Neil Innes, 1944-2019

George Harrison once observed that the spirit of the Beatles was passed on to the Monty Python troupe, which was premiering “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” around the time the Fabs were disintegrating in 1969.

But if there’s a bridge between the two, it’s probably in the soul of Neil Innes, a member of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (which had its biggest hit record co-produced by one Apollo C. Vermouth, aka Paul McCartney), adjunct member of the Pythons (he played Robin’s Minstrel in “Holy Grail” and contributed music and routines throughout the years) and, above all, member and chief composer of the Rutles, still — more than 40 years later — the best Beatles parody.

Innes died Sunday. He was 75. The death was sudden, according to his website, and “without pain.” Which is only appropriate, given the immense pleasure he provided me and countless other Beatles (and Python and Rutles) fans.

I’m often shocked and stunned by the absurd ways so much of this world, especially the pop culture world, is connected. From my earliest memories, I loved the Beatles, spinning my aunt’s left-behind 45s when I was 5 or 6 years old. A few years later, starting to dig into the history of the group, I read Nicholas Schaffner’s neglected “The Beatles Forever,” which noted that its members had done some extracurricular production in the early Apple days, including McCartney’s work on the Bonzos’ “I’m the Urban Spaceman.” (Edit, 9:03 p.m.: I should mention that the Bonzos already had a Beatles connection — they performed “Death Cab for Cutie” in “Magical Mystery Tour.”)

Perhaps a year later, “All You Need Is Cash,” the mockumentary about the Rutles, premiered on NBC. I still remember the date clearly — March 22, 1978 — because it was the Wednesday before my bar mitzvah and half my family had come to visit. I spent the evening running back and forth from the TV, where I watched the film, to the living room, where I spent commercial breaks schmoozing with my aunts and uncles. Sorry that my attention was divided, aunts and uncles, but I was right to be concerned: In those days before we owned a VCR, I had no idea if I’d ever see the Rutles again, and the film finished dead last in the ratings.

Newsweek (or was it Time?) had done a story, however, and I knew there was a soundtrack album, which I dutifully purchased at full retail price. My family had a recordable 8-track player, and I bought a blank 8-track tape to make a Rutles-Beatles comparison record, since losts to the mists of history and crappy technology.

Perhaps a year after that, I was perusing the first “Rolling Stone Record Buyers’ Guide” in a mall bookstore and noticed that the double-LP collection, “The History of the Bonzos,” earned the maximum five stars. I found a copy at the long-departed New Orleans record store Leisure Landing and started immersing myself in “Spaceman,” “My Pink Half of the Drainpipe,” “You Done My Brain In,” and “King of Scurf.”

And, so, Neil Innes — creative, funny, whimsical — became one of my musical heroes.

There were other connections, it turned out. Ricky Fataar, who played Harrison parody Stig O’Hara in the Rutles, was a member of the Flames, a South African band produced by Beach Boy Carl Wilson, who sang lead on “God Only Knows,” which Paul McCartney has called his favorite Beach Boys song. Like the Beatles, the Rutles lost a member young: Ollie Halsall, a session man who did much of the McCartney-esque work. And, to bring the story full circle, Harrison appeared in “All You Need Is Cash” and mortgaged his house so Python could make “Life of Brian.”

I followed Innes’ career intermittently; I saw he attended the occasional Beatles convention, and would be the subject of an interview every so often. I took advantage of my time as CNN’s Entertainment section producer to interview two Pythons, Michael Palin and Terry Jones, and one very ex-Beatle, Pete Best, but never got a chance to talk to Innes. I don’t know what I would have asked him, anyway: “Do you know how happy your music has made me over the years?”

Not very journalistically insightful of me.

I’m sad today, but Innes — who was characterized by John Cleese as “a very sweet man, much too nice for his own good” — had the right perspective on posterity. In the Rutles song “Back in ’64,” he tells of trying to describe the excitement of the ’60s to a grandchild, only to be ignored:

But as you’ve gone on and on
Your audience has flown
And as you find yourself all on your own

Still, he adds: “You may wistfully recall / How Benjamin Disraeli said that /
Life is too short to be small / Or maybe like some old time song / Over all it’s long so, so long, it’s all over …”

Good night, Neil. Your life was anything but small.

Review: ‘Cruel to Be Kind: The Life and Music of Nick Lowe’ by Will Birch

Cruel to Be Kind: The Life and Music of Nick Lowe

Cruel to Be Kind: The Life and Music of Nick Lowe by Will Birch

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Before I begin this review, let me confess my bias with three disclosures:

1. I’m a huge Nick Lowe fan. Aside from Ray Davies, he may be my favorite songwriter. Both he and Davies – and Randy Newman, another favorite – share an impish, sometimes dark sense of humor, and all are blessed with the ability to craft memorable melodies. Lowe is also a terrific producer, having been the staff man for Stiff Records and behind the boards for several Elvis Costello records (including two of his best, “This Year’s Model” and “Armed Forces”).

2. I have interviewed Mr. Lowe three times. Each time, he was gracious, thoughtful, erudite and funny. He is one of my favorite interviews.

3. I’m in the book. I was not interviewed, but there’s my name, on page 5: “Nick Lowe will not write a memoir,” announced CNN in 2015, following his interview with reporter Todd Leopold. (I hasten to add that it was that made this announcement, not CNN the TV network. I worked for the website, and TV usually didn’t give a rat’s ass about the features we published online. Their loss.) I’m also in the index, just after John Lennon.

With that out of the way: So, what did you think of the book, Todd?

It’s breezy and entertaining and told me things I didn’t know about Nick Lowe. However, I wish it had more depth, more voices. Nick himself, who’s frequently quoted, emerges as the most colorful and engaging source Birch has.

Now, Birch confesses at the outset that he’s not only a Nick Lowe fan, but a Nick Lowe friend, so it was unlikely the book would be anything but laudatory. (Which isn’t to say it isn’t brutally honest about some episodes in Lowe’s life.) And though I’m probably among several people who would love Nick given the same in-depth treatment as, say, the subject of a Peter Guralnick biography, this isn’t that kind of book. (Six degrees of Nick: Peter Guralnick is the father of Lowe’s manager, Jake Guralnick. You find a lot of that kind of stuff with Nick Lowe.)

Still, when you have a subject as rich as Lowe – who’s been a part of so much pop music history despite having exactly one U.S. Top 40 hit – it’s a shame that there wasn’t room for just a few more anecdotes and a bit more context.

In fact, the best parts of “Cruel to Be Kind” – oh, how I wish Birch had called the book “Jesus of Cool,” the UK title of Nick’s first album, but I’m sure his publisher would have put the kibosh on that – involve Lowe’s rise in the music business, from an ill-fated New York concert with his band Brinsley Schwarz to the days when he was establishing himself as “Basher,” the quick-witted, enthusiastic staff producer at Stiff Records. His personality was obvious long before that; a hilarious anecdote features 9-year-old Nick interviewing for a position at a boarding school and then being invited to have tea with the headmaster: “I, by all accounts, went immediately to work on his wife, offering such drivel as, ‘What a charming home. Tell me, did you choose the wallpaper yourself?’ ”

Again, he was 9.

His childhood, in fact, was unusual. He was the younger child of a Royal Air Force pilot and a rather free-spirited mother. In a departure from rock cliché, he actually admired his military dad, who took him up in planes and was stationed in exotic places like Amman, Jordan. (His father was actually gifted an expensive Jaguar from King Hussein.)

Lowe formed bands in school, eventually creating Brinsley Schwarz with a school chum. It was Brinsley Schwarz that had that disastrous New York concert: After the band had spent just a short time together, its managers decided to fly them across the Atlantic to open at the Fillmore East, followed closely by an army of UK scribes for maximum publicity. Brinsley Schwarz was ragged, the scribes were drunk, and nobody made out well.

Other musicians may have packed it in. Brinsley Schwarz retreated to an old house away from the city and became leaders in what was known as pub rock – essentially the equivalent of a U.S. bar band but without the determination to blow the roof off the sucker. The Brinsleys had little commercial success (though one of their diehard fans was a young Elvis Costello), but one connection led to another, and suddenly Nick was recording and producing for Stiff Records, co-founded by his manager, Jake Riviera. When “New Wave” became a thing, Lowe was riding its crest.

What makes Lowe’s career even more intriguing was the way he reinvented himself. Once a heavy drug user and alcoholic – an early-‘70s LSD habit made him barely functional for several months, and his later cocaine and alcohol consumption is described as “skiing down a mountain of coke into a lake of vodka” – he got (mostly) clean and decided to model his work on people he admired, musicians who were songwriters first and interpreters second.

He also got lucky when a version of his most famous track, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” appeared on the “Bodyguard” soundtrack, one of the biggest-selling albums of all time. Nick’s initial royalties amounted to, rumor has it, about a million dollars. Instead of blowing it on wine and women, he funded an album of his new sound – “The Impossible Bird” – and hit the road.

Since then – the mid-‘90s – he’s put together a well-regarded, if not chartbusting, second (or third) act. Birch rightly singles out 2001’s “The Convincer” as perhaps the peak of late-period Lowe, when Nick’s performing matched his vision of songwriting. He’s now considered by many colleagues to be one of the finest still working, and his transformation from cocky Basher to careful craftsman is almost without precedent in pop music history.

So, with all this fine information – I haven’t even mentioned the stories about his former in-laws, Johnny and June Carter Cash – what’s missing?

Frankly, it’s the kind of wit and well-turned phrase that a Nick Lowe could bring to the proceedings. As I said a few paragraphs ago, I feel like I’m being unfair to Birch for reviewing the book I wanted to read – one written by Mr. Lowe himself – rather than the one I did, but other recent rock ‘n’ roll biographies and memoirs have managed to capture the flavor of their authors even if ghostwritten by others. (And yes, I know Nick, though helpful, wanted to keep this book at arm’s length … as he told me in that interview quoted on page 5.) Perhaps the market for a Nick Lowe biography isn’t as deep as, say, the market for a Bruce Springsteen or Elton John memoir, but given Lowe’s wide-ranging story and influence on ‘70s pop, I’d like to think there was room for a little more detail, a little more showmanship.

Still, if the result isn’t quite at the level of “Jesus of Cool,” it’s a perfectly fine analogue of, say, “The Rose of England”: sturdy, consistent, with some nice high points and few weak sections. After all these years, the man’s still got soul, and “Cruel to Be Kind” has it in the right measure.

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Review: ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a song by Leonard Nimoy called “Highly Illogical,” in which Nimoy – as his “Star Trek” character, the astute Mr. Spock – is perplexed by all the inconsistencies he finds observing the human race. The humor is on the “why do we drive on a parkway and park on a driveway” level, but it’s still amusing.

Let me tell you, Mr. Spock, you don’t know the half of it.

Yuval Noah Harari attempts to trace several hundred thousand years of humankind’s evolution in “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” and if I have to draw one conclusion from his voluminous research, it’s that we’re one fucked-up creation and it’s our own damn fault.

Harari is at his best when he’s being provocative. He calls the Agricultural Revolution of 10,000 years ago – which changed our species from small bands of hunter-gatherers to larger groups of farmers – “history’s biggest fraud,” because it led to “population explosions and pampered elites” that had poorer nutrition than the hunter-gatherers.

Of course, you could also argue that it led to villages and cities, and trade and commerce, and even the idea of “the future,” as our species suddenly had to plan months or years ahead, instead of making the nut for the day. And to his credit, Harari mentions all of these things – though it’s hard to escape that initial headline.

(Some organisms that did make out well with the Agricultural Revolution? Cereal grasses, which used us to spread all over the world while making us dependent on them. So when you say someone is dumber than grass, maybe you’re underestimating grass — or greatly overestimating the person you’re talking about.)

He also points out that many aspects of life are myths commonly agreed upon. After all, there really are no such things as corporations, or religions, or money, or even countries – they’re just human inventions on whose existence we concur. In regards to countries, in fact, Harari notes that many modern nations don’t even have a shared tribal base, just some bonds of culture and taught history. So much of what we identify with is really nurture, not nature.

And – in an almost passing thought on the nature of good and evil – he talks about the dilemmas raised by monotheism and dualism. In the former, the assumption is that God is omnipotent but has given his human creation free will, so we’re allowed to choose evil. The latter assumes that there are independent good and evil forces in the world making their claims on us humans.

Harari notes that there is a solution that satisfies the dilemma: there is one omnipotent God, and He is evil. But, as he adds, that’s not something we humans really want to consider. (Though science fiction writers certainly have – often with us as God.)

Harari is less interesting when he’s combining history, sociology, anthropology, psychology and various other disciplines into his stew. Some of the vignettes are interesting in a “Connections”/James Burke-type way; for example, I didn’t know that Captain Cook’s voyage was funded by a variety of scientists and that he used the opportunity to test citrus fruits as a prevention for scurvy, as well as using his tour of the Pacific to colonize Australia and Tasmania, thus practically wiping out the indigenous people who’d been there for centuries. (For Harari, there’s always a dichotomy, which is as it should be.) But there are also long stretches where he’s explaining the basics of history and culture, and he’s not nearly as interesting or amusing as Bill Bryson giving short takes on science in “A Short History of Nearly Everything.”

Still, one can’t help but be impressed by the fortitude of us carbon-based life forms, bumbling forward in spite of ourselves, these days holding on to Bronze Age concepts while manipulating iPhones. At one point Harari notes that someone born around the year 500 would find virtually nothing different 500 years later in A.D. 1000, but someone born in 1500 would be gobsmacked by the world of 2000, given the impact of printed matter, the Industrial Revolution, and scientific advancement. I was reminded of a famous line from “Mad Men”: After a secretary, Mrs. Blankenship, dies at her desk, an executive observes, “She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. She was an astronaut.” That episode was set in 1965 – the year I was born.

(And let me tell you, I’ve seen some things. Now get off my lawn.)

Overall, even with its flaws, “Sapiens” is engaging and thought-provoking. Harari is, by training, an historian, so it’s an observation about history that has stuck with me afterwards. Though psychologically we like to see history in trends and patterns, he notes that nothing is foreordained, nothing is guaranteed. Ask a European in 1940 what the world would look like in five years; for that matter, ask a Mongol in 1240.

History can turn on a dime — and lead to unexpected places. Trade can spread ideas and disease; colonization can bring back riches and destroy civilizations. All history can tell us is where we’ve been. The rest is interpretation and speculation, even if it’s highly informed.

Those hunter-gatherers of 9500 B.C. had no idea what awaited them. More than 11,000 years later, we still don’t, even if we think we do. If I were Mr. Spock, I might want to head back to Vulcan.

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Review: ‘Love Me Do!: The Beatles’ Progress’ by Michael Braun

Love Me Do! The Beatles' Progress

Love Me Do! The Beatles’ Progress by Michael Braun

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Until finishing it last week, I’d never read “Love Me Do!: The Beatles’ Progress” – Michael Braun’s 1964 chronicle of Beatlemania in Britain and the U.S.

But I felt like I have.

That’s because whole sections of the book have been used in other Beatles biographies – I’m pretty sure I read some of the anecdotes in Nicholas Schaffner’s 1977 “The Beatles Forever” – and my shelves are full of Beatles biographies. For that matter, some of the passages seem ripped from Alun Owen’s script for “A Hard Day’s Night.” In fact, there were times I thought it might be the other way around — that Owen had stolen sections from Braun’s book, given that Braun’s book begins in late 1963, not long after the October show that made “Beatlemania” into a literal household word.

“What will your film be about?” a reporter asks Paul McCartney after a show in Cambridge. “Sort of a fantasy type thing?”

“Well, yeah,” says Paul, who obviously has no idea. I wonder if Owen did at the time. He and Braun must have been at the same events.

Yet, despite this familiarity, Braun’s book has the benefit of still seeming fresh. The Kindle edition I read had been based on a 1995 reissue with an introduction by the Beatle Brain himself, Mark Lewisohn, who praised it as perhaps “the best book ever written about them.” (This is before his own “Tune In” was released, of course, not to mention Bob Spitz’s biography and not long after Ian MacDonald’s “Revolution in the Head.”)

Braun, an American then working for British media, is an engaging writer and had the boldness – at the time – of presenting the Beatles warts and all, making jokes at others’ expense and drinking actual alcohol, and presumably taking up the offers of some of their female fans. No less an expert than John Lennon said it was “a true book. He wrote how we were, which was bastards.” But Lennon, who was in the midst of his post-Beatles flagellation when he said that to Jann Wenner, overstates the case: What comes across in Braun’s book is a companion to “A Hard Day’s Night,” except without the occasional quietude of the movie’s escapist sequences.

Indeed, it’s amazing the group was as funny and resilient as they were, given the meat grinder of early Beatlemania. Imagine being trapped in your own fame, your own lives. Wherever you go, you’re surrounded by security. You have to be, otherwise you’d be ripped apart by fans. Your managers – Brian Epstein, who maintains a loving distance, and Brian Sommerville, who handles publicity and appears frequently on the verge of quitting (which he did not long after) – have to protect you at all costs from … everything. The media keeps asking you how long you’ll last, and you wonder the same thing, since mere months earlier you were nobody, just four Northern lads struggling to impress the moguls in London.

My favorite quote about Beatlemania is from the acerbic George Harrison, who once said, “They gave their money, and they gave their screams. But the Beatles kind of gave their nervous systems. hey used us as an excuse to go mad, the world did, and then blamed it on us.” But “Love Me Do!” has perhaps a more pertinent quote, from Paul after a concert in York: “Oh my God, my ulcer.”

I could only think: 21-year-old Paul McCartney had an ulcer?

So if the group in “Love Me Do!” are bastards, they’d earned the right. Here are the sniffy Americans grimacing at their hair. Here are the cops rolling their eyes. Here are the media asking for autographs, then waiting to tear down the pedestal they’d just built. (Epstein to a reporter after an American show: “Great, just great … the best reception ever.” Reporter: “Would you say it was the best reception ever?”) At one point, Harrison mutters on a plane, “Why don’t you leave us alone?”

And yet the group couldn’t help but be their cheeky selves. A BBC reporter asks John, “The French have not made up their minds about the Beatles. What do you think of them?” Lennon responds, “Oh, we like the Beatles. They’re gear.” Paul, whom Jane Asher characterizes as “insecure” (Paul?), lights up at the prospects of trying new things, like foreign films and intellectual repartee – things that likely wouldn’t have been available to a working-class teacher in Liverpool. And the JFK press conference still makes me laugh.

Braun, too, gets his licks in. He notes that the most dissonant sound to be heard in the Plaza Hotel ballroom is “the rare one of too much vermouth pouring into a martini,” and that “only Time [magazine] and the New Yorker used the word ‘coleopteran’ (the New Yorker being the only one to use it correctly).”

“Coleopteran,” incidentally, means “beetle-like.” I had to look it up. Now, there’s a similar word, “Beatlesque,” and nobody has to look it up.

Paul may have been insecure, but he knew there was something happening, even if others outside their bubble didn’t know what it is.

At one point, Braun asks John and Paul if they’re going to change into song-and-dance men. John offers a flat, “We don’t want to learn to dance or take elocution lessons,” but Paul is a bit more expansive.

“People keep asking us whether we’re going to broaden our scope,” he says. “I don’t know whether we will or not. One of the things about us is that we intrigue people. We seem a little bit different.”

To say the least. And for tidbits like that, even with the story told a hundred times or more, “Love Me Do!” remains an excellent investment.

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Review: ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ by John le Carré

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I ponder the shades of gray in “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” John le Carré’s 1963 breakthrough novel, I’m reminded of three words from a different character in a different work: “Can’t be helped.”

That’s what one of the observers says about Malcolm McDowell’s thug Alex DeLarge in the film “A Clockwork Orange” as DeLarge undergoes the Ludovico technique – essentially, conditioning him to feel sick every time he’s exposed to violence. Unfortunately, while watching one violent scene, DeLarge also becomes conditioned against one of his heroes, Ludwig von Beethoven, whose music is playing on the soundtrack. Oh, well. A shame. Can’t be helped.

In “Cold,” le Carré’s protagonist, Alec Leamas, is a British spy who’s sent home from Cold War Berlin after one of his double agents is killed. It’s the early ‘60s, the dawn of the Berlin Wall-tense days in the Cold War. Leamas is ready to retire, but his boss – the ominously named Control – asks him for one more mission: Leamas is to appear to defect to the East Germans in order to put the kibosh on Mundt, a cold-blooded East German agent who helped ruin Leamas’ networks.

Leamas acts his part brilliantly. He becomes an alcoholic, takes a crummy job in a library, and finally slugs a shopkeeper, which attracts the interest of the East Germans. He seems a prime candidate for turning. But he also screws up in one key way: He gets involved with Liz, a Communist sympathizer he works with at the library. She has no idea who he is beyond being mysterious, but her genuine feelings for him get her entwined in the overall plot.

Eventually, Leamas is taken to East Germany and used as a key witness in a trial involving Mundt – whom a fellow East German, Fiedler, suspects of working for the British – and Fiedler, whom Mundt characterizes as insufficiently devoted to the Communist cause. (Fiedler is also Jewish, which doesn’t help him.) Despite some bumps, Leamas believes he’s going to get his man.

And then Liz shows up, credulous and curious. I’ll refrain from giving away the ending, but let’s say that – having introduced so many characters with varying degrees of trustworthiness – le Carré isn’t one for going soft.

Indeed, that appears to be his whole point. Leave the black-and-white world for Ian Fleming and Tom Clancy. In le Carré’s trenchcoat realm, ethics are malleable and the good guys aren’t always obvious. In fact, it may be that there are no good guys at all – just grasping people whose loyalties vary according to their points of view. If there are innocent victims? Can’t be helped.

Though he hits the point too hard, one of the most fascinating passages in the book involves conversations between Leamas and his East German counterparts. The former, if rather cynical, obviously is convinced that the West is in the right. The East Germans are just as confident that their system will succeed. Given my lifetime spent as an American who hates the excesses of our capitalism and jingoism – but hates the Stasi surveillance society and numbing apartment blocks of the old Communist bloc even more – I’m more sympathetic to Leamas. (“The Lives of Others,” the brilliant 2006 film about a Stasi agent who retains a shred of humanity, shows how bad things could be in East German society.) But le Carré’s East Germans make me understand how a wounded people can suddenly become foot soldiers for the Communist/totalitarian cause, however stifling it appears from the outside.

If there’s a flaw in “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” it’s the lack of subtlety in the supporting characters. Liz is a little too naïve. Mundt is a little too unsympathetic. Leamas’ colleagues have little more depth than M, James Bond’s boss. “Cold” is the only le Carré book I’ve read; I understand that in succeeding books, which start to revolve around supervisor George Smiley, he starts filling in more personalities.

But there’s no question that “Cold” packs a punch. I’d read the book more than 30 years ago, and didn’t remember much – but when I got to the final scene, it came back in all its agonizing suspense. Can’t be helped? Give me more le Carré, please.

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Review: ‘Ball Four: The Final Pitch’ by Jim Bouton

Ball Four: The Final Pitch

Ball Four: The Final Pitch by Jim Bouton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are a few things I look for in memoirs: good writing, a sympathetic narrator, and – if possible – abject honesty. (It’s a memoir, so sometimes you have to take people’s stories with a grain of salt.) Among my favorites are Mary Karr’s “The Liars’ Club,” David Carr’s “The Night of the Gun” and Sean Wilsey’s “Oh the Glory of It All.”

In addition to those characteristics, it helps if the author has a sense of humanity.

I’ve now read Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four” three times. The first time was in my 20s, when I checked it out of the library and mainly read it for laughs – the banter, the absurdity of the 1969 Seattle Pilots, the recurring demands by manager Joe Schultz for his team to “pound Budweiser.”

The next time was in early 2001, not long after I’d purchased a copy of “Ball Four: The Final Pitch” from the man himself, who was seated at a table at a now long-departed bookstore in CNN Center. “For Todd – ‘Smoke ‘em inside,’ ” he autographed it. The book had lost none of its humor, though the three epilogues – written at 10-year intervals since the book’s debut in 1970 – made it clear that Bouton was no longer the 30-year-old boy-man knuckleballer of the original work. He’d been a sports anchor in New York, starred in Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” made a brief comeback with the Atlanta Braves, divorced his wife and lost his daughter in a car accident. He was a deeper, wiser man, though still also a wisenheimer.

Bouton’s death last month made me pull the book out again. Now I’m much older as well. It’s a good sign that, if anything, “Ball Four” seems far more meaningful to me now than it did 30 years ago, or even 18 years ago. Because, frankly, I was worried.

From the perspective of 2019, it’s no longer quite so humorous reading about 20- and 30-something ballplayers “beaver shooting” (that is, ogling women, particularly from certain angles), taking greenies (stimulants) or generally behaving like idiots. (Not that 20- and 30-something ballplayers – and men in general – have stopped behaving like idiots.) But, to Bouton’s credit, he seldom indulges in a “boys will be boys” attitude, though he obviously enjoys telling a good story. He’s the perpetual outsider – the antiwar person on a team full of Nixon supporters, the aging knuckleballer amid hard-throwing youngsters, the thinker on a team full of guys who barely look ahead to the next game, never mind their post-baseball lives – and he presents these tales matter-of-factly.

Moreover, though the ’69 Pilots have become a joke in retrospect – after that single year, spent at disgusting Sicks’ Stadium, they moved to Milwaukee to become the Brewers – they weren’t that bad for about half a season, especially for an expansion team.

Bouton mentions in the opening entries of his dated journal that he could see the team finishing third (in what was then a six-team AL West) and he had a point: They were just four games under .500 as of July 2. Of course, they went 29-59 the rest of the way and finished in the cellar, but it’s easy to think – especially if you’re a player – that maybe things weren’t going to be so bad. I actually gained a bit of respect for Joe Schultz, who wasn’t quite the buffoon people assumed from the book. (Schultz actually had a pair of World Championship rings, earned with the Cardinals in 1964 and 1967, and later managed the Detroit Tigers.) In fact, Schultz only seems a buffoon in the early entries; by summer, Bouton has granted his manager a good deal of respect, something he never gave to pitching coach Sal Maglie or bullpen coach Eddie O’Brien. Bouton does poke fun at Schultz’s habits – his frequent cursing (“shitfuck,” “fuckshit”) and telling players to pound Buds – but he comes off much better than I remembered.

Anyway, the point is that what seemed scandalous or silly in “Ball Four” is actually far more measured than I remembered. The laughs are honestly earned.

Still, I’m glad I have “The Final Pitch,” with its afterwords. If “Ball Four” hadn’t done it, those three sections show Bouton to be something more than an old jock telling stories.

He talks about his return to the majors in 1978 not as a triumph – though it was – but as a journey with all the psychological baggage you’d imagine: coping with a failing marriage, balancing his role as a father, trying to prove to himself that he’s still a major-league pitcher, even though he had established himself in other fields. (In fact, the first Bouton book I read was “I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally,” the 1971 follow-up to “Ball Four,” in which he talks about the reaction to “Ball Four” and his early days as a sportscaster.) In later years, he helps come up with Big League Chew, the stringy bubblegum sold in pouches, like chewing tobacco.

And then there is the story of his daughter, Laurie. Heartbreaking. When she dies in an auto accident in 1997, Bouton is bereft. Reading it now, and knowing that “The Final Pitch” came out just three years later, you sense that he’s still an open wound. Which makes him all the more human.

Bouton wasn’t perfect. While looking for other details on the man, I stumbled on a 1983 People magazine interview with his and fellow brainy pitcher Mike Marshall’s ex-wives, which made it clear that neither Bouton nor Marshall resisted affairs on the road, not something you’d suspect from reading “Ball Four.” And Bouton admits that he probably wasn’t fair to some of his former teammates, a few of whom apparently never spoke to him again.

Still, none of that diminishes “Ball Four” and its epilogues as the story of a man loved his sport but thought of a world outside it, and had a life all the richer for it. Its famous last line – one of the best final sentences in literature, in my opinion – has even greater resonance for its introspection: “You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out it was the other way around all the time.” We all have an object with a hold on us; credit to Bouton for recognizing what that means, and doing so generously.

Hope he’s smokin’ ‘em inside and pounding a few Buds in the Field of Dreams.

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Review: ‘The Passage of Power’ by Robert Caro

The Passage of Power

The Passage of Power by Robert A. Caro

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Years ago, when I was living in the New York area, I was looking to understand my newly adopted city. Somebody recommended I read Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker,” so I dutifully went to the library and checked it out.

I was riveted. I toted Caro’s doorstop on Metro-North for weeks, my briefcase bulging with its heft. Thirty years after I read it, the book remains on my list of all-time favorites.

And yet I’ve approached his now four-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson with caution. I mean, reading Caro isn’t something you do casually. It’s an investment. The man leaves no stone unturned – moving to the Texas Hill Country so he could sleep under the same skies as the boy Johnson, poring through obscure documents to nail LBJ’s relationship with Brown & Root – and his prose, though enjoyable, is full of long, semicolon-riddled sentences. (And I say that as someone who LIKES semicolons.) To this day I haven’t read the first two volumes, but I was sent a review copy of “Master of the Senate” when I was a web editor, and “The Path to Power,” the most recent book, followed a few years later.

“Senate” was good, with Caro’s typical brilliant set pieces – “The Power Broker” had segments about the construction of the Northern State Parkway and the Cross-Bronx Expressway, and “Senate” climaxed with the passing of the 1957 Civil Rights Act – and so, after letting it weigh down a bookshelf for the past seven years, I finally picked up Volume Four, “The Passage of Power.”

The book picks right up where “Senate” left off. You would think Caro never closed his typewriter. (Yes, he still uses a typewriter. Longhand, too.)

“The Passage of Power” starts with LBJ mulling a run for the presidency in 1960. He was generally regarded as the leader of the Democratic Party, certainly its political center (Adlai Stevenson having no job to speak of), and could have pulled in any number of chits. But LBJ didn’t want to campaign. He wanted to be asked. Beseechingly, if possible.

This was a side of LBJ that would turn up time and time again in “Passage,” that of an incredibly insecure man, quick to wound, even paranoid, who was more ditherer than decider. You would think the “Johnson Treatment” – his ability to lean in, lean on, and lean over people from whom he wanted something – never existed, replaced by a wimpy guy terrified of failure.

So while LBJ sat on the sidelines, John F. Kennedy and his extended family tied up endorsements, and when JFK took the West Virginia primary – establishing that his Catholicism wasn’t as feared as pundits had warned – his nomination was all but assured. All Johnson could do was hope for a brokered convention. He nearly got his wish, but instead ended up the vice-presidential nominee.

Here Caro shows his ability to go deeper than previous biographers and historians. How much waffling did Kennedy do before and after picking Johnson? There have been many stories. Caro seems to have read every one of them, and presents them as dispassionately as possible. (He leans towards the belief that Robert Kennedy did push his brother to remove Johnson, but the pragmatic JFK stayed with the Texan.) In the end, Johnson helped JFK win Texas, though it was a close thing – and may have been as fraudulent as LBJ’s 1948 Senate win.

With similar depth, Caro presents the Kennedy assassination almost as a minute-by-minute saga, with callbacks to previous episodes. (For example, the choice of Judge Sarah Hughes to administer the oath of office was no accident; she and LBJ had a political history, which Caro lays out in an earlier chapter.) What Caro brings home – and it’s something I’ve rarely read or seen – is how fragile LBJ’s early hold on the presidency was, and how quickly and decisively he moved to consolidate it, to the country’s great benefit. After all, he had to get the loyalty of Kennedy’s Irish Mafia; he had to get his own staff in place; and he had to move some problematic bills through Congress. And, lest we forget, the assassination happened the Friday before Thanksgiving, meaning Johnson had to do all this work during the end-of-year holidays – not a time when the gears in Washington (or anywhere) are moving with any speed, especially given the nation’s shock and grief.

In popular history, it often seems that we went from the assassination to the funeral to the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, but it wasn’t that easy. Moreover, it was thanks to Johnson’s great knowledge of Senate rules and politics (in the human sense) that he got the bills through at all, and so swiftly.

Still, the decisive Johnson is the exception in “The Passage of Power,” not the rule. As vice president, all too often he reminded me, surprisingly, of the current White House occupant: petulant, marginalized on policy, laughed at, suspicious of other’s opinions to the point of paranoia. (Not without reason: he was nicknamed “Rufus Cornpone” and mocked at Georgetown dinner parties.) It was a side of his personality that would end up destroying his presidency.

But at least, unlike the current resident, when it came time to rise to the occasion – during his first 100 days – he put country first. Like “Master of the Senate,” “Passage of Power” climaxes with the passage of a civil rights act. But this one, the 1964 Act, has stood the test of time and still represents the best of what America can do.

“The Passage of Power” is often exhausting, as Caro’s books are, but I can’t say I didn’t learn a great deal. At least I probably have several years before Volume Five hits stores. My bookshelves are thankful.

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What does a Top 10 list say about you?

Image result for 2001 a space odyssey

Last week, a friend of mine tagged me on one of those Facebook chain messages, in which you’re nominated to follow through on some task that others have done. I was nominated to list my top 10 films.

As I approached the end of the process, another friend posted a comment: Had I seen a pattern?

That got me wondering.

Here’s the list, in reverse order:

10. North by Northwest

9. Quiz Show

8. Raiders of the Lost Ark

7. Europa Europa

6. The French Connection

5. Goldfinger

4. Blazing Saddles

3. Network

2. The Third Man

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey

First, it should be said that only the top four are etched in stone, and probably in those positions. “Blazing Saddles” is my favorite comedy, an anarchic engine of wackiness that never lets up and sometimes (most of the time?) foregoes logic in favor of jokes. I don’t argue with people who prefer “Young Frankenstein” among Mel Brooks films; it’s definitely a better film. But nothing makes me laugh like “Blazing Saddles,” except maybe “Airplane!” and “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” – both of which also put chaos ahead of sense.

“Network” becomes more prescient with each passing year; in fact, it’s probably – finally — even less crazy than the media world we live in, which means it plays more as ancient history than a vision of the future. I wish more people would watch it and do more than shrug “whaddya gonna do,” but the days when actual dialogue was important in movies passed sometime in the early ‘90s.

I still can’t make sense of some of “The Third Man.” I blame Alida Valli’s accent, the shadowy black-and-white visuals and Carol Reed’s deliberate copying of Orson Welles’ fondness for overlapping dialogue. (Welles is, of course, the main attraction of the movie as the villainous Harry Lime, and his first appearance remains a heart-stopping thrill.) But in its uncertain atmosphere – anything-goes postwar Vienna, complete with the real-life rubble left behind from World War II – and amazing set pieces, the film is more than the sum of its parts. The final scene, a wordless long take, remains one of my favorites of any film.

And “2001”? I’ve seen it in three-projector Cinerama, in the 2018 big-screen re-release and on 19-inch cathode-ray tubes, and it never fails to fill me with awe. As I said in my Facebook post, I know some people find it boring and tedious. I’m not one of them. Maybe I wish the “Dawn of Man” sequence would run a little faster, but I always lose myself in any number of other scenes – the exhilarating ballet of the “Blue Danube” dance between shuttle and space station, the sickening, chilling death of HAL, the scary/heightened trip into the Infinite. I’ve devoured any number of books about space travel, and though I’m sure “First Man” gets the quotidian correct, “2001” is the only space-set film that manages to capture that internal “wow” that you’re part of something bigger than yourself, while at the same time being brilliant cinema. (Which reminds me – I really have to watch “Apollo 11.” Thanks to my old employer for helping produce it!)

But what of the rest? The other six films, with maybe the exception of “Raiders,” could have easily been replaced by others. I didn’t find room for “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Airplane!”, “Citizen Kane,” “My Fair Lady,” “Dog Day Afternoon” or “The Godfather.” I considered “The Social Network” (probably my favorite film of the last 10 years) and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (though, among Newman-Redford films, I go back and forth between it and “The Sting”).

The most obscure film on my list is probably 1990’s “Europa, Europa,” which is there because it’s so emotionally frank and touched me so deeply. (I defy anyone to not gasp at some of the close calls for the protagonist, a Jewish boy who finds himself accepted as Aryan in WWII Europe – or cry at the conclusion.)

But even that could have been replaced by “All Is Lost,” the underrated 2013 film with Robert Redford as a solo sailor lost at sea, which is equally understated and also has an affecting ending.

Catch me on another day, and you’d have another list.

But, to get back to my friend’s question, is there a pattern?

Maybe not a pattern, but I do see some themes:

  • I like messiness. Nobody would confuse Mel Brooks with the bloodless, late-era Stanley Kubrick, but a more capable director would have killed “Saddles’ ” comedy. “The French Connection” has that verite 1970s New York going for it; “Network” puts Paddy Chayefsky’s sprawling monologues at center stage. Even the “careful” directors – Kubrick, “Raiders’ ” Steven Spielberg, and “Northwest’s” Alfred Hitchcock – leave room for serendipity. “Raiders” moves as precisely as a well-made watch, but it breathes, too. Rock critic Ed Ward once noted he preferred the “Beggars Banquet”-era Rolling Stones to the “Abbey Road”-era Beatles because you could “hear little Stones in the speakers” — in other words, the music sounded like it was made by humans, not machines. I disagree with his opinion of “Abbey Road,” but I get it, and the same goes for the movies on this list. All you CGI-loving directors, take note. (Or even directors who usually forsake CGI: I think Christopher Nolan is a wonderful director, but damn, he can seem as bloodless as Kubrick. And I liked “Dunkirk.”)
  • Give me a good script. Chayefsky hit a home run with “Network.” Ernest Lehman wrote “North by Northwest.” “Goldfinger” crackles, courtesy of Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn. (The Daniel Craig Bond films have their moments, but they’re all too flabby.) “Quiz Show” is elevated by Paul Attanasio’s screenplay, even as Rob Morrow mangles a Boston accent. Even “2001,” which has minimal dialogue – and what it has is often deliberately banal – has a strong storytelling sweep, and Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood find depth in their clipped sentences. (Douglas Rain, as HAL, is simply perfect casting.) Contrast those films with, say, “Titanic.” James Cameron’s award-winner may think of itself as epic, but his terrible script sinks the whole thing. The only scene with any grandeur – when you get a sense that this is a human tragedy, not some kind of connect-the-dots extravaganza — is the wide, pull-back shot of the ship starting to go down with its hapless passengers.
  • It’s got some movie magic. With Chayefsky’s theatrical screenplay, you’d think “Network” would make a good play, right? But I saw it on Broadway and it was just OK, even with (and perhaps because of) Ivo van Hove’s busy direction. Score one for Sidney Lumet. Carol Reed walks a fine line with “The Third Man,” finding uneasy laughter amid what could have been straight tragedy. (Graham Greene and Welles helped.) And many films have tried to copy the popcorn brilliance of “Raiders” – including its sequels – but the original is simply out-and-out great, perhaps even Spielberg’s best, and I don’t say that lightly.

That last one seems obvious, I know, but gets back to the medium itself. For me, the movie experience remains a singular ritual, starting with buying the ticket and then sitting in the dark, among other supplicants, facing a big screen. Sure, you can see movies on a smaller screen – and these days, that may mean a phone – but that makes “movie magic” all the more necessary, because otherwise it may as well be a 1972 episode of “Mannix.” I didn’t grow up in the age when movies were programmed like television, so for me they’ve always been the equivalent of what used to be called roadshow releases. Maybe that’s for the best, and maybe it’s the reason so few films of recent years have moved me the way the ones mentioned above have. They may as well be big-screen video games.

That said, do these 10 films reveal any real patterns? I’ll let a therapist figure that out. Just not any of the folks at the Psychoneurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous.

Review: ‘Space Odyssey’ by Michael Benson

Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece

Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have seen “2001: A Space Odyssey” at least 15 times. That may not sound like much – Tom Hanks, a superfan, has seen it more than 200 times – but it may be the film I’ve seen the most. (It’s certainly the one I’ve seen on the big screen the most – including once in full Cinerama at Atlanta’s long-defunct Columbia Theater and, last year, twice in its restoration roadshow.)

It never fails to fill me with joy and awe. And yet I can still be surprised by it – and stories about it.

That’s what I realized from “Space Odyssey,” Michael Benson’s making-of book that came out last year, the film’s 50th anniversary. I expected to find out new things about director Stanley Kubrick, writer Arthur C. Clarke, special-effects wizard Douglas Trumbull, and any number of other people and incidents.

But I never expected the most interesting person in the book would be the guy who played Moonwatcher, the ape that’s the protagonist of the opening “Dawn of Man” sequence.

That would be Dan Richter, a name I’d never paid attention to, even though he’s listed fourth in the credits after Keir Dullea (Bowman), Gary Lockwood (Poole) and William Sylvester (Heywood Floyd). In a movie with few speaking parts, I’d long assumed he was probably one of Floyd’s colleagues or maybe even the mission control guy who checks out the AE-35 unit from Earth. Nope – not only is he the main human ancestor, he actually trained the other primate-costumed actors how to do their movements.

(I’m not ashamed to admit that I’d also long assumed that most of the apes were, well, apes. Instead, except for the chimpanzee who gets a short close-up, they were mostly members of a theatrical troupe. Richter, who came to the film separately, was an innovative mime.)

Richter, it turns out, kept detailed chronicles of his time on “2001,” and Benson had access to his writings for his “Space Odyssey.” And such tsuris he went through: the costumes, by the equally pioneering makeup man Stuart Freeborn, required careful application and included mouth magnets (so the lips could close a certain way) and a suit that was suffocatingly hot under studio lights – ironic, since ideally the set was a controlled environment. (The bright lights were needed for the film’s cleverly used front projection and recreating the sky of the African desert.) He studied animals in captivity and read numerous books. Between Richter, Freeborn, and resourceful assistant Andrew Birkin, the making of the “Dawn of Man” sequence is, frankly, often more interesting than what ended up on film.

Such is the magic of moviemaking. And the best parts of “Space Odyssey” are about how the magic was created, whether it was filming paint mixing from overhead (which ended up in the spacy “Beyond the Infinite” sequence) or the dangers of recreating weightlessness 30 feet in the air. In fact, stuntman Bill Weston, who played Poole in the scenes in which he’s floating dead in space — a victim of HAL’s paranoia — almost plunged to his own death after the wires that held him aloft snapped. Only his quick thinking – he grabbed the nearby pod – saved him. And he needed quick thinking, as wearing the spacesuit only gave him oxygen for a limited time. The NASA astronauts weren’t the only ones who had to undergo grueling physical activity.

Indeed, the challenges of mounting “2001” were sometimes as confounding as those of the actual space program. Kubrick, as the book reinforces, was a perfectionist, always pushing his cast and crew to go beyond what was thought possible. So Freeborn kept inventing new kinds of ape makeup; the special-effects team kept constructing and filming models that still seem futuristic; and Kubrick and Clarke kept wrestling with the film’s structure and themes in their attempt to make the hoped-for “good” science-fiction film.

If “Space Odyssey” falters, it’s in – perhaps surprisingly – the characterizations of its two creators. Kubrick remains just as remote in Benson’s telling as he is in others; often described as a genius, and certainly demonstrating an amazing eye and a martinet’s single-minded focus, he nevertheless emerges almost as cold-bloodedly analytical as HAL. At least there are some passages that describe his impish sense of humor – and his genuine human fear when his decisions almost led to tragedy, as with Weston. (On the other hand, the book reinforces the director-as-God syndrome; at one point, Kubrick urges Birkin, who’s several thousand miles away in Africa, to dislodge several rare kokerboom trees so they could be photographed in a better setting. After a nightmarish trip with the smuggled trees through a flash-flooded creek and an accidental fire, Birkin set them up … for a shot barely used in the film. The ones you see were fabricated in England.)

As for Clarke, the famed writer comes across as amiable and a little desperate, thanks to the spendthrift ways of his romantic partner – whom Clarke funded in some Sri Lankan movies – and Kubrick’s tight-fisted contracts. It wasn’t until after the film premiered in 1968, helping Clarke’s book version become a bestseller, that he managed to retire his debts. The early chapters featuring Clarke are interesting, but he quickly becomes a sidelight.

Benson is also a little glib at times in his writing style, which ends up diminishing the often amazing story he tells. It’s as if the sign saying “Zero Gravity Toilet” in “2001” were held a beat too long.

But he gives real depth to the challenges of making the film, even if the scenes with Kubrick and the suits at MGM are all too familiar from any number of other Hollywood tell-alls. (I’m reminded of “The Devil’s Candy,” Julie Salamon’s book about Brian De Palma’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” though Benson’s book has a much happier ending – and many fewer celebrities.) He’s incredibly generous with his sources – particularly Richter, Trumbull, and the thoughtful Gary Lockwood — which gives “Space Odyssey” a fulfilling humanism. If the book never touches the awesome power of “2001,” it at least shows how hard everyone had to work to construct the seemingly immaculate result.

Pretty soon I’ll have to sit down and watch it again.

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Review: ‘Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries’

Lost At Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries

Lost At Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries by Jon Ronson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In one of the articles in Jon Ronson’s 2012 collection, “Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries,” he refers to himself as a “humorous journalist,” or some such light-hearted description, as if to take the edge off stories about weaselly psychics, pedophilic music-biz moguls, religious mountebanks, financial fraudsters, and obsessive assistants. He certainly doesn’t tell his stories with stentorian TV news-style drama or hand-wringing sadness; he cracks jokes about his neuroses, is up front in his interviews about his biases, and generally sees himself as the journalistic equivalent of a mouse finding his way through a maze.

But he can’t fool me. I wish I were as bold and astute as Jon Ronson.

I should admit to my own biases here. I’ve read two other Ronson books, “Them” and “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” and interviewed him for both. I greatly enjoyed both books and my talks with Ronson himself. He IS funny, and empathetic, and a fine writer, too.

Still, that’s not what makes him a terrific journalist. He’s a great storyteller with an eye for the telling detail. Like his countryman John Oliver, he’s good at summarizing background while shrewdly weaving in new information – though, in Ronson’s case, he’s usually the one who’s gathered it.

He also has a sense of the big picture. In one of “Lost at Sea’s” best articles, about income disparity and tax burdens, he has the idea to interview people at various income levels, each one with a salary five times the level of the previous one. He starts with B. Wayne Hughes, the billionaire founder of Public Storage, who despite his great wealth is angry at the many people below him – the “takers” to his “maker.” Then Ronson goes to the bottom of the scale, to a Haitian immigrant dishwasher in Miami (who makes less than $10,000), a working-class couple in Iowa ($50,000), himself (“I make $250,000, double that in a good year – if, say, George Clooney is turning one of my books into a movie”), an entertainment producer in New York (seven figures), and an early investor in Amazon (eight figures).

The last, Nick Hanauer, seems to have the healthiest perspective on his money.

“There’s something unusual about Nick, in that he’s come to believe that the system he benefits so richly from is built on nonsense – specifically the idea that ‘the markets are perfectly efficient … based on talent and merit,’ ” Ronson writes. Hanauer notes that he paid 11% in taxes the previous year – certainly a huge amount of money given his income, but one that barely makes a dent in his fortune.

“I don’t even know what my health-care costs are,” he says.

Contrast that with Hughes, whom Ronson likes and makes a point of noting is no cheapskate. Yet Hughes can’t stop complaining about “derelicts on welfare” and “bus drivers who are on permanent stress leave.” They’re his equivalent of Ronald Reagan’s welfare queen. But Ronson can’t help but think that the guy he’s really complaining about is the Miami dishwasher, who in reality is holding on by his fingernails.

That’s the key: Ronson is always seeing people as human beings – flawed, perhaps confused or awful human beings, but human beings nonetheless. He goes on a cruise with psychic Sylvia Browne, who apparently looks on her customers as idiot marks, but lets those customers tell the story. (For the most part; upon hearing that Browne said he had a “dark soul,” he responds, “Now I know for sure Sylvia isn’t psychic, because I don’t have a dark soul at all. I have a very light soul.”) He can’t help but be sadly amused at music producer Jonathan King, who maintains a cheery attitude while being tried for sexual abuse. It’s a style he’s familiar with, whether it’s letting conspiracy theorists have their say in “Them” or humorless industrialists speak in “The Psychopath Test.”

Still, Ronson’s most effective stories are those in which he follows an ordinary person caught in extraordinary circumstances. Perhaps the most affecting in “Lost at Sea” is the story of Richard Cullen, a working-class mechanic who started taking out credit cards to pay for his wife’s medical costs. (Britons are welcome to “go private,” away from the National Health Service, but as with Americans, there’s always a bill.) One thing led to another and soon Cullen was juggling several credit cards and loans, borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, and finally committing suicide when the burden became too heavy.

What Ronson discovers is that Cullen, despite his financial status, was being bombarded with offers, much like Americans during the subprime housing crisis. (Interestingly, the article was published in 2005, two years before the crisis started taking hold.) Ronson sets up his own set of 13 personas – amusingly, he names four after the Beatles and another five after the late-‘60s British hitmakers Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich – and finds out that the less financially stable his persona, the more it’s pursued by banks with credit applications.

Even Cullen’s widow isn’t immune. Not long after she receives a threatening letter from one bank, she gets another offering £15,000 at 10.9% interest if she puts up her house as collateral.

Eventually, the banks write off Cullen’s debts. All it took was publicity about his suicide.

Ronson knows how easy it is to walk in his shoes.

“Since I began writing this article … I have paid Visa about £300 in interest and minimum repayments,” he writes. He could pay it off, “but I haven’t bothered. This is because – like millions of us – I am lazy and stupid.”

Not quite, Mr. Ronson. For which I, for one, am thankful.

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