Sunday, January 15, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Beatles and the Historians

There have been so many books written about the Beatles from almost every angle that there are almost too many to count. This is why I'm usually a little skeptical when I'm about to read a new Beatles many of them cover the same tired ground and usually offer nothing new other than more repetitions of fallacies and innuendo, oftentimes wrapped up in the author's personal bias. However, when I was asked to review the new book The Beatles and the Historians, it seemed different enough that it piqued my interest. Once I received the book, a quick glance at the back cover told me this wasn't a typical Beatles book at all; its angle was to look at not only what has been written about the Beatles, but how it's been written. With that tantalizing bit of information it seemed unique enough that it wouldn't be like any other Beatles book I've read and a few pages in, I knew I was right.

***special thanks to Stephanie at Mcfarland for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

Author Erin Torkelson Weber is a history professor at Newman University in Kansas and in the introduction she lays out the premise of the book: she's not writing about the Beatles directly, but rather she's writing about the historiography of the Beatles. More to the point, she's examining how historians have been writing about them over the fifty-five years since they released their first single in 1962. As she stated, the book isn't the story of the Beatles, but the story of how their story has been told. Using established historical methods which she cites, her angle was to look at how the various authors of the most notable works on the Beatles have written about them and how it's shaped the narrative of Beatles history over the decades. As she rightly points out, the Beatles are unique in modern history in that they've been written about almost continually from the very beginning of their existence in the public consciousness and as such, most writings about them haven't (until recently) had the necessary historical distance in order to be fully credible and unbiased.

Weber breaks her book and the Beatles' history in four distinct narratives: 1) the official Fab Four narrative that was propagated by the band, their management, Hunter Davies' official biography, and the contemporary press, 2) the Lennon Remembers narrative based on John's blistering screed of an interview given to Rolling Stone magazine in the immediate aftermath of the band's 1970 split, 3) the Shout! narrative put forth by Philip Norman in his influential biography in the immediate aftermath of John's murder in 1980, and 4) the Lewisohn narrative that has become the prevailing orthodoxy since the late 1980s/early 1990s. By examining each of these narratives in order, not only does Weber discuss in detail the flaws and virtues of each, but she examines the evolution of how the Beatles history has been told over the previous half-century. The initial Fab Four narrative portraying them as a unified band of brothers captained by the unbreakable Lennon/McCartney partnership gave way to Lennon's complete tearing down of the myth in 1970. However, Weber shows that not everything about the Fab Four narrative was a myth, and she also shows how the unintended consequence of Lennon's attack (and Rolling Stone's knowing perpetuation of it even after Lennon disowned what he'd said years later) was to cause writers to take sides and become either "John fans" or "Paul fans." It's also shown how, in doing so, the invaluable contributions George and Ringo made to the Beatles were downplayed, neglected, and even ridiculed in the ensuing years. Later on in the 1970s and up until his death in 1980, John took back much of what he'd said in Lennon Remembers, but his sudden and senseless death froze him forever in the public mind and the resulting narrative spearheaded by Philip Norman in his influential biography Shout! served to almost canonize John. The unsuspecting victim of this was Paul McCartney, who now found his own contributions to the Beatles diminished/dismissed and his place in history reduced to little more than a conniving pretty face who annoyed everyone else in the band. Combined with the critical drubbing he received throughout the 1970s (much of which Weber shows was the result of the music press wanting to get on and stay on John and Yoko's good side in exchange for access to them), Paul has had to spend the last 30+ years trying to set the record straight and reclaiming the credit that's rightfully his. Finally, with the Lewisohn narrative, enough years have passed that, combined with his impeccable historical research methods and unbiased writing style, a new orthodoxy in Beatles historiography has taken hold and become the standard. Alongside seminal works by Mark Hertsgaard, Barry Miles & Paul McCartney, Ian MacDonald, and Peter Doggett (the last two of whom I will review in the near future), Lewisohn has shown that the Lennon/McCartney partnership was not only one of equals, but based foremost on their shared personal bond and friendship. He has also show how George and Ringo were not ancillary to the Beatles success but rather were fully involved and extremely valuable contributors to it, as well as various other myths and half-truths he's corrected.

When I began this book, I was afraid that the writing would be dry and academic given that it was a more nuanced and historical look at writings about the Beatles, and not the Beatles themselves. However, I needn't have worried as it was very engaging and interesting and easily kept my attention throughout its entirety. While I've read almost every book and article Weber cited (and she cited all of her sources), it was revealing to have them all placed into proper context and examined in a way I'd never thought about before. I was in unanimous agreement with her on the authors whose works merit respect (Lewisohn, MacDonald, Doggett, Hertsgaard, Davies) and those who don't (Jann Wenner/Rolling Stone, Goldman, Goodman, Connolly, Spitz, and to some extent Philip Norman). The person who comes off the worst, and deservedly so, is Wenner and his magazine Rolling Stone. Not only does the author cite proof that he forced critics Greil Marcus and Langdon Winner to rewrite their initially positive reviews of McCartney's first two solo albums (McCartney and RAM) to be 100% negative in order to appease Lennon and keep his favored access to John and Yoko, but in the face of numerous new facts coming to light debunking Lennon Remembers (including denunciations from John himself), Wenner continued to double down on his claims that it was a definitive and wholly accurate account. It wasn't until the early 2000s that Wenner had no choice but to admit it wasn't, but by this point in the book if one didn't already have a negative view of the man and his publication, it would beggar belief.

This isn't a book for the casual Beatles fan, but if you're a hardcore fan like me who has read just about everything there is to know about them, I encourage you to read this book. It's a completely different take on the Beatles...think of it as a book about Beatles books. The Beatles and the Historians is a fascinating examination of the history of how the most unique and influential phenomenon in 20th century popular culture, one that is as strong as ever in the 21st century, has been chronicled. For the more cerebral Beatles fan, one with an open mind and an intellectual curiosity beyond the band's well-worn story, this will be a valuable and enlightening book.


Friday, January 6, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Set the Boy Free (Johnny Marr)

Since Morrissey's autobiography came out a few years ago, most Smiths fans had been clamoring for a counterpart book from the other half of the legendary songwriting partnership behind their timeless music. Finally, in late 2016, patience was rewarded with the publication of Johnny Marr's memoir, Set the Boy Free. However, where Morrissey's book proved to be as obtuse, quirky, and cryptically dense as the man who wrote it, Marr's proved to be correspondingly the opposite. Always known for his friendly, gregarious, and conversational personality, Marr's book gave those interested the promise that he would touch on everything throughout his life and career.  On a personal note, the Smiths are one of the bands that have meant to most to me over the course of my life and Johnny Marr is one of my guitar idols; for these reasons, his was one of the books I most looked forward to reading in 2016. I'd waited months and months for its publication since first learning of it in Spring was it worth the wait? Read on to find out!

***special thanks to Kendra at Dey Street Books for sending a copy of the book for me to review!***

The first thing I thankfully noted was that Marr's book was laid out in traditional chapters unlike the non-formatted stream of consciousness that Morrissey's book was.  Beginning with his birth to Irish immigrant parents in Manchester, England on Halloween 1963, Marr (born John Maher) does an excellent and immersive job describing his life first in the two areas of Manchester he grew up in, Ardwick and later on Wythenshawe. These chapters really give the reader an idea of what it was like coming of age in 1960s and 70s Manchester. Johnny was bitten by both the music and guitar bugs at an early age and his earliest memories center on the first records he bought and the first guitar he ever played. By his account he was quite independent, even as a small child, and he was uncompromising in the path he blazed...the was someone who knew what he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it. Marr stuck to his own vision and achieved success at a very early age because of these qualities, which are rare in fully grown adults let alone teenagers. It makes this aspect of his career even more impressive. After playing with a variety of bands in Manchester during his teenage years, by the time he left school at fifteen he had met the love of his life (his wife Angie), played in several bands, and was working at two of the hippest clothing stores in Manchester (X-Clothes and Crazy Face). Spurred on by his boss and mentor Joe Moss and wanting to form a band and play the type of music he was writing without compromise, in 1982 he approached a fellow music fan and singer he had briefly met years before, Steven Morrissey. Together, they formed a songwriting partnership that would prove to be one of the most successful in UK history and after bringing in Marr's childhood friend Andy Rourke on bass guitar and finding Mike Joyce for the drum slot, the Smiths were born.

While the Smiths' history has been discussed in detail in several other excellent books (many of which I've already reviewed and linked to above), Marr's book is invaluable for the personal insight and thoughts on the band's career that he offers, as well as discussions on what his inspirations for writing many of the Smiths' greatest songs. While he shed a bit more light in the form of his perspective on the Smiths' split in 1987, it still irritates me a bit how in conjunction with other books, he and Morrissey continue to portray Rourke and Joyce as second-class members of the band. While it's true that Morrissey and Marr wrote all of the songs and ended up handling (rather ineffectively, it must be added) the management of the band, I had a difficult time reconciling Johnny's insistence that the Smiths were a "gang" and a "close-knit unit" while at the same time saying that the band was really just him and Moz. However, that's for a further discussion outside the scope of this review; on the whole, the book up to and including the Smiths' years were by far the most interesting part.

That isn't to say, however, that the rest of the book wasn't certainly was, especially when reading about Johnny's decision to take his health into his own hands later on by getting into running and fitness and his giving up alcohol and going teetotal. While the discussion of his various projects after the Smiths broke up was interesting, it did feel a lot like chapter after chapter of "I joined this band for an album and a tour and left, and then I joined this other band for an album and tour before I left them and joined another band for an album and tour..." and so on. Marr's quest to keep pushing himself as a musician has been admirable and garnered him a lot of well-deserved respect, but until he began fronting his solo band in 2013 and releasing solo albums, he's been a musical gypsy since 1987. While there's nothing wrong with this on a professional level, it did made the latter half of the book feel a bit disjointed and slightly less engaging. However, there was still a lot of interesting stuff in there, not least of which were his description of a 2008 meeting with Morrissey where they briefly (and not wholly seriously) bandied about the idea of reforming the Smiths, and a jam session he attended where he got to play with Paul McCartney. It was these anecdotes and also his thoughts on things like music, exercise, religion, and politics that saved the second half of the book from being little more than a list of projects he's worked on post-Smiths.

Overall, Set the Boy Free is an excellent, enjoyable, and informative book. Marr writes very well and is quite honest about everything he talks about. His passion and love for his music, his wife, and his kids is evident and seems nothing less than entirely genuine. Even though he's been one of my favorite guitarists for a very long time and even though I've read numerous books about the Smiths, it was always Morrissey about whom most accounts tended to focus on. While Johnny Marr is certainly not unknown, he wasn't as well known as his former songwriting partner, especially given Morrissey's proclivity for speaking (often outrageously and provocatively) to the press. With Set the Boy Free, Marr has given fans what they wanted: the story of his life and the details behind his craft, his bands, and what he thinks about it all. My one complaint would be that I wanted even more discussion on songwriting and guitar playing from Johnny, but seeing as the target audience isn't necessarily obsessive musicians/fans like myself, I'm content with what he gave us. As far as rock musicians go, Marr is highly regarded, healthy, happy, and has avoided almost all of the pitfalls that have befallen so many of his peers.  This is even more impressive when you consider that he was all of nineteen years old when the Smiths burst onto the scene. If you're a fan of the Smiths and/or any of Marr's subsequent projects, this is essential reading and as I said before, infinitely more enjoyable an experience than Morrissey's book.


Sunday, January 1, 2017

Good Riddance, 2016...Please Be Better, 2017

I don't need to tell you that 2016 was annus've almost certainly figured that out for yourself. Whether current events in the wider world both abroad and at home, or personally, this year was one of the worst that I can certainly remember over the course of my almost forty years on this planet.  

In general terms, the year was awful for all of the unrest, violence, and disagreement that permeated American society as the lead up to the presidential election in November where in essence, regardless of who won, we all lost. There seemed to be a horrific terrorist attack somewhere in the world just about every week, and some hyper-sensitivity/PC-driven "offense" taken to just about anything that inevitably led to protests and rioting. The economy continued to be terrible, everything continued to get more expensive, and paychecks continued to stay flat. It felt like every week brought another celebrity death and while I think the reaction to most of them was quite hyperbolic and over the top (be honest: how many George Michael or Prince songs do you *really* know?), it's always sad when someone dies. We did lose some titans this year, none more so than David Bowie at the very beginning of the year. A popular meme even surfaced midway through 2016 that said "I'm not saying that David Bowie was holding the fabric of the universe together, but *gestures broadly at everything*" which, with his death at the very beginning of this forgettable trip around the sun, seems to sum it up rather nicely (if not completely coincidentally).

On a personal level, while there were several high points over the course of the year, even I and my family couldn't escape the clutches of 2016's awful grasp, culminating with my getting a nasty case of pleurisy in October and then getting unexpectedly laid off from my job in mid-November. For me, losing my job was the metaphorical kick in the crotch that capped the year...everything else has just been piling on. I've been lucky to have a loving, patient (beyond belief!) wife and four amazing kids, all five of whom have supported me and reminded me every day about what's really important in life. One huge silver lining in my situation has been the bonus time I've gotten to spend at home with her and the kids, which is something I could never put a price on and something I'm quite thankful for.

In talking with the intelligent and more level-headed Mrs. Chemist, we're looking at two possibilities for 2017: it'll either continue the dismal trend that 2016 excelled at, or it will be the polar opposite. Being the optimists that we are (well, Mrs. Chemist is, though she's helped me become better at being one as well), we're banking on the latter. We're hoping for a calmer, healthier, more prosperous, and downright luckier year to come. My wish is for this to be the case for all of you out there as well...

...and so I say, good riddance to 2016 and bring on a brighter, better 2017!

Monday, December 26, 2016

Chemist In Limbo

I've written a fair amount on here about my experiences as a professional chemist. Over the past (almost) decade, my career has taken me in directions I never could have guessed back when I was in graduate school working toward my doctorate. As I briefly mentioned on here a month ago, the latest twist was one I never hoped to ever find myself experiencing: laid off. Now that the dust has settled, my head has cleared, and I'm knee deep in finding my next opportunity, I thought it would be a good time for an update. I also thought it would be A) a bit therapeutic for me to write about it, and B) a service to other professionals, scientists or otherwise, who might find themselves in a similar situation as a way to impart whatever scraps of insight I've gained from the whole thing. 

Where to start?  The day I was let go, I was in the middle of a web conference with colleagues from another one of my company's locations when my boss' boss came to my desk and asked if I had a minute. I followed him to his office, thinking it was our routine end-of-year meeting (we always have these in October/November) but as soon as I saw someone from HR sitting in there waiting for me, I knew immediately what was coming. They went through all of the details of why the company was eliminating my position, what my benefits would be, that it wasn't performance related, etc. Looking back on it, I handled it much better than I would've guessed beforehand. After a quick goodbye, I grabbed my keys, jacket, and headed home. I called my wife on the way to let her know what happened, we told our kids, and I finally sat down and exhaled. I told myself in that moment that, since it was a Thursday, I'd give myself the weekend to relax and then hit the ground running on Monday to start look for a new job. As the day went on, though, my initial feelings of handling it well gave way to an almost depression over the fact that my job, my coworkers (many of whom became friends), my daily routine, all of it was yanked away and gone in an instant. The typical thoughts started popping up...was I not good enough? They said it wasn't performance based, but maybe it was? That slowly gave way to a seething anger over the weekend...not at the company or anyone in particular, but just at the situation in general. Unfortunately, it spilled over a bit and I took a little bit of it out on my family, but I'm lucky that they were understanding enough to not take it personally.

When the first Monday in I-don't-know-how-many-years that I didn't have to go to work rolled around, I was filled with a mixture of dread and anxiety. How was I going to find a job? We've all heard that saying that "it's easier to find a job when you have a job," and any time in the past when I'd been actively looking for a new job, I'd never found one. Both times I moved on from one job to the next, the opportunities found *me* via headhunters or personal friends/contacts. Now I had no job and I had to find one on my own. It wasn't a panicky situation since, as part of my termination, I did get several months severance benefits, but the thought stayed in the back of my mind: now I have a hard deadline where I have to find a job or else.

I first had to confront the reality that where I started my career and where I found myself now posed a bit of a challenge. My PhD, postdoc, and the first four years of my career were spent as a synthetic organic chemist working on materials, but for the past six years I've been in R&D working on electroplated metal coatings. I've been a chemist working at an engineering company, and now I have to figure out how to position myself as a chemist (and not an engineer) but convince companies that are in the engineering space that they need me. Quite the challenge...

Going by the thought that it's all about who you know (and this is where I'm hoping to share a little bit of new insight) I first reached out to all of my friends and former colleagues who I know personally and asked them to let me know if there were any openings at their companies where they could help me get a foot in through the back door. I've been going the traditional route as well because let's face it, out of the thousands of applicants for these positions, it obviously has to work for someone, somewhere, right?. It's like playing the lottery, and with odds about as good, but it doesn't hurt to try, I suppose. I've been finding, however, that I get a better response when I use networking. Sometimes this entails reaching out to my friends, former colleagues, and other people I know, but a huge part of it has been finding hiring managers and contacting them directly.

At this point, I've had several phone interviews, am waiting for calls from people who have told me they're interested, and I've even had an on-site interview. This is a tough time of year to look for a job for a couple of reasons: first, with Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's all crammed within a month of each other, so many people take time off for vacation that companies are closed and the people who I'm waiting to hear back from are out of the office for days or weeks; and second, with the end of the year fast approaching, most companies avoid spending money until their books clear and their budgets renew in January. Even companies whose fiscal years don't run concurrent with the calendar year usually wait until their next quarter begins in January before spending money and hiring anyone new.

As it stands right now, I'm kind of in a wait-and-see mode...I'm waiting to hear back from the people I've already been speaking with and most companies are not posting any new openings until the beginning of 2017. While I know that in the grand scheme of things this lay off will be a mere bump in the road that is my life, right now it's a fairly stressful and irritating circumstance. Having finally bought a house within the last couple of years, settled into our neighborhood, and made really good friends, being unexpectedly laid off completely disrupted our life. I was becoming established at my job and had a good reputation as someone who was very knowledgeable, did quality work, and was dependable; now I need to start all over somewhere else and reestablish that again. Our kids had made some really good friends, had settled into their sports teams and after school activities, and were finally okay with the move away from our home are of New England; now they'll have to start over again wherever we end up. We love our house...we've settled in nicely and have been making it our own, changing it around the way we want it, but now we'll most likely need to sell it and find a new house to buy elsewhere. In so many ways, this situation has thrown a huge spanner into the works and while I know that in a year, let alone in five, ten, or more years we'll look back on this as a minor inconvenience, right now it's very real and very much a nuisance.

Anyway, that's where things stand with me as a professional chemist right now. Once there's been a substantial new development in my situation, I'll be sure to write about it here in order to share any insight or information I've learned along the way to try and help my fellow chemists/scientists/professionals who may be going through the same thing.

For anyone reading this, in any field, and especially chemists specifically: have you been in this situation? How long were you between jobs, and what methods did you find worked the best (and worst) in your job search? Please share in the comments below and let's discuss and help each other out!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Love, Janis

A while ago,  I reviewed Alice Echols' fantastic and comprehensive biography of the legendary Janis Joplin, Scars of Sweet Paradise. Extensively researched, well written, and clearly by an admirer of Janis (but one who wasn't afraid to cast a critical eye), I declared it the definitive book on Janis. Around the same time that I bought that book, I also bought Love, Janis, written by Janis' younger sister Laura and one I had heard good things about several years ago.  Based on what I could glean from the back cover and blurbs I'd read online, Laura wrote a biography of her sister's entire life and included many unpublished letters Janis had written over the years. Armed with that bit of information, and expecting an obviously much more personal look at Janis' life, I dove into it not quite knowing what to expect but looking forward to it just the same.

Laura Joplin is six years younger than Janis, but was close to her famous older sister and thus writes from a definite position of love and affection. She starts off the book by tracing the family history on both their father's and mother's sides all the way back to the time of the Mayflower. Tracing the family's journey, the Joplins finally end up in Port Arthur, Texas, where Janis came into the world as the eldest child of Seth and Dorothy Joplin in January 1943. Born into an intellectual and creative family (Seth was a voracious reader, while Dorothy was a former singer and dancer), from the very beginning of her life Janis never quite fit in with the conservative, straight-laced society surrounding her. This was exacerbated by the Texas of the 1950s and 60s that she grew up in. Janis was a very intelligent and creative girl, especially when it came to art; she was a talented painter and even won some awards for her work as a child. What was surprising to me, especially when reading about Janis' pre-fame years, is how Laura told of a girl who was much more popular and had many more friends than has commonly been portrayed. While Janis did have her share of awkward moments and typical teenage growing pains, and certainly rubbed against the grain of her town's culture (most notably in her denouncing of segregation and racism), Laura portrays her adolescence in a much different light from how Echols did. Indeed, a common thread running throughout the book and one that became obvious to me right away was how Laura Joplin's  telling of Janis' story was much kinder, gentler, and almost apologetic when compared to the analytical and researched tone of Echols. A huge part of this is obviously down to Laura being Janis' sister and having witnessed so much of her life and career firsthand, while Echols had to rely on research, hearsay, and second-hand recollections from Janis' friends and family many years after the fact. It did seem though, in spots, that Laura was almost going too far the other way to counteract what she thought was unfair or incorrect in how Echols and countless others have written about Janis' younger days. This was most clearly seen in how she treated their parents: while Echols and others painted them as cold, uncaring, and not at all understanding of Janis, Laura tries to show them as warm, loving, and wholly supportive toward Janis. The truth, as usual, almost certainly lies somewhere in the middle. While I don't question that they loved their oldest daughter and did what they could for her, I also don't doubt that they grew to be exasperated, upset, and at some point they probably threw their hands in the air and gave up upon realizing there was nothing they could do to change her.

Laura traces Janis' life through high school and her numerous forays into college as a beatnik art student, which ran parallel alongside the development of her love of folk and blues music. Sneaking across the state line into Louisiana to hear authentic black blues and folk musicians, Janis began performing and writing her own music around Texas and developed her voice. She eventually made her way to Los Angeles and San Francisco in the early 1960s, a stint that nearly ended in disaster when she arrived back home in Texas emaciated and strung out after becoming addicted to shooting speed. The arrival back home in Texas coincided with Janis wanting to cast off her more bohemian, beatnik attitudes and try to fit into straight society...she even swore off performing during this time. However, while she was successful at this for a short time, it was clear she was forcing it. Precipitated by a break-up with a con-man fiance of hers (Peter de Blanc), whose deception she eventually sussed out, she fell back into performing and finally began making a name for herself in Texas. Eventually, she hooked up with Chet Helms, who took her to San Francisco in 1966 to audition for a band his Family Dog productions managed called Big Brother and the Holding Company. The rest, as they say, was history.  Laura does a nice job tracing Janis' career as Big Brother made their way out of the crowded San Francisco rock scene to become one of the leading lights of West Coast American rock in the late 1960s. However, after her meteoric rise following the launching pad of the Monterey Pop Festival, friction within Big Brother led Janis to go solo at the end of 1968. After getting off to a rocky start in early 1969, her new band settled down and even headlined Woodstock. By the beginning of 1970, drug use and insecurity were taking their toll on Janis' psyche, as well as her penchant to fall head-over-heels in love with the men she was dating after only knowing them a very short time. She also created her alter-ego Pearl around this time, which struck some as bizarre and gave further evidence to many around her that Janis was letting fame detach her from reality. By Laura's account, though, 1970 and her final band, the Full Tilt Boogie Band, gave her some of the happiest times of her life and career. Her final album, Pearl, saw her feeling relaxed and creatively free, but for reasons that her family and friends still haven't been able to fully comprehend to this day, true happiness and contentment still eluded her. A semi-disastrous appearance at her ten-year high school reunion and her continued dabbling in heroin depressed and subdued her as summer turned to autumn in 1970. It was a fatal and accidental overdose of ultra-pure heroin that took her and the music world by surprise when she died at the age of 27 only a mere two and a half weeks after Jimi Hendrix.

Even knowing the ending beforehand, it was sad to read her sister describe Janis' final weeks and days, even more so when Janis' letters home were used to flesh out the narrative. It's these letters that make the entire book so compelling. Spanning the entirety of her life after she left home at eighteen, and covering the days when she was in college but not yet famous to the height of her stardom, the letters do the ultimate job of humanizing and personalizing (in the literal sense of the word) Janis Joplin. More than anything, they show her as she really was: just a girl from a small-town in Texas who marched to the beat of her own drum, believed in herself yet was paradoxically insecure, and was for the most part as unprepared and incredulous at the hoopla surrounding her as her own family was. Laura Joplin also does an excellent and rather poignant job of showing how, even during the tumultuous changes of the 1960s, she, her brother, and their parents never fit into Janis world and could never understand the counterculture in which Janis was among those at the epicenter. While Alice Echols' book was excellent in the way it went into real depth regarding Janis' life, career, and how they fit into the context of the 1960s, Laura Joplin's book brings Janis down to earth and softens her in a way only someone who knew her as a family member could.

While Laura does dispel some myths there are many cases where, as I mentioned above, she seems to overcompensate in the other direction to make certain events come across better than they probably were. This was most notable not only with how she portrayed their parents, but also how she downplayed Janis' sexual promiscuity (especially her lesbian affairs) and her drug use. This seemed a bit strange because it's been pretty well researched and corroborated how she behaved in those aspects of her life. However, in a way it's perhaps understandable as I can imagine those would be painful subjects for a sister to write about so critically and candidly. Apart from these and her strange tendency to describe every male friend or love interest of Janis' as though she were writing for a dating website ("he was six foot two, ruggedly handsome with tawny brown curly hair, a strong jawline, and broad shoulders"), Laura Joplin crafted a book that, while not necessarily the definitive biography of Janis (I still think Echols' book takes that honor), is still worthy and essential. It's one that I would suggest, along with Scars of Sweet Paradise, as necessary in order to get the most complete idea of who Janis Joplin really was.


Monday, November 21, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Beatles and the Avant Garde

Innovation in music and recording/audio production were part and parcel of the Beatles' groundbreaking approach to rock music in the 1960s; it was as much a part of their appeal as was their exceptional songwriting and musicianship. However, another aspect to the Beatles' success and the longevity of their music was their constantly changing sound; never content to recycle a successful formula, the Fab Four were always pushing forward for new sounds, new approaches, and new ways of communicating. This resulted in the Beatles going "a bit funny," as the Queen of England was supposedly quoted as saying to Brian Epstein in 1967 or so (whether this is apocryphal or not, it's plausible and quite humorous!).  But the Beatles "going funny" wasn't just a matter of the band expanding their consciousness with drugs the way everyone did back in the 1960s...rather, it was a very deliberate and conscious attempt at utilizing all of the outside influences that were exploding all over the arts scenes on both sides of the Atlantic. In particular, it was the avant garde artists, writers, and musicians of the era that influenced the music of the Beatles during their peak period of 1965-1968. In the new book The Beatles and the Avant Garde, author Aaron Krerowicz takes a scholarly look at the avant garde figures whose works crept into the Beatles music and how exactly they manifested themselves in their songs.

Aaron Krerowicz is the only full-time Beatles scholar in the USA and as such, has spent a fair amount of time researching the band from multiple angles. For this book, he has decided to investigate the avant garde influences that colored their music during the period spanning the middle to the end of their career (~1965-1969).  In the introduction, he lays out the format of the book in that it will have in-depth looks into the three figures whose avant garde leanings most impacted the Beatles' music: Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and Yoko Ono, to each of whom a major chapter is dedicated. Additionally, there are minor chapters on the two peripherally avant garde figures in the Beatles story, George Martin and George Harrison. It was nice to see that the author acknowledged that, contrary to forty-plus years of conventional wisdom amongst the public, it was Paul McCartney and not John Lennon who was not only the first of the Beatles to become interested in the avant garde, but was also the one who was most fully committed and knowledgeable about it. The chapter on Paul explores his earliest forays into the avant garde via the books he read, the lectures and concerts he attended in London, and the home experiments he conducted both with music and film. There's further discussion on how and when these influences showed themselves in Beatles music (most notably in the still-unreleased and Holy Grail early 1967 recording of "Carnival of Light") and how he has continued to flavor his music with these influences to this very day. The chapter on John is much the same, although as I mentioned above it was refreshing to see it stated, backed up with facts, that John was late to the avant garde party and followed in Paul's footsteps. Additionally, as with most things in his life, the (self-admitted) short attention span of Lennon's made for a full-on immersion into the avant garde with his various joint-vanity projects with Yoko Ono in 1968 before disappearing altogether by the time the Beatles split in 1970. Ono's chapter is quite interesting as, of the three, she was the most committed to the avant garde almost from the beginning of her career and continues to be to the present day...for her, it wasn't a way to shock or challenge people so much as it was simply her preferred way of communicating via her art.

Interspersed are two shorter chapters on the two Georges of the Beatles legend, Martin and Harrison. While the chapter on George Martin shows how he was interested in off-beat and somewhat avant garde comedy recordings even before he started working with the Beatles in 1962 and how, with this background, he was the perfect producer for them, the chapter on Harrison is a bit lighter in substance. George was always the most skeptical Beatle when it came to the avant garde (or, let's be honest, anything), famously quipping that he called it "avant garde a clue." Apart from his semi-plagiarized experimental album Electronic Sound from 1968, George was not avant garde at all, although I've always found it ironic how, on the two most avant garde Beatles songs ever recorded ("Revolution 9" and "What's the New Mary Jane") the only other Beatle to join John and Yoko on both was...George Harrison! There's no chapter on Ringo, and while I suppose it's understandable since, as the author mentions early on, he was the least involved Beatle in the songwriting process, I feel as though he could've been included in the chapter discussing George. While probably only known to hardcore Beatles fans, Ringo did dabble in some avant garde experimentation, most notably in the seven minute collage of tape loops and effects he created with John on the extended and unreleased version of "Flying," as well as the various effects and noises he peppered the famous (and personal favorite of mine) bootleg of early White Album mixes, the Peter Sellers Tape.  Including these would have beefed up the chapter on George Harrison a bit and covered all of the bases when it comes to avant garde Beatles, in my opinion.

Overall, this is a nice little book that is well written, easy to read, and quite informative. Anyone looking for in-depth discussion of Beatles music won't find it here, as the most detail is given to the various avant garde figures themselves and the works that influenced the Beatles' music. The book was well researched and has detailed footnotes to all references cited, although at times it felt more like reading a final university term paper than a book. While Beatles fans looking for florid discussions of their music will be disappointed, anyone who wants a scholarly look at the reasons for their music getting "weird" in the mid-1960s will enjoy this dig below the surface into how the avant garde tinged some of the greatest songs of the 20th century.

MY RATING: 7/10 

Friday, November 18, 2016

Status Update

For anyone wondering why I haven't been writing much lately: I was laid off from my job last week when my position was eliminated and sent overseas. While I am passionate about music and writing, my day job is what pays the bills. As you can imagine, my days are now consumed with looking for a new opportunity and a new gig.

I'm still writing and there will still be much more from me here, but right now finding a new job is my top priority and writing for my site/any of my projects will be fit in only when possible. I'm sure you all understand as I know that I've got very intelligent readers!

Thanks for your patience and stay tuned because there WILL be more to come!