music friday: rob sheffield on bowie

I love Rob Sheffield’s books. His first, Love Is a Mix Tape, was an explicitly autobiographical memoir, a moving and beautifully written story about his life and subsequent marriage with Renée Crist, who dies unexpectedly. He tells this story by blending in a series of mix tapes, which suggests the direction his next books would go. The second book mentions Duran Duran in the title, the third is about “the rituals of love and karaoke”. It would be hard to find two subjects that interest me less than Duran Duran and karaoke, but I loved both books. I love that they continue his use of memoir to illuminate broader topics, such that by the time I finished the books, I had a much deeper understanding of those things I had thought were uninteresting.

What makes Sheffield’s books work is that while he is a central character, his presence is used to illuminate the world around him. Some writers (myself included) tend to turn everything into a story about myself, but that’s not what Sheffield accomplishes. Instead, he uses his personal connections in the service of his subjects. It’s quite a skill, one I wish I could master.

Sheffield loved David Bowie, and when Bowie died, Sheffield’s heart was broken. He says his latest book, On Bowie, “is a love letter to Bowie ... a thank-you for the beautiful mess he made out of all our lives.” Reading this, I realize that on some level, every book Rob Sheffield has written is a love letter of sorts, and that provides a lovely structure for whatever he is writing about. In one moving passage, he writes about hearing Bowie had died. “I thought about waking up my wife to tell her. But I wanted her to sleep one more night in a world that had Bowie in it.” In those sentences, we feel how important Bowie was in people’s lives, but also how Sheffield’s personal response includes the desire to protect his wife for a few more hours.

Here’s the thing: we learn a lot about Rob Sheffield in On Bowie, just as we have in all of his books. But, more than that, we learn a lot about David Bowie. Sheffield’s critical analysis of Bowie’s work is idiosyncratic ... of course it is, it should be, he’s not trying to put a canon in concrete. By attaching his own life history with Bowie, Sheffield stands in for the fans, and that helps a non-believer like me appreciate how Bowie and his fans fed off of each other. The biggest implication is always there ... substitute your own favorite for Bowie, and you’ll recognize a lot of what Sheffield goes through over the years. But by working with the memoir structure, Sheffield always brings those larger implications back to the specific story of David Bowie.

I recommend every one of Sheffield’s books: Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time, Talking to Girls About Duran Duran, and Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love & Karaoke. If you are just starting, read them in order, although if you are a Bowie fan, you’ll want to read that one first. But trust me on this: Rob Sheffield has never written a book that was less than wonderful.

Here are a few of my favorite Bowie songs. I only scratch the surface ... another use for On Bowie is to uncover hidden gems from Bowie’s recorded work. Me, I’m a greatest-hits kind of guy when it comes to Bowie ... well, I also love The Man Who Fell to Earth, one place where Rob and I do disagree. These are in no particular order, probably chronological although I’m not checking. “Stay” would be atop my list.

Suffragette City

The Jean Genie

Rebel Rebel

Young Americans

Heroes

Modern Love

Stay

Bonus track:I Got You Babe


alice bag, violence girl: east l.a. rage to hollywood stage, a chicana punk story (2011)

While Alice Bag is listed as the author of Violence Girl, the author’s name is arguably only applicable in the second half of the book. The selling point is the name ... there are people who know the name Alice Bag who don’t know her name at birth was Alicia Armendariz. But Violence Girl begins with the story of an East L.A. Chicana, and very gradually moves us through Alicia’s life until she adopts the Alice persona.

It’s not exactly two books in one, because Alicia’s memoir does a great job of showing how she became Alice. Still, those readers who come to Violence Girl hoping to read about the L.A. punk scene in the late-70s may be surprised to find it takes 140 pages before Alicia graduates from high school.

Those pages are vital, though, because we learn how Alicia’s childhood helped form the person she became as a punk grownup. Importantly, Bag’s background as Latina and woman automatically expands our vision of L.A. punk as a haven for suburban white boys playing hardcore punk. Alice Bag’s music was informed by the Mexican music she heard as a kid, as well as the glam rock she favored. But what dominated the sound of The Bags was the violence referred to in the title, for Alice Bag steamrollered her way through live performances, singing with an angry passion that made lyrics irrelevant. And the roots of that violence lay in her upbringing in a home with an abusive father. While there is clearly a social context for L.A. punk as a whole, and The Bags in particular, Violence Girl, in taking us through the transformation from Alicia to Alice, shows the personal aspect to Alice Bag’s stage presence.

It’s a sign of the quality of the book that, even if you are antsy to get to the punk stuff, the story of Alicia’s childhood is interesting and insightful enough that it works not just as a prelude to what is coming, but as a standalone memoir of growing up Chicana. Of course, once we get to punk, Bag’s I-was-there story telling draws us right in. Bag’s writing is more functional than elegant, but that is especially appropriate when she talks about forming bands and bonding with the community of local punks. That community forms the heart of the second half of the book, and when the community begins to struggle (drugs play a big part), we feel it because Bag has made us appreciate the liberatory experience that precedes the downfall.

An extended epilogue, where Bag goes to college and travels to Nicaragua as a teacher, is a believable continuation of the story we have been told. And Alice Bag has never gone away ... her memoir may end in the 80s, but Bag lives on, as activist and archivist. She is living proof of how the transformation that accompanied punk can influence throughout a person’s life.


music friday: jeff pike's index

“Music Friday” is a misnomer here. Jeff Pike’s new book, Index: Essays, Fragments, and Liberal Arts Homework covers a lot more ground than just music. I didn’t do a statistical analysis, but I think music might have only been the third-most common topic, after movies and books. But it’s Friday, so I’m writing about it here.

I’ve been a longtime reader of Jeff’s blog, which can be addictive even when it riles me up (today he wrote about Dancer in the Dark, a movie I hate to be reminded of). The breadth of things he writes about is impressive ... the book’s subtitle is quite accurate (well, “liberal arts” is on target ... it never feels like homework). I thought the book would largely be an anthology of his blog posts, and there is some of that. But, to give one example, arguably my favorite piece in the entire book pre-dates the blog, so there is a lot of fresh-to-me material.

Index is also an accurate title, for the book is structured in A-to-Z fashion, from A.I. Artificial Intelligence to Neil Young’s Weld. I’m fudging things a bit here, because the truth is, the book literally goes from A to Z ... each letter gets its own short essay to introduce the “chapters”. Jeff had been writing these “letter” posts on his blog for awhile now, and I admit I was puzzled by them. But they make sense here, and in fact he does some of his best writing when digging deep into this or that letter.

As a longtime blogger myself, I couldn’t help comparing this book to something I might put together. What I noticed was how good the longer form pieces are (I tend to write long form only when it’s to be published elsewhere).

And I don’t know why I didn’t think of this in advance, but Index is an ideal bathroom book. The structure invites you to jump around, and the length of the essays are just about right for that environment. So Jeff, you’ll be glad to know you’re in there with Kael and Christgau and Marcus and David Thomson and, yes, Dellio.

Of course, I wanted to read about my favorite topics first. He is quite fair with Bruce Springsteen, writing about “Independence Day” and “Downbound Train”. I liked reading about The Replacements/Hüsker Dü from somewhere who was there (meaning Minneapolis ... I was “there” for Hüsker Dü in that I loved them and saw them several times in concert, but Jeff was “there-there”.) But perhaps my favorite essay had nothing to do with music, movies, books, television, or any other thing that might be called “liberal arts homework”. I’m referring to the long piece, “Strat-O-Matic Baseball, 1985-1993”, which as I noted above pre-dates the blog (although a related post, about the great Robert Coover novel The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., includes a brief mention of Strat). He captures perfectly the feel of being obsessed with that game ... rather, those kind of games ... I have played many over the years, going back to 1961, but I only had a short affair with Strat-O-Matic. I love reading about this ... for a long time, I found my attraction to the games something I should approach in a clandestine fashion, a feeling that was multiplied after reading Coover’s novel, which is frightening in its psychological accuracy. In the 1980s, the world discovered “fantasy” sports, and nowadays it is not unusual to participate in such games. (I played “rotisserie” baseball from 1987 until the present day, although it looks like 2016 will be the first year I don’t have any teams in almost 30 years.)

It’s easy for me to recommend Jeff’s blog. But I can now recommend Index with equal fervor.


music friday: liz phair and gina arnold, exile in guyville

I just finished Gina Arnold’s fine book on Exile in Guyville, another entry in the 33 1/3 series. I spent the 90s reading Arnold’s “Fools Rush In” column ... she seemed to inspire a lot of vitriol, not just from people whose missives appeared in Letters to the Editor segments, but from people who wore “KILL GINA ARNOLD” t-shirts. Often, what I loved about Arnold’s columns was the very things that irritated her detractors. She regularly inserted her personal life into her writing. Here she is in a 2001 interview:

I have always felt that one of the flaws in a lot of rock criticism (besides the boring prose style) was that it tried to be objective–which is impossible, with something like music. The best you can hope to be is descriptive: you know: this is who I am, this is what happened to me, this is why it means something to me, if you agree you might like it too. And if you don’t, well then, ignore it.

Katy St. Clair once wrote of Arnold’s decade of writing for the East Bay Express:

A typical week for Gina would involve receiving a gift certificate for the services of Jack Kevorkian from a bunch of slighted Rolling Stones fans (yep, it really happened) or one or two letters making fun of her affinity for you-know-who. Everyone had different reasons for disliking her -- either she didnt get her facts right, or she didnt support the local scene, or she talked about herself too much, or she was too jaded and stuck in 1990.

In the same article, Arnold offers an on-point comment on the criticism she often received:

People would say to me, ... Why do I want to hear about your life every week? And I would say, You think I write about my life? Okay, what do you actually know about my life? And they wouldnt have an answer. I write about music and how it relates to things in my life, but very few people actually know me.

Is it any wonder I loved her? I’ve often argued that rock criticism learned a lot from Pauline Kael’s approach, and you can’t find a better example than this.

Her Exile in Guyville book is unlike her columns, but in a way I think makes sense. There is an academic feel to much of the book, and indeed, since the 90s, Arnold has gotten a Ph.D. from Stanfurd. Her writing now reflects this, and why not? She’s just continuing her personal touch.

She spends a part of the introduction informing us that she wrote much of the book in Seoul. I can already hear those haters from the past ... who cares where she was when she wrote? But one of her primary arguments in the book is that Exile in Guyville is informed by a community, “Guyville”, and what better way to remind us of this than by describing the community where she is writing, and how it helps her both gain the necessary distance from her subject, and also to see similarities between then and now.

The first two sections are the best, as she places Exile within the cultural context of its time. For me, the section where she compares Phair’s songs, one by one, to the corresponding tracks on the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., is the book’s least successful. I know that Phair encourages the comparisons, but after such excellent cultural criticism, it’s a bit disappointing to read compare-and-contrast lyric analysis. Arnold does her best with the idea, but I got antsy. She recovers in her brief final section, which brings us full circle to Seoul.

Of course, now I’m going to do precisely what I’m complaining about. Here is Phair’s “Never Said”, chosen as much as anything because there’s an official video:

Arnold writes:

“Never Said” is about keeping secrets, probably the secret of who is sleeping with whom. Liz, alas, was unable to keep whom she was sleeping with secret and suffered the tortures of the dammed when her record came out. People guessed this and that and accused her of “sleeping her way” to the top ... People know who Mick Jagger sleeps with too ... but somehow it never seemed to have the same repercussions as Liz’s peccadilloes.

The very act of making an album that seems to take on the canonical favorite Exile on Main St. is irritating enough to those who make canons that they will find reasons to dismiss Phair from the start.

The Stones’ counterpart, using the track-for-track comparisons, is “Tumbling Dice”, where “The women, alas, are always trying to drag him down, with their bitchin’ and itchin’, but the men – i.e. the proverbial ‘tumblin dice’ of the title – can’t be tied down.... Great riff. Nice metaphor. Internal meaning not so pleasant, but that’s the Stones all over.”

I wonder what Arnold made of Linda Ronstadt’s version of “Tumbling Dice”:

The obvious question arises: what do I think of Exile in Guyville? I loved it at the time, and I think it holds up well. We saw her on her solo tour in 1995, playing songs from Guyville and Whipsmart, and she was admittedly unassuming, but that didn’t change my feelings towards the album. Here’s a very low-fi song from a different show on that tour:

I often think of Phair and PJ Harvey at the same time. In fact, back in 2010, I had an entire blog post about this:

Harvey, on the other hand, has never had to worry about being taken seriously. She didn’t turn into Avril Lavigne … she added theatricality, but in the context of indie rock blues that kept her sound rooted in the “authentic.” She followed up Rid of Me with arguably the best album of her career, To Bring You My Love. Her weirdness always seemed to call on primitive urges, where Phair wasn’t really that weird at all, in the end. Harvey remains uncompromising, remarkably so, really. And I’ve come to realize over the years that yes, PJ Harvey is a “better” artist than Liz Phair. But it still feels like Phair loses because her idea of uncompromising is seen as mainstream, even as she releases new material on her website instead of through a label … if you think Liz Phair is mainstream, you haven’t been listening to the stream for some time now.

I don’t know if I still think PJ is “better”. But I do know that to this day I play Exile on Guyville more than I play any PJ Harvey album. Having said that, I’m always looking for an excuse to post videos of Harvey performing “Rid of Me”, which I love more than any individual song of Phair’s.


music friday: ramones

jagger destroy

Nicholas Rombes was my editor for the anthology New Punk Cinema, which came out in 2005. The book included one of my better essays ... I began by quoting the great song by The Adverts, “One Chord Wonders”, and somehow ended up talking about Run Lola Run. In the contributors bios, we find that Rombes had a forthcoming book on the Ramones’ first album, part of the 33 1/3 series. Well, I finally got around to reading the book, and it’s a good one.

I’ve only read a couple of the 33 1/3 books. There was Michaelangelo Matos on Sign ‘O’ the Times, and an ever better one by Douglas Wolk on James Brown Live at the Apollo. In Ramones, Rombes does a good job of showing how the band’s primitive art didn’t just fall from the sky, and they didn’t play seemingly simple songs because they couldn’t play their instruments (unlike, say, The Adverts at the time of their first single), but consciously chose to make the records they intended. It’s perhaps an obvious point, except my recollections of the mid-70s is that many people assumed the band members were dumb. He explains that one reason they were able to produce their debut album for the legendary $6,400 was that they were prepared ... these were songs they had played regularly in concert. It took only a week, but “the Ramones approached the recording process with a high degree of preparedness and professionalism and a fiercely self-contained, unified sound.” Again, perhaps in retrospect this is obvious, but I admit I hadn’t thought much about the making of the album outside of that $6,400.

(Earlier today, I was watching a film of a Rolling Stones concert from 1978. This was the Some Girls tour, and the band had clearly been affected by the music trends of the day ... disco and punk in particular. Near the end, Jagger takes off his jacket to reveal a punkish-looking t-shirt that says “DESTROY” on it. A few songs later, he removes even the t-shirt, running around bare-chested. This is a relief, because the t-shirt had a swastika underneath “DESTROY”, which the network on which I was watching covered up electronically.)

His breakdown of the individual tracks is also interesting ... the writing is strong here. Rombes’ book made me want to listen to the album, and thus, Music Friday: Ramones.

Here is the expanded version of the album, which includes several tracks not on the original:

And if you only want one song, here’s “Blitzkrieg Bop” from one of the great live rock albums, “It’s Alive”:


doug henwood, my turn: hillary clinton targets the presidency

I’ll start with the cover. There’s no way not to start with the cover ... Henwood even added “An Author’s Note About This Book’s Cover” to the book’s forward. (The turnaround time for My Turn was extremely fast. Henwood states at one point that he was finishing the writing in October, and it was released in December.) In his author’s note, he says “As this book was entering production, we circulated the cover to get people talking about it. We never imagined how successful that strategy would be.” His discussion of the subsequent criticism touches on the larger issues he addresses in the book as a whole, and is deserving of some examination here.

Some people found the cover gross or disgusting ... more importantly, “Tweets and think-pieces about the cover quickly became a subgenre of a larger argument that tries to portray tough criticism of Hillary as sexist – inevitably so, given its incorporation into a dominant patriarchal discourse, regardless of the author’s intent.” That larger argument, which wants to discredit any criticism of Hillary Clinton, is what Henwood is up against when he writes this book. The criticism must be made, but it is attacked just as if he were coming from a right-wing perspective. He writes:

[I]f you’re looking for a more peaceful, more egalitarian society you’d have to overlook a lot about Hillary’s history to develop any enthusiasm for her. The side of feminism I’ve studied and admired for decades has been about moving towards that ideal, and not merely placing women into high places while leaving the overall hierarchy of power largely unchanged. It’s distressing to see feminism pressed into service to promote the career of a thoroughly orthodox politician – and the charge of sexism used to deflect critiques of her.

The seven chapters tell Clinton’s story “From Park Ridge to Little Rock” onwards “Toward November 2016”, with stops at “First Lady”, “Senator”, her first try at the presidency, “Diplomat”, and philanthropy. Almost a third of the book consists of footnotes. He mentions that the original article on which the book is based, which ran 6000 words, elicited a 9000-word refutation from just one person. Thus assuming that his book will be closely scrutinized, “I’ve provided plenty of footnotes ... to work with.”

If I had to pick a central point to Henwood’s argument, it is that concrete actions are worth far more than symbolic gestures. He returns again and again to Bill Clinton’s welfare reform, which Hillary strongly supported:

Later, as senator, she supported George W. Bush’s proposal to expand the work requirement for recipients of the surviving welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) – one of the few Democrats to do so. Advocates for the poor were shocked ...

A 2014 analysis ... found the following about ... [TANF]: fewer families were drawing benefits despite increased need; the value of those benefits have eroded to the point where beneficiaries can’t meet their basic needs; it does far less to reduce poverty than its predecessor, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which welfare reform abolished; and almost all of the early employment gains for single mothers have been reversed.

The symbolic importance of a woman president can’t be denied. But if that woman’s actions (not her symbolic presence) result in declines for women, the symbol is unimportant.

This matters because so much of the pro-Hillary stance is that as a woman, she is inherently feminist, and her actions are inherently good for women. This is only true on the symbolic level.

There are other objections to Hillary Clinton that Henwood analyzes in detail. On more than one occasion, he quotes her statement from an October Democratic debate: “I represented Wall Street, as a senator from New York.” She seems unashamed of that representation, and it can be assumed that if she becomes president, she will remain loyal to the rich institutions that have donated so much to her campaign. She is also quite hawkish. Henwood notes of her review of a book by Henry Kissinger,

[S]he praised his “breadth and acuity” and described him as “a friend,” on whose “counsel” she relied while Secretary of State. Her appreciation of her predecessor seems apt. There’s something reminiscent of Kissinger about Hillary – the ruthlessness, the admiration of toughness and force, the penchant for deception and secrecy, the view of diplomacy as war continued by other means.

(Keep in mind, she’s talking about a war criminal, here.)

Daniel Davies does a better job than I can of demonstrating why My Turn is an important book:

My main impression on reading the book is that this is something that all Hillary supporters ought to be buying – it sets out all of the credible criticisms, without mixing them with a load of right wing dreck. One of the strongest points Doug makes is that a detailed look at her history and actions is much more relevant than any amount of wonky analysis of her policies, because the history tells you that you can’t expect the policy promises to turn out. ...

Hillary’s time on the board of Wal-Mart ... gets pretty detailed scrutiny, as do various accounts of how things went so terribly wrong with healthcare reform under the Bill administration. And there is chapter and verse (backed up with a somewhat hair-raising selection of quotes at the back) on support for wars of all sizes and the elimination of welfare payments.

So these are the arguments that supporters need to know about; they’re largely credible criticisms of Hillary as being a selfish, arrogant politician with consistently poor judgement on important questions. These are the points which supporters need to deal with. But I get the strong feeling that most of them are not going to realise that they need to buy this book.

And I suppose I should post a picture of the cover. The artist is Sarah Sole:

my turn

[Obligatory disclaimer: I’ve known Doug for 20+ years.]


childhood's end

When I was a kid, around the ages of 10-16, I read quite a bit of science-fiction. I wasn’t as big a fan as many people are. Philip K. Dick was far and away my favorite, but I feel like I came to him late, in the early 70s. Mostly in the 60s I read the same hippie material as everyone else, most notably Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. But another of my favorites was Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. While the book is known for its philosophical bent, the thing that really made an impression on me was the ships of the Overlords, most specifically, their size. Clarke referred to them as “huge and silent shadows” of “overwhelming majesty”. My imagination, fueled by Clarke, got the best of me. In my mind, the Overlords’ ship were so immense they covered the sky. In fact, my imagination was too puny to fully comprehend what Clarke had written ... I simply couldn’t imagine what such ships would look like if they appeared in my own sky.

I didn’t return to the book, at least not until recently, and I forgot most of the plot. But I never forgot the image of those enormous ships. And I hoped that some day Childhood’s End would be made into a movie, so I could see the ships visualized.

Clarke published Childhood’s End in 1953, the year I was born. There were several attempts over the years to bring it to the screen; all of them failed. In a forward to a 2000 edition of the novel, Clarke (writing when the book still hadn’t been filmed) noted that the times had caught up with his book, so much so that if a movie of Childhood’s End was ever produced, people would think it ripped off Independence Day, the 1996 film that featured what Clarke accurately described as “a very impressive version of the opening” of the book.

And it is true ... when Independence Day came out, I remember thinking “this is what I wanted to see of Childhood’s End”. Not the plot ... just the image of that enormous space ship. The quality here is pretty awful, but you get the idea:

Independence Day had a budget of $75 million (1996 dollars, I should add). It’s hard to find budget figures for Childhood’s End ... apparently it got more money than the usual SyFY product. So it may have been a creative decision rather than a budgetary one that gave us Overlord ships that were big but not overwhelming. This took some getting used to for someone like me, who has long hoped to see the ships as big as possible.

Giving the creators three parts and six hours (minus commercials) to tell the story should have allowed room for lots of the book, and I don’t think they missed much. The acting was ok, if nothing more, although it was fun seeing Charles Dance in his makeup (no matter how much demon-face they gave him, his eyes told you it was still him). Workmanlike, that’s what it was. The special effects were good enough, but not awe-inspiring. The story was good enough, but not awe-inspiring. The final section, which reveals the Overlords’ big plan, is OK, but here is where I think the series fell short. In the book, Clarke allows us to understand the evolution of humanity in such a way that it doesn’t seem like the end of people as much as a transformation. (That a book written during the Cold War posits a future of collective thought without making that future completely dystopian would seem to have been startling in its day.) I don’t know what the TV series wants to say at the end. We get the “end of people” aspect, but what happens to the children is largely a mystery, which I think made it seem more negative than Clarke might have intended.

I wanted Childhood’s End to be as awe-inspiring as I found those ships when I first read the book. I always preferred Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Star Wars because for all its excitement, Star Wars seemed prosaic next to the religious fervor of Close Encounters. The TV version of Childhood’s End had dollops of philosophy, a plot interesting enough to get us through three nights, and the great moment when we first see what an Overlord looks like. But it didn’t have awe. B+.


music friday: dean martin

I finally read the highly regarded biography by Nick Tosches, Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams. I’ll try to write more about this book later ... for now, here are two quotes that hint at the existential void that was Dean Martin:

He was a wise man. Wisdom had blessed him with a disregard for the worth of his own racket. Where others sought nobility in acting or art in song, he had known things for what they were, and that knowledge had set him apart. Wisdom too had blessed him with an understanding of human nature, and that understanding had set him apart as well. It had never been his own compulsion for lontananza or his own abhorrence of communication that had been a problem. The problem had been the pressure from others to change, to become more like them – to share, to relate, to confront, to lend the lie of meaning to all those meaningless verbs and more. To him, the problem was theirs: they who could never accept what they were nor live alone with it. Wisdom had given him the strength to do both. And wisdom, in its way, was leading him now to withdraw from the world in fact as well as in spirit. He no longer cared. He never really had.... When he returned to the Riviera in October, he seemed “as if he were someone impersonating Dean Martin.”

As Tosches puts it more succinctly early in the book, “Deep down, that, as much as anything, was what he was, a menefreghista – one who simply did not give a fuck.”

Some of his hits:

That’s Amore

Memories Are Made of This

Everybody Loves Somebody

His only music video, from 1983, “Since I Met You Baby”:

And this medley, from the great Rio Bravo ... with Dino, Ricky Nelson, and Walter Brennan ... “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me” and “Cindy”:


kliph nesteroff, the comedians: drunks, thieves, scoundrels and the history of american comedy

Many of us have been looking forward to this book for a long time. Kliph Nesteroff has an encyclopedic knowledge of American comedy, which he has shared through numerous interviews posted to his Classic Television Showbiz website. Here is a partial list of the interviewees:

Buck Henry, Paul Krassner, Franklyn Ajaye, Dick Cavett, Peter Marshall, Orson Bean, Ed Asner, Professor Irwin Corey, Norm Crosby, Bob Einstein, Rose Marie, Steve Martin, Paul Mazursky, Marilyn Michaels, Gary Owens, Betsy Palmer, Tom Smothers, Larry Storch, Rusty Warren, Mason Williams, Alan Young, Marty Allen, Shelley Berman, Pat Carroll, Jack Carter, Bill Dana, Shecky Greene, Marty Ingels, Will Jordan, Rich Little, Steve Rossi, Connie Sawyer.

You may not recognize all of those names, but Nesteroff is such a great interviewer that every segment is interesting. And virtually every interview has a moment when Nesteroff, who is decades younger than the people he is interviewing, asks about some obscure date at some obscure club fifty years ago, and the comedian says, “how the hell do you know this stuff?” Here’s a sample from his interview with Shecky Greene:

Kliph Nesteroff: I watched a segment from The Hollywood Palace in which he [pianist Herbie Dell] was onstage with you.

Shecky Greene: Yes, which one was that? The Perry Como thing?

Kliph Nesteroff: It wasn't the Perry Como one. It was the one hosted by Donald O'Connor.

Shecky Greene: Donald? No. I had one hosted by Groucho Marx.

Kliph Nesteroff: Right, there is a Groucho Marx one, a Perry Como Christmas one, and one hosted by Donald O'Connor.

Shecky Greene: Where the hell did you get all of those things?

Kliph Nesteroff: The internet.

The Comedians puts the stories in one place, and offers a narrative of American comedy, as suggested by the various chapter headings: from vaudeville to radio, to nightclubs and television, late-night TV, comedy clubs, and so on. In one sense, nothing changes ... the comics put themselves on the line night after night, failure is always a weak joke away, great success often goes to your head. But Nesteroff also shows how the Marx Brothers were different from Eddie Cantor, who was different from Milton Berle, who was different from Lenny Bruce, and on and on, with important segments on people like Richard Pryor. Along the way, you’ll read stories about people like Rodney Dangerfield that are quite illuminating, if, like me, you think he appeared full-grown in the persona we all know him as.

The interviews are what got me interested in reading this book, but it stands on its own. I’m not sure I can recommend it to everybody ... I know not everyone shares my interest in the subject at hand. And it seems almost complete ... it’s hard to think of who was left out, although I wish the Firesign Theatre got more than one page. But if you enjoy detailed stories of popular artists from the past, you will like this book. And, if you’ve never heard it, you’ll even learn one of my favorite stories, about a radio comedian who went by the name Parkyakarkas, the legendary Bob Einstein (known for everyone from Officer Judy to Super Dave Osborne to Marty Funkhouser), and the filmmaker and comedian Albert Brooks. Nesteroff even added something new to the story, at least new to me, about the man who wrote a biography of Willie Mays.

And, just to indulge myself, here is one of my favorite Albert Brooks bits, from very early in his career: