Pete Townshend of the Who has been writing his autobiography for his entire career, starting with the band's first single "I Can't Explain". His rock opera "Tommy" was the symbolic autobiography of a shy and sensitive teenager who becomes a rock star ... transformed into a tall tale about a deaf, dumb and blind boy who uncovers an unnatural skill at pinball (Townshend's electric guitar, of course, was Tommy's pinball machine). The pinball wizard then becomes a famous religious leader until his shallow followers get bored and overthrow him. Tommy is a witty, self-mocking tale about childish wonder and spiritual overreach, and Pete Townshend would go on to reenact a real life version of the same story -- the ascent to fame, the inevitable cruel betrayal of the fans -- over and over again throughout his life.
The same storyline recurs at least four times during Pete Townshend's fascinating new memoir Who I Am. This new book is a worthy summation of a prodigal career, and a satisfyingly revealing (if occasionally compulsive and over-protective) autobiography.
We seem to be living in the age of rock star autobiographies, of course, and Pete Townshend's book appeared on bookshelves at the same time as that of of a fellow introspective searcher, Neil Young, whose Waging Heavy Peace is an uplifting, rambunctious self-portrait but fails as a memoir, because a memoir must dig deep into the dark regions of self-analysis and painful honesty, and Neil Young didn't seem to want to go there. Pete Townshend in Who I Am, on the other hand, is happy to go there.
I dug into Neil Young's memoir Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream with a lot of anticipation, because he is one of my very favorite singer-songwriters, and because I've followed Neil's work long enough to know that a long session of candid and honest soul-searching with this brilliant and enigmatic rocker/hippie is a rare thing.
I'm also excited to read Pete Townshend's brand new memoir, but it's not the same thing. Pete Townshend has already told us his life story many times in interviews and public statements, and in his directly confessional songs. Neil Young is built of slipperier stuff, so slippery that I could barely imagine him writing a memoir at all. Now that I've read Waging Heavy Peace, which I loved and which kept me in its grip laughing and nodding in constant agreement, I know that he hasn't. This book is not a memoir. It's something else, though, and maybe this is just as good.
Why would we ever expect Neil Young to deliver anything straight? When this artist sees an expectation, he must defy it. His best songs are highly sincere but never direct, and he likes to get in his own way. Neil Young suffered from an overdose of fame and popularity in the Woodstock/Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young era, and then spent the 70s caroming from country-rock to proto garage/punk to bleary psychedelic experimentation. He tends to push his supple artistry just to the brink of comic annoyance, like in the guitar solo on "Down By The River" that consists of a single thudding flat note repeated 20 times ... followed by another 20, and another. Many readers won't like Waging Heavy Peace because his prose often aims for a similar thud-like effect as this famous guitar solo. And the effect works better in a minor-key blues ballad than it does in an autobiography.
Miguel de Cervantes, perhaps the first great novelist in the history of literature, was a natural-born metafictionalist. His Don Quixote was a multi-layered masterpiece, a lost story within a found story within a supposedly true story ... about a man whose mind was destroyed by reading. After the book became a success, Cervantes was forced against his will to re-enter the multi-dimensional universe of his now-famous character, because an anonymous plagiarist had begun selling an unauthorized "Part Two" to Cervantes's story to eager readers. In an attempt to counter the ersatz sequel, Cervantes wrote his own sequel, which is now highly regarded as the second half of Don Quixote.
An fanciful backdrop to the Spanish novelist's battle with this mysterious hoaxer provides much of the drama and conflict in Jaime Manrique's new novel Cervantes StreetCervantes Street. Manrique talks about his interpretation of Cervantes at Lambda Literary Review.
(This book review is the Litkicks debut of Tara Olmsted, who runs BookSexy Review, a blog with a special focus on international and translated literature.)
Attending college in New York City in the mid-1990’s left me with some distinct memories of the city. De La Vega chalk tags on the sidewalks of Broadway next to graffiti stencils that read “Free Mumbia”; the booksellers whose tables used to line St. Marks Place before they were kicked out; boys from Columbia going on (and on) about Ayn Rand and their counterparts from New York University in Che Guevara t-shirts.
Those t-shirts with their iconic image were my only connection to Guevara. Which is kinda’ sad. The man has been made into a symbol and used to market non-conformity, anti-establishment and revolution to a mostly compliant public. His silk-screened face has become one of the most recognizable and ubiquitous commercial images in the world.
So, unsurprisingly, images are what drew me to Remembering Che: My Life with Che Guevara, Aleida March’s memoir of her marriage to Ernesto Che Guevara. The book contains dozens of personal photographs, many published for the first time -- candid pictures of a charismatic and amazingly photogenic couple.
It’s not hard to understand how Che Guevera became the poster child for Latin American revolution. There’s an energy -- a directness -- in his eyes that’s hard to look away from. Even in his later years, when he frequently travelled in disguise and under aliases, that gaze is unmistakable. These photos will be the main draw for all but the hardcore Guevara fan. They, along with the couple’s personal correspondence, provide a definite sense of the man as his family and friends knew him.
Somewhere just before the publication of the fourth book in Robert Caro's planned five-volume biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, it became clear that Caro had emerged as the only superstar biographer in the world. The ecstatic level of anticipation, attention and appreciation for The Passage of Power was not grounded so much in fascination with Lyndon B. Johnson as in fascination with Robert A. Caro.
This is not because Lyndon B. Johnson was not fascinating; he is incredibly so. It's because we're all aware that we wouldn't know how fascinating Lyndon Johnson was if we hadn't read Caro's earlier volumes, The Path to Power, Means of Ascent, Master Of The Senate, three sharp works of analytic interpretation that transform biography into something new, a tour de force of structured political opinion writing.
The masterpiece of the bunch remains the third volume, Master of the Senate, the story of LBJ's engineering of the historic 1957 Civil Rights Bill, which broke a terrible political stalemate that had lingered since the American Civil War. The big breakthrough occurs at the end of the book, following a long beginning sequence about the United States Senate's history of domination by Confederate-state obstructionists. In the middle of the book, Lyndon Johnson is painted at his aggressive worst, sucking up shamelessly to older politicians and destroying the career of one earnest do-gooder whose plans to improve energy infrastructure in poor sections of the country disturbed the business prospects of Johnson's Texas sponsors. But this is all a wind-up to the book's glorious ending, in which Johnson manipulates every section of the US Senate for a goal that turned out, miraculously, to be close to his heart: breaking the South's stranglehold on civil rights legislation just enough to help usher in a new era of racial integration.
Sometimes I lay off the heavy reading and dig into a rock and roll biography like Every Night's a Saturday Night by Bobby Keys.
Bobby's most well-known for his work over several decades with the Rolling Stones, but he's also recorded with Elvis Presley, toured as part of Delaney and Bonnie and Friends and Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishman, played sax on George Harrison's All Things Must Pass, and laid down the slammin' intro to John Lennon's hit single "Whatever Gets You Through The Night". The book doesn't waste much time on introspection or soul-searching; when the author of a memoir mentions "my wife at the time" in the middle of a story, and this story is not preceded by an earlier story in which he meets or marries this wife, you realize that this isn't going to be one of those intense and deeply personal memoirs. And that's okay. Sometimes you just want to read about a saxophone player and his saxophone. (We never find out his first wife's name, but his saxophone's name is Elmer).
I waited a couple of months before letting myself open up Walter Isaacson's acclaimed new biography, Steve Jobs. Given Isaacson's known gift for storytelling and my own penchant for computer-age pop culture history, I knew I'd be in for an obsessive reading experience once I cracked it open. This is a book I needed to clear away some uninterrupted time for.
The most enjoyable part of Steve Jobs is the first section, in which two delightful Silicon Valley counterculture tech nerds named Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak grow up and invent the world-changing Apple II, the first commercially viable personal computer, in 1977. Here, the book offers the familiar satisfying thrill we look for in the early pages of every celebrity biography: those achingly pregnant moments in which the players stand at the precipice of greatness ... and then finally step over.
The dawn of the computer age is always a compelling subject, because we can all relate in some way to the feeling of surprise, personal growth and liberation that has accompanied this rapid pace of technological change (this is a dawn, after all, that we are still somewhere in the middle of). Isaacson's Steve Jobs is a classic computer-age tale of transformation and wonder -- from the quaint beauty of the first Macintosh (a wonderful little machine, so efficient that its entire operating system fit along with several applications and free user space on a single one-megabyte diskette) to the wide smiles generated by the Toy Story movie franchise (this is what Jobs worked on in the 1990s, between the Mac and the iPhone), to the invention of the dynamic iPad device, his last offering to the world before his early death.
I just finished Charles J. Shields's gripping, inspiring, sensitive biography of And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, a book that brings me back to my earliest days as a serious reader of semi-serious fiction. Kurt Vonnegut wasn't the first grown-up writer I ever read, but his Breakfast of Champions was probably the first novel I ever related to on adult terms. I sensed that I was crossing some line when I read this book at the age of 12, and I remember feeling myself transformed by the act of declaring to the world that Kurt Vonnegut was my favorite writer (as he would remain through my high school years). I guess he was my first literary role model.
I admired his message and also his pop/expressionist aesthetic, which is neatly encapsulated by the ultra-cool cover designs for the 1970s-era editions of his paperbacks. I collected these Vonnegut books like baseball cards, though I only liked about half of them. I favored Welcome to the Monkey House, Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five, but Breakfast of Champions remained my favorite, not only because it was the first Vonnegut book I read but also because it was the most far out book he ever wrote. This was the one he drew pictures in, the one in which he invented a doppelganger for himself (the beautiful creation called Kilgore Trout) and then walked into the novel himself (as Kurt Vonnegut) to hang out with his own doppelganger. I remember feeling a big grin on my pre-teenage face when I read that chapter of Breakfast of Champions for the first time: is he allowed to do that? Apparently he was allowed to do that.
1. I'm so glad that Charles J. Shields's biography of Kurt Vonnegut (whose birthday is today!) is finally out. I've been looking forward to And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life for a long time -- though now that it's out I've got a few other books to get through before I can begin. This will be my slow pleasure reading for the holiday season.
The rock star memoir has emerged as a serious format in the past decade. Exceptional efforts by Bob Dylan, Patti Smith and Keith Richards have lit the way, and news broke this week that Neil Young signed a contract with Penguin for a book, tentatively titled Waging Heavy Peace, to be released late next year.
I rarely allow myself to get excited about a book that hasn't been written yet, but there are reasons to bet that Neil Young will take this assignment seriously and deliver a book substantial enough to stand next to the examples mentioned above. Two of these authors are among Neil's own early role models: he's cited Keith Richards's Rolling Stones as his greatest musical influence (he and Keith share a you-can-never-be-too-sloppy musical ethic), and has managed his entire career according to the Bob Dylan playbook (give hilarious interviews, and completely reinvent yourself every two years). We can reasonably guess that Neil Young must have been inspired to write his own memoir after reading Bob's and Keith's impressive works, and this portends very well for the upcoming book.