Sunday, March 27, 2011

#16: The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood by Jane Leavy

I tend to shy away from anything with "end of America" in the title, as usually the text turns into an overblown piece of sentimental foolishness. Not so this book; most of that is due to the subject, but no small part is due to the organizational scheme of the author. In all, this is a highly recommendable book.

Leavy organizes the text around 20 days in the life of Mantle, with a single day in 1983 in Atlantic City as interludes between sections. We see Mantle in various stages:
A. The "Commerce Comet", a whole ballplayer who could run and hit with power who is in the majors by age 19.
B. The "Whiskey Slick" with Whitey Ford and Billy Martin
C. The "Hero" who plays hard at all times
D. The broken down drunk, reduced to glad-handing rich assholes in Atlantic City.
E. A man with only a name to give

I knew most of the stories of debauchery; the impact on Mantle's marriage and friendships is palpable. What kind of father was he? One of his sons said "absentee"; later they were reduced to drinking buddies. I can relate to that, as at the end of my father's life, it was a shocking realization that the best times I spent with my dad involved swilling beer in a shitty bar.

The life Mantle led after baseball was truly sad. A seemingly endless round of drinks and golf with autograph sessions thrown in; he did not lose his sense of humor, however. Mantle sent Barry Halper, "legendary" collector of memorabilia (shady character) who made millions off of old ballplayers like Mantle, Musial and Mays, a bag of shit from his deathbed. Following his liver transplant, he asked Halper "Hey Barry, did you get my other liver?" Mickey Mantle from 1972-1990 was beset by parasites, hangers on and cursed with his own weaknesses. I got the feeling that he never got used to being "Mickey Mantle" and wanted to be "Mick" but never knew how.

Leavy does not neglect mantle as a ballplayer, and this is where the book turns from great to excellent. The discussion of injuries and the physics of Mantle's swing are first rate. Playing hurt is one thing; playing the better part of a season and a half with a torn ACL is something completely different. Playing in the world series with a hole the size of at least a golf ball in your hip following an abscess removal borders on superhuman. One of his teammates said "He did most of this to himself, but he still played." Right on. Mantle comes across as an honest, genuine, hard working and hard drinking player, fully aware of how he may be screwing up the lives of his family and his own. This doesn't make him a tragic figure, and Leavy leaves that romanticism for other writers. It simply makes him human. That's a trite and common thing to say, but not many humans could have kept up with Mantle in is prime on or off a ballfield.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

#15 The Night Beat: A Shadow History of Rock and Roll by Mikal Gilmore

The Barenaked Ladies did a song in the 1990s called "Box Set". In it is buried this tight lyric:

All the people want is what I used to be
When I try to play something new, all they want is 1973.

Imagine my complete surprise when no less a Rock Legend (capitalized) than Mick Jagger throws out this statement during an interview with the author: "Well, the fans want to hear what we were. I mean, if they admit that we have gotten old, they have lost their youth." Gilmore goes on to argue that the Stones reached their apex in the early 1970s (ending with Exile on Main Street) and I could not agree more. But the larger question remains, so what if the Stones have not released a Stones-like album in close to 40 years? Yes, yes, "Mixed Emotions" is not "Start Me Up" which would have been an outtake on Let it Bleed. So what?

Gilmore has been a feisty rock critic for many years, and the book is a collection of observations, opinion pieces and general thoughts. The objects are quite varied, and I will follow his example in this review. In general, the pieces on the Allman Brothers, The Clash and Van Halen are worth the price of the book.

Bob Dylan
Even in his 60s, the second time Gilmore interviewed him, he seems like a regular guy doing irregular things. My favorite Dylan quote is "I didn't write all those songs, I just wrote them down." He sounds like there is something moving through him; perhaps this is the conversion to Christianity, I don't know. Dylan is not the inveterate dick that he was in the biopic with Blanchette and Ledger; in this text he is in full bloom as an artist talking about his craft.

Lou Reed
In discussing a solo album of his, Gilmore quotes Reed as yelling at the audience "So? What is wrong with tasteless jokes? Fuck you!" In counterpoint to Dylan as "regular guy" artist, Reed sounds like a superdouche. Yes, yes, you wrote "Perfect Day" and hung out with Warhol and the rest, but you have not recorded a decent song since "Love is Chemical." Claim "artistry" and fucking with people above all else; Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa did that also, better than you and without being assholes. Give me "Trout Mask Replica" over anything that the Underground did. That's right, I said it. Gilmore's interviews give the artists the chance to really speak; when Reed does, it sounds like that whiny jerk off in your high school who claimed he is a 'tortured genius" only to write bad poetry in community college English classes.

Sinead O'Connor
For many reasons, this was one of the best pieces in the book. I have never thought much of O'Connor's music, but I gained a real respect for her in these pages. She is not the preachy ass that I was conditioned to expect. She seems quite surprised to be famous; no less surprised than her producers.

Heavy Metal
Gilmore profiles Dave Mustaine of Megadeth, who is a 24 karat asshole. He is not, however, a sell out. This separates him from the stinky, vomitous, overindulgent mass that is Metallica. The description of fans dancing around bonfires at a concert in Texas is wonderfully written and makes you want to be there.

Van Halen
Three Words: David Lee Fucking Roth. Who else could get away in 1983 with saying "How can you say I don't like women? I LOVE women!" Then there is the groupie that, when asked of her opinion of the band says the normal boilerplate-this-band-is-awesome stuff, and then says "And every single one of these guys knows how to get DOWN!" She then proceeds to get double teamed by Diamond Dave and Alex Van Halen. At the radio station the next day, DLR bestows the "Hotel Award" on Alex, then dry humps a female fan in full view of 300 people on live radio. Such awesomeness was Diamond Dave. For those of you who cared about Van Halen after Sammy Hagar got on board, I direct you to Diver Down or Van Halen II for some real action. When Dave went solo, the soul of Van Halen went with him. The interviews and stories in Gilmore's text bring a very sordid, wish-I-looked-that-good-in-spandex chapter of Reagan's America to life.The pure, unadulterated disco ball like brilliance of Diamond Dave makes you wish he never left. Eddie's take? "Dave understands the entertainment and marketing angle."

The Clash
Joe Strummer gets special mention here; when asked about revolution and what it means, he thinks hard and says simply "it means keep going no matter what". These are words we could all agree with.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

#14: Unsinkable: The Full Story of the RMS Titanic by Daniel Allen Butler

I have a confession to make. I am a sucker for the story of the Titanic. Mr. Butler's text is an excellent, factually driven account of the events. It does not involve James "Superdouche" Cameron,  Leo, Kate Winslet.......mmmmmmmm. I like that scene. But I digress.

Butler takes one into the building of the ship and her sisters, which gets across the story of the ship as actually a small city-within-the-cites of Southhampton and Belfast. A truly forgotten item (especially in the movie, which featured Kate Winslet) is the impact of the sinking on both of these towns. Butler's description of the posting of the missing and lost at the White Star office in Belfast is especially moving. One begins to wish that newspapers, which Butler draws heavily from, were still written in such a fashion. Over 90% of the stokers and engineers went down with the ship; not because they were chained to the boilers, but as Butler convincingly argues, it was their place. They kept the electricity going as long as they could to keep the ship in communication and to keep the passengers from panicking for as long as possible. In all, over 76% of the crew died.

What Butler conveys is the humanity of the passengers and crew, not the crass, comic book villainy of Billy Zane and the guy what played Ismay in the movie. Those guys were easy to hate; the only character that the movie seemed to nail on the head was the chief engineer, Thomas Andrews from Belfast. He leaps from the text as a no-nonsense man with a huge heart. He knew most of the people, from the lowest workers to the ownership, at the Belfast dockyards and could rub shoulders with all of them. Not many people can do that sort of thing now, much less in the place and class bound Edwardian era. His hometown, Comber, Ireland, built a Memorial Hall in his honor, which now serves as a school. Every so often, you read about a character from history that you want to meet. In this text, that person for me is Andrews.

Butler's research is excellent, and he liberally takes from survivor interviews, crew narratives and court case files. His treatment of the Californian, a ship close enough to the Titanic when it sank to see the distress rockets, is masterfully contrasted with the Carpathia, whose captain drove his ship at 17 knots through an ice field to reach the sinking ship. Again, Butler is reticent to blame or engage in what-ifs, which adds greatly to the reader's understandings of the motivations of the cast and crew. All in all, this is an excellent piece of work, and highly recommended. Sounds like Kate Winslet.

#13 The Predator State by James K Galbraith

The subtitle of this text is "How conservatives abandoned the free market and why Liberals should too." I have long argued that there is no free market, and began to like this book immediately when Galbraith begin to term the free market a theoretical construct. I could not agree more. The strengths of this texts are Galbraith's discussion of health care and education, two items which decidedly do not (or in some cases should not) exist in a "free market."

Galbraith's main point is that the talk of free market and efficiency on one hand and government waste on the other is a myth, but this myth has had dangerous effects. The chief among these is the constant demand for deregulation and balanced budgets, done on the backs of those who can least afford it. President Obama's health care bill is flawed to say the least, and I find it interesting that the very thing being challenged in court (the universal mandate) is the very thing that private insurers wanted in the bill. In other words, they did not want to compete with the government. Why? Because Medicare has roughly 1/3 the overhead costs per patient that private insurers do. Why is that? When was the last time you saw a football game, TV show or some other nonsense brought to you by Medicare?

Watching former governor Moonbeam back at work out here in CA fulminating about "balanced budgets" and other mantras, I think of schools. Public schools are one of the backbones of the U.S. Galbraith's most acidly written sections are reserved for those who pushed two sides of what I never recognized to be the same coin: No Child Left Behind and its countless tests and vouchers for private schools. Under NCLB, vouchers can be provided for poor students in "failing" schools to go to private schools. What has invariably happened is that the best students get the vouchers, simply because the private schools do not want trouble makers and people who would drive down the aggregate scores on the SAT or ACT. When these students are taken out of the "failing public school", test scores in the school decrease, leading to a cut in funding or firing/reassigning of teachers. Because, after all, it is the teacher's fault that the student in question cannot read at grade level, has to take care of siblings or work when he/she gets home, or is home alone and free to screw off for several hours a day. In Galbraith's take, "NCLB was to foment middle-class discontent with public schools" (135). College loans are now dominated by private companies, not by the feds. Take it from one who knows; the feds were more organized than any private loan group I have had the displeasure of dealing with.

What, in the end, is the "Predator State"? A state where elites of both left and right govern in a way that will destroy the lingering remnants of the New Deal. Privatization is the name of this game, that being either schools, Medicare or Social Security. Why? Not because of the free market; the market is a tool for them. They simply want your money. Government cannot be run like a company, because government is obliged to provide service to citizens, meaning ALL citizens, regardless of their race, creed or gender. A business provides service to shareholders. It is a false comparison.