A Voyage Long and Strange

May 27, 2008


A Voyage Long and Strange by Tony Horwitz

Greetings all.
I first heard about Tony Horwitz’ new book ‘A Voyage Long and Strange’ a few weeks back via an article in the New York Times. I’d been looking forward to reading it since then and finally grabbed it during a book excursion last week.
Horwitz, who’s ‘Confederates in the Attic’ I read (and enjoyed immensely) some years ago has a great way of immersing himself in historic/cultural subjects. It should be obvious to anyone with access to cable news channels that here in the early part of the 21st century, people have a way of approaching and interpreting history from a wide variety of angles/biases, often including or excluding facts so that the image presented fits our individual world views more comfortably.
Horwitz manages to look at his subjects through many of these facets and come out in the end with – if not the definitive result – at least one with a more acute focus that we’re accustomed to.
‘A Voyage Long and Strange’ is an examination of the neglected history of exploration and discovery of the Americas prior to (and including) the landing of Columbus in the ‘Indies” and in the time between his journeys and the landing of the Pilgrims just over a century later.
Though many of the names (like Coronado and De Soto) were familiar I had no idea how amazing (and often tragic) their stories were, or how many attempts (and motivations) there were to settle the continent before things really took hold.
Horwitz is both an excellent reporter and storyteller, and even if you have only passing interest in the history, the stories are so gripping and revealing that you’ll find yourself drawn in, as well as marveling at how “history” has been manipulated over the centuries to conform to certain religious/racial/cultural narratives.
Do yourself a favor and set aside a week this summer to read both ‘A Voyage Long and Strange’ and Daniel Boorstin’s ‘The Discoverers’ (a source for Horwitz) and prepare (unless you’re a graduate student of history) to have your mind – if not completely blown – at least expanded considerably.
Highly recommended.

Now reading – The Great Derangement – by Matt Taibbi


The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Ya Ho Wa 13 and the Source Family

May 21, 2008


The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Ya Ho Wa 13 and the Source Family

Greetings all.
I whipped through this one pretty quickly (sometimes it just happens that way).
Written by an insider from the Source Family’s heyday (I refuse to use the pejorative “cult”, because there are a lot of so-called “legitimate”/mainstream religions that deserve the name more), ‘The Source’ is a revealing look inside the workings of an alternative religious group from the dawning if the “New Age”.
It tells the story of the Jim Baker’s metamorphosis into Father Yod, successful restaurateur turned messianic figure for the Los Angeles –based Source Family.
Though the book is written by what might be considered a ‘true believer’, Isis Aquarian takes the time to add in – oral history style – conflicting/contrasting viewpoints from other members of the tribe.
Baker/Yod created the Source Family from a mixture of Eastern religions (he started out as the disciple of a Hindu yogi), ancient mystery cults and all-around hippy/Age of Aquarius philosophical ephemera. At its peak, the Source Family included around 150 members in its communal enterprise which was financed by and large by the popular LA health food restaurant of the same name.
Baker – who had a straight world back story almost as colorful as his time as a religious leader – turned the source into a remarkable experiment in group living. He was clearly a charismatic figure (taken to a mystical level with his followers) and unlike many who put themselves in similar positions (the Mansons and Jim Joneses of the world) he managed, if not to completely transcend his own human failings, provide a mostly positive example and message for his followers. The way our society works now, with the hegemony of ‘mainstream’ religion and the pressure it exerts in the public sphere (even in government) the story of Father Yod and his family makes for an especially interesting read.
Of particular interest – at least to me – is the fact that one of the prominent public faces of the Source Family experiment was an ever changing psychedelic rock band (which operated under several names, mainly Ya Ho Wa 13) that recorded a number of extremely rare, and highly regarded albums in the 70’s.
Though I didn’t much buy into the Source’s ideology (though there was much to appreciate therein in regard to healthy living/diet) I definitely came to admire what they were trying to do, and felt great sadness as the whole enterprise started to fall apart, due to both inside and outside forces.
If you have any interest at all in alternative religion/lifestyles, or in how a charismatic figure like Baker managed to gather as big a following as he did then I think you’ll dig the book.

Now Reading: A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World


Riot On the Sunset Strip: Rock’n’Roll’s Last Stand In Hollywood

May 18, 2008


Riot On the Sunset Strip: Rock’n’Roll’s Last Stand In Hollywood
By Domenic Priore

Greetings all.
Another book has made its way into the outbox, so it’s time to update the blog.
The tome I just finished was on my Amazon want list for a long time, and the last time I made an exploratory foray into the local book/cd/coffee barn – between books of course – it just happened to be there in the Music section, so I grabbed it.
The book in question is ‘Riot On the Sunset Strip: Rock’n’Roll’s Last Stand In Hollywood’ by Domenic Priore.
When I first heard about this book it set my hair on end. The mid-60’s Sunset Strip scene is for me one of the great (maybe the great) intersection of pop art and youth culture. That it was being written by rock’n’roll scholar Domenic Priore – a name that loomed large in the West Coast end of the mid-80’s garage/mod revival – I figured it couldn’t miss.
It turns out I was (mostly) right.
I should start out by mentioning that one of the book’s strong suits – the amazing photos -is also ironically it’s weakest point. While Priore has gathered some incredible period shots, due to what I can only assume is a production error, many of them are mislabeled either mis-identifying those pictured, or not (in some obvious cases) identifying them at all. If you’re an aficionado of those times, this won’t matter much because you already know the difference between Arthur Lee and John Echols, or Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark. If you’re not (already knowledgeable about the scene) you’re going to end up being misled. This must also have been disturbing for Priore, because I can’t imagine someone as deep into this scene as he is would ever make these kinds of mistakes.
That aside, Priore has really done his research and paints a very vivid picture of the mid-60’s Sunset Strip, as well as adding enough historical detail to put the growth of the Strip in perspective.
The book is broken up into thirteen chapters, each addressing a different aspect of the Sunset Strip and it’s history, as well as how it manifested itself in various parts of the pop culture spectrum. I came to this book having more than a passing familiarity with the bands of the Strip (two of which, Love and the Buffalo Springfield are personal favorites), but ‘Riot On the Sunset Strip’ was full of revelations, taking cultural movers and shakers (musicians, artists, radio, movie and TV personalities, local politicians, business owners) and creating a frame of reference that connects all the dots.
My favorite sections concerned the importance of West Coast pop art to the scene, the way the sound and sights of the Sunset Strip found their way onto TV (I was practical drooling reading about some of the bands that appeared on local television), the influence of the Strip on (and how it was influenced by) the surrounding area, and a very well written account of the legendary Sunset Strip riots.
As a fan of 60’s punk, I love how Priore covers a lot of ground about the local bands, their recordings and traces their lineage, showing how they influenced each other and many more famous bands. He also collected some great, rare photos of these bands.
If you have any interest at all in this period of popcult history ‘Riot On the Sunset Strip’ will prove indispensable.


Now Reading: The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Ya Ho Wa 13 and the Source Family



May 10, 2008

Greetings all.
Here, right before your eyes you are now priviledged to witness the very moment I went insane and started a third blog.
That’s right, three…
The big difference being that this blog deals not with music – and it’s not like I haven’t considered a third music blog – but rather with books.
The other night the fam and I were driving somewhere I and mentioned to my lovely wife that I had just ordered two books (which I’m hoping arrive in short order as I’m almost finished the one I’m reading now).
‘You read too many books’ says the wife (only half kidding).
I’m pretty sure that the kernel of truth in that statement is something more along the lines of:
‘You BUY too many books’
…but I’m cool with that too.
Last week we were listening to something on NPR (or PRI, I can’t keep track) and someone was talking about how proud of themselves they were for reading a book a month.
I chuckled (not warmly) and thought ‘piker….’
I said to my wife, ‘I read a book a week (sometimes two)’
‘You ought to start a blog about that’
says she.
So here I am.
And I’m not really insane (in any serious way).
I won’t be updating this blog as frequently as my others, and since writing about the books I read doesn’t involve recording mountains of vinyl. I read whenever I can (usually during lunch and before bed) and I’ll post here whenever I finish something.
The point of this exercise – if there is one – is that I’m always on the prowl for something new and interesting to read, and I figure there are a lot of folks out there with the same literary monkey on their back. Other than spending time with my family, and digging for records, nothing makes me happier than finding an interesting new book with which to feed my head.
I’m always making note of new books I want to read and I usually out them up on my Amazon wish list so I don’t forget (I used to take care of this with a folded up scrap of paper in my wallet).
So, I figured that this blog would serve two purposes, the first which I just mentioned, and the second being a way for me to track what I’ve read over the course of a year (or longer).
I’ll start things off with a quick recap of the last few weeks…


Tell the Truth Until They Bleed: Coming Clean in the Dirty World of Blues and Rock ‘N Roll
by Josh Alan Friedman

I picked this one up on one of my patented ‘blind’ trips to the bookstore, in which I comb the racks by genre waiting for something to jump out and grab me. I have to say – that aside from being accosted by suspicious clerks – these trips have proven rather successful over the years with an overall 80/20 ratio of books that ended up being satisfying.
Friedman – brother of illustrator Drew Friedman and son of screenwriter Bruce Jay Friedman – collects a number of essays about his years on the fringes of the music business as musician, fan, journalist and oddly enough boyfriend of Ronnie Spector.
Friedman is an excellent writer with a very solid historical perspective. The opening piece – a long form essay on songwriter Jerry Lieber – is revelatory, giving him and his partner Mike Stoller the respect they deserve not only as major songwrting talents by innovators in the recording industry.
I also dug his portraits of Mose Allison, bassist Tommy Shannon and his vignette of Ronnie Spector’s career – as it was in the late 70’s – and his own spot on the sidelines as her boyfriend.
Highly recommended.


Groucho & Me
By Groucho Marx

Groucho Marx was – along with his brothers – a comic genius. If you aren’t already aware of that fact, stop reading and go watch ‘Duck Soup’. If you are (aware) then you ought to check out ‘Groucho and Me’ which is an autobiography of sorts. I use that qualifier because the book is more of a free form, anecdotal reminiscence than a strict, historical recounting of his life (of which there was much left as this was written in 1959).
Groucho was almost as funny in print as he was on the screen and if you aren’t already on the Marx Brothers tip, you may find his comic sensibility familiar, but that is due entirely to the fact that his humor is so elementally a part of everything that came afterward. Marx – along with the geniuses that wrote his films like George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind and S.J. Perelman – brought a wry, sarcastic, often anarchic vibe to bear on movie comedy that still echoes today nearly a century since he and his brothers first set foot on the vaudeville stage.
If you’re already familiar with the Marx Brothers on film, it’ll be hard for you to read ‘Groucho and Me’ without hearing his voice in your head (which is a good thing).


Haight Ashbury: A History
By Charles Perry

I’ve always had a deep interest in the 60’s counterculture, especially in San Francisco where the legacy of the Beat Generation was played out – and expanded upon – by the Merry Pranksters (with Neal Cassady as the direct link), the Diggers and others.
Charles Perry’s history of that most eventful San Francisco neighborhood – originally published more than 20 years ago and just reissued – is no hippy dippy valentine to a bygone age. Perry recounts the political and artistic undercurrents that gave birth to the Summer of Love and brings to life many interesting personalities that are often overlooked in the short-attention-span “documentaries” that are pretty much the current generations only connection to that time.
The picture he paints is of an era is a lot more intellectually driven, and often darker than the nostalgic one we see in movies and on TV.
My favorite part of the book is the long chronological chapter that illustrates how, by the time the summer of 1967 arrived, the initial glimmers of utopianism were well on their way to destruction thank to forces both external (government and police repression) and internal (struggles for ideological control and an epidemic of hard drugs and homelessness).


Little Things
By Jeffrey Brown

Ever since reading Craig Thompson’s ‘Blankets’ a few years back – the first long form graphic novel that I ever picked up – I’ve made regular stops at that section of the book store (as well as the occasional trip to comic shops). It is via those trips that I’ve become acquainted with artist/writers like Joan Sfarr, Linda Barry, Chris Ware and Jeffrey Brown.
The first Brown book I picked up was ‘Clumsy’. It took me a little while to get used to his somewhat rustic drawing style, but eventually his way of framing the small vignettes that make up (his) everyday life won me over.
‘Little Things’ is his most recent book, and I dug it a lot. I’ll be on the lookout for more of his work.


Hollywood’s Hellfire Club: The Misadventures of John Barrymore, W.C. Fields, Errol Flynn and the Bundy Drive Boys
by Gregory William Mank, Charles Heard, Bill Nelson

I can’t remember where I read about this book, but I’m glad I did.
I’ve always been a big fan of old Hollywood – especially the like of W.C. Fields, one of the funniest people ever to walk this earth – and thanks to early exposure to Kenneth Anger’s ‘Hollywood Babylon’, have long been aware that even in its earliest days the movie capitol had a dark side.
‘Hollywood’s Hellfire Club’ – while much less lurid than Anger’s book – is an unsparing look at a fairly wild gang of geniuses, of stage, screen and the page who hung together as drinking buddies and intellectual companions for many years.
Though I’d heard of most of the key players (a few like painter John Decker and proto-bohemian Sadakichi Hartmann were new to me) I had no idea that they had been so close, especially John Barrymoore and Fields, two of the biggest stars of their time nor that younger stars like Errol Flynn and Anthony Quinn were also part of the group.
There’s plenty of debauchery here but the overwhelming sense you get after reading about the group is one of wasted potential and tragedy (especially Barrymoore who I’d like to read more about).
Very well written and researched.