The Ruins, by Scott Smith

I’ve purchased a lot of books that carried a cover blurb by Stephen King. Generally speaking, the guy’s got pretty good taste when it comes to recommending horror novels. I read (and thoroughly enjoyed) both Clive Barker’s Books of Blood and Dan Simmons’ Summer Of Night based on a few words from King pasted on the back cover.

So it was with this in mind that I bought and read The Ruins by Scott Smith. It was the "best horror novel of the new century" according to King. There was a movie earlier this year, but I haven’t seen it yet.

It’s not the best horror novel of the new century. I haven’t read all that many, but King’s own Duma Key is better. So was The Terror which I reviewed earlier on this blog. In fact, The Ruins is pretty blah.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a very good read. The characters are well-drawn, the situation certainly tense. But it’s 500 pages long and could have been cut by about, oh…400 of those pages. This is a novella engorged to novel length.

In many ways, it reminded me of Stephen King’s short story, "The Raft," published in his anthology Skeleton Crew. In that story, about 20-30 pages if I remember right, a handful of people swim out to a moored raft in the middle of a lake, only to find that they are trapped there by a spot on the water that resembles an oil slick, but moves independently and with thought, and which dissolves the flesh of anyone unlucky enough to contact it.

In The Ruins, a handful of people go to some ancient ruins near Cancun, Mexico only to find themselves trapped there by vines that move independently, can mimic sounds and even human voices, and which dissolve the flesh of anyone unlucky enough to get trapped by them. Also, like "The Raft" the entire story here could be staged as a play. Aside from a brief prologue in a beach resort, a short tale of the journey to the ruins, and a brief trip into a hole in the ground, all of the action takes place in one setting.

What is missing from The Ruins, aside from any real action, is a reason. Sure, we’re given a reason for the five intrepid vacationers to be there. But the murderous vines are never explained. What are they? Where are they from? I’ve read every page and I still don’t know.

What we have here is nihilism. Things happen, but there is never a reason for it. The book is little more than an excuse to describe some gruesome deaths. Since there is no point to the deaths, then everything leading up to it is rendered pointless as well. The essence of tragedy is when bad things happen to people for whom the reader cares. The endings of, say, Nevil Shute’s On the Beach or Daniel Keyes’ Flowers For Algernon are certainly sad, even depressing. But the ending of The Ruins just makes me wonder why I went through 500 pages to get to this point. The ending is not pathos as it is in the Shute or Keyes book. It’s just bleak.

The book is a diverting read. It’s certainly a fast read, like a Dean Koontz or Stephen King book. You could do a lot worse than to curl up in bed on a rainy weekend and lose yourself in this world (you could be reading a James Patterson novel, for instance), and once you start the book is pretty compelling. It’s no-holds-barred horror in the tradition of other "go-straight-for-the-throat-and-don’t-let-go" writers like James Herbert or the team of John Skipp and Craig Spector, and it shares something of the latter duo’s dark world view (but not their sense of humor which lightened even gloomfests like The Bridge). But when it’s over you may just find yourself asking why you didn’t read something else.

Read it if it’s there and you like a decently scary story that doesn’t require too much thought.

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To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird is one of those books that a lot of us read in high school. I have vague memories of seeing some of my classmates with the book. The book was never assigned to me, however. Nor was Lord Of The Flies, which just goes to prove that the English teachers I had in high school were the uncool ones. It’s disheartening now, all these years later, to learn that while I was stuck reading godawful tripe like West  Side Story, gems like Mockingbird were being read by the class down the hall.

My sole criticism first, just to get it out of the way. Harper Lee has a point to make in To Kill A Mockingbird and she’s going to make that point VERY CLEARLY. And if you don’t get it the first time around, the point will be made again in just a few pages. If you’ve read the book and still don’t get the point, allow me: Racism is bad.

Now, Lee is absolutely right about this. Racism is bad. And while the point may be a little obvious at times, the fact remains that To Kill A Mockingbird is still a profoundly moving book. The characters are beautifully drawn, especially Scout Finch, the young girl who comes of age during the course of the book’s 300 pages.

Lee does an amazing job of portraying the town of Maycomb, a dusty little spot on the map of Depression-era Alabama. I know nothing of Lee’s life, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Scout Finch has more than a bit of Harper Lee in her, and that Lee came from a town not unlike Maycomb.

It seems to me though that the book is not about racism, per se. The fulcrum on which the plot pivots is the trial of Tom Robinson, a one-armed black man accused of raping a white woman. The evidence all points to Robinson’s innocence, and his lawyer (the righteous Atticus Finch, father of Scout) makes a compelling case to the jury. Not only does Atticus provide a reasonable doubt as to Robinson’s  guilt, he even discloses who the real guilty parties are. Yet despite a rock solid case, Atticus knows going in that he will lose the trial. Everyone in town knows it’s a loser case. Everyone except Scout, her brother Jem, and their friend Dill. They are stunned when the guilty verdict comes down. Dill disappears from the book shortly thereafter. Jem, now a teenager, reacts as teenagers always react when the world is upended. He becomes angry and defiant.

But the important one here is Scout. Her world has also been turned upside down. An innocent man is sent to prison and later killed for trying to escape. Her father, who can do no wrong in her eyes, has death threats against him. Scout is still too young to fully grasp what has happened in Maycomb, but she still tries to make sense of it. For the first time in her life, Scout has been introduced to the concept that there is evil in the world, an it lurks just down the street or in the house next door. Her neighbors, nice folks all of them, are threatening Atticus for defending Tom Robinson, a notion that doesn’t square with Scout’s view of fair trials for everyone. Her teacher despises Hitler for what he’s doing to the Jews, but is glad that Tom Robinson was found guilty despite the fact that she believes he’s probably innocent. Where is this coming from?

Earlier in the book there is a short scene that seems out of context when it occurs. Scout, Jem, and Dill are outside playing when they see one of the neighbors’ dog in the street. It’s a dog they’ve known for years, but now it’s acting funny, walking awkwardly and seeming to suffer from seizures. Jem goes for help and the neighbors come out. It’s clear that the dog is rabid, and the sheriff is asked to shoot it.

Instead, the sheriff turns over the gun to Atticus who shoots the dog dead with a single shot. Sickness and evil have come to Maycomb, and it is only the righteous man that can slay the beast.

Here is the sickness in the neighborhood. The dog serves as a symbol for what will happen to many of the residents of Maycomb when the trial begins. Good, decent, God-fearin’ folks will succumb to the sickness of their prejudices and become dangerous. And all the while, young Scout watches, wondering.

She also wonders about the shut-in neighbor, Arthur Radley. He’s a myth, this "Boo" Radley. The children believe he only comes out at night to eat squirrels, and they try to goad him into making a daytime appearance until Atticus tells them to stop. Boo Radley hangs over the book like a shroud. He’s the 500-pound gorilla in the room. In the imagination of the children, he is some kind of monster. In reality, he is a "mockingbird," something so innocent that he cannot bear to step foot outside into an evil world except when no one is around.

It is Boo who saves Scout and Jem from being murdered at the end of the book, and it is Boo for whom the sheriff is willing to lie. Locking up Boo Radley for killing a man, despite the fact that he acted to protect children, would be like killing a mockingbird, an act for which there can be no forgiveness. Innocence dies naturally  from exposure to the weather of experience, but killing it where it exists is  a crime against God. What Jem and Scout learn from their experiences is that evil exists in the hearts and minds of all men and women and they have choices  in how to deal with it. They can run from it like Boo Radley and become prisoners of the world, or they can face it head on, recognize that the good coexists with the bad, and try to change what’s wrong, like Atticus.

What comes to mind is the great Edmund Burke’s declaration that in order for evil to triumph, it is only necessary that good men do nothing. It’s clear the route that Scout and Jem will take, and that may be the overall message of To Kill A Mockingbird: yes, evil exists and racism is bad…but as long as there are people with integrity and honor, there is always hope.

An Appreciation of Badfinger

On Saturday night, over a few cheap domestic ales, I watched a little bit of a video of a presentation given at Pearl River High School by Joey Molland, former guitarist for Badfinger. The original presenter was supposed to be Pete Best, the original drummer for the Beatles, but he cancelled, allegedly due to post-traumatic stress brought on by reading Ringo Starr’s bank balance.

I’m sure that Pete has some great stories to tell. He was the Beatles drummer through the insane debauchery of Hamburg, after all.

But he’s also a footnote in rock and roll history, more prominent than Stuart Sutcliffe perhaps, but probably not as meaningful. At least Stuart could be said to have influenced John Lennon, and he did introduce the Beatles to Klaus Voorman and Astrid Kirchherr. So you could make the case that, without Stu, there are no photos of the Beatles in their early days, no moptop haircuts, and no psychedelic montage cover for Revolver. Without Pete Best, the Beatles would not have had a rehearsal place.

But I digress.

The real story here is Joey Molland. I haven’t watched the entire video yet, but I sat through about ten or fifteen minutes of it. In a word, “painful.” In two words, “painful” and “depressing.”

The kids in the audience clearly never heard of this really old dude who’s, like, old enough to be their great-great-great grandfather or, like, something. At one point Joey asks the audience who the biggest rock star in the world is and the answer comes back (to a chorus of boos, admittedly), “Hannah Montana.” Molland’s mentions of the Rolling Stones, Dylan, the Beatles, and David Bowie are greeted with the resounding sound of crickets and, if you listen closely, off in the distance, an owl hooting.

But watching this did send me scrambling back to my Badfinger albums. The term “star-crossed” may have been coined for Romeo and Juliet, but Shakespeare never cooked up a tragedy like the story of this band. Even the Elizabethan crowd would never have believed it. I won’t dwell on it here…the back room deals, the mismanagement, the poor choices, the suicides. If there were forks in the road of their career, they took the wrong way every single time. In a music that has seen more than its share of sad stories, the story of Badfinger may well be the most heartbreaking.

But why is that? Is it because they were cheated of royalties? Nah…that’s happened to a lot of bands. Is it because the story ends in death? Lots of rock stories end in death.

The real reason is that Badfinger went through Hell and Joey Molland emerged on the other side as the lone survivor only to find himself in obscurity, standing awkwardly before an audience that has never heard Straight Up, and likely never will.

The real reason that Badfinger’s obscurity is such a tragedy is because all of these things happened, one after the other, to a band that could well have been to the Seventies what the Beatles were to the Sixties. They were that good. But 28 years after the death of John Lennon and seven years after the death of George Harrison, the Beatles are still the most successful band in the world, legends for all time, and deservedly so. But 33 years after the lonesome death of guitarist and songwriter Pete Ham (suicide by hanging) and 25 years after the lonesome death of bassist and songwriter Tom Evans (suicide by hanging), and three years after the death by natural causes of drummer and songwriter Mike Gibbins, Badfinger is the great forgotten band.

It should not be this way. They were an uncommonly talented band. Much like the Beatles, the songwriting and singing duties were split by the band. This has the effect of breaking up their albums and giving them a depth of sound that most bands with only one singer can not match. They were not a cult band, scoring several Top 40 hits and a few No. 1 hits. They were popular, and they were good…not usually a recipe for obscurity.

And the hits themselves? Are there better pop/rock songs than “No Matter What,” “Day After Day,” or “Baby Blue?” These are songs that stand alongside all but the very best of the Beatles singles. Add “Without You” to the mix, a song that was not a hit for Badfinger, but made millions of dollars for other singers like Harry Nilsson and Mariah Carey, and suddenly Pete Ham and Tom Evans are up in the stratoshpere with the very best rock songwriters. Take away Nilsson’s histrionic vocal and schmaltzy arrangement, and Mariah Carey’s over-the-top vocal gymnastics and listen to the original version and you will find a song as near to perfection as any that has been written. And the albums are full of songs of that caliber! Joey Molland played George to Tom and Pete’s John and Paul, but the best of Molland’s songs are easily equal to or better than all but the very best of Harrison’s. “Sometimes,” “Constitution,” “Suitcase,” “Friends Are Hard To Find,” “Sweet Tuesday Morning,” “I’d Die Babe”, “Got To Get Out Of Here”…songs that most songwriters would kill to have written, penned by the number three songwriter in the band. In baseball terms, this is like having your number 9 hitter batting .350 with 40 homeruns. Even Mike Gibbins, the drummer, wrote quality songs. “It Had To Be” and “Loving You” are miles ahead of “Octopus’s Garden” and “Don’t Pass Me By.” (Sorry, Ringo, but you know I’m right.)

To my mind, No Dice and Straight Up are two of the all time classic rock albums. They are stunning in their cohesion and their seamless quality. They simply don’t make albums like this anymore. And while it is true that Badfinger’s other albums couldn’t quite match that peak, the fact remains that both Ass and Wish You Were Here come awfully close, and the best songs from Magic Christian Music are on the same level. Even their final album, Head First, recorded without Joey Molland and unreleased until 2000, is a rough gem.

I can only imagine how Joey Molland felt standing before that alien audience. But he should take some solace in this…not everyone has heard of Badfinger, but the right people have heard of Badfinger. They formed bands like Cheap Trick, The Smithereens, Wilco, Fountains of Wayne, R.E.M., The Replacements, and Nirvana. I am absolutely certain that Brendan Benson has a wing in his house dedicated to Badfinger…I can hear it in his solo albums and his contributions to The Raconteurs. The one-off band Swag, made up of members of Wilco, the Mavericks, Sixpence None the Richer, and Cheap Trick, released an album called Catch-All in 2001 that sounds like a love letter to Badfinger.

The audience at Pearl River High School may never have heard of Badfinger, but if there was one kid in that crowd who was intrigued enough by Molland’s stories to go buy The Very Best of Badfinger, then the word will spread a tiny bit further as he plays the album for his friends. One hearing of “Day After Day” or “No Matter What” will ensure converts.

Badfinger may never make it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (though I might be able to make the case that they belong), but they will live forever in the hearts of those who love the music so much that they are willing to dig deeper, past the Top 40, and into the graveyard of forgotten music. I was one of those kids, and there are others like me, even now. Joey Molland’s presentation may not have had any impact on the hundreds of kids in the school who listen to Young Jeezy or Beyonce on their iPods, but it may well have lit a spark in the imagination of the two bored losers sitting in the back of the room wearing Nirvana shirts, smirking their way through the presentation while secretly thinking, “Hey, that was a pretty good song…sounds kinda like ‘About A Girl.'” And here’s a newsflash for the middle school kids buying the Jonas Brothers in record numbers: the brothers have a clear Badfinger influence, whether they know it as such or not. If you feel flush over the Jonas Brothers, you’ll probably faint when you hear Badfinger.

Musically, Badfinger was before my time, but my love for this type of music compelled me to seek the best purveyors of the sound. This meant digging around in musical attics, basements, and garages where, far from the incandescent and enduring light of the Beatles and Rolling Stones, bands like the Velvet Underground and Big Star rub shoulders with The Replacements and Badfinger. These are the shadowlands of rock and roll, where Del Amitri and Grant Lee Buffalo prop up the bar with The Saints and The Minutemen, where Uncle Tupelo and Richard Thompson compare notes with The Feelies and Meat Puppets, and where King Iggy sits on Johnny Thunders’ shoulders, smearing himself with peanut butter, making jokes at the expense of Bon Jovi.  In those nooks and crannies of the music world,  they are making music for the ages…whether anyone hears it or not.

Thanks to Cosmic Med  for the Joey Molland video, and a pox upon him for not getting me an autograph.

UPDATE: Having now watched, over a few more cheap domestic beers, the entire Joey Molland presentation, I’m prepared to say that Joey did a good job. He was clearly nervous, and his singing voice is shot, but he managed to win over at least some of those young whippersnappers in the audience. There were several requests for Beatles songs, and some of the audience even joined in on an impromptu version of “Hey Jude.” It sounded like a few of the kids even had some dim awareness of Badfinger’s “Come and Get It.” Maybe there’s hope after all.

Richard Wright, RIP

A fond farewell to Pink Floyd keyboardist Richard Wright, dead of cancer. Along with Nick Mason, Wright had the unfortunate indignity of being one of the “other guys” in Pink Floyd who wasn’t Roger Waters, David Gilmour, or Syd Barrett. That said, he was a founding member, a fine keyboardist, and composer. Pink Floyd would have been a very different band without him. The elegiac strains of “The Great Gig In The Sky” were written by Wright and remain, in many ways, the definitive Pink Floyd moment.

RIP, and say hi to Syd. I hope he’s doing better now.

Barefoot In Babylon: The Creation of the Woodstock Music Festival, by Bob Spitz

Bob Spitz’s 1979 book, Barefoot In Babylon: The Creation of the Woodstock Music Festival, updated in 1989, is currently out of print. However, if you’re looking for a rollicking good read and a fascinating glimpse into the behind-the-scenes machinations that resulted in Three Days of Peace, Love and Music in 1969, contact your local library for a copy.

Generally speaking, although I have a great love for much of the music that came out in the 1960s, I feel the same way towards hippies that Cartman from South Park does and, if nothing else, Barefoot In Babylon proves that Sea People are as non-existent as clean hippies.

While the author’s tone is frequently admiring, it is far from hagiographic. The promoters of the Woodstock festival come across as naive, bored rich kids (at best) or drug-addled fools of epic proportions. Michael Lang, the curly haired poster boy for Woodstock was a generous and giving man, as long as it was with somebody else’s money. But when the festival started and the world started collapsing around the promoters, Lang was in outer space on acid and good vibes. It’s clear that he wanted Woodstock to happen because he wanted to attend the rock concert of his dreams.

The popular myth of Woodstock is that for three days the hippies lived in peace and harmony, grooving to Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, Ten Years After, and Jimi Hendrix. To an extent, that’s true. Violence was minimal, but that probably has as much to do with the altered consciousness of the attendees as it does to the better angels of human nature.

The dark side of Woodstock is almost never discussed. Yes, everyone knows it was a financial disaster. But there were thousands of drug overdoses, one fatal, many more nearly so. One young man was run over by a tractor. Concession stands were turned over and burnt down. It all sounds a lot like the mess that was Woodstock ’99. But no, this was the original.

The artists who played don’t get off scot free either. Joan Baez did a very nice thing by going to the side stage and performing for people who couldn’t get to the main stage. On the other hand, the Grateful Dead were asked to expand their set in order to keep the kids calm, and instead refused to play unless they were paid upfront in cash–no small demand in a tiny town in the middle of the night on a weekend when no banks were open. The Who, also, did this. Sly Stone wouldn’t go on until “the vibes were right” (the vibes became right when one of the promoters verbally berated the star). Jimi Hendrix was threatening to cancel until the last minute because he was freaked out by the size of the crowd. Even Sha Na Na’s manager insisted his act go on at night (he was put in his place by the promoters, who didn’t care whether Sha Na Na went on at all).

But the creation of the Festival was some kind of triumph. Until one month before Richie Havens took the stage, the festival was supposed to be held in Walkill, New York. With a month to go, the town of Walkill pulled the rug out from under the promoters and left them with no site. It was pure luck they found Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, and a miracle that they were able to turn the farm into a usable concert setting in that time. Electrical lines needed to be laid, wells needed to be dug, ground had to be cleared, and the stage had to be built. It was an enormous amount of work, and many corners were cut.

There were not enough portable toilets, and hundreds of them were inaccessible to the trucks that were supposed to clean them out. Within hours of the first day, most of the portable toilets were overflowing. Ditches needed to be speedily dug and the waste siphoned into them. The water pipes were laid on top of the ground. Stepped on by hundreds of thousands of hippies, the water lines broke and needed to be repaired almost constantly. Similarly, the electrical wires ended up above ground after the rains came, and then exposed by trampling feet. This opened up the very real possibility that thousands of people could have been electrocuted, since everyone was wet and packed together like sardines.

I always knew that Woodstock didn’t quite go as planned. But the scope of the disaster was a revelation. The book starts with Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld pitching their idea for a recording studion to John Roberts and John Rosenman, two venture capitalists in search of an idea. The studio, to be located in Woodstock, would be heralded by a giant concert.

From there, the author takes you on a tour of town zoning meetings (not as boring as it might sound), and into the back rooms where the promoters were forced to hand over money to groups like Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm, or the anarchist Up-Against-The-Wall-Motherfuckers, in exchange for not causing trouble. The Hog Farm comes in for a particular beating in the book. Far from being the Hippie Clown he portrays himself as, Hugh (“Wavy Gravy”) Romney was just another hustler on the take, looking for bribe money with the threat that he could cause a lot of problems. Abbie Hoffman, also, threatened Woodstock with anarchic disturbances unless he got paid off. In the Sixties, they were hippie characters. In any sensible decade they’d be called extortionist radicals.

The book is endlessly fascinating, though I would have liked more about the music. In the end, though, the book was about the promoters and the behind-the-scenes wheeling, dealing, and outright scheming that led up to that music (much of which was great). The Woodstock Festival has long ago passed into mythology, and will never be removed from the haze of nostalgia. But it was an arrogant undertaking, poorly planned, hastily put together, and atrocious in its execution. Enjoy the music; the music abides. But be glad you weren’t one of those people in the Bad Trip tent, or wallowing in the overflowing sewage. It’s a better movie than an experience.