Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Was The Sound of Music Live really that bad?

Now that some of the smoke has cleared, I'll weigh in on the live television production of The Sound of Music that was broadcast a couple of weeks ago. I won't worry about a plot summary since we all know the story. I have to start by saying that all I know of the show is the movie; I knew going in that the play is quite different from the movie so I tried not to have unrealistic expectations. And I knew that no one was going to outdo Julie Andrews. Still, I have to agree with the majority opinion on Carrie Underwood--her acting was bad, like mediocre community theater acting (there are many community theater actors who are better than Underwood--in fact, I live with one!). Because of that, the show had no center--Underwood's presence was puny, as though she was just one of the children. Her voice was strong and she certainly looked the part, but her Maria had no personality, let alone being a force of nature like Andrews' Maria.

The other weak link was Stephen Moyer as Captain Von Trapp. Moyer has theatrical chops, though he's mostly known for his role as a vampire in True Blood. I've never seen the show so I didn't have any preconceptions; he was adequate but not compelling. Again, it's probably unfair to compare him to Christopher Plummer in the movie, but Plummer did a great job making the potentially one-dimensional character both stern and sly, hard yet vulnerable; Moyer just made him stiff and stoic, and because he and Underwoood had no chemistry, the romance never came alive.

Now the good stuff: Christan Borle (a Tony-winner who played Debra Messing's writing partner on TV's Smash) brought a snarky but not overdone sense of fun to the character of Max, and Laura Benanti (a Tony-winner who played a grief therapist in the Matthew Perry show Go On; pictured below with Moyer) was fabulous as Frau Schrader--not a Baroness here--the tough businesswoman who loses the Captain to Maria. In the movie, the part was rewritten to make her a bitchy villain, but in the play she's considerably more pleasant. She and Max have two songs not in the movie which, while not particularly memorable, help to flesh the characters out. Benanti is the real revelation here, bringing the play to life whenever she appeared.

Of course, we all knew that Audra McDonald would be brilliant as the Mother Abbess and she was. True to the stage show, she sings "My Favorite Things" with Maria, but her big moment is with "Climb Every Mountain" which brought tears to my eyes (and, to her credit, Underwood's). The children were all fine, especially Ariane Rinehart as Liesel, the oldest, who sings "Sixteen Going on Seventeen."

There's also the thrill of seeing a stage production on television, live or otherwise. Growing up in the 60s and 70s, it was not unusual to see staged plays on sets especially on PBS, and this production made me realize that I miss that. The sets were lovely, and there were a couple of nice theatrical transition scenes, in particular at the beginning of the wedding scene when the set of the house opens up and the actors march into the abbey.

Overall, I'm glad this was done and I enjoyed watching it. I realize that without a name like Carrie Underwood in the lead, this would not have gotten done in the first place, but perhaps in the future, the producers will have more faith and stick with Broadway-level talent if they try this again--and given that the ratings were good, they might.

Thursday, November 21, 2013


I didn't want to write about another book, but it seems like most of my recent reviews have been negative and I thought I should share my positive reaction to this one, a biography of dancer, choreographer and director Bob Fosse by Sam Wasson called simply Fosse. I read a previous biography, All His Jazz by Martin Gotfried, which did a nice job of presenting the surface of Fosse's life and achievements, but this book really brings him to life, talent, quirks, foibles and all.

Though Fosse died in 1987, his dance style (both on stage and in movie visuals) has remained influential: dancers with bowler hats, making sharp angular movements, pulling their bodies in then opening out, portrayed on film with quick jagged editing. Not all of his hit Broadway shows (Pippin, Sweet Charity, Chicago) have aged well, though all have had successful revivals, and Chicago became a record-breaker in its 1996 revival, still running and ranked as the 3rd longest-running Broadway show in history. But as far as pop culture memory, his movies will probably be his legacy, and two of them, Cabaret and All That Jazz, remain major movie musical milestones, as well as two of my favorite all-time movies.

Fosse was a classic Type A personality: a competitive workaholic who was never happy with his achievements. He was a womanizer who nevertheless inspired loyalty in most of his conquests, and a hard-driving taskmaster who inspired fervent loyalty among his dancers and actors. This book shows his full range of personality, from talented genius to petty belittler of others, from promiscuous playboy to steady partner (he remained close friends with his wife Gwen Verdon after their separation in 1971; they never divorced and she was at his side when he died in 1987).

Though Wasson didn't get to interview Fosse or Verdon (who died in 2000), he did get information from several lovers (including Ann Reinking) and buddies, and the book presents a well-rounded picture of the man. I knew that All That Jazz was autobiographical--the story of a driven choreographer and director (played by Roy Scheider, pictured above) balancing finishing editing on a movie while he gets started on a new Broadway musical--but I didn't know exactly how precise the movie's details were, and the section on the making of the movie was my favorite part of the book, but if you have any interest at all in Fosse and his works, this book will be catnip. My one complaint: like All That Jazz, the book stops abruptly at Fosse's death, without a wrap-up chapter showing how important his legacy was and is. Otherwise, a wonderful read.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Blue Christmas, indeed

My first seasonal book this year was a big disappointment. Every bit of the title of this book by Ronald D. Lankford Jr. is misleading: Sleigh Rides, Jingle Bells & Silent Nights: A Cultural History of American Christmas Songs. First of all, "Sleigh Ride," "Jingle Bells," and "Silent Night" are not mentioned in this book--certainly Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" belongs here. Second, this is not a history of American Christmas songs, it is an quasi-academic survey of a handful of such songs; maybe 15, if that many, are written about in any detail. The "cultural" part of the title is accurate; the author does a nice job throwing a net around Christmas popular culture of the past fifty years as he sets up context for the discussion of songs, but material on the songs is weak and unfulfilling.
His thesis is interesting: the genre of American Christmas pop music, which was born during World War II and largely ended in the 1960s, is not about any of the religious aspects of Christmas, but instead focuses on domesticity, nostalgia, romance, and commercial consumption. Each chapter covers one of these areas, and when he writes on music of the 40s, he's on solid ground, with songs such as "White Christmas," "Winter Wonderland," and "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." His conclusions are fairly obvious but his reflections on the songs and their reception are fun to read.

But by 1965, and "Christmas Time Is Here" from A Charlie Brown Christmas, he loses steam. He includes that particular song in his chapter on "blues and hard times," but I don't think he makes a strong case for that. The show, yes, is certainly about being depressed as Christmas, but that song doesn't seem to me to be about holiday blues. There is a tension between the happy lyrics and the slow plodding performance, but that tone strikes me more as mild nostalgic melancholy, ending as it does with, "Oh, that we could always see/Such spirit through the year."

After that, he has a chapter on satire, focusing on "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" (the popularity of which seems more tied to shock value than to any major disenchantment with Christmas itself), and that's it. He doesn't discuss songs such as "Jingle Bell Rock," "Holly Jolly Christmas," "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," "Little Drummer Boy," "Silver Bells," "Do You Hear What I Hear," "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," "Please Daddy, Don't Get Drunk This Christmas," "Please Come Home for Christmas," or "All I Want for Christmas Is You." I know that he's not intending to cover British songs, but I could write several paragraphs on Elton John's "Step Into Christmas," a lyrically interesting song which was and remains popular in America, not to mention John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War is Over)."

The academic prose style is clear, and there has been a lot of research done, but ultimately, as obvious as his points are and as much as he has left out, I doubt that this would pass muster as a dissertation in a university English department. And as it doesn't seem pitched at a average music buff reader, I'm not sure who would be satisfied by this half-baked presentation. I hope there are better holiday books to be read before the 25th of December rolls around.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Lives on the page, part 2

Last time I wrote about a Mary Wickes biography that made her life sound most uninteresting. This time, I'm writing about a book that makes what seems to be a relatively uninteresting life worth reading about. There are two differences: it's an autobiography and it's written with style.

It's probably not fair to compare a book about someone to a book by someone, in this case, Graham Nash, and his book Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life. I'm sure if Wickes had sat down to write her memoir, it would have been fun to read, or sad, or enlightening. Taravella, the author of the Wickes book, didn't have his subject handy to pump for info, she didn't leave a big paper trail, and most of the people who knew her best were dead. Nash writes his own memoir and what's most surprising about it is how uninteresting his life sounds, given his role as a member in good standing of rock royalty: he hung out with the pre-fame Beatles (and wrote out the lyrics to "Anna" so John Lennon could sing the right words at a recording session the next day); belonged to the Hollies, a genuine British Invasion band; lived with Joni Mitchell; was and still is one-third of the legendary supergroup Crosby, Stills & Nash and wrote most of their biggest hits ("Marrakesh Express," "Our House," "Just a Song Before I Go," "Wasted on the Way"), and also the lovely "Simple Man," a moderate solo hit for Nash and one my personal favorite 70s songs.

The material on Nash's early days before he gets to California is engrossing, but once he gets his gig with David Crosby and Stephen Stills, and breaks up with Joni Mitchell, the book tends to focus on others rather than on himself. Nash says he did lots of drugs and had many women, but we hear very little about all that; the most interesting parts of the book are about David Crosby and his well-publicized struggles with drugs. On the subject of Neil Young (occasionally part of CS&N, as CSN&Y), he is clear without being overbearing: Young is a jackass but a musical genius. We don't get much insight about the music; the peak musical experience is a well-told anecdote of the first time he and Crosby and Stills sang together, with Joni as the audience.
But what makes the book worth reading is the style. Nash's "voice" is fun to hear and he sounds natural on the page. It feels like you've been chatting with him over a cup of tea--and maybe a joint or two. We get just enough gossip to titillate, but not so much that we think he's betraying trusts. "Wild Tales" is a bit of a misnomer. I've read Young's recent memoir, which is also written in a unique style but doesn't ultimately reveal much. I haven't read anything by Crosby, but between Nash's book and the headlines of the past, I don't know that I need to. But I suspect that Stephen Stills might have a good book or two in him, if he can remember enough to write about.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Lives on the page, part 1

My pop culture biography kick continues with 2 books that would seem to have little in common: one is a biography about a little-known but much-recognized character actress; the other is an autobiography by a famous rock musician. But reading the two books together did provide some insights about the art of telling a life story.

The first book is Mary Wickes: I Know I've Seen That Face Before by Steve Taravella. Good subtitle: most people probably don't know Wickes by name but would recognize her unusual, rather homely face. Her career as a supporting player in movies and television began in 1942 when she played the put-upon nurse to Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner--mostly she just stands there looking flustered while Whiteside (Monty Woolley) screams insults at her (calling her "Miss Stomach Pump" and telling her she has "the touch of a love-starved cobra," for example). She was busy in movies and TV, often playing feisty servants, old maids or sidekicks, and she was lucky enough to keep busy right up to her death in 1995; younger generations remember her as the spunky Sister Mary Lazarus in Sister Act and as the housekeeper in the Father Dowling Mysteries.

Wickes was a fine actor but, according to this book, had an uninteresting life. She never married and was never seriously involved romantically with anyone, male or female. She didn't appear to take strong philosophical or social stands, wasn't much of a traveler, and had a small circle of friends, several of whom were gay men who often served as social escorts--though Taravella see-saws on whether or not she was aware of these men's sexuality; some say she was, some say she wasn't, and Taravella declines to judge. Her best friend was Lucille Ball, and her daughter Lucie Arnaz is one of the author's main sources, but even that relationship isn't given much life in the pages of this book.

I think the problem here is that, as I've already noted, Wickes had an uninteresting life. I don't mean this as an insult: I love seeing Wickes in movies--The Man Who Came to Dinner is one of my favorite moves partly because it's beautifully cast, and Wickes makes the most of her handful of short scenes (her cry of "Mister Whiteside--really!" has remained memorable to me; the picture above shows Wickes with Jimmy Durante and Monty Woolley)--and I was most interested when I saw this book's publication announced. But the author has written a long book (370 pages) when perhaps a long magazine article would have been more appropriate.

He has talked to many people who knew her but then proceeded to seemingly include every single thing anyone told him without winnowing down the comments, leading to both much repetition and many contradictory views on her friendships, her love life or lack thereof, and as I mentioned before, how aware she was about the presence of so many gay men in her life. There are several pages of comments about whether or not Wickes ever fell in love, or even ever had sex, but because the author refrains from piecing the statements together and coming to some kind of conclusion, they are repetitive and mostly unenlightening. Taravella's writing style is plain and wordy, but I think a more interesting style would have made this book more memorable; I came away from it knowing many tidbits about Wickes but feeling like I had no strong sense of her as a person.

Next time, an autobiography about a person who comes off as similarly uninteresting, but whose book is worth reading for its style.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh, Hello Allan

Allan Sherman was a TV producer who was the co-creator of the game show I've Got a Secret. He also wrote a couple of books and plays, but he is best remembered as a song parodist, like Weird Al Yankovic. Though he released several hit albums in the 60s, the one song us baby boomers know is "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh," a letter from a disgruntled kid at summer camp to his parents: "Camp is very/Entertaining/And they say we'll have some fun if it stops raining." Mark Cohen's biography Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman is interesting reading, despite its flaws. What Cohen does best is make a strong claim for Allan as not just a forerunner of Yankovic but as the godfather of a host of Jewish humorists, from Woody Allen to Jerry Seinfeld.

I remember "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh" vividly from my childhood (I called it the Camp Grenada song); it was a funny song intended for adults but kids understood it, too, even Catholic suburban kids like me who never went to camp. (I remember hearing the song around the age of 9; it single-handedly implanted in me a fear that my parents would make me go to camp one summer.) Though the song doesn't get oldies radio play, it is still strong in my memory, partly because it was set to a memorably bouncy tune from Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours"--the fact that the original melody appears in Disney's Fantasia (the hippo ballerinas) isn't mentioned in the book but is probably a minor factor in the song's success.

Cohen does a nice job showing how Sherman was one of the first mainstream post-war comedians to work the rich mine of Jewish humor. One of his earliest works was a group of parodies called "Goldena Moments in Music" in which he took songs from hit musicals and gave them a Jewish slant. For example, Gershwin's "Summertime" becomes, "Summertime/Everybody is shvitzing/Schmaltz is melting/And the Catskills is high." In his intro to the bit, he says, "How would it have been if all the great Broadway hits had been written by Jewish people... which they were," noting that despite the songwriters' cultural backgrounds, there was very little content that would point to that.

His first big musical break was an album called "My Son, the Folk Singer" which rode the early 60s wave of folk-pop music, parodying songs like "The Streets of Laredo" and "Greensleeves." In "The Ballad of Harry Lewis," a song about a garment district worker set to the Battle Hymn of the Republic, we get this classic line: "He was trampling through the warehouse/Where the Drapes of Roth are stored." It also includes a song set to "Frère Jacques" called "Sarah Jackman," a phone call between the singer and his old friend Sarah which I have been singing to myself for days now:

"Sarah Jackman
Sarah Jackman
How's by you?
How's by you?
How's your brother Bernie?"
"He's a big attorney"
"He's nice, too
He's nice, too."

Sherman had three #1 albums in less than a year, climaxed by the radio hit "Hello Muddah." He made a few more albums and was successful taking his act on the road, as well as becoming a popular talk show guest. But soon the novelty ran dry, and, as Cohen notes, his Jewish references lessened over the run of albums so the songs lost their unique flavor. Always overweight and rarely in great health, he died in 1973 at the age of 48.

This book is the first biography of him that I know of. When the author sticks to the facts, it's an absorbing read. But he is on weaker ground when he attempts psychological analysis. The fact that Sherman was a womanizer seems to be common knowledge, but Cohen takes the word of someone who claims that he attended an orgy and tries to make that mean that Sherman was wicked and perverse. (Doesn't every California resident of the 60s have at least one orgy in their closet?) Cohen is also repetitive: the orgy gets mentioned (but, sadly, not described) several times throughout the book, as does the observation that Sherman drew away from his Jewish influences in his later career. But I was glad to have gained some background about this largely forgotten pioneer of comedy. As an added bonus, the author has posted several Sherman songs on YouTube--though most of the songs seem dated (often because the song being parodied is no longer familiar), and sometimes feel like they're getting laughs simply from the sheer amount of Jewish names and Yiddish phrases sprinkled throughout, they are fun to hear once.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Son of 2001?

When Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968, some critics said it was a landmark film that would change the science fiction genre. It was certainly heavy on dazzling visuals and special effects, but instead of being filled with monsters or radiation poisoning, or featuring old-fashioned space opera battles, it was a slow, thoughtful mediation on space, religion, and human nature. The look and effects did go on to influence later sci-fi movies (not least of all, Star Wars), but most of the films that followed went in the opposite direction in terms of tone: cartoonish action rather than a thoughtful, enigmatic naturalism.

Every so often, a movie comes along that promises to be closer to 2001. Sunshine (from Danny Boyle in 2007) began with a tone of more quiet awe and cosmic mystery but it fell apart by the end. Duncan Jones' Moon (2009) also seemed to be influenced by the less bombastic elements of 2001, and it was a good movie but it was more about humanity than it was about the cosmos. Now there's Europa Report which is being marketed as a cross between 2001 (even taking place near Jupiter where the climax of 2001 is set, more or less) and The Blair Witch Project.

We are presented with "found footage" of a doomed spaceflight to Europa, a moon of Jupiter where there is a tantalizing promise of life under the ice. Unlike Blair Witch, in this film we have a strong sense of the outcome at the beginning, and the footage has been pieced together from a variety of sources--mostly ship cameras--by other hands, representatives of the private company that sponsored the flight. Along the way, the crew interacts in the usual fashion, sometimes friendly and jovial, sometimes bristly and tense, until they land on Europa and discover a strange light in the ice. Is it real or is it just the overactive imaginations of the crew?

One thing the movie has in its favor is its look: it is crisp, bright and colorful--I can't tell you how tired I am of movies in which the color is drained or artificially flattened. The actors are all fine, including Michael Nyvquist (the reporter in the original Swedish 'Dragon Tattoo' films) and District 9's Sharlto Copely (pictured). I have a problem with the construction of the narrative. A major character dies on the way to Europa, and we know he does, but the chronology of events is messed with so that his death isn't seen until later in the movie, for no apparent reason. It also doesn't feel like a found-footage movie--it's way too put together. Ultimately I liked the movie, though the climax is not as well handled as it should have been, leading to some lessening of tension right at the end. It doesn't head off into space warfare action, but it doesn't make it to 2001 awe either.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Martha Reeves: Dangerous radical?

I haven't posted much here lately. I think the reason is that I'm feeling more and more like an old curmudgeon. I have liked very little of what I've been reading or watching on TV, and I am listening to fewer and fewer current musicians. I hate writing negative reviews all the time, so I haven't been writing. But what the hell, I guess I'll embrace the inner curmudgeon and take another shot at reviving this blog.

I'll start with a book I liked but which also had some serious problems. The subtitle of Mark Kurlansky's book tells all: Ready for a Brand New Beat: How "Dancing in the Street" Became the Anthem for a Changing America. His thesis is that in 1964, "Dancing in the Street," the classic Motown recording by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, became a rallying cry-song for the civil rights movement of the 1960s. This kind of pop culture history is catnip to me, and I don't usually ask for more out of these books than accuracy and entertainment.

Here, the author overreaches, I think, and makes claims too big for him to handle. I was a child of 8 in 1964, and came of age in the 60s, and I agree that "Dancing in the Street" does sound anthemic: it opens with an explicit call to the world, name-checks some big urban centers where unrest did eventually occur (Detroit, New York), and has a classic line about when such unrest often explodes ("Summer's here and the time is right..."). Kurlansky does quote some civil rights activists as remembering that the song did fit in with their ends, and it may have been used on occasion as call to congregate. But to call it "the" anthem of the 60s seems to be a mistake. Songs I can think of that might deserve that title more include "We Shall Overcome," "Blowin' in the Wind," "The Times They Are A-Changin'," and "A Change Is Gonna Come."

What I like about the book: 1) the mini-history of Motown, with some fun tidbits about Berry Gordy and Marvin Gaye (who co-wrote the song)--did you know that Gaye wanted to be the black Frank Sinatra?; 2) the account of the writing and recording of the song. The author spends too much time trying to get someone to admit that the song was actually written to be a call for revolution. No one does (and Reeves in particular forcefully denies that the song was meant to be anything but a party song), and Kurlansky didn't have to try so hard--what really matters is not what was intended, but how it was received by its audience.

What I didn't like: 1) the mini-history of the civil rights movement which at times seems trivialized; 2) the writing--even though Kurlansky has written bestsellers, the writing here is at a college freshman first-draft level. An example: in writing about the early Motown hit "Money," he says: "The song 'Money," written by Berry Gordy, was a song about the obsession with money. Chroniclers of Motown have made much about how this song was about money." My comments: wordy; combine for better flow. I ran into awkward sentences like this throughout. He consistently refers to the Billboard pop top 100 chart as the "white chart," which is incorrect and unfair. It was the mainstream pop music chart, differentiated from the R&B chart and the country & western chart. Even calling the R&B chart the "black" chart, as he does, isn't really accurate.

Still despite these problems, the book was interesting and a fast read. My advice would be to check it out the library rather than buy it, unless you're a Motown academic.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Life styles

I think of biographies as coming in three flavors: traditional pop bio, usually of actors and politicians and historical figures, which cover the surface of the subject, presenting a mix of facts and gossip and written with a light tone; academic bios, usually of writers or scientists or, well, academics, which are done with lots of research and footnotes and written in a more serious fashion; and autobiographies and memoirs, which cover anything the subject wants us to know. Lately I've read three biographies and I seem to have stumbled on a fourth type: the biography which tells us more about the author than the subject, and in which style seems to be the main concern.

The first and most traditional one, Unknown Pleasures, is by Peter Hook, the bass player for the legendary punk group Joy Division (pictured above; Hook is the bearded one), which after the suicide of the lead singer, Ian Curtis, metamorphosed into the techno band New Order.  Hook sticks here mostly with the tightly circumscribed time frame of Joy Division’s existence from 1976 to 1980. He spends most of the book describing the daily doings of the band: the gigs, the offstage shenanigans (which were much less gloomy and dangerous than one might expect given Joy Division’s dark image), the recording sessions at which their somewhat sludgy sound was meticulously created. There’s very little insight into psychology or intention or even the music and lyrics they were performing.

The most interesting thing he says is that he and the other members had no idea that Curtis was so far gone that he might be a serious suicide risk—because they never paid attention to Curtis' lyrics. I certainly would not hold them responsible for trying to save him, but for a band that was taken seriously for their "authenticity," I find this an amazing revelation. Granted, Hook didn't sing the words, but the fact that none of them had any idea what was going on in the songs lyrically is astonishing to me. Hook's style is very informal and chatty, and sounds unforced, so it's a fast read. He does present occasional flash-forwards to contentious moments in New Order's career—one of the running threads in the book is the collapse of his friendship with bandmate Bernard Sumner—and that makes me wish that he'll write a sequel.

The most frustrating one of the three is Hopper: A Journey into the American Dream by Tom Folsom. The actor (Blue Velvet) and director (Easy Rider) Dennis Hopper would seem to be a fascinating subject for a biography, but Folsom doesn’t even begin to bring him to life on the page. The author thinks he's Tom Wolfe, but he has a long way to go. This is less a biography than a disjointed collection of drafts and sketches for chapters of a book. Folsom's concern is more for flashy word choice and shifts in typography. The shame is that Folsom seems to have had access to some interesting interview subjects, but almost completely wasted his chance to tell Hopper's story and get at what make him tick—Folsom seems to think that, like Charles Foster Kane, Hopper has a core moment or memory or incident that he never forgot and that may have ruled his life, but Folsom is unable to get near it, except that it may have been somewhere in Hopper's Kansas childhood. The chunk of the book on the making of The Last Movie is compelling, but nothing else in the book is worth much.

Finally, there is Vera Gran: The Accused by Agata Tuszyńska. Ostensibly the subject of this book is Gran, a Polish singer of the World War II years who managed to escape the Warsaw ghetto and wound up facing accusations of collaborating with the Gestapo. Her career never quite recovered, even though she continued to sing professionally into the 1980s. If she has a claim to pop culture fame, it's because one of her accompanists in the ghetto was the man on whom the movie The Pianist was based. The author got to know Gran in the years before she died in 2007 at the age of 91 and much of this book is simply the transcribed rants of her bitter, contradictory and not always lucid mind. Tuszyńska is a poet and this book, like Folsom's book, becomes more an exercise is authorial style than a biography. To her credit, she does touch on complicated issues like memory, survival, and the nature of collaboration with the enemy, but in an abstract fashion that pushes Gran away from the center of the narrative. The author is sloppy about setting up context, and skips over huge chunks of Gran's life that apparently do not fit her thesis. The fuzzy focus and the constant intrusion of the author into the story make this collapse into confusion before the end. Perhaps this should have been marketed as a personal memoir rather than a biography, though it would still be an unfulfilling read. Surely a woman who survived the Warsaw ghetto and a wild, often drug-fueled actor who embodied the 60s zeitgeist should have been more interesting to read about than a bass player in a 70s band that only produced two albums. Authors, get out of the way and put your subject in the spotlight.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

One-hit wonder

The Fifth Estate is pretty much the definition of a one-hit wonder band. They had exactly one song make the Billboard pop chart, "Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead," which just missed making the top 10, and, as British music critics say, they never troubled the charts again. But, as with most such bands, there is more to their story than that one hit. As someone who delights in finding obscure 60s pop gems, I bought the recent 2-disc release "The Fifth Estate: Anthology Volume 1: The Witch is Dead." I would recommend this to other fans of oldies mainstream pop, though giving over 2 whole discs with the promise of at least one more in the works does seem excessive.

The five Connecticut musicians got their start in 1963 as The Decadents, then changed their name to The D-Men and eventually released a handful of singles that got some spotty airplay but never hit the national charts. By 1966 they were called The Fifth Estate, and according to the album's liner notes, they recorded "Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead" because they took a bet that no one could make a hit out of any song from The Wizard of Oz. One member who was studying Renaissance music and who had just built a harpsichord interpolated a section of music in the middle by 17th century composer Michael Praetorius, and it's that move that, in that brief era of "baroque pop" ("A Whiter Shade of Pale," "Walk Away Renee," "Eleanor Rigby") probably made the song a hit. Their record company wanted lightning to strike twice and pushed them to do another baroque version of an old song, "Heigh Ho" from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but it didn't hit the charts and the band folded soon after, though the surviving members have just released a new album.

If you're hoping to hear more songs like "The Witch is Dead," this album will disappoint you. But if you like the sound of Beatlesque garage-band pop, this has much to offer. One reason why the band didn't hit it big may have been because they never settled into one groove. Many of the songs have a mid-60s Beatles sound, especially "Don't You Know" and "Love is All a Game," but some sound more like the Monkees or Paul Revere & the Raiders ("Heartache Heartbreak," "Morning Morning"). There are half-hearted attempts at blues ("Strange Blues") and a rewrite--at least lyrically--of Petula Clark's "Downtown" called "It's Waiting There for You."

Later songs have some slightly more sophisticated arrangements ("Someday Maybe, Someday Soon," "Night on Fire"). They even make a stab at a humor/retro sound (think "Winchester Cathedral" or Tiny Tim) with "No. 1 Hippie on the Village Scene" and "Lost Generation." Almost everything on disc 1 is worth listening to, and most of the songs I've named above are ones I'll be pleased to add to my iPod playlists.

But the set has its problems. Disc 2 consists of demos and live recordings of mostly poor quality. There are a couple of interesting songs but I can't imagine ever listening to the second disc again. The liner notes are good but there is no list of songs with information (date of recording, album name, etc.) as most archival CD sets contain, only a numbered list of song titles--and on disc 2, the order of cuts is listed inaccurately. Overall, a worthy purchase for 60s pop fans, but I doubt I'll keep an eye peeled for volume 2.

Friday, January 11, 2013

A Dickens Christmas mystery; or, my problem with e-books

First, the book: The Christmas Carol Murders by Christopher Lord. It's Christmastime in quaint Dickens Junction, Oregon, where all the stores and businesses have names out of Dickens novels (yes, there's an inn called Bleak House), and just at the peak of tourist season, representatives from something called Marley Enterprises arrive, looking to buy up all the town square properties and set up an Ayn Rand wonderland—Rand's philosophy of selfishness being the opposite of Dickens' message of charity—and soon someone starts killing people in rather spectacular ways. Simon Alastair, who owns a bookstore called Pip's Pages and has been the driving force behind the town's reputation as a haven for lovers of Dickens, starts investigating at the same time as he tries to stop the locals from selling to Marley. He also gets in a little flirtation with a hunky reporter named Zach who is town to write an article on the Junction.

This is a first novel and as such, shows promise. Simon is a good central character and the ingredients for a nice "cozy" mystery series are in place: small town, colorful characters, amateur sleuth. But I had a hard time keeping track of the characters because most of them don't come to life, or aren't differentiated enough from each other. Unlike some online reviewers, I had no problem with the gay content—Simon is "out" and not presented as a stereotype (though his buddy George gets saddled with the requisite campy personality), and though he and Zach do pair up during the novel, there are no sex scenes at all, straight or gay. But the murders are surprisingly gory and graphic. In a Silence of the Lambs-type thriller, these would fit right in, but here they break the delicate cozy atmosphere. In addition, I suspect the author didn't play fair with those who try hard to follow the clues and figure out whodunit before the end. I'm not typically one of those readers, but the solution seemed to come out of nowhere. Still, I might give a second Dickens Junction novel a shot.

Next, my e-book problem: I read the e-book version of this novel, and I admit that may have prejudiced my opinions. I find that e-book reading feels more ephemeral than print book reading. I like the heft of a book. I like looking at and feeling the texture of the cover. I like knowing exactly how far I have to go. I like flipping back through the book when I pick it back up after a night away, or a week away, or longer. I like writing little notes in the margins or underlining things. I like having a stack of books on my nightstand—OK, to be honest, I like having stacks of books around my bed, and bookshelves filled to overflowing. My partner likes the search and notes function on the Kindle, but when I'm flipping back, I'm not usually looking for a certain name or term, but just to refresh my memory. I don't mean to be seen as agitating against e-books, but I have done enough e-reading now to realize that it just won't take the place of the print book experience for me. I do like the fact that I can get older public domain titles easier and cheaper on my Kindle (Fu Manchu books by Sax Rohmer for a dollar a piece!), and I will certainly take my Kindle along when I travel, which isn't that often, but for now, I remain an old-fashioned book boy (or, just an old curmudgeon, I guess).

So I suspect that, had I read The Christmas Carol Murders in print, I might have had a different reaction. I read an e-book of The Age of Miracles last year and liked it quite a bit, but still was left with that nebulous feeling that I hadn't gotten the full reading experience out if it. This doesn't seem to be as important with non-fiction e-books, but I generally read non-fiction in a completely different mode, with less concern for narrative flow, atmosphere, and following a plot. I'm tempted to check out a copy of Lord's book from the library and read it again, to see if it alters my opinion. (I probably won't but stay tuned in case.)