Tag Archives: Helter Skelter

Helter Skelter

“Mental wounds not healing/Who and what’s to blame/I’m goin’ off the rails of the crazy train.” Ozzy Osbourne (“Crazy Train”)

Absence of Mercy (nook book)

The Absence of Mercy: A Novel by John Burley (William Morrow Paperbacks, $14.99, 352 pages)

A high school boy is murdered, and a high school girl barely escapes the same fate. A bedroom community is rocked, and the Medical Examiner’s family becomes embroiled in the controversy. This is the essence of John Burley’s debut novel, The Absence of Mercy. Burley himself is an emergency medicine physician, and those in that profession can attest to the accuracy or lack thereof in his details. For the typical reader who wants to enjoy a good suspense thriller, one could do far worse than Absence. In fact, having reviewed many books of this genre, I am hard pressed to recall any contemporary suspense thriller that I have enjoyed more.

Absence of Mercy back cover

In addition to an intuitive sense of pacing that is well refined for a first-time author, the reader does not have to suspend reality or ignore sensationalism to appreciate the book. I suppose the cross border escape attempt pushes the envelope a bit, but I’ll give Burley a pass on this, as the rest of the story is rock solid (or “spot on” as the English say). The events chronicled in this book could have happened today, anywhere. A mother’s love, professional integrity, trust, despair and forgiveness permeate the story effortlessly. Nothing here seems forced.

And, then, there is insanity. Yes, mental illness is real, and many good people effectively manage various afflictions throughout an entire lifetime. But there is also crazy and evil in this world. As humans we seem compelled to attempt to explain, make sense of, or feel the need to control everything around us. Unfortunately, this is not possible, as we tend to learn all too directly. As to true crazy and pure evil, there is no remedy, no cure.

In Absence, there is also no mercy.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Dave Moyer is an education administrator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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We All Shine On

Music Review: “Breathe Air” by the Plastic Yellow Band

plastic-yellow-band

Plastic Yellow Band

The name Plastic Yellow Band (PYB) practically screams “Beatles.” By the time one has listened to the first third of the album, Breathe Air, any remaining doubt is resolved. PYB’s founder, Gerry Jennings, admits to modeling the band after John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band.

Gerald-Jennings-4

The first song, “Lonely Place,” sounds a bit like Paul McCartney on piano while also being reminiscent of a late ’70s/early ’80s arena rock band’s power ballad. The second cut “She’s My Woman,” resembles a Beatles song with a Southern Fried rock twist. “Nowhere” features a sitar and George Harrison sound. “Nervous Stuff,” the fourth track, possesses the spirit of the Beatles’s “Helter Skelter”; it just so happens that the repeated lyrics might sound a bit familiar: “All you need is love.”

The album shifts gears a bit on “I Want to Feel Your Love” with Dana Rideout on lead vocals. “Love” has the countrified flavor of an Emilylou Harris song from the early ’70s.

“She Let It Down” is simply filler, while “Oil Kings” initiates the political overtones that are found throughout the rest of the album. Interestingly, “Oil Kings” sounds similar to “Nervous Stuff.” “Alone (It’s Hard)” is a mid-’80s-style pop song that I didn’t care for much. It’s notable that the lead vocal mimics the Lennon/McCartney sound to an almost greater-than-acceptable (or necessary) level.

The ninth track, “Climate Change,” clocks in at 4:45 and seems to be the band’s attempt to fashion a traditional popular single. The song has some of the dreariness, harmonies and production found on early Pink Floyd albums. And the lyrics are interesting: “Thirty years from now I’ll be just a memory/And you’ll still be around, not sure what your temperature will be.”

The Pink Floyd theme continues and deepens as Breathe Air closes with a trilogy of instrumental tracks – “Sunlight I,” “Sunlight II,” and “Sunlight III.” “Sunlight II” includes the line, “Say hello to sunlight and breathe air.” I was reminded of both Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here while listening to these closing numbers. Unfortunately, the trilogy – while creative and perhaps a bit pretentious, if not bland – threatens to lose the listener’s interest.

All in all, Breathe Air is a decently strong first effort. It runs a full 57 minutes, which makes up for the weak closing tracks. I’m hopeful that on PYB’s next release, the music will display a bit more punch, with leader Gerry Jennings more up-front, and fewer references to Jennings’s musical influences. (Imitation is not always flattery or tribute. Sometimes it’s just imitation.)

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was downloaded from the band’s website: http://plasticyellowband.com/

Dave Moyer is a public school administrator, a drummer, and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Everything Changes

Music Review: Julian Lennon – ‘Everything Changes’ [2013 Reissue]

Everything Changes

Julian Lennon’s sixth studio album, his first since 1998, is called Everything Changes. Originally released on a limited basis in 2011, this re-release adds two bonus songs to the 12 that made up its initial pressing: “Someday” and “In Between.”

It might have been called “Entropy,” to reflect a belief in disorder or uncertainty or degradation in our personal and universal existence. Lennon is concerned about many things here. He sings that, “Nothing stays the same/When you’re lost and when you’re broken.” Interestingly, his views on the hazards of life and living are much like those expressed by James McCartney on his Me album. (Is there something about being the son of a Beatle?)

Fortunately, matters are positively resolved before the end of this 65-minute plus collection of music. Lennon concludes that, “There’s always light at the end of the tunnel.” He also reminds us that, “We’re all in it together/One love now and forever.”

Here’s a look at the songs on Everything Changes, now available for downloading on iTunes and elsewhere, as well as on CD.

From the opening notes of the title song, “Everything Changes,” this sounds like a song from another Beatles-influenced musician; something that would prove to be true of other songs on this 14-track album.

On the song “Someday,” Julian joins with Steven Tyler of Aerosmith to ask an interesting question: “How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?” Wait, haven’t we heard this before? Yes, Lennon borrows a line from a Beatles song in a tune built around a Magical Mystery Tour-style sound. Think of “I Am the Walrus” melded with “Blue Jay Way.” Having Lennon and Tyler sing together seems like something that wouldn’t work, but oddly enough it does and it works quite well.

While “Someday” is an almost joyful tune, Lennon notes that when it comes to life, “it’s just about holding on.”

“Lookin’ 4 Luv” is like a lost ’70s tune by the Beatles or Badfinger. It’s alternately sad and hopeful: “Why do you look the other way/When I’m trying to see your soul?… I’m searching in all the wrong places/I’m down but I’m fighting back again.”

“Hold On” is a piano-based tune on which Lennon sounds frighteningly like John Lennon: “Shall I give my heart to break again/Can it be real that I have lost a friend?” The recording includes a partially distorted vocal track, a technique of which John was fond. “Touch the Sky” is a composition that may have been inspired by the 2009 death of Lucy O’Donnell (the inspiration for John’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”): “We all want to touch the sky/We all ask the question why/We all need a helping hand.” Lennon’s wishes in the song are in accord with the Beatles’ values: “I just hope and pray peace will come one day.”

“Invisible” is Beatlesque: “Remember love forgotten… I know that love surrounds you/It’s invisible.” Had this been recorded by the Beatles, George Harrison would likely have sung it.

“Just for You” is a track that sounds in virtually every respect, save for the absence of a keyboard instrument, like a Brent Bourgeois (“I Don’t Mind at All”) recording. Lennon sounds like Bourgeois in his phrasing and vocal inflections. There’s a soft opening, broken by a strong bridge with angst-filled and religious-inspired lyrics: “You know I’ve talked to the Virgin Mary/Prayed to the Holy Ghost/Hung with the Bodhisattva for the one I love the most/And I’ve danced with the fallen angels/Sold my soul to the shadow mind just for you.”

It turns out that there are multiple tunes in the Bourgeois style on Everything Changes. It’s best left to the listener to determine the actual number.

“Always” is a surprise with its Pink Floyd instrumentation, while “Disconnected” could have fit on either Magcial Mystery Tour or Revolver: “Cradle life and love and let it flow.” “Never Let You Go” is another song in the style of Revolver.

“Guess It Was Me” is a nice ethereal track that calls to mind Crowded House. “In Between” is a completely original song in which Lennon laments that, “Reality was only in my mind.” (This might be his “Eleanor Rigby.”)

Julian Lennon

Those who download this album might be surprised to find that the two closing songs are listed as “Track 13” and “Track 14.” Not to spoil the surprise, but track 13 is “Don’t Wake Me Up,” on which Lennon sings in the style of Harry Nilsson. Track 14 is “Beautiful,” a very moving and heartfelt tribute to Julian’s father: “The feeling still remains/(Though) you’re on a different plane.” It’s a song of resolution and perhaps redemption.

Lennon has said that the songs on this release have “a dreamy, floaty quality.” This highlights one of the album’s flaws, a sameness to the ballads which can become wearisome. If only he had skipped one or more of the spacey songs and included a flat-out rocker like “Day Tripper,” “Helter Skelter,” or “Johnny B. Goode.” These are songs he’s performed gleefully on stage.

While Everything Changes falls short of being essential, it’s very close to being an excellent album and is well recommended.

Lennon is the son of a late musical legend. He shines on in his own way.

Joseph Arellano

This review originally appeared on the Blogcritics site:

Music Review: Julian Lennon – ‘Everything Changes’ [2013 Reissue]

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Aftermath

Restless Souls: The Sharon Tate Family’s Account of Stardom, the Manson Murders, and a Crusade for Justice by Alisa Statman with Brie Tate (It Books, $26.99, 380 pages)

“Pardoning is God’s domain…  I forgave Sharon’s killers through His grace.   But, within, the laws of man, this forgiveness didn’t lessen the killer’s culpability or diminish my ambition to keep them in prison.”

This is an engaging and sometimes moving (and sometimes overdone) account of the life of a family that was terribly affected and afflicted by a brutal crime – the murder of Sharon Tate.   There are two names listed as authors, one being the domestic partner of Tate’s younger sister and the other her niece.   But, in fact, the book was written by four parties since it incorporates the words of Sharon Tate’s mother and father; both of whom intended to write their own memoirs.   And, to some extent, it was also written by Vincent Bugliosi as it borrows generously from his bestselling book Helter Skelter.

The one major flaw with this nonfiction work is that it was likely released at the exact wrong time.   I may not be correct (and I am not taking a side on this issue), but the political winds seem to be blowing in the direction of a moderately to dramatically less “tough on crime” approach than was exercised in the past.   This, at the least, appears to be true in California.

Restless Souls at times reads like a legal and political brief for locking them up and throwing away the key.   This is understandable as Doris Tate, Sharon’s mother, was a prominent figure in the victim’s rights movement in California and throughout the country a few decades ago.   She was recognized as one of the Thousand Points of Light by the first President Bush and worked very closely with California governors George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson.   Had this book been released in the period between 1980 and 1991, it would likely have drawn a great deal more attention that it’s going to get today.

A major part of the “Crusade for Justice” addressed in this account were the attempts by the Tate family to ensure that none of the Manson Family members were released from state prison.   These efforts were successful (Susan Atkins died in her cell); a fact which, ironically, takes away the weight and suspense of the telling.

Probably the most interesting of the four family member’s accounts is the one written by Sharon’s father P. J. who was in court during the Manson Family trials.   P. J.’s version of the courtroom dramas is fascinating, yet it takes a back seat to Bugliosi’s chilling version (Helter Skelter perhaps being the second best nonfiction account of a crime ever written, next to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood).   This is something that’s apparent to Statman and Tate since a surprisingly – almost shockingly – lengthy excerpt of Helter Skelter is used here to describe the murders of Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring and the others at the home on Cielo Drive above Beverly Hills.

Astoundingly, Statman goes on to claim that Bugliosi’s book “was missing emotion” for the crime victims, something that could hardly seem to be less true based on the prosecutor’s writings and his work in court.   It’s the authors’ emotions, on full display, that make otherwise cold accounts, Helter Skelter, In Cold Blood and Joseph Wambaugh’s The Onion Field, so very stunning and moving.   These three books, once read are never, ever forgotten.

“Parents are covictims, and many of them get worse when the legal process is finished…  Now they begin to pine for their (lost) child in earnest…  They have to reconstruct their whole belief system because their assumptions about the decency of humanity, the security of social order, and justice are all shattered.”

Restless Souls serves as a needed reminder of how crime victims are often twice brutalized in our society and in the criminal justice system (having to deal with both a crime and its true aftermath in human terms), but I suspect it will mostly be read by criminal justice students as an historical account and not much more.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Restless Souls was released on February 21, 2012.

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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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It Don’t Come Easy

Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY and the Lost Story of 1970 by David Browne (Da Capo, $26.00, 368 pages)

“Half the people are stoned/And the other half are waiting for the next election.”   Paul Simon

The year 1970, as some of us remember, was the year that Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water was both the best-selling album and single of the year.   But what might not be remembered is that S&G would soon be targeted – during the very same year – as rock’s ultra-conservative sell-outs.   The New Yorker music critic, Ellen Willis, wrote of Mr. Simon:  “I consider his soft sound a copout.   And I hate most of his lyrics; his alienation,  like the word itself, is an old-fashioned, sentimental, West-Side-liberal bore.”

Not to be outdone, critic Miles Kingston (who claimed to be a fan) wrote:  “Some people hate Simon and Garfunkel because their music has no guts, because it is a middle-class look at life, because it slips too easily from idiom to idiom.”   Kingston described their fans as “the left-out kids – the loners, the book-worms… (and worse).”   And then there was the Time Magazine reporter, assigned to do a cover story on James Taylor, who wrote that, “…the people interested in James Taylor are those who never quite got over a fascination with Simon and Garfunkel.   Upon whom it is now fashionable to dump.”

Yes, David Browne has a knack for finding interesting bits and bytes of information that challenge our collective memory.   This is a non-fiction account of the 1970s – and, specifically, the decade’s beginning – in post Kent State America.   Browne writes about the softening of rock ‘n roll in a year that saw the demise of three of the world’s most successful groups – The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (CSNY).   Yet, in a year that one publication initially termed The Year That Melody in Popular Music Had Died, it was to be a year of rebirth in music, of melody.

If the hard rock of the late 60s had just about killed melody (John Lennon had called Beatle Paul’s Helter Skelter, “just noise…”), it was soon brought back to life in the form of new performers like James Taylor and Elton John.   Browne’s account is actually a melding of two – one, a background look at the music of the time; second, a description of the social and political environments of the late 60s/early 70s.   In this it bears many similarities to Girls Like Us, an earlier-written account of the musical careers and times of Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon.

I noted that Browne has a knack for finding interesting factoids.   Here’s another one…  According to his research, backed by Paul Simon and Paul McCartney, two of the major songs of the decade were written not for the composer’s own group/band but for the voice of Aretha Franklin.   Yes, both Bridge Over Troubled Water and Let It Be were specifically written for the Queen of Soul, who – luckily for fate – rejected them.   It’s one reason that both songs, written within weeks of each other, share a gospel soul and structure.

If you’d like to read more fascinating things that you never knew about all of the band members and performers listed in the book’s subtitle, and about others like Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Phil Spector, Allen Klein, Mary Balin, and Billy Preston, you’ll want to run and pick this one up.   As James Taylor was to sing, “Hey, Mister, That’s Me Up on the Jukebox!”

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Notes – Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller was reviewed on this site on February 2, 2011 (“Women of Heart and Mind”).

Elizabeth Taylor was to say that, “People don’t like sustained success.”   Which is perhaps why, in 1970, George Harrison sold more records than either Paul McCartney or John Lennon.

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