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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Review: ‘The Autobiography of Donovan: The Hurdy Gurdy Man’

The Autobiography of Donovan: The Hurdy Gurdy Man

The Autobiography of Donovan: The Hurdy Gurdy Man by Donovan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


In Mark Shipper’s classic satirical Beatles novel “Paperback Writer,” Donovan is introduced as a spacey, easily annoyed prig who totes around bananas as his choice of drug. Upon meeting the singer in India, the Beatles call him “Don,” which makes Donovan extremely irritated.

“Don’t call me ‘Don,’ ” he tells the foursome, with increasing exasperation.

“Snotty little bugger, isn’t he?” Ringo says at one point.

Yes, Ringo, he is.

I should have given up on “The Autobiography of Donovan: The Hurdy Gurdy Man” after the first 20 pages. Immediately you could tell that the Scottish folksinger has a high opinion of himself – quoting his songs and his “poetry,” telling you about the early days of his life as if he were the most important person in the world.

Keep going, I had to tell myself. Sooner or later he’s got to get to his meeting with Bob Dylan, or talk about producer Mickie Most, or describe the trip to India with the Beatles.

He does all those things, but it takes forever to get there. Much to my chagrin, I actually had to finish the book to learn about those details – which meant I had to wade through his self-regard for the lyrics to “Sunshine Superman” or how he says he invented “Celtic Rock.” (If there is such a thing, I’ll give credit to Van Morrison – or the Clancy Brothers.) I don’t recall the last time I felt cheated by finishing a book.

Listen: I actually like some of Donovan’s music. “Season of the Witch” is excellent – cuttingly laconic, in its drama an exception to his often drifty songs. “Hurdy Gurdy Man” is a fine taste of psychedelia, with credit due to producer Most and guitarist Jimmy Page. I even have a soft spot for “Atlantis,” despite the ponderous opening (“and other so-called gods of our legends / though gods they wehe-re,” he says in his brogue), because the “Way down below the ocean” part kicks ass.

But let’s not fool ourselves. On a list of ‘60s hitmakers, the guy belongs somewhere between Blood, Sweat & Tears and Gary Puckett and the Union Gap. In his autobiography, he’s constantly bragging about his chart success, but his only U.S. Top 10 album was his greatest hits LP, and just four of his singles made that zone. (He did have eight Top 10 singles in the UK, but so did Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich.)

What you want is the stories. He was friendly with the Beatles, after all, and surviving the British Invasion and psychedelia could make for entertaining anecdotes. Instead too many of the stories involve his pursuit of his true love, Brian Jones’ former girlfriend Linda Lawrence (credit where it’s due: they’re still married after almost 50 years), and how often he partook of the herb. His descriptions of his contemporaries are as shallow as his own self-reckoning. George Harrison is a loyal friend; Mickie Most is a conduit for Donovan’s own clever ideas and musical awesomeness. Upon finishing the album “Sunshine Superman,” he writes, “I felt the spirit move within me. I knew that the album I was recording was my masterpiece.”

It’s a very frustrating book.

In real life, he doesn’t mind being called “Don.” (Hell, he’s even kind to “Bobbie” Dylan, who mocked him – and everybody else – in “Dont Look Back.”) But his autobiography is missing the kind of self-deprecating humor that carried, say, Rod Stewart’s memoir. Even Graham Nash, who also has an ego, told some rich, charming tales of his youth with the Hollies’ Allan Clarke in his book “Wild Tales.” For such a lover of the mystical, Donovan has little of that sense of “How did I get here?”

Better to stick with the singles. “The Hurdy Gurdy Man” is a long way to go for a few worthwhile stories.

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Review: ‘Bad Blood’ by John Carreyrou

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


If there’s a lesson to be drawn from “Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup,” it’s this: Don’t mess with companies that employ high-priced law firms.

Because as shocking as I found the story of Theranos, the Silicon Valley startup that intended (or so it claimed) to upend the healthcare industry with portable, high-tech blood test machines, what I found just as sobering was what happened when people tried to leave, or author John Carreyrou, the Wall Street Journal reporter who won a fistful of awards for his investigation, tried to dig into Theranos’ story. The company employed Boies, Schiller & Flexner, the law firm of superstar attorney David Boies, to challenge them at every turn.

Now, maybe that’s what your legal counsel is supposed to do, especially when you have allegedly revolutionary technology and your startup is fighting against the vipers of Silicon Valley. But the non-disclosure agreements handed out like Times Square flyers; the intimidating meetings where Boies, Schiller representatives threatened to litigate until people cried uncle; the apparent spying they did on certain Theranos ex-employees and possibly Carreyrou … it struck me that, if this is how business is done, maybe it would have been better for the IT and blood science experts at Theranos to go into, say, public health.

After the initial glow of their entry at Theranos wore off, they probably thought so, too.

By now, pretty much anyone who’s read the business press (or, of late, People magazine) knows that Theranos was the brainchild of Elizabeth Holmes, who dropped out of Stanford at 19 to pursue her dream of a technology company that would make old-fashioned blood draws obsolete – and, by doing so, improve the health of millions. No need to go to a doctor’s office! You could stick your finger with a tiny needle in a drugstore, supermarket, or even at home. Results would be almost instantaneous. You could be alerted to health risks early, and the world would be changed!

Holmes managed to bring along some pretty big names in her pursuit to become the next Steve Jobs (an image she encouraged by wearing black turtlenecks). Her board included former secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, military veteran and soon-to-be secretary of Defense James Mattis, and eventually Boies himself. She was photographed by Martin Schoeller; filmmaker Errol Morris shot promotional videos. Rupert Murdoch invested millions. She made the cover of Fortune magazine.

And why not? Besides the promise of groundbreaking technology, Holmes was media catnip: young, pretty, female, charismatic. She spoke in a surprisingly deep voice (it turned out to be part of the act) and claimed to spend all her time working.

It was, largely, a sham.

Holmes actually had a boyfriend, a bullying executive named Sunny Balwani, who was also her number two. Together, they ran Theranos like their own private kingdom. The miniaturized technology looked amazing but, for the most part, didn’t work – certainly not well enough to change healthcare. Employees came starry-eyed and left defeated within a few years – or a few months. One of them committed suicide. Holmes lied about Theranos tests, claiming success where little or none existed; Balwani was known for his vicious temper. Both were secretive to the point of paranoia.

And yet, for too many years, people – smart people – bought it. Nobody wanted to be left out. Millions were to be made and their only competition was other super-wealthy people.

Carreyrou tells this story in workmanlike fashion. He obviously had terrific sources, and the accumulation of detail is like the turning of a vise. One of his best contacts is Tyler Shultz, a Theranos employee and George’s grandson, who smells something fishy and eventually risks his career to tell Carreyrou. Not even his grandfather, who treated Holmes like a daughter, believed him.

But the book only develops true momentum when Carreyrou himself enters the picture. Before that it’s just a series of chapters about disillusioned employees and failed equipment. With Carreyrou, suddenly it becomes a cat-and-mouse story, with Holmes asking Murdoch to quash the story at the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal and Carreyrou and his editor facing Boies, Schiller attorneys from opposite ends of a conference table. One of them sent regular emails threatening to sue; they all reminded me of a certain president and his henchmen.

One incident, in which Carreyrou met with Tyler Shultz on the Stanford campus, was particularly troubling. Nobody knew they were going to talk – not even Shultz, since the meeting was impromptu – and yet Theranos’ lawyers contacted Shultz’s soon after and said they knew about the meeting. Carreyrou surmises they were followed. Nice work, attorneys. Hope you can live with yourselves.

In the end, Carreyrou’s investigation helped bring about Theranos’ demise. The lawsuits are now aimed at Holmes and Balwani. The company is currently the subject of an HBO documentary and an ABC Radio podcast (neither of which I’ve sampled), and Adam McKay is making a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence. All that is satisfying in a “bad guys lose” kind of way.

And yet I was mildly disappointed by “Bad Blood,” because its main characters – Holmes and Balwani – are ciphers. I hate to encourage cocktail psychology, but Carreyrou never tries to figure out what drove Holmes to mount such a huge fraud. Was she blinded by her do-gooderism? Kept under a spell cast by Balwani? Somehow damaged by being raised by a merely upper-middle class family while mixing with the truly wealthy? Simply a sociopath? She’s little more than a strange, smart pretty face, and Balwani is a well-off bully with a somewhat shady past. Neither, of course, gave Carreyrou interviews, and he’s not the kind of guy to speculate. For the most part, I appreciate that, but it still leaves the question: What made these people tick?

Maybe I’ll just have to watch the movie.



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In praise (?) of journalism

“Network’s” Howard Beale, still telling the truth. Image from Warner Bros., via online.

I wrote this yesterday, in response to a Quora post that laid out reasons why the “mainstream media” was rapidly losing its audience. I can’t find the link — so much for searching my Google history — but essentially the poster provided four examples of stories the news media got wrong: BuzzFeed’s story about Trump telling Michael Cohen to lie; the MAGA kids; Jussie Smollett; and Mueller. This was a couple hours before the Barr Letter was released, which prompted a number of pundits to put on hairshirts and Trump backers to crow in triumph. (My ultimate opinion of Mueller, dealt with in No. 4 below, hasn’t changed, though I do think the pundits deserve their hairshirts — frankly, I wish some of them would spend the night on a Catherine wheel. Still, I’d like to see the report, not four pages of carefully phrased summary.)

As you can see, I have little love for the state of much mass media, particularly the cable news networks and the shrillest of the opinion sites (which includes most of them). But though I call myself a “recovering journalist,” I still know many who bust their asses to get things right, even if their boss is the guy who helped polish Donald Trump’s hair. I hope they’re allowed to do their jobs properly, without fear or favor … of ratings and traffic.

My response has been slightly edited … because that’s what you do to, one hopes, make it better.

I hesitate to respond to this answer, because I’m of two minds: as one of many people who call themselves “recovering journalists,” I understand your distrust and cynicism of the so-called “mainstream media.” But as someone who worked among many, many excellent reporters for more than 20 years – both as a free-lancer and then at CNN – I feel I have to defend the profession, even at the risk of “Oh, you’re one of THEM.”

Before taking your examples point by point, one overarching note: the “mainstream media” is a fiction. What has become conflated with that term is what I think of as the “noisy media” – essentially, cable news, the louder and more strident portions of the Internet (Twitter most notably), and the Sunday shows (and, to some extent, celebrity-industrial complex programs like “Good Morning America”) that would rather stoke outrage or coast on celebrity than do the hard work of actually REPORTING on a story. We’ve gotten lost in a morass of opinion – Twitter is little BUT people yelling their thoughts – and I think that, overall, that’s what’s harmed the perception of the news media. (My old employer fills 24 hours a day of television “news” with, probably, 95 percent opinion – including from anchors, which pains me no end. And then it features some of the rants as “stories” online!)

The movie “Network” had it right back in 1976 speaking about television: “Television is not the truth. Television’s a goddamned amusement park. Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers, and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business.”

Feel free to extend that to many corners of the Internet.

Now, in response to your examples:

  1. BuzzFeed remains the only outlet that’s reported “Donald Trump essentially told Michael Cohen to lie under oath,” and your use of the word “peddled” falls under the same editorializing issue that affects so much of the news. Did other outlets report BuzzFeed’s story? Yes. Did they do so with skepticism? Many did. Yes, they should have been louder with their caveats, but the best ones said up front they couldn’t confirm BuzzFeed’s story. For their part, BuzzFeed’s reporters are standing by their language, so if they have to eat crow, I hope they do so loudly and publicly. (Jason Leopold is no relation to me.)
  2. The Post and other outlets quickly revised their stories, because that’s what honest news outlets do. You may view such detail as “misleading,” but that’s the nature of news, especially these days — you revise based on the latest information, even if you were wrong at the outset. Do I wish we could go back to the time when news outlets didn’t feel the need to rush to post (and rush to judgment)? You bet. But we live in an instant world, one that looks for instant rushes of emotion. (See my initial paragraphs.) How do you want news outlets to apologize? The Post, for its part, has now posted a large correction as well. Of course, nobody sees corrections anymore because we’ve all moved on to the next outrage.
  3. The Smollett incident is a classic case of the news media – especially celebrity-saturated TV media – rushing to stoke the outrage. But you know who did the most thorough reporting of the whole case? That member of the “mainstream media,” the Chicago Tribune (and other Chicago outlets), whose reporters did smell something funny from the outset. Why? Because they have beat sources within City Hall and the police department. So let’s not lump all outlets together.
  4. The Mueller report has been filed with no new indictments. We’ll find out what’s in it soon enough (we hope). From what I’ve seen, the NEWS REPORTS about the Mueller report have said exactly that. It’s the endless opinion columns and cable-news bloviators who have speculated, speculated, speculated.

Listen, there are many reasons to be cynical about media. Too much is about access, and when you’re doing entertainment or politics, access is extremely valuable. If you upset a big name, they’ll go to your rival.

Moreover, the business of news is business – unless you’re ProPublica, the idea is to make money, and that means attracting audiences, and that means pitching things in black and white. (Fox News is just as much a part of the “mainstream media” as the other sources – just because they’re ideologically aligned with the Trump White House doesn’t mean they’re not trying to make a buck. Rupert Murdoch has been a master of that since the 1960s, aligning himself with whomever will help him to the biggest profits.)

But most news reporters – whether reporting on your local school board or dealing with the chaos in Washington – are just trying to tell the story as straightforwardly and honestly as they can. We’re in a time when everything is both political and heightened. So do yourself the favor that “Network’s” Howard Beale suggested with television: Shut it off. When it comes to the Internet, read widely. And let the loudest and most celebrity-driven social media return to the sewer from whence it came.

Postscript: Ricky Gervais had a great line about engaging with Twitter in his New York Times Magazine Q&A: “It’s like going into a toilet stall and arguing with graffiti.”

Reviews: Biographies of Peter Arno and the Wright Brothers

Writers write, or so I’ve heard. I consider myself a writer, and yet I haven’t written much in the last two months, unless you count my social media posts. (And does anybody count social media posts?) So I’m going to rectify this by catching up on book reviews. Here are two for starters.

‘Peter Arno: The Mad, Mad World of The New Yorker’s Greatest Cartoonist’ by Michael Maslin

Image result for peter arno biography

You’d probably recognize a Peter Arno cartoon even if you don’t know the name. Characterized by bold, almost casual lines, peopled by pulchritudinous young women, monied older men, and commuter types, and featuring the occasional absurdist situation (in one caption-less cartoon, a man is drowning in a water-filled shower stall, pointing at the door handle, as his shocked wife gasps) they seemed as elegant and yet easily tossed-off as a Cole Porter lyric. In that, they were much like Arno himself, a bon vivant of the first order who was part of — and chronicled — the smart set of the first half of the 20th century.

Too bad so little of Arno’s personality comes across in Michael Maslin’s biography, labeled as the “first-ever portrait of America’s seminal cartoonist.”

It’s not that Maslin skims through Arno’s life; if anything, he offers painstaking detail when it comes to his arguments with New Yorker editors — Arno, the star cartoonist almost from the magazine’s origins, always wanted more money — and reviews of his work. But it’s a lot of tell, not show. Arno was obviously a complex man, with tumultuous marriages and colorful adventures, and yet there’s little sense of what drove him. Sure, it can be dangerous to play cocktail-psychology games, but it’s equally wearying to wade through endless block-quoted passages of profiles and correspondence.

For that matter, there’s little sense of Arno’s milieu, the nightclubs and bright lights of Broadway. There’s a photograph of Arno with a girlfriend on the back cover, both in evening clothes down to the girlfriend’s pearl choker. Arno is staring into the distance, a cigarette between two fingers. The photographer? Twenty-one-year-old Stanley Kubrick, on assignment for Look. Whether it’s a testament to Kubrick or simply the power of photography, the picture says more than 10,000 of Maslin’s words.

There are some worthwhile nuggets: Arno was apparently the man who invented the phrase “back to the old drawing board,” and there are rich details about the New Yorker’s early staff. But even that lily is gilded, as Maslin sees fit to pad out the book with a 30-page afterword featuring sometimes empty quotes from his cartoonist contemporaries and descendants. There may be a biography to be written about Peter Arno, but for now, stick with the collections.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

‘The Wright Brothers’ by David McCullough

Image result for wright brothers mccullough

You know what you’re going to get when you pick up a David McCullough biography: sturdy prose, thorough research, and generally an uplifting story. McCullough doesn’t do cads and mountebanks; his subjects are presidents (J. Adams, T. Roosevelt, Truman) and great projects (the Panama Canal, the Brooklyn Bridge), and even when he deals with tragedy — as he did in his first book, 1968’s “The Johnstown Flood” — he finds the heroes amid the destruction.

Even when his subjects are less than heroic (Adams, in particular, could be petty and vindictive), they’re usually paragons of probity, testament to humanity’s better angels.

So it is with the Wright Brothers, the subjects of McCullough’s 2015 biography.

Wilbur and Orville, the inventors of the airplane, are honest, hard-working, and, well, inventive. Though history has painted them as small-town bicycle mechanics who somehow took off one December day in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, McCullough shows that these were two smart and painstaking businessmen. Indeed, their Dayton bicycle firm was already hugely successful, with enough business to set them for life. Instead, fascinated by flight and the ongoing efforts to create a motorized craft, they tinkered and researched, trying and failing numerous times before finally succeeding with the Flyer in Kitty Hawk.

More interestingly, McCullough continues the story, to the brothers’ test flights outside of Dayton, their negotiations with various governments — the airplane was even then seen as a military innovation — and their welcome in France, where they dazzled crowds by flying for hours at a time. In retrospect, it’s amazing how quickly their crude invention (why, the first planes didn’t even have seats!) became an essential form of transportation.

Unfortunately for McCullough, the Wrights are rather colorless. Their correspondence rarely contains humor, and as characters they’re frankly less interesting than their invention or some of the settings. (Getting to North Carolina’s Outer Banks at the turn of the 20th century wasn’t for the faint of heart, and let’s just say that there were no beach houses when you did. The Wrights braved torrential rains, ungodly heat and bitter cold to make sure their plane could fly in a place with necessary winds.) They never married, and McCullough spends little time on business affairs. Perhaps only the brothers’ sister, Katharine — described as “fiery” and “high-spirited” — offers a brace of emotion, though McCullough is careful in his handling of her. I got the feeling she was quite the spitfire, and it’s a shame she didn’t grow up a half-century later, when she probably would have taken a public-facing executive role while her brothers handled the engineering.

McCullough essentially ends his book with the brothers’ flight over Manhattan in 1909. There was much more afterwards. The brothers did form an aerospace company after the New York flight — it became Curtiss-Wright after a couple mergers and remains in business today — but they cared more about their planes than patent fights, and McCullough devotes just a few pages to their final decades. (Elder brother Wilbur died in 1912; Orville lived until 1948.) Still, McCullough’s choice is the right one. It must have been a startling sight — a flying machine high over the Statue of Liberty, up there with the birds and skyscrapers, before the world was full of such things.

“The Wright Brothers” is minor McCullough, but even minor McCullough is worth the trip. Besides, it’s always a pleasure to hear that resonant voice in your head.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Hal Blaine, 1929-2019

Hal Blaine in his native habitat.

Hal Blaine had a stamp, like the kind of embosser you used to show a bill has been paid or a letter has been received. Hal’s read “Hal Blaine Strikes Again,” and he liked to use it on sheet music.

It was a pun, you see. Hal Blaine, one of the busiest, most talented, most influential drummers in rock ‘n’ roll history, struck again and again and again, whether it was solid four-beats or delicate brushwork or the thunder underpinning the Wall of Sound – on “Be My Baby” and “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and “Strangers in the Night” and “Good Vibrations” and “I’m a Believer” and “Aquarius” and “Superstar” and even backing up John Denver on tour.

Huey Lewis sings about the heart of rock ‘n’ roll. Hal Blaine was its living, pumping pulse.

Hal Blaine died Monday. He was 90. I always knew it would happen – death comes for us all – but somehow I hoped that Hal’s heart would beat to 100 and beyond.

I met Hal on an October day in 2011. It was unplanned; I had traveled to Los Angeles to interview Brian Wilson at the Capitol Records tower in conjunction with the forthcoming “Smile” boxed set release and a series I had planned to write on creativity. Wilson was challenging and intriguing and, once we got going, took all of maybe 15 minutes. So with an afternoon to kill before flying back to Atlanta, I asked the publicist if someone else would be available. Perhaps Hal Blaine.

She made a call and said he’d be interested, and the next thing I knew my videographer and I were driving out to Hal’s house in Palm Desert.

I don’t know how I imagined a pop legend’s house would look, but Hal Blaine’s house was a relatively modest dwelling in a subdivision carved out of the desert. The living room was dominated by a model train set; the walls were lined with memorabilia, including LP covers and a 1970s article featuring a photo of Hal in front of his Rolls-Royce. (The car went in a divorce, he said.) Hal was shorter than I imagined – this was the guy whose arms pounded the verse finales on “Da Doo Ron Ron”? — but his personality was every bit as muscular as I’d hoped.

He took us to his pool out back – nothing elaborate, just a standard-sized suburban pool with a few chairs here and there – and, over glasses of water, we talked. Or, I should say, he talked. I listened, rapt.

Some of it, I’m sure, recapitulated stories he’d told in his memoir, “The Wrecking Crew.” Other stories were reveries of times past, people lost. Years earlier I had gotten an out-of-the-blue email from Larry Levine, Spector’s engineer, in response to a piece about Spector’s shooting of Lana Clarkson. Blaine was visibly sad as he spoke of Levine’s decline and passing in 2008.

Blaine talked about the Beach Boys’ Wilson brothers and their overbearing father, Murry. He complained about bassist Carole Kaye, who he believed had taken credit for work done by Blaine’s preferred rhythm section partner, Joe Osborn. (Blaine himself was accused of the occasional embellishment, including the “Wrecking Crew” name, which he popularized in his memoir; Kaye said the musicians – including Osborn, Leon Russell, Glen Campbell, Tommy Tedesco, Steve Douglas, fellow drummer Earl Palmer, and Larry Knechtel — were called the Clique.) He told rollicking tales of his service in Korea. When I asked him what he liked to listen to, he said SiriusXM’s ‘60s on 6 channel – “because half the songs are me,” he joked.

Or half-joked. Hal Blaine knew how good he was.

My videographer and I ended up staying for two hours.

I don’t know where my interview recordings are, or what happened to my notes. I’d always planned to write a story about Blaine himself, rather than simply use a couple sentences in my story on Wilson. But I never got the opportunity, and so what I have to hold on to are the following: a couple photographs, a set of drumsticks, and an 8 ½-by-11 piece of paper stamped with “Hal Blaine Strikes Again.”

That, and the music.

Rest in power, Hal Blaine.

Review: ‘Elsewhere’ by Richard Russo

Elsewhere

Elsewhere by Richard Russo

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Until “Elsewhere,” I had read three books by Richard Russo: “Straight Man,” “Empire Falls” and “Bridge of Sighs.” The first two are 10s: “Straight Man” is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and “Empire Falls” is a layered novel that offers three-dimensional characters and a moving, intricate plot. “Bridge of Sighs” wasn’t in their league, but it was fine.

So when I picked up Russo’s memoir, “Elsewhere,” I thought: How bad could it be?

The answer: Well, it’s not bad, but it wasn’t good, either.

It’s a shame, because there are the seeds of a fine, expansive memoir within. In short, “Elsewhere” is about the fraught relationship between Russo and his mother, a troubled woman who could not let go of her only son. She followed him to college in Arizona, and then – as he established himself as a writer and moved to other places to teach – tagged along, sometimes on her own, later at his insistence.

At first, Jean Russo is a fascinating character, a beautiful single mother who sees her son as her ticket out of Gloversville, New York, the dilapidated factory town that serves as the setting (fictionalized) in almost every Russo novel. She has a fraught relationship of her own with her parents and her sister; she and Russo’s father divorced when Richard was a child, so mother and son have long been dependent on each other. Occasionally she’ll have anxious spells in which she goes into a lather about the future, only to give herself “a good talking-to” and pull out long enough to move on, whether it’s to a new place or a new job. Richard Russo is obviously exasperated by her and her need for reassurance, but he’s also a good son and makes the most of the situation, whether it’s the routine of finding her housing or making regular trips to the grocery store.

But the repetition of events – Russo’s life changes; his mother sees change as crisis; Russo gives in/calms her; mother finds her footing; repeat – becomes exasperating for the reader, too. It was obvious to me, as I imagine it is to most readers, that Jean Russo suffered from mental illness. (Late in the book Russo reveals that she likely had obsessive-compulsive disorder, but to me it could just as easily been extreme anxiety.) To Russo’s situation I am nothing if not sympathetic. I suffer from anxiety, and my mother-in-law, who now is in the grip of dementia, has a difficult relationship with her daughter, my wife. At times I had to put the book down in discomfort.

However, it was less the similarity to elements of my life and more the fact that “Elsewhere” didn’t go anywhere that diminished it in my eyes. Jean Russo barely changes; she gets older and more fragile, but there’s no 11th-hour recovery. Richard Russo, if not in denial during her life, doesn’t try to come to grips with their relationship until after she dies.

The upshot is that “Elsewhere’s” focus is too narrow. I started wondering if it would have been better as a long essay, perhaps something along the lines of David Sedaris’ recent work about his parents (if not as puckish). There are fragments of how Russo could have filled out the book more effective. He offers a capsule history of Gloversville and its destructive tanneries, which ruled the town until they pulled out and left it to rot. He alludes to life as struggling writer and then one who gets paid large sums for movie rights. (“Nobody’s Fool” became a film with Paul Newman; “Empire Falls” was an HBO miniseries with Newman, Ed Harris, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joanne Woodward.)

And there are also mentions of his long-suffering wife, Barbara, who deserved much, much more attention.

Indeed, though it’s Russo’s memoir, I found myself wondering more about Barbara as the book goes on. How did his mother’s neediness – and Russo’s own struggles as a professional writer – affect their marriage? What did she think of Jean Russo? Does she have a sense of humor? (She must.) Barbara Russo is the unsung hero of “Elsewhere,” and I imagine Richard Russo would agree. Perhaps Barbara told her husband to keep her involvement to a minimum, but a son’s relationship to his mother can’t help but illuminate a husband’s relationship to his wife. The relative invisibility of Barbara Russo is a weakness of the book; whether Richard is trying to explain his mother or himself, Barbara could have provided a great deal of illumination.

Russo remains an engaging writer. One can feel the weight of his sadness, as well as the edge of his frustration, and his descriptions of Gloversville and its leather industry are full of heart and disgust. (They make an interesting companion to Philip Roth’s passages about glovemaking in “American Pastoral.”) It’s just that his subject – whether himself, his mother, or their relationship – doesn’t provide enough revelation for a whole book.

Maybe he should have entrusted this memoir to his wife.

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Review: ‘Dreaming the Beatles’ by Rob Sheffield

Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole WorldDreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World by Rob Sheffield

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As long as I can remember, I’ve loved the Beatles.

I’m not exaggerating. In fact, I’ve loved the Beatles since before I have memories.

One of my first memories of identifying a record dates to when I was 5 or 6, circa 1970-71, when I heard “I Should Have Known Better” and “I’ll Get You” and knew they were by the Fab Four. (I did think the former’s title was “I Never Knew What a Kiss Could Be,” however. I had a lot to learn.) By that time, I had inherited my aunt’s singles collection, which included a number of Beatles 45s with the yellow-and-orange Capitol swirl. I played them constantly.

Even before owning the singles, I’d probably been hearing them for years. I watched the Beatles cartoon series in reruns (favorite songs: “Anna” and “And Your Bird Can Sing”). My aunt was a full-blown fan and visited my family in the summers – including 1966, when she saw the Beatles at Shea Stadium. And given that I was born in 1965, I suspect I heard the Beatles in the womb, because my mother – though preferring Eddie Fisher and Connie Francis to those long-haired British kids – liked to listen to the radio, and the radio would have been full of Beatles.

My love of the group has never really diminished. In high school I wore a T-shirt with “Beatle Maniac” on the back; in college, though my tastes branched out in many directions, I always came back to “Revolver,” or the White Album, or “Abbey Road”; and to this day, after decades of Beatle immersion, I continue to add to my Beatle knowledge, going from Nicholas Schaffner’s “The Beatles Forever” to Philip Norman’s “Shout” to Bob Spitz’s “The Beatles” to the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s biography, while consuming other memoirs, magazine articles and comment boards.

I also know I’m not alone in my … obsession. So I was curious to see what Rob Sheffield – who has written some terrific Beatles-related articles for Rolling Stone – had to say about the Beatles’ hold on popular culture, the topic of his book “Dreaming the Beatles.”

Surprisingly, I think he missed the point.

Now, “Dreaming the Beatles” is engaging and interesting. Sheffield is too good a writer, and too knowledgeable a fan, to have produced a bad Beatles book. But what’s missing from “Dreaming the Beatles” (especially given its title) is something of the mysterious and mystical.

Before you roll your eyes again, hear me out.

In recent years, I’ve started thinking of the Beatles as something approaching a miracle. I know skeptics will scoff – every “miracle” can be read as the product of luck, timing and coincidence – but, still, what are the chances that four boys far removed from the cultural hub of their country find each other to form a good band, one of the best ever? What are the chances that they’re not only talented musicians but incredible songwriters? That they complement one another so well? That they meet both a manager and producer who underscore but don’t undermine their strengths? That they not only ride a rocket ship to fame – that’s happened countless times – but prove so adept at their art that they reshape not only popular music but popular culture as well? That their story (looked at from years later, of course) has an amazing arc that has them breaking up at the height of their powers, so we never have to deal with the usual – and inevitable – decline?

What are the chances that the corpus should be so free of waste? The Beatles produced just over 200 songs on 14 albums (counting the “Past Masters” singles collection) and virtually every one has something to recommend it. Hell, even the ones on the Anthology series have something to recommend them. (Though one of Sheffield’s favorites, “It’s All Too Much,” is one I struggle to recommend. Well, there’s George Harrison’s great lyric, “Show me that I’m everywhere, and get me home for tea.”) They were brilliant editors and remarkably self-contained. They could play most of the instruments and knew how they wanted others to sound (with the help of George Martin, of course).

Above all, they had an unmatchable chemistry. When I listen to the Beatles, no matter where I drop the needle, I can feel the propulsion, often more than that – I can feel an incredible love and joy. For all of my worship of the late-‘60s Kinks or the Clash’s “London Calling” album or the pocket-tight thwock of a Benny Benjamin drum part, no other artist has ever been able to sustain that sheer energy so long and so consistently. The Beatles make me happy, and I’m not the only one who feels that way.

So, again, what are the chances?

It’s an impossible question to answer (even John Lennon, in his demystifying “Lennon Remembers” phase, dismissed the group as “just a band who made it very, very big”), but Sheffield doesn’t really try hard. He does note their fearlessness – this was a band of men who were unafraid to sing girl-group songs without changing the sex and made those songs work brilliantly – and their obvious determination to push one another. (Until, well, they broke.) But something is missing – some music theory, some additional cultural context, some flights of fancy, something. (Not the Harrison song – that’s in here.)

Now, I know I sound dismissive. That’s not quite right. I enjoyed “Dreaming the Beatles.” Sheffield does get at the fact that the Beatles pretty much created the template for rock ‘n’ roll lives to the point where it became either myth or cliché, take your pick: the early member who died tragically, the change in drummers that sealed the unit, the wives who broke up that old band of mine. The story has become so well-known that even the parodies have become “part of the soup,” in Harrison’s phrase. (Harrison, who gets off some nifty sarcastic lines in Eric Idle’s recent memoir, could also be surprisingly defensive about the group.)

Sheffield highlights the importance of Nicholas Schaffner’s “The Beatles Forever,” a 1977 volume that was the entry point for many post-breakup fans (OK, like me), notes the impact of Lennon’s murder on stoking interest, and offers some nice character sketches and song analyses. Also some intriguing facts: Apparently, in the group’s lawsuit against “Beatlemania,” John Lennon wrote in a statement that “I and the three other Beatles have plans to stage a reunion concert, to be recorded, filmed and marketed around the world.” He made that statement just after Thanksgiving, 1980.

Still, that also highlights what’s missing: the motivation of Beatles fans. One of my favorite books, surprisingly unmentioned in “Dreaming the Beatles,” is Mark Shipper’s “Paperback Writer,” a 1978 novel in which the group reunites in 1979 and proceeds to flop. Things get so bad that they’re forced to tour as Peter Frampton’s opening act. The late ‘70s was a time when Beatles reunion talk was in the air, but Shipper knew the reason had less to do with the Beatles than us: If the Beatles got back together, we could return to the garden. That was never going to happen, and Lennon’s death put an end to the dream.

Some quibbles: Sheffield has McCartney’s “My Love,” which he roasts mercilessly, as released in 1971; it actually came out in 1973, which Sheffield surely knows. Also, he says “radio wouldn’t touch” McCartney’s 1985 single “Spies Like Us” (done for the film). They must have touched it a bit, since it made the Top Ten. (The song is awful, as Sheffield says.) And I was surprised that a fan like Sheffield didn’t bother to look up the man he puts down as “Anonymous Session Guy” in McCartney’s video for “So Bad.” Uh, that would be Eric Stewart, who also played on the recording and was better known as part of 10cc – a band who could also create clever hooks, particularly in their hit, “The Things We Do for Love.”

Anyway, I’ve spent 1,300 words criticizing “Dreaming the Beatles” for not really getting at the meat of how the Beatles became THE BEATLES – the measuring stick for every rock band from now until probably forever, their music and lives permeating the culture – yet I don’t think I did any better. It gets back to the old Elvis Costello/Frank Zappa/Martin Mull quote: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

You know where the answer is? In the grooves.

One, two, three, fo —

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Review: ‘Vice’

VICE_-_Official_Poster_rgb

There is a moment in “Vice” that attempts to illustrate the smooth, inoffensive tone that allows Dick Cheney to get away with saying the most outrageous things.

It’s the mid-‘70s and Cheney, serving as chief of staff to President Gerald Ford, is asked his thoughts on some topic or another – to which he responds with a suggestion to put wigs on a line of penises in a kind of puppet show. The others in the Oval Office, including Ford, act as if this is the most wonderful idea they’ve ever heard.

It’s too bad that “Vice” itself didn’t offer more outrageousness along those lines. In fact, it’s too bad that “Vice” didn’t actually illustrate such a puppet show and have everyone react with back-slapping approval. The film tells an almost unbelievable story – that of Cheney’s rise from drunken Wyoming ne’er-do-well to the most powerful vice-president in history, one whose “one-percent doctrine” still dominates our terrorism-frightened times – but, from my perspective, it needed to be even more absurd, less controlled, more over the top.

In fact, “Vice” tells its story with surprising restraint, an echo of Cheney’s gritted-jaw intonation.

It’s a politician’s rise-to-power story you’ve probably heard before. In Cheney’s case, it begins with flunking out of Yale and getting a DUI; then, driven as much by his wife, Lynne, as his own ambition he gets on the straight and narrow and earns a spot as a congressional aide, deciding to join the staff of the brash Donald Rumsfeld, whom he follows to the White House during the Ford administration. Then there’s a stint as a Wyoming congressman before joining the George H.W. Bush administration as defense secretary.

The movie glosses over the Persian Gulf War (a mistake; though the film starts out saying that Cheney was next to unknown when he became VP, for anyone paying attention he was already a respected hand thanks to his cabinet service, if overshadowed at the time by Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf) and soon enough Cheney is George W.’s Number Two as we slam headlong into Afghanistan and Iraq.

Sure, he has a questionable “presidents can do no wrong” philosophy and questionable colleagues (I was pleased to see so much attention given to “Cheney’s Cheney,” the grim David Addington), but if it weren’t for writer-director Adam McKay’s occasional comic interludes, you’d almost confuse it for a standard biopic, not a polemic.

Maybe that’s McKay’s point. Maybe he thought elements of Cheney’s biography were already outrageous enough. But the fact that the film is determined to adhere to the basic facts – even if viewed through McKay’s obviously liberal and pissed-off lens – works to its detriment.

I can’t help but think of a review I read not long after seeing “Network” on Broadway a couple weeks ago: the reviewer was upset that the play played up “The Howard Beale Show” at the expense of the May-December relationship between Faye Dunaway’s programmer and William Holden’s news executive, which gave the movie ballast. I thought the play didn’t go far enough; it should have gone whole-hog into “The Howard Beale Show” and essentially dropped the romance, which seemed pointless on stage in a way it never was in Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay. (It helped that Chayefsky had actors’ champion Sidney Lumet helming the movie, and powerful performances from Holden and Dunaway, instead of Ivo van Hove’s pyrotechnic stage direction and Tony Goldwyn’s milquetoast performance in the Holden role.)

(Of course, this same reviewer claimed that the stage “Network” “ruined” the movie, which – given that the movie is its own thing and very much available to anyone who wants to watch – is complete bullshit.)

It’s a shame that “Vice” doesn’t offer the blazing, angry energy of a “Howard Beale Show” because it features some terrific performances. Christian Bale is amazing as Cheney; both he and his makeup person should earn Oscar nominations. Amy Adams is suitably steely as Lynne Cheney, and the rest of the cast generally elevates their roles above caricature, for better or worse.

Yet, despite my admiration for parts of “Vice,” I left it disappointed. Aside from its weird restraint, the film often violates the “show, don’t tell” rule of storytelling. Too much is presented as exposition (often from narrator Jesse Plemons, who has his own part in the story revealed late) and not enough as action. And if you’re going to have McKay’s angry viewpoint, you may as well leave facts behind and go straight into satire. Hell, change the main character’s name to Chuck Delaney while you’re at it. We know who you’re talking about.

Look at it this way: In 20 years, someone will want to make a film about the presidency of Donald Trump. (Assuming the world is still around and not a smoldering radioactive mess, that is.) The truth is already wackier than any work of fiction could ever produce. I mean, dismissive porn stars? Relationships with Russia? Communicating with bizarrely capitalized tweets? The he-can-do-no-wrong vibe of Trump’s followers? It’s a story that will absolutely resist straight documentary, unless you’re telling it for PBS. If you’re Hollywood, it will have to make “Dr. Strangelove” look like a Cold War training film.

“Dr. Strangelove,” in fact, would have been a nice model for “Vice.” In “Vice,” there no equivalent to Keenan Wynn threatening Peter Sellers with having “to answer to the Coca-Cola Company” as he shoots a Coke machine for its change, or George C. Scott shrugging that a nuclear holocaust might not prevent the U.S. “from getting our hair mussed.”

No, instead of silliness strapped under Stanley Kubrick’s diffidence, with “Vice” we get anger trapped under Dick Cheney’s monotone. So much for McKay getting the last laugh.

Review: ‘What’s It All About?’ by Michael Caine

What's It All About?What’s It All About? by Michael Caine

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first half of Michael Caine’s 1992 memoir, “What’s It All About?”, is enthralling. His life is one struggle after another: poverty, escaping the Blitz, unhappy times at school, military service in Korea, one dead-end job after another in hopes of making it as an actor despite his Cockney background and accent.

And then, success. First comes “Zulu,” the 1964 film that earned him his first major notice; then “The Ipcress File,” the first of the Harry Palmer films; and then, of course, “Alfie,” which gives the book its title (courtesy of one of his lines, made the title of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s theme song). Caine revels in Swinging London and his friendships with Terence Stamp, Sean Connery and British Invasion rock stars, then he leaves for Los Angeles and meets the cream of Old Hollywood, including Cary Grant and John Wayne.

He also gets dull.

Well, not dull. I don’t think it’s possible for Michael Caine to be dull. I once interviewed him and he was gracious and funny, and his self-deprecating sense of humor continually pops up throughout “What’s It All About?” Early in the book, he mentions looking back on an incident “when I was living on a Beverly Hill,” and he mentions how “remarkably inefficient” the trucks were in his downtrodden London neighborhood, given that “the amount and variety of stuff that fell off the back of them and found its way into our house was amazing.” Later, referring to the Oscars, he remarks, “The security is heavy and so is the insecurity.”

The book also contains perhaps his most famous witticism, referring to the making of “Jaws: The Revenge”: “I have never seen the film but by all accounts it was terrible. However I HAVE seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.”

But post-“Alfie” Michael Caine just isn’t as interesting as the struggling version. There are times his stories of childhood and young adulthood give Frank McCourt and “Angela’s Ashes” a run for their money, though in place of McCourt’s deadpan, dour narration – which seems to cloak 1930s Ireland in the gray murk of, perhaps, the 1830s – Caine is always hopeful, if often desperate, which allows a bit of sunshine to break through.

Indeed, he was a lucky man, and he doesn’t take his good fortune for granted, even when it looked like it was running out.

One example: In his late teens, having survived poverty and the Blitz, he’s sent off to Korea. He offers no illusions of military service. His first memory of the Korean peninsula is the smell of human manure that came wafting over to his troop ship; the second is the incredible hardship of the Korean people. He slept with rats and dodged mortar fire. He also made sure to avoid sex, given that the country’s prostitutes were rife with venereal disease. And yet he almost died upon returning, having developed a rare form of malaria. He was saved by an enterprising American doctor with an experimental cure that required him and his colleagues to remain motionless for 10 days. Fortunately, the cure worked, and if he’s been restless since – Caine has often been criticized for taking roles indiscriminately – you can’t blame him.

Still, I wish he’d been more discriminating with his stories of movie success. He’s not a man who criticizes publicly, so except for complaints about high British tax rates and what he saw as an unfair story by Gloria Steinem, everybody he’s worked with is wonderful or talented or both. His marriage to his second wife, Shakira, is made-for-Hollywood fantastical: He saw her on a TV commercial, pursued her, and their marriage has been nothing but happiness. (They’d been married close to 20 years when the book came out; he’s now been with her for 45.) He calls out bigots and refrains from gossip. And except for certain movies – “Sleuth,” “The Man Who Would Be King,” a bit of “Hannah and Her Sisters” – his filmography zips by, a career he sometimes seems to maintain so he has enough money to invest in his homes.

However, he’s such an ingratiating writer it’s hard to complain. I read the original edition, so I do hope his publisher has fixed a number of errors I caught: the great set designer Ken Adam, allegedly a close friend, is routinely called Ken ADAMS; he attends the premiere of “Alfie” with “all four Beatles and all four Rolling Stones” (I wonder which one didn’t count – probably Bill Wyman); and in one paragraph he misspells the names of both the 19th-century British actor Edmund Kean and the 20th-century British actor Paul Scofield. There are also some issues with chronology – I think he mentions the Profumo scandal as happening either a year before or after it actually did, in 1963 – but I’ll forgive those as lapses (or conflations) of memory.

So “What’s It All About?” About 520 pages, of which the first half is rich and savory and the rest … well, consider it a breezy dessert. And Michael Caine, of all people, deserves a nice dessert.

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