THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN

(Jill Lepore; 410 pages; ALFRED A KNOPF PUBLISHING/RANDOM HOUSE BOOKS; 2014)

secret history of wnder woman cover

If you’re going into THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN expecting a major discourse on some secret comic book origin story of the Amazon princess, you are definitely looking in the wrong direction. The book is more of an historical look back at the suffrage and feminist movements of the late nineteenth and the first eight decades of the twentieth centuries. It also works as, quite possibly, the most comprehensive and accurate biography of Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston, who was – to say the least – a deeply flawed individual. Many of Marston’s flaws and foibles were at the core of the character’s creation and writer Jill Lepore’s examination of his early scripts and notes highlights his attempts to forward his fervent feminist beliefs through a series of failed teaching positions and “scientific” experiments that were – and, I’m being generous here – borderline, at best.

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (AMERICAN SCHOLAR 13 1943-44) (Art by HARRY G PETER)

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (AMERICAN SCHOLAR 13 1943-44) (Art by HARRY G PETER)

Almost from birth, William Moulton Marston surrounded himself with strong, independent thinking women; he had to… he was far too lazy to have any job other than the odd “professorship” that allowed him to practice his borderline kinky experiments virtually unmolested. His aunt, his female students and lab assistants and his wives carried the financial burdens of the classroom, laboratory and household. A student aide and paramour (Olive Byrne, niece of famed feminist and trail-blazing birth control advocate, Margaret Sanger) was brought into the home as nanny to his two young sons; when she became pregnant, Marston made her wife number two, telling the two Missus Marstons that the third (and eventually fourth) child would continue under the tutelage and care of number two, while the more successful number one would be called “Mother” to all four and continue to bring in the household funds. The fact that these women didn’t kill him (or each other) must be proof that females are, indeed, the superior sex… cuz I woulda beat the guy like a baby seal.

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (DC Comics editorial meeting, 1942, with William Moulton Marston. artist Harry G Peter, editor Sheldon Mayer, publisher MC Gaines) (Publicity photo)

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (DC Comics editorial meeting, 1942, with William Moulton Marston. artist Harry G Peter, editor Sheldon Mayer, publisher MC Gaines) (Publicity photo)

But, anyway, the great character of the women in his life DID give Marston the template for the first female super-hero; the fact that he was able to snow the editors and publisher of DC Comics with the concept that Wonder Woman’s strength was best exhibited by her continually being bound in some form or other (almost always by the male of the species, with chains being the favorite mode of bondage, though the Amazon was also harnessed into a straightjacket, locked in an electrified cage and hogtied with a rope) speaks volumes to the man’s mastery at the art of humbuggery. When the thought police came a-calling, he would be sure to have all of his Amazons in a row, usually in the form of one of his smitten female colleagues or some borderline-legitimate psychologist who moved in the same semi-reputable circles as Marston, ready with their own convoluted explanations of how depicting such scenes of bondage would, ultimately, empower women to become the family, political and social leaders that is their destiny; disputes and wars would cease, leading to a Utopian society with peace and love and dancing.

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (cover of WONDER WOMAN #7, Winter 1943) (Art by HARRY G PETER)

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (cover of WONDER WOMAN #7, Winter 1943) (Art by HARRY G PETER)

The guy musta been doing something right, however, as Wonder Woman became wildly popular. And, not just among the young boys who were the vast majority of comic book readers at that time; Princess Diana had found a new audience as young girls all across America began reading her adventures and emulating her amazing feats in their backyards and living rooms. When two members of the Justice Society of America, the Flash and Green Lantern, were awarded their own books, the editors of ALL STAR COMICS conducted a readers poll to which hero should take their place within the ranks. Wonder Woman was far and away the victor. However, Marston wasn’t writing the adventures of the JSA, so the Amazon was made official secretary of the team, in charge of holding down the fort while the men were off fighting evil and in charge of coffee and snacks during meetings. These tales were, by and large, written by legendary comic scribe, Gardner F Fox, though it has long been rumored that Robert Kanigher may have ghosted several of those JSA adventures. That would actually make some kind of since, as Kanigher hated not only Marston, but his creation, as well. This visceral dislike of the character led to the eventual dumbing down of the Wonder Woman strip, as Kanigher was named as Marston’s replacement upon the latter’s death in 1947, a post he held for more than 22 years; suddenly, Diana Prince’s alter ego became a besotted and lovelorn member of the weaker sex, falling prey to ridiculous scheme after ridiculous scheme as she pined away for her boss in Military Intelligence, Captain (eventually Colonel) Steve Trevor. Trevor ended up saving the Amazonian warrior as often – or more often – as she saved him.

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (cover of MS #1, July 1972) (Art by ROSS ANDRU and MIKE ESPOSITO)

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (cover of MS #1, July 1972) (Art by ROSS ANDRU and MIKE ESPOSITO)

As the turbulent sixties were coming to an enlightened end, Kanigher finally relinquished his hold on Wonder Woman in 1968 and Diana relinquished her powers to become a mortal woman, working as a secret agent to clear Steve Trevor of a bogus murder charge. The death knell for this “liberated” Wonder Woman came with the December 1972 issue, a “special Women’s Lib issue.” Denny O’Neil was gone, too, replaced by… Robert Kanigher, back for another (short-lived) round. The damage to the venerable character had been done during Kanigher’s first monumental run and, seemingly, month after month, the poor scripts and ill-conceived attempts at relevancy piled degradation upon degradation on the Amazon princess, even as a new publication from the National Women’s Political Caucus called MS featured her on the cover of their debut issue in 1972 (which may have prompted the return of the original Wonder Woman costume and powers a few months later). Wonder Woman remains a stalwart of DC Comics, considered to be an integral part of “the Trinity,” with Superman and Batman. A couple of generations of new creative teams have removed the layers of tarnish to return the character to something much closer to the character William Moulton Marston originally envisioned nearly 75 years ago. Lepore has delved deep and dissected every aspect, every historical event that has gone into the creation of the first female super-hero; likewise, she points to the many ways that Wonder Woman – and, by extension, Marston – has molded the history of the women’s movement since she first burst onto the scene in 1941. You don’t have to be comic book fan to enjoy THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN, nor do you have to be a woman or a feminist to appreciate the history and politics that led to Wonder Woman’s creation and longevity; the book is just a good, thought-provoking read.

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (author Jill Lepore) (photo credit: DARI MICHELE)

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (author Jill Lepore) (photo credit: DARI MICHELE)

It should be noted that since the book’s publication, several descendents of the Marstons have come forward to dispute many of the assertions that Ms Lepore puts forth regarding the family and their lifestyle; for what it’s worth, much of this information has been floating around for quite awhile and I tend to support the Lepore’s version of events. I’ll leave it to you to make up your own minds.


MEL BLANC: THE MAN OF A THOUSAND VOICES

(Ben Ohmart; 706 pages; BEARMANOR MEDIA; 2012) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULT

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Even if you don’t recognize the name or the face, if you’ve been on this planet for any time in the past 80 years or so, you most certainly recognize the voice… or, to be more accurate, the voices: Bugs Bunny, Barney Rubble, Foghorn Leghorn… the list of animated A-listers voiced by the legendary Mel Blanc is improbably long. Though Blanc’s is a familiar name to aficionados of early radio and classic animation, few among us know much about the man himself. In a concise 220 pages (more on that HUGE page discrepancy a little later), we are given insight to, and learn the life story of, the most famous voice actor of all time. Author and classic radio, television and movie historian Ben Ohmart heavily relies on Noel Blanc’s unpublished biography about his Dad, as well as Walt Mitchell’s extensive interviews, conducted over a decades-long friendship. Under Ohmart’s deft hand, MEL BLANC: THE MAN OF A THOUSAND VOICES is the most comprehensive exploration of the life of the man who would be Daffy (and Porky and Woody and Secret Squirrel and… well, you get the point).

Mel Blanc (photo credit: GAB ARCHIVE/REDFERNS)

Mel Blanc (photo credit: GAB ARCHIVE/REDFERNS)

Ohmart covers the extraordinary story, from the birth of Melvin Jerome Blank on May 30, 1908 through his childhood in Portland, Oregon, his first, tentative steps into the world of radio at age 22 and through one of the most storied careers in the entertainment industry. During a lengthy radio career, Mel performed alongside such luminaries as Jack Benny, Lucille Ball, Al Jolson, Bob Hope, George Burns and Gracie Allen and Judy Canova and on weekly programs like THE ABBOTT AND COSTELLO SHOW, THE JOHNSONS WAX PROGRAM (in the “Fibber McGee and Molly” series), THE LIFE OF RILEY (starring William Bendix) and many others. As his radio work continued to (barely) pay the bills, Mel began making appearances on the movie screen, as well as doing voice work for Warner Brothers’ cartoons. Starting his cartoon career as one of several actors voicing the different characters (much like his radio work), Mel was so accomplished (his nickname was “First-take Blanc”) that he was soon doing most – if not all – of the voices for the Warner cartoons, demanding and receiving one of the most lucrative contracts in the business. He would also work (surreptitiously) for competing studios (including Walter Lantz Productions for Universal Studios).

Mel Blanc with, from lower left, Jack Benny, Don Wilson and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson (publicity photo)

Mel Blanc with, from lower left, Jack Benny, Don Wilson and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson (publicity photo)

Mel’s family life is expertly documented, an amazing story of love, devotion and sacrifice; his wife, Estelle, was always supportive of Blanc’s aspirations and her love and caring hands were instrumental in the long healing process after a devastating car wreck almost took his life in January, 1961. Their son, Noel, remained at Mel’s side throughout the ordeal, as well, helping to set up a home recording studio so his father could continue the work he loved from his bed; Noel eventually became Mel’s business partner and made it possible for the actor to explore other avenues for his talents, including the Mel Blanc School of Voice and Commercials. Noel Blanc (it was an unfortunate coincidence that the Jewish parents had given their son a name, that in French, translates to “White Christmas”) also became the voice of many of his father’s characters after Mel’s death. Jack Benny remained a close and trusted friend, one of the few “show biz” people Blanc elevated to that status. Mel always had a kind word (usually in character, as Bugs Bunny) for any and all children, making numerous appearances at hospitals; he never refused an autograph, though he usually signed them “Bugs.”

Mel Blanc (uncredited photo)

Mel Blanc (uncredited photo)

Ohmart’s style is warm and friendly, like his subject and, early on, it’s quite obvious that he’s also a fan; with the addition of excerpts from Noel’s biography and Mitchell’s interviews, by the end of the narrative, Mel Blanc is as familiar as any of his legendary characters. That, my friends, is the hallmark of a good biographer. The great – sometimes rare – photos are an added bonus to the story, even if they’re all black and white.

SPEECHLESS (Warner Brothers' Mel Blanc tribute artwork)

SPEECHLESS (Warner Brothers’ Mel Blanc tribute artwork)

Now… about the nearly 500 unaccounted-for pages. There are tributes (from the modern voices of Porky Pig and Bugs Bunny, Bob Bergen and Joe Alaskey; Walt Mitchell and others), a transcript of the speech given by Mel at the 1964 convention of the American Association of Advertising and – most importantly – a comprehensive listing of all of Mel’s work in radio (compiled by Martin Grams, Junior), feature films (contributed by Randy Bonneville), television (including cartoon work on THE FLINTSTONES, THE JETSONS and various Saturday morning shows from the Hanna-Barbera production machine), recordings (compiled by Mitchell) and an exhaustive, 300 page list of cartoons and short subjects, compiled by Bonneville and Keith Scott; that final category is virtually indispensable for any fan of Mel Blanc or his Warner Brothers cartoons output. The price is a hefty 44 dollars, American, but the memories alone make it money well spent.


JIMI: ALL IS BY MY SIDE

(XLRATOR MEDIA/DARKO ENTERTAINMENT/FREEMANFILMS/MATADOR PICTURES (118 minutes/Rated R); 2014)

JIMI: ALL IS BY MY SIDE cover

When this movie was originally announced, there were grumblings and, in the case of Experience Hendrix (the company formed by some members of the Hendrix family to oversee everything Jimi), outright venom spewed at director/writer John Ridley, actor Andre Benjamin (Andre 3000 of the hip-hop/pop/rock duo, Outkast) and others associated with the project. The Experience Hendrix people demanded complete participation and final approval on every aspect of the movie, including who would play Jimi; they were adamant that Benjamin be replaced. When their demands were rebuked, they pulled all licensing of Hendrix’ music for use in the film. Feathers were also ruffled by the portrayal of certain of the man’s character traits and, no doubt, the characterization of his father, Al. I could never really understand the family’s dislike of Mister Benjamin but, I have read some rather ludicrous comments from others on the subject: Andre, according to one person, was several shades too dark to accurately portray the lighter skinned Hendrix (that one just absolutely boggles the mind); another cited Benjamin’s age (somewhere around 37 when filming began), stating that he was too old to play a 23 year old Hendrix (uh… that’s just ridiculous… let’s examine, shall we? The four high school kids from WELCOME BACK, KOTTER were all in their twenties when the series began – John Travolta was the youngest, at 21; Ron Pallilo was 26 and only four years younger than his “teacher,” Gabe Kaplan. That’s just one example… this kinda stuff happens regularly in movies and television), but if 60 is the new 40, then 40 is the new 27 and, suddenly, 37 isn’t so far removed from 23. Another… I’m gonna call it an “observation” that I’ve read (and heard from friends) is the fact that Andre is a “hip-hop” guy and, well, he couldn’t know anything about Jimi Hendrix (ay, caramba! I give up!). Of course, the major complaint is the fact that the film-makers could not use any of Jimi’s music. So, how does the movie stack up against all of that hate? Very well, thank you.

JIMI: ALL IS BY MY SIDE ( Andre Benjamin and Imogen Poots) (photo credit: PATRICK REDMOND)

JIMI: ALL IS BY MY SIDE ( Andre Benjamin and Imogen Poots) (photo credit: PATRICK REDMOND)

Before getting into the meat and taters (so to speak) of the film, I would like to address several of the issues listed above. Let’s start with the biggie: Jimi’s music. The ban was limited to actual recordings of Hendrix and to songs that he wrote. The former really had no bearing on the production, as the music was performed by a crack group of session men (guitarist Waddy Wachtel, bassist Leland Sklar and drummer Kenny Aranoff), with vocals by Benjamin; the latter would have been devastating had the movie focused on Jimi’s legendary career past June 1967, because during the time span featured (June 1966 through June 1967), Hendrix had only released one album (ARE YOU EXPERIENCED in May ’67) and three singles (sure, two of those were “Purple Haze” and “The Wind Cries Mary,” but those also came out in May ’67). So, the music focuses on the time that Hendrix played rhythm and blues standards with Curtis Knight and such classic blues numbers as “Killing Floor” and “Manish Boy.” As far as I’m concerned, that works fine for me and plays into the narrative of Hendrix’ rise to stardom in England during that twelve-month period. The Hendrix family, no doubt, wanted to avoid much of the foibles and the darker side of, not only Jimi, but his father, as well; I gotta admit that I was shocked by a couple of violent outbursts in the film but, who among us can say they are foible-free and don’t possess a darker side to some extent? Now, as far as Andre Benjamin’s skin-tone, if he were a white guy in black make-up, I would see that as a definite problem; since, however, the performance and the voice and the mannerisms are the important thing here, I’m good, as Andre was spot on, based on just about every film clip I’ve ever seen or every audio clip that I’ve ever heard of Jimi Hendrix… except the hands… for some reason, the way he holds and plays the guitar and the way he uses his hands throughout just doesn’t match up with what Hendrix did. You saw my feelings regarding the age discrepancy, so we’ll move on from there to Andre 3000 being a hip-hop guy and not knowing anything about Hendrix. Really? I’m a pasty white guy from the middle of nowhere who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s as a pasty white kid from the middle of nowhere, but I know and love a wide variety of music and artists from the ’50s and earlier. And, hey, just to make that particular section of the populace even crankier, I listen to hip-hop, too.

JIMI: ALL IS BY MY SIDE (Andre Benjamin) (photo credit: PATRICK REDMOND)

JIMI: ALL IS BY MY SIDE (Andre Benjamin) (photo credit: PATRICK REDMOND)

If I have one complaint about JIMI… it’s that it tends to jump around a bit much, leaving a lot of the context of what’s happening up to the viewer (a noble tactic for a horror movie… not here). There are also several stop frames, where a character is identified (Keith Richard, Chas Chandler, Noel Redding) before moving into whatever scene is up next. The whole thing rather reminds me of an old John’s Children song called “Jagged Time Lapse,” which the songwriter, when asked what the title meant, replied, “It’s about jagged lapses of time, innit?” The movie starts at the end, on June 4, 1967, as the Jimi Hendrix Experience are about to take the stage at the Saville Theatre in London (of which, more later). We are quickly transported in time back one year, to the Cheetah Club in New York, where Jimi is playing with Curtis Knight. One of the audience members is the very bored, very spoiled girlfriend of Keith Richard, Linda Keith (played by the beautiful and unfortunately named Imogen Poots), who is immediately taken with the man hiding in the back corner of the stage, just waiting for his solo to come around. Flash forward to Linda turning Jimi on to acid and, later, trying to make him see just how gifted a musician he really is. When he tells her that he can’t leave Knight’s band because the guitar he’s using belongs to his employer, she buys him the white Gibson that would become somewhat of a trademark during those early days. As Linda becomes more involved with Hendrix, she begins to contact the movers and shakers within her circle (the Rolling Stones’ manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, co-founders of the newly formed Sire Records, Seymour Stein and Richard Gottehrer), actively seeking a management and recording deal for him. In a particularly humorous (and somewhat ironic) scene, the Stones’ guitar player, in a petulant pique of jealousy, visits Linda’s father to have him intervene in the situation with Jimi; Keith tells Mister Keith, “And he’s a drug addict. Did you know that? He has her strung out all the time.”

JIMI: ALL IS BY MY SIDE (Haylet Atwell and Andre Benjamin) (photo credit: PATRICK REDMOND)

JIMI: ALL IS BY MY SIDE (Haylet Atwell and Andre Benjamin) (photo credit: PATRICK REDMOND)

A chance meeting with Animals bassist Bryan “Chas” Chandler, at the end of an American tour (and the end of the original Animals line-up), finally garners Linda the guidance for Jimi’s career that she has been seeking: Chandler (played by a virtual doppleganger, Andrew Buckley) is retiring from playing and moving into management. The scene where Chas first hears Hendrix is an absolute priceless moment in the film, with Chandler’s eyes wide and jaw dropped as he’s mesmerized by the guitarist’s ability (if not his stage presence). Linda sets up a meeting between the two rockers and, literally, history is made as Chandler convinces Jimi to head for the much greener pastures of England, with promises of a much more diverse and open-minded approach to the burgeoning music scene there. Jimi arrives in London on September 24, 1966 but, still waiting for his work visa to be approved, his playing time is limited to a couple of minutes onstage. As Chas, Linda and Jimi make the rounds at all of the local clubs, Jimi is noticed by Kathy Etchingham (played by Marvel’s AGENT CARTER, Hayley Atwell, who, it should be noted, doesn’t look anything like Chas Chandler); likewise, Kathy is noticed by Linda, who becomes violently jealous when she catches the pair in bed together later that night (or, six weeks later… jagged time lapses, remember?). Linda simply picks up the guitar she had given Jimi and walks out the door as Jimi implores, “No, Linda, no. Not the guitar.” Kathy is elevated past groupie status to girlfriend, as she and Jimi are virtually inseparable; Linda realizes that her jealousy was misplaced (she and Jimi, though very good friends, were never anything more) and returns the guitar (actually, a pawn ticket for the guitar) and all seems right in the world of Jimi Hendrix.

JIMI: ALL IS BY MY SIDE (Tom Dunlea, Andre Benjamin and Oliver Bennett) (photo credit: PATRICK REDMOND)

JIMI: ALL IS BY MY SIDE (Tom Dunlea, Andre Benjamin and Oliver Bennett) (photo credit: PATRICK REDMOND)

As Hendrix and Chandler marched inextricably toward a return to the States and the legendary performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, there were, of course, several memorable events – all well documented – in those final months in London. Jimi needed a band; Jimi wanted a power trio like his idol, Eric Clapton, had with Cream. The auditions to find the perfect bass player and drummer, complimentary and exemplary players who could do what Jimi’s music and style demanded of them, were on. Noel Redding was tapped for the bassist position as much for his hair (“I like your hair, man. It’s wild, like Bob Dylan’s.”) and his vast musical knowledge as for his playing. In fact, Redding, a guitarist by trade, knew nothing about playing bass. When he asks how much the gig payed, Jimi tells him that everybody was broke, but that was cool: “Might as well hang out with us and be broke… and cool. It’s better than being just broke.” Feeling himself well on the way to being a rock star, Jimi calls his father, in Seattle to tell him the good news; his father is not impressed and, once more sensing that feeling of abandonment from his father, Jimi becomes moody and combative with those around him, who are only looking out for his best interests. Fulfilling a promise, Chandler takes Hendrix to see Cream at the Regent Street Polytechnic on October 1, 1966. Chas tells him that Clapton will meet him before the show; Jimi has him ask if he can sit in. This is one of the most famous first meetings in rock history; Hendrix plugs into Jack Bruce’s bass amp and asks the group if they know “Killing Floor,” starting the song cold, leaving Clapton, Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker to catch up. Bruce and Baker find the groove, but Clapton walks off stage without playing a note. Backstage, Eric asks Chandler, “Is he really that good?” Still searching for the third member of what was now to be known as the “Jimi Hendrix Experience,” Hendrix, Redding and Chanadler are debating the merits of the two finalists for the position. John “Mitch” Mitchell wins a hard fought battle over Aynsley Dunbar via a coin flip. Suddenly, we’re back to the beginning, with the band getting ready to take the stage at the Saville on June 4, 1967. With George Harrison and Paul McCartney in attendance, the Jimi Hendrix Experience would open the show with the just-released Beatles track, “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” a gutsy move, but one that works. As he plugs in, Jimi turns to the crowd and, pointing to his ears, says, “Watch out for your ears.” The only thing that didn’t work for me in this scene was the guitar Hendrix was playing. I’ve seen film and photographs of the show and he was playing that white Gibson, not the painted flying V shown in the movie. A little artistic license, I suppose, wanting to show off another one of the man’s iconic guitars.

JIMI: ALL IS BY MY SIDE (Imogen Poots; Andre Benjamin; Ruth Negga) (photo credits: PATRICK REDMOND)

JIMI: ALL IS BY MY SIDE (Imogen Poots; Andre Benjamin; Ruth Negga) (photo credits: PATRICK REDMOND)

I usually don’t go into such detail when reviewing a film but, as I said, much of this is canon as far as Jimi Hendrix is concerned. But… what about the movie itself? Andre Benjamin catches the essence of the young guitarist perfectly (except, as I mentioned, the hands), capturing especially well the phrasing and nuanced vocal patterns of the soft spoken Hendrix; most of the well-known people shown (mostly in cameos) look astonishingly like the real deals, which is an instant plus. The cast is superb, from top to bottom, including Ruth Negga (the girl in the flowered dress, Raina, in Marvel’s AGENTS OF SHIELD), who has a pivotal role as Ida, a woman wanting Jimi to use his fame as a catalyst for a racial uprising (Hendrix’ response is beautifully poetic and one that should be used universally); of course, like Kathy, she, too, is a groupie looking to bed another rock star. The script doesn’t pull any punches with the portrayals of Jimi and all of the others (Clapton, in particular) and, really, that’s all you can ask of a docudrama like JIMI: ALL IS BY MY SIDE. The film is rated R, primarily for language and the limited portrayal of drug use but, aside from that, this is a film that every music lover (well… except for those close-minded few that I discussed at the front of this thing) should see and will enjoy. Even without those classic Hendrix tunes.


PROCOL HARUM: THE GHOSTS OF A WHITER SHADE OF PALE

(Henry Scott-Irvine; OMNIBUS PRESS; 308 pages; 2012)

hsi-tome-hi-res1

For some odd reason, I never owned a Procol Harum album until I picked up a Canadian reissue of LIVE IN CONCERT WITH THE EDMONTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA sometime in the early 1980s. Don’t get me wrong… I had long been a fan of the band, having been introduced to “Conquistador” first, probably on AM radio and probably the version from the ESO show. A year or so later (September, 1973), they appeared as “hosts” on an episode of THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, performing “Conquistador,” “A Salty Dog,” “Grand Hotel” and, of course, “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” Anyway, I digress.

The Paramounts, circa 1966 (Gary Brooker, Dix Derrick, Phil Wainman with glasses, Dix Derrick, Robin Trower) (publicity photo)

The Paramounts, circa 1966 (Gary Brooker, Dix Derrick, Phil Wainman with glasses, Dix Derrick, Robin Trower) (publicity photo)

Scott-Irvine’s comprehensive view of the Procol Harum story begins where all good stories should begin… at the beginning. The author has shown enough foresight to quickly move past the whole “Gary Brooker (or Keith Reid, or BJ Wilson, or Robin Trower) was born in a small log cabin… ” kind of stuff and get right to the lads’ first dalliance with the demon, Rock and Roll. That dalliance occurred for Trower, Brooker and Wilson, who would become integral parts in the history of Procol Harum, in their hometown of Southend-On-Sea, as the Paramounts. As Gary Brooker became more serious about the business of making music, he began writing tunes and, as the tunes were in need of lyrics, he went in search of someone who could add their words to his music; he was eventually introduced to and paired with lyricist Keith Reid, forming one of the best-known and most potent songwriting teams of the late ’60s and early ’70s. In 1966, Gary and Keith, with the aid of influential music industry insider Guy Stevens, began working and demoing material as Procol Harum. After several stabs at the perfect sound and a committed group of musicians, Deram Records released the group’s first single in May, 1967. And, what a single it was! The group that recorded “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was Brooker (vocals and piano), Matthew Fisher (organ), Dave Knights (bass), Ray Royer (guitar) and Bill Eyden (drums); before the recording sessions were even over, Eyden had been replaced by Bobby Harrison (Harrison was told that the drum track he recorded would be used for the release and didn’t know otherwise until he heard the tune on the radio). Before the band started work on their second single, Harrison and Royer were replaced by ex-Paramounts, BJ Wilson and Robin Trower. This version of the band was to be the most fertile and best-remembered, though the line-up was in a seemingly continual state of flux.

Procol Harum, 1967 (Gary Brooker, Dave Knights, Bobby Harrison, Ray Royer and Matthew Fisher) publicity photo)

Procol Harum, 1967 (Gary Brooker, Dave Knights, Bobby Harrison, Ray Royer and Matthew Fisher) publicity photo)

The author painstakingly documents each and every coming and going (and the occasional coming again) of every musician who ever appeared on stage or on a recording (released or not) as a member of Procol Harum. He also reviews each album and single, noting the differences in the UK and US versions (as well as releases from other countries), giving insight into what was happening within the band, with the producers and the record companies and the global reception of each release. Through extensive interviews with the primary members of the group (Brooker, Reid, Trower and Fisher), as well as other musicians who did time in the band and others within their circle (friends, family members, journalists, former producers and managers), Scott-Irvine is able to piece together a very compelling narrative of the ups and downs of a bunch of guys who just wanted to play music that people would enjoy listening and dancing to. Here in the States, those “ups” were limited to the singles, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” and “Conquistador,” the albums A SALTY DOG and LIVE IN CONCERT WITH THE EDMONTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA and a string of concert successes through about 1976 or so; the “downs” were, well, just about everything else. On a more personal level, which many of us here weren’t privy to, the “downs” included Wilson’s increasingly erratic behavior due to alcohol and drug use, a mismanagement of funds (usually involving paying off former members and managers) and, eventually, a court case in which Matthew Fisher sued Brooker and Reid for a co-writing credit on “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”

Procol Harum, circa 1967 (Gary Brooker, Dave Knights, Robin Trower, BJ Wilson, Matthew Fisher) (uncredited photo)

Procol Harum, circa 1967 (Gary Brooker, Dave Knights, Robin Trower, BJ Wilson, Matthew Fisher) (uncredited photo)

Scott-Irvine also delves into the solo and other work of the various players, focusing particular attention on Fisher and Brooker; oddly enough, I thoroughly enjoyed all of Brooker’s solo albums even though, as I mentioned, I didn’t own a single Procol record until the early ’80s. The various reincarnated versions of Procol Harum are discussed at length and we read in greater detail than was originally offered regarding the horrendous head injury Gary Brooker suffered on May 29, 2012 (his 67th birthday) and just how close we came to losing a true musical legend to a fluke accident. The book itself is a solid read from front to back, meticulously researched and annotated, with several appendices (including the appeals ruling of the House of Lords regarding the authorship of “A Whiter Shade of Pale”) and a comprehensive discography of Procol, Brooker, Wilson and Trower.

Author Henry Scott-Irvine (uncredited photo)

Author Henry Scott-Irvine (uncredited photo)

In short, THE GHOST OF A WHITER SHADE OF PALE should be in the library of every lover of ’60s and ’70s progressive rock music. Just don’t expect an answer to the one question that everybody is still asking some 47 years later: “Exactly what do the lyrics of ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ mean?” Even Gary and Keith, who both take halfhearted stabs at explaining them within the pages, can’t answer convincingly. But… maybe that’s part of what makes the song so great.


GEORGE CLINTON AND THE COSMIC ODYSSEY OF THE P-FUNK EMPIRE

(Kris Needs; 352 pages; OMNIBUS PRESS; 2014)

George Clinton book cover

This comprehensive history of George Clinton’s life and career is the ultimate peak inside the ups, downs and around the corners of shady dealings, larger than life mayhem and the unconquerable spirit of the Funk. Written by P-Fan turned P-Friend, Kris Needs, the book covers George’s early life in 1940s North Carolina through the 1997 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with an epilogue that briefly updates things through January 2014. Along the way, we get a glimpse of the driven musical genius of Doctor Funkenstein and the raft of musicians (and, occasionally, their families) who have been a part – no matter how ancillary – of the Parliament-Funkadelic circus. Needs began covering the band(s) for his own Zigzag magazine, reviewing the albums alongside the rock and punk music then holding sway in the United Kingdom (particularly London), eventually interviewing everyone from Clinton himself to Jerome “Bigfoot” Brailey and William “Bootsy” Collins to legendary guitarists Eddie Hazel and Garry Shider and future Talking Heads keyboard player Bernie Worrell. While it is abundantly clear that Needs is as huge a fan as you’re ever going to come across, he basically lets the hours and hours of interviews with the various involved parties drive the narrative. In other words, he doesn’t sugarcoat much of anything, making GEORGE CLINTON AND THE COSMIC ODYSSEY OF THE P-FUNK EMPIRE a definitive read on the subject.

The Parliaments, 1966 ("Sugar" Ray Harris, Calvin Simon, Clarence "Fuzzy" Haskins, Grady Thomas, George Clinton) (publicity photo)

The Parliaments, 1966 (“Sugar” Ray Harris, Calvin Simon, Clarence “Fuzzy” Haskins, Grady Thomas, George Clinton) (publicity photo)

A young George relocated to Newark, New Jersey with his family, where he met the proto-girl-group, the Shirelles; He likewise became enamored with the acapella street corner performers and a new musical style called doo-wop. It was also in Newark that he began frequenting the cultural epicenter of the black community, the neighborhood barber shop, where he would hone the skills that have served to make him one of the most successful businessmen of his time and, of course, a musical icon. Hanging out at the barber shop, George learned to cut and style hair and run a business. He also began singing and harmonizing with other like-minded shop patrons; from there, George and his friends formed the nucleus of the P-Funk empire, the Parliaments. Needs goes into great detail as he examines the intricacies of 1950s black culture, the phenomena of doo-wop and the histories of several acts that had a great influence on the development of the young boy who would become, not just “George Clinton,” but GEORGE CLINTON. The author also introduces and details the lives of each individual member of the Parliaments, following their trajectories toward becoming part of, first, Funkadelic and, then, Parliament.

Guitar wunderkind Eddie Hazel, circa 1977 (MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES)

Guitar wunderkind Eddie Hazel, circa 1977 (MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES)

The group, through the barber shop, found Billy Nelson, incendiary guitarist Eddie Hazel and others, all recruited to the cause. That cause, at first, was to become rich and famous and to get as many girls as possible; eventually, with George managing affairs, the cause became “make George rich and famous so he can get as many girls as possible” but… none of the others seemed to care at that point. The book follows the original group through a growing period, a bitter disappointment and an eventual “meteoric” rise to the top of the R and B and rock heaps. Along the way, the group adds and subtracts members as some become disillusioned with George’s business dealings. Again, Needs examines the lives of the numerous vocalists and musicians who passed through the group, giving each their moment to shine (a good number of them posthumously).

Funkadelic, circa mid-1970s (publicity photo)

Funkadelic, circa mid-1970s (publicity photo)

Surroundings, historical and musical events are detailed, as well, giving the reader perspective on George and the group’s actions at any given time. The move to Detroit, discovery of a psychedelic counter-culture (which was partially responsible for the group’s eschewing the matching jackets for a… uh… funkier mode of attire or – in George’s case, lack thereof) and eventual descent into drug addiction is handled matter-of-factly, as is George’s rather disreputable dealings with record labels (in an attempt to amass a stable of performers akin to Berry Gordy’s Motown Records) and the conniving double-talk that allowed him to keep all royalties and most tour profits from his fellow band members, co-writers and co-producers of the P-Funk stable. I was well aware of Clinton’s great musical acumen, but had never really considered that he could be a dictatorial genius, a la Frank Zappa (whom he admired), Don Van Vliet or Miles Davis; I always pictured him more of a free spirit, Sun Ra type of leader. One thing is certain: He knew what he wanted and knew exactly was needed to draw it out of the talented people with which he surrounded himself.

The Parliament-Funkadelic machine, late 1970s (publicity photo)

The Parliament-Funkadelic machine, late 1970s (publicity photo)

As the ’70s became the ’80s, both Parliament and Funkadelic were huge successes, as were individual members: Bootsy had become a “solo” star with his Rubber Band, the Brides of Funkenstein were dance floor monsters (so to speak) and several other former or current members of the crew were releasing albums to critical (if not public) acclaim. George had been playing major label spin the bottle for some time: Funkadelic and Bootsy were both on Warner Brothers, Parliament ended up on PolyGram after Casablanca chief, Neil Bogart, sold the label. He went one step too far when he tried to convince Capitol Records to sign him as a solo artist. From that debacle came a raft of legal problems, some of which George is still working to extricate himself from. All of these dealings and subsequent fall-out are handled like everything else in the book: Straight-forward, with very little sugarcoating.

George Clinton exits the Mothership, circa 1978 (uncredited photo)

George Clinton exits the Mothership, circa 1978 (uncredited photo)

As the story moves forward, into the hip hop era (late ’70s and after), George’s light begins to shine a little bit brighter once more, as rappers begin to sample the music of P-Funk. George Clinton, who had fallen from grace as an entrepreneur was still a well-respected producer and artist. It’s hard not to like a guy like George and, after more than five decades in the business, root for his success. It’s hard not to feel a touch of remorse for those musicians and friends that George left by the wayside on his march toward becoming the dominant force in Funk Music. Some of them have been left bitter by their experiences with Clinton and some, quite simply, not here anymore. Kris Needs makes sure that each and every person who ever entered the Mothership’s galactic sphere are remembered and, where he could, he offers updates on them all.

George Clinton, circa 2012 (photo credit: WILLIAM THOREN)

George Clinton, circa 2012 (photo credit: WILLIAM THOREN)

As much as GEORGE CLINTON AND THE COSMIC ODYSSEY OF THE P-FUNK EMPIRE is a biography, it also stands as a cautionary tale of how not to succeed in the music business. It has some bumps and editorial rough spots, but the book is thoroughly enjoyable. As an added bonus, there are 24 pages of black and white and color photos (some rare) of every stage of George’s life and the group’s career. The book is available at Amazon (in hardcover and Kindle versions), Barnes and Noble (in paperback and Nook versions) and the publisher’s web-site, www.omnibuspress.com.


IT’S (STILL) A MAN”S WORLD: THE EVELYN MCDONNELL INTERVIEW

Part 1: RANDOM MUSINGS

Rock and roll was, is and probably always will be a man’s game. True, there have been a few ladies who were able to transcend that mystical barrier… at least, from a fan’s perspective. But, ask them about the business end or ask them about how they are generally treated in the media. There, the stories are much different. Marketing strategies usually accentuate the sexual aspects of a woman who rocks over how well she plays her instrument, sings or writes music. And, the music press, of course, goes along for the ride with photo shoots that dwell on the physical appearance – the female form – of their latest cover girl. If an instrument (usually a guitar, for – no doubt – its phallic properties) is on display in the photo, it’s used as a sexual device. So, how do we change this thinking? That’s the underlying question posed in the work of Evelyn McDonnell, a journalist, an educator, and… a woman. She has been exploring the subject for close to 30 years, while schooling a few people along the way about some of the trend-setting, door-opening heroines who made it just a little cooler for a lady to rock. One such group of teenage girls wanted to rock and, while suffering unimaginable degradation (everyone from their manager to their record label to the music press held these five young ladies in the lowest regard, treating them as – at the very worst – a group of over-sexed nymphomaniacs or – at the very least – a novelty act), managed to not only open the door, but kick the door down with their platform boots.

The Runaways, 1976, debut album gatefold (Joan Jett, Lita Ford, Cherie Currie, Jackie Fox, Sandy West) (photo credit: TOM GOLD)

The Runaways, 1976, debut album gatefold (Joan Jett, Lita Ford, Cherie Currie, Jackie Fox, Sandy West) (photo credit: TOM GOLD)

That group of young girls was the Runaways, who have recently been the subject of a major (though tragically skewed) biographical movie, based on the memoirs of lead singer Cherie Currie. Ms McDonnell’s latest book (QUEENS OF NOISE: THE REAL STORY OF THE RUNAWAYS, published by DeCapo Books) takes a more balanced look at the Runaways, from the first meeting between drummer Sandy West and guitarist Joan Jett through the ugly splits with, first, bassist Jackie Fox, then, Currie. It really is sad to say that many of the stories and legends about West, Fox, Currie, Jett, lead guitarist Lita Ford and those who came before and after are true. Their manager/guru, Kim Fowley, treated them like product… a means to an end. The end, of course, for Fowley was huge amounts of money. The fact that he didn’t get filthy rich off of his “gimmick” was, in my opinion, a case of his own hubris, putting too much stock in his creation and then turning the reins over to men even more unscrupulous than he. His (and his minions) handling of the young ladies who were Runaways (including, during the band’s infancy, future Bangles bassist Michael Steele) left mental and physical wounds that may never heal. Sandy West died, still trying to recapture what made the Runaways a great band; Jackie Fox has just, very recently, started opening up about her time in the band. McDonnell’s no-holds-barred account is a must read for all lovers of rock ‘n’ roll music, but also serves as a cautionary tale for anyone – male or female – looking to be the next big thing.

Part 2: THE INTERVIEW

Queens of Noise cover

THE MULE: Evelyn, thank you so much for taking the time to answer a few questions about your latest book, QUEENS OF NOISE: THE REAL STORY OF THE RUNAWAYS. Before we jump into that, could you give us a brief overview of your careers, as a journalist and as an assistant professor of journalism?
EVELYN: I’ve been a writer or editor for daily newspapers, magazines, trade publications, alternative weeklies, and websites for almost 30 years. I’ve primarily done cultural journalism, specializing in music and women’s issues. I’ve won several awards, including an Annenberg fellowship, which led me to get my Master’s at USC. After that, I began teaching at LMU, where I have been ever since.

 

Evelyn McDonnell (uncredited photo)

Evelyn McDonnell (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: QUEENS OF NOISE started as a treatise on drummer Sandy West, right?
EVELYN: Yes.
THE MULE: How did you become interested in Sandy and what prompted the change to writing a book about the entire band?
EVELYN: You answer this in the next question, really. First, I always have a thing for drummers, probably because I wanted a drum set when I was a little girl, and unlike Sandy, I did not make my parents give me one. Second, I, too, was deeply moved by Sandy’s responses in EDGEPLAY. My advisor at USC, Tim Page, had also seen the movie and had the same response. In talking about the Runaways and EDGEPLAY, we both agreed that for the thesis, I should focus on Sandy. We wanted to know more about her story. To this day I remain entranced by her.

 

Sandy West doing what she loved... playing live (uncredited photo)

Sandy West doing what she loved… playing live (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: I was brought to tears watching Sandy’s segments in EDGEPLAY. The sense of desperation and of a deeply lost soul struggling for just one more chance. Did you have the chance to interview her and spend time with her before her death? Had her outlook and mental state changed by that time?
EVELYN: Sadly, I never met Sandy. I really hadn’t thought about writing any of this until I was suddenly moving to LA, and she passed several years beforehand. I think we would have been good friends. Even now I have a crush on her.

 

The Runaways, circa 1975 (Micki Steele, Sandy West, Joan Jett) (photo credit: GETTY IMAGES)

The Runaways, circa 1975 (Micki Steele, Sandy West, Joan Jett) (photo credit: GETTY IMAGES)

THE MULE: When I was listening to QUEENS OF NOISE in 1977, it seemed – from the outside – that Cherie Currie was rather like the whipping post for, not only Kim Fowley, but also Joan Jett and Lita Ford. Before Cherie joined the band, it seemed as though songwriter Kari Krome took the brunt of the abuse. Reading your book, it seems that maybe a lot of the anger and vitriol aimed at her, at least from her band mates, may have been a reaction against Kim’s take-no-prisoners pattern of verbal abuse toward anyone associated with the Runaways. Am I misreading this or did you get the same feeling as you interviewed these women?
EVELYN: Actually I think you were very perceptive; you must have followed the band closely! I think Kim picked his victims, first Micki, then Kari, then Cherie. Sadly, I’m afraid that some of the members of the band fell for his power dynamics and sometimes even played along. But I also think that Cherie was very difficult. I don’t think Kim was wrong in accusing her of having a huge ego. She and Joan got along. It was mostly Lita Cherie fought with, and Kim.

 

The Runaways, circa 1977 (Joan Jett, Cherie Currie, Jackie Fox, Lita Ford, Sandy West) (photo credit: CLAUDE VAN HEY/LONDON FEATURES)

The Runaways, circa 1977 (Joan Jett, Cherie Currie, Jackie Fox, Lita Ford, Sandy West) (photo credit: CLAUDE VAN HEY/LONDON FEATURES)

THE MULE: I enjoyed Cherie’s biography, NEON ANGEL, and was entertained by the movie, THE RUNAWAYS, but these gave a very skewed perspective on the story of one of the most influential bands to come out of the LA rock scene. Your book allows every member of that group to have their input into what has become a very muddled history. I was particularly interested in Jackie Fox’s perspective. I’d always read that she was somewhat a whiner when she was a part of the band and, after she left, that she absolutely refused to discuss the band or her part in it with anybody. So, I guess to get this thing moving, was that mostly a mythology concocted by the band and their management or is it that Jackie has softened on her stance? Is there a sense that had THE RUNAWAYS happened now, instead of four years ago, she would have somehow been involved in that and given her okay for the producers to use her name in the movie?
EVELYN: Thanks for understanding what I was trying to accomplish with this book. Jackie was the most accommodating member of the band, though she took some convincing. She is quite willing to talk about her experiences, and in fact has in the past written blogs about them. She did change her mind about cooperating with the movie, but too late. However, I think she was very different from the other girls: book-smart, an overachiever, feminine, neurotic. She really didn’t fit in, and she was simply too smart – and not interested in partying enough – to enjoy a lot of what went on. There are members of the Runaways – okay, mostly Joan – who really do not trust her, or like her. They have their reasons; I want to be very careful not to take sides in these fights. But I was very happy to be able to present Jackie’s point of view. I hope we haven’t heard the last of her!

THE MULE: The band’s albums were right in my musical wheelhouse, so to speak. In fact, both Joan and Lita are less than two weeks younger than me. Of course, when that first album came out, I was drawn to the picture of Cherie on the cover, but when I got home and put the record on the turntable (boys and girls, I’ll give you a chance to Google those words… okay, so we’re back), it was quite obvious that this was something pretty special. It was – to say the least – very strange for a bunch of teenage girls to be playing rock and roll like this. Even though I never looked at it as anything other than talented musicians playing music that I liked, there was a stigma placed on the Runaways. Now, nearly 40 years later, there are women who owe their careers to these ladies. Even so, do you still get the impression that – particularly among knuckleheaded journalists like me – women who rock are still looked down upon as almost a novelty act? I’m continually hearing things like, “She plays pretty good for a girl.” How do we get past that kind of gender bias?
EVELYN: Okay, you made me LOL. But think about it: Where are the girl bands today? Beyonce plays with one, bless her. And there are a bunch bubbling up from underground, inspired by Pussy Riot and THE PUNK SINGER and, yes, the Runaways: Pottymouth, Cherry Glazerr, Girlpool, Girl in a Coma, etc. But they are still marginalized and treated as “cute,” by and large. The Girls Rock Camps of the world are training a new musical army. YouTube and the Internet allow artists to circumvent the old gatekeepers. But new media outlets like PITCHFORK largely replicate the boys club of the old media. We still need more female, and feminist, media voices.

 

The Runaways, 1976 (Lita Ford, Joan Jett, Jackie Fox, Sandy West, Cherie Currie) (photo credit: TOM GOLD)

The Runaways, 1976 (Lita Ford, Joan Jett, Jackie Fox, Sandy West, Cherie Currie) (photo credit: TOM GOLD)

THE MULE: That bias was rampant from a journalistic standpoint. I remember the first thing I ever read about the Runaways was in CRAWDADDY (probably the only time I actually bought an issue). The sometime irreverent magazine seemed to go even farther in turning these teenage girls into something that was closer to strippers and nymphomaniacs than serious musicians. I recall, in particular, the writer spending a fair amount of column space discussing Cherie’s problems with a silver jumpsuit; the article went into great detail (with quotes) letting the male rock listening majority know that since Cherie didn’t wear underwear, she was suffering from a rash that required her to place a piece of paper between her skin and the crotch of her jumpsuit. I’m not sure that anyone – before or since – was ever subjected to that kind of “journalism,” yet the underlying sense that rock ‘n’ roll is still very much a “boys game” persists. Do you think that the day will ever come that such thinking is completely left behind?
EVELYN: Wow, I never saw that CRAWDADDY piece. My first book, ROCK SHE WROTE, co-edited with Ann Powers, was all about storming the boys club of criticism; it came out almost 20 years ago. But even though I had studied the terrain well, I was not prepared for just how chauvinist some of the coverage of the Runaways was. The Wilson sisters talk about this in their memoir, too, how loutishly the media treated Heart. Meanwhile, the publishing industry just paid some guy 7 figures (!!!!!!) to write a hagiography — er, biography — of Jann Wenner. Makes me want to puke.

 

The Runaways, 1978 (Vicki Blue, Joan Jett, Sandy West, Lita Ford) (photo credit: BARRY LEVINE)

The Runaways, 1978 (Vicki Blue, Joan Jett, Sandy West, Lita Ford) (photo credit: BARRY LEVINE)

THE MULE: Though Lita and Cherie seem to be on board with a Runaways reunion, Joan has said publicly that doesn’t see what a reunion would accomplish. Do you feel that we will ever see anything close to an official reunion?
EVELYN: I doubt it. The water under that bridge just won’t calm down.

THE MULE: What’s next for you? As an old rock ‘n’ roller from the ’70s, I would be interested in a book about another “all girl” band, Fanny. Would you be interested in exploring something like that?
EVELYN: I’m not sure yet. I have one project along those lines I’m considering. But a part of me wants to, er, run away from all things rock ‘n’ roll related. It’s a ghetto, especially for a woman. Maybe it’s time to move on.

THE MULE: Thanks for your time, Evelyn, and for giving the Runaways story the respect it deserves.
EVELYN: Thank you for your careful reading and thoughtful questions.


THE SINGULAR MARK TWAIN: A BIOGRAPHY; MAKEUP TO BREAKUP: MY LIFE IN AND OUT OF KISS

(Fred Kaplan; 655 pages; DOUBLEDAY, 2003); (Peter Criss and Larry Sloman; 384 pages; SCRIBNER, 2012)

TWAIN CRISS COVERS

 

One may ask (and rightly so), why are two such disparate (auto)biographies lumped together in one review? Well…

Short answer: These are actually the last two non-fiction books that I have read. Essay answer: I feel that, no matter how intriguing your subject matter (in Criss’ case, himself), at some point in the writing process, you’ve just gotta say, “Enough is enough!” In both instances, the story would have been much more enjoyable (and manageable) with… less! I mean, do you really care that on Clemens/Twain’s 63rd birthday, he was blessed with a healthy bowel movement? Yeah… okay… I’m exaggerating, but not by much. In the case of MAKEUP TO BREAKUP, a shaving (or, at the very least, a condensing) of a chapter or two wouldn’t have hurt. As far as Kaplan’s… uh… exhaustive (exhausting?) biography of Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain, shaving a couple hundred pages of minutia certainly would have made MY reading experience more enjoyable! His “no-stone-unturned” approach, while commendable, is fairly daunting. I mean, c’mon… in these hard economic times, everybody’s cutting back. Why not here?

Does that mean that I hated these books? No. Not really. At least, not completely. However, considering that I generally can read a couple of fair sized books in a week, the fact that it took over two MONTHS to complete THE SINGULAR MARK TWAIN, certainly doesn’t appear that it will be on my list of favorites or list of “re-reads.” Mister Kaplan’s thorough examination of perhaps the first true rock star of American literature comes off as dry and just a little foreboding to the ordinary reader. Once you get past the 655 pages of minutia, there’s still another 70 pages of notes and an index to further dissect the information (if more you must have)! I have only found one book impossible to get through, even though I’ve tried on several occasions, but this one sorely tried my patience. I would be lying, however, if I told you that I didn’t learn anything about the irascible humorist. His early allegiance to the South during the Civil War and his beliefs regarding slavery, while well-known, nonetheless came as a surprise as to the depths of both. The support Clemens offered his older brother, Orion, and the loathing that he harbored toward that same brother as a result was also unknown to me. There is an indication that he felt the same way about the rest of his family, as well, including his much-loved mother. As much as he doted on his wife, Livy, and their three daughters, he also spent much of his time away from them, not caring to be bothered by the intricacies of a family life.

Mark Twain and family in Hartford (The Mark Twain House & Museum-AP)

Mark Twain and family in Hartford (The Mark Twain House & Museum-AP)

The struggles of the man Samuel Clemens to rectify his life and short-comings with the mythical Mark Twain and his celebrity are, as they say, the stuff of legend. But even a legendary life can surely be summarized in a more concise, entertaining form than is offered in Fred Kaplan’s THE SINGULAR MARK TWAIN. Mister Kaplan is also the author of biographies on Thomas Carlyle and Charles Dickens, among others. I mention those two because I was very interested in seeking them out, but after sinking chest deep into the morass of this book, I think I’ll look for other options regarding the life of those two.

Mark Twain (uncredited photo) Peter Criss (Bryan Bedder-Getty Images)

Mark Twain (uncredited photo); Peter Criss (Bryan Bedder-Getty Images)

I think that, like many others, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Peter Criss. At the height of KISS’ career, he seemed to be the most together guy in the band. When he fell from grace, I tended to give him the benefit of the doubt. After reading his tell-all autobiography, MAKEUP TO BREAKUP, I still feel for the Cat. Not because he was wronged by band mates Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, but because he was wrong in many instances himself and refuses to take responsibility. His cavalier attitude toward his sexual conquests collide head-on with his derision of Simmons’ and guitarist Ace Frehley’s sexual proclivities. He complains about Gene and Paul being all about the money, but he doesn’t see the hypocrisy of his abandoning his band, Criss, for the high-profile, high-profit KISS reunion tour in 1996 and quitting the band again – and turning his back on his one true friend in the group, Ace – when he discovered that Frehley was making more than he was per show. He attacks both current drummer Eric Singer and guitarist Tommy Thayer for wearing the Cat and Space-Ace make-up when both he and Frehley signed their rights to the make-up over to the KISS corporate body (in other words, Gene and Paul) for a few thousand dollars. He spends paragraphs discussing how betrayed he felt by his second wife when he discovered that she was having an affair, but shows little or no remorse for the fact that he was having sex with two or three women every night on the road; to say that’s expected because he’s in a rock band just doesn’t cut it! My point is, we all make mistakes; it’s what we learn from our mistakes that matter. Unfortunately, for Peter Criss, all he’s learned is avoidance of guilt and buck-passing.

Peter Criss (publicity photo)

Peter Criss (publicity photo)

 

Now, like the Clemens/Twain book, there are some enjoyable – even uplifting – moments (actually, more here than there). In particular, Criss’ wife Gigi’s fight with breast cancer and the ultimate revelation that he, too, had breast cancer was a wake-up call to everyone, males included, to do a regular self-examination. There are also some moments that could have been condensed (or cut completely!). Just about every person who reads this book is a KISS fan; they wanna know about Peter’s time in what was once the biggest band on the planet. As such, the first three chapters or so of the book (BK: Before KISS) could be cut down to one shorter, introductory chapter. The constant and continual references to dicks, titties, pussy and sexual gratification in its many forms get tiresome unless you’re a ten year old boy. Okay, Peter… we get it! You were a big rock star! The overwrought bashing of just about everyone who has ever been in Peter’s life tends to make this more of a “oh-woe-is-me” book as opposed to a tell-all. Manager Bill Aucoin and Casablanca Records owner Neil Bogart went above and beyond, financing the band and molding them into the juggernaut they became after the release of ALIVE in 1975, but one perceived slight from Peter Criss and they were finished in his mind. He never trusted them again and they became cannon-fodder in MAKEUP TO BREAKUP.

I have very fond memories of KISS and Peter Criss from their heyday in the ’70s. His raspy, Rod Stewart-like vocals were always a welcome surprise and his drum solo during “100,000 Years” on ALIVE is testament to his talents (and to his adoration of drum legend Gene Krupa). This book, though, leaves a rather bitter taste in my mouth. (DT)


NECESSITY IS (THE EARLY YEARS OF FRANK ZAPPA AND THE MOTHERS OF INVENTION)

(Billy James; 223 pages; SAF Publishing; 2001, Revised 2005) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS

NECESSITY IS COVER

Pieced together from various interviews with early band-mates conducted and compiled by the author, NECESSITY IS delves into the psyche of one of the true musical geniuses of the past half-century (maybe the only one, in fact): Frank Vincent Zappa. Mister James (a musician himself, who has worked with many of the Mothers quoted) is obviously a fan, and that’s alright. Really, unless an author wishes simply to vilify another person (or organization), why would he write about someone he wasn’t a fan of? It’s obvious, as well, that most of the gentlemen interviewed were/are fans of Frank and remained in contact with him until his death in 1993. That doesn’t mean that every quote or remembrance is pleasant. As is the case with many struggling bands (especially one with a dominant figure like Zappa), disagreements – and downright vicious fights – arose. The early Mothers (1964-1971) was a revolving door of jazz, rock, and avant-garde musicians, all struggling to be heard over (through?) the mayhem orchestrated by composer/arranger/guitarist Zappa.

The Mothers of Invention

The Mothers of Invention

Zappa was known as a task-master and this book confirms that estimation. Many of the quotes from original drummer Jimmy Carl Black, keyboardist/electronics genius Don Preston, multi-instrumentalist Bunk Gardner, and others relay (sometimes humorously) the love/hate relationship between the band and Zappa. Indeed, as Frank’s dominance and creative genius materialized, the original core group – the band who recorded the first album, FREAK OUT (1966) – of drummer Jimmy Carl Black, bassist Roy Estrada, vocalist Ray Collins, and guitarist Elliot Ingber were either forced to take a back seat to more “advanced” musicians (those who could read music, like Gardner, Preston and Ian Underwood) or asked to leave the group. In the case of Ingber, the first to be ousted from the band, a predilection for drugs was his downfall (highlighting Zappa’s strong anti-drug stance and no nonsense approach to his leadership role, Ray Collins remembers, “…He maybe smoked a little bit too much.” in regards to Ingber’s “drug abuse” and subsequent dismissal from the band). Ingber famously became a member of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, as Winged Eel Fingerling. Ray Collins seemed to wander in and out of the group, as he and Zappa butted heads or he would become disillusioned by the direction Frank was taking the band. Another problem, apparently, was money. Zappa had the group on a rigorous rehearsal schedule – several hours a day, seven days a week, holidays included – for which there was no pay. Frank and manager Herb Cohen had a habit of funneling money from paying gigs back into the organization, promising an eventual big payday for the band.

All of this information, including background and history on the individual Mothers, comes in the first chapter of the book. Rather than rewrite the book here and now, I’ll leave you to imagine, from the above capsule, the breadth and scope of NECESSITY IS as Billy James takes you through the late ’60s, the infighting and insanity of the original group, the later versions of the band with Aynsley Dunbar, Mark Vohlman and Howard Kaylan, the frightening and life-changing on-stage attack by a fan in London that crushed Zappa’s larynx and left him in a cast for a year, and, inevitably to the dissolution of the Mothers in 1971. James also goes into extensive detail regarding the lives of the principal figures after “Motherhood.” Late in the book, there is an extensive section quoting an interview with Zappa that supplies his side of the Mothers’ story, which does soften and enlighten the reader’s previous views of the dictatorial band leader. As is true in any disagreement between two (or several) people, you can probably temper both sides a bit, meet somewhere in the middle and come up with your own ideas about what really happened.

Mother Frank

Mother Frank

Mister James, while not an absolute master wordsmith, has produced a highly enjoyable and easily read book, covering the early history of one of the most infamous and influential bands of the rock era. With an extensive “Where Are They Now?” section, an exhaustive discography of everyone who was a part of the Mothers (including design artist Cal Schenkel) during the period covered in the book, a tour history through 1972, and a well-documented list of source materials, James has given us a history of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention that should be read (and owned) by every music lover on the planet. (DT)