Wednesday, December 23, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Who: 50 Years of My Generation

Released almost simultaneously alongside the official Who 50th anniversary book which I reviewed last month, veteran rock music writer Mat Snow brings us another book celebrating fifty years of one of the world's greatest rock groups. As you can see from my review, I was quite disappointed with the official book and so was interested in seeing whether or not an unauthorized overview of the Who's entire career would fare any better. I'm familiar with Snow's work over the years, including his book set on the Beatles' solo careers which I reviewed a couple of years ago. That set was fun if not lightweight and riddled with errors, so I was slightly wary when diving into his new Who book. While it's not perfect and suffers from many of the same maladies that his solo Beatles book did, I am will say upfront that it's much more enjoyable than the official book.

***special thanks to Steve at Race Point Publishing for sending a copy of the book to review!***

When I first heard that book was titled 50 Years of My Generation, I initially thought it was going to be a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Who's debut album, also called My Generation and released fifty years ago in December 1965. Moving past the somewhat confusing title and realizing that it's actually a book celebrating the band's entire career, it's laid out in much the same way as the official book: chronologically beginning with the band members' births at the tail end of WWII in London and their youth spent during the post-war austerity years of the 1950s before rock and roll arrived in 1956 and changed everything. From here, the book travels the well-known path of previous Who books, following their career as a struggling covers band before Keith Moon replaced their original drummer in early 1964 and Pete Townshend took creative control over the band's music and message. Snow navigates their career through the heady days of the 1960s, the Who's ascension to legendary status in the 1970s, their limp to the finish line in the early 1980s in the wake of Moon's 1978 death, and the endless run of reunion tours that continues to the present.

Along the way, the chapters include a linear narrative of their career through each era, accompanied by photos of the band, concert tickets, programs, and other related images. While there were several images that were new to me, most have been seen many times over the years although they were reproduced in excellent quality. What was jarring about the entire experience, however, was that many paragraphs and photographs that would have fit better in the previous chapters were inserted out of sequence. As one example, in the middle of the chapter about the recording of Tommy in 1969 there would be a paragraph and accompanying photograph about something that happened in 1968 that was unrelated and should have been in the previous chapter. There were also several typos: many were just honest editing mistakes such as missing letters or slight misspellings, while others were flat out errors (such as discussing the recording of John's bass solo in "My Generation" but calling the song "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere"). A few of the photographs are miscaptioned as well, most egregiously a shot of Pete onstage in 1980 labelled as being from 1990 (the vast difference in the amount of hair on his head should have tipped the editors off!). These mistakes are minor, but there are enough of them scattered throughout the book that they add up after a while.

Overall, though, this book is enjoyable. I certainly had more fun reading it than I did the official history, although I do want to emphasize that 50 Years of My Generation is still not perfect. In addition to the shortcomings mentioned above, the book generally doesn't contain any new revelations or information that would necessarily appeal to any hardcore fan who is deeply knowledgeable about the band. It really is just an broad overview of the band's entire career, not particularly in depth although far more enjoyable to read than the official book.  Much of this is down to Snow's writing style which, while a bit simplistic and clumsy in its construction, definitely conveys the excitement and enthusiasm of a real Who fan as opposed to the more cut-and-paste feel of Ben Marshall's prose in the official book. One thing I certainly noticed was his disdain for the short period of time after Keith died when Kenney Jones was their new drummer. While anyone who knows me knows that I am outright dismissive of any of the post-Moon work the band has done and that I can't stand the music they made with Kenney Jones (apart from one or two songs), Snow came off quite harsh in both his narrative and photo captions. While I certainly agree with his sentiments, I also don't place all of the blame for the downward spiral in the Who's quality once Keith died at Kenney's feet...they were a spent force and Pete saved his best songs for his solo albums. Fairly or not, Kenney became the scapegoat and while I didn't mind Snow's tone, I can see how some fans who like the music from that era of the band's history might take umbrage with the author.

In closing, while this isn't a perfect book, I definitely rank it higher than the official one; some of this is down to the tone and content, and some is because of how truly and utterly disappointing the official book was. While that book had a cleaner, more mature look and feel to it, 50 Years of My Generation is bold, colorful, splashy, and loud...all adjectives that can be used to describe the Who themselves and which convey the excitement and fun of their music and career. If you need to choose between one of the new career retrospective books released for their 50th anniversary, I would recommend this over the official as it's far less frustrating and a lot more fun.

MY RATING:7.5/10

Thursday, December 17, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: You Had to Be There! The Rolling Stones Live 1962-69

The Rolling Stones are one of the longest-lived rock bands in history, having remained active for over fifty years and counting. In that time, they've played countless concerts all over the world, yet for most fans, their greatest work was during the 1960s. Starting off as a blues and R&B cover band in the clubs and coffee houses of London, the Stones played a grueling and punishing schedule of concerts to minuscule crowds in their early years, building up their following and becoming second only to the Beatles in the 1960s hierarchy of great bands. In You Had to Be There! The Rolling Stones Live 1962-69, author Richard Houghton offers a trip back to those heady years by telling the story of the Stones' 1960s concerts in the words of the fortunate fans who were there to witness them firsthand. 

***special thanks to the author for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

Soliciting memories from fans who were at any of the Stones' concerts in the 1960s, Houghton and his contributors tell the story of a ragtag group of five obsessive blues and R&B fans who started the decade playing dingy basement clubs to handfuls of teenagers and ended the decade as the second biggest rock band in the world. When I first heard of this book, I assumed it would be similar to another very good, if not flawed, book I've read and reviewed on the Beatles' UK tours. That book was enjoyable but suffered from being quite repetitive and devoid of charm after a while. However, as this Stones book got closer to being released, I began to think it might be quite different. This was most noticeable to me when my mum sent me a story from my parents' local newspaper in Massachusetts where Houghton was soliciting submissions from fans who had attended the Stones concert there in 1965. When I finally got my hands on the book and saw how the author had put the book together, I was delighted but still slightly hesitant. For each of the shows between 1962 and 1969, the story of the concerts was told entirely in the words of the fans who were there. What made me wary was the fear that the book would get repetitive the way the Beatles book did (that book became a real slog once I was halfway through it).

I'm happy to say that this wasn't the case at all with You Had to Be There...each entry is interesting and engaging and there are many reasons for this. When multiple people shared their memories about the same show, it was fascinating to see how similar or different their perceptions and experiences were. Reading about how the various concertgoers managed to get their tickets, got to the shows, met the Stones, and got home was a wonderful look back to a more innocent time when rock music and the concert business were both young and everyone was flying by the seat of their pants as the world changed around them at a rapid pace. Security was minimal, amplification was inadequate, prices were low by today's standards, and the bands were much more accessible. It was also amazing to read firsthand how quickly and profoundly it all who attended a Stones show in 1964 mentioned how when they saw them just a year or two later the experience was different and in many cases, not as enjoyable. By the time the band got to the end of the decade, their tours were huge events and the small club and theater crowds they'd played to in earlier years gave way to faceless seas of humanity in arenas and stadiums. The innocence and simplicity of the earlier 1960s was now marred by restless crowds, police violence, drugs, groupies, cynicism, and money while the band became aloof and untouchable heroes to the masses. These are not new revelations, but somehow hearing it from the perspective of all of those were were there makes it more vivid and sharpens its impact.

Adding to the charm of the book are the many photos accompanying the entries of the contributors, with most pictures being representative of how they and the fashions looked back then. There is also a large section in the middle with fan photos of various concerts and meetings with members of the Stones throughout the 1960s. It's quite something to read about someone in their 60s or 70s looking back on something that happened to them when they were a teenager, especially when they mention how much they've seen the world around them change in the years since. Even better are the instances when fans mention that they went to the concert with their boyfriend or girlfriend who they then married and are still married to. It's really touching to read about couples who went together as teens and are still together fifty years later...some of these entries even have photos of the couples now and then, which is heartwarming and adds a more human touch to their story. Overall, You Had to Be There is a real time capsule that takes the reader back in time to those heady days and tracks the rapid pace of the decades evolution through the eyes of the everyday people who experienced their little bit of rock history. If I have any complaint, it's only that I would have liked to have seen more contributions from fans who attended shows on the 1969 American tour, including Altamont, as the book ends with the Stones' show at Hyde Park in July 1969. Thinking about it, though, I can understand why the author may have stopped here as Hyde Park was the first show the band played in the immediate aftermath of Brian Jones' death and in way, it was the full-stop end of their 1960s incarnation. However, the 1969 tour was their first that was an actual event and the Altamont show is widely seen as what killed the 1960s dream, so those could have been a nice way to bookend the decade for the Rolling Stones. Still, this is a small quibble of mine and as I said, the more I think about it the more I understand why Houghton ended the book at Hyde was the end of an era and the first chapter in the Stones' career. 

In closing, while not offering any new revelations in terms of the inner workings of the Stones or their music, this is still definitely a book that any fan of the band would enjoy. Even those who are more a fan of the 1960s and its music in general and perhaps not dedicated Stones fans would have a good time taking a trip back to those years and reading about the experiences from the lucky fans who were there to live through it firsthand.


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Another Year Remembering John Lennon

This is how I like to think of John...smiling, happy, and a bit cheeky

Every year when this day pops up, I get a little bit sad. Today is, of course, the day in 1980 when John Lennon was needlessly, shockingly, and cruelly taken from us for reasons we still cannot comprehend other than the fact that it somehow made sense in the mind of a madman. I've written about how John's death (as well as George's, which was fifteen years ago this past couple of weeks ago) has affected me, but I was moved to write a little memory of it on a message board that I frequent and I thought it was worth sharing here as well. 

I wrote: "I was 10 months old in December 1980, so obviously I don't remember it [hearing about John's death] firsthand, but I take solace in the fact that I was alive when all four Beatles were. I also get a bit sad this time each year knowing that I can mark how many years he's been gone by the same number of years I've been alive. I've been a Beatles fan literally from birth thanks to my parents. I remember when I was in kindergarten in 1985 and a schoolfriend told me "did you know John Lennon was shot?" I remember running into my house after school crying and telling my mum "somebody shot John!" and she had to explain to me it had happened five years before.

I try to not let the deaths of famous people that I've never met affect me, but the Beatles have touched me on such a deep level over my entire 35+ years on this planet that in the case of John (and George), it does affect me and I'm OK with that. The beautiful thing is that every time I hear his songs and I hear his voice, I feel good inside.

For me, today, as it is every year, is a day for listening to the Beatles and solo John, enjoying the music, and remembering the supremely talented, complicated, flawed, conflicted, and ultimately good man he was. Gone but never forgotten, and somehow a little piece of him belongs to all of us who love his music, his artwork and writing, and his overall message. Thanks for what you gave us, John.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Personal Growth, Change, and the Power of Positive Thinking

This is going to be a bit different for me as I'm going to get a little personal, yet at the same time I intend to keep this post pretty vague as I don't want to divulge too many personal things. However, I felt as though this is something I needed to share since it was quite profound and impactful. I hope it can spur discussion with anyone out there who has gone through the same thing, or perhaps even help someone out there who is trying to make the same kinds of changes that I am.

Like most people, I've been shaped by the experiences I've had over the course of my life, and like most people a lot of them have been good and a lot have been bad. However, one of the problems I've had over the years is that I've allowed negative experiences, the ones that have hurt me, embarrassed me, or otherwise changed me for the worse, to linger. Beyond that, I've let them change my actions/reactions to certain situations, and I've allowed them to color my perceptions of and interactions with people around me. Most frustratingly, I've known this for many, many years but could never seem to change it. If I really put in the effort, I could change it for a few weeks, but it was more of the "fake it until you make it" approach as opposed to any real sea change in my thinking and processing. I just couldn't seem to let go and move on from anything that had hurt me in the past, and I couldn't seem to stop projecting all of the hurt, anger, and resentment I had toward those past situations and people onto the people around me in the present who had nothing to do with it. It was affecting me and those around me, near and far, quite negatively and, in all honesty, I felt like I was hopeless to ever meaningfully, permanently change it. I was really good at seeming like I was happy and carefree on the outside, but inside I was constantly nagged by all of the slights, however real or perceived, large or small, that I'd absorbed over the years and they completely skewed how I viewed the world and people around me.

And then something amazing happened...

As I said, I'm intentionally keeping this post vague in terms of details because it is my personal life, after all. However, something huge happened to me that changed me forever, and in a life-alteringly fantastic way. Now, I'm a religious person and always have been. I'm a devout Christian and I read the Bible and pray on a regular basis. I believe in the power of prayer and that while we are imbued with freewill and make our own destinies, God does listen to us and offers help, strength, and guidance we need it.  On this particular night a couple of months ago, as I was laying in bed, something triggered what seemed like a lightning bolt inside my heart and mind (metaphorically speaking, of course). Everything that had ever happened to me, all of the hurt and anger, resentment and mistrust, cynicism and negativity, all of the jaded and bitter feelings I'd been clinging to deep inside...they all seemed to just fall away from me. A light bulb went off in my mind and I had a sudden realization that I could let it all go, I could stop letting the past affect my present, and that I had been treating those closest to me as though they had wronged me when they never had.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that when I woke up the next morning, I felt like a completely different person. More than that, I also finally understood that one of the reasons I was never able to grow and change in the past is because I was always looking toward the future, and impatiently (anyone who knows me knows that patience has never been a virtue of mine). I decided then and there, that morning, to live in the present, one day at a time. To put it simply, I was going to just focus on making each moment, each day, great for me and those around me. By focusing on my thoughts and actions each day, I wouldn't be overwhelmed or impatient by worrying about what the future would hold...I would live in the moment. This was quite a contrast from having one foot planted firmly in past hurts while simultaneously having another planted in an uncertain future I was impatient to arrive at. Everyone around me noticed how different I was and were probably skeptical that it would last. I did a lot of reflection and a lot of crying over the first couple of weeks, yet here I am months later, and it's not only here to stay, but feels effortless. I think it's because I'm not putting as much concerted effort into changing (although I am working very hard at it) so much as it seems to be just how I am now.

Two things that have been huge helps in keeping me centered throughout this monumental change are basic meditation and regular prayer, the former for stress/anxiety relief and the latter as a source of guidance and strength. Both have proven to be even more powerful and helpful than in years past...whether this is actually the case or whether I'm just noticing it more, it doesn't matter as the end result is the same. More than that, I'm finding that I'm opening up more, both to myself and others, about my feelings and that I'm communicating and listening better than I ever have.  Given how absolutely terrible I was at all of these, I sometimes feel like that's not saying much, but it's been a process akin to learning to walk although I feel like it's not as scary as I thought it would be.  I have to say, in all honesty it all feels really good although I'm still aware that I've got a ways to go until I'm where I want to be. Rebuilding myself and my relationships with those around me is not a quick fix and learning patience, how to take responsibility for my mistakes, and how to pick myself up and keep moving forward with a positive attitude are difficult things that I'm doing better now than I ever have. However, I know that I'm still a complete work-in-progress. Just tonight (as I write this), I screwed up badly and ended up stung quite deeply by the consequences. While I'm still dwelling on them and kicking myself repeatedly for my mistake, I'm intending on waking up tomorrow morning with a positive attitude and working as hard as I have to to make tomorrow a great day. I'll learn from tonight's stupid mistake but won't keep beating myself up over it...rather, I'll use it as a springboard for growth and for making sure it doesn't happen again.

I know that I've got such a long road ahead of me to become the person I've always wanted to be, but for the first time in my life it doesn't seem daunting. In fact, for the first time in my life it seems like it's completely within my reach. A positive attitude, a lot of changes, and asking for guidance when it's needed will take me a long way. The journey has been great just over these past couple of months...I can't wait to see where it takes me next.