Dirty Blvd. Book Review

Dirty Blvd. Book

Aidan Levy’s Lou Reed biography, Dirty Blvd. (The Life and Music of Lou Reed), was fantastic.  It was a a great career overview that examined everything from his work with the Velvets to his lesser known solo albums.  It was well written, a few steps above the usual rock book, and should interest anyone that is even the slightest Lou fan, or anyone that is interested in late 20th century pop culture.

Most rock biographies make the following mistakes:

  1.  They make the childhood part excruciatingly boring:  Levy  not only makes Reed’s childhood interesting, but makes us understand how it influenced him later in life.
  2. They talk down to their readers: I’ve read a lot of rock biographies that seem like they were written with junior high kids in mind.  Especially for someone that was so literary, it just wouldn’t do for Reed’s work.  Levy writes a book worthy of his subject.  If anything there are occasional moments where the language could be slightly less pretentious, though it is not nearly as bad as some reviews make it out to be.
  3. They focus only on the most popular works of an artist:  Therefore all the books end up covering the same information.  Levy touches upon all of Reed’s work, even lesser known solo albums like Growing Up in Public.  You get a true sense of the arc of Reed’s career from this book.  A studio album had to be important to an artist at the time they were working on it, or it would have never seen the light of day.  Most writers focus on what they think people want to hear, not what people need to hear.  Growing Up in Public, for instance, lyrically pointed in the direction that Reed would go in with greater musical success on The Blue Mask and Legendary Hearts.  It was the last of Reed’s albums to feature his 70’s band.  He had already started growing as a lyricist, but it wasn’t until he streamlined his band, hiring Robert Quine and Fernando Saunders, that his music came to reflect the gritty realism of his lyrics.

Reed was one of the most important artists of the 20th century and this book is a great look at his life.  You can’t go wrong here.  I could say more, but there is no need to.  Go get this book if you find yourself even momentarily interested in its subject.

 

One of the Best Books About Touring: On the Road With the Ramones

If you have ever wondered what it is like to be in a touring band, I think I just read the most realistic book on life on the road.  It’s On the Road With the Ramones by Monte Melnick, their tour manager who was with them for their entire careers, and Frank Meyer.  It’s an easy to read book, one of those books where they divide it up into chapters that focus on a theme, and then have a cast of characters comment on the themes of that chapter.  A perfect book to hop in and out of.

Now the Ramones were not an average band or an average group of people.  They were one of the most influential groups of all time.  However, despite the fact that they are now rightly recognized as that, this was not always the case during their actual careers.  They often found more success in other countries than they did at home in America.  Although the people attending their shows were often a who’s who of rock n roll history, they were usually only playing to between 1,000 and 2,000 people a night.  In order to make a living and to play over 2,000 gigs in twenty-or-so years, they had to run a tight operation.

They also had many personality quirks, if you could call them that.  Joey and Dee Dee both had issues that plagued them throughout most of their careers.  Joey suffered from extreme OCD, and Dee Dee was an addict with a host of personality disorders.  You throw in Marky, who was an alcoholic for a part of their career, eventually getting fired for three albums, only to return later, and Johnny, who was a right winger that had very little empathy during his career for those who crossed him, and you’ve got quite a stew of insanity.  The Ramones also were in constant conflict with each other.  Joey and Johnny spent have of their career only talking to each other through intermediaries.  Monte’s job was often babysitter as well as tour manager.

Despite the fact that the book doesn’t gloss over any of these problems, it still makes you understand why they were so revolutionary and why they are so beloved.  As a working musician I also found it extremely interesting how their operation was run, what allowed them to overcome the difficulties that they faced.  Despite any problems, their organization often ran like a well oiled machine.  They almost never missed gigs, even Dee Dee!  They took measures to cut down costs, such as the band always traveling in a van, instead of a more expensive tour bus, even when they could afford one.  From the very beginning of their career they were focused on how to make their gigs sound as good as possible.  Even in the early club days they would often bring their own PA.  They had a rider that was based on common sense, so that they would actually get what they asked for.  Everything from their lights and the way they moved on stage, was planned out in advance so they could constantly give people the best show possible.  There was an order in their organization that allowed them to overcome the chaos of their personal lives.  These are just small details that the book elaborates on.  The book always has a conversational tone, so it never bogs down while communicating these details.

A lot of people read rock n roll books for crazy rock n roll stories.  There are plenty of those here if that is your deal.  I personally probably wouldn’t have finished the book if that was only what the book was about. I always want to know how someone that created something lasting and unique did it.  If there is a slight downside to the book it is only that their records aren’t discussed at any deep length, but because their tour manager is the one guiding this book, that is to be expected.  However, this book deals with the practicality of touring in a way that is rarely discussed in most books on musicians.  If you are a Ramones fan this book is a must, but I think if you are interested in the music business at all, this book is worth your time.  I personally think the Ramones are one of the greatest bands ever, and this book gives great insight into how they became that.

Hannah Arendt and Anti-Semitism

One of my favorite political writers, aside from George Orwell, is Hannah Arendt.  Right now I am reading her book The Origins of Totalitarianism.  I have read a great deal about Nazi Germany, World War II, and world politics between the World Wars.  However, despite this, I have never completely understood how so many were captivated by such vehement anti-semitism.  A conversation with a friend made me realize that as much as I had read, I only had some vague notion of how such an ideology could be so popular.  The first part of this book attempts to explain how this modern form of anti-semitism arose.  Arendt, an assimilated German Jew, was able to escape Nazi Germany and eventually make her way to America.  Arendt’s work is challenging, not because of the language, but because of the complexity of the ideas apparent in it. I don’t feel that I am at a point that I can do a great job summing up her ideas.  The subject matter, as are most large scale issues in the world, is complex, dealing with history and political theory, not only of those that eventually became anti-semetic, but also of Jewish history, and the politics of power, that would take a writer far greater than I to do a short summery of it.  Really the best way to understand it is to read her book, which I think is really worth it.  In examining this subject, it has not only made me think about anti-semitism, but the complexity of politics and history in general.  Human beings love simple stories and often myths.  But the truth of the world often is only obscured by our wish for simplicity.  She had one of the great minds of the 20th Century.  She was not only able to balance many different ideas and disciplines at once, but was relentless in her pursuit of the truth.  The pressure to tell a simpler story must have been immense.  If you view her in her time period, a Jew during one of the most horrific events in all of history, and woman, who did much of her most important work in America before the Feminist movement, she only seems more fearless.

The Timeliness of Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater’

“Samuel thundered that no American factory hand was worth more than eighty cents a day. And yet he could be thankful for the opportunity to pay a hundred thousand dollars or more for a painting by an Italian three centuries dead. And he capped this insult by giving paintings to museums for the spiritual elevation of the poor. The museums were closed on Sundays.” 

As I read more and more news articles about jobs that one day might be done by machines, I have been thinking about Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.  One of the many things the book deals with is an American economy where income inequality has destroyed the American dream.  One of the reasons is that it is so in the book is automation, a topic that has only increased in relevance since the book was written in 1965.  The above quote doesn’t deal with automation, but demonstrates Vonnegut’s ability to get to the truth of our culture through comic absurdity.  Overall the book is a comedy that features a great deal of moral outrage at the inequality of our system.  If these issues interest you, then I would highly recommend reading this book.

Here is another section of the book that is always with me:

I think it’s terrible the way people don’t share things in this country. The least a government could do, it seems to me, is to divide things up fairly among the babies. There’s plenty for everybody in this country, if we’d only share more.

“And just what do you think that would do to incentive?”

You mean fright about not getting enough to eat, about not being able to pay the doctor, about not being able to give your family nice clothes, a safe, cheerful, comfortable place to live, a decent education, and a few good times? You mean shame about not knowing where the Money River is?

“The what?”

The Money River, where the wealth of the nation flows. We were born on the banks of it. We can slurp from that mighty river to our hearts’ content. And we even take slurping lessons, so we can slurp more efficiently.

“Slurping lessons?”

From lawyers! From tax consultants! We’re born close enough to the river to drown ourselves and the next ten generations in wealth, simply using dippers and buckets. But we still hire the experts to teach us the use of aqueducts, dams, reservoirs, siphons, bucket brigades, and the Archimedes’ screw. And our teachers in turn become rich, and their children become buyers of lessons in slurping.

“It’s still possible for an American to make a fortune on his own.”

Sure—provided somebody tells him when he’s young enough that there is a Money River, that there’s nothing fair about it, that he had damn well better forget about hard work and the merit system and honesty and all that crap, and get to where the river is. ‘Go where the rich and powerful are,’ I’d tell him, ‘and learn their ways. They can be flattered and they can be scared. Please them enormously or scare them enormously, and one moonless night they will put their fingers to their lips, warning you not to make a sound. And they will lead you through the dark to the widest, deepest river of wealth ever known to man. You’ll be shown your place on the riverbank, and handed a bucket all your own. Slurp as much as you want, but try to keep the racket of your slurping down. A poor man might hear.’

A Look at ‘List of the Lost’

List of the Lost

Now, peace is regained as his television flickers from commercial to commercial to commercial to commercial, advertising nothing at all that he would ever want or need, yet reminding him that he is nothing and that he will die in debt, reminding him that whatever insurance he might have could never possibly be enough, reminding him that all medications will kill him mid-laughter, shouting at him as if they were the vigilant society – a blatantly sensational phony inflation with that essential TV ingredient of nightmare and pixy-minded publicity with nothing at all to touch the artistic emotions, yet preying unmercifully on the viewer’s insecurity and lack of ready cash.  Whatever you can do will never be enough.  You are fragile and possibly already dead.

– Morrissey in his novel List of the Lost

No book has been so mauled in the press this year as this one.  I’m not finished with it yet, so I can not write a proper review.  But I cannot fathom the level of hate directed its way.  The book has an almost Victorian sense of language at times.  It is poetic, and is the reverse of Oscar Wilde’s poems in prose.  If you are looking for a page turner in the truest sense, this is not that.  It’s not a beach book.  But so far it is a book filled with truth, with sentences and ideas that you will remember.  The above passage is about as well of a description of late night television as one will see anywhere.  One could criticize the book, as one could all works of art, even great ones.  The dialog is more the work of a writer’s imagination than the way people actually speak in places, but that seems intentional and is not dissimilar to many other works of the pen.  But these things are all debatable.  I have found a great deal of it infused with meaning, generating much contemplation as I read.  Many critics have criticized the sex scenes.  But the sex in the book seems like it was written to be absurd and grotesque, as sex often is at times.  Yes sometimes the book seems more of a story that is being used to communicate the author’s view of the world, but then so many great books are that as well.

I am a huge Morrissey fan.  I might not have bought the book if I wasn’t, if I was only buying something based on reviews.  I was worried that my estimation of it might be clouded by my love of the man’s musical works.  But I can honestly say that I am getting a lot out of this book, that it creates a world that I look forward to going back to, that I am enjoying it.  Even if one were not a fan of his music, I believe there is an intelligence here that is worth investigating.  The book exposes the absurdity of this often horrible modern world.  It doesn’t pull any punches.  Yet there is a beauty in its love of language.  The writing style often seems as if it was from another era, the book itself is set in 1975, but the book is certainly examining not only the now of things, but the human condition as a whole.

A large part of the book so far comments on the decay of the human body as one grows older, the inevitable fate of everyone, and the things that we as creatures do to not deal with these facts head on.  There are many people that mistake Morrissey as being miserable because of the dark themes that he often deals with in his day job, and this book will not change the opinions of those that don’t understand.  But they are missing a laser sharp wit.  Morrissey has talked about how if he was hopeless he wouldn’t say anything at all.  The mere act of expression is often one aiming for a better world.  The critics, as often, seem to know very little of such things.

Our Ancestors’ Looting and Corpse Robbing Ways

Bruce Catton’s writing on the Civil War is every bit as fascinating as its reputation.  (I have read in several places that if he is not the best writer on the war, than certainly he is one of them.)  Right now I am reading his second book in his trilogy about the Army of the Potomac, Glory Road.

It’s really interesting getting into the lesser known details of this war, that we are still dealing with the political ramifications from.  This war is a large part of our country’s DNA, even if it is something not always dealt with. I often marvel at the lack of movies and TV shows that deal with this period in comparison to something like World War II, which is much more of an easy sell, as it is one of the few wars where people can be proud of.

Because the Civil War was a war of a people, there are many moments in the war when different sides strangely put down their arms, only to resume horrible bloodshed later.  Different sides would often trade with each other.  They also made deals where they would promise not to shoot each other at night so that they could get a comfortable nights sleep.  In one instance in the book, an argument between a Confederate and a Union regiment gets so heated, that they all put down their weapons for a fist fight between two members, only to pick up their weapons and go their separate ways once the fight was settled.

But for every story like this, there are also stories of typical wartime behavior that often don’t make it into the more popular accounts we see on TV documentaries and such.  Here is a passage that deals with the looting of Fredericksburg:

“The city had been rudely sacked; household furniture lined the streets.  Books and battered pictures, bureaus, lounges, feather beds, clocks, and every conceivable article of goods, chattels, and apparel had been savagely torn from the houses and lay about in wanton confusion in all directions.  Fires were made, both for warmth and cooking, with fragments of broken furniture.  Pianos, their harmonious strings displaced, were utilized as horse troughs, and amid all the dangers animals quietly ate from them.”  A solider in another Pennsylvania regiment noted “great scenes of vandalism and useless destruction of books, furniture, carpets, pianos, pictures, etc.,” and reported a grotesque carnival aspect in the streets still swept by Confederate shell as Union soldiers cavorted about in women’s dresses and underwear.  “Some of these characters,” he added, “might be seen with musical instruments, with big horns, violins, accordions, and banjos”; and he noted that his own regiment took several hundred bottles of wine out of someone’s cellar, a part of this wine appearing later on the colonel’s own mess table.  One illiterate private rifled an express office and carried off a huge bundle of receipts and canceled checks under the impression that he was robbing a bank and getting money.

It should be noted that some of the soldiers looking upon this were horrified.  It should also be noted that this kind of behavior was not by any means only on the Union side of things.  There is a passage roughly around this one where the Confederates rob a large amount of dead Union soldiers, leaving them naked by the time they are picked up for burial.  And that is only one story.  Both sides acted in surprising ways, good and bad, at times.  Catton does go into explanations for this behavior, but I will not get into that here.

The point, or question, that I wanted to make was that this is only 150 years ago, carried out by many of our ancestors against one another.  What kind of strange blood is flowing through our National veins, inherited from this time period?

As a side note, again, I don’t know why more films and shows aren’t made of this time period. Only a small way through this book, though I have read others, and there are endless scenes that one could fashion interesting story lines around.

 

 

Reflections On Slavery and Modern Justice

After reading two excellent books tied to the period of the Civil War, Rebel Yell: The Passion, the Violence, and the Redemption of Stonewall Jackson and Team of Rivals, by S.C. Gwynne and Doris Kearns Goodwin respectively, I decided that I wanted to know more about this period.  I read online that Bruce Catton’s A Stillness at Appomattox is one of the best, if not the best, book on the war.  It is part of a three book trilogy on the Army of the Potomac.  I started with the book before it, Glory Road, as I wanted to read about the Battle of Gettysburg, which took place in my home state of Pennsylvania.  I also figured if I liked this book, I would have another one to continue the direct story with, even as I know there is a book before this.

Anyway, I found this passage interesting:

As the men took their places the Iron Brigade, by chance, found itself quartered on the Bernard plantation, some three miles below Fredericksburg, and Company C of the 6th Wisconsin had a contraband cook who until comparatively recently had been held in servitude on this very estate.  This one was highly pleased to be back, a free man protected by Lincoln’s soldiers, on the plantation where he was born and bred.  Yet when he saw some of his soldiers chopping down a fine shade tree to get firewood he ran up to them, pointing toward the manor house and pleading earnestly:  “You break dat ol’ man’s heart if you cut down dat tree!  His grandfather planted dat tree!”  

Although I may be reading into things too much, I took several things from this and other things I have read:

  1.  First, it should be noted that slavery differed form region to region.  Slavery, however wrong and unforgivable in concept alone, was much less cruel in states like Virginia then in the deep South, where the massive cotton plantations were located.  This is actually a known fact that is many history books.
  2. Second, that the relationships between slaves and masters was much more complex and strange than many people assume.  Note that the slave was grateful to be back to his home as a free man, but also still had some kind of compassion for his former master.
  3. Third, that however horrible something is, once it has been done long enough it becomes the new normal.  Just because something is done by a large group of people, just because something seems a normal part of society, is not a testament to its rightness or goodness.
  4. That even a slave that had a rather benign experience, compared to the everyday barbarity of other experiences, was still glad to be a free man, even in a situation that was normal for the time period.

What things are a part of our everyday lives, our culture, our society, our world, that are seemingly normal to us, that morally will not stand the test of time?  Looking at current issues of justice, we may have experiences with a part of the system that are more benign, but this doesn’t mean that the system itself is just even considering these cases.  Also, the system is possibly far crueler in parts that we realize and without knowing a whole system we cannot say so without facts that prove otherwise.  If you look at issues of police brutality, immigration, and the War On Drugs, as just a few examples, it helps to keep these things in mind.

Where I’ve Been

Recent days have found me with my first week off (well almost a week) in many moons.  This particular post will probably only be of interest to those that have been reading along consistently.  By I felt i owed an explanation for those of you that come here often as to the slow positing rate as of late.  I’ve been catching up on things I have needed to do, on things I have ignored for too long due to travel.  I have also been writing and working on things music related.  But a good bit of the time I have been replenishing the well, diving into books, records, and films that I have been meaning to finish or check out.  This is definitely stuff I want to be doing, it’s what I enjoy.  However, as I am trying to make this a fully functional site, I also need to consume enough information that I can make this site interesting on a regular basis.

I’ve been reading S.C. Gwynne’s Rebel Yell: The Violence, the Passion, and the Redemption of Stonewall Jackson.  I think the Civil War is a period worth understanding if you want to understand many of the national issues of our day.  So many of them have their roots there.  I am trying to finish Patti Smith’s great memoir Just Kids, and because of her I finally got around to reading Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell.  I am also trying to finish Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness, Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm, and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.  I finished Pete Townshend’s autobiography, Who I Am, a week ago and can definitely recommend it to anyone that is even slightly interested in him.  He has had a tremendous impact on our culture, even if he has never directly meant anything to you.

Musically I have been diving into the career of Big Star, as well as Chris Bell’s and Alex Chilton’s respective solo careers.  Although I had some kind of bootleg Big Star compilation growing up, and I knew many of my favorite musical artists were influenced by them, this is the first time I have truly understood their brilliance and the arc of their careers.  This is largely due to the excellent documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, which is streaming on Netflix for free right now.

I am a bit obsessive compulsive about music.  As soon as I become interested in a band or artist, I tend to want to understand everything that I can about them.  With literature I try to always keep one fiction and one non-fiction book going.  I feel like reading fiction is better for songwriting and that non-fiction helps the kind of writing I do here.  I usually do not read this many books and have definitely bitten off more than I can chew!

Unlike some people who need to be forced to read anything, the opposite is true for me.  I could easily get lost down the rabbit hole of books, sometimes failing to take care of things in the real world.  But there are so many interesting things out there, and as always, so little time…

 

 

The Last Detail, Francis Ford Coppola, and the Market Forces of New Hollywood

The Last Detail

Last night I watched the movie The Last Detail staring Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, and an extremely young Randy Quaid.  The movie is about two men in the Navy (Nicholson and Young) who are supposed to take the character played by Quaid to a military prison.  Not liking the task they are given from the beginning, and growing to like it even less as the movie progresses, they take longer then they need to complete it.  As the task at hand grows more distasteful, they decide to show Quaid’s character a good time, taking him out drinking and to a whore house, among other things.  The movie was directed by Hal Ashby and written by Robert Towne.

I found out about the movie by reading Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.  This is a book that examines New Hollywood, a period that runs roughly from the late 60’s with Easy Rider and up through the 70’s.  Ashby was one of the directors who came up during this period, along with Paul Schrader, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and others.

This movie is a good example of the character driven films being made during this period.  The camera barely moves compared to modern filmmaking.  Other than a few scuffles, there is very little action.  Most of the movie revolves around the personality of the characters and the dialogue, which is fantastic.  There is also a strong anti-authoritarian streak running in this film and others from this period.  Watching this film is closer to, if not reading a novel, at least reading a well written short story.  The language is realistic for the time, in markedly different contrast to older Hollywood films.

I wanted to mention the movie, as I believe, if you are interested in well written character driven films, that it is worth seeking out.  However, this isn’t a review.  I would just feel amiss if I didn’t mention it.  Although I was at least aware of many of the movies in the book, this is one that I had never heard mentioned before.

I’m always interested in why certain forms of art flourish in different time periods.  Although there are many reasons why the 60’s were great for music, the 70’s for film, and modern times have been described as the golden age of television, I think that the economics of a given era are always something to be considered.  The more money that flows to creativity, the more interesting and creative things we will see made.  Not only will those in a given field have more resources to give birth to their dreams, but more creative people will seek out a given medium.  Again, although this is not the only thing that influences culture, this is a big factor that has been proven time and again.  Biskind even talks about this near the end of the book:

Could another group of directors have done it differently, broken the back of studio power, created little islands of self-sufficiency that would have supported them in the work they wanted to do?  Could a hundred flowers ever have bloomed?  Probably not.  The strength of the economic forces arrayed against them was too great.  “We had the naive notion that it was the equipment which would give us the means of production,” said Coppola.  “Of course, we learned much later that it wasn’t the equipment, it was the money.”  Because the fact of the matter is that although individual revolutionaries succeeded, the revolution failed.  The New Hollywood directors were like free-range chickens; they were let out of the coop to run around the barnyard and imagined they were free.  But when they ceased laying those eggs, they were slaughtered.  

The book goes on to talk about how the directors, even the truly great ones like Coppola, were selected by market forces.  However, another interesting point is that the directors that were able to marry the personal with the commercial lasted longer than the ones that were making strictly personal films.  Success seems to be dictated by those that had the strength to create something personal, melded with a flexibility to bend to the commercial forces.  The Godfather is a perfect example.  It was a studio picture that Coppola took, even though at the time he would have rather been making movies that were even more personal to him.  However, he was able to infuse that studio film with enough personality to make it popular and unique for its time.

I don’t know if I have reached any definitive conclusion in all of this.  But I think these things are interesting to think about.  Another thing to consider is now, with so many people wanting intellectual property and artistic products for free, how does that affect the kind of culture around us?  Many people lament the fact that films and music aren’t what they used to be.  Why is this?  Is this simply nostalgia for a time that didn’t exist?  Or have we simply devalued things to the point where they can’t be created at the rate that we would like?

P.S.  I couldn’t help but think that the movie, which I don’t want to spoil, is in some ways a great commentary on this whole period of creativity in Hollywood.  (Even though the movie was created during the middle of this period.)  If you watch it, pay close attention to the relationship between freedom and authority.  

 

Curb Your Enthusiasm 70’s Style

I was reading Easy Riders and Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind.   It’s a book about the era of New Hollywood, when directors like Hal Ashby,  Roger Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, and others were at the height of their powers.  Anyway, the following passage, about director Peter Bogdanovich and actress Cybill Shepherd,  reminded me of the concept for Larry David’s  Curb Your Enthusiasm:

When Peter talked about Cybill, he patronized her. “Cybill stared out as a whim, an instinct, a little voice in my ear that I listened to.  I had an itch, and she scratched it….She’s very malleable.  You can bend her in any direction.  She does what she’s told.”  It became impossible to pick up a magazine without seeing the two of them beaming toothily from the cover, winsome and smug, as if to say, We’re Peter and Cybill, and you’re not.  Cary Grant told him to shut up.  “Will you stop telling people you’re in love.  Stop telling people you’re happy.”

“Why?”

“Because they are not in love and they’re not happy.  And they don’t want to hear it.  

“But Cary, I thought the world loves a lover.”

“Don’t you believe it.  It isn’t true.  Just remember one thing, Peter, people do not like beautiful people. “