Love Becomes A Funeral Pyre: A Biography Of The Doors, by Mick Wall

514qxk7JaBL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

It’s now been 44 years since Jim Morrison shuffled off his mortal coil, and the story of his tumultuous life and early death has been told countless times. In books, magazines, interviews, and even a big budget feature film, it’s almost as if Morrison never left.

The band’s influence is still felt today, and that’s especially true of their lead singer, whose stage persona can be seen, in part or in whole, in the stylings of singers ranging from Perry Farrell to Scott Weiland to Eddie Vedder. When the Doors reunited in the late 1990s to perform on VH1’s Storytellers, there was no shortage of alternative rock gods lining up to pull on a pair of leather pants and do their best impressions of the Lizard King.

It’s a fair point, then, to ask if there’s a purpose to yet another Doors biography. Is there anything new that hasn’t been discussed before? Is there a single anecdote that Ray Manzarek, in the seemingly daily interviews he gave to everybody with a microphone or a pen in the years before he died, didn’t pontificate upon? Based on the latest, from British writer Mick Wall, the answer is no. This is the same story that was told (poorly and with a different ending) in No One Here Gets Out Alive, the Big Bang of Morrison biographies. It’s the same story that Stephen Davis told (very well) in Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend. It’s a similar story to the one told (bizarrely and with little regard for reality) by Oliver Stone in the movie The Doors.

This isn’t to say that Mick Wall brings nothing new to the party, but they’re mostly small anecdotes, like George Harrison inviting Morrison to Abbey Road Studios where the Doors singer met the Beatles while they were recording the White Album. But the main thrust of the story is still the same: pudgy young film student and poet discovers LSD, loses weight, starts writing songs, forms a band, becomes a sex god, has great success, and throws it all away (in one of the worst cases of alcoholism ever documented) while his band members fume indignantly (when they’re not making excuses for him).

Morrison was a star that eclipsed everything in his orbit. It’s why he appears on almost every page of this book, subtitled “A Biography of the Doors”, and the rest of the band drifts in an out. Morrison’s talent was, let’s be honest, limited. He couldn’t play an instrument, his voice was beautifully expressive when he sang in his range but that range was also very limited, his poetry was generally awful even as his lyrics, more disciplined, were often excellent. Forget Ray Manzarek’s constant talk of shamanism and Dionysian ecstasy and the fact remains that Morrison became an archetype. He was the tortured artist, doomed from day one, who transcended death and became a legend.

In many ways, Morrison was symbolic of the decade from which he emerged. He was vital and good-looking, filled with promise, bursting with creativity and a desire to challenge the established order. But, like the Sixties that began with JFK and Camelot, all of that potential was squandered with drugs, promiscuity, and alcohol. By the end of his life, Morrison was a burnt out husk. One of the last things he ever wrote was the scrap: “Last words. Last words. Out. Regret for wasted nights & wasted years. I pissed it all away. American music.” It was in his last journal, along several pages where he had written, over and over, “God help me.”

Love Becomes A Funeral Pyre is very good. It doesn’t add much to the story but it does flesh out one crucial aspect of Morrison’s life: how it ended. The story had first been told in Stephen Davis’s book, but there’s considerably more detail here. Since July 3, 1971, the story of Morrison’s death has been this: he went to Paris to get away from the rock and roll craziness and concentrate on his poetry and to be with the love of his life, Pamela Courson. One night they went to the movies and when they went back to their apartment Jim took a bath. He had a heart attack in the bathtub and passed away. That story has always seemed way too trite for me. I believed it because there was no contradicting story, but it never really seemed right somehow.

It’s not. People are talking now, including the ones who carried Morrison’s body out of the bathroom in a Parisian bar and deposited it in that bathtub. There’s far too many corroborating accounts now not to recognize the truth: Jim Morrison died of a heroin overdose while sitting on the toilet in a bar called the Rock and Roll Circus. In order to avoid police involvement and scandal, he was wrapped in a blanket and carried out the back door to a waiting car. His body was driven home at around 3:00 in the morning and carried up to his third floor apartment, dropped several times along the way. Pamela was mostly passed out, strung out on heroin. They stripped Jim, placed him in the tub, told Pamela what to do (get rid of all the drugs in the apartment) and what to tell the police, and left. Pamela did as she was told, and the French police weren’t really interested in pursuing the matter. It’s a more sordid tale than the myth, but far more believable. Morrison didn’t go to Paris to concentrate on poetry; he went because France wouldn’t extradite him back to the United States, where he was due to be sentenced for the infamous Miami concert. In Paris, he admitted that he was barely reading or writing anything. He was drinking an enormous amount, and had recently begun to try heroin. The heroin that killed him was nearly pure, supplied by Count Jean de Breteuil, Marianne Faithfull’s boyfriend (and former lover of Pamela…it was he who hooked Pam).

Mick Wall’s style is fluid and engaging, though perhaps more befitting a blog than a book. There are many asides and sarcastic comments scattered throughout, and Wall especially seems to hold an intense disdain for Ray Manzarek. While he readily acknowledges Manzarek’s musical skill and his gift of gab, he begins the book by telling how Manzarek had insinuated, in an interview with the author, the old trope that maybe Morrison was still alive somewhere. Rather than shrug it off as Ray being Ray, repeating something that he’s been saying to the punters for over 40 years, Mick Wall seems personally offended by the comment, and almost never fails to include snarky comments when he quotes Ray throughout the book. Some of the snark is funny, but not appropriate for what should be a more dispassionate biographical work. In contrast, the author holds John Densmore in very high esteem (deservedly so…Densmore’s autobiography Riders On The Storm is essential reading for Doors fans, and he is unquestionably the most level-headed and clear-eyed analyst of life with Jim Morrison).

Wall is also surprisingly critical of the music. While he thinks that Strange Days and L.A. Woman are complete triumphs, he’s strangely dismissive of a large part of the band’s brilliant first album, The Doors, and their hard-rocking return to basics, Morrison Hotel. He’s unfairly harsh with both Waiting For The Sun and The Soft Parade, admittedly the two weakest Doors albums but still containing many delights. He savages their performance at the Hollywood Bowl, which I’ve always found to be an extraordinary show, and the showcase they did on PBS (to my mind, one of their best performances on tape). But Wall is clearly a fan. As Morrison devolves, and the band starts to crack under the weight of playing with such a loose cannon, Wall finds it hard to disguise a sense of genuine anger that a band with so much talent could lose the thread so completely.

Wall also refuses to take a position on some of the many controversies of Morrison’s life. He shrugs and backs away from the idea that Morrison was bisexual, though the anecdotal evidence is very strong that the singer was, if not sexually attracted to other men, willing to overlook the gender of whoever was pleasuring him. Was he bisexual or just a drug-addled hedonist? It’s true that nobody will ever know but Wall seems to deliberately shy away from a stance. That’s fair enough, but he’s also agnostic on whether Morrison had been sexually abused as a child. Here there seems to be less room for hesitation. Aside from the fact that he exhibits almost all the signs of the abused child (the addictions, the sexual acting out, the violence toward women, etc), Morrison himself told his lawyer that he’d been abused. In No One Here Gets Out Alive, Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugarman recall the many instances where a pre-teen Morrison had drawn sexually explicit (and often violent) pictures of children with adults in his notebooks. Sugarman, more a hagiographer than a biographer, dismissed these pictures as being wild and precocious, yet another manifestation of Jim’s towering intellect and Dionysian godhood, when they seemed to me to be a real cry for help. The evidence of Morrison’s abuse is all there, and Wall’s dismissal of it strikes me as cowardly (Wall says that the admission to his lawyer was possibly just more myth making, though by all accounts Morrison was in tears as he told the story). Stephen Davis did a much more thorough job of exploring this angle of Morrison’s life and behavior, including the story of the (male) Florida bar owner who would let the teenaged Morrison on stage to read his poetry in exchange for sex.

Throughout Love Becomes A Funeral Pyre, and most other good Doors books, Jim Morrison comes across as a man who is kind and personable, very witty, insecure (he was hesitant about meeting the Beatles—”What if they laugh at me?” he asked), and extremely intelligent. When he was sober. When he wasn’t sober, and he was drunk more often than not in the last few years of his life, a rage-filled monster emerged. In vino veritas. Today he would have managers shipping him off to rehab and therapy, but in 1971 nobody knew what to do with him, and he paid the price with his life.

Love Becomes A Funeral Pyre is a worthy, though ultimately redundant, addition to the story of the Doors. It doesn’t reach the level of Densmore’s Riders on the Storm: My Life With Jim Morrison and The Doors, Manzarek’s autobiography Light My Fire: My Life With The Doors, or Stephen Davis’s Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend, but it is far superior to the original Morrison biography, the grossly distorted, sycophantic No One Here Gets Out Alive. Wall has done fans a service by providing the comprehensive story of Morrison’s death, but there’s little else here that hasn’t been seen before.

Ash, by James Herbert

8713500

It received scant notice on this side of the pond when James Herbert died at the age of 69 in March, 2013. I wasn’t even aware he had died until late in 2014. This demonstrates a considerable cultural difference between the States and England, where Herbert was the most successful and influential horror novelist of all time. His books have sold nearly 60 million copies and he was the leading stylist of what became known in Britain as “nasties”: horror novels that piled up gore, explicit sex, and far out plots, written in a breathless, fast-paced style. The sometimes extreme levels of gore and violence made the books difficult to read at times; the writing style made them impossible to put down. Once begun, you had to finish the book just to see what could happen next. In the 1980s, this movement reached America (by way of the English writer Clive Barker), in a more literary style that became known as “splatterpunk”.

James Herbert, whose first book came out the same time as Stephen King’s Carrie, was a talented writer who was responsible for some of the great horror novels of the past four decades. He started with real pulp, the go-for-the-throat, no-holds-barred horror of The Rats, but by his second novel he was creating believable characters and situations that took horror to new levels. The Fog, no relation to the John Carpenter film, is about a mist of chemicals traveling through the English countryside, turning everyone who comes into contact with it into homicidal or suicidal maniacs. In the most notorious section, a young woman attempts to commit suicide by drowning herself in the ocean, only to have second thoughts and begin to fight the powerful undertow and make her way back to shore. Blocking her way are thousands of people, the entire population of the beach town, walking into the sea like lemmings in a giant mass suicide shortly after the titular fog has passed through. The young woman never makes it back. It’s a genuinely chilling moment, and reveals a dark imagination at work. Herbert never really matched that scene, and his books swung wildly in quality from excellent (The Fog, Shrine, Domain, The Magic Cottage) to mediocre (Moon, The Dark, The Secret of Crickley Hall) to bad (Once, The Jonah, Portent, The Spear). Herbert’s books hurtle along at rocket speed, piling one horror on another, until the reader becomes exhausted. There’s nothing in any of his novels that qualifies as “literary”, but that’s fine. Herbert never made any claims to being literary. As a writer he’s far below the level of his American counterpart Stephen King, though even in his worst books nobody had ever accused Herbert of being boring (as some King books can be). If King is, as he described himself, the “literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries”, then Herbert is the literary equivalent of a White Castle slider. If you like it, you love it, but nobody will ever make the mistake of calling it gourmet cuisine.

Ash is Herbert’s last book, barring any future posthumous releases. It is the continuing saga of ghost hunter David Ash, the protagonist of the earlier, excellent, novels Haunted and The Ghosts of Sleath. Unfortunately, David Ash’s saga and James Herbert’s career close not with the thunderous boom of a sarcophagus lid but rather the dull thud of a pine box.

In this novel, David Ash investigates the paranormal goings-on at a castle in Scotland. A man has been found crucified against a wall, held firmly in place by nothing. There is far more going on at Comraich Castle than a malevolent spirit, however. The castle has been used for over a hundred years by a cabal of extremely powerful people who go by the name the Inner Court and who specialize in making problems disappear. The castle is home to criminals, dictators, and those who could prove harmful or otherwise detrimental to those in power. Adolf Hitler’s aged daughter is kept in a cell in the basement, as are a high-ranking Church of England bishop who is also a notorious pedophile, Moammar Ghadafi who was secretly escorted out of Libya after his body double was assassinated, and Princess Diana’s first-born son (and heir to the throne), Louis, who suffered a severe birth defect that left him with nearly transparent skin. There is also a paid assassin who works for the Inner Court but who is determined to destroy the castle and everyone inside of it before the cancer in his body kills him.

The problem with Ash is that the title character is a ghost hunter and, while there are some supernatural events happening at the Castle, being channeled through the aforementioned unknown daughter of Hitler, those events are few and far between and then largely forgotten as the book winds down.

And this is the biggest issue with the book: as bombs are going off and castle walls are collapsing, as the main characters are desperately looking for a way out of the inferno, the supernatural elements of the book all but disappear and never threaten the heroes. There is a very creepy scene where Ash and his fellow protagonists need to make their way through a spider-infested cave, but that’s it. And even this scene may only be creepy to arachnophobes. A few of the less savory characters, the all-too-human villains, meet their ends at the hands of malevolent spirits but this seems to be almost an afterthought, as if at the last moment Herbert remembered that he was writing a ghost story and backfilled a few chapters with token appearances of the supernatural.

It’s a satisfying end to the story of David Ash, a likeable character whose experiences in earlier books would put Job to shame. It’s not a satisfying end to Herbert’s career, a book from the bad section of his lengthy bibliography. That’s unfortunate because, at his best, James Herbert crafted some of the most intense, horrifying scenes in the entire genre of horror fiction. None of those scenes appear in this book, a too-long, flat, novel that wants to go somewhere but never gets off the ground. James Herbert’s career has sadly ended with his first truly boring book.

Wild Tales, by Graham Nash

nash

Honestly, Graham Nash has always kind of annoyed me. He seemed to be the weakest member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, though most of their hits were written by him. Even more than David Crosby, Nash was the “hippie” in the band. He could sing beautifully and his harmony vocals were never short of amazing, but there was just something that seemed very lightweight about him. Maybe it was hearing the execrable “Marrakesh Express” one too many times when I was growing up that made me anti-Nash. Or maybe it was just that he was the quietest, most laid back member of a group notorious for their egos and volatility.

At the same time, I absolutely love The Hollies, the band Nash formed in England in the early 1960s. Yes, they were strictly second-string in the British Invasion, and their filler-to-fabulous ratio is a bit high, but The Hollies’ Greatest Hits is one of the most flawless pop albums ever released. It shines in its perfection. So when a friend of mine lent me Nash’s autobiography I decided to read it to learn more about The Hollies as much as for any other reason. Surprisingly, I’m less anti-Nash now.

He’s still annoying. The political tangents he goes off on throughout the book are unbelievably strident and reveal a man who doesn’t so much think about these issues than absorb and parrot whatever his fellow travelers and friends tell him. Nash also has an ego the size of Jupiter and he’s not shy about his talent. The book is full of bragging about his vocal abilities and songwriting. On the first of these, his bragging is justifiable. Nash does have a great singing voice and is as good a harmony singer as anyone in the business. On the latter, his songwriting, his boasts are a bit much. Nash has written some really good songs and a few great ones. He’s also written a lot of junk. Despite his claims to the contrary, only Neil Young went on to do considerably greater work after CSNY released Deja Vu in 1970.

Nash is a musical figure so locked into the 1970s it’s hard to picture him beginning in much the same way the Beatles or Stones did. Nash met Allan Clarke in grade school and they discovered that they could sing together. In forming the Hollies, they combined their talents with a love of the Everly Brothers. Nash’s stories here are charming, especially the one about how he and Clarke staked out the hotel where the Everlys were staying in England and actually got to meet them and talk to them. Nash’s love of music is readily apparent, and he makes it very clear that what he always loved most was harmony. In the early days of the Hollies Nash and Clarke perfected two-part harmonies but when guitarist Tony Hicks joined the band, and proved he could sing equally well, they branched out past the Everly Brothers and started working on three-part harmonies, which created a very different dynamic and sound. In this sense, the Hollies were the perfect training ground for Nash.

When Nash met David Crosby, another singer deeply versed in harmony singing from his time in The Byrds, and Stephen Stills, a multi-talented musician, songwriter, and singer, he was able to instantly blend his voice with theirs. Their vocal tones were so perfectly complementary that they sounded like nobody else. It was harmony singing, but a style and level of ability unheard in rock music.

Shortly after they recorded the Crosby, Stills & Nash album, Ahmet Ertegun floated the idea that Neil Young join the band. Nash protested vehemently, afraid that Young’s voice would not blend and worried that Young’s reputation as a somewhat mercurial character would upset the balance. It was only after Nash met Young that he agreed. But in some ways, Nash was right. Neil Young was far too beholden to his own instincts to be a good member of any band. While Young brought a harder edge and some truly great songs to the band, he was far too difficult to work with.

It sounds like a really big deal, but the truth is that in 1969 Neil Young was far from being famous. He’d left Buffalo Springfield and was floating around doing session work and his first, unsuccessful, solo album. Today, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young is considered a “supergroup” but then Crosby, Stills, and Young were journeymen. Arguably the biggest star in the band was Graham Nash, and his star shone brightest in England.

For a band that did very little work together in the 1970s (they released only two studio albums and one live album), they remained hugely popular. Their 1974 tour was the first stadium tour in rock music. They toured and recorded in various permutations. Stills recorded an album with Young, Crosby and Nash worked together and apart. This was how Nash originally envisioned the band: CSNY would be a home base that they could all return to while being free to make music in any other outlet they wished. But through it all, none of the side projects carried the same weight as when three or four would collaborate. The 1977 album CSN was meant to be the followup to Deja Vu, but ended up the sequel to 1969’s Crosby, Stills & Nash after Young dropped out of the sessions. Neil Young didn’t record with the band again until 1988’s American Dream (and the less said about that godawful mess the better). At this point, the band is thought of as CSN and sometimes Y.

Throughout the book Nash is almost exactly how you imagine him to be. He’s still very much enamored of the hippie mentality and still pays a lot of lip service to that long ago ethos. The political lectures scattered throughout the book are annoying, even if you admire Nash’s exuberance and beliefs. Graham Nash is a musician who was at the beginnings of the English rock scene (The Hollies played Liverpool’s Cavern Club more than any band except the Beatles). He played at Woodstock and was at Ground Zero for what became the California sound of the 1970s. More Woodstock, fewer lectures about nuclear power, please. (His lectures might have been more palatable if he didn’t sound like all of his information came from a Greenpeace pamphlet.)

The book is somewhat misnamed. A better title might have been Mild Tales. The truly wild tales of decadence and licentiousness were the ones starring Crosby. Long Time Gone, the autobiography of David Crosby, is a far better book, both for his musical reminiscences and for the genuinely terrifying portrait of drug addiction Crosby paints. In fact, the wildest tales in Nash’s books are the ones about Crosby’s descent into an unparalleled Hell of addiction. Graham Nash had a taste for women and drugs, but never seemed to really lose control. He was remarkably self-possessed and self-assured as a young man breaking into the music business and remained so for his entire career. This, and his basic charm, make him likable (although it also fuels his unlikable ego). His love of music and photography, and his restless creative spirit are also abundant. The book makes a nice companion piece to Long Time Gone, and I’d be curious to see a good autobiography of Stephen Stills, another character blessed with musical genius and titanic ego. (Neil Young is too eccentric to write a decent autobiography, but Shakey by Jimmy McDonough is a fascinating biography.) Separate and combined, their lives are one of the most interesting rock stories ever written, spanning almost every music scene from England’s 1950s to Greenwich Village in the early 1960s to Los Angeles in the late sixties and throughout the seventies. For now, only Crosby and Nash are speaking up.

All These Years, Vol. 1: Tune In, by Mark Lewisohn

All These Years, Vol. 1: Tune In, by Mark Lewisohn

For most Americans the story of the Beatles begins fifty years ago today when a plane carrying the four longhairs from Liverpool landed at John F. Kennedy Airport, and kicks into gear two nights later when the band played on The Ed Sullivan Show to what was then the largest television audience of all time.

Of course, that is not where the story begins. The Beatles didn’t spring forth fully formed, like Athena popping out of Zeus’s head. In one incarnation or another they’d been playing and singing for almost six years by the time Sullivan introduced them. These six years are probably the least known but, in many ways, the most fascinating and important period in the band’s history. Now author Mark Lewisohn has finally released the first volume of his projected trilogy about the band, and the work more than lives up to the expectations.

Lewisohn has long been known to Beatles fans as the world’s leading expert on the subject, the author of the essential The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions that details almost every minute the band spent in the studio. He’s as close to an “official” expert the band has; with their permission he was given access to every note they’ve recorded (including all the unreleased stuff), he’s written liner notes and books, and he wrote the biographical prefaces to The Beatles Anthology (the officially sanctioned story of the band, in their own words). With Tune In, he’s outdone himself.

This is not simply a biography of The Beatles. This is the Moby Dick of rock and roll biographies. It is so richly detailed, so deep, and so complex, that it’s like seeing the Beatles for the first time in high-definition Technicolor after years of viewing them in grainy black and white. Lewisohn leaves no stone unturned here. True, it’s not really that important for even obsessive fans (guilty!) to know how much George Harrison paid for an amplifier in 1962, but those nitpicky details are deftly woven into a narrative arc that emphasizes the story over the minutiae. It’s a story told with cheek and humor, completely appropriate for the subject, and is bathed in loving detail. Lewisohn is clearly a huge fan, but he’s not worshipping at the altar here. Paul McCartney could be petty, narcissistic, and jealous. John Lennon was often cruel and cutting. Pete Best, it is clear, was a lousy drummer who couldn’t keep time if the lives of millions were at stake. None of the Beatles practiced monogamy, though both Lennon and McCartney demanded their girlfriends be subservient in almost all ways.

The early years of the band contain stories that all hardcore Beatle fans know:

  • When John was five he was forced to tearfully choose between his mother and father;
  • the head of Decca records refused to sign the Beatles, telling their manager Brian Epstein “Guitar groups are on the way out”;
  • George Martin heard the Beatles demo and liked it enough to bring them in, agreeing to sign them when he met them and was impressed by their humor and spirit;
  • when Pete Best was fired it was because the Beatles were jealous that their “mean, moody, and magnificent” drummer got all the girls;
  • bassist Stuart Sutcliffe died a sudden, shocking death;
  • after he was sacked, Pete Best told his best friend, Beatles roadie Neil Aspinall, to continue working for the band because “they’re going places”;
  • the Beatles never tried marijuana until they met Bob Dylan;
  • Lennon and McCartney spent the early years feverishly writing songs together.

The stories are so well-known, why do we need another Beatles biography? Well for starters, this is the first biography that states with complete authority that not a single one of these stories is true. Lewisohn has talked extensively not just with the people closest to the band, but their neighbors, schoolmates, employers, and everyone else with whom they had contact. His command of the facts and of the story is so overwhelming that the reader is left in awe of both his basic knowledge and the years of research he put into the book. When the facts are unclear, Lewisohn acknowledges it. When he cannot speak authoritatively, he presents all known sides of the story. Still, the number of myths he dispels is astounding.

Lewisohn wisely avoids foreshadowing for the most part. There are a handful of references to what will come later, but Tune In is set in the time it covers. This gives the book a sense of immediacy that too many biographies lack. The story builds gradually, sprawling over 800 pages (not including the end notes!), and covers only the time period ending on January 1, 1963. At book’s end, the Beatles are still over a year away from landing at Kennedy Airport. At book’s end, the airport was still called Idlewild because Kennedy himself was nearly a year away from Oswald’s bullets. Ed Sullivan, Shea Stadium, Sgt. Pepper, the Maharishi, Apple Records…these are stories for future books. Tune In ends with “Love Me Do”.

But this is the story of The Beatles. It’s all there. The guys that charmed the hardened and cynical New York press and won over the hearts of America are present and accounted for. The irreverence, humor, and restless creativity that later made Revolver are here in their early stages. Too many Beatles books think the story begins where this book ends; the early years are dismissed as a time when an amateurish act went to Hamburg and learned how to be a good band.

Essentially, that summary is true. The Beatles were a band with limited skills and a small repertoire who went to Hamburg, Germany to be the house band at the Indra Club, the sleaziest bar in town, before making their way up the musical ladder to the Kaiserkeller, the second sleaziest bar in town. Hamburg was such a high pressure situation that it turned the rough coal of the band into a brilliant diamond. It was in Hamburg that their repertoire expanded enormously because they refused to repeat any songs on the same night, and they had to play for four and half hours a night, six hours on the weekend. They learned songs on the fly, essentially rehearsing in front of crowds of drunken and often violent locals and sailors. In Hamburg they learned to put on a show, pressured by the Indra’s manager who would bellow “Mach schau! Mach schau!” (“make a show”). The show they put on, had it been seen in 1977, would have been called “punk rock”. Stomping, jumping, screaming, joking with and at the audience…the young band developed a visceral, exciting act to go with the music. They went to Hamburg as Liverpool’s also-rans. Nobody thought of them as being anything special. The best band in Liverpool was widely acknowledged as Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, featuring drummer Ringo Starr. When they came back from Hamburg, they were the best, tightest, band in Liverpool, probably the best band in England, and possibly the best rock ‘n’ roll band in the world. As such, they became stars in their hometown, attracting a rabid, fanatical following.

They would return to Hamburg four more times, the last two times being brief contractual obligations around the time of “Love Me Do”. Each time they appeared in a higher class of low-class bars. By the time they came back from Hamburg for the third time, they had played the equivalent of almost four and a half hours every night for eight months. That’s just Hamburg, and doesn’t include their countless sets in Liverpool’s Cavern Club. When you consider that type of pace, sustainable only by the young (and full of amphetamines), it’s nearly impossible to imagine a band becoming more tempered. Even when Stuart Sutcliffe quit the band in order to stay with the woman he loved, they carried on as if nothing had happened by forcing McCartney to (reluctantly) play bass. But Lewisohn also takes great pains to point out how unusual the Beatles were. It wasn’t simply that they were the best band in Liverpool, something that almost everyone in the city acknowledged in 1961. They were different. At a time when nearly every band in England was modeled after Cliff Richard and the Shadows (a singer and backing group), the Beatles all sang (even Pete Best would sing once or twice a night), and they sang harmonies, something no other band in Liverpool was doing. They were very funny, bringing their boundless love of The Goons and John’s Lewis Carroll-esque wordplay into their act. They were more than a rock ‘n’ roll band; they were the first rock group, comprised of inseparable friends (and Pete Best on drums). Lennon was clearly the leader at this time, but McCartney and Harrison were near equals. There was no star; they were all stars.

The entire history of the early years of the Beatles is laid out here and, despite the millions of words previously written about the band, there are a wealth of revelations. John, Paul, and George played as a trio named Japage 3? Brian Epstein was not their first manager? George Martin was forced into producing the Beatles as punishment for having an affair with his secretary? A recording contract was offered only because EMI wanted the publishing rights to “Like Dreamers Do”? Beatles roadie and right-hand-man Neil Aspinall, a teenager himself, was having an affair with Pete Best’s mother…and is the father of Best’s half-brother? Aside from a few very early attempts when they were still known as The Quarrymen, John and Paul didn’t start writing in earnest until after they got a recording contract? Brian Epstein became the manager of so many Liverpool acts not because he liked them, but because it enabled him to hold a near monopoly on the Liverpool music scene (and thus promote the Beatles even more heavily)? The Beatles introduced the fledgling Detroit music scene to England, by being the first band to do a Motown song on the BBC?

This is the complete story of the early years. Many myths are destroyed; many are confirmed. The true story is better than the myth. The drugs and drink are here; the rampaging, insatiable sexual appetites of young men away from home and living in squalor on Hamburg’s naughtiest street are here; the German art crowd of “Exis” is here, teaching the young band through their example that there are no rules to art; Brian Epstein’s tawdry, dangerous taste for rough trade sex is here; the violent streets of post-war Liverpool are here; most of all, the music is here. Large sections are devoted to who the young band was listening to, who they liked, and who they didn’t like. Barrels of ink are spilled detailing their love for Elvis, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, and Carl Perkins among many others. It brings them alive in a way that is not just “the Beatles as pop music icons” but, rather, young men in love with rock ‘n’ roll. They were music obsessives, scouring the record shop at NEMS (managed by the young Brian Epstein), for the latest and greatest singles from America. They were The Beatles as the world knows them and loves them, at a time before anyone outside of Liverpool and Hamburg had heard of them.

The book is not without flaws, but most of them are frustrating and not serious. Lewisohn often describes interesting photographs, but doesn’t include them with the photos in the book. Sometimes the level of detail is all too much. There are several dog whistles to Beatles fanatics (even including some Rutles references) that would sail over the heads of non-fanatics. The next volume is not due out for another five years, and the finale five years after that…and that is the most frustrating thing of all. Regardless of these picayune flaws, All These Years, Volume 1: Tune In is the definitive biography of the savage young Beatles, and Mark Lewisohn is their Boswell. It is difficult to imagine anyone else even bothering to tell the story after this. Any future books about the band will more likely be narrowly focused to an event, an album, or even a song. There is simply no further need for another biography. Tune In sits along Peter Guralnick’s two-volume biography of Elvis Presley at the pinnacle of books about rock and roll music.

Doctor Sleep, by Stephen King

In 1977 Stephen King gifted the world of horror fiction with a simple, elegant ghost story. The Shining was King’s third published novel and is still considered by many of his fans as one of the best novels he’s written. Among most King fans, there’s a general consensus that the books he wrote in his early days are his best. The rankings change, but most discussions about the “best” of Stephen King start with The Shining, The Stand, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Dead Zone, and Pet Sematary. There’s also strong support for It and The Dark Tower series, but to this reader both of those works suffered from severe cases of bloat.

One of King’s saving graces is that even when his novels are overstuffed they’re so easy to read that the extraneous pages zip by without much effort being required. Of course, this is also a criticism…the pages that are crucial to the story also pass quickly without much effort. For this reason, many of King’s novels are fairly forgettable. Does anyone really have any memory about the plot points of From A Buick 8? Insomnia? Lisey’s Story? Needful Things?

This isn’t true of his earlier novels. King’s early work benefited greatly from being shorter and simpler than most of his recent novels. Carrie, clocking in at under 300 pages, was about a girl with telekinesis. ‘Salem’s Lot was about vampires. The Shining was a ghost story. Pet Sematary was, in essence, a zombie story. They were brief, intense, and very memorable. Compare these streamlined tales with the sprawling mess of Under The Dome or the alternate world-hopping of the thousands of pages that make up The Dark Tower.

Now King has released his first proper sequel (not counting Black House, his collaborative effort with Peter Straub that was ostensibly a sequel to The Talisman but was more closely affiliated with The Dark Tower). Doctor Sleep picks up the story of Danny Torrance, the little boy with the big shine who barely escaped the swinging roque mallet and possessed countenance of his father at the Overlook Hotel. Dan is now an adult with a serious drinking problem, restlessly moving from one spot to another, looking for any place he can call home. His mother is now deceased, as is Dick Hallorann. The ghosts of the Overlook Hotel continued to plague him for years after the boiler blew the place sky-high, but Dan has learned how to lock the ghosts away in his subconscious, a plot point with much potential that never goes anywhere.

The bulk of the novel focuses on a newly sober Dan, in touch with a girl named Abra Stone. Abra has the shining as well, the brightest ever seen, and she is in danger from a group of psychic vampires who call themselves The True Knot.

It is this group, semi-immortal beings that feed off the psychic energy of children with the shining by torturing them to death and inhaling their essence, that ultimately undermines a story with a great deal of promise. The brief description of The True Knot is compelling, but the execution falls very far short. They are possibly the least effective villains King has ever created.

To all outward appearances, the True Knot seem to be middle-aged and elderly people who drive all over the country in tricked out RV campers. While their true age can be hundreds of years, they remain susceptible to disease, accident, and any of the other millions of ways mere mortals can die. Fairly early in the novel they kidnap, torture, and inhale the shining of a boy who has the measles. Because they are not immune, the True Knot then begins dying off from the measles. It’s enough to make you wonder whether, in their hundreds of years doing this, they had ever before met a child with a communicable disease. Apparently not.

The group’s leader, an Irish woman named Rose The Hat because of the top hat she wears, believes that if the group can get Abra Stone’s powerful shine into their systems that it will cure them. The problem is that the True Knot is about as competent as the Keystone Kops. Whenever Rose attempts to establish a psychic link with Abra, the young girl swats her aside effortlessly. The attempt to kidnap Abra is successful, but results in the deaths of almost the entire kidnapping party. The kidnapping itself is short-lived. A trap is then set by Dan Torrance, Abra’s father, and Dan’s friends from the local Alcoholics Anonymous. With very little drama, almost the entirety of the True Knot is dispatched, leaving only two survivors of the group. They, too, are easily taken care of.

The set up for the novel works. The True Knot’s base of operations is a campground in Colorado, on the site of the old Overlook Hotel, which brings Dan back to that haunted ground for the first time since the Peanut Farmer was President. It’s easy to see the potential here: Dan Torrance is back at the site of the Overlook; his subconscious is stuffed full of the ghosts that called the Overlook home; he is engaging in a pitched battle with psychic vampires who want to swallow the essence of his shining. All of this time I thought, Here it comes…Dan’s going to release them…the woman from 217, Horace Derwent, Lloyd the bartender…and the full battle will be on between the ghosts and the True Knot with Dan and Abra guiding the action with the shining. Pretty cool, huh?

Yeah, but none of that happens. The ghosts stay in Dan’s subconscious. Abra is thousands of miles away from the action and never in real danger. The True Knot puts up a fight worthy of a bunch of easily tricked, elderly people with the measles. And then it’s over.

The problem that plagues Doctor Sleep is that you never feel like the good guys are in any real danger. They’re constantly one step ahead of the True Knot. There is good in the novel. King’s portrayal of Dan Torrance is terrific, and the interactions between Dan and Abra are real and warm. There are enough connections to The Shining to make it a genuine sequel, even if the connections are never built upon. But Stephen King novels rise or fall on the strength of the villains, and the True Knot are as scary and intimidating as a group of mischievous puppies. That makes Doctor Sleep a huge disappointment. The Shining, one of the greatest ghost stories ever written, deserves better.

I Wanted My MTV

In 1981, Gil-Scott Heron’s proto-rap song was proven wrong; the revolution was televised.

It started slowly, and there were plenty of technical problems in the beginning, but eventually the little cable channel known as Music Television completely changed the look, sound, and feel of television. In all likelihood, it was the most significant change to popular culture since the Beatles landed at JFK. And all it did was play commercials twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

Make no mistake: music videos are commercials. They were nothing more than advertisements for albums, tours, and artists. They’d been invented back in the 1960s as a way of appearing on television shows without having to actually appear on the shows. It’s impossible to determine what the first music video is: was it the “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence in A Hard Day’s Night? Was it the video for “Paperback Writer” that featured the Fabs in a garden standing around and looking like the coolest gang on the planet? Was it by music video pioneer Mike Nesmith, who in the 1970s married his songs to short films that had nothing to do with Nesmith or the song? The debate can go on forever, and in the end it’s not the important. What is important is that a small group of television executive wannabes came up with the idea of creating a video jukebox and airing it all day, every day. They hired five personalities to introduce the videos. They launched the channel on August 1, 1981 by playing a ten minute clip of rockets being prepped and countdowns being intoned before a voice said, “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll” and the promo for the Buggles’s “Video Killed The Radio Star” began.

The first ten years of MTV are considered the Golden Age of the channel, back when it still played music videos and before it degenerated into a series of reality shows that celebrate the worst of human behavior. A big part of that is simply nostalgia. I certainly had a love/hate relationship with MTV (I wrote an article for my college newspaper about “Empty V”), but I also could not stop watching it. Starting when MTV came to my local cable company in January 1982, when I had free time, my channel was set to MTV.

Even now, when I hear a song that was a hit in the early 1980s, I can see the video in my mind’s eye. I can’t hear “Centerfold” without seeing Peter Wolf running in slow motion through a corridor filled with beautiful women doing cartwheels. “Rio” calls to mind images of the Duran Duran boys cavorting on beaches and a boat. “Jesse’s Girl” makes me picture Rick Springfield standing with his legs spread, playing the guitar as if he was sawing a two by four. The music of that era is inextricably linked with visual images.

I have always loved music videos. Growing up in the 1970s, long before MTV, YouTube, DVDs, etc., there was no way to establish a connection with the band other than albums. I would stare at the pictures of the bands on the LP covers. Too young to attend concerts, this was the only way to know what the bands looked like. To see them performing, even miming to a song, brought the musical experience to a different level. It made the artists into something more than iconic photographs; it made them performers. To see the Beatles on the cover of Sgt. Pepper was one thing; to see them walking around in the streets of London in the “Penny Lane” video was a revelation. Looking at them now, it’s like looking into a time capsule and seeing old or, in too many cases, dead musicians when they were alive and full of youth and energy. I still get a thrill when I see a performance clip of a favorite artist that I’ve never seen before, whether it’s a live clip, a lip-synced TV performance, or a promotional video is irrelevant to me: it’s like watching home movies of my favorite bands.

Two recent books tell the story of the channel from different perspectives. I Want My MTV is an oral history that gathers stories from everyone involved: musicians, video directors, executives, on-air talent, behind-the-scenes movers and shakers. It’s an extraordinarily good book that leaves no stone unturned and recounts those early years straight up through the alternative rock explosion of the early 1990s. It is filled with stories of sex, drugs, rock and roll. There’s an entire, hilarious, chapter about Billy Squier’s “Rock Me Tonight” video that the rocker claims destroyed his career. There are ribald stories about the making of videos (including an unforgettable image from the making of Van Halen’s “Pretty Woman” that will sear itself into your brain). The origin of MTV’s first attempts at programming are discussed, from Yo! MTV Raps to 120 Minutes. MTV was a player at all the major musical events of the 1980s, including Live Aid, Farm Aid, the US Festival (remember that one?). This is like reading a fast-paced, funny history of 80s rock music. Much of that music was lousy, and almost all of it was over-produced, but the stories are great. The scope of the book is so large, it’s one of the few rock books worth a second read.

The second book, released just a few weeks ago, is another oral history called VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave. This book focuses exclusively on the five people who were the original Video Jockeys, and it is nowhere near as successful as I Want My MTV. Of the original five VJs, only four survive. J.J. Jackson died in 2004. The main problem of the book is that the only real storytellers among the five were Jackson and, to a lesser degree, Mark Goodman. This is likely because both came up through radio, and both had extensive experience in the rock music world before MTV. Jackson was the first American DJ to play Led Zeppelin on the radio, and he was considered a friend by many of the big bands of the day. When doing promos and appearing on MTV, both Robert Plant and Roger Daltrey refused to talk to anyone except Jackson. They were all hired for their looks: Nina Blackwood was a smoldering hot wannabe actress who knew very little about music, but she filled the niche of the “Video Vamp”; Alan Hunter, another aspiring actor and dancer, knew next to nothing about music (though he’d appeared in David Bowie’s “Fashion” video), but he could be goony and funny in front of the camera; Martha Quinn, a recent NYU grad who’d never held a job before, was the perfect America’s Sweetheart choice with her pixie-ish look and “golly gee!” demeanor; J.J. Jackson was the black elder statesman who knew rock history inside and out; Mark Goodman was the knowledgeable, Jewish/ethnic guy. When you consider that one of the behind-the-scenes guiding lights of MTV was Mike Nesmith, it’s ironic that the VJs were assembled much like The Monkees, with each designed to appeal to a different demographic.

Throughout VJ you learn the stories of what it was like to be there at the beginning when nobody, not talent, crew, or executives, had any idea what they were really doing. The problem is that for too much of the book, which is about half the length of I Want My MTV, they reminisce about things that are of little interest to the general audience: where they shopped, who they were dating, what kind of apartments they lived in. A couple of eye-popping things do emerge from these stories, like the fact that Mark Goodman was taking full advantage of his fame by bedding every woman he could find, including MTV contest winners, or the mind-boggling idea that Martha Quinn dated former Dead Boys/Lords Of The New Church singer Stiv Bators in what must be one of the most unlikely, and cringe-inducing, pairings in rock history. Both Hunter and Goodman also fueled much of their time with cocaine, while J.J. Jackson was hitting the clubs almost every night.

Where VJ fails is where I Want My MTV so gloriously succeeds: the music and, specifically, the music videos. Since three of the five knew very little about music, and none of them were present at the creation of the videos they were playing, their stories about interviewing or hanging with the stars of the day tend to be very self-oriented (Nina Blackwood recounts Johnny Cougar attempting to seduce her, Martha Quinn talks about how she flubbed an interview with David Lee Roth). There is almost nothing about the videos they were playing. The most surprising revelation in the book is that the VJs filmed their segments in advance: four segments per hour, each only one minute long. These characters, who seemed so much a part of the viewers’ lives, were only on air for four minutes an hour. For somebody like me, who could not tear himself away from the channel in those after-school hours, Martha Quinn seemed as ubiquitous as “Hungry Like The Wolf” and “She Blinded Me With Science.” It’s oddly disconcerting to learn that these characters who seemed like such a huge part of my musical life were, in fact, bit players.

VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave is a forgettable book that is akin to listening to people sitting around reminiscing about their salad days. What it lacks is electricity, and this is something that I Want My MTV, one of the funniest books about rock, provides in spades. Many of the stories in VJ are also in I Want My MTV, but come across as fresher and funnier. The latter book is the one to read.

And if you want to know why MTV doesn’t play music videos anymore, here’s the answer with more truth than you probably want to hear:

The Doors: A Lifetime Spent Listening To Five Mean Years, by Greil Marcus

In the Afterword to this slim book, Greil Marcus says that the book was a lot of fun to write. I’m sure it was, but it wasn’t a lot of fun to read.

The book is not an analysis of the music of the Doors, nor is it a biography, nor is it a review. It is a deeply personal examination of a select group of songs or, in some cases, performances.

Sometimes the examination doesn’t even cover the entire song. For example, the chapter on “Strange Days” is about the first seven seconds of the song. Marcus maintains that Ray Manzarek’s brief keyboard introduction holds everything the Doors were striving to do…and that the remaining minutes of the song are psychedelic drivel.

Other chapters are so cryptic they defy a description. From the chapter on “My Eyes Have Seen You”:

Another staircase: Tenochtitlan, to the top, in a sprint, then looking down as the fireworks begin.

That is the entire chapter: a mysterious reference to the Aztec capital and, I assume, the stairs leading to the top of the sacrificial altars. But maybe not. I don’t know. Whatever, the sentence provides no real glimpse into the song.

Then there are chapters that have almost nothing to do with the song. There is a lengthy chapter on “Twentieth Century Fox” that is little more than a reminiscence of Marcus’s time spent at a Pop Art exhibit in Paris.

It’s frequently confusing. Marcus writes in a prose that borders on hallucinatory. The opening chapter about “L.A. Woman” steps to the gates of surreal. And yet, Marcus often succeeds at capturing the spirit of the Doors through his prose. A dry examination of the Doors—focusing on what the keyboards were doing, or how John Densmore modified a salsa beat for a particular song, or how Jim Morrison’s voice was recorded—can be fascinating. Just watch the Classic Albums DVD of The Doors for a really interesting look at how the particulars of the music came together. But what Marcus appears to be shooting for here is to have his prose match the anarchic spirit of the band: this is written language that gets arrested onstage, that exposes itself, that flies so high on LSD you think it can never come down, that stops in the middle of what you’re reading and takes off in a new, different direction. This is not expository prose, this is the textual equivalent of a Doors concert.

Of course, Doors concerts were notoriously iffy affairs. When they were on target, the Doors were incredible. When Morrison wasn’t too drunk and/or high, the Doors made magic. But then there were the nights like in Miami, when Morrison was reduced to a drunken cartoon whipping out Mr. Mojo Fallin’ (or pretending to) and berating his audience as a bunch of slaves. Marcus unfortunately succeeds in approximating those nights, as well.

The chapter on “Twentieth Century Fox” is the longest in the book, and torture to get through. The chapter on “L.A. Woman” is little more than a book review of the Thomas Pynchon novel Inherent Vice. He writes of the “cocktail jazz” version of “Queen Of The Highway” as if he were a Beat writer in a jazz club, imagining an alternate history where the Doors are the Ray Manzarek Quartet, waiting for the opportunity to play with Chet Baker. All very yada-yada-yada, and says nothing about the song. At least, nothing that someone who isn’t Greil Marcus can appreciate.

There are some excellent chapters, though, where the style of writing catches the reader and gives the same sort of head rush that great music can provide. “Take It As It Comes” gives weight to a great, largely forgotten, song. An examination of a performance of “The End” from the Singer Bowl in 1968 clearly shows the tension between band and audience, as the crowd was already trying to reduce the band to the single of “Light My Fire”. There is even a chapter (“The Doors In The So-Called Sixties”) that gives an appreciative view of Oliver Stone’s over-the-top movie, The Doors. My memory of that movie is not a good one—too many naked Indians, too much precious self-referential dialogue—but Marcus makes me want to see it again.

What comes through loud and clear, and what I find the strangest part of the book, is that Marcus doesn’t really seem to like the Doors. He’s clearly a fan of the first album, but little that follows it. He even writes of “the hundreds of times” he listened to the first album and “the few” times he played the others. He shows absolute contempt for Waiting For The Sun and The Soft Parade (whose opening track is ridiculed as “‘Tell All The People’—not to buy this album!”), and finds little good to say about even such classic albums as Morrison Hotel and L.A. Woman. The subtitle of the book is “A Lifetime Listening To Five Mean Years” but it’s obvious that most of that lifetime was spent listening to one 11-song album. It makes one wonder why he even wrote the book. Clearly the Doors mean a lot to him, but for all of his rapid-fire non-sequiturs and kaleidoscopic prose, the reader is left wondering why he holds them so close to his life.

Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, by John Lydon

This is the story of Johnny Rotten.

It has to be tough to be John Lydon. Reading Rotten, the combination memoir/oral history of his time in the Sex Pistols when he was known around the world as the dreaded Johnny Rotten, the reader is struck by several things: 1) Lydon can be very, very funny; 2) Lydon can be very, very arrogant; 3) Lydon is cynical to the core.

The Sex Pistols really were a shot heard ’round the world. It’s easy to forget all these years later what a profound impact the Pistols had, especially in England where they were condemned by decent people everywhere (including on the floor of Parliament) and championed by the disaffected, unemployed youth who saw England collapsing under a Labour government that promised them the world and delivered a massive decline in the economy and in international prestige. Look at what London was like in 1976 and it’s so very easy to see that for the youth of a nation there really was the possibility of there being “no future.” More than any other band from that era, the Pistols articulated this through the words of Johnny Rotten.

“We’re the flowers in your dustbin,” yelled Rotten. “There’s no future in England’s dreaming.”

These two lines from “God Save The Queen,” the Pistols’ wicked broadside at the English monarchy, are probably the two best lyrics that ever emerged from punk rock. They capture the zeitgeist of mid-70s London in 17 syllables.

England, especially London, was being ripped apart. On one side was the national pride of an older generation that had defeated those filthy Huns (twice!), a monarchy that had grown ever more detached from every day life, and a government that was mired in scandal and crony politics. The rock stars of the day had left the streets and were flying in private jets, snorting the best cocaine money could buy, and writing ever more pompous and self-indulgent music. They no longer spoke to the kids who were buying the records.

On the other side of this divide were the scabs of a nation driven insane, the youth crippled by high unemployment and filthy living conditions, disenfranchised from society, with no future. Enter The Sex Pistols.

Partially the creation of a self-described anarchist Malcolm McLaren, the Pistols were always much more than some angry version of The Monkees. They wrote their own songs, played their own instruments, and channeled their own voices. They were thieves and delinquents and, in John Lydon, they found an unlikely poet.

Bassist Glen Matlock may have had a strong hand in making the music of the Pistols as good as it was but the power of the band, the reason they are still talked about today, rested entirely in Johnny Rotten. Of the punk rock movement, he was the King, with guitarist Steve Jones, Matlock, and drummer Paul Cook his loyal court and Sid Vicious (who replaced Matlock on bass before their first—and only—album) his sad court jester.

Anyone interested in the band needs to read Jon Savage’s extraordinary book England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock & Beyond. The book provides a truly exhaustive bio of the Sex Pistols while also taking time to survey the rest of the English punk scene: the Clash, Buzzcocks, X-Ray Spex, Adverts, etc. The story is largely the same in Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs but while Savage’s book is a model of a survey biography, Lydon’s book is both helped and hindered by the fact that it’s so personal.

John Lydon is an acquired taste, both as a singer and as a personality. He’s maddening, enlightening, insufferable, enjoyable, arrogant, humble. Rotten is a good book if you like the subject (and I do). It’s also very rambling as events are presented in only the loosest chronological order. Amid Lydon’s recollections you also get his opinions on everything from older rock and roll (hated almost all of it except the Doors and Alice Cooper), his punk rock peers (hated all of them except the Buzzcocks), religion (hates it), politics (hates it), his fans (hates a lot of them), his bandmates (hated them), conformity (hates it), and everything else in between (hates it). The book would be a drag to read if Lydon weren’t so damn entertaining. Yes, he hates almost everything that isn’t him or created by him, but he vents his spleen in a way that’s almost charming, and often funny. He deflects charges of arrogance and cynicism by retreating into a “What do I know? I’m just a working class lad?” schtick, but the reader will definitely walk away thinking that ego is in no short supply in the Lydon household. Even the many quotes sprinkled throughout the book from Billy Idol, Chrissie Hynde, and others, including entire chapters written by other people, are of the “John was a great guy and a genius” sort.

The big problem with all of this, to me, is that like most cynics, Lydon is far more content to destroy than he is to propose acutal working solutions to problems. All too often these days, sarcasm is mistaken for a quick wit. It’s not. A quick wit can playfully nip with pointed teeth or eviscerate with a scalpel’s blade, but sarcasm is incapable of doing anything but bludgeoning and tearing. Wit is subtle, sarcasm is not. It is designed to belittle and disarm. Sarcasm is the hallmark of a cynical soul, and there’s precious little wit but plenty of sarcasm evident in Rotten. Aside from some non-formed treacle about how everybody needs to just be themselves and not part of a herd mentality, Lydon never actually says what he is for. Parts of the book reads as if he were a political conservative. Other parts read as if he were a socialist. All of it reads like someone who’s still locked in an inchoate, adolescent, rebellious phase.

Lydon slams the fans who showed up to concerts dressed like him because they were just copying someone and not thinking for themselves. He lambastes other, older bands for not being different enough. He never considers that maybe the hippies he mocks for their group mentality and similar ways of dressing were trying just as hard as he was to be different and individual and that this movement for individuality was co-opted, much like the punk scene. He tears down his peers and never once gives them the benefit of a doubt that they may have been just as sincere in their sound and beliefs as he was. He reminds me of Holden Caulfield, the snotty adolescent protagonist of The Catcher In The Rye, passing judgment on the “phonies” he sees all around him and Lydon, like Caulfield, thinks almost everyone else is a phony.

Rotten is a good book. It’s a behind-the-scenes glimpse into a fascinating chapter in rock music history, and Lydon’s sense of humor and storytelling ability are excellent. But the reader is left with one of two possible conclusions: either “Johnny Rotten” is a put-on, a character played by John Lydon, or John Lydon is a deeply cynical man whose relentless sarcasm could suck the life out of a room the size of Madison Square Garden. If the former, then Lydon is even more of a phony than those he chastises for their lack of authenticity. If the latter, well, it has to be tough to be John Lydon.

Is this the story of Johnny Rotten? Only he knows for sure.

Life, by Keith Richards

Who would have bet, thirty years ago, that Keith Richards would be around long enough to write his autobiography? This is the man who, for several years running, was consistently voted “Most Likely To Die” by culture mavens everywhere. At this point, he’s being voted “Most Likely To Outlive Cockroaches And Bacteria” by those same people. Say this for the man: he seems to be damn near indestructible.

Life is the story of the man, told from his point of view. From his youth scraping by in post-war England, when food was rationed and bombed out craters were playgrounds, straight up until his noggin-cracking fall against an unyielding palm tree that sent him for brain surgery, Keith Richards lived a wild life.

Whether the reader finds it refreshing or, frankly, sociopathic, Richards tells his tale with no sense of shame or regret. His life was decadent, immersed in rock and roll, drugs, and sex (in that order). But rather than wearing a politically correct hair shirt and throwing himself on the mercy of a public that wants their musical heroes fresh out of rehab, Richards shrugs. It’s his life, and he had a great time living it.

The book concentrates its energies on the 1960s and 1970s where the reader is introduced to the two great loves of Keith’s life. In the 1960s, that love is music; in the 1970s it becomes drugs. Life isn’t that neatly divided, though, and there’s considerable overlap. The best music of Keith’s life was written and recorded when he was a regular heroin user. But not long after 1972’s Exile On Main Street, the drugs began to take center stage. Keith was no longer a user. He was a junkie.

Richards does acknowledge that his true junkie years were when he lost the path, and that his life became about getting the next hit. Where the early Stones tours were marked with concerns about getting to the gig on time and what to play, the Stones tours in the 1970s were all about where to score heroin in each new city. Knowing that the police had their eye on him didn’t slow him down. Even when he was unable to get good drugs and had to resort to what he calls “MSS” (Mexican Shoe Scrapings), he steadfastly refused to believe that there was a problem.

But there was a problem and it’s clear to the reader, even if it’s not so clear to the writer. The early part of the book is filled with the stories of the early Stones, and Keith’s love of music is pressed on to every page. This is the first rock musician autobiography I’ve read where the author uses barrels of ink to talk about the musicians who influenced him, the thrill of creating music, the love of listening to music and sharing your thoughts with like-minded friends. Living together in a small flat, Richards, Mick Jagger, and Brian Jones sat around listening to and dissecting Chicago blues, talking about it constantly. Even leaving the apartment to be with a woman was considered a betrayal to the first mistress: music.

Drugs were present early, but mainly confined to marijuana and pills. LSD reared its misshapen head in the mid-60s but despite dabbling Keith claims never to have been that much of an acidhead. Still, the hallucinogen played havoc with the band inspiring the worst album they did in the 1960s (Their Satanic Majesties Request) and driving self-appointed band leader Brian Jones over the edge.

Despite Keith’s blood brother allegiance to Ron Wood, the other Stones who get the most press in the book are Mick Jagger (of course), and Brian Jones. In interviews Keith has usually skirted around Jones, painting a picture of a man who was a screwup and who let the team down by putting drugs before the Stones. In Life, that portrait is fleshed out and it’s not a pretty picture. Jones is portrayed as a horror, a petty, vindictive, mean, girlfriend-beating narcissist who, despite loads of talent, was an albatross around the band’s neck as early as 1965. Keith describes his stealing of Jones’s girlfriend Anita Pallenberg not as a betrayal of his friend Brian, but as a rescue of a monster’s girlfriend. If the portrayal of Jones here is accurate (and I’m inclined to think it is), then Keith actually stands on pretty solid ground here.

Mick Jagger is the other main character in Keith’s life, and is the relationship that receives the most attention from the author. Keith and Mick were best friends for decades, sharing a bond that survived even their brief affairs with each other’s girlfriends (Mick had an affair with Anita Pallenberg while filming the movie Performance; Keith didn’t mind so much because he was having an affair with Marianne Faithfull at the same time). What eventually drove them apart were the drugs and what Keith’s addiction meant to the Stones.

Shortly after Exile, Keith’s addiction led to a more carefree attitude about the band. Decisions that had always been made together were now being left to Jagger alone, and Mick discovered that he liked the power. By the time Keith got off the smack, not too long after being arrested in Toronto, Jagger’s grip on the business side of the band was absolute. When Keith wanted back in to the decision making process, he was told that his services in that regard were no longer needed. It was now Jagger’s band. (Keith maintains that during the 1981 tour one of the large video screens introduced the band as “Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones” until Keith screamed bloody murder about it and Jagger backed down.) Jagger’s using the Stones contract negotiations to secure himself a solo contract was a mortal blow to their friendship and, to Keith, a far worse betrayal than merely bedding down Anita Pallenberg. Jagger was now cheating on the Stones, and that was an unforgivable sin to Keith.

While they managed to hold it together for a few more albums (Undercover and Dirty Work), Richards became even angrier when Jagger refused to tour with the Stones, opting instead to tour as a solo artist. It clearly still stings Richards to this day (he dismisses Jagger’s first album with the withering line “I’ve never listened to it all the way through. Who has?” Ouch. True, but ouch.) The relationship now is best described as love/hate. Keith still refers to Mick as “Brenda” or “Her Majesty” but makes it clear that nobody else better insult Mick or they’ll pay the consequences. They are distant brothers who get along fine when they are alone together, talking or writing music. But when business intervenes, Jagger is still the King and Keith still resents it.

The other Stones are peripheral players. Charlie Watts receives nothing but praise, Bill Wyman barely gets mentioned, Mick Taylor’s skill as a guitarist is highly praised but his abilities to blend in with the Stones are dismissed, and Ron Wood is seen as Ron Wood: likable, happy-go-lucky, usually drunk and/or high, although Richards does confirm the rumors that Wood was close to being fired during the 1981 tour because he was so wasted he could barely play.

It’s all here in Life. As the drugs take center stage the music gets pushed aside, and some albums (Between the Buttons, It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll, Tattoo You) don’t even rate a mention, but that’s the life of a drug addict: everything else that you love takes a back seat and becomes subordinate to the next high.

At over 500 pages, this is a lot of Keith to digest. Mixed in with the rock and roll and drugs are celebrity cameos (John Lennon makes a brief, but hilarious appearance hugging the bathroom floor at Keith’s house after a night of partying, Gram Parsons, Paul McCartney, John Phillips), groupies, marriage, children, grandchildren…there’s even Keith’s recipe for bangers ‘n’ mash which is the funniest recipe ever written.

I’m not sure how much of the book was actually written by Keith and how much by his co-writer James Fox, but it’s irrelevant. The voice is entirely Keith’s. I’ve seen and read enough interviews with the man to know that whatever Fox did he did using Keith’s style. And Keith is a great storyteller, which makes Life a quick, satisfying read and an in-depth look at the Rolling Stones from someone who was there at the beginning.

Dean Koontz’s Muddled Message

Sometime in the Fall of 1984, I took a chance on an author I’d never heard of and was richly rewarded. The book I chose was Phantoms, and the author was Dean R. Koontz. I devoured the 400+ pages in a weekend and was completely caught up in the story. At that time, the only other Koontz novels that were available were Whispers, Darkfall, and Night Chills. I was so impressed by Phantoms that I soon bought the others and read them in the same white heat. He may not have become my favorite author overnight, but Dean R. Koontz was a name I now felt sure would provide a good story and a quick read.

A lot has changed in the past 26 years, but two things remain: I still buy Dean Koontz books as soon as they’re released in paperback, and they are still quick and easy reads. But somewhere along the line, Koontz has changed.

For starters, he dropped the “R.” in his name. Then the distinguished, balding author with the thick moustache pictured on the back of the books was replaced by a clean-shaven guy with a really bad hair weave. But that’s all superficial. The truly significant change was that Koontz became more explicit in his embrace of both Catholicism and political conservatism.

I have no problems with Koontz’s Catholicism or his conservatism. The problems I’ve been having with Koontz for a decade or more now has been how these beliefs end up getting in the way of his stories.

The novels are rarely explicitly Catholic though many of them are explicit in their belief in God, and they’re not overtly conservative, either. But just as you can always tell that Stephen King’s characters are good liberals who always vote for the Democrat ticket, you can also tell that Koontz’s characters are good conservatives who vote for the Republican.

What his religious beliefs have done for Koontz is inspire in him the belief that his books should be hopeful and optimistic, even though they deal in murder, sociopathy, psychopathy, horror, and evil. I have no doubt that this makes the writer a wonderful husband and friend, but it also makes for some schizophrenic reading.

To be clear, I think it’s great that Koontz wants to use his novels to express a worldview that is based on optimism and a great hope for mankind. One of the things you can count on in a Koontz book is that love will find a way and goodness will emerge triumphant, perhaps battered and bruised, but still walking proudly into the sunset. His chosen method for imparting this message are his good characters, invariably tossed by chance into some type of confrontation with the forces of evil.

The bad guy or guys in a Koontz novel are ruthless, amoral, human monsters who take a savage delight in murder and mayhem. They are frequently aided by a cabal of associates who may be part of the government, or corporation, or some secret society who believes that mankind is worthless and fit only to be killed or to serve their intellectual and political betters. Many of these bad guys are interchangeable from one novel to the next. One may be motivated by power lust, one may be motivated by blood lust, but their methods and their relentless pursuit of the good guys is a common trait. Despite this interchangeability, Koontz is at his best with his bad guys.

The problem with his most recent books comes from his good guys. If the bad guys are all pretty much the same except for their motivation, then the good guys are all nearly identical in every way. They have the same likes and dislikes, they share beliefs, they share attitudes, they share their politics, and, most annoyingly, they all share the same manner of speaking.

The good guys in a Koontz novel are mirrors of the author. If they are not religious they probably will be by the end of the book. They espouse politically conservative ideals. They are indefatigable optimists who, even in the darkest times, bet their bottom dollar that the sun’ll come out tomorrow. In order to express these traits, the characters don’t so much speak as they banter. The rhythm of their speech is taken nearly whole from any number of screwball comedies from the 1930s. For instance:

“Well who are you?”
“I don’t know. I’m not quite myself today.”
“Well, you look perfectly idiotic in those clothes.”
“These aren’t my clothes.”
“Well, where are your clothes?”
“I’ve lost my clothes!”
“But why are you wearing these clothes?”
“Because I just went gay all of a sudden!”
“Now see here young man, stop this nonsense. What are you doing?”
“I’m sitting in the middle of 42nd Street waiting for a bus.”

Or:

“How do you think Deucalion does that Houdini stuff?”
“Don’t ask me. I’m a prestidigitation disaster. You know that trick with the little kids where you pretend to take their nose off, and you show it poking out of your fist, but it’s really just your thumb?”
“Yeah?”
“They always look at me like I’m a moron, and say ‘That’s just your stupid thumb.'”
“I’ve never seen you goofing around with kids.”
“I’ve got a couple of friends. They did the kid thing. I’ve played babysitter in a pinch.”
“I’ll bet you’re good with kids.”
“I’m no Barney the Dinosaur, but I can hold my own.”
“He must sweat like a pig in that suit.”
“You couldn’t pay me enough to be Barney.”
“I used to hate Big Bird when I was a kid.”
“Why?”
“He was such a self-righteous bore.”

Notice the similarity in rhythm. The first excerpt above is from the classic Cary Grant/Katherine Hepburn comedy Bringing Up Baby and the dialogue follows a lengthy chain of screwups and pranks that ends with Grant in a woman’s bathrobe confronting Hepburn’s mother.

The second excerpt is from Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein, Part Two: City Of Night. The conversation takes place in a car as the good guys (a male and female cop who are, of course, in love with each other) are speeding through New Orleans after killing an inhuman creation that was about to murder the female cop’s autistic brother. The cops then very narrowly avoided being murdered by two inhuman assassins, their lives saved only by the appearance of the original creation made by Victor Frankenstein two hundred years earlier. There’s an enormous set up for this, taking place near the end of the second book of a trilogy, but the fact remains that after killing one monster, engaging in a fierce gun battle with two other monsters, and being saved by a third monster, the good guys then launch into a dialogue that is light, breezy, humorous, and wholly inappropriate to the experiences they are undergoing.

Unfortunately, Koontz seems to be unable to break out of this style. The situations in which his characters find themselves are tense to the point of being nearly unbearable. They are being hunted, shot at, tormented, sometimes seeing family and friends die…and yet Koontz can’t seem to help the fact that he keeps writing dialogue more suitable for His Girl Friday or The Lady Eve than for The Night Of The Hunter or Se7en.

There is a place for the type of banter that Koontz loves, but that place is not when the situation is fraught with tension and threat hangs heavy in the air. In those situations, this style of dialogue sounds contrived and forced. It’s not a “whistling past a graveyard” type of tension relief, though perhaps the author thinks of it as such. Rather, I would be worried about the psychological health of anyone who can be subjected to the assaults, car chases, gun battles, murder attempts, and general torment that these heroes endure and who could then slip so easily into the sort of light rapport that one finds at a picnic.

Dean Koontz is a good writer, and the storylines in which his characters reside are inventive and move at the speed of a runaway locomotive. There is much good to be found in a book by Dean Koontz, and his message of hope and love is a good one. That doesn’t change the fact that the lightweight badinage in which his heroes engage is frequently off-putting for the sole reason that no sane people in such insane circumstances could possibly talk this way, a trait that subverts the serious nature of the evil at work in the books. In the long run, how the good guys respond to the evil being done to them is where Koontz’s message can be imparted but the reaction of the protagonists, as demonstrated by their dialogue, ends up sending the message that evil is something that should not be taken seriously. I’m all for injecting a little comic relief into a tense or horrific situation, but there’s a fine line between a subtle joke that breaks the tension and having the heroes respond to calamity by slipping into a Marx Brothers routine.

The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror, by David J. Skal

When I was a kid I used to love Scooby Doo, but even as a young child there was always something that bothered me about that cartoon. It was the ending. For 25 minutes the Scooby Gang was battling it out with assorted ghosts, ghouls, and goblins. Sometimes they had help from the Harlem Globetrotters, but most often it was just them against this supernatural threat. And then, in the closing moments, the ghost would be revealed as a man with a costume and a projection device, cursing out those meddling kids for thwarting his plans to get his hands on the property/buried treasure/whatever.

Horror fiction, whether on film or in print, needs a payoff. For horror to be successful, you need to finish strong. Take, for example, The Blair Witch Project. For about 80 minutes there was a lot of shaky camera work and indistinct threat. Nothing special. But that final shot of the kid standing in the corner of the basement, tying the ending to a throwaway line from the beginning of the movie, was payoff. I remember very little from the first part of the movie, but that last shot will stick with me forever.

David J. Skal’s history of horror in the 20th century has a lot more Scooby Doo to it than Blair Witch. The Monster Show starts off very strong, recounting the story of Tod Browning’s days working in the freak show of a traveling carnival, storing up the images and experiences that he would bring to the screen in the genuinely disturbing Freaks. Skal expertly handles these early days of Hollywood horror. The stories of Lon Chaney’s unprecedented feats of movie makeup, the fascinating tale of how Dracula moved from book to stage to screen, the brilliant director James Whale’s beautifully subversive Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man (my childhood favorite), and the tortured life of Bela Lugosi are recounted in lively prose and wonderful anecdotes. Skal obviously loves his subject and he’s done his research.

The 1950s era of giant lizard/big bug movies were clearly inspired by the ushering in of the nuclear age. Godzilla is not a particularly good film when compared to, say, Citizen Kane. But Godzilla is a fascinating look at the psyche of a country that had very recently been on the receiving end of nuclear warfare. The devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki echo in every frame of Godzilla. Here, too, Skal is on firm ground. His analysis of these movies, and the early TV era of schlock ghouls like Vampira, is excellent.

Then there’s the second half of the book. The fairly rigid chronology of the first half becomes a rough chronology in the second, as each remaining chapter races through the 1960s and beyond. Instead of concentrating on the films themselves, the book becomes a standard serving of academic lectures about the era under discussion. Lengthy discussions of AIDS, for example, are tied into horror fiction rather than the other way around. The first half of the book is a history of horror fiction with ties to the culture. The second half inverts this formula and suffers mightily because of it. It’s almost as if Skal stopped researching the films and instead wrote a half-baked sociological thesis and then inserted movie references to reinforce his points.

All of the standard clichés abound. Horror in the 1980s was a reaction to the conservative times (a particularly tired observation that denies that horror fiction has always been a very conservative type of fiction), vampire fiction was about AIDS, the demonic children school of movies (Rosemary’s Baby, Village of the Damned, The Exorcist, It Lives, etc) was brought about by a combination of The Pill, the generation gap, and thalidomide babies. With the exception of a single line that interestingly maintains that Terminator 2: Judgment Day was really an update of a battle between the mechanical Frankenstein and the shape-shifter Dracula, there isn’t a single observation in the second half of the book that you haven’t heard before in any documentary ever made about horror movies.

The near-total collapse of the book in the second half is too bad because the first half is so strong. The discussion of Stephen King’s fiction is cursory, and Anne Rice’s vampire chronicles get a more thorough analysis than the works of the great horror writers like Peter Straub, Clive Barker, James Herbert, or Ramsey Campbell. The superficial reading of King is surprising in that King is regarded by nearly everyone as the leading light of modern horror fiction while Anne Rice has long since moved on to other topics. Skal spends a few pages discussing the Broadway version of King’s Carrie and actually believes that putting this tale of torment and bloody revenge on the Broadway stage was a “can’t miss” idea that inexplicably failed. The entire discussion makes me wonder if Skal really gets his subject, as opposed to having a firm grasp on the research. Anyone with an understanding of what makes horror work could tell from the beginning that the idea of staging Carrie as a Broadway musical was as silly as the idea of a 50-foot woman rampaging through the city.

In the end, this is the greatest problem with the book. While Skal loves the early horror fiction, it seems that his interest in everything post-1960 is merely academic. The first half of the book is written by a fan who loves his subject and has done his research. The second half seems to have been written by a professor who is interested in the sociological meanings of his subject and whose research consisted of watching the DVD extras on a few of the more well-known movies. The Monster Show thrills for awhile, and then disappoints. Just like Scooby Doo.

Under The Dome: Stephen King’s Ham-Fisted Politics

Reading Stephen King’s latest novel, Under The Dome, is a lot like running a marathon. The experience is enjoyable, you’re glad you finished it, and it’s exhausting. Just holding this 1,072 page doorstop of a book is enough to get your arm muscles nicely toned.

As usual, the setting is small town Maine. His old standbys of Castle Rock and Derry have been replaced with Chester’s Mill, but it’s indistinguishable from any other small town in Stephen King’s Maine. What separates Chester’s Mill from all the other towns is an invisible dome that conforms perfectly to the surveyed margins of the town. This dome descends so suddenly that a small plane is suddenly sliced in two, creating the first casualties. Trucks and cars on the road out of and into town slam into the invisible barrier, people walking suddenly end up with broken noses. Worse, there seems to be some sort of energy field near the barrier that causes electronic devices with batteries to explode if they get too close, as the town’s chief law enforcement officer discovers when the pacemaker in his heart explodes out of his chest, killing him instantly. It is this death that allows much of what happens afterwards to proceed, as there is now a vacuum of leadership at the law enforcement level, a vacuum that is immediately filled by the town’s Second Selectman, the corrupt and murderous Big Jim Rennie.

Stephen King novels succeed or fail largely based on the caliber of the villain. The malevolent spirits in The Shining, the vampires in ‘Salem’s Lot, the shape-shifting demon Randall Flagg who pops up in several books but most famously in The Stand, Pennywise the Clown in It, and even the rabid St. Barnard in Cujo all made excellent villains and excellent novels. Conversely, the already dead aliens in The Tommyknockers, the pawn shop evil guy in Needful Things, the abusive husband in Dolores Claiborne, and the evil government agents of Firestarter were pretty lame, and the novels were equally bad. Add Big Jim Rennie to the latter category, but make him the exception that proves the rule.

Stephen King has always been a liberal or left-of-center guy, but he was always more interested in scaring you or giving you a good story than he was in beating you over the head with a political message. His one previous overtly political book, the anti-nuclear power novel The Tommyknockers is possibly the worst novel of his career, a novel so spectacularly uninteresting that it was barely readable. True, almost all of his novels have had a few political asides thrown in, and there was little doubt about which side of the political spectrum his heroes inhabited, but the sort of political hectoring that is found in Under The Dome is rare in King’s canon.

Maybe the eight years of the Bush presidency were simply too much for King, because Under The Dome‘s villains are devoutly Republican evangelical Christians who murder, rape, and operate the nation’s largest methamphetamine lab while quoting the Bible and racistly raging against the black man with the terrorist middle name who sits in the Oval Office. In case you don’t get the point, Big Jim Rennie even has a picture of himself with Sarah Palin prominently displayed on his desk. I have almost no doubt that King’s model for Rennie was some leftist cartoon version of Dick Cheney, right down to the heart condition.

For the hero of the novel, King writes the tale of Dale Barbara, a serviceman who is making his way through the world trying to rid himself of the terrible memories of torture and murder he witnessed American servicemen performing on innocent Iraqis in Fallujah. Iraqis who carried pictures of themselves with their wives and children, just to underscore that they were decent family men and not IED-planting bombers…not that it made any difference to those cruel American soliders who wantonly tortured and murdered them. Oh, buh-rother…can I get some cheese to go with that ham?

The other heroes include a minister who no longer believes in God, an older professor whose gray ponytail lets you know that he’s a Sixties type of guy, and the Republican editor of the local newspaper (helpfully called the Democrat). Fear not, though…whenever the editor speaks out for doing the right thing, or speaks against the corruption of Jim Rennie, or disapproves of the brown-shirt tactics of the newly recruited police force Dale tells her that she “doesn’t sound like a Republican.” Because, you know, Republicans are all in favor of murder, staged riots, brown shirt police force tactics, and corrupt politicians. Well, at least in Stephen King’s world.

The problem with Big Jim Rennie is not that he is insufficiently evil. He’s incredibly evil. The problem is that he’s a Left-wing cartoon of a Christian conservative, and he’s about as believable as Roger Rabbit. In fact, the small town of Chester’s Mill is actually a hotbed of sociopathic miscreants. Who could know that in a town of about 2000 people in Maine you would find so many people willing to murder, rape, and commit arson on the command of an overweight selectman with a bad ticker? And not only is Rennie the power behind the local government, he’s also the main operator of one of the largest meth labs in the entire nation, presided over by a strung out tweaker who…wait for it…runs the Christian music radio station where the meth lab is hidden and who also quotes the Bible in between pipe hits.

The Dome itself is almost secondary in the novel. It’s really just a device that allows this parable of how fascism can be generated by a crisis (if you’re thinking about Bush and 9/11 right now, you must have read the book). The resolution of The Dome is oddly perfunctory. The ending seems almost as if King was running out of typing paper and needed to wrap it up quickly. SPOILER: The Dome is generated by a device implanted by alien children who seem to be playing a game with the inhabitants of the town, similar to how young children will turn the sun’s rays against an ant hill with a magnifying glass. After attempts are made to breach the Dome from the outside with bullets, acid, and even a Cruise missile, the editor of the newspaper comes up with a brilliant idea. She simply begs the alien children to stop, and they say okay. The end.

Unfortunately, almost everyone in the town is dead by this point, courtesy of a massive fireball that was set off when the huge propane tanks fueling the meth lab were blown up. The fireball scorches everything in its way and leaves the air under the dome largely unbreathable. Of course, Jim Rennie escapes the fireball but dies choking on bad air and clutching his heart after being visited by the spirits of those people he killed. You can almost see King sitting at his computer, fingers flying over the keyboard, saying, “Yeah! Take that, Cheney!”

King fundamentally misunderstands the nature of fascism on a conscious level, but on an unconscious level, perhaps even King gets it. Jim Rennie seeks power with an undying thirst, but he explains to one of his henchmen that he seeks power in order to help the people. “Our job, Carter, is to take care of them. We may not like it, we may not always think they’re worth it, but it’s the job God gave us.” Frankly, this is close to the motivation behind every politician who feels that he or she knows better how to spend our money and legislate our lives than it does those who want a smaller, more limited government. Rennie is not speaking of the downtrodden or disenfranchised, he’s speaking of the entire town population. Indeed, his entire mission throughout the book is to immanentize the eschaton, and just like every other totalitarian in history, he seeks his own unique brand of perfection.

Further undermining the novel is the speed with which events take place. Chester’s Mill is a quiet suburban town where the people live their normal lives. Then the Dome comes down and the town devolves into a fascist dictatorship within the span of one week. Rennie’s actions to assume total control begin within hours of the Dome’s arrival, as if he never even considered that the Dome might disappear and he would be held to account for what he does. The townspeople, flush with plenty of food in the store, cell phone service, internet service and even electrical power in homes that have generators (not uncommon in the brutal winters of Maine), become a rioting mob within days. Apparently King’s lack of faith in human nature isn’t limited to Republicans. Far from calamity bringing people together, as 9/11 showed, King seems to believe that we’re one invisible wall and a few hours away from tossing aside hundreds of years of the Rule of Law.

Despite all of these criticisms, Under The Dome is actually a very enjoyable novel. It moves briskly, the plot is interesting, the protagonists are likable, and the villains, while not believable, are at least sufficiently rotten. The politics of the book are ham-fisted and clunky, and the resolution of the plot is lame…over a thousand pages into this thing and they simply ask the aliens to stop? And they do? But it’s a diverting page-turner, and King is a much better writer than most of the people out there plowing the same field.

According To The Rolling Stones, by The Rolling Stones

Once again the Rolling Stones follow the Beatles. Several years after the Beatles released the documentary and coffee table oral history of the band, Anthology, the Rolling Stones released According To The Rolling Stones.

It’s about as imaginative as the title suggests, but the title is really inaccurate.

With Anthology, the Beatles set out to tell their side of the story, and they did it in exhaustive detail. While I might have preferred more information from the Fabs on their fascinating recording sessions, both the documentary and book were a treasure trove of stories. Every vacation, tour, and album were discussed in some length (more in the book than the film). But Paul McCartney has always been very conscious of, and protective of, the Beatles.

The Rolling Stones, on the other hand, don’t really seem to care all that much about their history. Mick Jagger especially is much more comfortable talking about their latest album/tour than he is talking about Exile On Main Street and the 1972 tour. Keith Richards tells the stories you want to hear, but the self-mythologizing can be excruciating. Charlie Watts is reticent to discuss much of anything. That leaves Ron Wood who is, at best, an unreliable narrator (as his own autobiography proves).

According to The Rolling Stones is excellent for what it is: a book that was used to cross-promote the Forty Licks tour and CD. It’s not dissimilar to 25 X 5, which was a mediocre documentary that was great if you recognized it for what it was: a promotional piece for the Steel Wheels tour. As a far-reaching, well-thought history of the band, 25 X 5 fell short. So does According to The Rolling Stones.

The Beatles Anthology was done while George Harrison was still alive, so it featured both old and new interviews with the three surviving Fabs, and pertinent pieces of old interviews brought Lennon into the mix. But where are old interviews with Brian Jones? Or new interviews with Mick Taylor or Bill Wyman? These three played essential roles in the Rolling Stones, but they are no longer in the band and have thus been whitewashed out of existence for the creators of this book. Wyman especially could have been a goldmine of information since he kept extensive diaries and notes about every note the band ever played.

But that’s the dirty secret here: this is not a history of The Rolling Stones in their own words. This is a promo piece for a CD and tour. You want proof? The Sticky Fingers album barely gets mentioned. The Forty Licks tour gets the last two chapters.

If you take the book for what it is, it’s very good. If you really want the complete history of the Stones from the band members themselves…well, have fun waiting. I just don’t see it coming.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, by Ron Hansen

Unwieldy title aside, Hansen’s 1983 historical novel is a fascinating account of the life and death of America’s most notorious outlaw, and the dissolution of Robert Ford, the man who shot Jesse James in the back on April 3, 1882.

Hansen begins the book with a recounting of the final robbery of the James Gang, in September 1881, then spends a section of the book telling the tale of the outlaw and his robberies. The retelling of the James Gang’s exploits, including the famous botched robbery in Northfield, Minnesota, is handled briefly. This is not a biography of Jesse James.

When the novel picks up again, it is the aftermath of that final train robbery. Jesse James is hiding under the name of Thomas Howard, and his gang has split and gone in different directions. The novel traces the most important members of the gang, Jesse’s cousin Wood Hite, Dick Liddil, Charley Ford and his younger brother Bob Ford, as they make their way in the world. These are crude, violent people and intelligence is not particularly high on their list of attributes. There are sporadic bouts of violence. Wood Hite has a confrontation with Dick Liddil over a woman. When a subsequent confrontation turns violent, Hite is killed by Bob Ford and Dick Liddil is on the run.

Thinking that Hite was killed by Liddil, Jesse James goes on the hunt for Liddil to avenge his cousin.

James recruits the Ford brothers to serve as the nucleus for a new gang, though he is highly suspicious of Bob Ford. With good reason. Bob Ford is in cahoots with the Governor of Missouri to turn over Jesse or kill him.

The death of James is no surprise. It’s enshrined in a folk song about that “dirty little coward” who shot him in the back as James straightened a picture hanging on the wall. For most people, that is where the story ends. Hansen, however, has James killed roughly 2/3rds of the way into the book, leaving the remaining pages to tell the fascinating story of what happened to Robert Ford.

Ford gained a high degree of fame and celebrity for killing James. He recreated the act on stage countless times to packed houses. But Ford’s arrogance also served to alienate many people. Near the end, he was trying to make it as a saloon keeper, and still trying to trade on his name as “The Man Who Shot Jesse James.” He was driven from town and eventually killed himself was shot down ten years after the death of James.

Hansen recreates the Western setting deftly. This is not the West of John Ford and John Wayne in Monument Valley; this is the West of rolling plains in Missouri, small towns, and isolated houses. The characters, especially the two title characters, are vivid and realistic. James is portrayed as a loving family man who cherished his wife and children, but who was also a psychopath and cold-blooded killer. There is a great ambiguity to Robert Ford. Aside from the title, and the opinions of almost all who cross his path, the idea that Ford was truly a coward is questioned. Yes, he shot Jesse James in the back when James was unarmed. However, he had excellent reason to believe that James was planning on killing him later that night, James was almost never unarmed, and James was far better at handling a gun. In a fair fight, there is no way that Robert Ford would not have become just another nameless victim of Jesse James. And Jesse likely would not have fought fair when the time came.

What is most interesting in the book is the retelling of Ford’s experiences after the killing of James. Robert Ford is first hailed as the hero who killed the villain. As time goes by, it is Ford that starts to become vilified, and James who starts to gain stature as some kind of American folk hero. As the years go by, the fame and status of Jesse James grows and the hero worship of Robert Ford becomes outright disdain, leading to his eventual assassination.

Throughout the book, Bob Ford reminds me particularly of Mark David Chapman, the killer of John Lennon. Ford was a wannabe, who worshipped Jesse James, collected newspaper articles and memorabilia. He wanted to be Jesse James. When this proved impossible, Ford the Stalker decided that the only way to link his name forever with that of James was to kill him. Unlike Chapman, who followed a similar learning curve with the ex-Beatle, Ford worked with the law to ensure a large reward (which was never paid to him) and total exoneration for the crime (which he half-received: he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang but then received a full pardon).

The book also serves as a refresher on the truth of Jesse James. For some reason, America has always had a love affair with the villains of the past. Billy the Kid, Jesse James, John Wesley Hardin, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, Pretty Boy Floyd, John Dillinger…these are the names of genuinely bad people, notorious villains and murderers. Yet their names evoke certain wistfully romantic images of riders on horseback, Model-T cars, tommy guns.

In many ways, Jesse James was a Confederate terrorist. He started with Quantrill’s Raiders after the Civil War, and embarked on his life of crime in order to avenge members of his family who were killed by the Union. James wanted the money to be had in bank and train robberies, but he was also a die-hard Confederate soldier on a mission long after the Civil War had ended. He was a murderer and a psychopath. There is absolutely nothing romantic about his life and crimes, yet just the name evokes startlingly powerful mental images of a time before any of us were born. It is perilously close to a sort of national nostalgia.

Is it the movies? Did Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway turn the idiot murderers Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker into star-crossed lovers? Did the great team of Robert Redford and Paul Newman neuter the reality of Butch and Sundance so much that they became some sort of comic heroes?

Partially, perhaps, but not completely. Long before the movies, singers were writing songs about villains like Jesse James, extolling him as a good and noble family man. Later, Woody Guthrie would write a song about Pretty Boy Floyd that turned the murderer and bank robber into some kind of Robin Hood.

America is a country that has always looked to the future, while dreaming of a largely mythic past. As the past becomes a romantic legend, the villains also take their part. The rational mind understands the reality of thugs like Jesse James, but who ever said nostalgia had to be rational?


UPDATE: I fixed a poorly constructed sentence that made it seem as if Robert Ford committed suicide when, in fact, he was murdered.