Sunday read: You *really* can’t take it with you

Benjamin Wood and Ida Wood. Ida Wood had a number of secrets, starting with her wealth.

When I was growing up and working my way through reference books, one of the tales I saw over and over again was that of Hetty Green, the “Queen of Wall Street” (or the “Witch of Wall Street,” depending on your take), who ended up in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “world’s greatest miser.” (I’m sure the Guinness Book was where I first ran across her name.)

Her story remains shocking in many ways. She amassed a fortune of more than $100 million — more than $2 billion by today’s standards — and was one of the financiers New York City turned to when it ran into financial trouble. And yet she was also one hell of a skinflint, wearing the same dress and underwear until they wore out, rarely washing her hands, and most infamously, trying to find a free clinic for her son for so long that his broken leg had to be amputated.

(After her death, the son — Edward Howland Robinson “Colonel Ned” Green, who grew up surprisingly well adjusted in many ways — spent more freely, including building a $1.5 million Massachusetts mansion that was later bequeathed to MIT.)

But this Sunday read isn’t about Hetty Green. It’s about another wealthy eccentric, Ida Wood.

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Review: ‘Station Eleven’ by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

(Perhaps some spoilers to come. You’ve been warned.)

I shouldn’t have read the review.

Now, I regularly read reviews before reading a book. I like to get an idea of what other people think, and they rarely affect my own opinion. At the least, they’re often good for a laugh – those 1-star Amazon reviews in which people complain about the book because it arrived late. Folks, it’s not the author’s fault that UPS took too long to get the book to your door.

But this review, on Goodreads, stayed with me as I read “Station Eleven,” the generally praised novel by Emily St. John Mandel. And as it forms at least part of my own criticism, I’ll hold back on it for a few paragraphs.

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Review: ‘Reaganland’ by Rick Perlstein

Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980 by Rick Perlstein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are more than 200 pages of endnotes in Rick Perlstein’s “Reaganland,” and I have no doubt that the author – who concludes his four-volume history of postwar American conservatism and culture with this book – read every single book, article, squib, and cocktail napkin he mentions.

The work – all 700-plus pages of it (not including the endnotes, or the bibliography, or the index, or the acknowledgments) — is a marvel of detail and synthesis. I lived through the period Perlstein chronicles, having been 11 when Jimmy Carter was elected president and 15 when he was voted out in favor of Ronald Reagan, and I paid pretty close attention to the news (especially for an adolescent). I’ve also read much about the era since. But there are any number of incidents I’d forgotten about, or failed to realize the significance of, until I saw them woven into Perlstein’s ‘70s tapestry: the background of Love Canal, the early flailing of the 1980 Reagan campaign (John Connolly was considered a much more attractive candidate at one time), how far down Carter’s approval ratings were – and how much they rose after the Camp David Accords and the early days of the Iran hostage crisis.

But those events are only the surface. The real story of “Reaganland” is the creation of the conservative messaging subculture and its joining with the religious right, led by such figures as Heritage Foundation co-founder Paul Weyrich, direct-mail king Richard Viguerie, Liberty University founder Jerry Falwell, and anti-ERA activist Phyllis Schlafly. Together, they helped build an ideology that’s still with us today, one that’s become more homogenous, well-funded, and powerful than they could have ever imagined.

The echoes – or perhaps klaxons – are with us still.

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Sunday read: A day of rest

Image from Getty via Vox.

Given that I’m way behind on my own Sunday reading — and, for that matter, my reading in general — I’m going to give you (and me) the day off from a nice feature story.

(Though, if you’re looking for something thoughtful, this essay on the film “Catch-22” has a few things to say about that movie and absurdity. In our current, exhausting times, in which we’re waiting for a cranky president to accept reality and a virus is achieving new heights of death, absurdity has been on my mind a lot.)

So enjoy the day, or enjoy your sleep, or enjoy catching up on your reading. All I know is I have today’s New York Times, several New Yorkers, various other periodicals, and a few lesson plans to look over.

To borrow from Furman Bisher, Selah.

Review: ‘That Thin, Wild Mercury Sound’ by Daryl Sanders

That Thin, Wild Mercury Sound: Dylan, Nashville, and the Making of Blonde on Blonde by Daryl Sanders

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Disclosure: “Blonde on Blonde” is my favorite album.

In the 39(!) years since I first bought Bob Dylan’s 1966 classic as a curious 16-year-old who’d read about it from best-of lists, it has rarely failed to seduce me. There’s an energy about it that is equaled by few other records in my estimation – “Revolver,” “Moby Grape,” maybe Television’s “Marquee Moon” and the Clash’s “London Calling.” As with those albums, there are unpolished instances where things threaten to go completely off the rails, but that unpredictability only makes the music more powerful and transcendent. I can think of few moments more sublime than, say, the big G chord near the end of “Got to Get You Into My Life,” or the headlong rush into the last chorus of “Brand New Cadillac.”

But “Blonde on Blonde” has something more: Dylan’s lyrics. Opaque, imagistic, funny – “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” always makes me laugh – I don’t read into them as much as the budding A.J. Webermans of our time, but there’s no question that they provide a bottomless well of metaphor for those who seek that kind of thing. (For the rest of us, they just sound good.)

I wish Daryl Sanders’ chronicle of “Blonde on Blonde,” “That Thin, Wild Mercury Sound” – the title comes from Dylan himself, expressing a yearning for what he was hearing in his head – had the same kind of energy and unpredictability. Instead, it’s an adequate biography with some interesting detours, but on the whole simply an extended magazine article.

Sanders does do a service by pointing out that the key to understanding the sound of “Blonde on Blonde” is Nashville, where Dylan relocated after some abortive New York sessions after the success of “Like a Rolling Stone.” That single had peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, making Dylan an unlikely hitmaker after years of others, such as Peter, Paul & Mary and the Byrds, streamlining Dylan’s voice-guitar-harmonica songs into Top 40-friendly pop hits. Though “Stone” was produced by Tom Wilson, Dylan had switched afterwards to Bob Johnston, a Columbia Records staff producer who both gave the bard more freedom and had a better sense on how to record his roughest rock ‘n’ roll edges. (Compare the clanging “Maggie’s Farm,” off the Wilson-produced “Bringing It All Back Home,” with the richer Johnston-produced “Tombstone Blues,” from the follow-up, “Highway 61 Revisited.”)

Johnston had a feeling Dylan would mesh well with some of Nashville’s top session men, including multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy, drummer Kenneth Buttrey, pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins, bassist Henry Strzelecki, and guitarists Joe South, Wayne Moss, and Mac Gayden. With some established Dylan sidemen, notably organist Al Kooper and guitarist Robbie Robertson, in the mix, “Blonde on Blonde” ended up making Nashville more than the country music capital it had been, with other rock musicians visiting town to get some of the Dylan magic.

In the detail that surprised me most, that magic often came at the end of long – very long – nights. The Nashville session guys would gather in the afternoon at Columbia’s Studio A and Dylan would arrive, usually with songs unfinished. So the session men would get paid for one three-hour session, then a second, sometimes more, as they waited in the canteen, smoking cigarettes or playing pool but not actually playing music. Finally Dylan would emerge and recording would start in earnest, the group, in Sanders’ telling, palpably exhausted.

This is how we got “Fourth Time Around,” “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” and “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” among others. It’s as if the group flicked a switch and the electricity flowed through them.

Another surprise, to me, was how young the Nashville pros were. Perhaps because Music City didn’t seem rock ‘n’ roll friendly in the mid-‘60s, I’d pictured McCoy, Buttrey and the others as mildly grizzled guys in their 30s and 40s, Hank Williams veterans resistant to Dylan’s style. Instead, McCoy was the leader of Nashville’s top rock band, the Escorts, and all of 24 when he started recording “Blonde on Blonde.” Buttrey was 20. The others were only slightly older. (Dylan was 24.)

For all this, Sanders’ book somehow lacks the same electricity – or even the ghost of electricity — that the album has. He goes into minutia about takes and studio chatter, great for a Dylan completist but adding little to the story. He quotes from clippings and other memoirs in a way that seems separate from his story (this is what sometimes makes the book feel like a long magazine article). He turns to people like Robyn Hitchcock and Dave Marsh for commentary; Marsh, who is very much capable of investing his prose with electricity, would have been better off writing his own book.

And the Nashville cats themselves are a rather modest bunch. Dylan surprised them and stretched them, but they are, at bottom, professionals – not wild-eyed Keith Moons shoving TVs out of hotel windows. Making music was, and for many still is, their job, as regular as punching a clock at a factory. They just happen to be very, very good at it, but they’re less good at talking about it.

The phrase “that thin, wild mercury sound” brings to mind a medieval alchemist, combining ingots of rare earth, the fur of feral dogs, and bits of Scripture an igniting it with a literal fiery passion. Perhaps that’s what makes “Blonde on Blonde” so special, a chemistry that can’t be recreated, and Sanders – as the old comparison claims – may as well be dancing about architecture in trying to write about it.

Dylan, of course, doesn’t need to say anything. “Blonde on Blonde” has said it all for him already. Sooner or later, we all know that.

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Sunday read: Behind the scenes with Milli Vanilli

The Best New Artist Grammy winners before it all came crashing down.

I recently found a tongue-in-cheek 1990 column from a long-defunct music magazine, Request, about “Why Milli Vanilli Is the Best Band Ever.”

Among the reasons: Neither the Beatles nor Bob Dylan ever placed a song in MTV’s “Top 20 Music Video Countdown”; unlike Dylan, “who has done entire albums with just acoustic guitar and harmonica,” Milli Vanilli’s use of sequencers and synthesizers put them at the cutting edge of music technology; and Milli Vanilli doesn’t “subject its fans to the uncertainty of bad sound systems or sore throats,” instead using pre-recorded vocals to ensure seamless performances.

The column was titled, “World, You Know It’s True.”

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Ed Sullivan eyes

Ed Sullivan (detail).

According to my birth certificate and my mother — who’s fond of reminding me that she was there — I was born around 4:30 in the morning.

That’s the last time I’ve even halfway desired to emerge so early. And, back then, I doubt I had much of a choice.

More than 55 years later, my eyes show the passage of time and an unwillingness to awaken before the dawn. My wife is envious of my ability to sleep — if I lack an excuse to get up on a weekend, I’ll sleep in until the cats insist I get up — which makes it all the harder when the alarm is set for, say, 5:30 a.m. My father never struggled with such a relatively early hour; he was up, showered, shaved, caffeined, and gone before the sun showed its little yellow face. Me, anything before 6 a.m. may as well be the middle of the night.

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Alex Trebek, 1940-2020

Image from Jeopardy Productions.

More than 30 years ago, “a student from New Orleans, Louisiana” — that would be me — appeared on “Jeopardy!” In the time since, whenever people find out about my quiz show claim to fame, they have two questions: “How did you do?” And: “What is Alex Trebek really like?”

The first question has a simple answer. In an exciting game, I went into Final Jeopardy with a narrow lead over the second-place challenger, missed the question, and left with some nice parting gifts, including a case of Pepsodent and several packages of dried prunes.

Entering the “Jeopardy!” lair in 1987.

The second was much harder, for Trebek — then in just his third year of hosting — had a reputation for standoffishness. In my very limited experience, he appeared only when the show started taping, kept to himself during the commercial breaks, and exchanged some small talk with us after the match was over. He seemed perfectly pleasant, very polished, and smart in a quiet sort of way. It would be years before his more casual, fun-loving side would come out on the show.

Alex Trebek died Sunday. He was 80. His death was not unexpected — he had announced last year that he was receiving treatment for pancreatic cancer, had taken short breaks because of that treatment, and said in interviews that he sometimes hosted the show in incredible pain — but it is still a tremendous loss.

I know it is for me, a longtime game show fan and player.

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Sunday read: Passing the presidential baton

Barack and Michelle Obama and George and Laura Bush, January 20, 2009.

Joe Biden is now President-elect Joe Biden.

Between now and January 20, he has to get a new administration more or less in place, hiring hundreds of officials and generally turning the presidency into one of the nation’s biggest start-up companies.

In this, he will likely get no help from the outgoing president or his people. That’s not necessarily new in American history, though it is in recent years, when the handover between administrations has been relatively smooth.

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Paddy Chayefsky, the real prophet

Image from Warner Bros.

The votes are being counted. I’m foolishly reading a lot about the process and its possible outcomes, though the usual suspects are saying what everybody knows: We’re a divided country, and regardless of who becomes president, we’re not going to easily fill in the chasm between the Two Americas. (John Edwards had it in terms of economics, but there are so many other indicators that split us. And what’s Edwards up to these days, anyway?)

But I keep coming back to “Network,” a 44-year-old movie which — despite its incredible wordiness and turned-up-to-11 performances — still resonates today. (I know, I’m always coming back to “Network.”)

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