Tag Archives: For the Roses

A Woman of Heart and Mind

Joni: The Creative Odyssey of Joni Mitchell by Katherine Novak (Greystone, $21.00, 298 pages)

Joni Mitchell, a self-described woman of heart and mind, never shows up within the pages of Joni.   There are a couple of reasons for this.   First, Katherine Monk never had the opportunity to interact with Ms. Mitchell, leaving her unable to shed light on the human being.   Second, Monk sought to create a quasi-academic treatise on the subject of Philosophy and Religion and the Music of Joni Mitchell.   Frankly, it’s simply not that interesting even if one was (like this reader) a Philosophy and Religion major in college.

No, this is not another fan’s tribute to Joni; instead, it’s a somewhat overwrought collection of essays that seeks to find the meaning of Mitchell’s music via the words of Nietzsche and other philosophers.   This is painful enough, but just when one hopes that she won’t throw religious figures into the analytical mix, she proceeds to discuss St. Augustine and revisit the biblical Story of Job.   In the end – in the words of Bob Dylan, nothing is revealed.

Mitchell herself once said that writing about music is like trying to dance to architecture.   Picking up a copy of Joni’s Blue or For the Roses album is much preferable to attempting this strange dance.   Very much preferable.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

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Women of Heart and Mind

Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller (Washington Square Press; $17.00; 608 pages)

This is, quite simply, a fabulous book about the careers of three key singer-songwriter-musicians of the ’60s and ’70s and beyond; the three just happened to be women.   There was a big surprise for me in the reading, as I had earlier read that author Weller interviewed both Carly Simon and Carole King.   She did not have the opportunity to directly interact with Joni Mitchell.

Based on this, I fully expected this to be a book strong in details about Carly and Carole, and weak on information about Joni.   This was not the case…  As someone else said, Weller spoke to virtually every musician, friend and intimate in Joni’s life and it shows!

The next surprise is that I was sure the tales of Carly and Joni would sizzle like steak fajitas, while Carole’s life story would sit to the side like a bland order of re-fried beans.   Instead, both Joni and Carole come off as fascinating early hippie-earth mothers, who were blessed with both tremendous intelligence and natural musical skills.   (Despite my initial doubts, Weller fully and effectively makes the case for Carole’s stature in modern rock and music history.)

Carly, sadly, comes off as a patrician – daughter of the extremely wealthy founder of Simon and Schuster – who married a fellow patrician.   This, of course, was James Taylor, whose father ran the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.   “James was a…  lifelong-privilege man.”

Here, Carly’s career appears to be a product of social connections, luck (she was often said to be the least talented of the singing Simon Sisters trio) and blatant use of her long-legged sex appeal.   “(There was) a sex-teasing leitmotif in every one of Carly’s early albums.”

Also, a lot of Carly’s story is devoted to James’ drug use and abuse; a topic that simply does not make for interesting reading.   The days of wine and roses, this is not.   Concerning Carly’s patrician status, Jac Holzman, founder and president of Electra Records said that he and the singer “were from similar backgrounds – haute Jewish New York, although she was certainly more Brahmin.”

Further, Weller notes that Stephen Holden of Rolling Stone wrote of Carly with faint-praise-turned-full:  “She has the whitest of white voices and uses it well, singing…  with her fearless enunciation.   Her almost literal note-for-note phrasing of songs is…  ingenuous.”

Weller has to be given props for finding the fascinating details you won’t find in other musician/band bios.   I’ll provide just one example here…

Weller writes of a young man who cleaned apartments in the Bronx in return for using the occupants’ pianos.   While most immigrant families managed to scrimp and save enough to purchase a piano, this young Italian immigrant’s family was just too poor to do so.   We came to know him as Bobby Darin, and one of the tenement flats he regularly cleaned belonged to the parents of a young woman who came to be called Connie Francis!

Weller may not be quite as talented when it comes to describing the turbulent culture and times of the ’60s and ’70s, but then this is still a rock and folk-music tale after all and not a pure historical overview.   All in all, this is a fabulous read that adds heft to the musical reputations of Joni Mitchell and Carole King, as it somewhat diminishes the career of one Carly Simon.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer at Orinda Books.   Girls Like Us will be adapted by writer John Sayles into a screenplay for a Sony Pictures film.

 

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Judgement of the Moon and Stars

The Impression

Recently, I was communicating with an author when he happened to reference the “judgment” contained in book reviews.   And that’s when it dawned on me that I don’t see reviews as necessarily being judgmental; instead, I see them as impressions.   A review reflects the way in which a reader-reviewer perceives the book at a particular point in time in his/her life.   As with everything in life, this is subject to change.   It may be, for example, that a novel that a reviewer could not get into while battling an illness would be highly enjoyable at another time.   Many of us have had the experience of reading a particular book years ago and labeling it as a favorite, only to be surprised when we return to that book and find it flat and dull.   Did the book change in any way in the interim?   No, our life – the reader’s life – changed in such a way as to change our perspective of the book.

Let’s think about this in terms of a physical landmark.   Let’s say that I view the Golden Gate Bridge on four occasions – firstly in the middle of the afternoon on a warm and sunny day, next during a rainstorm, then while the bridge is bathed in fog, and lastly on a moonlit night.   Each time the bridge will appear to be different, and I would likely describe the bridge in different terms if I were writing about it.   The bridge itself never changes, but my view of it – my impression – will change based on external factors.

So, one thing to keep in mind while reading a review is that it’s a point-in-time statement.   It’s also something that’s subject to revision.   The reviewer who slammed a book with a negative review might find, to his surprise, that he enjoys it when he looks at it months later.   And the reviewer who loved a book and added it to her personal collection might wonder a year or two later why she loved it – something she’ll ponder while putting it on the giveaway stack.

What does this mean for an author?   Simply that both positive and negative reviews can be discounted.   The book that one reviewer perceived as a flop may be a hit later, and vice versa.   Life changes and so do impressions.

The Choice

The author of a recent survey book noted something interesting about how film and book reviewers are perceived.   According to a study referenced in the book, the authors of generally negative reviews are viewed as more intelligent than reviewers who almost always draft positive reviews.   This is due to the perception that “anyone can say nice things,” while the negative reviewer is seen as a person who must have an extensive in-depth background – otherwise, how would he/she know what to nitpick and criticize?   This does not mean, however, that the average person prefers to read the reviews of a generally negative reviewer.

When given a choice between reading mostly negative or positive reviews, the typical person will more often select the positive ones.   And when asked about the people who write the reviews, most people will select the positive one as the nicer person – the nicer person is, therefore, the one whose reviews are read more.   So this leads to a choice among limited options for the book reviewer.   Do you want to be perceived as smart and well-read, or as the less smart writer whose reviews are more often read?

The appropriate response may be to write a mix of positive and not so positive reviews, so that one is viewed as both smart and nice, if not both at the same time.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured – The Other Life: A Novel by Ellen Meister ($24.95, 320 pages) which will be released by Putnam Adult Books on February 17, 2011.

Note:  After writing this article, I happened to come across the following statement from Robert Christgau, music critic for the Village Voice:  “I don’t usually fluctuate wildly with what I initially thought about an album because I wait to write the review until I know what I think…  My first judgment is solid and secure.   But records do tend to either gain or lose aura as decades pass.”

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On the Road Again

Corn Flakes with John Lennon and Other Tales From a Rock ‘n Roll Life by Robert Hilburn (Rodale; $14.99; 280 pages)

“…the best music doesn’t just fill a void in the listener…  it can also fill a need in the artist.”

“I look at people as ideas.   I don’t see people as people.”   Bob Dylan

The fine long-time music critic for The Los Angeles Times, Bob Hilburn, takes us along on his trips with “the best rock stars” in this engaging account of his years in the music business.   It is mostly a study of personalities, big ones, such as John Lennon, Bob Dylan (“The most important figure in rock…  rock’s most celebrated living figure…  the greatest songwriter”), Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Presley, Neil Young, Bono of U2, Johnny Cash and Janis Joplin.   There are also brief encounters with Elton John, Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, Joni Mitchell, John Prine, Waylon Jennings, and Jack White.

You might be thinking that you’ll enjoy this memoir if you like these artists, most of whom were blessed with the approval of both Hilburn and Rolling Stone magazine.   You’ll be right in that thought, and also will likely find that it has less charm if these artists are not your cup of Java.   Hilburn makes very clear that he dislikes “superficial artists” (a term coined by Dylan), among whom he includes Rod Stewart, the “cold” Steely Dan, and Madonna.   He writes of the latter that she’s a “sharp cookie” who always provides good quotes for an interviewer, but “I’m not generally a fan of her music.”

So, yes, this is an account of hanging out on the road with the stars of boomer rock and country music.   The true tales from the 1970s are the most interesting ones – when rock was full of excitement and energy – and the telling seems to get tired and pessimistic as we approach present times.   Hilburn, in fact, closes the book with a lot of pessimism about the current music trade’s prospects for survival.

If Hilburn has a fault, it’s an obvious one in that he often gets close to being over the top about those artists, those geniuses, he favors.   Not only does he realize it, but so do some of the artists he’s supported.   For example, at one point he asks Bono if the musician is afraid that the public will become tired of him.   Bono answers, “Look, I’m tired of Bono and I am Bono.”

“Paul’s like a brother.   We’ve gone past all that.”   John Lennon

If there’s a reason to buy this book, now available in trade paperback form, it’s for the touching overview of Hilburn’s days spent with Lennon in New York City just two weeks before the former Beatle’s tragic death.   This Lennon is a man at peace with himself, in love with his life, and ready to forgive and forget.   One very revealing note is when John tells Hilburn that all of the stories about the deep rift between him and Paul McCartney were just that, stories.   John noted that he and Paul were, deep down, brothers still.

Hilburn’s book is a brief for the power of rock ‘n roll.   It may now be an endangered art form, but Hilburn reminds us that, at its best – as when it’s performed by Bruce Springsteen, “rock ‘n roll (can) still be majestic.”

Well recommended.

Take Away:  This is a very entertaining journal of life within the rock ‘n roll circus tent.   However, Hilburn sacrifices a bit of credibility when he refers to Kurt Cobain as one of rock’s great figures and as “the great talent” of the 1990s.   As he admits, “I often had a hard time convincing…  people when it came to Kurt.”   Take what you need from this account and leave the rest.

Joseph Arellano

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Average is Not Good Enough

“You’ve got to shake your fists at lightning now/ You’ve got to roar like forest fire…”   Joni Mitchell (“Judgement of the Moon and Stars: Ludwig’s Tune”)

You don’t see many book reviews concluding that the book being reviewed is average.   Yet, in truth, many books are simply average and this can present a problem for a reviewer.   Think, for example, about the book reviews you’ve read recently that you remember.   I would guess that they were either extremely positive or negative; either praising or damning.

These “A” or “F” reviews almost write themselves as the reviewer is honestly answering a single question:  Why did I love – or hate – this book?   But it is a much harder task to write a review of a book that doesn’t either soar or plummet  – the “C” book that represents the much-dreaded and highly feared word in this country, average.

Sometimes this comes down to the process of editing.   Ideally, an editor should perform two tasks at once when reviewing a manuscript.   He or she should review the grammatical accuracy and, just as importantly, determine if the work has a narrative structure that is attractive and holds the reader’s interest.   There are perfectly edited books – with no typos or errors of punctuation – that merely glide down the runway but never take off, for lack of style.

I had an experience with this recently.   I received a copy of a semi-fictional novel from a first-time author.   There were no obvious errors in spelling or punctuation in the galley but the entire story read as if it were written by a newspaper reporter:  “First, I did this, then that.   Then I graduated from high school, then got married, then went into the military, then went to college.”   You’ve heard of the phrase, “Dialing it in?”

I lost all interest in the book after a few dozen pages.   I had almost no idea what to say about it so I decided not to write a review.   I am not a fan of assigning either grades or stars to books (the latter seems so trite and childish) but in this case I almost wished that I could simply say, “An average story told without style.   C-.”   Oh, well.

But there’s a lesson here, I think, for the first-time writer.   After you finish the manuscript for the Great American Novel or the Fantastic Nonfiction Survey Book, look for an editor who will apply the style test to your work.   This will, hopefully, not be a friend or family member.   Supplying this editor with the first chapter of your work should suffice.   Ask him or her one basic question, “After reading this sample chapter, did you want to read more?”   If the answer is “no,” take it as constructive criticism and work on finding your voice.

It is not sufficient in today’s highly competitive literary market to just bang out a story.   C-level books are not good enough.   If you’re going to be a true writer, an artist, you need to come up with a work that is so individual, so full of your spirit and unique voice that reviewers will either love it or hate it.

Go for the “A” or “F” and get noticed!   And by all means, avoid the cloak of invisibility that’s inevitably attached to average work.

One in a continuing series.   Pictured:  Reading Like a Writer – A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose (Harper Perennial Trade Paperback, $13.95).

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