Ambitious Reading List: Please Kill Me By Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain

A while back I asked some of my pals what books I should check out to learn more about New York’s punk scene in the 70s. I don’t remember what nudged me to ask the question, but the resounding response was, “Read Please Kill Me!” I think I had a gift certificate to Barnes and Noble, so I picked it up. That was quite a while ago now that I think about it. Anyway, it was sitting in my to-read pile for however long and then I set up this current Ambitious Reading List and decided that it would make a great caboose to this reading experience.

Please Kill Me was written by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain in 1996, but the version of the book I has is from 2006 and includes a few extra odds and ends. The book is an oral history much like Live from New York and Whores where large blocks of quotes from the interviewees propel the story along. The beauty of PKM is the width and depth of that McNeil and McCain were able to go to get these quotes. This book starts off back with Andy Warhol and his factory as kind of the primordial soup that punk rock grew out of (once scene spawned another in a sense) through the Doors and the Stooges into the classic bands like the Ramones, New York Dolls and even a little, tiny bit into the British scene. The authors interviewed everyone from scenesters and photographers to surviving members from all the most important bands and many who are no longer with us at this point.

To paraphrase an MTV show’s intro, I thought I knew about punk, but I had no idea. I’ve said before that I wasn’t a rage-filled kid. I think I had a very practical viewpoint on the world which helped me avoid a lot of the disillusionment in the real world that fueled a lot of punk rock kids. I was into then-modern punk/pop punk but when I started getting into original punk it was after reading articles in Guitar World and watching Syd and Nancy in high school. It was almost more academic than anything. I think I started off with that Ramones anthology from Rhino that covers most of their history. I also picked up the Sex Pistols’ Nevermind the Bollocks (I liked that they only had one real record but had no idea how common that was for these legendary punk bands). My buddy Jimmy also hipped me to the MC5 as this protopunk band that was from not too far from where we lived in Toledo, so I got Kick Out The Jams and loved it.

So, I knew some stuff. I knew some of the bands, but my knowledge wasn’t deep. I heard about the Dolls, the Dictators, the Dead Boys and lots of others, but just never got around to checking them out. I also knew the scene was pretty messy, but you really don’t get the feel for how messy until you read these peoples’ experiences. Man, it was nuts. Everyone was drinking, doing drugs, whoring themselves out, having sex with anything that moves, stealing, using, abusing, the whole lot.

The interesting thing about delving into any scene like this is discovering the small ins and outs of it. I was surprised to discover that there were only about 100 people in total living this life. It was quiet for a long time and then when it started getting popular, that was kind of the end of it, which stands to reason. Reading survivors recount some of the amazing and terrible things they’ve done to one another is a pretty singular experience.

I will say that reading this book changed how I listen to the Ramones a bit. I mean, I knew they came from the same scene as everyone else, but I think the somewhat gimmicky nature of the band and the decades between their debut and when I actually listened to them made them almost cartoonish. An amazing band with crazy-catchy songs, but still one that practically wore a uniform, changed their last names to Ramones and appeared in Rock and Roll High School. Finding out that they were drug fueled hopheads and prostitutes who actually went through shock therapy changes how you listen to songs like “53rd and Third” (which I clearly never paid too much attention to lyrics-wise), “Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment” and “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue.” I’m not saying I’m disgusted or will never listen to the Ramones the same way again, it just changes how I listen to them…for the time being until my crappy memory glosses over those details with something from a movie or comic.

My one complaint about Please Kill Me comes from a lack of context and full storytelling that happens throughout the book. In Live From New York, there are these short paragraphs in the beginning of a chapter that explain some details not covered in the interviews. In this book, you’re just kind of thrown in and have to figure out what’s going on. Since I was fairly uneducated on this section of rock and roll history, that got kind of confusing. There’s also some bands that get kind of glossed over or mentioned, but never much detail is given. Like, I know Debbie Harry and Blondie was part of that scene even if they were dubbed New Wave, but the band is only mentioned circuitously. Maybe that’s because they’re not the focus or maybe it’s because certain members wouldn’t allow themselves to be interviewed, but I thought it was a little strange how one of the biggest acts to come out of that area was more or less a foot note. There is a handy section in the back that explains who people are, but a few who were interviewed were omitted back there and that can be frustrating when you’re trying to remember so many names and add some context where there might not be some.

But aside from that, I really enjoyed this book. It’s definitely not for everyone, but I’m guessing if you’re already into punk rock, the tales you’ll read about in this book won’t be too surprising. Actually, if you’re not surprised by at least something in here, well, you’re a different person than I and that’s cool.

And with that, this Ambitious Reading List comes to an end many months after the summer. I really like this format because it takes a very large pile of books I have in my to-read pile (now a purple bin in our storage unit, actually), condences them down to a varied dozen and makes me focus on them. Overall, I’d say this group was greatly eclectic and very interesting. I might have quit on one book and replaced one with The Strain, but overall, I had a great time and have not only arranged my next ARL, but even finished the first book already!

Ambitious Reading List: Born Standing Up By Steve Martin (2007)

As I’m nearing the end of this Ambitious Reading List, I find myself looking forward to the next one and have even started assembling that stack. The problem with that is that I want to burn through the four books I have left with a quickness. While I did return to Devil In The White City and am working my way through it, I started getting a little antsy and wanted some immediate gratification, so I grabbed Steve Martin’s 207 page Born Standing Up and read it in a few days. And you know what? I got exactly that.

The first time I read Crime and Punishment, I was in high school and someone in the class said they wanted to know what happened to Raskolnikov after he was SPOILER imprisoned and the teacher responded that the book would need a new title then. He went on to make the point that stories need to have a focus. Raskolnikov’s story could go on until he died, but Dostoevsky was telling the story of Crime and Punishment, not Crime and Punishment and Whatever Happens After That Until He Dies. Steve Martin took a very similar approach to Born Standing Up. This is not a complete history of the man from birth to the stage, through movies and on to his current turn as a concert banjo player, it’s just about his life and performing career up to the point when he left stand up in the late 70s/early 80s.

I appreciate that kind of focus and while I would definitely be interested in reading another biography about more of his film work and recent endeavors, this book does a great job of telling what feels like a complete tale with beginning, middle and end, something Martin says he liked to bring to every one of his performances. The only real problem I had with Laurie Lindeen’s Petal Pushers was that it didn’t feel like a complete story because she glossed over the break up of the band. I did not have similar problems with this book.

One problem I thought I would have is that I wasn’t sure how serious Martin would be. His comedy lies in the realm of the absurd, so I wasn’t quite sure. Many years ago I borrowed Leslie Nielson’s supposed autobiography The Naked Truth from the library in hopes of learning more about a comedy icon I held in great esteem only to discover a few pages in that it was all a joke, one that I wasn’t in on or expecting. Though I had heard good things about this book, I did have the nagging feeling it might not be as honest as I wanted it to be. Again, that wasn’t a problem.

Martin offers a poignant, honest, real memoir here that not only proves that anyone who works hard can have a chance at making it, but also presents show business in a very truthful light (it ain’t all great). It sounds cliche, but this book really does have it all, ti can make you laugh and cry and really think about life. It’s refreshing to see someone who achieved such huge success — at the time he was the most comedian of all time between ticket and album sales — look back on his life and give a balanced account of what he did and went through. If you’re a fan of Martin’s stand-up and films or the real life portrayal of the life of comedians expressed on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, do yourself a favor and read this book.

With Born Standing Up out of the way that leave me to finish Devil In The White City and then read The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and Please Kill Me which I plan on reading in that order. Devil is one of those weird books that I enjoy reading while I’m reading it, but once I put it down it’s almost like a mind wipe and I don’t want to jump right back in, a feeling that grows the longer between reading sessions. I’m dedicated to getting back into it the rest of this week and deciding once and for all if I’ll keep on with it.

Ambitious Summer Reading List: Petal Pusher By Laurie Lindeen

Much like Don’t Mind If I Do, George Hamilton’s autobiography which I read as part of this summer’s Ambitious Summer Reading List, Laurie Lindeen’s book Petal Pusher: A Rock And Roll Cinderella Story was purchased on a whim at Building 19. I had never heard of Lindeen or her early 90s band Zuzu’s Petals, but I’m a sucker for cheap books about things I like like rock and roll.

This turned out to be a very interesting experience because I really had no idea where the story was going. Was Zuzu’s Petals a band that had a huge hit in the grunge-y 90s when I wasn’t really paying attention to music yet? At least with Hamilton, I knew that he was currently famous and had been for quite a while, with Lindeen, I really had no idea. I made sure not to look her up at all either so the whole experience was an unknown ride. As it turns out neither Lindeen or her band have Wiki pages, which doesn’t seem right when there’s a whole book’s worth of material out there.

Lindeen was a music loving party girl floating through college when she discovered she had MS. The affliction didn’t define her, but it did focus her love of music into something she desperately wanted to do in a very public way. It helped that she was in the growing Minneapolis club scene the spawned bands like The Replacements, The Jayhawks and Soul Asylum.

The book consists of her struggles to get the band together, tame her instruments (guitar and vocals), write songs and tour like motherfuggin’ champions. I’ve never read a book like this about a lesser known band, but it is amazing how much crap these women went through just to be a touring band. I’ve heard these things are fairly common, including getting royally screwed on tours (their first one to England sounds particularly depressing) and dealing with everyone from super fans to stalkers on the road. These stories make up a good chunk of the book interspersed with childhood ones that relate back to what she’s feeling in the “present” of the 90s band days.

I really enjoyed this book. Lindeen has one helluva knack for words and I can relate to her insecurities when it comes to chasing after a dream that seems ridiculous to most. I also appreciate how honest (sometimes tear-jerkingly so) she can be when talking about her life, how she viewed the world then and presenting all that in a way that makes you realize she maybe wasn’t thinking right to begin with.

I did have a problem, though and that’s with the ending. After all these tales of success and failure and the emotional problems that came from them, it just ends. She’s at her younger sister’s wedding and casually mentions that she dissolved the band four months prior. Really? That’s it? That’s all you’re going to give us? I know you’re supposed to leave your audience wanting more, but as I put the book down I was left wide-eyed, like the last few minutes of the movie got cut off because of a scratched DVD or lack of a final reel. I also hoped for a little bit more about what she’s up to today (or at least what she was up to in 2007 when the book was published), but all we get are one sentence explanations of where she and her bandmates are now. We know their cycles matched up and the details of their arrest, but we don’t know how the band broke up or how they took it? That just doesn’t seem right.

Even so, Petal Pushers was a fascinating look at a world I’m not even sure exists anymore or at least not in the same way as it did in the early 90s. I appreciate both Lindeen’s drive to create as well as her decision to refocus herself to other outlets. The whole art-making for a living thing can be tough because you’re putting yourself out there and allowing other people to critique it, meaning they’re critiquing you. It’s not easy and it’s not for everyone, but there are certainly rewards for trying, including this wonderful artifact.

Ambitious Summer Reading List: Don’t Mind If I Do By George Hamilton & William Stadiem

George Hamilton. I knew the name, but aside from a short lived talk show in the 90s, I didn’t really know why. I checked out his IMDb page and realized I’d only ever seen one of his movies (Godfather III, which I remember nothing of). So, how did I know him? Well, the dude’s a celebrity. He’s not just a movie star, he’s known. Why? Because he’s famous, of course. Why is he famous? Does it matter? Well, after reading his book Don’t Mind If I Do, which was co-written by William Stadiem who also worked on the wonderful Mr. S, yeah, it does. As a kid in the 80s and 90s, it turns out I knew Hamilton mostly from dating women like Elizabeth Taylor.

So, why did I pick this book up? Well, I was at Building 19 in New Hampshire and was drawn in for a few reasons. First off, I like that cover picture (let’s cut that whole “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” bull, shall we?). I knew enough about Hamilton to know he was famous, old and something of a Lothario, so I thought that would make for an interesting story. Lastly, the book was like $2 or so (as most books at the Building are). That’s the perfect combination to get my interest. I added it to my Ambitious Summer Reading list this year because, well, it was in the house. I purchased it recently and proximity really is important when it comes to books.

After reading the emotionally complex About A Boy, I wanted something a little lighter, a little more real world and fun. And boy, does DMIID have all of that in spades. I’ll tell you what, even if Hamilton wasn’t famous, he would be fascinating. His is the kind of tale a guy like me likes to read because it’s so different from my own experience. He’s a born hustler who has used his charm and skills to help make his way through life. He got the skills from his divorced mother who, like Blanche in Streetcar*, got by by relying on the kindness of strangers, mostly men who found her infatuating and had trouble saying no to her. For a while, George, his mom Teeny, his older half brother Bill and younger brother David lived like nomads, moving from town to town, bailing when things got bad and sticking around when things got good (or Teeny got married).

Roughly half of the book follows the Hamiltons on their pre-fame days and, to me, that was the most interesting part. That’s really saying something considering I’m fascinated by old Hollywood, the studio system and how an industry that supposedly reflects the morals of the people it entertains could be so wild and debaucherous (or forward thinking, depending on your POV, I guess). His family dynamic was endlessly fascinating to me and I could have honestly read a whole book about just that.

But his Hollywood adventures aren’t dull by any means. Far from a huge hit right away, Hamilton stuck through some really junkers to eventually make it big and become the kind of person a guy like me knows for no real reason. He talks pretty openly about his past relationships and the shenanigans he and his fellow Hollywood bachelors got up to. What really hit me in this time, though, was how Hamilton was able to replicate his mother’s lifestyle, but on a much grander scale. He might not have been in blockbusters, but he always seemed to be working and that included flying off to all corners of the world and hanging out with people like John Wayne, Tony Curtis or Cary Grant (reading about Grant for a few paragraphs in this book inspired me to pick up a used copy of one of his biographies which I’m sure I’ll eventually get to). I’ve always heard the term “jet set” and understood it in a more modern sense, but never really framed it in older days. It must have been a wild idea back then to party in a different country every day for a week.

I was also struck by how small the world of the rich and/or famous can be. Hamilton ran into an awful lot of people he knew from previous encounters at really important times in his life. I guess it helps when most of the people you know are rich and also happen to frequent lavish locales like Acapulco and Rome.

The fact that Hamilton (and Stadiem) tell the stories with such wit and a “here it is” attitude is what really makes the book a quick read (it would have taken me far less than a month to read this if we weren’t having some plumbing problems that had me preoccupied). I love that Hamilton owns everything he’s done and explains what happened without embarrassment or pretension. That’s a great attitude to have and one I hope to adopt at some point when I can stop worrying about pipes.

As an interesting side note to fans of longtime Sinatra valet George Jacobs and his book, Mr. S, he actually makes something of an appearance in this book which I got a kick out of. Sinatra fired George after he was seen dancing with Ol’ Blue Eyes’ then-wife Mia Farrow at a club (one that Hamilton co-owned!). After that, Jacobs went to work for Hamilton for a bit, but it turned out that Jacobs didn’t do much in the way of cleaning or cooking or, well, valeting. Sounds like he got a bit spoiled by Sinatra, who had other servants to do the dirty work. There’s that small world thing again, but also an interesting new perspective on another book’s point of view (I can’t remember if Jacobs mentioned Hamilton in his book). I’ve only read a handful of Hollywood books, but I’m certainly finding myself a fan of them. However, for the next Ambitious Summer Reading List contestant, I’m going for Stephen King’s Misery which started off crazy and just keeps getting more intense. Hopefully it won’t take me a month to finish that one.

Ambitious Summer Reading List 2012

Longtime readers might remember that I tried to tackle a large stack of classic books for my Ambitious Summer Reading List last year. Well, that wound up spreading into the beginning of this year and wound up not being a whole lot of fun. So, this summer, I wanted to try something different and finally read some of the books that have been sitting under my bed for ages. This is a mix of autobiography, mystery, psychological thriller/horror, slice of life, drama, food, music and just about everything else. I started off with Nick Hornby’s About A Boy (review coming soon because I finished it today), but don’t have an order figured out (last year’s was chronological).

The pile includes another Fletch book by Gregory McDonald (Fletch And The Man Who), Stephen King’s Misery, the aforementioned Boy, an oral history of the punk rock and new wave movements called Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, Anthony Bourdain’s follow-up to Kitchen Confidential called Medium Raw, Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness Of Lemon Cake (I loved her book An Invisible Sing Of My Own), Alice Sebold’s The Almost Moon which I know nothing about but liked The Lovely Bones, the latest Diary Of A Wimpy Kid installment which doesn’t really count but I want to finally read it, Steve Martin’s autobio Born Standing Up, actor George Hamilton’s autobiography Don’t Mind If I Do, a book about a band I’ve never heard of called Petal Pusher by Laurie Lindeen and Erik Larson’s historical thriller The Devil In The White City.

It’s a pretty eclectic mix, but also a pretty apt representation of the kinds of books I’ve been wanting to read for a while, found for a few bucks at various places or both. I’m hoping that by choosing books I’m interested in, I’ll stick with them a little better. I also admit that the idea of actually focusing on getting through a dozen of the books I’ve been collecting for more years than I can count and either put them on a shelve (or more likely a box in storage) or give away to someone else. I’d much rather store books I’ve read and liked than ones I’m still waiting to get to.

Book Review: Kitchen Confidential By Anthony Bourdain (2000)

I’m kind of obsessed with Anthony Bourdain. On Monday I realized that I had spent more time watching his show (five different episodes of No Reservationsstill my current favorite show–were on, including the new one) and reading his chef memoir Kitchen Confidential than I did with my wife. The worst part about that is that I’m sure it would completely creep the dude out. Heck, it creeps me out a little.

I started off enjoying Bourdain’s TV persona as a world weary traveler who actually really likes traveling and then wanted to learn more about him and also check out his experiences as a chef. I didn’t really know much about Kitchen Confidential other than the fact that it spawned the Fox sitcom I quite enjoyed both when it was on the first time and again recently. Turns out the book’s no nonsense, brutally honest account of Bourdain’s time in kitchens all over New York not only caused a stir among the cooking world but also gained all kinds of attention from the general public. I had no idea about any of this at the time because I was, 17, in high school and didn’t care about cooking at all.

I care about cooking now. A lot, even. I love cooking for my family, wish I had more time and space to really mess around and was even thinking about maybe, possibly doing something in the industry in the future. I’m not so sure anymore after reading KC. Bourdain’s account of working in restaurants, starting out in the 70s through the 90s, is pretty rough. He compares the groups of cooks behind the scenes making your food as a pirate crew and it sounds about as debaucherous. Aside from all the grab ass and drug use in the kitchen, the point that Bourdain makes over and over again is how absolutely dedicated you have to be to really make it in the biz. It’s not that I lack the motivation, dedication or dislike the idea of working my way up, but I feel like I’m too old at this point and will be even older by the time our daughter will be ready to go to school. I guess I’ll just keep having fun in our tiny galley kitchen before moving up to something bigger at our eventual house.

I’m also impressed by Bourdain’s writing skills. I assumed he wrote a lot of his on-screen dialog on TV, but this guy murders every page (that’s a good thing). Words, often profane and crude ones, flow out of him with such ease that it actually depresses me as a hopeful writer. He writes like he talks to the point that I was reading the book in his voice instead of mine. That’s how I write in my head, but somehow things get wonky when I start putting them on paper or typing them out.

Lately I’ve been really getting into people like Bourdain who worked hard, got their hands dirty and wound up doing something pretty amazing that a lot of people enjoy immensely. Bourdain fits the bill, obviously, but so do podcaster and comedian Marc Maron whose podcast is currently a favorite, filmmaker and podcast empire-builder Kevin Smith and baker/TV personality Duff Goldman. These guys all saw something they wanted, went after it and have turned that into wealth and celebrity. They worked hard and are reaping the rewards now. It’s nice to see that in the world still.

Anyway, I think anyone interested in cooking, rock and roll, self-made people and bad asses doing bad ass things will dig this book. I tore through it and I’m a pretty slow reader. I want to read the rest of his books and buy his cook book now to learn some French cooking. But, again, this is starting to feel a little stalkerish. I swear, I don’t have a problem.

Book Review: Sunday Nights At Seven The Jack Benny Story By Jack and Joan Benny

I’ve talked about my love of Old Time Radio before, but I figure I’ll repeat myself. When I was younger, I had trouble falling asleep. It’s something I still have trouble with on the rare occasion I need to go to bed earlier than normal (between 1 and 2AM nowadays). I don’t exactly remember how the OTR tapes made their way into my family’s life, though I do remember my dad copying some that my grandma had, so maybe that’s where it all started. I was exposed to a wide variety of comedy shows from the 30s and 40s from Burns & Allen, Abbott & Costello, Duffy’s Tavern, Baby Snooks, The Bickersons and most importantly The Jack Benny Program. I’m not exactly sure what made Jack Benny my favorite, but I’m sure it had something to do with the mixture of spot on comedy with fanciful elements like Jack’s pet polar bear or his ginormous underground bank vault, but whatever the reason, I almost wore the Benny tapes out.

Essentially, The Jack Benny Program was a back-stage type show. The character of Jack Benny–who was played by Jack Benny–was a miserly skinflint who starred on his own radio show. Sometimes, they’d put on plays on said show and sometimes it would go “behind the scenes” to Jack’s home and experiences with other celebrities. Every episode was sponsored by a big company like Jello-O or Lucky Strike cigarettes, featured a group of other characters/actors, an orchestra lead by Phil Harris and a song sung by a tenor (Dennis Day or Kenny Baker, depending on when you listened). I remember doing some research about Benny on the internet back in the day and even buying some MP3 DVDs of his shows (that no longer work for some reason) in college, but that was about it. Until a few months back when, on a trip to New Hampshire, I stumbled up Sunday Nights At Seven, the 1990 double autobiography written by Jack Benny and his daughter Joan. It’s a book I had read about in my early internet research and always been curious about but since it was published in 1990 and Benny’s been dead since 1974 it’s not the easiest book to find nor the most popular.

When I bought the book, I assumed that it would have been co-written by the pair around the same time, but what really happened was that Joan–Benny’s only daughter–found a draft of her dad’s autobio when she was cleaning out a house. She then added her own words to help frame things, but also give her perspective on what was going on. This format was interesting because of the different perspectives. Jack was remembering things one way while his daughter was remembering them as a kid. Though it might have been interested, I definitely found myself getting a little bored when Joan took over. I mean, she’s a good writer and had some interesting stories, but I wanted more Jack. It’s kind of like paying to see Walk The Line, but having half the movie focus on Roseanne Cash. Again, there’s some interesting tidbits in there and would have made it’s own interesting story, but in the first few pages she talks about Jack writing a 400 page book and then takes over for pages and pages.

One of the worrisome things when reading a book about a celebrity you really like is finding out about their unlikeable qualities. Thankfully, it turned out that the real Jack Benny was a nice, solid guy who was generous with his time and money, but also spent a lot of time thinking about comedy. He goes into detail about how sound effects were used to great effect back in the golden age of radio. He told great stories about his co-stars and the people who worked on the show, including Mel Blanc. Everyone comes out pretty clean. Except Mary Livingston, Jack’s wife and a character on the show (they weren’t married on the show). Jack doesn’t have a bad thing to say about the woman with the wonderful giggle and great, natural timing, but Joan does. It turns out that Mary was very worried about her place in society and was very cold to Joan growing up, not quite Mommy Dearest territory, but it didn’t sound like a great house to grow up in.

At the end of the day, I really enjoyed reading about a world that doesn’t exist anymore. Several actually as the book covers vaudeville, radio, early television and the golden age of Hollywood. I’m a sucker for that stuff and love reading about a person I like being likable. My problem is that I’m told about a 400 page Jack Benny autobiography and I don’t get it. It also seemed like Jack didn’t really get into detail on things. I don’t know if those were pages left on the cutting room floor or if he just didn’t dive in, but things like his feud with Fred Allen are merely mentioned and not really delved into. It was also strange that early tenor Kenny Baker wasn’t mentioned once in the book. The tapes I had as a kid almost all featured Baker singing the songs. I know that’s a very small section of the much longer run of the show, so my perspective is skewed, but it seemed strange that he wasn’t mentioned at all.

Overall it’s an interesting look at a life through two sets of eyes, but doesn’t really get into as much detail as I would have liked. I’m glad I read it and will be keeping it on my shelf, but I would still like to see that unedited autobiography that Jack Benny wrote. Maybe someday.