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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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The Power of Love

One Day: A Novel by David Nicholls (Vintage Contemporaries, $14.95, 448 pages)

Twenty years.   Two people.   ONE DAY

“(She was) unable to recall a time when she felt happier.”

“…he is more or less where he wants to be…  Everything will be fine, just as long as nothing ever changes.”

Sometimes we need to wait until the right time to read a particular book.   I received a review copy of this novel, which had already become the #1 bestselling book in England and throughout most of Europe, in early 2010 (it was released in trade paper form in the U.S. on June 15, 2010).   But it didn’t strike me as something that urgently needed to be read…  That is, until I read that Anne Hathaway had agreed to play the female lead in the upcoming film version, with Jim Sturgess as the male lead.   Knowing that Hathaway has a skill for finding great scripts, I felt that the time had come.

This is the story of two people, Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew, who meet cute on their graduation night (called “university graduation” in England) and spend the entire evening together.   They plan to commence a sexual relationship the next day; a plan which is forsaken due to some unexpected circumstances – something unexplained until the later pages of the story.   So, instead, they vow to be friends.   Dexter is to become Emma’s true male friend, but not boyfriend.

Nicholls tells the story, a very remarkable love story, by having us look in on the happenings of Emma’s and Dexter’s lives on the same date – July 15th – of each year.   The story begins on July 15, 1988, and concludes on July 15, 2007.   No spoiler alert is needed here, as no details will be revealed about what occurs to Emma and Dexter over the decades.   Let’s just say that the reader will be surprised.

I don’t want to play coy, so I will state that this is likely the best pure love story that I have read – it’s a tale that tugs at our heartstrings even while it makes us laugh.   And it will definitely bring tears prior to its dramatic and life-affirming ending.   It’s all the more remarkable that Nicholls, a man, writes with such a huge heart about life and love.

What can be revealed is that Emma and Dexter, despite their class differences (Dexter was born wealthy, Emma lower-middle class), know that they would be perfect for each other…  Maybe.   But each one faces too many temptations in the form of other people, and each thinks that the other wants different things out of life.   So despite their vow to be close forever, they begin to slide away from each other as they encounter life’s often not-so-gentle surprises.

“Everyone likes me.   It’s my curse.”

A few cautions…  Please disregard those who compare One Day to When Harry Met Sally (“Can a man and woman be best friends?”).   One Day is more adult and serious, and English humor is quite distinct from American humor; to me, it is, thankfully, more subtle.   That comparison caused me to hold off on reading this novel, which was unfortunate.   And if Dexter’s personality, early on, sounds a bit like Dudley Moore’s over-the-top character in the film Arthur, don’t worry, it will pass.   Dexter matures with age.

“…I can barely hear the compilation tape you made me which I like a lot incidentally except for that jangly indie stuff because after all I’m not a GIRL.”

There are many references to period music in the telling, which is both positive and not so positive.   (Emma can spend an entire day making the right mix tape.)   References to songs like “Tainted Love” make one smile; however, the numerous references to Madonna’s music wind up becoming painful in their datedness.

This is a novel that is stunning – so much so that on finishing it, I was both eager and fearful of reading it again one day.   (My response was to purchase the unabridged audiobook version, so that it’s there on the shelf if and when the urge strikes me to revisit it.)   This is simply a great story about two people who must decide which is better or worse:  the fear of confronting happiness, or the fear of never actually encountering it.   The message it delivers is a gift.   Please consider taking it.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Big, absorbing, smart, fantastically readable.”   Nick Hornby   “A totally brilliant book…  Every reader will fall in love with it.”   Tony Parsons   “A wonderful, wonderful book: wise, funny, perceptive, compassionate…”   The Times (London)

One of the most hilarious and emotionally riveting love stories you’ll ever encounter.”   People

Note:  The film version of One Day will be released on August 19, 2011.

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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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Over the Borderline

The Madonnas of Echo Park: A Novel by Brando Skyhorse (Free Press, June 2010)

“A work of fiction is an excellent place for a confession.”

To be truthful, this is a collection of short stories with a common theme, not a novel.   As author Skyhorse makes clear in the introductory author’s note (items which always take away more than they add to the reading experience), one of the stories is based on something that happened to him in grade school.   At the time Skyhorse presumed that he was a Native American and, thus, refused to dance with a young girl because she was a Mexican.   Since that time the author, who has worked as an editor in the publishing industry, has learned that he is primarily Mexican-American.   This collection of stories, then, is intended to honor the culture – and the people – he once snubbed.   It is an act of contrition, of penitence.

In the eyes of this reviewer, this collection worked a bit more than half the time but was not fully successful.   On the positive side, Skyhorse gives life to people on the peripheries of Los Angeles who are often invisible.   They are the house cleaners, the bus boys, the daily contractors who scrape along in L.A. without set plans for their future.   Many of them are Hispanics (who have displaced African-Americans but themselves are threatened by newly arriving Asians) from Mexico or Mexican-Americans born in the U.S.   As Skyhorse makes clear, these are the people who take buses to work across the great expanses of L.A. and their lives tend to be at the mercy of factors beyond their control.

“The areas around St. Vincent and MacArthur Park are Latino; some Mexican, some Salvadoran.   A new influx of Koreans hit the area several years ago, but there aren’t enough of them yet for tension.”

The short tales are interesting and make for relatively fast reading.   But I did not find the boldness, the vividness in the telling that some have focused on.   If anything, Skyhorse too often writes in the style of Junot Diaz and Oscar Hijuelos, as if starkness and drama and scenes that are a bit too descriptive – and occasionally disorderly – are essential to Hispanic writing.   This is offered as a critical point because a number of the tales were just this side of charming, and that charm was lost in the translation to grittiness.

Hispanic readers – and most especially those who have lived in L.A. – are likely going to see these tales as non-exceptional reflections of real life.   This is fine, but it’s hard to expect that most non-Hispanics will relate to them except as curiousity  pieces.   And while Skyhorse pays tribute to Mexicans/Mexican-Americans, he also shows in one particular story that there can be troubling differences, and real anger, between the two groups.   This was a bit troubling even if it reflects reality – the laundering of dirty cultural linen in public.

Some readers may be put off by the round-robin nature of the tales, which cross-reference each other in terms of characters and situations.   What seems at first cute becomes somewhat tiring after the first hundred pages.   The most troubling issue for this reviewer, quite surprisingly, had to do with editing.   Mentioned repeatedly is the fact that the Mexican-American residents of Chavez Ravine were forcibly evicted (and their homes destroyed) in the early 1950s to make way for what would become Dodger Stadium and the LAPD Academy.   This is raised as a grievance in so many of the stories that one becomes surprised that Skyhorse did not catch his own repetitiveness and deal with it.   Or was it meant to be disruptive to the reading as an analogy to the disruption of these residents’ lives for what was claimed to be the greater good?

All in all, this is a fine debut for a first-time author.   Yet this reviewer feels that Skyhorse has a choice to make when it comes to his next release.   He can either use his calming voice to write about life in a style that is a bit more positive and charming, or he can ratchet-up the grittiness and become an angry voice.   It is hoped that calmness prevails.

Joseph Arellano

Take Away:   Skyhorse has a lot of obvious writing talent, but let’s hope that next time he pens an actual novel.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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