Thursday, January 30, 2014

Kylie Minogue-Diminutive Disco Diva

Kylie Minogue

Kylie Minogue biking.
Australian pop singer Kylie Minogue is one of my favorite musical guilty pleasures. When it comes to catchy dance-pop, she can’t be beat. Kylie’s music is unapologetically fun and upbeat, which makes for good listening in the middle of winter. I think I first heard of Kylie thanks to my “British Hit Singles” book, purchased in England in 1993. I remember there was a picture of Minogue holding a gold record, circa 1988, so it was probably for her first single, “The Locomotion,” and I thought, “Wow, she’s pretty cute.” But since Kylie’s career in the United States languished throughout the 1990’s, Kylie didn’t have much of a chance to enter my consciousness during my teenage years. I became more aware of Kylie during 2001-02, when her single, the prophetically titled “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” seemed to be ubiquitous. I liked the song, but I didn’t really think about, you know, buying it. Years later, I heard the song again and I thought to myself, “I do honestly, unironically like this song, I just need to own it.” Fortunately, I could buy the album it was on, “Fever,” through the now-defunct Listening to “Fever,” I was pleasantly surprised to find that I really enjoyed the whole album, not just the one hit single, and that encouraged me to get more of Kylie’s other albums. My favorite album of hers is 2010’s “Aphrodite,” which I listened to twice during a snowy, traffic-filled drive home during in the winter of 2010-11. 

A mystery of Kylie’s career is that for all of her worldwide success, she has never quite been able to crack the American market. While Minogue has scored an incredible 32 Top Ten singles in the UK since 1987, she has had just two Top Ten singles in the US, “The Locomotion,” and “Can’t Get You Out of My Head.” I think one of the reasons for her lack of success statewide is that she didn’t tour in the US at all until 2009. Had she brought her worldwide tour to the US in 2002, when “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” was still stuck in everyone’s head, she might have been able to start building a bigger audience in the US. I’ve read that Minogue wanted to tour the US earlier, but she was always discouraged from doing so by her manager. Which makes no sense to me, why wouldn’t you want to have more of a presence in such a huge music market? Of course she’s not as big a star over here, so her performances might have to be scaled down, but you build an audience for your music by touring. Had Kylie toured the US in 2002, perhaps her follow-up to “Fever,” 2003’s “Body Language,” might have been more successful. “Fever” was certified Platinum in the US, selling more than 1 million copies, and peaking at number 3. In contrast, “Body Language” sold just 177,000 copies, and peaked outside the Top 40 at 42. However, 2010’s “Aphrodite” peaked at number 19 in the US, her highest chart position since “Fever,” so maybe Kylie’s fan base here is growing. 

Minogue’s appeal lies in her ability to come off as a nice pop star. She’s sexy, but she’s not trashy. She’s not about shocking people, she’s about entertaining them. She doesn’t have the greatest voice in the world, but she makes the most of her talent. Kylie doesn’t seem like an unreachable superstar, like Madonna or Lady Gaga, she feels like a real person, which is quite an accomplishment for someone who’s been a pop star for the last 25 years.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Book Review: "Wry Martinis," by Christopher Buckley (1997)

"Wry Martinis," by Christopher Buckley.

“Wry Martinis,” by Christopher Buckley, is a 1997 collection of short, humorous pieces that he mostly wrote for magazines. It’s a fast, funny read that any fan of Buckley’s satire will enjoy. Inevitably, some of the pieces have dated, as they were written at a specific moment in our cultural history. I’m thinking mainly of the O.J. Simpson pieces, which do conjure up many memories of the mid-1990’s. 

Buckley is at his funniest from the very beginning of the book, as when he informs us in a piece about summer house guests: “What I have learned is that, just as the most beautiful words in the English language are ‘You’ve lost weight,’ the most dreaded surely are ‘We can only stay for a week.’” 

Buckley sometimes created a bit of a ruckus with his satires. Many people assumed the fictitious books in his piece “The New Fly-Fishing Books,” were real and called bookstores wanting to order them. (This was in 1994, before the days of Google and Amazon.) Sorry, a University of Vermont professor did not write a book called “Bassholes” lambasting bass fisherman. Buckley also caused something of an international incident with his 1991 Forbes magazine piece “Lenin for Sale,” in which he claimed a bankrupt Russia was considering selling the body of Vladimir Lenin. Buckley wrote that interested parties should contact the Russian government, writing “Obviously, the Lenin corpse is not for everyone. But as a conversation piece, it would certainly have no equal.” Somehow, someone at ABC News was tone-deaf enough to not recognize satire, and Peter Jennings reported the story as fact on ABC’s World News Tonight. The next morning, Buckley was besieged by calls. Minister of the Interior Viktor Barannikov did not take it as a joke. As Buckley writes, “The phrases ‘international incident,’ ‘brazen lie,’ and ‘serious provocation’ occurred. I suggested to the BBC that Minister Barannikov ‘chill out.’” Months later, it was reported that the Kremlin was “inundated” with bids for Lenin’s body, ranging from $10,000 to $27 million. 

Another amusing part of the book is Buckley’s “feud” with author Tom Clancy. Their relationship began innocently enough, with Buckley writing a profile of Clancy in 1986, shortly after Clancy had rocketed to best-sellerdom thanks to his first novel “The Hunt for Red October.” But their “feud” began in 1994 when Buckley wrote a very humorous takedown of Clancy’s then-latest book, “Debt of Honor.” Buckley called Clancy a racist, because of his badly stereotyped Japanese characters, and wrote that “Tom Clancy is the James Fenimore Cooper of his day, which is to say, the most successful bad writer of his generation.” Clancy then faxed Buckley back with an insult or two, and Buckley responded in kind. But then the “feud” died down, which was lucky for Clancy, who was no match for Buckley’s razor-sharp wit. 

My favorite section of the book is entitled “Guy Stuff,” and it includes “Driving Through the Apocalypse,” about an Executive Security Training class, which focuses on how to avoid getting kidnapped in a foreign country, and “Macho Is As Macho Does,” in which Buckley reflects on his own macho posturing as a young man, and how “Sometime between eighteen and forty-one I learned something: that the ones who are really tough never act tough.” But the highlight is the wonderfully funny “How I Went Nine G’s in an F-16 and Only Threw Up Five Times,” Buckley’s account about getting to ride along with the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds. Buckley writes of the pilot he will fly with, “I liked him immediately, but then you bond quickly with someone who is going to fly you upside down at nearly the speed of sound.” To Buckley’s credit, despite getting airsick, he keeps with it, declining the pilot’s offer to not do a nine-G turn. “Dan kept politely insisting that we did not have to do nine Gs, but I had read enough about the Thunderbirds to know that ‘orientation fliers’ such as my sad-ass self are divided into two kinds, those who do nine-G turns, and those who do not.” Buckley did the nine-G turn without passing out, and earned his pin.

Other highlights include “One Way to Do the Amazon,” a 1987 article chronicling a journey down the Amazon with billionaire Malcolm Forbes, “Mom, Fashion Icon,” an affectionate portrait of Buckley’s mother, Patricia Taylor Buckley, and “You Got a Problem?” a profile of the advice columnist Ann Landers.

Perhaps the most personal essay in the book is a 1983 piece titled, “What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? Well, It’s Like This…” about Buckley’s contradictory feelings about being declared 4-F during the Vietnam War. Buckley suffered from asthma and cluster headaches, which sound terribly painful. When the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C. in 1982, Buckley realized that a part of him still felt guilty for not having served his country in Vietnam, even though he considered the war a mistake. The article is an excellent personal essay in which Buckley examines his own thoughts and feelings about the Vietnam War. It’s very well-done, and a nice change of pace from Buckley’s satire.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Book Review: “Alex Haley’s Roots: An Author’s Odyssey,” by Adam Henig (2014)

The cover of "Alex Haley's Roots: An Author's Odyssey," by Adam Henig.

I just finished reading Adam Henig’s newly published e-book “Alex Haley’s Roots: An Author’s Odyssey.” Henig takes us on a fascinating journey through Alex Haley’s life after his book Roots: The Saga of an American Family was published and turned into a highly successful television miniseries. Henig shows us how Haley’s life was turned upside down by the sudden and overwhelming success of both the book and the miniseries. 

Henig begins the book in January of 1977, with Haley watching the first episode of “Roots” with Warren Beatty at Beatty’s suite at the Pierre Hotel in New York City. Beatty turns to Haley after the episode is finished and tells him, “Your life will never be the same again.” Beatty was certainly correct about that. As a big Warren Beatty fan, I found this anecdote very interesting, and it was an attention-getting way to begin the book.

Alex Haley first became well-known as a writer during the 1960’s when he interviewed many celebrities for Playboy, and Haley was the co-author of Malcolm X’s Autobiography of Malcolm X. (Haley finished the Autobiography after Malcolm was assassinated.) But Haley’s previous success as an author did not prepare him for the worldwide phenomenon that Roots would become. Roots was published in late 1976, and it became an immediate best-seller. Once the miniseries starting airing in January of 1977, Roots became even more successful, eventually spending 22 weeks in the number one spot on the New York Times best-seller list. When the miniseries had finished airing, seven of the eight episodes of “Roots” were among the top ten most watched television shows ever. Haley became a celebrity overnight, with crowds mobbing his lectures and book signings. 

Roots told the story of Haley’s ancestors, and specifically, Haley’s ancestor Kunta Kinte, who had been sold into slavery in Africa and crossed the Atlantic on a slave ship. Haley called Roots a book of “faction,” as he acknowledged that he had, out of necessity, invented dialogue and events in order to create a narrative. But Haley claimed that all of the genealogical research in the book was completely true. And since Haley had spent a decade writing and researching the book, most people took him at his word. But once reporters began digging into Haley’s sources, they discovered multiple discrepancies. And other authors noticed similarities in Roots to their own novels. Margaret Walker, author of the novel Jubilee, and Harold Courlander, author of the novel The African, both sued Haley for plagiarism, noting many similarities in Roots to their own novels. Haley claimed that he had never read either book. At the trials, it became obvious that regardless of whether or not Haley’s plagiarism was intentional, his working methods left a lot to be desired, as he carried on his research blithely unconcerned with the fact that the words in his notebooks might have been copied from other sources. Haley won the trial against Walker, but when it became evident that he might lose the Courlander trial, he settled out of court with Courlander, paying him the tidy sum of $650,000, and acknowledging that somehow passages from The African had made their way into Roots.

Henig does a good job of showing how Courlander, a white man, was accused by others of racism in suing an African-American author who was writing about slavery and the black experience in America. Courlander wasn’t pursuing his lawsuit for racial reasons, but it was inevitable that it would appear that way to some onlookers. 

Henig shows us how Haley’s life after Roots became a treadmill of speeches, public appearances, and very little writing. Haley was a public celebrity, but he didn’t have much time to devote to writing anymore, which is the double-edged sword of becoming a celebrity. As John Updike once said, “Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face.” Roots made Haley world-famous, but it was also the only thing people wanted Haley to talk about. 

Haley’s fundamental problem with Roots was one of authenticity. Because Haley didn’t cite any sources for his research, it’s impossible to know what’s really true and what’s not. It’s the same problem he had with The Autobiography of Malcolm X, because Malcolm died before the book was published, we don’t really know how much of it was Malcolm’s, and how much of it was Haley’s. We just have to take Haley’s word for it.

Henig does an excellent job in showing us the turmoil that Roots caused in Alex Haley’s life. It was of course his most famous book, but it also caused him a lot of grief as well. Throughout the book, I was reminded of parallels to one of my favorite authors, Truman Capote, whose life started unraveling shortly after his masterpiece In Cold Blood was published. Much like Haley, Capote was an author who had worked enormously hard for his success, and yet when it came it did not bring the happiness it should have. For both Haley and Capote, once the peak was reached, the journey downward began immediately. Sometimes what you wish for isn’t really what you want. Or, to use a quote that inspired the title of Capote’s famously unfinished novel, “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.”  

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Mix CD: "The Best of Paul Weller-the Solo Years"

Paul Weller

I’ve been kind of obsessed with Paul Weller’s solo albums lately. I’m a big fan of Weller’s group The Jam, which is how I first got into Weller’s music. At some point I decided to give his solo albums a try, and I’m very glad I did. Weller’s solo work is generally quite different from his more aggressive work with The Jam, as his solo albums are very jazzy and in general a little more laid-back. Of course, there are exceptions to this, like 2010’s “Wake Up the Nation,” which is the complete opposite of laid-back. I’ve gradually collected all of Weller’s solo albums and I’ve been re-listening to them a lot in the last few weeks. I made a mix CD of my own favorite Weller solo tracks, which I dubbed “The Best of Paul Weller-The Solo Years.” Here are the tracks I put on it:

1. Remember How We Started
2. Amongst Butterflies
3. Above the Clouds
4. Bull Rush
5. Wild Wood
6. You To Something To Me
7. Mermaids
8. Peacock Suit
9. Science
10. Sweet Pea, My Sweet Pea
11. Leafy Mysteries
12. It's Written in the Stars
13. Come On/Let's Go
14. Here's the Good News
15. From the Floorboards Up
16. I Wanna Make It Alright
17. Blink and You'll Miss It
18. 22 Dreams
19. All I Wanna Do (Is Be With You)
20. Wake Up the Nation
21. The Attic
22. When Your Garden's Overgrown
23. That Dangerous Age

All songs written by Paul Weller. Here are some brief comments about the songs:

“Remember How We Started,” from 1992’s “Paul Weller” After The Jam broke up in 1982, Weller quickly formed a new group, The Style Council, which enjoyed great success in the UK. However, by the end of the 1980’s The Style Council’s popularity was on the wane, and when their record label rejected their album “Modernism: A New Decade” in 1989, the group broke up. (The album was finally issued as part of a box set in 1998.) Weller was at loose ends, and eventually he decided to re-launch his career as a solo artist. His first solo album, “Paul Weller,” came out in 1992. It’s a low-key, jazzy affair, and for me “Remember How We Started” is one of the highlights, a sexy song that details how a love affair began. “Better to cry than never smile” Weller sings, as he aches to go back in time to the beginning of that relationship.

“Amongst Butterflies,” from “Paul Weller.” Again, a very jazzy song, all about a summer relationship. “And in the woods was a soldier’s tomb/the ghost of which looked over you” is one of my favorite lines from the song that really sets the scene. Weller also has some great live versions of this song. 

“Above the Clouds,” from “Paul Weller.” Another jazzy song about summer. I think I sense a theme here…

“Bull Rush,” from “Paul Weller.” The lyrics refer to the plant, which grows near water. A little more up-tempo than the previous songs.

“Wild Wood,” from “Wild Wood.” A gentle acoustic song, from Paul’s second solo album. 

“You Do Something To Me,” from “Stanley Road.” Not to be confused with the Cole Porter song of the same name. I could have picked more songs from “Stanley Road,” since it’s considered one of Weller’s best solo albums. But I just got “Stanley Road” a couple of weeks ago, so it’s the album of his that I’m least familiar with. Some of the songs from “Stanley Road” will definitely go on Volume 2 of the best of Weller’s solo years.

“Mermaids,” from “Heavy Soul.” A jaunty rocker, with a catchy “sha-la-la” chorus. 

“Peacock Suit,” from “Heavy Soul.” A strutting rocker, with great riffs and a defiant Weller singing the chorus, “I don’t need a ship to sail in stormy weather/don’t need you to ruffle the feathers/of my peacock suit.” I love the image of a peacock suit, and the kind of self-obsessed person who would wear such a suit.

“Science,” from “Heavy Soul.” Another up-tempo song, with another excellent chorus. “I’ve got a pen in my pocket does it make me a writer/standing on the mountain doesn’t make me no higher/putting on gloves don’t make you a fighter/and all the study in the world doesn’t make it science.”

“Sweet Pea, My Sweet Pea,” from “Heliocentric.” A folky sounding tune about Weller’s “sweet pea” girlfriend. 

“Leafy Mysteries,” from “Illumination.” A rocker that has a very 1960’s feel, and ends with a Who-like flurry of drums and power chords.

“It’s Written in the Stars,” from “Illumination.” This song opens with a very catchy horn sample and slips into a good groove. 

“Come On/Let’s Go,” from “As Is Now.” This is a great Weller rocker, featuring aggressive vocals and guitar work. “As Is Now” is one of my favorite Paul Weller albums, so I picked quite a few songs from it. “Come On/Let’s Go” has some great lyrics, like: “There really is no purpose/definitely is no need/to go running round the houses/like a racehorse on speed.” 

“Here’s the Good News,” from “As Is Now.” This is one of my favorite Paul Weller songs. It has a very Kinks/Alan Price sound to it, and it features a trombone solo. 

“From the Floorboards Up,” from “As Is Now.” Great charging rocker, with tons of kinetic energy.

“I Wanna Make It Alright,” from “As Is Now.” A tender, gentle ballad, as Weller croons, “I wanna be the kind you want to come home to/I want to be the one who gets to make it with you.”

“Blink and You’ll Miss It,” from “As Is Now.” A heavier rocker, with lots of fuzzy guitar.

“22 Dreams,” from “22 Dreams.” “I had 22 dreams last night/and you were in 21/last one I saved for myself/just to save my soul” Weller sings in this frantic song from his epic 2008 album. 

“All I Wanna Do (Is Be With You),” from “22 Dreams.” This song shares some lyrical similarities to Bob Dylan’s 1964 song “All I Really Want To Do,” but Weller’s song is better because Weller can actually sing and write a decent melody line.

“Wake Up the Nation,” from “Wake Up the Nation.” A rollicking number from Weller’s hard-edged 2010 album, with Paul exhorting listeners to “Get your face off the Facebook and turn off your phone.” 

“The Attic,” from “Sonik Kicks.” An energetic, pulsating song from Weller’s most recent album. 

“When Your Garden’s Overgrown,” from “Sonik Kicks.” Weller’s lyrics sound a little Bryan Ferry-like here. “Drinking wine in the Moulin Rouge/sipping coffee in Berlin/might take in the colored lights/in the city they call sin.” 

“That Dangerous Age,” from “Sonik Kicks.” A great catchy tune about a man who “Every chance he gets to fly he goes high in his car,” and who likes “3 sugars in his coffee.”

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Book Review: "Thank You For Smoking," by Christopher Buckley (1994)

"Thank You For Smoking," by Christopher Buckley

Christopher Buckley’s 1994 satirical novel “Thank You For Smoking” is still a trenchant and wickedly funny book, even 20 years after it was first published. “Thank You For Smoking” tells the story of Nick Naylor, a tobacco lobby spokesperson, or “smokesman,” as he is often dubbed. Naylor works for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, which pumps out highly dubious studies that purport to show no link between smoking and cancer. Naylor delights in the challenge of arguing the seemingly inarguable, and some of the funniest scenes in the book are when Buckley paints Naylor in a corner, like having him confronted with a young cancer patient on “Oprah,” and seeing Naylor wriggle out of the jam. Naylor would be even more at home in 2014 rather than 1994, as the proliferation of cable news and the Internet has often proved that dubious arguments can sound plausible when they come from attractive visages. 

Buckley has a lot of fun with the lunch meetings that Naylor has with his friends Polly and Bobby Jay, who are spokespeople for the liquor and firearms industries. They call themselves the “Mod Squad,” with mod standing for “merchants of death.” Like Nick, Polly and Bobby Jay are somewhat defensive about their jobs, so they take great comfort in each other, often arguing about who has the worst job.

 “Thank You For Smoking” follows Nick as he battles not only smoking opponents, but also his boss BR, who isn’t very fond of Nick, and his comely co-worker Jeannette, who is clearly angling to take Nick’s job. However, Nick has someone on his side because “The Captain,” an old man who is one of the most powerful men in the tobacco industry, thinks very highly of him. Nick becomes the Captain’s golden boy, and gets sent out to Hollywood to convince movie executives to feature more smoking in their films. An assistant to a big-shot producer tells Nick:

“We’ve got this CIA movie deal project in the works, it’s going to be very big. The idea is the CIA thinks Franklin Roosevelt is too cozy with Stalin, so they kill him so Truman will get in and nuke the Japanese. Fabulous Film.”
“Sounds great. But I don’t think the CIA existed back in 1945.”
“It didn’t?”
“I think it started in ’47.”
“It’s a little late to change the whole premise.” 

The movie producer eventually decides that the best way to promote cigarettes in a movie is to set it in the future. But Nick hesitates, asking, “But don’t you explode if you light up in a spaceship? All that oxygen?”
“It’s the twenty-sixth century. They’ve thought that through. That can be fixed with one line of script.”

But things start to fall apart for Nick when he is kidnapped and nearly killed as his kidnappers cover his body with nicotine patches, intending to give Nick a lethal dose of nicotine. However, Nick survives the attack. “Dr. Williams said that, ironically, it was his smoking that had probably saved him. That many patches on a nonsmoker would almost certainly have brought about cardiac arrest sooner.” 

Nick starts reaching crisis mode as he’s enjoying the company of Jeannette, and also a female reporter who he is unable to resist. The FBI starts investigating Nick’s kidnapping, but eventually it becomes clear that they are more and more suspicious of Nick’s activities, even thinking that he may have faked the whole thing. And that’s where I’ll leave the plot summary, not wanting to spoil the whole thing.

It’s very clear that Christopher Buckley knows his way around the corridors of power, as he describes the various D.C. types that inhabit his novel. Buckley pokes fun at both sides of the smoking debate, the media, Hollywood movie moguls, and stupidity and hypocrisy in general. Throughout the book, Buckley fires off great lines like, “The achievement of car phones is that your morning can now be ruined even before you get to the office.” Just substitute “cell” for “car” in that sentence and it’s even more true today. If you’re in the mood for a very funny satire of lobbyists, and Washington D.C. culture, pick up “Thank You For Smoking.” The only way it can be hazardous to your health is if you laugh too much.