining the spirit of Gonzo rock journalism?   In other words, should you read him because he writes now as if he were writing for Rolling Stone, Creem, New West, Ramparts and other publications of the dear-departed 60s and 70s?   You might elect to, but I would suggest a couple of alternatives if this is your thing (or your bag, as it would have been called back in the day).

One fine choice is Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz.   Willis began writing rock criticism for The New Yorker in 1968 and almost created the genre of rock criticism tied to cultural and political events.   And then there was the master, the late Lester Bangs of San Diego, California.   There are two compilations of Bang’s work – Main Lines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader and Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: Rock’N’Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock’N’Roll.   There’s also an essential biography from 2000, Let it Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic by Jim Derogatis.

Trust me, reading or re-reading Lester Bangs and Ellen Willis will take you to some places that you won’t find in The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years.   And I wonder if that subtitle was actually meant to refer to Five Lean Years.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Note:  If you’re still wondering about whether you should read Marcus’ account of The Doors, keep in mind that he loves their live recordings (sigh) and the dreadful (“excoriated”) 1991 film The Doors by Oliver Stone – something which is truly hard to believe.

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