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Saturday
Feb122011

Are Comic Books Dangerous?

The Ten-Cent Plague (The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America) by David Hajdu, Pacador, $26 hardcover

X’ed Out by Charles Burns, $19.95, Pantheon oversize hardcover

The Horror! The Horror! Comic Books the Government Didn’t Want You To Read! compiled by Jim Trombetta, $29.95, Abrams oversize hardcover


Try casually leaving these three books on your coffee table to see how visitors respond. If they are unaware of your interest in the graphic storytelling medium, they may be surprised or shocked. You might be able to turn that into an opportunity to show them how cool comics can be, are today, and how feared and poorly thought of they were, in our lifetimes (at least in mine, and in yours if you were alive in the 1950s).

When I was a kid I was well aware that most adults thought of comic books as trash. My grandparents callously referred to them as “funny books” and would throw them away if they found 'em lying around; my poor uncle was continually hiding his Marvel Comics, as in the early ‘60s even those innocent comics were thought of as subversive by the older generations (of course, we kept our paperback James Bond novels in hiding places, as well). 

To commemorate my birth, the government held televised hearings in 1954 investigating juvenile delinquency. Among the issues they felt were tearing apart the fabric of society were comic books, notably those dangerous, anti-everything-right horror comics. So of course they banned horror comics, overnight “disappearing” them from the drugstores and newsstands where days earlier they had commanded a colorful presence. Trombetta’s collection utilizes a tasteful combination of graphics and layout to showcase entire comics from this time, along with their covers, presented to evoke the feel of the time. His commentaries are wise and funny, and I enjoy them enough to warp the cliche and tell you they are “almost worth the price of admission). 

Included is a DVD presenting the long-unseen, legendary documentary Confidential File from 1955. Senator Estes Kefauver and comic book artist Ellis Eringer are featured. Priceless. You've never seen this before.


Charles Burns would have been run out of the United States on a rail if he’d been working as an artist in the 1950s, so we’re fortunate he grew up in Seattle in the 1970s. X’ed Out is the initial offering in a series, and it’ll make you itch and think and wonder, and possibly uncomfortable. That’s Charles Burns in a nutshell.

Burns’ artwork is meticulous and deep; I find myself going back and forth through the pages after my first read-through, noticing additional elements of interest. Think of peeling an onion and revealing more with each layer. Unlike an onion, your eyes won’t weep, only your brain and imagination.

Keeping with the theme of discord between the young and their parents is The Ten-Cent Plague. David Hajdu’s book is a superb page-turner, similar to a crime thriller novel of today, chronicling the popular culture world of the 1940s and ‘50s as lived by kids and teenagers through comic books. To think that rock’n’roll performers in the mid-‘60s thought they’d invented the generation gap...

Comics were taken from kids and burned; upright society was aghast at the damage these dime-trash-comics were doing to kids, and how subversive Bill Gaines (E.C. Comics) and the other publishers clearly were about all things proper. Author Hajdu performs admirably telling the story with imagination and verve. And what could be better than having Charles Burns create a cover for this book? What a package... what an era.

Friday
Feb042011

Keith Richards Lives Life with Passion!

Life by Keith Richards

hardcover, $29.99, Little, Brown & Co.

Life by Keith Richards is as fine a music biography as I’ve read in my life.

Does it sound like I’m exaggerating? I’m not. Am I a Keith Richards fan? Absolutely. Have I read thousands of popular music books in my lifetime? Yes. I’ve written about hundreds of them, I’ve bought and sold additional thousands. I’m telling you plain and simple that Richards gets it right with his autobiography, Life.

Years ago, in a review published somewhere, I described Keith Richards onstage as a living musical note. When I saw the Stones live, Keith rambled onstage playing “Not Fade Away,” and I was briefly overcome and burst into tears! As an adult. 

Yeah, the guy epitomizes rock’n’roll for me, but who knew he could write? I know this is a reviewer’s cliche now, but who would have even figured he’d remember the stories?

I was a record collector from the dawn of the early ‘60s, and spent most of my 25 years in the publishing business immersed in that world (Cowabunga, Goldmine, Baby Boomer Collectibles, Zig Zag, Trouser Press, Discoveries). I’ve spent thousands of hours in hundreds of record stores, bookshops, second-hand emporiums, and at record shows across the country. Reading Keith Richards describe the English record collecting scene of the early ‘60s, when they were discovering American blues music and performers, is priceless and sounds so right. 

He reminisces about spending a year with Mick Jagger, record hunting. Richards’ memories of these strange guys (it was always men, rarely women, in the States too) coming together with music as their common ground rings true. I well remember, a decade later, hearing rumors of this or that record, or that perhaps this ‘50s C&W performer did a great rock’n’roll 45 early in their career, usually on some phantom label, but nobody knew for certain ‘cause none of us owned he record! 

This is a different time; people had to locate a physical copy of an obscure record to know what it sounded like! There was no iTunes, no internet, no downloading. Collectors and dealers alike played all the records to find the good ones! Why do you think dealers and collectors carried little plastic battery-powered record players all the time?

Keith experienced the same thing, living in England trying to learn about American blues performers in the early ‘60s. When he describes individuals as having the largest blues record collection in London, and discusses matrix numbers, I’m blown away. Original pressings, original labels, first pressings... wow, this is the backdrop to years of my life. 

Keith says, “For better or worse it was their passion... And it certainly was mine too... That’s what we lived for, basically.”

 Richards goes on to talk about searching for the right sounds. He didn’t care about labels, about what “type” of music something supposedly was. If it was pop and it was great, it was terrific. He described it this way:

“I was looking for the core of it – the expression. It’s not something you take in in the had, it’s something you take in in the gut. It’s beyond the matter of the musicality of it, which is very variable and flexible.”“I was looking for the core of it – the expression. It’s not something you take in in the had, it’s something you take in in the gut. It’s beyond the matter of the musicality of it, which is very variable and flexible.”


Passion, that’s what Keith Richards the young record collector and aspiring musician was searching for. And it’s what he brings to bear so heavily with the Rolling Stones and every other musical project he’s been involved in. It’s all about the passion, his feelings for music. That’s what I’ve always heard and felt resonated from within him.

Flash forward decades through the history of the Rolling Stones, Richards’ life and women and drugs and music. You’ll read more than 500 pages, and wish it was 5,000. Go slowly and relish how honestly Keith Richards is about his life, his relationships, and his music. Forget the crap you’ve read about he and Mick Jagger, and pay attention to the real gen here. 

I was impressed when the Keith of today comes forth with health and wellness advice; it’s wonderful and spot on:

“You’ve got to hit it when you’re hungry. We’ve been trained from babyhood to have three square meals a day, the full factor-industrial revolution idea of how you’re supposed to eat. .... It’s very bad for you to stuff all that crap in at once. Better to have a bit here, a mouthful there, every few hours a bit or two. The human body can deal with it better than shoving a whole load of crap down your gob in an hour.”

I love it! Proper dietary advice from Keith Richards. He’s right, and I am astounded to have read it in Life.

 www.keithrichards.com

www.audible.com

Rather than go on and on, just get your hands on this fine book and read it. The version from Audible.com features Johnny Depp reading the first and last portions of Life, with someone else handling the biggest portion in the middle, if you would prefer to listen rather than hold this heavy hardcover on your lap. Download to your Kindle or iPad, I don’t care, but get involved with Keith Richards’ Life.

Sunday
Jan232011

Apple's iTunes Continues to Kick the Music Industry to the Curb

I've lived through vinyl records (my mom used to ask why I wanted to buy albums when 45s would give me only the songs I wanted...shades of iTunes decades later), cassettes, 8-tracks (I largely skipped 8-tracks, thought they were stupid), compact discs, and now am happy living in the world of Pandora and iTunes. It's easy to forget that compact discs remain the medium of music storage and playing for millions of people, and that the effect of their disappearing from the day-to-day life of many of us affects others so closely.

Monday
Jan172011

More of America's Musical Legacy on DVD

Blues

Soul


A few weeks ago I talked about my disappointment with the Country & Western entry in Quantum Leap’s “America’s Music Legacy” series of musical DVDs. The rather cheap televised concert that strung together the release didn’t satisfy me at all.

On the heels of C&W come two more two-hour compilations, one simply titled Blues, the other Soul. I cannot complain about James Brown on one cover, and B.B. King on the other, but the soul release is a disappointment. I know, how can I cut down a DVD featuring live performances from James Brown, but this isn’t the Brown who left a shaking Rolling Stones to follow him at the T.A.M.I. Show; these are basically 1980s James Brown live outtakes. The show is good, including Ben E. King, Gladys Knight, Rufus Thomas, Jerry Butler, Otis Redding and many others, but I remain feeling like I didn’t get my money’s worth. Oddly enough, the show is hosted by Leon Isaac Kennedy, whose B-movie career is highlighted by marrying Jayne Kennedy. His bio on IMBD doesn’t even include this televised concert!

For some reason the Blues disc comes across much better; again, this is a combo of old clips (Bessie Smith, Jimmy Rushing, Mamie Smith, Count Basic, Big Joe Turner - taken from old movies), and crazy odd live performances, but it works. Possibly it’s because there is so much less footage of these great blues shouters, singers and vocalists available. Or maybe it’s because I enjoy blues more than soul.... who knows? The performance list includes Joe Williams and Esther Phillips; Buddy Guy and Junior Wells; Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, B.B. King, and many others. 

Maybe I’m spoiled in this age of YouTube and access to so much fine vintage material. If you find these DVDs cheaply somewhere, buy them, notably the Blues set. But much of this material you’ll have seen before, and when you see it again you’ll likely remember why you don’t already have it in your collection.

www.mvdvisual.com

 

The Hammersteins: A Musical Theatre Family by Oscar Andrew Hammerstein III

Having recently visited New York City, I was quickly reminded of the flash, the almost-daytime lighting of Times Square, and the involvement Broadway and musical theatre have with our culture. Spend a tiny bit of time learning about any and all of this, and the Hammerstein name quickly comes to the fore. Whether comedy set to music, vaudeville, and even opera, the family was heading up the shows. If you’ve seen or heard Oklahoma!, Showboat, South Pacific, Carousel, The King and I or The Sound of Music, you’ve been immersed in Hammerstein family projects. 

Oscar Hammerstein III is the grandson of Oscar Hammerstein II, who revolutionized and shaped musical theater and entertainment in this country, beginning in the late 1800s. His father, Oscar I, created Times Square! What a family. Young Oscar III has the stories, the relationships, the memories, and he does an entertaining job of bringing them forward in this easy page-turner.

Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers

www.blackdogandleventhal.com

 

Death of a Pirate: British Radio and the Making of the Information Age by Adrian Johns

Pirate Radio has come to the attention of new generations, ready to hail early efforts to free the radiowaves and frankly improve the crappy music broadcast by traditional BBC radio. And because this was rock’n’roll music, people even had fun!

The movie of the same name has introduced millions to the concept of free and open; then it was radio transmissions, today it’s the Internet. As in the 1960s, today governments are in the middle, making decisions and deciding on our tastes, on behalf of everyone. Who thinks this is a good thing?

Death of a Pirate chronicles part of the offshore radio world that rocked England and Europe in the middle-to-late ‘60s. Toss in a murder, power struggles, and larger-than-life characters such as Screamin’ Lord Sutch, and you’ve a non-fiction chronicle that reads like a novel. 

www.wwnorton.com

 

Monday
Dec062010

Preserving Our Musical Legacy: A Step Backwards

My high hopes for America’s Music Legacy: Country and Western were dashed as soon as I got past the classic pic of Jerry Lee Lewis on the front and flipped the DVD over. When liner notes don’t tell me a thing about where and when the performances were made, it always means some weird compilation, often television shows. Scanning through this I quickly found these two hours were shot at Knott’s Berry Farm sometime in the 1970s, I believe.

Insipid live work from Sylvia (!), Razzy Bailey, Eddie Dean, Doug Kershaw Patti Page, and Moe Bandy finally led me to eight great Jerry Lee Lewis songs. Pretend you paid for an 8-song Killer concert and you’ll be fine. His voice is in good shape, he appears to be sober, and he even yodels a bit at the end of “I Trusted In You.” Then Lewis burns through “Great Balls of Fire,” which should have awakened the audience (it’s a good thing the Killer pounds the piano, ‘cause his band for this set barely keeps up and they’re lame). There’s something about Jerry Lee Lewis that’s special, though, and even in this weird setting I enjoyed his singing. His rendition of “You Belong To Me” reminds me of Tiny Tim (in a good way).

I won’t go on, everything else on here is depressing and reminds me of watching Hollywood Palace in the ‘60s. Funny edits imply that the performers are coming and going like a variety show, but I very much doubt the Killer went off so Terry Gregory could come out and eat away my eardrums for three songs, then return and burn a hole in the stage.

MVD Entertainment Group