Tag Archives: Wil Haygood

For What It’s Worth

This is a link to a handy listing of 61 book reviews that we’ve written for this site and the New York Journal of Books:

http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/reviewer/joseph-arellano/

The listing may be useful as a quick reference guide when you’re considering whether or not to purchase a particular book.   Thank you to author Therese Fowler for discovering this link!  

Joseph Arellano

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No Direction Home

The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait by Daniel Mark Epstein (Harper; $27.99; 496 pages)

He didn’t really know where he was going and he didn’t care much.   He just liked the feeling of freedom, walking alone in a strange town on a day when nobody…  was likely to meet him or greet him.   He could go “invisible,” a word and an idea he relished.   Since the age of twenty-three he could not go anywhere where he was not recognized.

Bob Dylan has said (and it’s repeated in this work) that he has only read the first of the many books written about his life.   That’s because after he read the first bio of Robert (Bobby) Zimmerman, he felt like it was all fiction – it did not seem like he was reading about his own life.   To some extent, I share the feeling after reading this huge tome on Dylan’s professional life in music.

When I read Dylan’s own Chronicles I felt like I had engaged with the man…  His all-too-unique voice came through so clearly and he seemed intelligent, clever and likeable all at once.   But after reading The Ballad of Bob Dylan, I felt as if the man, the musician, had suddenly become invisible again.   “You’re invisible, you’ve got no secrets to conceal…”   (“Like A Rolling Stone”)

The role of the modern biography should be to transform a legendary human being, living or dead, into flesh and blood.   When I read the equally long (480 page) biography of the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson by Wil Haygood, I felt as if I’d spent days in the presence of an athlete that I’d never met.   More importantly, I felt sorrow when I finished the true tale as I knew that I would begin missing the feeling of being in the presence of the late Sugar Ray’s bittersweet personality.

As a research document, The Ballad of Bob Dylan is fine.   It adds to the historical record giving the reader citations as to the inspirations for Dylan’s songs (religious, personal and otherwise), and telling us – sometimes for the first time – about his interactions with other musicians.   But the read is simply flat, very much like reading a college textbook.   For me, many interesting facts got lost in the presence of too many uninteresting facts.   And looking at the singer-songwriter’s life by reporting on a select number of performances that were separated by decades just seemed too clever to me – the game was not worth the candle, as the law professors say.

If you’re a Dylan fanatic, then you will no doubt purchase and read this biography no matter what any review states; and there are two other new Bob Dylan biographies that you’ll need to buy at the same time.   But if you’re just curious about the man who is about to turn 70 (and maybe new to the whole Dylan craze), I would humbly suggest that you instead purchase the trade paperback copy of Bob’s own Chronicles: Volume One.   You might also ask one of your older relatives to lend you their vinyl or digital copies of Subterranean Homesick Blues, Highway 61 Revisited (“The album that changed everything!”  Rolling Stone), Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks.   In this way, you’ll come to know both the man and the musician at his oh-so-fine, once upon a time, peak.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan is available from Simon and Schuster Paperbacks ($14.00; 293 pages).   Sweet Thunder: The  Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson by Wil Haygood is available in trade paperback form from Lawrence Hill Books ($18.95).  

“The best is always fragile, Sugar Ray Robinson once said, and it took a writer of Wil Haygood’s magnificence to appreciate what this meant in bringing the great boxer back to life.   Sweet Thunder is a jewel from beginning to end.”   David Maraniss, author of When Pride Still Mattered and They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967.

Slight Return:  I made this note to myself while reading The Ballad of Bob Dylan, “This book is like a brief for a lifetime achievement award.   It did not help me to understand who the man is.”


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Hello, Louis!

Pops – A Very Good Yet Flawed Biography

He is the beginning and the end of music in America.   Bing Crosby on Louis Armstrong

Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong by Terry Teachout makes for very good reading, at least for most of its nearly 400 pages (475 with source notes and index).   As a young person learning the cornet and trumpet, I was well aware that Armstrong was considered the greatest horn player of all time, but not quite sure why.   Teachout makes a very good case for Armstrong’s being the person who did so much to give birth to, and advance, modern jazz in America.   “You can’t imagine such energy, such musical fireworks as (the young) Louis Armstrong…  (he was) the greatest jazz musician of the twentieth century.”

The entertaining tale of Armstrong’s early years is of a poor boy from a one-room shack who is sent to reform school and then joins the Colored Waif’s Brass Band of New Orleans.   Armstrong never knew his father so he tends to make father figures of his band instructors and band leaders.   We go on in Pops – the word Armstrong used to describe himself – to see how Armstrong was a seminal figure in jazz and it’s a bit like watching a Ken Burns documentary.   So far, so good…

As with Sugar Ray Robinson in the recent biography, Sweet Thunder, we have two young men who grew up in extreme poverty (one in The Bronx, the other in N.O.) yet overcame their circumstances to become favorite citizens of the world.   The stories of both Robinson and Armstrong are cinematic in nature.   Yet the Robinson in Thunder comes off as a multi-dimensional character in a way that Armstrong never does in Pops.   True, Teachout is quite fair in showing the reader that Armstrong had his flaws as a man and human being – he was married and divorced too often; he liked his musicians to smoke pot before recording – but we never quite understand why Armstrong loved music the way he did.   We get very nice quotations, such as “Music became his reason for living…” but no real depth.

In Pops we also learn that Armstrong was self-taught and thus had very poor form as a horn player.   Despite this, he was amazingly talented, naturally gifted; but we never learn or even see a guess ventured as to where his talents originated.   Were they hereditary, or was he just an anomaly?

At the back portion of this biography, it is interesting to learn about how many years passed between Armstrong’s recording of the song It’s A Wonderful World – an initial flop that languished in sales – and its popularity once it was included in the soundtrack of Good Morning, Vietnam.   Fascinating, as is a great deal of Pops…   Still, the subject seemed a bit out of Teachout’s reach.   Apparently the great Satchmo remains larger-than-life and the printed word.

Now, who has the courage to attempt to write the definitive biography of Miles Davis?   Anyone?

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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The Boxer

Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson by Wil Haygood (Chicago Review Press, $18.95, 480 pages)

sweet thunder

“It was a savage sport, but it held a kind of sacredness to him – a mystery.”

Few biographies of great athletes manage to conquer the legend; to place the athlete in context as a walking, talking, human being.   It may be because they tend to be either fawning – relying on “good stories” without regard to their accuracy – or they’re overly bloodless and academic.   (None of the biographies of Michael Jordan, for example, have seemed to capture the man behind the uniform.)   There have been some exceptions…   Namath: A Biography by Mark Kriegal was fascinating and brutally honest/factual, as was Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy by Jane Leavy, and Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life by Ben Cramer.   But these remain the exceptions that prove the rule.

Now add to the exceptions list Wil Haygood’s biography, Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson.   Haygood – who earlier wrote a biography of Sammy Davis, Jr. – manages to capture the personality of the man in addition to the accomplishments of the athlete.   Robinson was, no doubt, one of the handful of best boxers who has ever lived, yet he was notoriously envious of the skills of other public figures and entertainers – most notably musicians.   (“He wanted desperately to know about life on the road for musicians.”)   Haygood uses this angle to produce some excellent comparisons between Robinson and jazz players such as trumpeter Miles Davis.   But the analogy only goes so far, as musicians’ errors are masked by other musicians.   The boxer enters the ring alone and stands or falls on his own.

Haygood fully acknowledges the fact that Robinson – a kind man on his own – could be vicious in the boxing ring.   After killing Jimmy Doyle of Los Angeles in a fight, Robinson was asked at the inquest if he knew or suspected that Doyle was in trouble.   His response was that, as a professional fighter, it was his job to get men “into trouble.”

This period piece is also a glorious overview of post-World War II Harlem, a time when jazz was at its peak and the issue of civil rights was about to break.   The general acceptance of black public figures like Robinson (the third African-American/Negro to have his face on the cover of Time magazine) made them pioneers in the then-burgeoning movement.   But the author does not take things too far in this direction as this is not a sociology or history textbook.   Nor does he bore us with literal blow-by-blow accounts of every single amateur and professional fight that Sugar Ray Robinson fought.   No, instead he tells us just enough to understand and recognize the greatness of this late athlete’s (1921-1989) life within and outside the world of sports.

This, then, is the well told story of a man blessed with great skills:   “I had it tonight; yes, sir, I had it tonight when I needed it – thank God.”   This is the true tale of the man who did so much to advance The Sweet Science, which is perhaps why he was the first of three highly gifted boxers (Sugar Ray Robinson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Sugar Shane Mosley) to be known as Sugar.   A New York Times reporter once wrote of Robinson, “He’s too incredible, too colossal to be true.”

Highly recommended.   Haygood captures both the man and the legend.   Excellent!

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

“The French had called him Le Sucre Merveilleux – the marvelous Sugar.”

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