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.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Ringo Starr: Photograph

In addition to being the most famous rock and roll drummer in the world from the most famous rock and roll band that ever existed, Ringo Starr has been a very talented photographer for most of his adult life. Indeed, since the Beatles all first got their own cameras around 1963/1964, Ringo has had an interest in photography and has taken scores of photos for his personal enjoyment. In 2013, he decided to open up his archives and release a collection through Apple's iBooks as well as an extremely limited edition hardcover book containing his pictures. I read the iBook and thoroughly enjoyed it, although it only contained a portion of what he'd released in the hardbound book. Luckily, this past month saw the release of the hardcover in a mass market edition so that fans of Ringo, the Beatles, and photography can now enjoy all of the pictures he's released.

***special thanks to Rhianna at Genesis Publications for sending a copy of the book to review!***

While Ringo has famously said that he'll never write an autobiography because people are "only interested in eight years of my life (1962-70)," in Photograph he seems quite happy to focus the bulk of his photos on behind-the-scenes Beatles snaps. The book flows in chronological order from his birth in Liverpool in 1940 through his childhood and the beginnings of his musical career. Much of the material in this early section was collected and saved by his mother and found by Ringo many years later after she'd passed away while he was going through boxes in her attic. What's nice about the photos in this section is that they offer a glimpse as to what it was like growing up in post-WWII England...the houses, the clothes, the prices of common household goods, and how kids and teenagers dressed, acted, and had fun. There are even photographs of Ringo in hospital during his two illnesses, their council home rent book, and the hire purchase papers for his first drum kit. The photographs then trace his musical apprenticeship and his tenure in Rory Storm and the Hurricanes as they played in Liverpool and Hamburg, also documenting his budding friendship with the Beatles. The bulk of the book focuses on his tenure in the Beatles and the decade after their 1970 split. This is where the book really shines as these are shots taken by Ringo and could only have come from the camera of someone who was in the eye of the hurricane that was Beatlemania. Several of Ringo's Beatles photos have become very well known and been widely reproduced over the decades, but the most fascinating ones are those that appear mundane or unremarkable on first glance. Taken backstage, in hotel rooms, at home, on vacation, from the back of a car or while on a train, Ringo captured the sights and feel of the world around the Beatles as they toured America, the UK, Japan, and everywhere in between. Even better are the candid shots of John, Paul, George, Brian Epstein, George Martin, Mal Evans, and Neil Aspinall. Many of them are exquisite shots where the lighting and background just happened to be perfect, capturing them in playful, pensive, contemplative, or relaxed moods. Several shots are of the guys eating, drinking, smoking, listening to music, and doing normal everyday things that Ringo was fortunate to capture for posterity. He also took several pictures of the various photographers, such as Bob Freeman and Dezo Hoffman, who hung around the band in those earlier years as they themselves snapped photos of the Beatles. It's a bit jarring yet quite interesting to see his pictures of the Beatles and their wives on vacations between tours, when they could grow beards and let their hair and clothes get away from the Beatle "look" they had to keep up while in the public eye. Shots like these go a long way toward demystifying the band and showing that behind the great music and iconic fashions, at its heart the Beatles was a band made up of four normal guys who had a deep love and friendship for each other, who were all going through the same incredible experience together.

After the Beatles split, Ringo shares numerous photos of his life in the 1970s and 1980s, many including his closest friends like Keith Moon, Harry Nilsson, and Joe Walsh (who is now his brother-in-law). This section of the book is not as large as the previous sections and speeds up rather abruptly from the late 1980s to present, but it's still nice to see these shots, including several of Ringo with George, Paul and Linda, Eric Clapton, George Martin, and others. As this is the closest the world will ever get to a Ringo autobiography, Ringo did a wonderful job telling his story in photographs. Accompanying the photos throughout are write-ups from Ringo offering his insight, stories, and the memories behind most of the pictures. In particular, the warmth and affection he has for his fellow Beatles, as well as Keith Moon, is quite revealing. His recollections of the real Moon and the sweet guy behind the madcap public persona of "Moon the Loon" was quite touching, especially as I'm a huge fan of Moon and the Who myself.  If I do have a complaint about the book, it's mainly that the post-Beatles years are quite sparse in terms of the number of photos and that they are spread out a bit more haphazardly and not in as tight a chronological order as the previous sections. Perhaps Ringo wants to keep most of these pictures private, and that's certainly understandable as they're his personal property, but as a fan I would have liked to have seen more of them as they document his life as he's gotten older and reached the present day.

Ringo's Photograph book is a fun and engaging collection of photographs that any Beatles and Ringo fan will thoroughly enjoy. Photography books like this can tend to vary in terms of quality and readability, but Photograph is one the better ones in the genre. Flipping through this book feels as though you're sitting on a sofa looking through Ringo's picture albums as he sits next to you and tells you a story for each one; the effect is more like sharing memories with an old friend than simply looking through a book. The pictures are reproduced in very nice quality on glossy paper and Ringo's narrative greatly enhances the images. Photograph is one of the nicest Beatles books I've added to my library and would be a worthy addition to any Beatles fan's bookshelf.


Thursday, November 19, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Who: The Official History

2015 marks the year that The Who are celebrating their 50th anniversary. I disagree with this classification for a couple of reasons, mainly because A) 1964 was the year in which they solidified their lineup of Daltrey, Townshend, Entwistle, and Moon and released their first single, "I Can't Explain," and B) they really haven't been The Who since Keith Moon died in September 1978. However, as it's their band, it's their choice as to when they want to celebrate their anniversary.  In any event, as one of my favorite bands of all time and one of the most influential bands in history, it was with great excitement that I looked forward to the publication of this official history, especially as it promised to have input from the two surviving members of the band, Pete and Roger. Written by Ben Marshall, upon receiving this attractive book and seeing the eye-catching cover dripping with classic Who iconography, I proceeded to tear into it to see how the story of this fantastic band, this band that has meant so much to my life and the lives of countless others, would be told from an official perspective.

***special thanks to Leslie at Harper Collins for sending a copy of the book to review!***

The introduction of the book hints that, while written by Marshall, there will also be heavy input from Roger and Pete. Of course, upon reading this I was looking forward to the insight they could offer, but it became apparent rather quickly that in actuality there would only be photo captions written by Pete and for all intents and purposes, nothing from Roger, which was very disappointing and gave the book a whiff of being a bit of a half-hearted/cash-in. How could this be an official history with such minimal input from the last two remaining members of the Who? Pete's captions, as would be expected, are quirky, funny, honest, sarcastic, and unmistakably Townshend. The downside is that, the further I got into the book,  the more they served as constant reminders of how more (much more) of his input would have enhanced the book. Ben Marshall starts the Who history (Whostory?) with the backdrop of WWII Britain and the birth of the four members at the tail end of the war (or in Pete and Keith's cases, after the war ended). Inserted in this section were sidebars on life in the post-war austerity period in the UK as well as the rise of Teddy Boy subculture and rock and roll. Sidebars such as these appeared throughout the book and become more and more intrusive and eventually threatened to overwhelm the Who's story, but I'll elaborate on that more later. From here, the author goes through their various pre-Who bands and how they came together until the line-up was completed in early 1964 with the arrival of Keith Moon. The remainder of the chapters are split into eras, focusing on their first album and singles during their Mod period, their Pop Art period of 1966-1968, Tommy in 1969-1970, their period as a top act in 1971-1974, and the remainder of their career with Keith until his death in 1978. This rightly takes up the bulk of the book, with the balance dedicated quite briskly to their attempt at carrying on post-Keith from 1979-1982 and the subsequent reunion tours of 1996-present.

When going through the book, I kept feeling like it wasn't meeting my expectations as to what an "official history" should be but that eventually something I'd hit upon something that would rectify this. However, I kept reading and after finishing the book I couldn't help but think that this book was a real disappointment and, worse than that, a huge missed opportunity. There are several reasons I feel this way. First and foremost, Ben Marshall's written history offers little to no new insight or information about the band or their history. Much of the narrative is quoted verbatim from the Who's remastered CD liner notes and various documentaries and previous books that will be well known and instantly recognizable to any of my fellow hardcore Who fanatics. There were also numerous typos/grammatical errors, as well as several flat-out inaccuracies. These ranged from what I'm assuming are honest errors such as calling the Who's album from 1978, Who Are You, Who's Next (which came out in 1971) by mistake, to the author constantly messing up the name of their recent documentary Amazing Journey, which got to be very irritating. The sidebars, which grew to be almost as long as the chapters themselves, were sometimes fun and informative (such as the ones on Mods and Teddy Boys), but eventually became too long and off-topic, detracting from the central story of the Who. One of them was a long treatise on the history of the hippie subculture; while I understand this happened during the Who's career in the 1960s, the Who were one of the few bands of the era who, apart from dabbling in some florid clothing and LSD, were never remotely close to being a hippie/psychedelic band either in terms of their sound or attitudes, and as such were set apart from the entire movement. There were also some long sidebars on the Mods vs. Rockers fights of 1964 (which made sense as Pete wrote about these on the Quadrophenia album) and a heartwarming but unnecessary (at least in my opinion) vignette about a former London punk drummer telling the story of his brother watching the Who rehearse a few times in the mid-1960s. In all honesty, the book ran out of steam, and quickly, after the chapter-long tribute to Keith Moon. Granted, from that point onward I don't consider the band to really have been the Who, but in my mind if this is to truly be a definitive official history, there should have been more detail on the post-Keith years. There was very little to nothing, for instance, on the Cincinnati incident of 1979, the 1996 Hyde Park Quadrophenia reunion, or their subsequent tours in the 2000s. Apart from a chapter-long tribute to John Entwistle, this final section of the book seemed unnecessary and hurried, and for a band who has desperately tried to convince their fans and themselves that the years after 1978 (and especially after 1982) have been just as vital and essential a part of their history as the 1964-1978 period, it seemed half-assed. Finally, there were far too few picture captions by Pete and far too little input from him throughout the entire book...combined with their being zero input or insight from Roger, it seems a little specious, at least to me, to call this an official history and imply on the cover that it's Roger and Pete telling their story when really, it isn't. This may be an officially sanctioned history of the Who, but it certainly isn't their version of, say, the Beatles' Anthology book which was truly 100% in their own words. A band as important, influential, and revered as the Who deserves better as the official word on their own career.

For all of their visceral, reckless, and aggressive energy, The Who were always one of the most cerebral, reflective, and introspective bands who also were the first (and in my mind, still the best) to reflect back at their audience who they really were. Given what Pete's autobiography was like and what the best of their music offers, it was only natural that I would assume that the official history of the band would embody all of these qualities. However, I have to conclude that this book is a major disappointment and a real missed opportunity to tell their history in their own words, especially as it could have been done really well in a way only Pete and Roger could do. This book is more accurately a band history written by an outside author with minimal input from the two surviving members. Yes, there are some great photographs throughout the book, several that were even new to me, but the actual story, i.e. the words, were almost inconsequential and will offer nothing to any dedicated Wholigan. Is this a book hardcore Who fans should have? Yes, it probably is, but at the same time it's not one they need to have. For a band who has given so much to their fans, and who in turn have demanded so much from their fans in return, the incongruity with respect to this book is jarring. The end result is disappointing, especially if this ends up being the final official word from Roger and Pete on The Who.

*THIS* is what the Who were all about. Crank up the volume and enjoy!


Monday, November 16, 2015

Billy Joel

Billy Joel circa 1977

I always feel bad calling Billy Joel one of my "guilty pleasures"...he's one of the most commercially and critically successful songwriters and musicians of the past fifty years and has written countless hit songs. Perhaps I shouldn't call him a "guilty pleasure" and instead say that he's one of my favorite musicians who most people who know me would be surprised I'm such a big fan of given when compared to everything else I listen to. But really, it should make perfect sense: he's a fantastic piano player, songwriter, singer, and can write hooks with the best of them (and as anyway who knows me know, I am and always have been a sucker for a well crafted song with an infectious hook). Over the course of his active career, Billy Joel released album after album full of great songs and became one of the most successful singer-songwriters of the 1970s and 1980s before retiring from popular music in the mid 1990s.

William Martin Joel was born in 1949 in Oyster Bay, Long Island to a German immigrant concert pianist and an English immigrant mother. He had a troubled childhood, with his parents divorcing in the mid 1950s and his father moving to Vienna, Austria. Reluctantly forced into classical piano lessons at a young age, Joel was captivated, as so many millions of others were, by the Beatles when he saw them on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964 and decided to drop out of high school in order to pursue a career in music full time. After playing on several demos and sessions with a few small-time groups, he joined a local band called The Hassles who released two albums. Following that, in 1970 he formed a short-lived heavy metal duo called Atilla with former Hassles drummer Jon Small. The duo released one unsuccessful album and split up when Joel's affair with Small's wife Elizabeth was revealed. She broke it off with both of them and, distraught, Joel attempted suicide by drinking furniture polish (in his own words, "it looked tastier than bleach"). Surviving the attempt to take his own life, Elizabeth reconciled with Joel and they eventually married.

Signing a terribly lopsided contract with a label called Family Productions, he released his debut album Cold Spring Harbor in 1971. The album sold poorly, much of it due to the mastering being too fast and the songs and vocals being too high-pitched, something which wasn't corrected until many years later. Realizing he'd been ripped off, Joel managed to sign with Columbia Records, who bought out his contract with Family. His second album, Piano Man, was his commercial breakthrough, led by the title track as well as underground radio stations in the northeast (especially in Philadelphia) playing the album's closing track, "Captain Jack." Relocating to Los Angeles, his follow-up album, Streetlife Serenade, is an underrated and overlooked one in his discography. Without any immediate hit singles apart from "The Entertainer," it's a bit darker and more melancholy, with tracks such as the title song, "Los Angelenos," "The Great Suburban Showdown," "Roberta," and the instrumental piano workout "Root Beer Rag" as definite highlights. Homesick for New York City, Joel moved back for good and his next album, Turnstiles, reflected his happiness at being home. Songs like "Say Goodbye to Hollywood," "New York State of Mind," and "Miami 2017 (I've Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)" reflect this, and are among the highlights of the album, as well as the classic "Prelude/Angry Young Man." By this point, Joel had a steady band behind him that would last for the next fifteen years and solidify his sound both in the studio and live on stage.

1977 saw the release of The Stranger, Joel's commercial and critical breakthrough album and the work that is still considered his magnum opus. The Stranger was packed with classic songs...almost the entire album has been in regular rotation on the radio since its release, with such songs as the title track, "Movin' Out," "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant," "Only the Good Die Young," "Just the Way You Are," "She's Always a Woman," and "Vienna" as classics. This album would also mark the beginning of a fruitful collaboration with producer Phil Ramone, who would produce all of Joel's albums up to and including 1986's The Bridge. The following albums 52nd Street ("My Life," "Big Shot," "Zanzibar"), Glass Houses ("You May Be Right," "Sometimes a Fantasy"), The Nylon Curtain ("Allentown," "Pressure," "Goodnight Saigon," "Laura") and his homage to 1950s and 1960s pop, An Innocent Man ("Uptown Girl," "The Longest Time," "Tell Her About It") continued a ridiculously strong run of albums and songs. It wasn't just the singles that were great...numerous album cuts were as good, or in some cases better than, the radio hits. There was a bit of a drop-off from here: 1986's The Bridge was very good but not great, but still had some excellent songs ("A Matter of Trust," "This is the Time") as did Joel's final two albums. 1989's Storm Front contained the hits "We Didn't Start the Fire" and "I Go to Extremes" while his final album, 1993's River of Dreams, had the title track and "Lullaby (Goodnight, My Angel)" as highlights. At this point, Joel decided to retire from writing and recording popular music, a surprising decision for someone of his talents. Since then, he's focused on writing classical piano pieces and has continued touring, both with his own band and in tandem with Elton John, playing his hits and entertaining millions of fans around the world. He's definitely on my bucket list of musicians I want to see, and seeing as how he's played Fenway Park in Boston the last two summers, I'm hoping that I have a really good chance of making it happen.

Billy Joel today, in 2015

As for my own fandom, I grew up listening to my parents' copies of The Stranger and 52nd Street on vinyl. My dad isn't a fan, but my mum is, so between those records and hearing all of his songs on the radio when I'd be listening with her, I became a fan at a very young age. Additionally, my best friend from elementary through high school was a huge fan. We sang many of Billy Joel's songs in the high school chorus and acapella groups I was in (including "The Longest Time," on which I performed the solo). From the beginning, I've been captivated by his fantastic songwriting...he writes melodies with the best of them and is also quite talented at writing songs that tell stories. His phenomenal piano playing has always been a highlight for me, as well as his singing voice. In fact, he's one of my favorite musicians to listen to and sing along with. The range of music he's produced goes from story songs like "Allentown," "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant," "Miami 2017 (I've seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)," and "Captain Jack" to ballads like "Honesty," "She's Got a Way," and "And So it Goes." There are belting rockers like "You May Be Right," "Big Shot," "Movin' Out," and "Los Angelenos," pure pop singles like "Uptown Girl" and "My Life," and numerous great album cuts like "Laura" (the best Lennon/McCartney song of the 1980s that they never wrote), "Vienna," "Roberta," "Zanzibar," and countless others. For many years during my youth, I used to hide the fact that I was such a big fan because he wasn't considered too "cool" by my peers. He also doesn't fit the mold of most of the musicians I listen to and I'd find many of my friends and family members to be quite surprised when I mentioned how much I liked him. However, as I've gotten older, I don't feel the need to be so coy about my fandom. So many of Billy Joel's songs have meant a lot to me throughout the various stages of my life and continue to do so to this day. Whether it's been during tough times or happy times, reflective, depressing times or exciting times, I've always found that his songs have a way of speaking to me as a listener and conveying their message and emotion both through their music and their lyrics. He may not fit in easily alongside the majority of what I listen to, but I'm proud and glad to be a fan of Billy Joel's's meant, and continues to mean, so much to me and brought me such enjoyment that I can't ever imagine not having it in my life.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: A Very Irregular Head: The Life of Syd Barrett

There is perhaps no other figure in rock music so shrouded in mystery and legend than Roger "Syd" Barrett, one of the founding members of Pink Floyd. With his distinctive looks and quirky, one-of-a-kind songwriting and guitar playing, Syd was the creative guiding force that launched Pink Floyd out of the underground London art and music scene and onto the charts. However, just when it seemed that Syd and Pink Floyd were poised for a successful career, he lost the plot and succumbed to mental illness barely one year and one album in, spending the next four decades as a remote figure of interest, mystery, and in many unseemly cases, obsession until his death in 2006. Author Rob Chapman aims to lay bare all of the myths, half-truths, and flat-out inaccuracies of Syd's life and sad demise while giving a greater appreciation of his creative gifts in his comprehensive biography A Very Irregular Head: The Life of Syd Barrett.

***special thanks to Sean at Da Capo Press for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

Pink Floyd was one of the biggest and most commercially and critically successful bands of all time, releasing their greatest works throughout the 1970s. However, their origins in the mid-1960s show a much different band that could have gone in a far different direction had that short-lived configuration stayed together longer than it did; this was down to one man, Syd Barrett. A Very Irregular Head is the story of Syd's long, sad, and confusing life, from his idyllic childhood in Cambridge, his years as a popular and talented student and artist, and his stint in Pink Floyd, to his sudden decline and collapse, the public deterioration of his mental health, and his final decades in seclusion when he became a reluctant and unwitting icon. Starting with detailed background on young Roger Barrett's birth and childhood in Cambridge, Chapman uses the extensive research he's done and the numerous interviews he's conducted with Syd's siblings (especially sister Rosemary, who was Syd's caretaker for the final 25 years of his life), friends, teachers, and colleagues in order to paint the picture of a boy who was very popular. With his striking good looks, cultivated manner (being the product of a comfortable middle-class upbringing), and eccentric but charming personality, Syd (a nickname he picked up during his teenage years) by all accounts was a normal, well-adjusted young man. The death of his equally eccentric father when he was sixteen affected him as it would anyone, but it wouldn't be until years later that the true impact of this loss was seen by those around him. A talented artist, Syd followed in the tradition of so many other of his rock music peers in 1960s England and attended art school, in his case Camberwall in London. A very interesting revelation made by his close friends and families when discussing those years was their surprise that he ever made a foray into music. While he had a great love of music and played passable guitar, everyone around him was stunned by his talents as an artist and claimed that, in agreement with them, Syd considered himself first and foremost an artist who played in music and not the other way around. By 1965 he'd met up again in London with old friend Waters and two of Waters' classmates at architecture school, Nick Mason and Rick Wright. Forming a band and initially playing R&B and pop covers of the day, after several name changes Syd gave them the name with which they would eventually find eternal fame: Pink Floyd. During this same time, they began to play gigs in and around the London underground scene as Syd developed his highly idiosyncratic guitar technique and songwriting talent. (Let me note here that I will not be giving a potted Pink Floyd history in this review, nor does the book do's been done before and isn't relevant seeing as Syd was in the band for less than three years). Eventually attracting management eager to guide them in recording some demo tapes, they were signed to EMI in 1966 and proceeded to release two seminal psychedelic singles ("Arnold Layne" and "See Emily Play") and their epochal debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. However, with fame came an increased workload of promotion and touring and Syd was ill-equipped to handle this. Fairly early on the cracks began to appear and by the end of 1967 his behavior had become so erratic, unpredictable, and potentially career-damaging that the drastic measure of bringing in another of his childhood Cambridge friends, David Gilmour, made the band a five-piece until the end of January 1968 when Syd was jettisoned in a frankly cowardly manner (something the four remaining members of the band have acknowledged in subsequent years). What the book makes clear in a way I had never thought of before is that the decision was driven more by a rather ruthless desire to save their burgeoning young careers than an altruistic attempt to help Syd, although it should be noted that they did try to help him. Unfortunately, you can only help people who want to be helped and Syd, whether knowingly or as a victim of his illness, did not want to be helped.

After his expulsion from Pink Floyd, it still seemed as though Syd had a promising solo career in front of him. With his unique songwriting gifts and the anything-goes musical climate of the late 1960s, Syd could have been a more eccentric and electric/eclectic version of Ray Davies or Bob Dylan with his observational songs. Instead, he sank deeper into mental illness, exasperating numerous producers (including David Gilmour, Roger Waters, and Rick Wright, all three of whom helped to produce Syd's two solo albums) such that the tortured and torturous sessions for the albums The Madcap Laughs and Barrett would be the last music he would ever make. A few more aborted attempts at recording and performing new music (including a VERY short-lived band, Stars) resulted in nothing of substance; Syd was by this point almost impossibly difficult to work with. A final collapse led to one of the most famous myths about him that turned out to be true: he walked back to his mother's house in Cambridge and, barring a few stints living in London hotels throughout the 1970s, remained there for the rest of his life. There was the famous occasion an overweight and cleanshaven (including head and eyebrows) Syd showed up unannounced and unrecognized at a 1975 Pink Floyd recording session, as well as an encounter with a journalist friend who didn't recognize him when attempting to visit him at the hotel he was living at, but otherwise he never saw anyone from the old Cambridge scene ever again apart from his first love, Libby Gausden. Syd (reverting back to his true name of Roger and discarding any vestiges of his past life as a rock star) lived the remainder of his days in a mundane but relatively peaceful existence in Cambridge, disturbed only by his declining mental health and the obsessive door-stepping and stalking by "fans" that, frankly, was disgusting, cruel, and intrusive. His ill health (both physically and mentally) eventually claimed his life in 2006, but did nothing to dispel the interest in his life and career and, if anything, actually heightened it.

Chapman's book is more than just a telling of Syd's life and career; it's also a scholarly look into the influences that affected his work and the its attributes. As both an artist and musician, Syd left behind a very small but unique and rich body of work and Chapman sifts through it with an almost overzealous attention to detail in his analysis. In fact, oftentimes it seems he goes a bit overboard reading too much into some of Syd's more nonsense/throwaway lyrics. There are also several passages dedicated to miniature history lessons on many of the writers and artists who influenced Barrett, so much so that the book begins to feel like an esoteric biography on these figures before Chapman reels himself back to Syd's story. While these sections don't ruin the book, they do make it a slog in places and almost (notice that I said almost) make it feel as though they were included in order to pad the pagecount. I'll admit to being initially surprised that a book about someone who made only three albums in his entire career and then disappeared weighed in at over 400 pages. However, the book does excel at painting a rich and detailed portrait of the Cambridge arts scene of the 1960s, as well as the underground London scene of 1964-1967, drawing on new interviews with nearly all of the central figures who give a vivid picture of those heady times. The only figures who were not involved in these discussions were the four members of Pink Floyd, who though they were quoted extensively, did not contribute directly to Chapman's research. Chapman also uses many parts of the book to play Mythbuster for the various "Syd Stories" that have popped up over the decades, using a combination of dogged research and logical empirical thinking to determine that for every story like Syd walking back to Cambridge or physically abusing one of his girlfriends in a drug-induced stupor (both true) there are many that are false (Syd being locked in a cupboard during a bad acid trip or crushing Mandrax and Bryllcream in his hair onstage, among others). These are valuable pieces of truth to finally have, although I do think the author's bias shows a bit as he tries to dispel myths about Syd's hopelessness in the studio post-Pink Floyd when a thorough listen to the same albums he uses as proof shows that while Syd wasn't completely incapacitated, he also was clearly not in complete control of his faculties. Finally, there are many theories discussed as to the mental illness(es) Barrett suffered from and whether they were caused by LSD (not fully) or were exacerbated and irreversibly triggered by it (more plausible, in my opinion). Had Syd been born in 1976 instead of 1946, societal attitudes and the mental health profession would have been much better equipped for understanding and treating him successfully, but unfortunately in the 1960s there was a stigma attached to mental illness as well as a warped romance of madness, neither of which did Syd any favors at all.

A Very Irregular Head is the story of just that: Syd Barrett's strange, sad life and the aura around his decline. But it's also the story of a young man who, even if he hadn't been sick, was most likely not equipped to deal with the sudden pressures of stardom, fame, and the 1960s music industry. It also brings up the poignant question of whether Syd's life could have or would have been different had he stuck to art and become one of the famous young 1960s artists he appeared destined to be. While there's the danger that the pressures of the art world could have been equally as damaging, it can't be denied that the music industry was (and still is) far more unforgiving than the art world. However, had that alternate history happened it's more than likely that Pink Floyd as we know them would not exist. Since I've not read any other books on Syd Barrett, I can't say for sure whether this book is definitive (although I think it would be safe to assume it is based on the depth of the author's research), but Rob Chapman's book is a dense, information-packed, and scholarly look at a true creative genius who burned brightly for a short burst before tragically and slowly flaming out over a lifetime. It's absolutely a must-read read for any Barrett and Pink Floyd fan.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Little Sleep in Big China

I've been back from China for a couple of weeks now, which has been enough time to finally decompress, get reacclimated to my home and work lives, and get my body adjusted after the jet lag. It's been a hectic couple of weeks to say the least but I now have time to write about my trip and my thoughts on the entire experience. Since there's a lot to go over, I figured I would break this post into segments to make it a bit more palatable from a reading point of view. Also, I took a lot of pictures over the course of the trip, so I apologize in advance for slow loading times on your computers!

The Travel: When I left off in my previous post, I was sitting in the business class lounge at the Toronto airport killing time during my long layover before the flight to Shanghai. When it was time to get on the plane, I was able to board first since I was flying business class. What an experience! On Air Canada, each seat is its own individual "pod" and there are four rows in the cabin at the front of the plane. all arranged at an angle such that you get the entire section to yourself. It was plenty long to stretch my legs out fully, which at 6'5" is not an easy feat on a plane! There was an ottoman, plenty of space, a TV with loads of movies and TV shows to choose from, and lots of extra amenities. The second I sat down, a flight attendant put a glass of champagne in my hand. They handed out travel kits that had slipper-socks, a toothbrush and toothpaste, hand sanitizer and lotion, and more. Hot towels were passed out shortly after takeoff and again before landing, and the seat was able to be reclined for maximum comfort during the flight, which was great when I was reading or watching something. Even better for a guy who has never been able to sleep sitting upright on airplanes, the seat reclined completely flat so that I could actually get some sleep! On the flight over, I was able to take two three-hour catnaps...not great, but better than usual. The meals on the flight were great and the food and drink just kept coming; whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted it, was available...all you had to do was ask. The flight to Shanghai took about 14 and 1/2 hours and we landed at 3pm Shanghai time. As we started our descent, I really started to get anxious since we were finally arriving in China. The flight attendants handed out Chinese entry and departure cards that we had to fill out. Once we landed, I got off of the plane and made my way down the tunnel to the I looked out of the window and onto the streets below, it finally hit me: "Wow, I'm in China!"

Barely in my seat and they gave me champagne!

I could stretch out...not typical for 6'5"guys on airplanes!

When I got to Chinese customs and immigration, I won't lie...I was quite intimidated. There were so many people and the lines were long. Luckily, all of the airport personnel spoke passable English and there were a lot of Westerners mixed in with the native Chinese so I didn't feel completely out of place. I eventually got up to the window and handed my passport and entry card to the agent, who looked it over, stamped it, and took my photo so they could match it when I left the country. After getting my suitcase at baggage claim and going through customs, I exited the airport and arrived to the main foyer. Now, I had been told by the conference organizers that transportation would be arranged and all I had to do was look for someone holding a sign with my company's logo on it...sounds easy enough, right? Well, nothing could have prepared me for the absolute crush of people standing behind the barriers on both side holding up signs and speaking in Chinese. As I walked down the long aisle, I started getting more and more nervous as I could not see any signs with our logo on it, I was getting near the end, and I didn't have any cell phone service (not that it would've mattered since I didn't have a number I could have called anyway). Finally, about 3/4 of the way down the line I saw a small piece of paper being held up with our logo on it. I rushed over and was greeted by two of the event staff who handed me off to a driver. He grabbed my suitcase and motioned for me to follow him. Once in the hired car, we started to drive through the insane traffic exiting Pudong Airport to make our way to the hotel.  I tried to make small talk with the him, but my first question was met with a response of "no...English" so I settled in for the silent forty-five minute drive. The landscape was similar to any urban sprawl you can see in the US but at the same time quite different. What was more striking to me were the areas of affluence right on top of areas of abject poverty. And the thing I noticed about Shanghai over the entire week was the construction going on EVERYWHERE, and at all hours of day and night. On my first night at the hotel, I met up with a few of my group members for dinner on an outside patio, and we heard a building being a knocked down a few blocks almost ten o'clock at night.

My hotel room

View from my window...the smog...

A reminder that this wasn't like back home...

Chinese Coke, Sprite, and other drinks

Oreos in China

A Snickers bar in China

As for jet lag, I suffered really badly for the first three or four nights. There was a full twelve hour time difference from back home so my body was thrown completely off. I had a hard time staying awake past 9pm most nights but was then wide awake by 1am or 2am with no hope of going back to sleep. It got so bad that I would be falling asleep sitting at a table during a symposium in the middle of the day...luckily I found I wasn't alone as all of my colleagues from the US were having the same issues. It wasn't until the Wednesday night of that week when I was finally worn out enough that I managed to sleep from 11pm to 5am. Of course, once I adjusted for the rest of the week, it was time to go back home on Saturday afternoon. The one good thing about the twelve hour time difference was that it made it easy for my wife and I to set up times to FaceTime so that I could talk to her and the kids. Their minds were blown when I would be talking to them at breakfast time (for me) and they were getting ready to go to bed the night before!

As for traveling back to the US, I took a hired van with three of my groupmates to the airport after we had lunch at a burger bar (no joke) near our hotel. (As an aside, the burger place was...excellent! All organic Australian beef and while I had no expectations of having a decent burger in China, I was blown away by this one). After checking my suitcase and going through security, I proceeded to the business class lounge with the other member of our group who was also flying business so that we could relax, have a snack, and use the (much) cleaner restrooms before it was time to board (our flights departed within fifteen minutes of each other). This time I was flying United Airlines back to the US and the business class cabin was set up differently but I liked it better. This time, there were rows of two "pods" but they were even more spacious and comfortable than what I had on the way to Shanghai. To make it even more bizarre, I started chatting next to the fellow I was seated next to and it turns out not only was he from Massachusetts, but his sister lives in the same town as my parents. Add in the fact that I overheard the Chinese fellow behind me say that he was a chemist who commutes to Boston regularly for work and it was a very strange coincidence that I sat where I did surrounded by those two people! The flight was VERY smooth...I slept four hours, I watched two movies: the new Who documentary "Lambert and Stamp," which was excellent, and "This is Spinal Tap," a movie I've probably seen twenty times but still made me laugh so hard that I had to stifle it on the plane, tears running down my face and my sides aching from how funny it still was. 

On the flight back...even roomier!

We made great time on the flight and it was exactly thirteen hours from Shanghai to New Jersey. The only downside to arriving an hour earlier than expected was that my four hour layover before my connecting flight home was now a five hour layover. However, a computer system crash at immigration and customs meant that I had to wait in line for an hour and a half before being officially checked back into the country. At this point I was starving and exhausted, so I went to the business class lounge and killed time there with a cold beer and  a snack before grabbing a quick sandwich for dinner prior to boarding my final flight. Upon landing at home, I got my suitcase from baggage claim, found my limo driver, and valiantly fought to stay away awake on the ninety minute drive home before staggering into my house and falling into bed after 1am Sunday morning. Luckily, after being exhausted all day Sunday, I slept normally that night and was pretty much over the jet lag by Tuesday. Overall, the travel wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it'd be although I do now know that I will only survive a flight that long in business class, if only for the ability to stretch my legs out and lay down during to sleep. I tend to get claustrophobic on planes if I'm on them for too long and business class certainly mitigated that.

The Conference: There's actually not too much detail I can get into with this since it was an internal research conference and everything that was discussed and presented is proprietary. However, the conference was great and I was able to finally meet a lot of my colleagues from around the world whom I had previously only interacted with over the phone or web conference. I presented my paper and it went very well...I got several compliments from colleagues throughout the week regarding it, which made me feel good especially as I've only been with the company a little over a year.  I also enjoyed all of the talks and symposia I attended during the week, learning a lot and reaffirming that I learn something new every day at this job, especially as I'm a chemist working at a predominantly engineering company.

My only complaint with the conference is that we were virtually trapped in the hotel the entire week. With a full schedule of talks, meals, and symposia, the entire day from 7am to 8pm was booked. Add in that those of us from the US and UK were suffering from severe jet lag (the folks from Europe adjusted easier and those from within China obviously had no problems) and it started to feel like we weren't ever going anywhere outside of the hotel. We even had two business unit outings for dinner on the Tuesday and Wednesday nights there, but they were literally get-on-the-bus-at-the-hotel-and-get-off-the-bus-at-the-restaurant outings which, while fun, didn't give us any feeling for what Shanghai was really like. That would have to wait until the final two days of my trip...

The Hotel and the Food: The conference center was on the 3rd level of the hotel so it was very convenient. It was a five-star hotel and while it was certainly quite nice, it wasn't the nicest hotel I've ever stayed in. I suspect five-stars in China is on a different scale relative to elsewhere. Even at such a nice hotel, we were instructed not to drink any of the water or even brush our teeth with it, and instead only drink or brush with bottled water, of which there was an abundance throughout the hotel. As for the food, all of our meals were prepared by the hotel and spaced out throughout each day of the conference. While overall it was good, it tended to be quite heavy. Even stranger, it was a mix of Chinese and Western food, but skewed more heavily toward the latter. Now, I understand the reason for this as not everyone traveling to Shanghai is as adventurous an eater as I and many others are, but I didn't want to be in China only to eat spaghetti, mashed potatoes, and hot dogs. The Chinese food they did have was quite good and fairly authentic, but after eating the same dishes for a week, I was tired of it. I made up for it as much as I could in my final two days in Shanghai when I actually got to explore the city... 

Spicy stir-fried shrimp and vegetables

An assortment of Chinese dishes...and a Coke

More Chinese food (the duck and cabbage wraps were amazing!)

The City of Shanghai and China in General: Having felt trapped in the hotel all week, I finally got a chance to actually see a bit of Shanghai on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. With the conference ending on Thursday night, the only thing left I had to do for work was to visit one of our facilities on the other side of Shanghai on Friday morning.  Arriving back at the hotel at noon, I met up with five of my colleagues and we decided to go into the city to have lunch and sightsee. One of the most advantageous aspects of our day out was that two of my colleagues, while US citizens working in our California facilities, were both originally from China and spoke the language fluently. This paid huge dividends almost immediately as we were all very hungry and wanted to eat lunch first. After a cab ride to the Yu Gardens/Old City Shanghai section, we made our way up to the famous Nanking Dumpling House restaurant to have a traditional Shanghai meal. The line was ridiculously long and the wait was on the order of hours, but my colleagues who spoke the language managed to talk our way into the VIP room in the back and an all-inclusive meal for a fairly hefty (by Chinese) standards. Even better, they managed to talk them down on the final bill so it ended up being very reasonable, especially given the quality and quantity of the food. Dumplings of every filling, a whole fish (shown to us live in a bag for approval before cooking), soups, vegetables, appetizers, tea, beer...we were absolutely stuffed after eating and I can say that personally it was one of the best meals I've ever had and tied with dinner later that night, which I'll discuss in a bit...

Yu Yuan Gardens in Old City Shanghai

Beautiful although not many people around!

After lunch, we walked through the Yu Yuan Gardens market area, not only for the experience but because a few of us wanted to buy souvenirs for our spouses and kids before heading home the next day. The area was teeming with people, Chinese as well as Western tourists from the US, Europe, and Australia. I managed to get some great gifts for my family: I got my wife a wall-hanging for our new house, my son a traditional Chinese clay flute (a Xun), my youngest daughter a traditional Shanghai costume, my oldest daughter a stuffed panda bear wearing a traditional Chinese shirt and a good-luck panda wall ornament (she loves anything with panda bears), and my second oldest daughter a carved Chinese dragon. What made the experience so much fun is that, through my two colleagues, we were able to barter everything down to get better prices. It certainly felt like many of the merchants were initially thinking they could sucker the American tourists who didn't speak the language (most of the merchants spoke broken English at best) before our colleagues stepped in to haggle over prices. It was an absolute blast and I am forever grateful to my friends and coworkers who helped us out. Beers and meals as repayment have been promised!

Amazing dumplings and a broth-filled mega-dumpling

Shrimp steamed in green tea

Sea bass cooked whole for us...they brought it to us alive in a bag to approve before cooking

You want my Yuan?
That evening, one of my colleagues with whom I'd spent the afternoon with came with me and my boss as we set out for dinner. My boss had lived in Hong Kong off and on for several years when at his previous job and he even speaks and reads Mandarin (a most impressive feat as he's originally from the UK!) so he was a great asset to have in addition to being a great guy. We took the subway to the middle of the city and just walked and walked to see where we would end up. We eventually made our way into the fashion district, which was full of lights and people and night, it reminded me of Times Square or Piccadilly Circus. Feeling quite hungry, my boss read the sign of a nearby hole in the wall restaurant and told us it was a Cantonese place (Cantonese being the primary language and cuisine of Hong Kong, where not only had he lived but where his wife hails from). Being familiar with the food, he said we should try it, so in we went and up the stairs to a table. We let him order for us and we were not disappointed. What a fantastic meal it was, with pickled cucumbers and sauteed cabbages and leeks for appetizers, barbecue pork and seafood. I also had one of the best non-alcoholic drinks I've ever had with that meal: a concoction of lime sherbet, fresh mint, freshly ground lime, and soda water. It was delicious and refreshing and I'm dying to try my hand at making one here at home!

Amazing Cantonese food (and the legendary lime and mint drink!)

The only other time we went out into the city during the week for dinner was for a group dinner on Tuesday night to the Bund area of Shanghai. The restaurant was excellent but rather strange: an Italian-style farmhouse winery and eatery in the middle of China's largest city! I did get a very nice souvenir for our house: a Chinese fan with our last name written in Chinese calligraphy, done by a very old man who wrote the characters in a very beautiful style. Also, we had dessert and drinks on the roof and the view of the Pudong skyline across the river was breathtaking (although how much of the taking of breath was due to the smog is up for debate). On Wednesday night, we had a group outing to a bowling alley for bowling, billiards, pizza, wings and beer. Being in China, I didn't bowl since there weren't any shoes in my size (I wear a US size 15), so I settled for billiards, beer, and conversation. The pizza was...interesting. Not good, not bad, just...interesting. Ditto the wings.

So smoggy...

The Budweiser of Chinese beer...still, not bad

Chinese pizza and wings were...interesting

As for China itself, the smog that we've all read and heard about was real and it was pretty bad for the first half of the week. By Thursday the skies were clear and beautiful and the air was clean, but earlier in the week it was an issue. Not only did it make the views perpetually hazy, but it burned my nose, sinuses, and throat. Worse than that, I could taste it and it was not pleasant...think of a mix of automobile exhaust and chemicals. Combined with the regular wafts of sewer stench throughout the city, it didn't make for a pleasant experience. When I blew my nose, the tissue was black and I noticed a definite improvement upon landing in New Jersey (yes, New Jersey, which usually stinks in its own right! Go figure.). It was a common site to see Chinese citizens wearing masks around the city and I can only imagine the elevated rates of cancer and respiratory conditions people who live there have compared to here  in America. I hope they can fix their pollution problem (the river looked awful as well) because the landscape is quite beautiful.

The stunning view of the Pudong skyline from the Bund

The Rock and Roll Chemist in the Bund

Fan with our last name written in Chinese

The smog clearing away as the week went on...

Wow! Blue sky!

After a while in Shanghai, it started to feel like any other big city. It wasn't until I would go past one of the imposing government buildings with the red star emblems or would see soldiers guarding the doors dressed in their green uniforms with red stars under a huge Chinese flag when I would remember that I was not in a free country. Combined with the government censoring of the internet, it made for a subtle reminder than for all of the apparent similarities in our freedoms, China is still very different from America. Sure, we joked about not being able to access Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube (among other sites), and many of our Chinese colleagues joined in, but the chilling feeling that you were being monitored was always there. Even when I was texting or FaceTiming with my wife and kids over the hotel wifi, it was in the back of my mind. Shanghai was a great city to visit and I'm sure I'll be back for business in the future, but as with any trip, it was so good to get back home to the USA, to my house, my amazing wife, our beautiful kids, our two cats, and my regular routine. I have more business trips on the horizon...who knows where they will take me? As the adage says, it's not the destination so much as it's the journey, and this is something I've definitely understood more the older I've gotten and the further I've traveled.

1 o'clock in the morning, sneaking in the back door...and this was the best part of the entire trip!