Books Of The Year — 2011

I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution by Craig Marks & Rob Tannenbaum

I don’t know if he invented it, but writer Studs Terkel certainly perfected the concept of an “oral history.” He would go out and interview a wide variety of people who created or influenced an aspect of American culture, and piece together a book on that topic out of their own words. In recent years, two landmark works of oral history have been published — 1995’s Please Kill Me told the story of the rise and fall of punk rock in America and Britain in the words of the scene’s (surviving) participants, and 2002’s Live From New York dealt with the seemingly unkillable NBC late night comedy show Saturday Night Live. Marks and Tannenbaum acknowledge the influence of these two books in the introduction to their own (yes, I read the introductions to books), which gathers recollections from hundreds of artists, directors, executives, and on-air personalities (“VJs”) to explore the glory years (1981-92) of the revolutionary cable network Music Television.

MTV was a huge part of growing up for me, both through childhood and adolescence. In its early years (1981-85), my older sister and her friends would sit and stare at it for hours. It was a time for them to socialize, yes, but often they just watched, sometimes offering a little pre-Beavis & Butthead commentary. Occasionally, grade-school Holy Bee would join them as a welcome guest. Other times I had to sneak down after dark and hide behind the couch, half-listening as they talked about incomprehensible high school things, and watching images of Van Halen, Madonna, Lionel Richie, The Thompson Twins, The Eurythmics, and many others unspooling before my eyes as I peeked out through the crack between the couch and the wall. (I’m pretty sure they knew I was there now.)

Then, when my sister went off to college and my family moved to a rural area with no cable — no more MTV. As a result, there’s a noticeable gap in my knowledge of music and pop culture from 1986 through the first half of 1989. When people bring up the likes of Rick Astley or Frankie Goes To Hollywood (as they often do), I go a little blank. I wasn’t missing much, though. Evidently, ’86 to ’89 was hair metal’s time to shine, and the two biggest VJs were the absolutely odious Downtown Julie Brown and the pompous blowhard Adam Curry. (Want a quote from Curry straight from the book? “I called MTV ‘The Big M…’ I thought that was genius of me.” He’s serious. It’s on page 375.)

Starting high school and a return to a cable-friendly area coincided perfectly for me in the summer of ’89. I was back on the grid, literally and figuratively. These were “my” MTV years — ’89 to ’94. I didn’t know the behind-the-scenes issues that were slowly and imperceptibly changing the network even back then, I only knew it was on my bedroom TV from the time I got home from school at 3:30 to the time I nodded off shortly after midnight, and it was on in the background of every social occasion I attended.

It’s been a long-lamented fact that MTV no longer shows music videos. The way people my age and a little older (the original “MTV generation”) wail about this has become tiresome. I’m sure there were scroll enthusiasts who pitched a fit when moveable type was invented. Some things just can’t be viably saved, no matter how much they remind us of our rapidly-fading youth. The book makes it clear that just showing videos was ultimately a dead-end. Fewer people were tuning in to watch them. As video games became more sophisticated and popular, they became the after-school activity of choice for slack-jawed teenagers. And music genres were becoming increasingly separated — rap fans wouldn’t watch rock videos, and vice versa. The big, happy melting pot of the 80’s was long gone — as dictated by the viewers themselves.

The cold, hard numbers showed that the channel was slowly dying by the early 1990s, and original programming like The Real World saved it, at least as far as its ad revenues were concerned (which is the only reason any show is on any network, ever.) Kids who would no longer watch music videos would watch six over-entitled shitheads squabble in kooky-looking house. We can rail against the lack of “M” in “MTV” all we want, but its (d)evolution was absolutely inevitable. Why is still called “MTV” if there’s no “M”? Same reason it’s still “AT&T” (the second “T” being “telegraph.”) It’s just a name now. Or, in the words of Duran Duran keyboardist Nick Rhodes: “Now it stands for Money.”

Still, it was fun while it lasted. I’ll leave you with a quote from late-period VJ Dave Holmes: “I don’t think kids twenty-five years from now will be talking about a specific episode of My Super Sweet 16 the way we remember things about videos.”

People are getting stupider, though. They probably will, Dave. They probably will.

Spencer Tracy: A Biography by James Curtis

A great wrong has been righted. In my very first “Holy Bee Recommends,” I recommended exploring the work of Spencer Tracy, one of the greatest film actors of the 20th century, but one who didn’t have an outsized persona (like Bogart or Wayne) to turn him into an icon. Tracy was one of the first actors to abandon the stagy, over-the-top “hammy” acting that make old movies seem dated and hokey to modern audiences. He was a champion of underplaying and total naturalness in performance. He loudly (and usually profanely) dismissed “technique” and Method acting, but his casualness toward his craft was totally feigned — he prepared for every role with an exhausting intensity, and had a long, grueling background through the 1920’s and early 30’s in live theater — summer stock, touring companies, Broadway flops, off-Broadway flops, and a handful of successes that got the attention of Hollywood. There he served an apprenticeship all over again, appearing in dozens of fourth-billed “hero’s best friend” roles until he finally broke through in 1936, co-starring with Clark Gable in the epic San Francisco, and receiving his first Academy Award nomination. He won for the following year’s Captains Courageous, and again the next year for Boys Town, making him the first to win Best Actor Oscars two years in a row. His crippling addiction to alcohol soon made him look older than his years, and his roles often walked a fine line between “leading man” and “grizzled character actor,” but he managed it gracefully all the way through his last performance in 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, a role he completed seventeen days before his death (and which netted him another — posthumous — Oscar nomination.)

He’s kind of forgotten today, to the point that there was only one biography of him (that’s the great wrong), the long out-of-print Spencer Tracy: Tragic Idol, a lazy paste-up job compiled by show-biz writer Bill Davidson (also author of the definitive Gary Coleman bio), full of half-truths and misinformation. Well, now Tracy finally gets the full scholarly treatment, and it reminds me to be careful what I wish for. Curtis errs on the side of total inclusion of everything. Six hundred-plus pages of what can be pretty dry reading, especially in Tracy’s early years. Curtis gives us full cast lists and technical details of plays that Tracy spent a few weeks performing, long speculations on the root cause of Tracy’s struggle with alcohol, and minutiae on his real estate holdings and finances. I guess I’d rather have it in there than not, but it makes for a long read that really feels long.

Curtis is at his best when he explores the complicated relationship between Tracy and his wife Louise. Although both were actors, they were a mismatched pair and the hasty marriage soon failed. Tracy was a Catholic, and it was a particularly dark and self-flagellating form of Catholicism that he practiced. He truly believed that his only son, John, was born deaf as a punishment for his own moral failings. He would not accept the possibility of divorce, so Tracy and his wife agreed to pursue their separate lives while remaining legally married. Louise Tracy threw herself into founding and running the John Tracy Clinic — which continues to treat hearing-impaired children to this day — and Spencer Tracy continued to build his legendary acting career, all the while fighting self-destructive demons of guilt. The demons were not vanquished even when he met the true love of his life — Katharine Hepburn, his on-screen and off-screen partner of twenty-six years — but at least they were stilled a little. So, if you have a couple of months, read the book. Better yet, watch one of his movies.

Lennon: The Man, The Myth, The Music — The Definitive Life by Tim Riley

Well, not quite definitive. Philip Norman’s 2008 John Lennon: The Life still holds that rank. I suppose new biographies of fascinating people will always be produced, but we’re dealing with some well-trodden ground here. Several major “event” bios of Lennon are out there, beginning with Ray Coleman’s somewhat hodge-podge and unfocused Lennon, a hero-worshipping whitewash released at the height of John’s martyrdom in 1984. This was followed in 1988 by the opposite extreme, the widely despised The Lives of John Lennon, by noted vile hack Albert Goldman, who only seems to write biographies of people he dislikes on a visceral, personal level. (See also: Kitty Kelly.) Goldman’s (admitted) tactics are to favor interview sources who have an axe to grind, and chop up quotes from neutral sources and take them out of context to create the most salacious text possible. (There’s a hilarious SNL sketch dating from the era of the book’s publication which theorizes that Goldman’s bitterness was due to the fact that he was an original member of the Beatles — on trombone — and was kicked out before their rise to stardom: “C’mon guys, we’ve got to rehearse ‘She Loves You Wah-Wah-Wah.'”)

Is another Lennon bio worth reading, then? Yes. Riley is an outstanding music writer whose 1988 work on the technicalities of Beatles songs, Tell Me Why, brought a musicologist’s touch to something that had previously been written about mostly as a social or cultural phenomenon. (A battered, well-thumbed copy of that book sits on the Holy Bee’s bookshelf.) Like many biographers, Riley assumes the reader will find the Beatle years the most fascinating — Lennon’s solo career begins on page 473, leaving little space for the last decade of his life. (This is where Norman’s book trumps Riley.) Readers familiar with the Beatles/Lennon story will not find much new or groundbreaking here, but its a good story well-told, which is always worthwhile.

Riley does not gloss over Lennon’s psychological issues and personal foibles (the great peace advocate had a vicious temper and mean streak a mile wide when he hit the bottle), but falls over himself gushing over his musical contribution to the Beatles — rightly so, of course, but he can’t seem to do it without taking unrelenting potshots at McCartney. I’m no McCartney apologist, but Riley seems to believe the only way to build Lennon up is to tear McCartney down, to the point that it seems compulsive. Even McCartney’s best stuff — such as his terrific, belting lead vocal on “Oh! Darling” — is met with Riley’s statement “If only McCartney had let Lennon take a run at the lead vocal of ‘Oh! Darling.'” Jesus, let the man have something, Tim! (Oddly, Riley’s attitude toward Paul softens considerably during the solo years when he was doing his weakest work. Perhaps he was no longer perceived as a threat to Lennon’s legacy at that point…)

Riley also has a tendency to attach far more importance to small events than seems necessary — the two-and-a-half page breakdown on the significance of the Beatles’ jokey 1963 guest appearance on the BBC comedy-variety program The Morecambe & Wise Show seems like overkill. And some digressions read like Riley is pilfering his own desk drawer, squeezing earlier essays he wrote on other topics into the Beatles’ story. At least this is my impression. (We recognize our own — the Holy Bee is 100% guilty of doing the same thing.) Almost five pages on the impact of American garage-rock? Interesting, but only tangentially connected to the story of John Lennon.

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

A good history writer always starts with original, primary sources — articles, letters, journals, and other documentation from the period being written about. So I always pity the poor writer of ancient history. Very, very few primary sources survive from thousands of years ago. So the ancient history writer must fill in the enormous gaps that puncture the actual historical record with context, extrapolation, speculation, and yes, at times, imagination. It takes a very skilled prose writer to do this engagingly, and Stacy Schiff’s prose is almost novelistic in its imagery and precision. (Two demerits, though, for the awful, chick-lit book cover photo.)

The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the OK Corral and How It Changed The American West by Jeff Guinn

The famous gunfight wasn’t just a cinema-friendly showdown between good guys and bad guys, but the result of a tangle of politics, social ambition, greed, and long-simmering personality conflicts that culminated in a squalid, thirty-second street fight in a vacant lot (not the corral) that for various reasons, echoed through history. Guinn explores those reasons, and also the personalities and backgrounds of the participants, none of whom were truly “good guys.”

Skyjack: The Hunt For D.B. Cooper by Geoffrey Grey

No, the mystery has not been solved, and it probably never will be. For those of you who don’t know, in 1971 a well-dressed man hijacked a Northwest 727, extorted $200,000 from the airline, then strapped on a parachute and jumped from the moving passenger jet over the Oregon wilderness, never to be seen again. Although Grey spends the first part of the book going over the details of the crime itself, the real story comes in the later part: the strange loners who top the suspect list, the weirdos and crackpots who believe they have the missing piece to solve the puzzle and no one is listening to them, and the obsessives who spend their lives and fortunes trying to find that missing piece. To this day, if you travel to the woods near the supposed “jump zone,” you will find Cooper scholars combing the thickets for clues. As both a “true crime” narrative and a portrait of non-criminal psychological aberration, the book is fascinating.

Life Itself: A Memoir by Roger Ebert

Ebert’s memoirs leave behind straightforward, chronological autobiography after the earliest chapters and instead presents a series of anecdotes and impressions. Considering Ebert is one of America’s foremost film critics, I was surprised by how little his book deals with films. I guess that policy is hinted at in the title. Ebert was a journalist and writer of a more literary bent before being handed the job of film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times (without seeking it) in 1967. He’s been there ever since. Although Ebert’s thoughts on religion, love and romance, racial politics, the newspaper business, travel, health, and other assorted topics are always worth reading, the book itself shows signs of hasty assembly. Often, entire sentences are repeated verbatim in different sections of the book, betraying the project’s origins as a series of blog entries. (Since losing his ability to speak due to thyroid cancer in 2006, Ebert has expressed himself primarily in an addictive blog almost as long-winded as the Holy Bee’s.) I’m not much of a traveler by nature, so I like Ebert’s version of travel: find a few places you really like, then go there a lot. A routine doesn’t always mean a rut. Usually it’s comforting, as is Ebert’s mantra when visiting a well-loved place: “I was here before…I am here now…I will be here again.”