Archived Reviews

The Rolling Stones Off the Record, by Mark Paytress (Omnibus Press). This hefty 450-page volume is devoted to little but quotes from (and, sometimes, about) the Rolling Stones, spanning 1960 to 2003. Arranged chronologically, they're mostly drawn from contemporary sources; i.e., if it's in the section of 1978 material, the quote was likely uttered at the time, or close to it. Because it's mostly the Stones in their own words, you shouldn't expect anything in the way of a story or insight. However, Mark Paytress did a fine job in assembling the quotes, both in terms of digging up sources commonplace and obscure, and in provided some linking text that makes the context of these utterances clear. It's not ground zero for learning about the Stones' history, but if you are a committed fan, it's a quite valuable and enjoyable trawl through their back pages. Some of the topics covered are, naturally, on pretty familiar ground even for the general rock fan: the Altamont festival, the creation and recording of some of their classic songs, the death of Brian Jones, the mega-tours they launched in middle age. Hardcore fans might even recognize some of the specific quotes. But there's a lot of relatively seldom-aired material as well: there are few other places, for instance, in which you'll read Mick Jagger acknowledge the specific influence of the Velvet Underground's first album on "Stray Cat Blues," or diss Patti Smith at length. Juicy gossip about their personal sex, drugs, and business activities is also here, but the focus is, thankfully, more on their music, performing, and artistry. And while it's true the sections on their early years are the most interesting (and covered in the most depth, with more attention granted the 1960s than any other decade), it's actually a decent read all the way through. For Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have always been entertainingly quotable on a wide range of topics -- in fact, many of their post-1980 quotes are more memorable than many of the records they made during that period.

John, by Cynthia Lennon (Crown). Although Cynthia Lennon, the first wife of John Lennon, wrote a memoir in the late 1970s, she dismisses it in this later volume as "a superficial, lightweight book." Presumably that means she considers this one, published about 25 years later, as a much more serious and definitive endeavor. That it is, though as far as what it reveals about Lennon and her marriage to him, it might say as much between the lines as it does in the text itself. Clearly she loved him, and he her, once upon a time, and not as much. Perhaps inadvertently, however, the portrait that emerges is not of a happy relationship, but of a man of wildly uneven temperament, and a wife who was perhaps too forgiving of his faults and inconsiderate behavior. And, it must be said, a wife who didn't seem wholly clued in as to her husband's artistic gifts and inspirations, at one point citing "All My Loving" as a song John wrote specially for her, though it's fairly common knowledge that Paul McCartney was the sole author of that classic. All that said, there are some good, if perhaps a little rose-colored, stories of the complicated character John Lennon was in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the couple were at their closest. And even if her memory doesn't get everything right, there can be little doubt that John—in contrast to his sometimes saintly image—treated her shabbily when he left her for Yoko Ono in 1968, and did not participate in the upbringing of his and Cynthia's son nearly as much as he should have. Cynthia Lennon acknowledges this, without seeming to blame him as much as most women would. Disappointingly, there's not much about the Beatles' music or John's songwriting here. But it's a worthwhile look at certain sides of Lennon's character from someone who was intimate with him almost as long as Yoko Ono was, written in an acceptably professional style.

Lennon Revealed, by Larry Kane (Running Press). As a news and television reporter, Larry Kane interviewed the Beatles and John Lennon on numerous occasions. His first Beatles-related book, Ticket to Ride, focused on his travels with the group during many of their mid-'60s American tour dates. This follow-up concentrates on his interactions with John Lennon, whom he interviewed and spoke with on several occasions from the late '60s onward. While this book also draws upon numerous fresh interviews with Lennon's friend and family (including Yoko Ono), it's not as much of a revelatory study as Kane himself seems to believe. There's a good amount of material that will already be familiar to many fans of Lennon and the Beatles, which is inevitable when delving into a subject that's already been so heavily scrutinized. The perspective, too, is on the generous side; some of Lennon's faults are detailed, but usually with the attitude that for all his flaws, he was a remarkable human being who gave much to the world. True enough, though targets of his occasional scathing nastiness, or his poorly treated first wife and their neglected son, saw a rather less flattering side of the man than many of the voices in this book did. Kane does get stories and opinions from some figures who haven't often been asked about Lennon, though some of these associates were very much on the periphery of his orbit. And like numerous commentators, he tends to overstate John's role in the Beatles and diminish the considerable contributions of the other three. Ultimately it's for serious Lennon fans and not one of the definitive accounts of his personality, puffed out by a final chapter devoted to dozens of letters by admirers of the musician testifying to his significance. As a significant bonus, the book comes with a DVD of a fairly interesting TV interview Kane did with John Lennon and Paul McCartney in May 1968: the disc also includes an interview with Kane (about writing Lennon Revealed) done shortly before this volume was issued.

John Lennon: The New York Years, by Bob Gruen (Stewart, Tabori & Chang). Photographer Bob Gruen often took pictures of John Lennon and Yoko Ono during the couple's time as New York residents, from the early 1970s until Lennon's death. Many of the photos that he took during this period are in this attractively designed, near-coffee-table-sized volume, along with a good amount of text by Gruen detailing his memories of working with Lennon. For the photos alone, this is worth it for Lennon fans, capturing him on stage, in the studio, at home, and on social occasions. As you might expect from someone who was a friend as well as a professional associate, the writing is on the affectionate side, emphasizing Lennon's most positive qualities. Still, there are a good number of stories here that haven't been recycled ad infinitum, like Gruen's memories of the rooftop session that produced the famous photos of John wearing a "New York City" T-shirt, as well as one of Lennon and Ono's final photo sessions just days before John's death. Gruen also reveals that it was he who put on Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde album at a 1972 party in a futile attempt to drown out the sounds of Lennon making love to a woman other than Yoko in an adjoining room, while Ono sat humiliated with other guests. It doesn't pretend to be a biography or a definitive character study. It's just one friendly collaborator's appreciation, and as such, particularly in combination with Gruen's high-class images, it's a successful memoir of certain sides of Lennon's later life.

The Final Days of John Lennon, by Robert Rosen (Quick American Archives). The basis and genesis of this book were most peculiar, and compromise its value as a document of John Lennon's final years, though it's still of some use. In the early 1980s, Rosen was given diaries that Lennon kept, but they were stolen from him before he could copy and transcribe all of the information. As the author admits, this book does not contain any actual material from the diaries, and is instead reconstructed from his memory of them. Inevitably, then, this can't be considered a wholly accurate historic record. If there's any truth to them at all, however, it does paint a sometimes disturbing picture of the last part of Lennon's life, one very much at odds with the public image he cultivated of a content househusband. Instead, we're presented with a temperamental, moody guy whose relationship with Yoko Ono was strange and troubled; who loved their son, but could be impatient and difficult with him as well; and whose insulation from much of the outside world was driving him into an unhealthily hermetic existence. It's not all tabloid fodder; there's also some insight into how he started to regain his songwriting muse, the recording of Double Fantasy, and some good times and good vacations he did manage to fit into his family life. The writing is more readable and less judgemental than you'd expect from a book with a sensationalist angle, but it can't be accepted as a wholly reliable account of this phase of Lennon's life.

Memories of John Lennon, by Yoko Ono (editor) (HarperEntertainment). As part of the flood of books issued to coincide with the 25th anniversary of John Lennon's death, Yoko Ono oversaw this compilation of more than 70 short pieces by public figures and associates who knew and admired the musician. As can be expected from any officially sanctioned project of this sort, these memories accentuate the positive, and don't go too heavily into the more controversial and unsavory aspects of his character (of which there was no shortage). For light reading if you're in the mood to appreciate Lennon's considerable accomplishments and influence, it's not bad, though it's uneven, depending very much on the contribution. Several of the celebrities who participated offer little more than a bland paragraph or three; while the concept of what James Brown has to say about Lennon sounds interesting, for instance, the reality of the three sentences he dashed off is quite forgettable. In that light, it's unsurprising that some of the most interesting sections are by relatively unsung men and women who got to know Lennon, briefly or otherwise. His personal assistant Elliot Mintz, for instance, might not be a household name, but does have recollections of substance, not all of them saccharine (like John telling him to get rid of a one-night stand in Los Angeles, and an awkward Christmas between Paul McCartney, Linda McCartney, Lennon, and Yoko Ono in the late 1970s). Likewise for Ritchie Yorke's account of John and Yoko's peace campaigns in Canada at the end of the '60s; Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner's piece on interviewing Lennon at great length right after the Beatles breakup; and Klaus Voormann's observations, coming from someone who knew John from the Beatles' Hamburg days through his solo years. To get to the juicier bits, however, you have to wade through filler like Bono's "chapter," which is just a drawing of Lennon that he made as a 12-year-old.

John Lennon: All I Want Is the Truth, by Elizabeth Partridge (Viking). Although you wouldn't necessarily guess from a glance, this semi-coffee-table-sized John Lennon biography is aimed toward young readers, not adults. If intelligent pre-teen readers are looking for a decent overview of his life, however, this does a good job, embellished by numerous photos of Lennon from childhood through the Beatles era and beyond. The large-print text is basic but not simplistic, traveling through his troubled upbringing; his rise to fame with the Beatles; his passionate and sometimes turbulent relationships with his two wives and Paul McCartney; and his final years as a New York resident. While there's barely anything here that won't be familiar to longtime fans of the Beatles and Lennon, for a young reader relatively unacquainted with the history, it's a well-researched and balanced account. Unusually for children's biographies, too, it does not smooth over the rough edges of its subject's character, duly documenting his talent and humanitarianism, but also covering his shortcomings and problems. It's pretty realistic given its young demographic audience as well, discussing not just rock'n'roll, but also some sex and drugs in unsensationalistic terms (though of course there's much more on those topics in other books should readers wish to find them). As for any content that adults buying this for kids might want to scan, there's not much, but some of the photographs are rarely printed, particularly from Lennon's early years.

Surf Movie Tonite! Surf Movie Poster Art, 1957-2004, by Matt Warshaw (Chronicle Books). The surf movie genre hasn't produced many notable cinematic achievements, oriented as it is toward action shots of surfers and waves, sometimes embellished by flimsy plots. As a byproduct, however, there have been many interesting posters used to advertise them, sometimes boasting quite artistic design, and at others bearing at least historical significance. There's not much text by author/compiler Matt Warshaw in this volume, devoted mostly to color poster reproductions. Refreshingly, however, Warshaw does not champion the movies themselves as works of art, taking the more realistic view of them as expressions of the popular culture of the surfing cult. In fact, he goes as far as to summarize the surf movie as "a perpetual groundswell of cinematic mediocrity." After a fairly brief but witty overview of the surf movie style and its history, most of the pages are taken up by those high-quality poster repros, divided into sections for "first-wave surf movies (1955-1967)," "second-wave surf movies (1968-1982)," "Hollywood goes surfing (1959-2004)," and "surfing videos and DVDs (1985-2004)." Warsaw occasionally supplies background information in paragraph-long captions, but largely lets the images speak for themselves. There's quite a bit of variety in those, from low-budget early ones that are little more a step above gig posters (often listing the specific California coastal venue at which the films will be shown) to quasi-psychedelic efforts and cheesy exploitative commercial ones. The main constants are waves and action shots, and combined with the sense of capturing the rather lowbrow expression of the sport, they'll be treasured by many serious surfing enthusiasts.


Archived Reviews

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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