Tag Archives: popular music

Any Major Dude Will Tell You

Major Dudes: A Steely Dan Compendium, edited by Barney Hoskyns (Overlook, $27.95, 352 pages)

“We both liked recording studios. As much as anything else, it was just the coolest place to be on a hot afternoon.” Walter Becker

“We grew up with a certain natural ironic stance that later became the norm in society.” Donald Fagen

major dudes

The enigmatic band Steely Dan has been popular – and mysterious, since the 1970s. Major Dudes: A Steely Dan Compendium demythologizes the group while at the same time adding a new layer of mystery.  Editor Barney Hoskyns has compiled a collection of previously published articles, interviews, and record reviews about the work of Donald Fagen and the late Walter Becker – both as Steely Dan and as solo recording artists.

It’s made clear in these pieces that Fagen and Becker viewed themselves as clever hipsters; ones who were far too cool for the college they attended, Bard – “One of your basic beatnik colleges.”  In a sense, Steely Dan’s lyrics and music moved the ball forward in the genre of being cool.  In the process, they were among the progenitors of progressive album rock and smooth jazz.

In Major Dudes, Fagen and Becker come off as quite likeable.  However, they were always in character in the same manner as Bob Dylan is.  One is never going to fully understand what made them tick.  Their goal, perhaps, was to simply produce popular but uniquely intelligent music.

This compendium could have been better edited by Hoskyns.  It’s quite repetitive. But for fans of The Dan, it’s close to essential reading.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  This book will be released on June 5, 2018.

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Come In From The Rain

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They’re Playing Our Song: A Memoir by Carole Bayer Sager (Simon & Schuster, $28.00, 352 pages)

“I loved my parents, but I didn’t want to be like them.  I didn’t want to be afraid of life.  The trouble was, it was all I knew.”  Dani Shapiro (“Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life”)

“Music saved my life and gave me life.  It was where I allowed myself to feel fully alive, where it was safe…  As long as I stayed in that lane, I was protected from the frightening stories I would otherwise tell myself.”  Carole Bayer Sager

Carole Bayer Sager’s memoir – which, in an ideal world would have been accompanied by a CD of her songs (performed by Sager and others) – is an entertaining but somewhat bewildering work.  It’s interesting to read about how her songs, beginning with “A Groovy Kind of Love” were written, but there’s an odd dichotomy that pervades her life story.  On the one hand, Sager portrays herself as a person unnaturally afraid of almost everything, from flying to performing.  But then there’s the ultra confident Sager who writes songs with the likes of Marvin Hamlisch, Burt Bacharach, Carly Simon, Carole King, Bob Dylan and so many others.  This is the Sager who hung out with Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson, Dylan, David Foster, Peter Allen, Liza Minnelli, Bette Midler, Melissa Manchester, David Geffen, and so many others.

There’s no co-writer listed, no indication that this memoir is an “as told to…” work.   Perhaps if a professional writer-editor had been directly involved, he or she would have pointed out the inherent contradiction in the telling.  In addition, a writing assistant might have advised Sager to cut down the long, long list of famous people in her account; this book transforms name dropping into an art!   In fact, it might have been easier for Sager to have listed the famous people she has not run across in her existence.

And there are other issues.  One is that Sager repeatedly discusses her body image concerns with the reader.  Although she is a small woman, Sager has viewed herself as battling weight issues since childhood.  Mentioning this a few times would have been understandable.  However, it arises time and time again.  The repetitiveness tends to wear the reader down.  And there’s the matter of her sexual encounters.  She’s determined to tell the reader intimate details of her relationships with famous men.  Not only is this unnecessary – but for the fact that titillating details may sell a few books, it’s boring.

Where They’re Playing Our Song succeeds is in establishing the case for Sager as an extremely talented and successful songwriter.   The book was the impetus for this reviewer to listen to her songs as originally performed and/or covered by many talented recording artists.  Before reading this memoir, I was unaware of the song she wrote for Frank Sinatra, “You and Me (We Wanted It All).”   For someone less blessed and talented than Sager, writing a song recorded by the Chairman of the Board would have been in itself a life’s work, a definitive achievement.

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Recommended, if hesitantly, for music fans and prospective songwriters who will take what they need and leave the rest.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This book was released on October 18, 2016.

 

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World In My Eyes

 

The Big Rewind: A Novel by Libby Cudmore (William Morrow, $14.99, 256 pages)

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Music was an emotion she felt at her absolute core. It wasn’t to dance or get drunk to. Music was represented by love.

The Big Rewind might be subtitled A Rock and Roll Mystery. Jett Bennett, a young woman in New York City who works as an office temp, receives a package intended for her friend and neighbor known as KitKat; the package contains a rock music mix tape. (That’s right, even though this story is set in the present day, KitKat was sent a Maxell C-90 cassette tape filled with music. “I’ve got a smartphone, but I’m not too young to remember the exact weight and feel of a Maxell mix tape. They’re just slightly heavier than a regular cassette, weighed down with love and angst, track lists thick with rubber cement and collage.”) When Jett goes to deliver the tape to KitKat she discovers that she’s been beaten to death. A young black man, a person who runs in the same city social circles as Jett, is arrested for the crime.

Jett feels instinctively that law enforcement has focused on the wrong subject, and she proceeds to do her best to find out who actually killed her friend. This may seem like an explanation of the storyline, but in fact the story is mostly about music. If you love listening to rock music, and you loved watching the film “High Fidelity,” the odds are that you will very much enjoy reading The Big Rewind.

Like the record store clerks in “High Fidelity,” author Cudmore has an encyclopedic knowledge of modern music and she has a great deal of fun showing off within the pages of this novel. The book allows her to express her love of certain rock groups, and also to enjoy tearing down the bands she is not so fond of. For example, in character as Jett, Cudmore writes:

I derided Mumford and Sons as being “like Flogging Molly if all the punk rhythms and talent was removed.” Ouch! This is the kind of comment that gets one unfriended if posted on Facebook. (But it’s fun.)

She also enjoys examining the psychology of those who made mix tapes – and who today may compile and share mix discs or digital playlists:

There isn’t a better feeling in the world… than acknowledgment that your mix tape was not only received and played but enjoyed. It’s a dance of sorts, balancing songs you think the listener will love while trying to say everything that otherwise dries up in your throat before you can get out the words.

If I recall correctly, in “High Fidelity” the main character states, wisely, that mix tapes display more about the person who put them together than they do – or did – about the intended recipient.

Libby Cudmore Synchronicity

Make no mistake, Cudmore can write and write quite effortlessly.

(The musician) Cassie wore burgundy Doc Martens with black tights and a flannel skirt; her dark-blond hair was crimped and pushed off to the side with a handful of clips. She was a relic of the last time music mattered, where a songwriter wasn’t some Swedish computer geek plotting song like math problems. Her silver nameplate bracelet and the necklace that matched were the only things about her that looked new and shiny. Everything else about her had the worn edges of a hard-won life.

And she writes quite effectively about her life-affirming love of music:

I thought about the music I had hoarded, my fear that if I heard the songs in the wrong place and time it might mean they no longer belonged to the moments I clung to.

The reader can relax in the knowledge that Jett’s going to solve the crime, even if she and we don’t know exactly when that will happen.

I put on Warren Zevon’s Sentimental Hygiene for background music and tried to put all the clues I had together, like assorted pieces from three different jigsaw puzzles. A secret boyfriend, a missing bracelet, a mix tape. I had the names, the locations, the pieces in play. I just didn’t know what order they went in to make the tiny paper Clue checklist that would lead me from her dead body on the kitchen floor to her killer standing convicted in the courtroom.

As with most successful mysteries, The Big Rewind proceeds on past the point at which the crime has been solved and the true criminal placed behind bars. Yet it almost does not matter, as the reader is having such fun being drenched in music comments and trivia. Cudmore, in fact, titles the final chapter, “Here’s where the story ends.”

(My boyfriend) put on Hall and Oates’ “You Make My Dreams,” and I laughed, singing along with the “hoo hoo” parts like the Oates that I was.

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Yes, rock lovers, this is your book. Libby Cudmore has passed the audition. As John Lennon might have said, “It’s good!”

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This review was first posted on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-the-big-rewind-a-novel-by-libby-cudmore/

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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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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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