Tag Archives: books

A Stray Cat Struts: My Life as a Rockabilly Rebel by Slim Jim Phantom

A Stray Cat Struts by Slim Jim PhantomWhen I look at musical biographies I’ve read in the past, from Laura Jane Grace to Tony Iommi to Ginger Wildheart to Frank Turner amongst others, it’s fairly obvious that most have focussed on frontmen or band leaders.

This seems to be a fairly standard trend so, coming to the autobiography of Slim Jim Phantom, most famously the drummer from The Stray Cats, I expected something a bit different, and that’s just what I got.

From the start Phantom makes it clear that his book won’t be a mudslinging ‘needless to say I got the last laugh’ type affair but a look at the positives that his life as a rockabilly musician of note has brought him.

That isn’t to say that it’s all saccharine sweet though as he and his various band members go through their share of problems but, for the most part, Slim Jim finds the good in all the situations, one way or another.

With this approach he makes it clear early on that he won’t engage with the potential fallout of the split of The Stray Cats, so when that comes it’s not a surprise (though later he sheds a little light on the relationships between himself and fellow Cats, Brian Setzer and Lee Rocker).

The Stray Cats

The Stray Cats

Up to the split of that band the book moves in, largely, chronological order tracing Phantom’s life from Massapequa, Long Island, New York to London where the Cats first found fame, through meetings and tours with The Rolling Stones and the kind of encounters and happenings that are genuinely amazing to hear given the speed with which they occur following the trio’s arrival in the UK.

In this we begin to meet some of Slim Jim’s ‘true pals’ who become a major feature of many of the stories and many are household names from the world of rock ‘n’ roll. While this could easily feel like name dropping par excellence, it actually comes across as if our humble narrator is as surprised by many of these encounters and friendships as we might be, including his marriage in the mid-1980s to Britt Ekland!

As the book goes on the stories focus more on specific subjects so there are chapters on Lemmy, ‘The Killer’ Jerry Lee Lewis, George Harrison and other rock ‘n’ roll heroes as well as Phantom’s endeavours in film acting, nightclub ownership and life on and around the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.

HeadCat and Jerry Lee Lewis

HeadCat and Jerry Lee Lewis

Through all of these what makes the book so engaging is the manner in which Phantom writes. It’s as if he is telling you these stories one-to-one, and his enthusiasm for his music and extraordinary comes through strongly in every passage regardless of what he’s recounting.

As the book goes on he becomes more reflective as his hard partying days subside to watching game shows while on the phone with Harry Dean Stanton, spending time with his, evidently equally rock ‘n’ roll, son TJ and later charity mountaineering trips to Kilimanjaro and Everest.

Rockabilly music is never far away though and it’s clear this remains what makes his heart beat and its worth having YouTube handy to look up some of the Stray Cats performances he mentions just to revel in the same things he is.

Slim Jim Phantom up Kilimanjaro

Slim Jim Phantom up Kilimanjaro

What I think this accessibility and enthusiasm stems from is something he highlights and I’ve noticed in my own life that, in a majority of cases, drummers are the members of the band most happy to let down the facade of rock ‘n’ roll life, connect with others and generally are more open and sharing.

Using this Slim Jim lets us into his world in a far less self-conscious way than many other musicians making for a fascinating and easy read that may have a few rough edges tidied but feels honest and true in the way that the best things in rock ‘n’ roll should be.

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Hello America by JG Ballard

Hello America by J.G. Ballard book coverIt seems that the notion of The American Dream is one that keeps cropping up in my reviews recently, most notably with La La Land and Straight Outta Compton, so it feels natural, if strangely coincidental, that I now look at a book that seems to take that dream and turn it into a kind of twisted nightmare.

While J.G. Ballard is well-known for his dystopian science fiction visions from the likes of High-Rise and Crash, Hello America was not one I was familiar with when its blurb and cover caught my eye, but from the off its clear that it bears certain resemblances to the story of Lang in the tower block.

Here our hero is Wayne, a young stowaway from a back to basics Europe of the 2100’s, who has snuck aboard a vessel sailing for an evacuated USA. It’s 100 years since North America was abandoned in the face of an energy crisis as oil ran dry and the once most powerful nation on Earth was laid to waste by climactic devastation.

Arriving in this New World wasteland Wayne and the members of the expedition head off from a derelict New York to Washington DC and beyond.

The journey and the relatively mysterious lead male protagonist are certainly familiar from High-Rise, though Wayne feels far more sympathetic than Lang and the eventual arrival of the equivalent to Royal reveals a far less sympathetic antagonist. Along with this the general sense of growing disaster as the story goes on is similar to High-Rise but on a far grander physical scale.

JG Ballard

JG Ballard

What sets it apart is a sense of optimism, particularly in the first half, where Wayne’s vision of ‘The American Dream’ is infectious and really sucked me into the adventure, much as it does some of his fellow travellers, and the way Ballard paints the landscape of the ‘Great American Desert’ is masterful and hugely visual.

The first half of the book builds the tension to breaking point with what feels like a climax in the depth of the desert before Ballard throws a marvellous curve ball that almost resets things but goes on in eventually more disturbing and absurd ways as Wayne’s dream becomes a real American Nightmare – to say much more would be too much of a spoiler.

The fact that Wayne dreams of being 45th president of the USA is particularly pertinent given recent real world events, but that’s just a ‘happy’ coincidence, but there is clearly a political message at the heart of Ballard’s writing coming as this did at a time when a former film star had recently entered The White House.

Hello America original artwork

The cover of the first edition of Hello America

As well as the politics there is an ecological message which is writ large and obvious throughout though has lost none of its necessity and power since the book was released in the early 1980s and some slightly heavy-handed consumerist points add another layer.

All of this does make Hello America‘s purpose a little unfocused but it is certainly trying to say something and, generally, succeeding.

Where it doesn’t succeed quite so well is in the second half of the story that almost becomes too absurd to take seriously, though it just about holds things together as it reaches a hugely tense and surprisingly cinematic climax – I’m amazed no one has twisted this into a big budget blast-a-thon blockbuster.

This makes Hello America a book that, while easier to read than High-Rise, less physically controversial than Crash and a little unfocused, is none the less enjoyable and bridges hard sci-fi ideals with readable adventure in a very satisfying fashion.

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Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout by Laura Jane Grace with Dan Ozzi

Tranny Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout by Laura Jane Grace and Dan Ozzi book coverIn May 2012 Laura Jane Grace came out to the world as transgender via an interview in Rolling Stone magazine. At that point her band, Against Me!, had been going through a lot of transition themselves and this marked something of a watershed moment, not just for Grace herself, but for the band.

In her autobiography, Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout (written with Dan Ozzi) Grace explores her life and career up to this point in startling honest fashion.

The book starts in 1985 with Grace (then known as Thomas James Gabel) seeing Madonna on TV and the wheels are set in motion for her life both in terms of her personal development and her musical ambitions – of course stylistically, the music at least would go in somewhat of a different direction.

I won’t go into detail of her story, this would be the autobiographical equivalent of spoilers, but it follows a natural chronology starting with her life as child of a military family regularly moving from place to place and never forming solid foundations, something that comes into play as she moves into being a touring musician.

Laura Jane Grace

Laura Jane Grace

As the title of the book suggests the story has two main threads that Grace weaves together seamlessly. Each chapter loosely follows a section of her career based around an album or tour, especially once we get to the point to the point of Against Me! releasing their debut album, …Reinventing Axl Rose.

This is a fairly standard conceit and obviously makes logical sense for a musicians memoir, but, what lifts it beyond that is the combination of newly written passages and sections lifted from Grace’s extensive journals.

What this does is extraordinary as we get the view of Grace now, with not only hindsight but an almost entirely changed life, and the in the moment thoughts and views of Gabel at the time.

While the view taken rarely changes it gives the book a duality that only serves to hammer home the experiences of Grace’s dysphoria that, it is evident, were present from her early youth (certainly at least since seeing that Madonna performance).

Against Me! circa 2013

Against Me! circa 2013

These journals are fascinating as its clear Grace documented everything, really putting the reader in the moment with her at many key moments both for herself and Against Me!.

This makes for a very intense and personal experience, like we are a fly on the wall, or even closer than that. With that we share many nights with her on the bench seats of vans or bunks of tour busses, as well as the back of a police car or two, in a way I’ve never read in any other musician’s life story.

As a fan of Grace’s music I did wonder if her personal story would take preference but I’m happy to say that it doesn’t as it is clear throughout just how inextricably linked these two things are, more than comes across in many other such stories. That said the most fascinating stuff comes with her personal story and quite how she came to terms with her gender dysphoria and how she dealt with it (or didn’t) at different stages of her life.

Grace as Gabel

Grace as Gabel

It never paints transitioning or anything associated with it as a quick fix or an easy process as some flippant reporting of such has, both in relation to her and others. In this it does a great job of expressing the feelings she felt and what she went through that, as a cis-male, was one of the most valuable insights I’ve had into this.

The story of the band is one we’ve heard many times before with members falling out, life on the road extremes and just what its like to support metallers Mastodon on tour when you’re in a band playing punk rock.

But with this we get a look into the American punk scene from the late 1990s to the late 2000s. While this view is obviously that of Grace herself, it is fascinating to see the DIY end of things and how it relates (or doesn’t) to the mainstream world of pop-punk and what comes between.

This just adds fuel to Grace’s resilient fire as she faces off against former fans who now brand her and the band sellouts and how some came back round as this part of her story neared its end.

The final chapter and epilogue of the book change things up as Gabel’s journals are no more and we get pure Grace, rounding off her story in suitably open-ended but still satisfying fashion (for now) as we find out about the writing and recording of the Transgender Dysphoria Blues album and the reconstruction of Against Me! as, arguably, even more of a potent force than they ever were before and certainly a more focussed one.

Laura Jane Grace (and Atom Willard) of Against Me!

Laura Jane Grace (and Atom Willard)

All this makes Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout not just one of the most satisfying autobiographies but one of the most satisfying books I’ve read.

Like much of Grace’s music its fast, raw and honest while provoking thought and opening up a wider world of experience than most other does not and, given the subjects it deals with, it offers an invaluable and important insight into something not everyone will experience but everyone should be able to at least try to understand all in a very personal way.

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Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges

Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges book coverWhile I had always been generally curious about the life and work of Alan Turing the 2014 movie The Imitation Game piqued my interest and so I sought out the apparent source of that film, Andrew Hodges extensive biography, Alan Turing: The Enigma.

Like Turing, Hodges is a mathematician and that is obvious throughout the book as this is as much about Turing’s work, as it is about his life, something that as it goes on, seems very appropriate given Turing’s apparent approach to life.

Of course the now most famous section of Turing’s life and work is dealt with extensively as he spent the Second World War working at Bletchley Park on various form of code breaking.

Most famously the Enigma but various other things besides, including working on the foundation of what has become the so-called ‘Special Relationship’ between the UK and USA, albeit in a technical rather than diplomatic capacity – throughout we get the impression diplomacy wasn’t one his strong points.

Beyond this Hodges goes into quite some detail on his work in the field of pure mathematics and logic before and after the war, his involvement in the first computers, and more work on fields combining mathematics with biology.

Alan Turing

Alan Turing

I will be the first to admit much of the detail of this went somewhat over my head, but my ignorance only served to demonstrate quite how impressive the work Turing was undertaking was.

There is much here for those willing to delve deeper or with a deeper knowledge of the subjects discussed, though Hodges does a good job of at least making it vaguely understandable to the layman.

The other side of Turing’s life is dealt with in similar detail from an upper middle class upbringing, his experiences at public school, to his romantic life and the problems this lead to later in his life.

All of this dealt with in something of a logical fashion and, while that may say something about the author, I was left with the impression that it said much about the subject and his view of the world as well. Towards the book’s climax this is expanded upon greatly as his homosexuality is explored around the subject of his surprisingly low-key trial and punishment for his activities (for which he has since been posthumously pardoned).

Along with the war-time work and post war work on computers this is the most interesting section of the book, as it explores the notion of homosexuality in a wider context of the period and the genuinely devastating (and hugely scary) effects it had on many men, not just Turing, though it seems he treated the whole thing in a rather matter of fact way.

Alan Turing in his youth

Turing in his youth

In this he was probably not alone but is something of a high-profile pioneer as, throughout the book, from his early relationship with school friend Christopher to his more problematic later encounters he is clearly unapologetic about his sexuality and astonishingly open about it considering the fact it was illegal at the time.

While he never seemed to explicitly ‘campaign’ for gay rights (I had the sense such an idea wouldn’t have occurred to him) by his very actions his entire life seemed to push the boundaries of society’s view, whether it had an expressed effect during his lifetime or not.

The story of course culminates with Turing’s death by suicide in 1954 and, unlike the film, makes him out to be the same unconventional genius he always was right to the end.

Hodges never paints him as a direct victim of his situation in society, suggesting his suicide was a very conscious decision, potentially based on a collection of factors in his life which are explored in fascinating detail, particularly with regard as to why homosexuals were suddenly so clamped down upon in the early and mid-1950s compared to the periods before and after, although there are some fairly laboured 1984 comparisons here.

Alan Turing memorial

Turing memorial statue in Manchester

Throughout, its fair to say the book is a heavy piece to read thanks to the detail but it never feels unnecessary as it becomes clear Turing lead an astonishingly complex life thanks largely to his position within society combined with his mathematical and scientific expertise and Hodges does an astonishing job of painting this in a way that, now I’ve read The Enigma, I can’t help but feel The Imitation Game almost entirely missed.

And in a nice post script moment it’s pleasing to know that despite what the book says a memorial to Turing does now exist near both Manchester University (where he worked in his final years) and the city’s ‘gay village’ which seems the perfect location as well as being something of an understated kind of memorial that suits the man described in this work.

Hodges has also set up a website including updates on the biography and other information at turing.org.uk

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High-Rise by JG Ballard

High-Rise by JG BallardBy reputation, and having seen David Cronenberg’s interpretation of Crash many years ago, the work of JG Ballard had always hovered around the edges of my cultural consciousness.

It wasn’t until seeing Ben Wheatley’s cinematic adaptation of High-Rise though that my interest was really piqued so I picked up a copy of the source novel and delved into a world only hinted at in Wheatley’s rather fine film.

Charting the story of three residents of the titular high-rise apartment block over the course of three months the opening sentence, concerning recent arrival Dr Laing tucking into the leg of a dog cooked on a primitive fire on his balcony, hints at what’s to come before we go back to see what led to this apparently unusual happening.

The three residents; Laing, representing the middle floors of the tower, Wilder, from the lower floors and Royal, architect and owner of the penthouse apartment, not only represent elements of traditional British societal class but also stand for sides of a more abstract personality embodied within and by the tower block.

The literal story charts the decline of life in the high-rise from wild parties to inter-floor arguments to a kind of tribal warfare climaxing in a total breakdown of the norms of society in particularly brutal fashion.

JG Ballard

JG Ballard

Here Ballard treads a line of explicitness in particularly impressive fashion. What we ‘see’ through the eyes of the three leads is certainly horrific, yet more is merely suggested building an astonishing picture of decline both externally and internally for the characters and those they encounter with virtually no taboo left un-suggested.

What adds to all this is how, for much of the novel, we are never quite sure if what we are told is actually happening or if it is some kind of mass delusion or even merely the delusion of just Laing, Wilder and Royal.

The fourth main character in the novel is the high-rise itself. Depicted by Ballard as a decaying beast with whims and moods as infrequent as those of its residents, it has the feel of a monster exerting some kind of hypnotic effect on those within while, in a vaguely symbiotic manner, being effected by them in return. Though we are left unsure whether it was the high-rise or the residents who are responsible for the process.

High Rise

The High-Rise as seen in the film version

Beyond the literal story there is another level to things as, like all the best sci-fi (and despite the apparently contemporary setting it is definitely science fiction) High-Rise offers a message about the real world through its own twisted mirror.

While its message at the time was, arguably, a forewarning of Thatcherite Britain, it is just as relevant now when looking at the increasingly segregated society we could be heading towards in a ‘Brexit’ world where a horrific post-cultural creation like Donald Trump is in the running to be president of the USA.

In a less specific sense it looks at society as a whole and how, beneath the thin veneer we call civilisation and maintain through a kind unspoken mutual agreement, humans are just as, if not more, territorial and animalistic as any other species.

Royal and Wilder as seen in the film adaptation

Royal and Wilder as seen in the film adaptation

Ballard leaves us with the impression that no matter what we do mankind is destined to repeat this process time and again, stopping just short of suggesting a sense of mutually assured destruction, though such isn’t that big a leap to take following what is presented here.

As a novel then it is a gripping, tense, experience building in brutality, depravity and bleakness before a surprisingly subdued conclusion but as a wider allegory it still speaks volumes even forty years after its original publication and goes beyond even Wheatley’s famed excesses in both content and message.

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Ham On Rye by Charles Bukowski

Ham On Rye - Charles Bukowski coverHaving explored some of the writings of the Beat Generation, particularly works by Kerouac and Ginsberg and some from Cassady and Burroughs, one name stood out amongst the related writers as something potentially a bit different but sharing some of the same head space, Charles Bukowski. So, last time I was at City Lights Bookstore I picked up the book of his that stood out most from the many on the shelf, Ham On Rye.

Instantly its clear that, while yes there is a similarity to the Beats in terms of its setting in a very real world America of the 20th century, this book was published later (1982 quite impressively) but is set far earlier and in a very focussed location of Los Angeles in the 1920s and 30s, away from the New York and San Francisco of the 40s, 50s and early 60s the Beats more commonly dealt with.

Superficially the books is, apparently, a semi-autobiographical account of the youth of Bukowski’s regular avatar, Henry ‘Hank’ Chinaski, dealing with his formative years through school and his first steps into the adult world and the outbreak of the Second World War.

Throughout this Chinaski comes across as a thoroughly awful character but one who is undeniably compelling. His words (it’s all first person) giving a sense of real brutality he experiences at the hands of seemingly everyone he encounters from parents, teachers, contemporaries and more and the brutal nature of his response to all this.

Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski

Bukowski’s style of writing really exacerbates this being at once simplistic, at times as if written by the young Chinaski, but extremely impactful for it. There is no sense of wasted words or floridity as it is delivered as directly and bluntly as Chinaski’s actions.

Within this Bukowski paints a picture of a side of America that maybe hasn’t translated across the Atlantic as well as some others. From my experience the Great Depression of the early 1930s is always depicted as very much an East Coast, South and Mid West phenomena with news reel of the hungry and jobless in New York and Chicago or the drought conditions of the more rural areas seen in the likes of Bonnie And Clyde.

Here though we see the young, great western city of Los Angeles in that period with basic but expressive views of the city from Chinaski’s childhood home in what would become South Central (more recently somewhat of a ‘ghetto’ for the city’s black community, but then home of poor immigrants from the east) to the inner city area, now Downtown, rife with unemployment, dive bars, desperation and, it seems, characters even shadier than Chinaski.

Downtown Los Angeles c. 1930

Downtown Los Angeles c. 1930

In this the book finds its purpose, as it does what many writers who featured within the 20th Century ‘counterculture’ did in exploring the end of the so-called American Dream. Hunter S. Thompson posited its destruction or desecration in the late 1960s and early 70s with Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, for Ginsberg parts of it were lost in the 1940s and 50s as seen in Howl, while for Bukowski it seemed the dream died with the Great Depression.

There are of course arguments for all of these and more but Bukowski’s Chinaski seems to be a kind of living embodiment of this, no longer denying the end of the pioneer spirit that had typified the USA’s first century and a half and settling into a pattern of division and desperation that can still be seen today (coming to the fore even more so as I write in the build up to the 2016 election).

On top of all this the book is compelling to read flying along with a pace that captures childhood and growing up excellently, but rather than focussing on the idealised view usually seen in mass media, comes with a darker hue that may be extreme but is, if anything, potentially far more honest for it.

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The First Third by Neal Cassady

The First Third by Neal CassadyNeal Cassady; off page progenitor of Beat, Dean Moriarty or Cody Pomeray to Kerouac’s Sal Paradise et al, inspirer (and more) of Ginsberg and Howl, godfather of psychedelic counterculture and The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test… or so legend would have it, but could all that possibly be the truth?

In The First Third, Cassady himself sets out his story in his words, or at least some of it, and proves, as you might expect, that it is both truth and a kind of fiction.

Published by City Lights, the original home of the Beat Generation, the book combines a partial autobiography with collected other autobiographical moments, poems and letters that go some way to show the man behind the myth, while backing it up at the same time.

Cassady’s story is one that could only have existed in its time, trapped between the expansionist, pioneering American Dream of the 1800s and the post war malaise that became the Great Depression. The main chunk of The First Third explores Cassady’s youth, following a fascinating if at times fractured exploration of his heritage as the offspring of two families who emigrated to the US as part of that mid-1800s boom.

Neal Cassady

Neal Cassady

His story, while one with a hint of typically romanticised nostalgia for childhood, is about as dysfunctional as they come; skipping between homes, ‘homes’, lodging houses and parents, mostly around Denver, Colorado, along with trips that would prefigure the story that would make he and his alter-ego Moriarty so famous.

Cassady’s style of writing comes in the form of a kind of precursor to the ‘spontaneous prose’ he inspired from Kerouac and, while clearly falling into the Beat aesthetic, has a naivety to it that suits the tales of his childhood adventures and make this section of the book fly by.

The second half of The First Third is more of a mixed bag dipping in and out of tales from Cassady’s teenage and adult life that, as they go on, become increasingly concerned with a seeming obsession with sex and bragging about his sexual conquests. Here his naïve style becomes at odds to the content and often feels repetitive ably demonstrating that an addict talking about his addictions (it seems not only sex but drugs, alcohol and anything else that comes along) are certainly far from the most interesting of subjects.

Ginsberg and Cassady

Ginsberg and Cassady

This continues in the books final section containing a series of letters to Jack Kerouac and then Ken Kesey that bring us up to 1965, three years before Cassady’s death, which at least give the whole a kind of vaguely rounded complete autobiography feel.

In amongst this mixed bag of the books second half is its highlight, a short prose-poem Leaving L.A. by Train at Night, High… Subject wise, it’s all in the title, but Cassady paints a vivid picture from a late 1940s perspective, now lost to the sprawling metropolis the city has become, but with hints and suggestions that even now bring it back to life.

In all, Lawrence Ferlinghetti sums it up in his 1981 Editor’s Note when he describes The First Third as being written in ‘homespun, primitive prose’, but this seems to capture the spirit of the writer and his truly unique story from potential drop out bum to cult icon and hero of a new kind of American Dream that has also since been lost to history and nostalgia leaving in its wake some great literary art.

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Yes! by Daniel Bryan and Craig Tello

Yes! by Daniel BryanEver since Mick Foley hit the top of the New York Times bestseller list with his autobiography, Have A Nice Day, it has been de rigueur for popular professional wrestlers to tell their life stories in print.

These range from the excellent, the aforementioned Foley book and Ric Flair’s To Be The Man to the reputedly garbage, Chyna’s If They Only Knew, and now former WWE World Heavyweight Champion Daniel Bryan (aka ‘American Dragon’ Bryan Danielson) has added his to the mix in the form of Yes! My Improbable Journey to the Main Event of Wrestlemania (a companion to a recent DVD box set).

The most noticeable thing about this particular autobiography is its format. While a majority of it is Bryan (I’ll go with his WWE name as it’s a WWE book) telling us his story, each chapter starts with a section from WWE.com writer Craig Tello focusing on the days leading up to Wrestlemania 30, undeniably the protagonist’s biggest moment in ‘sports entertainment’.

Tello’s sections have a few interesting moments, particularly in relation to Bryan’s training (focusing on legit kickboxing and MMA based work) and his attempts to maintain a near vegan diet, though they often veer into somewhat ‘celebrity’ territory which isn’t so much where my interest lies.

Bryan Danielson and Jushin 'Thunder' Liger

Bryan Danielson and Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger

Bryan’s sections however are far more interesting. Tracking his life from school in Aberdeen, Washington (the same town that gave us Kurt Cobain, fact fans) through his early interest in pro-wrestling to training, his run as ‘King of the Indies’ and on to becoming a WWE ‘Superstar’.

Throughout his story the already modest and likeable wrestler comes across even more so and it is clear that from a young age he was a genuine and huge fan of pro-wrestling. He tells of taking in everything he could from the monsters of the then WWF to the early technical and cruiserweight style performers that gave him his real inspiration.

As a fan of wrestling seeing this side of Bryan and hearing his insight into the wrestling I grew up watching is genuinely fascinating, as is seeing his love grow into his journey into the industry as he clearly shared many of the same thoughts as me (and no doubt many others).

Danielson and McGuinness

Danielson and McGuinness

As the book goes on we get an insight into his training and his time wrestling on the ‘indies’ travelling from Texas and California to Japan, England and Germany and each brings out some fascinating and entertaining stories. While a lot of these stories are similar to ones told by Chris Jericho in his book, Bryan gives us a very different perspective on them that feels much more down to earth.

Across all of this Bryan isn’t afraid to discuss wrestling as the entertainment it is, which gives another interesting angle on things as he speaks about it from both an athletic context (and with a hard-hitting, intense, style like Bryan’s athleticism is key) but also the pre-determined elements. Most interesting in this regard is a short section talking about his rivalry with Nigel McGuinness and the problem with concussions that continue to affect both men and a section about performing at British holiday camps.

Daniel Bryan at Wrestlemania 30

Daniel Bryan at Wrestlemania 30

As we get up to his WWE run Bryan isn’t afraid to address some of the issues he’s had and reflect on how their translation onto TV is one of the things that elevated him to the level of appearing in the main event of Wrestlemania.

Alongside this his stories of some of his fellow performers have given me a new respect for some of them that has rarely come across on TV and, in the case of William Regal, has just increased my respect and appreciation for his work.

The book ends, as the title suggests with the events around Wrestlemania 30 which, a year and a bit on, leaves a bit of a bitter after taste due to what came next.

Ultimately though this is a solid, if slightly on the short side, story of true fan living a dream and all the time that comes with the feeling that isn’t just the party line but is the actual truth of the situation – something often hard to find in the strange world of professional wrestling.

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Big Sur – The book and the movie

Big Sur first edition coverMuch as I’ve done with a couple of other pieces of Beat writing, Howl and Naked Lunch, I thought I’d take a look at Jack Kerouac’s 1962 novel Big Sur in both its original and its filmic form.

Much like Kerouac’s other works I’ve read (so far On The Road and The Dharma Bums) Big Sur starts off with a something of a combination feel that seemed to typify the literary movement known as the Beat Generation. Weaving poetic words in a semi-prose style, he gives us an insight into a people, a place and time that may, or may not, be a kind of twisted documentary.

In the novel this comes in his typical form of representing real people with pseudonyms and highlighting certain aspects of their characters and giving them his own words to make the points he wishes to make, all in a style that led to him being known as ‘King Of The Beats’.

Specifically in Big Sur he uses this style to take us into late San Francisco’s North Beach in the late 1950s. With the City Lights Bookshop now established and the big names of the movement national celebrities, Kerouac (in the book rendered Duluoz) is the most famous thanks to his television appearances. From North Beach he takes us to a cabin at the titular location south of “Frisco” where he begins writing.

Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac

In essence Big Sur begins as a book about its own writing but soon becomes something so much more. An exploration of the cult of celebrity, in an earlier form than we see it now, and the effects of alcoholism, would be a very obvious way to describe it.

In Kerouac’s hands this is rendered in such a poetic way as to really give the feeling of the ups and downs of his (Duluoz’s) life at the time and build on what his previous writing had in telling us about himself.

Thrown in with this we get elements of the travelogue seen in his other work, particularly On The Road, but he also veers further in Burroughs-esque directions as well, with moments where the real world and his protagonist’s twisted perception merge and the reader is left unsure where supposed reality and, for want of a better word, nightmare begin and end.

As with the other works of Kerouac’s I’ve read, alongside his ability to really paint pictures of places and evoke the moods and feelings of them, it is his use (or misuse) of traditional grammar that stands out as a highlight. Doing this is what brings out the book’s poetic feeling that runs throughout as Kerouac uses his own sense of grammar, individual to this work, to make his point.

As the story goes on things become increasingly oppressive and the writing seems to speed up with this, really bringing across the sense of panic and paranoia being felt by Duluoz, and it reaches a terrific crescendo that almost becomes unbearable for the reader as much as it is for the writer/character.

While I would say it is the least enjoyable of the three of Kerouac’s works I’ve read thanks to its oppressive denoument, it is, in a literary sense, possibly more coherent and certainly just as successful in painting its picture and making its point.

Big Sur movie posterMuch like the other Beat works I’ve looked at, translating this onto film is something hard to envision and, while Naked Lunch and Howl take very different approaches to this, both all but rewriting their sources to create something of the same essence but ultimately different, in his 2013 film of Big Sur writer/director Michael Polish gives a very literal interpretation.

Ditching the pseudonyms we follow Kerouac (Jean-Marc Barr) from San Francisco to Big Sur and trace the exact same story in the real locations – though I had a feeling we were looking at City Lights now rather than in the late 1950s, but the rest felt authentic.

Unfortunately in doing this Polish skims over a lot of the source to an extent that, particularly in the middle section, things are rushed and scenes happen with no clear relevance to the whole. At only an hour and 20 minutes there certainly could have been scope to expand some of this to at least have it flow together more coherently.

Another problem is that while the visuals do show much of Kerouac describes something is lost in simply seeing it. While its clear Polish is trying to evoke something of the feeling and thought of the original words, it doesn’t quite work, leaving some nice and well shot scenery if little else.

Josh Lucas and Jean-Marc Barr in Big Sur

Josh Lucas and Jean-Marc Barr as Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac

Where the film does succeed is in creating an increasingly oppressive atmosphere as it builds to its own crescendo, with Kerouac’s ‘long dark night of the soul’ at the cabin at Big Sur being as well translated to screen as I think could be possible.

While the film is far from a masterpiece it is also far from a failure, but it stands in the long, heavy shadow of an impressive piece of writing that, while not Kerouac’s best, is certainly a literary tour de force giving a real representation of both the writer’s own life and that of the Beat movement he came to personify.

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Journey To The Centre Of The Cramps by Dick Porter

Journey To The Centre Of The Cramps book coverA band like The Cramps are certainly one deserving of a thorough investigation. For the best part of 30 years they traced an enigmatic trail across the rock music landscape consistently at odds with anything else going on and never really offering much in the way of explanation beyond of a string of rocking records and a reputation for genuinely chaotic live shows.

So, in Dick Porter’s Journey To The Centre Of The Cramps, a revised, updated and expanded version of his earlier book The Cramps: A Short History of Rock ‘n’ Roll Psychosis, I hope to find out some of this and, for the most part, I wasn’t disappointed.

Its clear from the cover, and something that is never hidden by the author, that this really isn’t the story of a band, but of a couple, of Poison Ivy Rorschach and Lux Interior (aka Kirsty Wallace and Erick Purkhiser) and their 40 year relationship and the fruits of it, which was The Cramps.

Lux Interior and Poison Ivy

Lux Interior and Poison Ivy

Through interviews with his two leads along with friends and relatives we get an insight into where these two unique souls came from and how they first got together and indulged in, amongst other things, a huge passion for 1950s rock ‘n’ roll and 60’s garage rock that became the corner stones of their musical endeavours.

This thread of their love of rock ‘n’ roll and, specifically, record collecting is something that runs through their story as they seem to almost use their love of music as a test for their various band members commitment.

Along with the music we hear about their early dalliances with psychedelics and when things move to New York, Ivy’s part time job as a dominatrix of some kind.

It’s here though that the main issue I have with the book comes in.

The Cramps 'classic' line up

The Cramps ‘classic’ line up with Bryan Gregory

While I’m not the sort to want to know all the lascivious details of their lives in a tabloid expose kind of way, a strong thread of The Cramps music hints strongly at quite an appetite for not only rock ‘n’ roll but sex and drugs as well.

Here though, whenever it seems some modest revelation might be made relating to Lux or Ivy things are shied away from in surprisingly coy fashion, considering the openness of other aspects of the book and revelations about other band members and associates.

This though is a minor gripe and, on a different level, this not being a ‘tell all’ does maintain some of that essential mystery that is a part of the appeal of The Cramps music for me.

As well as telling the story of the band, with most of the focus being on their first ten years, though this was their most prolific period by far, we also get an insight into many of the people they worked with from various band members to producers, inspirations and bands they shared bills with over the years.

The Cramps with Kid Congo Powers

The Cramps with Kid Congo Powers

Particularly interesting in this are sections on Ivy’s inspiration Link Wray, the producer of their first album Alex Chilton and two of their early second guitarists the enigmatic Bryan Gregory and the much more down to earth sounding Kid Congo Powers.

Along with the story of the band we get a fine selection of photos of Lux, Ivy and assorted other Cramps spanning their career and complementing the text by showing they developed while at the same time staying intentional still and true to their original inspirations.

The book rounds off in surprisingly touching style as it takes us right up to Lux’s untimely death in 2009 and goes back to how it started by painting a portrait of, to use Porter’s own words, “a great America love story” that just happened to spawn an entire sub-genre of music as well as an entirely singular musical career the likes of which is highly unlikely to ever be seen again.

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