Tag Archives: autobiography

Come In From The Rain

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They’re Playing Our Song: A Memoir by Carole Bayer Sager (Simon & Schuster, $28.00, 352 pages)

“I loved my parents, but I didn’t want to be like them.  I didn’t want to be afraid of life.  The trouble was, it was all I knew.”  Dani Shapiro (“Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life”)

“Music saved my life and gave me life.  It was where I allowed myself to feel fully alive, where it was safe…  As long as I stayed in that lane, I was protected from the frightening stories I would otherwise tell myself.”  Carole Bayer Sager

Carole Bayer Sager’s memoir – which, in an ideal world would have been accompanied by a CD of her songs (performed by Sager and others) – is an entertaining but somewhat bewildering work.  It’s interesting to read about how her songs, beginning with “A Groovy Kind of Love” were written, but there’s an odd dichotomy that pervades her life story.  On the one hand, Sager portrays herself as a person unnaturally afraid of almost everything, from flying to performing.  But then there’s the ultra confident Sager who writes songs with the likes of Marvin Hamlisch, Burt Bacharach, Carly Simon, Carole King, Bob Dylan and so many others.  This is the Sager who hung out with Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson, Dylan, David Foster, Peter Allen, Liza Minnelli, Bette Midler, Melissa Manchester, David Geffen, and so many others.

There’s no co-writer listed, no indication that this memoir is an “as told to…” work.   Perhaps if a professional writer-editor had been directly involved, he or she would have pointed out the inherent contradiction in the telling.  In addition, a writing assistant might have advised Sager to cut down the long, long list of famous people in her account; this book transforms name dropping into an art!   In fact, it might have been easier for Sager to have listed the famous people she has not run across in her existence.

And there are other issues.  One is that Sager repeatedly discusses her body image concerns with the reader.  Although she is a small woman, Sager has viewed herself as battling weight issues since childhood.  Mentioning this a few times would have been understandable.  However, it arises time and time again.  The repetitiveness tends to wear the reader down.  And there’s the matter of her sexual encounters.  She’s determined to tell the reader intimate details of her relationships with famous men.  Not only is this unnecessary – but for the fact that titillating details may sell a few books, it’s boring.

Where They’re Playing Our Song succeeds is in establishing the case for Sager as an extremely talented and successful songwriter.   The book was the impetus for this reviewer to listen to her songs as originally performed and/or covered by many talented recording artists.  Before reading this memoir, I was unaware of the song she wrote for Frank Sinatra, “You and Me (We Wanted It All).”   For someone less blessed and talented than Sager, writing a song recorded by the Chairman of the Board would have been in itself a life’s work, a definitive achievement.

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Recommended, if hesitantly, for music fans and prospective songwriters who will take what they need and leave the rest.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This book was released on October 18, 2016.

 

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Trouble in the Heartland

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen (Simon & Schuster, $32.50, 528 pages)

“It’s a town full of losers/I’m pulling out of here to win…”  Thunder Road

Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography Born to Run (what else?) is not for the faint of heart.   But, then, neither is his music.

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Springsteen fans have heard many of these tales before, but not directly from The Boss, and not in this format.   The stories of his complex relationship with his father and his battle with depression are quite gripping.   The coming of age tales of his early days trying to break in to the music business are more engaging than his tales of the E Street Band, though many of those are interesting.   (Note for the current generation – there was a day before The Voice).

Springsteen essentially lived as a vagabond for a decade, including after he signed his recording contract with Columbia.   It is hard to believe that after Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town he was not in the clear financially until after The River tour.   This was due to many things – not making much money at first, signing a very one-sided contract, legal fees, and studio time.   It is still rather hard to imagine.

One can hear the song in his prose, and it compels the reader to go back and listen to his records.   Springsteen had a vision.   He put himself on the line until this vision was all he had left; he relentlessly pursued it until it became a reality.   This book reminds us that Springsteen and the E Street Band were singularly unique.   The concert I saw in April of 1984 was the greatest performance I have ever witnessed.

Springsteen impresses with his candor.   Although careful at times, he comes across as genuine and forthright.   Springsteen did not set out to write a fluff book of nostalgia; rather, in his words: “I fought my whole life, studied, played, worked, because I wanted to hear and know the whole story…  I wanted to understand in order to free myself of its most damaging influences, its malevolent forces… and its power.”   This is some undertaking.

Though his personal relationships were often tumultuous, he views the E Street Band as his family.   He professes his love for wife Patti Scialfa.   And he admits that he did not always treat everyone as he could or should have.

Springsteen speaks with reverence of those that have passed.   He writes of the death of organ player Danny Federici – who asked to play “Sandy” on the accordion at his final concert.   He also writes of Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons, who had to sit on his last tour and be helped on and off the stage.   Springsteen may be driven, but one comes to like this book because of his honesty.   If he’s not honest here, he may be the biggest con man of all time.

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One thing that does not quite jibe with me is Springsteen’s commentary on drummer Max Weinberg, whom he categorizes as both a great timekeeper and soloist.   I’ve never viewed Weinberg as being in the class of innovative drummers like Keith Moon. But, then, who am I to question The Boss?

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

This book was delivered to the reviewer by Santa Claus.

Dave Moyer is an educator, the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel, and a drummer who has yet to be asked to join The Who.

 

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He’s a Runner

shoe dog amazon

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike – Phil Knight (Scribner, $29.00, 386 pages)

“In 1962 I told myself: Let everyone else call your idea crazy… just keep going. Don’t stop. Don’t even think about stopping until you get there, and don’t give much thought to where ‘there’ is. Whatever comes, just don’t stop.”

Phil Knight’s memoir is a wildly entertaining look at the founding – a difficult one, to be sure – of the world’s most successful athletic company. As Knight makes clear, the path forward was never easy. He began by cooperating with the Onitsuka Company of Japan (now Asics) to sell its shoes on the west coast of the United States; and, he eventually went to war with the company.

Shoe Dog shows us the value of grit, as Knight and his early partners were often knocked down but never out. He also fully acknowledges the many instances in which luck, pure luck, was on his side.

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This is not just Knight’s personal and professional tale, it is also the story of two major figures of the early days of the running movement: Coach Bill Bowerman of Oregon – inventor of the waffle sole, and Steve “Pre” Prefontaine. Go Pre! If Knight was the mind of Nike, these legends constituted its heart and its soul.

“God, how I wish I could relive the whole thing.”

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Oddly, this account appears to have been largely written back in 2007. Very late in the telling, Knight refers to Nike’s sales “last year,” in 2006. No matter, this is an inspirational work that’s well worth reading.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was published on April 26, 2016.

An excerpt from Shoe Dog can be found in the latest issue of Runner’s World magazine accompanied by this summary statement: “To Nike’s creator, Steve Prefontaine was much more than a talented runner. He was an inspiration for how the fledgling company would do, well, everything.”

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We’re All Alone

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Delta Lady: A Memoir by Rita Coolidge with Michael Walker (Harper, $25.99, 225 pages)

In the Acknowledgments, Rita Coolidge states that from the age of four she “dreamed of writing a book.” Sadly, this memoir does not read as if it was written. It reads as if it was dictated onto audio cassettes and transcribed by the writer whose name is found beneath hers in small letters. There’s simply no voice, no style present that gives it personality; thus, one never feels like time has been spent with the singer-musician.

Coolidge concedes that people usually think of her as the woman who was once married to Kris Kristofferson. Those wishing to find out something about that marriage may be satisfied with what they read in these 219 pages. But those wishing to learn more about her life in or out of the music trade may be left wanting.

One frustrating thing is that Coolidge makes bold statements before walking them back. For example, she’ll state that musician Joe Blow used too much cocaine, and then retract that by saying it’s not for her to say what too much is. Tentativeness in a “tell all” is so unsatisfying.

It seems like Coolidge waited decades to tell her story and then hedged in the telling.

Delta Lady back cover

Note:

Delta Lady could have used assistance from a strong editor. There are awkward statements and content throughout. For example, at one point we read this about Janis Joplin: “She drank too much than was good for her…” And Coolidge tells us that after her mother died, “I had a gig on the eighteenth and knew she wouldn’t want me to not do that gig.” Ouch!

There’s also noticeable repetition in the account. For example, one particular background singer did some work with the Rolling Stones. So every time her name is mentioned, we’re told – with but one exception – that this woman once sang with the Rolling Stones. These may seem like small points, but they’re not so small when you’ve shelled out $26.00 for a finished work.

Finally, there may be some issues with factual accuracy. Coolidge states that the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour left Joe Cocker physically and financially impoverished. Other accounts note that Cocker’s poor physical state was due to alcoholism. And the Mad Dogs and Englishmen double-album made Cocker rich. It was the second-best selling album in the U.S. when it was released, and was very likely the best selling recording on college campuses. A&M Records co-founder Jerry Moss stated, “‘The Letter’ (from the Mad Dogs album) was the first hit for Joe… The record went (Top 10) platinum and sold well… That whole group was incredible, and it was an amazing experience – what they did live and on record was magnificent. After that success, we were able to get Joe back in the studio to make more great records.”

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Down the Drain

Beer-Money-Cover

Beer Money: A Memoir of Privilege and Loss, & The Decline of a Detroit Dynasty by Frances Stroh (Harper, $25.99, 336 pages)

“The house (my father had purchased in New York City when I was six) and most of its contents would soon be gone, just as the brewery was. We’d somehow allowed ourselves to be pinned into place by these things; and in our search for freedom, some of us had self-destructed.”

Despite the title, this poor little rich girl memoir offers no insight into the brewing industry. That’s because Frances Stroh, a one-time partial heir to billions of Stroh Brewery dollars – all of which vanished into thin air, was far removed from the family’s management (and mismanagement) of the company. As with most of these memoirs, Frances did not realize early on how rich her family was. In her bored teen and early adult years she carelessly used and abused alcohol and drugs. And as a grown-up she learned to mourn the fortune she would never acquire.

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However, the rich are different. Even as Frances writes about Stroh’s going down the drain, she makes sure to inform the reader that she flies first class; she lives in a fine abode in San Francisco. And when her spendthrift brother came to visit her in The City, he’d rent out entire floors of swank hotels for parties and feast on the best food and drink from room service.

Stroh’s was a “beer giant… in the eighties and nineties…” But Frances has no explanation for the Detroit company’s rapid downfall other than to admit, “we’d simply blown it.” Indeed.

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Beer Money is a pointless, meaningless tale of privileged denial.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Note: According to Forbes magazine, the Stroh Brewery Company blew through $9 billion in profits. That’s a lot of beer money.

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Reflections of My Life

Young nowWaging Heavy PeaceWaging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream by Neil Young (Blue Rider Press, $30.00, 497 pages)

“I think I will have to use my time wisely and keep my thoughts straight if I am to succeed and deliver the cargo I so carefully have carried this far… Not that it’s my only job or task. I have others, too. Sacred things I need to protect from pain and hardship, like careless remarks on an open mind.”

Joan Didion has said that we tell stories in order to live. In Neil Young’s memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, he tells stories to document the things he has accomplished in his life, to admit his failings as a fallible human being, and to remind himself that there’s still a lot he wants to accomplish before he departs this world. It’s far from a hippie dream, as Young uses cold, calm and thoughtful Didion-like language – the lines above are a splendid example – in the re-examination of a life. At times, surprisingly, I was reminded of Didion’s Where I Was From, a look back at the early years of her life spent in Sacramento; and an acceptance of the fact that – at least in Didion’s case – one cannot go back home again.

When Young refers to the cargo he has carried in his life, I presume it’s a reference to his musical talent. But here he comes to the realization that he’s inherited some writing abilities from his famous Canadian sportswriter father:

“I am beginning to see that the rest of my life could conceivably be spent as an author, churning out books one after another, to the endless interest of, say, fourteen people with Kindles. Seriously, though, this is a great way to live. No wonder my dad did this… Writing could be just the ticket to a more relaxed life with fewer pressures and more time to enjoy my family and friends – and paddle-boarding.”

Yes, Young equates the precious time he spends with his beloved wife and children with the sport of paddle-boarding, which he learned in Hawaii. It’s a reminder of his honesty, and more documentation of a statement I happened to read in an article in The New York Post: “Everything in life is big and small in equal proportions.” Indeed.

One of the charming things about Heavy Peace is that it comes across as an unscripted conversation with the artist. There’s no agenda, no script – Neil simply tells his stories as they come to mind. This is what happens when we meet an old friend or classmate for lunch, say, or for libations (alcoholic or not) at a tavern. Some readers may be troubled by the fact that the true tales about Young’s career in music are told in non-chronological order. To which my response is, “So what? He’s still given us some inside information on his times with Buffalo Springfield; CSN&Y; and on his solo career and work with, and without, the members of Crazy Horse.”

If there’s one thing about the account that becomes a bit tiring, it’s his often-repeated rants about the poor audio quality of today’s music…“I am a pain in the ass now… I can’t go anywhere without the annoying sound of MP3s… This used to be my life, music. So I need to find or create a solution. Let everyone live, including those who crave quality. Mostly so I can stop ranting about it.”

(With music CDs) “…audio quality took a dive, with a maximum of fifteen percent of the sound of a master (recording).”

What’s strange for me is that when I listen to the recent releases of Young’s work that are supposed to be vastly improved audio editions of his earlier works, I don’t hear the improvement. In fact, some of the “new and improved” reworkings – as with the song “Cinammon Girl” – sound a bit dead when compared to the original, energetic recordings. But let’s not be a pain in the behind over it.

Conclusion

When Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One was released, the world was pleased to find a new and distinctive voice on the printed page. The same is true, no doubt, with the release of Waging Heavy Peace. Young’s voice is as seemingly unique on the page as it is in the recording studio.

Let’s hope that Young continues to write, for his own sake and for ours. His reflections on the successes and failures of his life are valuable reminders of the need to reflect on our own back pages every now and then; yes, to re-examine where we came from in order to see where we might be headed.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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