Tag Archives: John Lennon

Can’t Buy A Thrill

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Can’t Buy A Thrill: The Book Reviewer’s Slump – An article for Turn The Page, an occasional column about book reviewing.

1.  Happy and Hungover

Book reviewers are often faced with an embarrassment of riches.   They may receive hundreds of books in a short period of time, either directly from publishers or indirectly via book review publications.   This may translate into becoming less excited over the less publicized new releases.   I’m reminded of when I managed a college radio station’s music library…  The record companies sent us records every day, usually multiple copies of each release.   The longer this went on, the more we felt the temptation for the DJs to spend their time listening to the big, mega-releases like the latest from the Rolling Stones or Steve Winwood.   It was hard to pull away to listen to a new album recorded by a promising, virtually unknown and self-proclaimed bar band from San Jose.   (They went on to become wildly successful as The Doobie Brothers.)

It can be like that for the book reviewer.   At first, he or she will jump at reading and reviewing anything that’s sent.   Then the reviewer will find that he becomes pickier as time goes by.   It may be especially hard to read a debut novel by an unknown author when so many releases by major authors – from the major publishers – are whispering, “Read me!” in his ear.   This is but one of the issues that will arise.

you came back

Another issue occurs after reading an almost perfect book.   I had this experience recently after finishing the novel You Came Back by Christopher Coake.   I went to my stack of “to be read” books and, no matter how hard I tried to read each of them, they simply felt flat by comparison.   Moreover, I felt as if I could see the stitches in the tales when comparing them in my mind to Coake’s virtually seamless story telling.   I finally came to realize that Coake’s book – labeled a ghost story – is about what sudden loss does to human beings.   I then searched for a book with a somewhat similar theme and found it in the novel Gone by Cathi Hanauer, a story about a writer-mother-housewife whose husband leaves with the young, sexy babysitter and doesn’t return.   Gone and You Came Back are nearly mirror images of each other.   In music, it was like when the Beatles released Let It Be and the Rolling Stones released Let It Bleed.

Gone cover

After reading these two somewhat similar tales, I felt free to experiment with something completely different, which turned out to be an historical novel; fiction based upon a little bit of fact.   But sometimes shaking the grip a great book has on you – a type of literary hangover – takes days to be loosened.   For the book reviewer, this may mean not following through on a commitment that was made earlier; or delaying meeting the commitment.   But that’s the way life is.   As John Lennon was to so wisely state, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

2.  Comparing A to B

Above, I’ve compared two novels to each other, and this leads me to wondering whether a publishing house or publicist should do the same.   It seems like a potentially risky business.   If the book jacket promises that, “Anyone who loved Milo’s Story will adore spending time with Fluffy’s Tail!” there’s the risk of making the reader who truly loved the former, but doesn’t like the latter – such as a dog lover who can’t abide cats – extremely angry.   I think these types of comparisons have more of a downside than an upside.

A better strategy, in my view, and one that draws me in, is to post a blurb by a respected author who writes in the same genre as the new, relatively unknown author.   I may be quite unsure that I want to spend time reading a book by Bill Unknown, but if there’s a front jacket blurb by David Major (you know, the one whose book was made into a movie starring Anne Hathaway) stating, “Bill’s a truly great find!   Trust me, you must read this!” I’m likely to take the chance.   That’s because David Major has little to gain and a lot to lose by letting his name be used in a less than forthright way.   Let’s just hope that I haven’t received the galley of Unknown’s forthcoming book right after I’ve finished reading You Came Back.

Joseph Arellano

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Instant Karma

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.”   Robert Hilburn

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

“And we all shine on, like the moon and the stars and the sun.”   John Lennon

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 quick, brief encounters with Sir Elton John, Sir Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, Joni Mitchell, John Prine, Waylon Jennings, and Jack White.

You’re probably thinking that you’ll enjoy this memoir if you happen to 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 tea or Java.   Hilburn makes quite 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 seemingly full of excitement and energy (and played on vinyl) – and the telling seems to get tired and grumpy as we approach current times.   Hilburn, in fact, closes the book with a tremendous sense of pessimism about the 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 – such as Dylan and Mitchell, that he favors.   Not only does he realize it, but so do some of the performers he’s supported.   For example, at one point he asks Bono if the musician fears that the public will become tired of him.   Bono replies, “Look, I’m tired of Bono and I am Bono.”

“Paul’s like a brother.   We’ve gone way 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 he and Paul were, deep down, brothers still.

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

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

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 greatest 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.”   In the words of The Band, take what you need and leave the rest.

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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That Was Only Yesterday

Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan by Del Quentin Wilber (Picador, $16.00, 320 pages)

On March 30, 1981, I was at the Orange County (California) airport – waiting for my return flight to Sacramento when it became clear that something had happened back east.   The then-new president of the U.S. and former governor of California, Ronald Reagan, had been shot in an apparent assassination attempt.   Three other persons were shot and it was not then known whether Reagan, at his advanced age, would survive.   It appeared that a hundred or so persons jammed into the airport’s pub-restaurant to watch the 19-inch RCA color TVs broadcasting the dramatic events.

On that day – back in the day – I assumed that a book about the near assassination of an American president would appear within 6 to 18 months, clarifying exactly what happened.   But years and then decades passed by and the book did not appear.   This, finally, is that book.

Del Quentin Wilber takes a micro-level look at the events of 03/30/81 in a style that recalls books like The Day Lincoln Was Shot, The Day Kennedy Was Shot and The Death of a President.   It is an immediately engaging narrative which begins by looking at the schedules of Reagan (whose Secret Service code name was Rawhide), his Secret Service detail members and of the highly disturbed and bizarre individual who sought to impress a Hollywood starlet.   The language and mood become more tense and dramatic as the hour of the assassination attempt draws near.

Wilber very properly sets the stage by reminding us that this shooting came just three months after the killing of John Lennon, and followed the history-altering assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, and of Martin Luther King, Jr.   Wilber’s sadness in recalling these events is palpable, and informs the reader that this is a non-partisan account – one need not have been a political supporter of Reagan’s to fear for his safety (and for the country’s future) while revisiting that period.

“If Jerry Parr hadn’t decided to redirect the limousine from the White House to the hospital, Reagan would likely have died…”

“(The) doctors had been keeping pace with Reagan’s bleeding by pumping donated blood and fluids into his system.   So far, the tactic was working…  But this compensatory approach couldn’t continue forever.   They would have to stop the bleeding surgically.”

In these pages, Ronald Reagan is a likeable and courageous man who was able to joke with his emergency room physicians.   (He wondered what the gunman had against the Irish as all those shot on this day happened to be of Irish heritage.)   But he was also a man who wondered if he was about to meet his maker.   It was an open question because, as we now know, Reagan lost fully half of his blood volume as surgeons sought to remove the bullet that lodged a single inch from his heart.   Those of us glued to the TVs in early 1981 had no idea that the president came this close to dying.

Once the danger period had passed, the president was advised by the medical professionals to rest and convalesce for several months.   But he was a uniquely physically fit and strong elderly man.   Twelve days later he was back at the White House, and just a month later a visibly thinner president addressed a joint session of the Congress.

There’s more, much more, in this telling that disappoints only in that it seems to end too soon.   The courage of the Secret Service agents who saved the president’s life on this day is close to being incomprehensible.   “(Agent) Parr’s training had taught him one thing above all:  when faced with an actual threat, he could never freeze.   Not for three seconds, not for one second.   Without fail, he had to respond instantly.”

This is a fascinating and unique account, and it constitutes a worthwhile addition to the historical record.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Rawhide Down was released as a trade paperback book on March 27, 2012.  

“Full of spectacular, original reporting.”   Bob Woodward

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Nowhere Man

Clapton: The Autobiography by Eric Clapton (Three Rivers Press, $15.99, 352 pages)

Ethically, it was never a problem for me…

The noted writer-reviewer John Updike once said, “Review the book, not the reputation.”   If this memoir had been written by an average Joe, it would likely draw comparisons to James Frey’s fake memoir (now labeled fiction), A Million Little Pieces.   Like that work, this account is filled with descriptions of inhaling massive quantities of illegal substances, of dangerous behavior and of hurting oneself and others no matter the consequences.   But this memoir is written by a multi-millionaire musician, one who treats near-priceless Ferrari automobiles like disposable coffee cups, one who walks on 30-story hotel ledges, and one who repeatedly and tragically hurt others:  “I suddenly told Pattie I was leaving…  I was like a flame in the wind, being blown all over the place, with no concern for other people’s feelings or for the consequences of my actions…”

Suffice it to say that the Eric Clapton found here is not a very nice or likeable person.   He’s a person, who until the end of this account in near present times, sees the world as existing to serve only his own pleasures; so this is at times both an immoral and an amoral telling of the events in his life.   If this sounds too harsh, here are Clapton’s own words:  “I was off having one-night stands and behaving outrageously with any woman who happened to come my way, so my moral health was in appaling condition and only likely to get worse…  I was already trying to sabotage my relationship with Pattie, as if now that I had her, I didn’t want her anymore.”   (emphasis added)

The person who knows little about Clapton prior to picking up this book – something that is not recommended – likely is aware that Clapton took Pattie Boyd Harrison away from George, one of Clapton’s very best friends.   That says volumes about his behavior, behavior which is only ampiflied in the 328 pages of this autobiography.   One might hope that this version of events, written by a spirited musician, would contain some life in it, but it’s flat and omits many of the details that were provided in Pattie Boyd’s earlier-penned memoir, Wonderful Tonight.

We must presume that Clapton wrote this memoir on his own as there’s no attribution to another writer (“Eric Clapton with…”) nor an “as told to” credit.   Frankly it reads as if it were dictated to a stenographer or into a recording device.

There’s little for the rock music lover to discover here, as Clapton’s accounts of playing with certain bands/musicians are sparse, and he never does describe how he came to learn his own brand of playing.   A lot of time – too much, it seems – is devoted to explaining his love of the blues, even though (despite his insistence here) most of his career has centered on playing rock rather than traditional blues music.   And there are many odd and questionable statements throughout the book…  For example, when Cream plays one of its first dates opening for The Who.   Clapton wonders then whether Cream could possibly succeed with just three musicians in the band, even though they saw that The Who (a musical trio – Roger Daltrey generally being just a vocalist) had already proven the success of this musical business model.   Odd.

Bad choices were my specialty, and if something honest and decent came along, I would shun it or run the other way.

Ah, yes, Clapton (in a style reminiscent of John Lennon) blames his bad choices in life on the fact that a parent abandoned him “all those years ago.”   This seems like an excuse that was used for far too many decades.   In his mind, because his mother abandoned him, he was free to seek revenge by abandoning everyone who came into his life; except, of course, that he’s now happy with a third wife and four daughters.   Good for him.

I remember when I was considering reading Boyd’s memoir Wonderful Tonight, and I came across an online comment to the effect that if one read her book one might well cease to be a fan of the musician Eric Clapton.   I feel the same way here – it will be much harder to listen to Disraeli Gears or 24 Nights or Derek and the Dominoes or Journeyman after this.   At one point, Eric Clapton seemed like Forever Man.   In this autobiography, he comes across more like Nowhere Man.

Joseph Arellano

The reviewer was lent a copy of this book.

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Strawberry Fields Forever

The Beatles: The Biography by Bob Spitz, read by Alfred Molina (Simon & Schuster Audio, $39.95, 9 CDs – running time: 10 hours and 13 minutes)

Be careful what you wish for…  Or, in this case, the fellows who would eventually become the iconic rock group, The Beatles, were in for a shock when they got what they worked so hard to achieve – being the Toppermost of the Poppermost.   According to Bob Spitz, the author of this band biography, attempting to perform before an audience of hysterically screaming teenage girls is very tiring and puts one’s best musical efforts aside for the mere fact of being there in person on stage.

The usual biographical story line follows the lads from their early efforts at becoming popular and famous.   It’s well known that diligent practice, some songwriting and struggles to get gigs led them from Liverpool, England to Hamburg, Germany and back to Liverpool.   Eventually, they played to the USA audience via television on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Well, as an ancient radio show host would say, “Now, you’re gonna hear the rest of the story.”   Spitz invested countless hours of research and sleuthing to come up with a more in-depth and, in some situations, gut-wrenching back story of The Beatles life cycle, from unknowns to way-too-famous performers.   This reviewer listened to the audio version of the book narrated by Alfred Molina, who is himself a well-known actor in films and on stage.   Molina’s confident depiction of the various voices and accents is a real listening pleasure.   It also helps to have a well-written narrative which Spitz delivers chapter after chapter.

The saga comes to life with frequent quotes from the people who populated The Beatles’ world (e.g., Brian Epstein, Sir George Martin, Stuart Sutcliffe and his wife, etc.).   To his credit, Spitz did not include any of the band’s music in the audio book.   Whether this was due to the cost of the needle-drop or a conscious choice, it kept this listener focused on the interactions and emotions felt by all involved.

Honestly, it’s easy to jump on one’s laptop, go to You Tube and enjoy their  music.   It’s more of a challenge to stay with the biography and learn that these adorable fellows had plenty of emotional baggage and personal interactions that did not always bode well for the group.   Also, the rock scene in England and the USA was fueled by a wide array of illegal drug use.   The Beatles enjoyed their share of drugs, girls and fame.   Donovan was a pal as were other famous British rockers.   In the end it all fell apart and they were a group – a band – for less than a decade.

As the final track of  the CD closed out, this reviewer felt the enormous loss of something magical, something heard for the first time over a Ford Falcon station wagon radio as Martha drove the carpool group to our northern California high school.   It was love at first listen and it still is…

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

This audiobook was purchased by the reviewer’s husband.   It is available via Audible.com .

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7 Questions

We are here continuing our interview with writer Maddie Dawson, author of The Stuff That Never Happened: A Novel.   In this concluding part of the interview, the questions were asked by Joseph Arellano (JA) and Kimberly Caldwell (KC).

4.  JA:   When I was writing music reviews in college, I loved to read interviews in which musicians cited their influences, idols and role models.   (I would then go and listen to those other musicians to see if I could hear the connections.)   With this in mind, which authors come to mind when you think about who has influenced you?

MD:   I love writers who really explore the complexities of relationships and the inner lives of their characters – writers like Alice Munro, Amy Bloom, and Anne Tyler.   (Hmmm, a lot of A’s there.)   I also love so much of Jane Smiley’s work, particularly her early novels – and I love Anne Proulx’s short stories and her descriptions.   I believe that life is a  mix of humor and pathos, that the hilarious gets mixed in with the mundane and the tragic on a daily basis, so I adore the work (particularly the non-fiction) of Anne Lamott who is just so honest and real.   I love the wordplay and intelligence of Lorrie Moore’s work, and I’m constantly awed by the humorous work of modern male writers like Mark Haddon, Nick Hornby, and Jonathan Tropper.

5.  JA:   Is there a particular novel that you’ve read in 2010/2011 that seemed to be exemplary or mind-blowing?

MD:   I’m so glad you asked this question, because I was completely blown away by A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.   The complexities of that novel, the ins and outs of the plot, the depth of the characters:  I found it truly mind-blowing.

6.  JA:   What’s either the best or the hardest thing about publicizing your own work?

MD:   Ack!   Getting the word out about a book is such a huge task for authors these days.   I love some aspects of it – the social media stuff, the connecting with readers, the skype-ing with book groups and the constant feedback from people who have comments.   But other aspects are harder for me:  keeping up a blog and being interesting when really my head and heart are with my new characters and my new book, which is just coming into being.

7.  KC:   Are you working on a new book and, if so, what is the premise?

MD:   I am working on a new book.   It’s the story of a woman who, at 43, discovers she’s pregnant for the first time, just as she and her long-term boyfriend agree to a separation so she can care for her 88-year-old grandmother who is suddenly having little strokes.   It’s a story about the risks we take in loving, and the way that you can’t ever truly predict what your life will be.   I think all my work is basically about finding our true lives and our real families, and the ways in which we can be surprised by the life that finds us when we’ve gone ahead and made other plans, to paraphrase John Lennon.

Note:  Part One of this interview (The Author’s Perspective; click on the link in the Recent Entries column on the right to read it) was posted on this site on August 30, 2011.   Maddie Dawson’s novel, The Stuff That Never Happened, is now available as a trade paperback release.

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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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