Sunday, March 26, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: John (John Lennon)


To the casual observer, John Lennon's wife was Yoko Ono. However, those who know more about the Beatles' history and background know that before Yoko, John was married to Cynthia (nee Powell) and in fact had spent a decade of his life with her before cheating with Ono an leaving her. Always one to shy from the limelight of Beatlemania during the 1960s and content to be a housewife raising their young son Julian, Cynthia had arguably the best perspective on John's life during the most famous period of his life. While she had written a book about her first marriage in the late 1970s called A Twist of Lennon, it wasn't until the late 2000s that a more comprehensive and thorough look at her time was published: the current book titled simply John. Even though I read it when it came out, I've given it a fresh re-reading for this review.


The book begins with an interesting, heartfelt, and candid introduction from Julian Lennon describing the father who "let me down in so many ways." It's rather heartbreaking to read of Julian's love for his father, while he fully understood from a young age that while his dad sang to the world about love and peace, he gave little-to-none of either to the wife and child he abandoned in 1968. From here, Cynthia begins the book with details about her birth and childhood in Liverpool during WWII. Born in 1939 as the youngest of three children, Cynthia, like John, suffered the unexpected death of a parent while she was a teenager. In her case, it was her father and she handled it, at least from an emotional standpoint, better than John did the death of his mother. It was while a student at art school in Liverpool that she first met John in 1958. After being initially wary of him, they ended up falling in love and even though John's jealousy, insecurity, and aggression meant that their relationship was a bit stormy (including an incident Cynthia recounts where John smacked her in the face, knocking her to the ground), there was genuine love and affection for her on John's part. I'm not going to recount the Beatles' history during this period as it's been written about to death elsewhere and Cynthia does a good job summarizing it in the book as it goes along. What does stand out are the countless anecdotes about John where he is boorish, insensitive, uncaring, and just downright nasty. While she does balance these out with stories of his kindness and generosity (especially with his money, which is well-known), as the Beatles' career progressed and his drug use (which she states was the #1 contributor to the demise of their marriage) increased, these became fewer and further between. She suspected that there was something going on with Yoko from the first time she met her in 1967, but was still stunned when she walked in on John and Yoko in 1968. Amazingly, John went back to Cynthia for a very short time and played it off as a one-off fling until leaving for good and abandoning her and their son. The divorce was nasty although, as she fully admits, Cynthia accepted a ridiculously low settlement offer when she could've gotten so much more. What was surprising was that even in light of this treatment at John's hands, she never stopped loving him and spent the next dozen years up to John's murder wishing for them to be friends again, both for Julian's sake and for hers. Sadly, it never happened.


From here, the book details her life bringing up Julian on her own and how his father's abandonment affected him. Some of the stories are heartbreakingly cruel and it's hard not to feel anger at John when reading some of the things he said and did to his young son. Over the next couple of decades, Cynthia had two more failed marriages and another long term relationship that ended before she finally found the right match with her fourth (and final) husband, Noel Charles, in 2002. To her credit, she's very self-aware and reflective throughout the book, realizing that was much too accommodating and deferential to John, and not assertive enough in standing up to him during their marriage. She also admits to rushing into her post-John relationships despite having reservations about all three men. Her stories of Yoko's manipulations and harsh treatment of Julian, especially after John's death, are equally upsetting. Although Cynthia never comes across as being mean-spirited or out to tell salacious tales, it's hard not to be disgusted with the way John and (especially) Yoko treated them. Still, I don't doubt as to the veracity of the stories as not only have they been corroborated elsewhere, but none of them are anything other than entirely believable and in keeping with John and Yoko's behavior. Likewise, her candidness when discussing John's Aunt Mimi is refreshing. Her portrait of Mimi as emotionally cold, distant, and jealous of anyone else who got close to John, as well as Mimi being incredibly class conscious and snobby jibes with much of what's been written about her elsewhere. This is despite Mimi's attempts to soften her own image in later years with the numerous interviews she gave. I realize that we all have preconceived biases when we read something and that I'm perhaps tipping my hand as to how mine lean, but I didn't find anything in this book that ran against what I already thought about the main players in John's life.


The biggest thing that comes through in the book is how caring and supportive in general Cynthia was as a person. She has an especially close and loving relationship with Julian and everything she did to support him and make sure he became a fine grown man are testament to what kind of person she was. The book ended with a somewhat chilling admission that, while she never regrets having her son, had she known in 1958 what falling for John Lennon would do to her life, she would go back, turn around, and walk away from him. This is one of those books that will make you see John in a much less flattering light, especially if you held him in high regard beforehand. I've always been someone who admired his music and much of his life, but also knew about his many flaws and how poorly he could treat people. For me, it didn't change my opinion of him as much as it simply confirmed how I felt about his failings and shortcomings. As Cynthia rightly pointed out, he was a brilliantly creative genius who was also incredibly complex and flawed.  The overall tone of the book is somewhat bleak and downcast, but given John's treatment of her and how much of a struggle her life was after their marriage broke up, it's quite understandable. If you hero-worship John Lennon, then this probably isn't the book for you, but if you've got a more balanced and realistic view of the man, this book (despite its few flaws) will give you a fairly accurate portrait of the man from the woman who was by his side for the most famous decade of his life.

MY RATING: 8.5/10


Monday, March 13, 2017

Baseball is (Almost) Back!

We're just about through the winter, the erratic weather of the last few weeks not withstanding, and as with every year that means one thing (at least to me): baseball is coming back! Ever since I was a little kid, the warming weather, the melting snow (except for this winter, when we didn't get any), and the longer days always get me excited for the upcoming season. It's as much a yearly ritual as the trees budding, the grass turning green again, and putting away the winter coats, hats, and boots. As soon as possible, I like to get outside with my kids and start playing catch or throwing them batting practice. Add in MLB Spring Training starting in mid-February and Opening Day getting closer with each day and the excitement is palpable. 

As far as my team goes, I've got high hopes for this upcoming Red Sox season. While the loss of David Ortiz to retirement will leave a huge void to fill, the acquisition of Chris Sale should beef up the starting rotation while Andrew Benintendi looks like he'll follow up his stellar rookie campaign with an even better season now that he's be the full-time left fielder. The trio young All-Stars who form the core of the team (Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley, and Xander Bogaerts) should be just as good (if not better) while the veterans like Dustin Pedroia and Hanley Ramirez should remain productive (and hopefully, healthy). I have very low expectations for Pablo Sandoval...anything the Sox get out of him this season is gravy (no pun intended) and honestly, if he plays well I'd hope they sell high and trade him while they can. Beyond that, I'm most interested to see if this is the season where John Farrell finally figures out how to make in-game adjustments and helps the team win games rather than he usual pattern of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

As with every spring, the promise of the new season makes fans of every team optimistic. Usually by June, you know who your team is and whether they have a shot at the World Series, but that's why it's so fun. Every season brings renewed hope and for baseball fans, that's one of the great things about the game...it's as reliable and constant as the seasons themselves.

If you're a baseball fan, who will you be rooting for and how do you think they'll do? Let's discuss in the comments below!

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Graham Coxon


It's finally time for another entry in my series of band/artist profiles. For those of you who are new, this is a series of articles where I discuss my favorite bands or solo artists by discussing their background, career, ways in which they've influenced me, and my favorite musical moments of theirs. For this newest entry, I'm using a previous profile on one of my favorite bands of all time, Blur, and using it as a springboard to now focus on their superbly talented guitarist Graham Coxon. While Graham has long been championed as one of the great British guitarists of his (or any) generation, he also has had an acclaimed solo career comprising eight solo albums to date. Because of this, the time is now right to focus solely on Graham and his work both within and outside of Blur.




Since I've already written a profile of Blur, I'm not going to rehash it here. To recap, Graham Coxon was born in in 1969 on a British Army base in Germany where his father was stationed. When he was a child his family moved back to England and settled in Colchester, Essex. It was while attending Stanway Comprehensive School that he met Damon Albarn when he was 11. Famously being the brunt of Damon's comment about his shoes ("your brogues are crap, mate...here, mine are the proper sort!"), the two bonded over a shared love of music. In particular, they both loved the Beatles, Who, and Kinks as well as the punk and Two-Tone ska music popular in the UK during the late 1970s/early 1980s. Having switched from saxophone and drums to guitar while a teenager, Graham enrolled in an art course at Goldsmiths College in London where he met bass player Alex James. Bringing Damon as well as drummer from Colchester named Dave Rowntree who he'd been in bands with into the fold, the four young men formed Blur and the rest, as they say, is history. While in Blur, Graham began recording and releasing solo albums, the first arriving in 1998 and called The Sky is Too High. A charming, ramshackle affair, it continued the low-fi ethic Blur incorporated on their hugely successful 1997 self-titled album. The difference this time was that all of the songs were written, sung, and played by Graham, who covered all of the instruments himself (apart from keyboards). Also, his acoustic guitar playing was more center stage than it typically was in Blur, where Damon usually handled these duties. This album was followed by two more: The Golden D (2000) and Crow Sit on Blood Tree (2001). Both continued the rough-around-the-edges ethos of his debut while growing increasingly dark and aggressive in tone and subject matter; it was quite a contrast to the normally gentle and quiet Coxon. In 2002, Graham had a falling out with the other members of Blur and was sacked from the band. Coincidentally or not, his ouster ran parallel with his ascension as a solo artist and he released a series of excellent albums that were accompanied by solo tours. The Kiss of Morning in 2002 was followed by a trio of albums reuniting Graham with Blur's producer Stephen Street. These three albums are arguably his best, and include Happiness in Magazines (2004), Love Travels at Illegal Speeds (2006), and my personal favorite The Spinning Top (2009). It was also in 2009 that Graham reunited with Blur, and because Blur has taken up the bulk of his time since then, he's only released one further album. However, 2012's A+E shows that he's still able to take his music in new and interesting directions, heavily incorporating drum machines and synthesizers and blending them with his gloriously loud and fuzzy guitars.








One of the things that makes Graham such a great and admired guitarist by fans and peers alike is how unique his sound and style are. While he uses a variety of guitars, his main axe has long been a butterscotch blonde '52 Fender Telecaster run through his typical amp rig of Marshall stacks patched through a Marshall PowerBrake. His guitar signal is routed through his collection of stompboxes in order to round out his sonic palette.  Stylistically, while he has the chops to shred with the best of them, he doesn't typically play like that. Instead, he utilizes a lot of hammer-ons, pull-offs, chordal arpeggios, and interesting (and often discordant and dissonant) chord voicings. While he's fully capable of such, his solos aren't your typical speed-fests of notes, but rather orchestrated licks, sustained notes, and dissonance which often rub a bit raw against the melodic backing, but always seem to work perfectly in their context. In addition to his fantastic instrumental skills, Coxon is also a master at manipulating his guitars, amplifiers, feedback, and (especially) his effects pedals in order to create entirely new sounds that push his playing over the top. Even more impressive is his ability to seamlessly recreate all of the crazy sounds that he gets in the studio live on stage.  Some of my favorite guitar work of his is below...this is but of a small sampling of his fantastic studio work with Blur.








As you can hear, no two songs sound the same when it comes to Graham's approach to creating and playing his guitar parts, yet all of them are instantly recognizable as him. I could've given another twenty (or more) examples of his greatness, but I think the examples above should suffice in giving an idea of what makes his playing so special. For me personally, from the moment I first heard Graham's playing twenty years ago to this very day, he's taught me that exceptional technique can be melded with a unique personal vision in order to create a sound that may run counter to traditional playing, but can none the less be appreciated and admired. He's also pushed me out of my comfort zone and taught me to take more risks in my playing and the way I approach writing songs and guitar parts. I certainly don't claim to be nearly on Graham's level when it comes to his approach, but it's definitely been a useful and effective feather in my musical quiver. 
 
 
 
 
There's a reason that critics and peers alike (including one-time rival Noel Gallagher) have called him one of the finest guitarists of his generation. As with all of the trailblazing guitarists who came before him, Graham Coxon took his innate talent and worked tirelessly at creating a style and sound that is all his own, always unique and instantly recognizable. Ask any musician and I'll bet that they'll tell you that this end result would be their ultimate fulfillment. Graham has done this and then some.