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Song Sung Blue

The Ghost of Neil Diamond by David Milnes

Commenting on the status of the modern hero in fiction, Martin Amis argued, “Nowadays our protagonists are a good deal lower down the human scale than their creators:  they are anti-heroes, sub-heroes.”   One hopes that this dictum holds true for David Milnes, author of The Ghost of Neil Diamond.   For Milnes’ protagonist, bearing the blandly English name of Neil Atherton, is a lost man on the edge of the abyss.

Atherton has washed up in Hong Kong, dragged into the territory on the coat-tails of his wife, Angel.   Back in England, back in the past, he had known modest success as a musician on the folk scene club circuit.   But now he’s 48, these meagre stage triumphs are a fading memory and Atherton appears increasingly redundant to his younger wife, who has carved out a niche for herself in the city’s corporate hierarchy.

Eventually, an exasperated Angel washes her hands of her husband, leaving him enough Hong Kong dollars for a flight back to the United Kingdom with some to spare.   But Atherton refuses to retreat with his tail between his legs.   He falls into the ambit of Elbert Chan, a diminutive Cantonese businessman operating from a seedy backstreet office.   Chan handed his business card to the Englishman after a rousing rendition of “Song Sung Blue” and now dangles before the destitute Atherton the lucrative prospect of being part of a celebrity tribute act.   Neil’s preparation is not just to learn how to sing like Neil Diamond but, in some Zen-like way, to become the American superstar.

While waiting for Chan’s purported connections to open doors, Atherton spends his nights on the floor of a language school’s classroom and purgatorial days wandering the humid streets of an alien city.   There are echoes here of Poe’s short story, “The Man of the Crowd.”

Ostensibly rooted in the superficial world of tribute singers, this is a book that subtly plays with the tropes associated with its subject matter to raise some interesting questions about what represents the real, and what constitutes the fake.   Crossing the spectacular Tsing Ma Bridge, Atherton reflects on the engineers and builders who make this feat of engineering possible and compares their achievement with his own contribution to this world:

His sort need not be taken at all.   There was…  a need of some kind for people such as Neil Diamond, though surely even they must find it hard to live with themselves after a while.   But whatever case could be made for the pedlar of…  illusion, there was surely no case at all to defend one who only followed, the counterfeit and imposter running along behind.

This angst over how the professional impostor can maintain his self-worth reaches a crescendo in the novel’s second half, when Atherton’s attempt to usurp another Diamond impersonator – a photocopy of a photocopy – threatens to annihilate his personality.

This book has its comic aspects, but it’s a dark comedy.   The environment through which the main actor moves like a ghost is deftly evoked.   The ambience of subterranean hotel bars is conjured with a reference to mirror balls that “shed loose change all over the floor.”   The Star Ferry that shuttles between Kowloon and the island is revivified with a simile:  “Children scrambled ahead and flipped over the back-rests, making a wonderful clattering sound across the teak decks, like the fall of mah-jong tiles.”

Above all, this book meditates on how the city can be framed in radically different ways:  how it appears in the floor-to-ceiling panes of an exclusive hotel’s breakfast bar as opposed to the prospect offered by the windows of a McDonald’s.

Despite some ragged edges, this is a work of unexpected substance.

This review was written by Shane Berry.   It appeared in original form (“A Ghost of a Chance”) on the Dublin, Ireland based writing website A Harmless Fraud; http://www.harmlessfraud.com/ .   Used with the permission of the reviewer and the book’s author, David Milnes.

 

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I, Me, Mine

Hitman: Forty Years of Making Music, Topping Charts & Winning Grammys by David Foster with Pablo F. Fenjves

“If you’re gonna go wrong, go wrong big.”   David Foster

Foster certainly lives up – or down – to his statement in this book which might have been subtitled Musings of a Megalomaniac.   Yes, this one is all about record producer David Foster who makes millions but doesn’t get enough respect in the music trade.   So he makes sure to drop names everywhere (Barbara and Marvin Davis often invited him to parties at their 25,000 square foot mansion) and to tell us essential facts, such as that he lives on 16-acres of prime land in Malibu in a home with 19 bathrooms.   Oh, every now and then he feigns modesty such as when he spoke to a college’s music students and “somehow (managed) to let slip the fact that I’d won fourteen Grammys.”   Charming.

I thought this would be a fascinating behind the scenes in the music business account, perhaps something like Geoff Emerick’s Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Beatles.   Sadly, no it’s not.   It’s a book in which Foster praises the musicians who consented to work with him and disses the ones who did not.   The latter group includes the likes of Paul McCartney, Sting, Neil Young and Frank Sinatra.  

There’s also more than a dose of whining:  “I haven’t always been embraced by the upper echelons of the critical elite – they call it ‘wallpaper music’ or ‘elevator music’ or worse…  Who I am is a guy who writes music that people make babies to – and I’m not going to apologize for it.”   Fine, but he has some quirky opinions about what constitutes the best in music.   He calls Celine Dion “the best singer on the planet.”   OK, although not everyone would concur.

Now, ready for this?   He says of Kenny G, “He’s a hell of a musician.”   Kenny G?   What’s likely the strangest statement in Hitman is this one about Michael Bolton, “The man is one of the greatest vocalists of all time.”   Michael Bolton?   Seriously?   Once I read this I began to wonder if this entire book was a put-on, but apparently Foster’s being honest in his own way.   Maybe…   It certainly clears up the mystery as to why Foster’s had his run-ins, as detailed in Hitman, with Clive Davis – The Man with the Golden Ear.

Foster makes sure to express his self-pride at being a musician who, uniquely, has never used drugs.   Great, but this does not stop him from talking trash and frequently dropping the “f” word around as in the phrase “f—-d up.”   He also lets us know that he’s quite attractive which is why he tells us which one of his five daughters looks most like him.   Right, she’s the most attractive one.

Good is the enemy of great.   Paul Anka

Hitman is neither great nor good.   On a scale of 1 to 5 musical notes, I give it 1 note.   I’m feeling charitable today.

This book was loaned to the reviewer by Daniel D. Holt, co-author of Korean At A Glance from Barron’s.

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