Tag Archives: The Biography

For Whom The Bell Tolls

The Bee Gees: The Biography by David N. Meyer (Da Capo, $27.50)

Bee Gees Meyer 2

An attempt to de-mythologize the best-selling brothers Gibb that doesn’t even get the song titles right.

It’s hard to understand why David Meyer wrote this book. Moreover, who is the audience for it? The biography is not a tribute to the Bee Gees, which means that fans will have no reason to read it. It does its best to present the brothers Gibb as a strange band of brothers, but that will hardly be enough to convince non-fans to purchase the book.

The band bio is perhaps best described as an attempt to de-mythologize/bring down the musical group described on the jacket as, “[O]ne of the bestselling bands on the planet….” Meyer puts his cards on the table in the introduction (one as unnecessary as most introductions are). Here he tells readers that, while the Bee Gees “made hits for forty years, they sold a quarter of a billion albums, (and) everyone on earth knows their music… they still seem like they don’t really belong.” Really? Well, that’s one person’s foolish opinion.

Early on the book tries to dwell on things that might make the brothers appear to be unlikeable. For example, within the first 50 pages we’re informed that Maurice Gibb might have spent “an aggregate of $100 million on automobiles.” Except that Meyer is not reporting this as factual. Instead, he relates that, “It’s rumored he spent… $100 million on automobiles.” So it is not necessarily factual, and it has nothing to do with the group’s music.

Meyer proceeds in this realm by telling us that a young Barry Gibb once parked six expensive cars in front of his London flat. And if we haven’t got the point, there’s a photo of Barry standing in front of his Lotus, circa 1969. The relevance of this is what, exactly?

Since this is a book about an esteemed musical group, Meyer does try to provide some pseudo-analysis of the band’s music. But his heart doesn’t seem to be in it. As an example, he refers multiple times to a song called “Marley Putt Drive” recorded for the Odessa double album. He refers to “Marley Putt Drive” as a track with lyrics that are “beyond idiocy.” This might be a tad interesting, except for the fact that the song in question is actually “Marley Purt Drive.” How is it that one would set to write about a band’s music and not get the song titles right? (If one were to write about the Beatles and refer to one of their songs as “Nobody Man,” how much credibility would such a writer have?) And how is it that neither the writer nor an editor caught this error in the hardbound release?

The writer’s negative bias is glaring when he refers to the group’s mega-successful songs on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack as “mediocre songs.” This is pretty tactless, pointless criticism, as when he writes of the song “Stayin’ Alive” that it is “a mechanistic artifact from a mechanistic genre, and tragically, soulless at its core.” Not only is this over the top, it reads like something written for a high school newspaper, overdramatic to its core.

As an illustration of how weak Meyer’s point is, he tells us that “Stayin’ Alive” “spent less time at #1 (in sales) than any other #1 (song) on the album.” Shocking and almost shameful! The group had multiple number one songs on this album, and this song was the least successful of the ultra-successful tracks. This must be the opposite of damning with faint praise.

When Brian Wilson inducted the Bee Gees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he called them, “One of the greatest vocal groups ever assembled.” Consider the source in terms of praiseworthiness. Wilson went on to state: “There’s nothing more important than spiritual love in music. And the Bee Gees have given us this love in music.” Beautiful words which reflect the way the Bee Gees might properly be remembered.

The late Robin Gibb once wrote a bestselling song called “Saved by the Bell.” The bell may have already rung for David Meyer’s account; tragically, it did not ring timely in order to save us from it.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy of the finished book was received from the publisher.

This review first appeared on the Blogcritics site:

Book Review: ‘The Bee Gees: The Biography’ by David N. Meyer

The review was also used by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

http://www.seattlepi.com/lifestyle/blogcritics/article/Book-Review-The-Bee-Gees-The-Biography-by-4826973.php

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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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A review of The Beatles: The Biography by Bob Spitz.

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Robert Redford

Robert Redford: The Biography by Michael Feeney Callan (Alfred A. Knopf; $28.95; 468 pages)

Robert Redford is a glamorous and gorgeous biography of a man the book’s editor viewed as “undervalued” as an artist.   Callan fully makes his case that Redford is an actor, an artist, of substance.   I have never before read an actor’s bio that makes me want to sit down and watch every one of the films mentioned within it; which is a measure of the seriousness with which Callan treats his subject.

Callan does three things that an actor’s biographer should do…  Firstly, he explains how and why Redford went into acting, after originally considering a career as a painter or illustrator.   Secondly, he goes to great lengths to help us understand how intelligent Redford, the man, is.   In some cases, this involves using long quotes from Redford about acting or politics.   No matter the subject, the actor-director’s comments are always deep and thorough.   And thirdly, he helps us to observe a career in which the actor grew and began to hit his peak at the young age of 34.

Callan writes that Redford, at 34, became “a far more internal actor.”   A director was to say of Redford:

“He surprised me.   He was running around with me, doing all the production things…  But then the shooting started, and he retreated inside himself.   So much of it was mime.   And to mime, you need some extraordinary composure because if you are going to be self-conscious, this is where it will show.   

…honesty took him to this very, very calm place.   Everything became minimalistic, very contained.   I did not direct that pacing.”

Indeed, Callan makes the fine point that Redford established  himself as an actor of silence, a man who left us wanting more from his character’s mouths but appreciating them as they were filmed.   Think, for example, about the silences of Hubell in The Way We Were, or as the ballplayer Hobbs in The Natural.   Then think about how different the role of Hubell would have been played by, say, Jack Nicholson!

Callan’s research is quite impressive except in one instance.   At one point, while preparing to film the provocative film The Candidate (both California Governor Jerry Brown and U. S. Senator John Lindsay thought the film was based on their real-life careers), a writer proposed a scene in which the fictional candidate McKay – played by Redford – would don the gift of an Indian headdress.   Redford absolutely refused to consider this, and Callan presumes it is based on the actor’s respect for American Indian tribes.   It’s more likely that Redford was aware of John Kennedy’s vow, during his successful run for president in 1960, to never do either of two things:  wear a hat/place anything on his head, or hold or kiss a baby.

Like Paul Newman and his vaunted Newman’s Luck, Redford has had great instincts throughout his long, successful career.   Callan shows us how, early on, Redford elected to play an outlaw (an escaped convict) instead of an establishment figure.   Making similar choices with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting was to cement his success later.   Newman and Redford, we come to see, were both actors of skill who were also blessed with the best of luck.   Perhaps they were both fated to choose the right roles in the right films at the right time.

Robert Redford: The Biography is, in its entirety, an excellent and valuable overview of Robert Redford, the man whose career has been one – in Michael Feeney Callan’s words – of “adventurous disinhibition.”  

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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A review of Robert Redford: The Biography by Michael Feeney Callan.

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A Summer Reading List

Our local fish wrapper challenged its avid readers to come up with their own list of books to read this summer.   Here’s my list of ten (10):

Shut Your Eyes Tight: A Novel by John Verdon (July)

The second retired NYPD Detective Dave Gurney novel from the author of the mind-blowing Think of a Number.

Very Bad Men: A Novel by Harry Dolan (July)

Not quite as good as Think of a Number, but a close and exciting runner-up.

Fault Lines: A Novel by Anne Rivers Siddons (January)

From the author of Off Season, it’s set in the redwood country near Santa Cruz, with stops in Atlanta, San Francisco, and Hollywood-Los Angeles.

Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger (June)

The true story of the monumental love affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.   “Reads like a Shakespearean drama.”   USA Today

Skipping a Beat: A Novel by Sarah Pekkanen (February)

Her debut novel, The Opposite of Me, was endorsed by Judith Weiner.   Enough said.

Guilt by Association: A Novel by Marcia Clark (April)

I’ve read it, but it was so much fun that I look forward to reading it again!

The American Heiress: A Novel by Daisy Goodwin (June)

What happens after a storybook wedding?

The Astral: A Novel by Kate Christensen (June)

This story has as many weaknesses as it has strengths, but it is highly engaging in an inexplicable way.

Robert Redford: The Biography by Michael Feeney Callan (May)

Biographies of famous but  secluded figures tend to be either brilliant or full and complete disasters.   I’m interested in seeing which category this one falls into.

Before Ever After: A Novel by Samantha Sotto (August)

A debut novel about a woman who finds out that her dead husband (going on three years) may very well be alive.

Joseph Arellano

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