Monday, November 26, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Bring It On Home: Peter Grant, Led Zeppelin, and Beyond - The Story of Rock's Greatest Manager

Everything about Led Zeppelin was larger than life: their music, their live shows, their stage outfits, their road excesses, and their manager. Like most great bands Zeppelin was guided by an effective manager, but in their case Peter Grant was anything but ordinary. For years Grant has been shrouded in as much mystery and mythology as the band he steered, known to fans mainly as an imposing gangster-like mountain of a man who was not to be crossed. Other than a scene in the band's film The Song Remains the Same where he's shown berating a promoter for allowing the sale of bootleg Zeppelin posters, what little fans knew of Grant was via the occasional photograph or interview. In the new book Bring It On Home, author Mark Blake aims to tell the real story of one of rock music's most notorious, influential, and misunderstood managers.

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Mark Blake has written two of my band biographies, both of which I've reviewed previously on this site: Pretend You're In a War: The Who in the Sixties and Comfortably Numb: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd, so when I heard about his new Peter Grant book I knew I had to check out it. Written with the cooperation of Peter Grant's estate and his two children Helen and Warren, Bring It On Home aimed to pull back the curtain, sift through fact and myth, and show who Peter Grant really was. With access to Grant's archives and extensive interviews with his children, colleagues, friends, and drawing on multiple interviews Blake has conducted with the members of Led Zeppelin over the years, Bring It On Home does exactly what it was intended to do. Beginning with Grant's birth in pre-World War II London and his hardscrabble childhood, we learn about the family history that Grant spent his entire life hiding from everybody. After leaving school at fifteen, he worked various odd jobs including his first forays into show business by working the curtain at the Croydon Empire during the waning days of variety shows and the birth of rock and roll. After starting his own business driving musicians around to their appearances, Grant made his first steps into management with a handful of different pop groups throughout the early 1960s This eventually led him to the Yardbirds who Grant took over around 1967. It was also around this time that he started a joint management business and record label with producer Mickie Most. However, Grant was always smart enough to know that he knew nothing about music. What he did know was how to negotiate on behalf of his clients and how to get his way whether it was via negotiating or some other more persuasive techniques. During his early years Grant spent a lot of time watching and learning from the top impresarios of the day including the notorious Don Arden. By the time he took on the Yardbirds, he was able to improve their income while taking note of how much better their fortunes on the underground live circuit was in America versus how they fared on the British charts. In working with the Yardbirds, he also met the musician he would nurture and cater to for the remainder of his career, Jimmy Page. Out of the ashes of the Yardbirds rose the newly formed Led Zeppelin in 1968; the rest is history at least in terms of their career and it's a story that's been told numerous times by me and others. While I won't rehash it here, what Blake shows in his book is that Grant applied many of the tactics and strategies he picked up along the way in his formative years while pioneering new ones for better or for worse.

Bring It On Home doesn't shy away from discussing some of the more unsavory aspects of Grant's and Zeppelin's career including the drug use, the violence, and the tragedy. What the book does extremely well and which elevates it above a merely salacious tell-all is that the author also attempts to separate fact from myth to spell out the truth about Grant and his methods. Some of the most notorious Peter Grant stories are confirmed while others are corrected or dispelled. What's apparent reading through the book is that nearly everyone who befriended or worked with him for the most part remembers him fondly despite his flaws. What's undeniable is that he greatly improved working conditions and earnings for musicians with the numerous innovations he pioneered during Led Zeppelin's career. From demanding and getting a larger percentage of the take from ticket sales (90%!) to Led Zeppelin having complete ownership and control of their recordings and everything in between, much of what is taken for granted now in the music business is due to Peter Grant. Bring It On Home does a great job describing all of this as the backdrop to his life. There are even new tidbits of the Led Zeppelin story including insight on his relationships with Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham. The story of Grant's life in the wake of John Bonham's death in September 1980 and the dissolution of Led Zeppelin is both poignant and enlightening as it somewhat confirms the conventional wisdom that he was a hermit from the public eye while showing that to his friends and family, Grant was more accessible as he simplified his lifestyle and improved his health. His untimely sudden death in 1995 ended his life but not his legend.

Bring It On Home is an excellent book and one of the rare biographies of a manager that's as interesting as the band they represented. Grant has always been an influential and controversial figure in rock history, but Mark Blake does a wonderful job at humanizing him and sorting through the stories and mythos in order to present who he really was behind the intimidating character clad in scarves, rings, and rumpled suits. For any fan of Led Zeppelin or 1970s rock, Bring It On Home is a great read about the successes and excesses of the biggest band and the biggest manager of that decade. 

MY RATING: 9.5/10

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

ANNOUNCEMENT: MY NEW BOOK: A Win For Every Stitch - A Fan's Diary of the 2018 Boston Red Sox Championship Season

I'm excited to announce that my newest book, A Win For Every Stitch, is due for release in December 2018. This book came about as an idea toward the end of the regular season when the Red Sox were preparing for their postseason run. If you're a regular reader of this site then you'll know that I wrote a recap for every game the Red Sox played in 2018. From Opening Day all the way to the final game of the World Series I followed the team and wrote about what happened each day and my thoughts at the time. At the very end of the season I was left not only with a sense of accomplishment but with an idea: wouldn't it be nice to collect all of my recaps into a running diary of the 2018 season and make it into a book that I could have as a personal memento of this incredible season? It would be something I could go back and enjoy any time. I then realized it might be something that other Red Sox fans may also enjoy. That led to the idea of making it into a full-fledged book and publishing it in order to share it with the rest of Red Sox Nation.

Now for some a couple of quick hits regarding A Win For Every Stitch:

- The book contains every one of my game recaps, from Opening Day in late March all the way to the final game of the World Series. I haven't changed anything other than fixing typos, grammatical errors, and cleaning up some clunky sentences here and there. I didn't add any hindsight or revisionist history, so what you read from me on a particular day is exactly how I felt in that moment. That makes for some interesting reading, especially with the ever-evolving perceptions of the team and certain players which changed for the better (or in some cases, worse) as the season went on. The total length runs around 350 pages.

- There is a freshly written introduction in which I give a potted history of the Red Sox up to the beginning of this season as well as some more detail into what the impetus for the book was. I also touch on my own journey as a baseball fan and what the Red Sox have meant to me over the course of my life. There is an epilogue tying up the remaining loose ends from after the World Series (including the various awards and honors the team and players won in the weeks following winning the championship).

I'm currently reviewing proof copies and finalizing the cover art before I'm ready to publish, but as soon as I have a release date and it's available for purchase I will announce it. There will be a paperback copy available for $19.99 and a Kindle e-book version for $9.99. I haven't decided yet if I'm going to run a promotion and offer autographed would depend on how many people are interested. Regardless, I'm really excited about this book and the opportunity to share it with other Red Sox fans. I always get a little nervous in the run up to a book release...this is my third book and it never gets easier. Still, I'm looking forward to sharing my passion for the Red Sox and the 2018 season with other fans via this book.

Stay tuned for information on how to purchase a copy as we get closer to the release date...I think (and hope) that you'll enjoy this book!

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

I FINALLY Get One of My Holy Grails: The Beatles White Album Esher Demos from May 1968

If you've read this blog long enough (or if you know me personally), you'll know that I'm a lifelong obsessive Beatles fan. Their self-titled album from November 1968, more commonly called the White Album, is not only my favorite album of theirs but my favorite album of all time. I have both the stereo and mono mixes of the album and have never been able to get enough of it. Besides the two mixes of the album, there are two essential bootleg CDs I've had that contain additional material from these sessions. One is the Peter Sellers Tape (a tape of early/different mixes Ringo made as a gift for his friend Peter Sellers) and the other is the Esher Demos. In February 1968 the Beatles went to Rishikesh in India to study transcendental meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Ringo Starr and his wife were the first to return to England in late February, followed a couple of weeks later by Paul McCartney and Jane Asher. John Lennon, George Harrison, and their wives stayed until early April when they left after alleging the Maharishi of improper behavior toward one of the female attendees. 

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During the time they were India the band had acoustic guitars and wrote a large number of songs. Once they all were back in London, they regrouped at George Harrison's house Kinfauns in Esher to record demos of the twenty-seven new songs they'd written between Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison. Using nothing but acoustic guitars, bongos, rudimentary percussion, and their voices they put these songs down on tape and used them as a starting point for their next album which became the White Album. 

For years I've had a bootleg CD that contained twenty-four of the twenty-seven demos in so-so sound quality. Then in 1996 the Beatles released seven of the demos on Anthology 3 with pristine sound. That was a revelation as it told Beatles fans that the band had the master tape and that the complete demos existed in great sound quality. However, for years I and every other Beatles fan pined to hear all twenty-seven demos with that great sound, but as the years wore on it seemed we were waiting for something we'd never get. I'm happy to say that the long wait was finally rewarded because the Beatles have just released the complete Esher Demos as part of the 50th anniversary release of the White Album. Now we have all twenty-seven demos in flawless sound quality. Every White Album song that was written in India was demoed along with some that didn't make the cut. Of the songs demoed that didn't make the album, some were recorded during the White Album sessions but left off of the album ("Not Guilty," "What's the New Mary Jane?"), some weren't released until their Abbey Road album in 1969 ("Mean Mr. Mustard," "Polythene Pam"), some didn't see release until they showed up on solo albums after the Beatles split in 1970 (McCartney's "Junk," Lennon's "Child of Nature" which he rewrote the lyrics to and released as "Jealous Guy," and Harrison's "Circles"), and one was given away to Jackie Lomax ("Sour Milk Sea," which is the greatest lost Beatles track ever...Lomax' version featured a backing band of Harrison, McCartney, Starr, Eric Clapton, and Nicky Hopkins!). In addition, the White Album tracks we all know and love sound great in an acoustic setting. Some like "Blackbird" are very similar to the finished acoustic versions (although still beautiful) while the tracks that eventually became heavier and electric on the finished album have a completely different (though no less intense or emotional) feeling. What the entire disc shows beyond a doubt is the pure magic and genius of the Beatles. Stripped of any studio enhancements and amplification, this was just four guys sitting around a couple of microphones strumming acoustic guitars and singing and yet they still sounded fantastic. Truly gifted musicians sound great whether they're turned up to eleven or they're playing quietly in their living room and as the Esher Demos show, the Beatles were amongst the most gifted musicians and songwriters of all time. And of course any musician is only as good as the songs they write and the Beatles didn't just write great songs, they wrote timeless classics.

I can't remember being as thrilled and satisfied with a release as much as I am with this one. In essence this is a completely different version of the White Album and any world where there's more than one White Album is a world I'm happy to live in.

Friday, November 9, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Runnin' With the Devil (Van Halen)

From 1978 to 1985, Van Halen was probably the biggest and most popular rock band in America. Fronted by incomparable front man/showman David Lee Roth and guitar wizard Eddie Van Halen, their brand of hard rock coupled with catchy hooks and strong melodies sold millions of records while the high-energy party atmosphere of their live shows won them legions of devoted fans all around the world. Their story is a tale as old as time, one of high school buddies slogging over years until they made it big, enjoying huge successes, and then blowing completely apart. If you look up "sex, drugs, and rock and roll" in the dictionary there very well could be a photo of Van Halen next to it. For many (if not most) fans of the band, the original iteration of brothers Eddie and Alex Van Halen, Michael Anthony, and David Lee Roth was the best version of Van Halen, maybe even the only real version of Van Halen. (I subscribe to the latter). During the years when this band was at its peak, Noel Monk was their road manager-turned-band-manager and his book Runnin' With the Devil is the story of his time guiding the band during this defining and legendary period of their career.

This post contains affiliate links which means that at no additional cost to you, I may receive a commission if you click through and make a purchase. This helps me keep this site going to bring you more great content. Thanks and enjoy!

Having recently read and review Greg Renoff's excellent pre-history of the band, Van Halen Rising, Runnin' With the Devil made a fitting segue picking up just about where Rennof's book left off. Noel Monk was a rock industry veteran, having stage managed Woodstock, worked for Bill Graham at the Fillmore East, and was the road manager for the Sex Pistols on their one and only tour. In early 1978 he got the opportunity to road manage a hot up and coming band called Van Halen on their first national tour as a support act for Montrose and Journey. Immediately taken with their personality and live shows, he developed a close relationship with them and gradually became their de facto manager in the absence of their nominal manager Marshall Berle. By the end of his first year with the band, they fired Berle and hired Monk as their full-fledged manager, but with a catch: he operated on a perpetually renewing thirty-day contract. Monk takes the reader through the entirety of Van Halen's early career, through all of the albums and tours, and gives us the story of what really went on behind the scenes.

The most striking thing about this book is that through it all, Monk doesn't seem like he was particularly a fan of Van Halen as people or musicians. While he does mention enjoying some of their songs, for the most part he's somewhat dismissive of most of their music although he does heap deserved praise on the final album of that run, the massively successful 1984. As far as the band members go, he has nothing but good things to say about Michael Anthony as a person (as most Van Halen fans do) and while he spares no chance to mock Eddie Van Halen's naivety and cluelessness about the world around him, he states multiple times that he had great affection for him and nothing but the utmost respect for his genius musicianship. He saves his ire for the other two members of the band: Alex Van Halen for his alcoholism and backstabbing, and David Lee Roth for his arrogance, sociopathic personality, and mood swings. Monk also didn't have a lot to say about the music other than the few songs he mentioned that he liked ("Jump," "Runnin' With the Devil"). He surprisingly said that Fair Warning, which most Van Halen fans consider to be their best album, was poor and while most fans would agree that Diver Down was their weakest release, he pulled no punches in savaging it. It was a strange thing to read about a manager who was so focused on the business side of the band and had little to no interest in them as people or musicians. Most famous managers didn't meddle with the music but at least were fans of it (think Brian Epstein or Peter Grant to name but two). The thing to keep in mind, though, is that most managers were with their bands from the beginning and endured the struggle to the top alongside them; in many cases they became friends. In the case of Monk and Van Halen, they were basically shoehorned together out of necessity, so it would follow that it wasn't really a match made out of a shared vision or affection.

Runnin' With the Devil was a fun read but it was definitely a tell-all and settled more than a few scores. It was also a chance for Monk to toot his own horn and while it's clear he worked hard and accomplished a lot in the service of Van Halen, there was a bit of a Walter Mitty-like feel to it. There didn't seem to be a single problem he didn't solve or a single innovation he wasn't 100% responsible for (as an example. the band's merchandising). He always seemed to be in exactly the right place at exactly the right time doing exactly the right thing; after a while it seemed more than just a little unbelievable. I'm not saying he wasn't telling the truth as I wasn't there, but if everything he claimed happened the way he said it did then he lived a charmed life indeed. There were also a couple of instances where it seemed like he was mixing up events that either happened before his tenure (such as Kiss manager Bill Aucoin turning the band down, which was chronicled in Van Halen Rising) or Michael Anthony signing away all of his rights to the band's publishing (which happened in the early 2000s as far as I know). Still, overall Runnin' With the Devil was an enjoyable and eye-opening look at the machinations of the classic Van Halen lineup behind the scenes. One thing I will warn potential readers is to make sure you're able to separate the artist from the art. Most of what is known about the guys in the band is not flattering regardless of the source; it's all pretty much true and this book only adds to that. As long as one is able to keep that separate from the enjoyment of their music, Van Halen fans should enjoy this book.


Saturday, November 3, 2018

Baseball and Softball Gear Reviews: The Skilz Reaction Ball

Whether you play baseball or softball, have kids that do, or coach a team one of the most basic and primary skills in the sport is fielding ground balls. It's one of the first things kids are taught when they put a glove on and while it's seemingly the simplest of skills, it can take a lifetime to master. Even at the highest levels of play, fielding grounders is a challenge not least of which because the ball can often take wild and unpredictable bounces. Because of this, grounders are something that everyone playing baseball or softball needs to practice fielding throughout their playing careers. The challenge, especially with younger players, is making that practice fun so that proper skills are learned through repetition.

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For the majority of my own baseball career I was a catcher so spent most of my time honing skills such as blocking balls in the dirt, catching pop ups, and calling (and catching) different pitches. When I played in college, I moved to right or left field and was more focused on tracking and catching long fly balls while trying to avoid crashing into the fence. Now as a parent I coach my four kids who play baseball/softball (including two who play year round travel ball). I spend a lot of my free time working with my kids both individually in our free time and also with their teams since I help coach  them. Somehow a catcher like me fathered two players (my oldest daughter and my son) both of whose best position is shortstop...we're not sure what my youngest daughter will gravitate toward and my other daughter was a catcher when she played. I spend a lot of time with all of them working on hitting, fly balls, throwing, and of course fielding grounders. I've always been a firm believer in teaching a solid foundation of fundamental skills and making sure they've mastered those before building any advanced techniques upon that base. With that said, for a long time I had been struggling on how to help my kids field bad hops. As part of our routine, I would purposely hit them choppers or short hop grounders, but it became predicable and I couldn't find a good way to introduce more randomness to better simulate actual game situations.

The solution came when I was attending a baseball camp with my son this past January. At one of the infield drill stations they had buckets of these lumpy yellow balls I'd never seen before. The drill was for the boys to field the balls as they took random bounces and hops and then throw them back to the coaches. I thought these balls were cool so after the camp I asked about them and they directed me to Amazon. They kept calling them "Jeter balls" because I guess Derek Jeter had endorsed them or used them a few years ago, but I found them under the name of "reaction balls." I bought a couple of them and took them to the indoor facility where I work with my kids to use when we did infielding drills. My kids took to them right away and found them fun to use. All I do is have them get in their ready positions for fielding and roll the reaction ball to them. They then have to track it with their eyes while using proper foot- and handwork to field it cleanly as it takes it's random bounces. Sometimes this means they'll have to reach to forehand or backhand it, and sometimes this means it will take a strange hop in front of them that they'll need to block with their bodies. They both had a lot of fun working with it and still do; we've made drills with the reactions balls a regular part of our practice routine. It's definitely helped my two shortstops track and react to strange hops and that's led to fewer errors and excellent hand/eye coordination in practices and games. For $10 it's a really simple and fun way to improve fielding and the nice thing is you can even use it inside the house and practice barehanded during the winter. I always keep a couple stashed in my bag for practices and if you're a coach or have kids that play I'd definitely recommend getting one of these.