The most boring ‘behind the scenes’ book you’ll ever read

Country Music Broke My Brain, Gerry House. (BenBella Books, 2014)

Gerry House spent many years inside the country-music establishment in Nashville, both as a songwriter of hits for big stars and as a popular radio deejay whose show frequently hosted many of those same big stars. In other words, he is perfectly situated to know all the juiciest gossip and behind-the-scenes details of what often seems more like a small town than a multi-billion dollar industry.

When I picked this book up, I was hoping for an updated version of Three Chords and the Truth: Hope, Heartbreak and Changing Fortunes in Nashville, written by Laurence Leamer and published in 1997. That one is a good honest look at how the musical sausage gets made in Music City. It isn’t salacious or scandalous but Leamer doesn’t pull his punches when sketching the personalities and interactions of those who are hoping to make it big, have already made it big, or get to decide which of the former get to be the latter.

Alas, House is probably a little too closely associated with the movers and shakers in today’s country music scene to write the kind of book that truly breaks new ground. Never mind not dishing the dirt; House barely has anything even slightly critical to say about anyone who is still alive. A couple of mildly scandalous stories are told as anonymous fables, and it wasn’t even worth the time to try to figure out who they might be referring to. And throughout the short chapters, House’s ba—da-bump rimshot one-liner jokey style wears thin much more quickly in print than it does on the radio.

I was also annoyed that House takes a swipe at the Americana genre (or, as I like to call it, country music that’s too good to get played on the radio) by referring to artists in that genre as people who aren’t good enough to get a record deal; in addition to being surprisingly mean-spirited for a guy in whose mouth butter seemingly wouldn’t melt, he’s just flat-out wrong. Those little digs made me think that House is well aware of the artistic deficiencies in today’s brand of radio-friendly country music but you’ll never get him to admit it, apparently. At least not while he’s still hoping to get some of his cuts onto albums that get played in heavy rotation. Maybe once he’s well and truly retired he’ll come back and write another book that’s more interesting and more readable than this frothy mash note. More likely, we’ll have to wait for another outsider like Leamer to come along and shine a flashlight into the pit.

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The beginner’s guide to Islam

No god but God, Reza Aslan. (Random House, 2011)

There was a lot to like in this book. It served me well as a good introduction to the Muslim faith, its origins and its evolution to what we see today. I have a new appreciation for the diversity of belief that Islam encompasses, and I finally (mostly) understand the differences between the Shi’a, Sunni, and Sufi branches of Islam.

The biggest takeaway, of course, is reinforcement of the knowledge that a very small percentage of the world’s Muslims hold the kind of fundamentalist viewpoint that has led to terrorist attacks on the West. Aslan’s explanation of how the words of the Quran have been interpreted in ways that seem completely contrary to the actions and words of its prophet, Mohammed, are akin to describing a centuries-long game of telephone played to advance political viewpoints. Things get lost in translation and interpretation, accidentally and deliberately, but once lost they are difficult to retrieve.

It’s also less than heartening to read that much of the growth in fundamentalist Islam came about as a direct result of Western colonial activity in the Middle East, India, and Africa. It’s difficult to read about brutal suppression and the deliberate pitting of one faith’s true believers against another’s in order to ensure native populations would be too fractured to mount a successful revolution, especially with the hindsight of what those actions wrought over the long term and into our current political landscape. In that sense, this book only reaffirmed my belief that we have no place, militarily, in the Middle East today. What is happening in Iraq is tragic, to be sure, and partly our fault, but nothing we do now is likely to make it better. We would have been far better off never to have started the war in the first place. Perhaps it’s no use crying over those past decisions but we need to keep reminding people that time has proven them to be total failures lest we stumble into the same minefield all over again, as has happened time and again.

Given all of that, Aslan seems unduly optimistic that the current brand of fundamentalist Islam that has led to so many terrorist attacks will wane as the overwhelmingly young Muslim population moves away from that message and toward a version of populist democracy. He cites the people’s uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya to support his view, although a reader can’t help but notice that the book was written before the “Arab Spring” failed to truly catch hold and in some places was brutally suppressed or slid backwards into tyranny once again.

Aslan also is optimistic that Islam and democracy can (and will) co-exist, though he rightly points out that we in the West must stop thinking our brand of democracy is the only right way to do it. Certainly Americans have an innate distrust of government that overtly espouses a religious viewpoint, but Aslan argues that just as Muhammed ruled the city of Medina without persecuting the Jewish and Christian minorities who lived and traded there, the same governance model could work today.

As you might expect from a book that encompasses more than 900 years of history in just 300 pages, the best that can be said about No god but God is that it is a decent introduction to Islam for those like me who knew little. Further reading would be necessary to truly understand many of the complex subjects that Aslan only lightly touches on, but he provides a strong starting point for the curious.

‘E Street Shuffle’ hits a sour note

E Street Shuffle: The Glory Days of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Clinton Heylin.

This book is meant to “chronicle the evolution and influence of Springsteen’s E Street Band as they rose from blue-collar New Jersey to the heights of rock stardom.” (That’s straight from the book jacket.) What it really is is a poorly written, thinly sourced, morally bankrupt hatchet job that denigrates and belittles the artist it’s meant to celebrate.

How did I hate this book? Let me count the ways …

1. The book appears to have virtually no original reporting in it at all. Nearly every page has one or more paragraph-length excerpts of interviews of  Springsteen or one of the other subjects from other printed sources.

The author did not speak to Bruce or, as far as I can tell, anyone except Bruce’s first producer/manager, whom he ended up suing to get released from a bad contract. Naturally, the author takes the side of the producer/manager (Mike Appel) to an almost laughable extent. Seriously, I have read a fair bit about the lawsuit and that whole period and nothing I’ve read ever claimed that Springsteen was completely blameless in what happened. Bruce himself has been quoted in interviews talking about the mistakes he made at the beginning of his career, and he has been generous in recent years with his praise for what Appel did to launch his career. None of which was apparently persuasive to Heylin, who makes Springsteen seem like a bizarre combination of Machiavelli and Lenny from Of Mice and Men.

2. The author repeatedly asserts that none of Springsteen’s recordings with the E Street Band come close to replicating the magic that they conjure in a live show. Fair enough; that’s a common assertion by rock critics and fans all over the world. But the author seems to feel that simply asserting that as his opinion is sufficient; he offers absolutely nothing to try to explain what makes a live Springsteen show so special. By contrast, Springsteen biographers Dave Marsh and Peter Ames Carlin both managed to convey the magic and the mystery that happens when the E Street Band comes together on a stage in front of an audience.

3. In the album by album chronology of the book, the author repeatedly mocks and castigates the process by which Springsteen, his band, and his subsequent producer/manager Jon Landau (who is clearly held in the highest contempt by the author) managed to produce albums that have sold tens of millions of copies and been listed by respected critics* as among the very best rock records ever produced. He writes as if the struggles the E Street Band experienced in cutting studio albums was almost purely the result of willful selfishness on Springsteen’s part and a complete lack of ability on Landau’s.

* A sidenote: Every critic who ever wrote a complimentary review of one of these albums (i.e., disagreed with the author’s viewpoint) is dismissed as a sycophantic fool; critics who voiced reservations or criticism are bravely speaking truth to power.

The author criticizes the song choices, the recording process, the sequencing of the albums, the choice of cover art — pretty much everything. With every album, he has a list of songs that are supposedly so superior to the songs that made the final cut that only an idiot would have left them off the record. Some of these discarded songs, which were later released on a boxed set, are amazing cuts, no doubt about it. But the author does not seem to take into account the fact that they were not included because they did not fit the mood or theme of the album being recorded, as Springsteen (you know, the guy whose name is on the record) conceived it.

4. Some of the songs that the author holds in highest esteem have still never been released in any official way, either as B-sides of singles or in the compilation set of unreleased songs called Tracks. So how does the author know these unreleased tracks are so great? How did he happen to hear them? By purchasing illegal bootleg* records of studio sessions that were stolen from Springsteen or the recording studio and then sold to fans. This is where the morally corrupt charge comes in. The author makes no apologies for buying studio bootlegs; indeed, he seems to feel that he and other Springsteen fans are entitled to hear everything the man has ever recorded, whether he himself felt it was suitable for public listening or not. And that’s just wrong.

* There are two types of bootlegs when it comes to music: There are live bootlegs, surreptitious fan recordings of concerts that are traded or sold among fans, and there are studio bootlegs, which are copies of the tape that is recorded during studio sessions when albums are being produced. Some people think all bootlegs are wrong. I have a more nuanced viewpoint which is important in the context of this review. I have a number of live bootlegs, of Springsteen and other artists, and I don’t apologize for it. To my mind, the difference is that those live bootlegs are recordings of public performances; in other words, the music was meant to be heard by fans. Studio bootlegs, on the other hand, are recordings that the artist for whatever reason chose not to release to the public. Some of those unreleased recordings might even be superior to material that was officially released but that is irrelevant; the point is that the artist did not intend anyone to hear them outside of the studio and therefore fans and even self-important writers have absolutely no right to listen to them, let along make someone else rich by purchasing them.

5. I left this one for last because I freely admit it’s a petty criticism. The book is just poorly written. The author (who is apparently British) uses words like “gotta” and “gonna” and “ain’t” repeatedly in the narrative of the book ad apparently without irony. If the rest of the book had been worthwhile, this would have resulted in no more than the occasional eye-roll and a footnote in the review. But the rest of the book is crap, and thus I’m piling on with this last gripe.

If anyone reading this is interested in reading a decent, objective biography of Bruce Springsteen that doesn’t shy away from criticizing him or his actions when it’s warranted but also manages to explore all the reasons why and how he became one of the biggest and most acclaimed rock and roll singer-songwriters of his generation, I’d recommend the other recent Springsteen biography, Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin. As for this piece of dreck, it’s the rare music biography that isn’t suitable either for diehard or casual fans.

Oh, what a ‘Life’!

bookcover image of Life, by Keith RichardsLast fall, I remember hearing and reading several interviews with Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, who had just published his autobiography, Life, written with James Fox. It was fascinating to hear him speak in matter-of-fact terms about all of the extraordinary things that have happened in his life — as well as a few that only happened in the minds of fans and the media.

Richards’ written Life doesn’t quite live up to his actual life, though both are filled with sex, drugs, and rock and roll, not necessarily in that order. Lots of rock and roll, a bit of sex, and lots and lots of heroin. All sorts of other drugs, too, from uppers to downers to LSD, but mostly heroin — smack to its friends (Life includes an anecdote that may explain how that particular nickname came to be). It’s frankly amazing that a man who took heroin virtually every day for more than a decade (except for his occasional attempts to quit ‘cold turkey’), remembers much of anything at all about the remarkable things that happened to him as a result of being in one of the world’s most famous rock bands of all time. But Life is chock-full of anecdotes about gigs played, songs written, guitar riffs discovered, groupies laid, and arrests both dodged and endured, all told in an amiable style that conjures up a group of friends sitting around trading tall tales.

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in 1972

Mick Jagger (left) and Keith Richards in 1972. (Photo via Wikipedia)

As might be expected from a fellow whose life played out one gig at a time all over the world, the narrative bounces around a bit, making no serious attempt to a tell a coherent, chronological account once the teenage Richards meets fellow teen Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones begin to take shape. Richards is surprisingly candid about the foibles of his bandmates, past and present, displaying a surprising (to me, anyway) amount of venom toward Brian Jones, one of the original Stones who ended up dead in a swimming pool before the 1960s were over. And Richards makes no secret of the clashes he has had with his fellow Glimmer Twin, Jagger, who seems to have been unprepared to give up any of his control over the band’s business decisions once Richards sobered up and again took an interest in something more than who was supplying the smack at the next tour stop. At the same time, Richards is generous in his praise of Jagger, in particular his natural showmanship as the band’s front man and his value as a songwriting partner. As Richards says in Life, “I love the man dearly; I’m still his mate. But he makes it very difficult to be his friend.”

Richards recounts his many run-ins with law enforcement with a sort of resigned indignation that chooses to emphasize the ways in which various police forces “had it out for him”, basically following him around waiting for him to make a mistake that they could bust him for. He seems not to recognize that it was his own behavior buying and using illegal drugs that led to the arrests, which is odd because he otherwise tells the tale of his rampant drug use quite matter-of-factly, with no excuses or justifications. In the end, he chooses to quit heroin (in 1978, after being arrested in Toronto) for practical and not health reasons:

I’m facing three charges: trafficking, possession and importing. I’m going to be doing some hard fucking time. I’d better get ready. Which is one of the reasons I finally cleaned up. I didn’t want to cold turkey in jail.  … Also, attached to the junk as I was, I was putting myself slowly into a position where it would be impossible to move around the world and work.

Toward the end of Life, Richards talks about the side project he started in 1987, the X-Pensive Winos (tellingly, he did it in spiteful retaliation to Jagger’s going off on a solo project; I think Richards would otherwise have been happy to confine his musical output to the Stones for the rest of his life). As I read this segment of the book, I realized I had never listened to any of Richards’ non-Stones music; I have a built-in prejudice against vanity projects that never measure up to the original. Still, for the sake of learning more about Richards, I fired up Spotify and checked out a “best of’ compilation that was released in 2010, Vintage Vinos. I was stunned to realize despite my reservations that I loved it — it’s got the same kind of bluesy rock vibe that is so appealing to me about the early Stones’ material. It’s well worth checking out.

In the end, Keith Richards’ Life is entertaining enough, and a valuable insight into how some of the Rolling Stones’ greatest records were made, but it inevitably pales in comparison both with the actual life lived by Richards and the mythical tales that have been so often told about him: having his blood changed in Switzerland, snorting his dead father’s ashes along with “a line of bump” (cocaine). It certainly wasn’t one of those starstruck autobiographies that leave you saying, “Celebrities! They’re just like us,” that’s for sure.

REVIEW: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

Here’s how I rate Bill Bryson’s books: One star for each embarrassing episode of inadvertent bursts of out-loud laughter in a public place. I found The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid to be a four-star, thoroughly embarrassing read.

Bryson made his name as a travel humorist. (The first book of his that I read, Notes From a Small Island, also earned four snorts — I mean, stars.) That book documented his valedictory tour of Great Britain, where he had lived and worked as a journalist for a couple of decades, just before he brought his family back to his native United States. He also has documented his travels in Australia, the American Midwest, and a trek up the Appalachian Trail, all of which were reliably amusing if not entirely gut-busting. Along the way, Bryson also penned several books about the English language, Shakespeare, and the history of the modern house, bringing his trademark whimsy and fascination with the small details of history to each.

In The Thunderbolt Kid, Bryson looks back, chronicling his nearly idyllic childhood growing up in 1950s Des Moines, Iowa. Some of my friends find Bryson’s humor to be occasionally mean-spirited, and it’s true that he has a knack for skewering the least-attractive personality traits of some of the self-important blowhards he meets in his travels. Perhaps it’s the softening effects of time, but there was relatively little savagery on display in Thunderbolt Kid. Oh, he still finds ways to point out the ridiculous aspects of some of his childhood nemeses, but the punches are pulled somewhat, leaving the reader with all of the humor and little of the discomfort.

I read a comment from another LibraryThing reader who speculated that only those who had grown up in 1950s America might appreciate The Thunderbolt Kid. I don’t think that’s true, necessarily; I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s but I still found much to enjoy in Bryson’s memoir. I recommend this book to any fan of Bryson’s or of coming-of-age stories, or anyone who enjoys having to apologize to the other riders on the city bus for bursting out in surprised guffaws while reading silently to oneself.

REVIEW: Running the Books

Avi Steinberg is leading a pretty aimless life, writing obituaries for a newspaper, when he takes an abrupt detour and becomes a prison librarian. Throughout the first half of the book, Steinberg portrays himself as a real naïf about prison life. He is fascinated by the ways that inmates find of skirting the restrictions on their interpersonal communications, and he allows some of them, master manipulators who can sense his inexperience the way a dog senses fear, to con him into giving them more freedoms and privileges in the prison library than are permitted by the strict rules.

Steinberg nicely portrays his growing savvy as the book progresses, and an encounter with a former inmate out in the “real world” serves as a stark reminder that even the most charming, intelligent pimp is still a pimp. Overall, however, the book was entertaining without being compelling. A couple of long interruptions in my reading did not leave me clamoring to get back to it, although I did eventually.

REVIEW: The Girls From Ames

I really wanted to love this book. It’s about a group of women who grew up together in a small Midwestern city in the 1960s and 1970s, and the ways in which their friendship has endured and changed through the years. In other words, it’s about me — well, not me but my generation, the women who surrounded me throughout my own coming-of-age in a small Midwestern city.

Here’s the thing, though: What I said about it not being about me? That’s all too true. The girls from Ames are a group of 11 girls/women who were pretty popular, pretty wild, and pretty clannish about letting outsiders into the golden circle. They even turn on their own occasionally, as when a subset of the girls gets together one night in high school to carefully enumerate to one of the others all the ways in which she is simply not smart enough, pretty enough, or cool enough to be part of their group without making some drastic changes. It read like a scene out of a horror novel to me, which made it all the more dumbfounding to learn that the girl who was the center of all that vitriol is still part of the group! Nothing about staying friends with people who treated you so cruelly makes sense to me.

I enjoyed the nostalgia of the pop-culture touchstones sprinkled throughout The Girls from Ames. But to be honest, I kind of hated the girls from Ames themselves. And after reading about what they were like in high school and beyond, I’m pretty sure they would have hated me, too.

LibraryThing review: The Lexicographer’s Dilemma

Bad grammar drives me crazy. Bad spelling, too. (To say nothing of fragmentary sentences. Ahem.) There’s a reason my AIM handle is grammrdiva (and yes, the misspelling was intentional). I’m not going to lie: I make tiny, (mostly) internal judgments about people who unintentionally misuse language. Yes, I’m one of them. And I do so even though I know I am far from perfect myself. I have a whole host of bad habits that a lifetime’s worth of writing and editing for a living have yet to shake. And I fully expect to be judged by them, too.

Cover of "The Lexicographer's Dilemma: Th...Cover via Amazon

And yet, I sit before you today a (slightly) reformed critic, thanks to The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of ‘Proper’ English, from Shakespeare to South Park by Jack Lynch. Lynch has written an eminently readable review of the ever-changing English language. Maybe it’s my bachelor’s degree in history, but I found his core thesis compelling: English usage and spelling has been shifting constantly since the dawn of the language. The English we now think of as “correct” has gotten that way through popular usage, and not because of any inherent rightness or royal proclamation.

Which is not to say that myriad people have not tried to dictate to the masses about how they should speak and write — heavens, how they have tried! Lexicographer’s Dilemma is organized nicely, with chapters examining successive eras in the war against ‘improper’ English. The cumulative effect of reading about all of the smoke-shoveling (as Oliver Wendell Holmes might have termed it) was a metaphorical throwing up of my hands. Maybe Lynch is right, and the only thing that matters is whether we understand the meaning of what someone says or writes, and not whether the speaker/writer used the proper verb conjugation or commonly accepted spelling.

In fact, Lynch has a lot to say about the futility of prescriptivists (such being the term for linguists who think matters of language and grammar are a black-and-white affair). It’s clear he is much more at home in the gray area occupied by descriptivists (who are more interested simply in documenting how people are actually using language, regardless of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’). After a few chapters, I found myself agreeing with him, which frankly came as a relief. Single-handedly upholding the standards of good and proper English is exhausting, you know.

And as long as I stay away from Internet message boards (LibraryThing’s Talk excepted) and protesters’ signs at political rallies, my blood pressure should be just fine.