Thursday, July 30, 2009

Rock 'N' Roll X 4

I guess July is the month for themed reading. First it was three books about Lance Armstrong. This week I finished four books about rock 'n' roll.

Alice Cooper, Golf Monster: How a Wild Rock 'N' Roll Life Led to a Serious Golf Addiction by Alice Cooper with Keith and Kent Zimmerman - Since I'm taking my brother to an Alice Cooper concert next month for his birthday (he'd love this book except he hates reading), I figured it was a good time to learn more about the legendary performer. Despite having little interest in golf, I thoroughly enjoyed this autobiography (ditto for my wife; she stayed up all night reading it). Cooper describes a familiar career trajectory: get famous, get addicted (alcohol in his case), get clean, relapse, get clean again. Interspersed throughout the mostly chronological story is a 12-step program, the steps of golf addiction. Although Cooper started golfing earlier, it wasn't until after his second stint in rehab that he became fanatical, often playing 36 holes a day. The touring lifestyle involves a lot of waiting around, and golf fills that time better than drinking. Fortunately, this book isn't just about golf or recovery. Cooper spins tales about his life, music, touring, and famous friends. He writes about meeting Elvis, hanging out with Groucho Marx, and writing an album with longtime Elton John collaborator Bernie Taupin. I just wish the book was longer. Anyone with an interest in golf or 1970s rock 'n' roll should enjoy Alice Cooper, Golf Monster.

Rock Star Babylon: Outrageous Rumors, Legends, and Raucous True Tales of Rock and Roll Icons by Jon Holmes - This English book was originally titled Status Quo and the Kangaroo, but since that band is a forgotten one-hit wonder in the States ("Pictures of Matchstick Men"!), the American publisher chose a more general title. Unfortunately for American readers, the book is still very British, packed with pop culture references that few outside the UK will recognize. Holmes also features too many semi-obscure British stars, although the better stories transcend that unfamiliarity. Those caveats aside, Rock Star Babylon is an entertaining collection of rock and roll mythology. Some of the stories are true, some might be true, and others are surely false. The classics are all here: Led Zeppelin and the shark, Keith Richards getting his blood replaced, and of course, the singer getting his stomach pumped (here about Marc Almond of Soft Cell (remember "Tainted Love"?) but also told about countless others). Holmes is an outrageous writer, which is good and bad -- he's hilarious when he's ripping on a band you hate, offensive when he's similarly sniping at your favorites. Sometimes he plays loose with the facts, but he never claims that anything in the book is true anyway. Rock Star Babylon recounts dozens of amusing, sometimes disgusting tales of debauchery, excess, and bad behavior. A few stories are duds, but there are enough others to make it worthwhile. By the way, if you suspect that the band Faith No More has ever stayed at your hotel, bring your own hair dryer!

Bandalism: The Rock Group Survival Guide by Julian Ridgway - I often discuss what I'm reading with one of the servers at the restaurant down the street (hi Lindsay!), and she seemed a bit perplexed about this one because I'm not in a band or planning to start one. But Bandalism appeals beyond the narrow audience of aspiring rockers. Ridgway takes prospective bands step by step from formation to rehearsal to record deal to first album to touring to second album... and that's about it because the rest of a band's career is just a matter of repeating the recording-touring cycle. Although this is another British book with some obscure band references, it isn't as bafflingly foreign as Rock Star Babylon above. Anyone interested in rock music and the interpersonal dynamics of band members should find it as instructive and funny as I did.

VH1's 100 Greatest Albums edited by Jacob Hoye - Halfway through the year, I'm still finding books that I started long ago and never finished. This book contains a ranking of the greatest rock/pop/soul albums and describes what makes them so. Each album gets one to three mildly informative pages, most including a photo of the cover. One can quibble with the choices, but they were selected by 700 music industry people deemed worthy by VH1 so that's what you get. While that approach prevents any real stinkers from showing up, it also makes for a rather predictable and unadventurous list. The book's greatest flaw, however (the reason I didn't finish it sooner), is that it goes from #1 to #100. Without the suspense of wondering which will be the best, it's all downhill after the first few pages. I'm almost certain that VH1 broadcast this as a countdown, so why change it in book form? All in all, this book is just okay, a broad list with little depth.

Current tally: 61 books finished, 58 books acquired

Monday, July 20, 2009

Lance, Lance, Lance

Over the years, my feelings about Lance Armstrong have shifted many times. I started as an admirer and fan -- though never truly fanatic -- around the time he won Tour de France #2 in 2000 (I hadn't followed pro cycling previously). Eventually, I decided he's kind of a jerk (which may be a polite understatement), but I also acknowledge that he has accomplished a lot more on and off the bike (winning seven Tours and assisting cancer survivors through his foundation) than I ever will. Oddly, although I consider Armstrong to be a polarizing figure, I personally feel ambivalent about him.

I think the problem most people have with Armstrong is that he isn't what they expect or want him to be. Many expect winners to be gracious and humble, but he's brash and arrogant. Some want to praise God for his recovery from cancer, but he is not religious. Amazon reviewers even criticize him for using the f-word in his book, as if Lance the Hero isn't allowed to swear. I give him credit for being himself and not trying to meet the expectations of others, but at the same time, I don't think he's particularly likeable.

In the past four years, I have accumulated several books about Armstrong, picking them up at bargain prices (total cost $12). With his return to the Tour this year, I decided that if I don't read them now, I never will. Thus began two weeks of Lance overload.

Chasing Lance: The 2005 Tour de France and Lance Armstrong's Ride of a Lifetime by Martin Dugard - A quick read, this book is the weakest of the bunch. It's part sports reporting and part travelogue but isn't exactly riveting as either. Only the greenest of pro cycling fans will gain much from it. Dugard describes the 2005 Tour as experienced by a sports journalist. He writes about the press tent and the logistics of getting from the start to the finish of each stage. He details the daily phenomena of the Tour, such as the assembly and disassembly of a miniature city in each host town along the route. Actual race coverage is inconsistent. This book could have been a long magazine article. The ideal Chasing Lance reader would probably be someone with little cycling knowledge who has been assigned to write about the next Tour and wants to know what to expect.

Every Second Counts by Lance Armstrong with Sally Jenkins - Wow, a book from the 2000s without a lengthy subtitle! I read It's Not About the Bike many years ago. That popular book, the now familiar story of Armstrong's life up to his first Tour victory, is a tough act to follow. Every Second Counts is Armstrong's version of the middle years of his Tour reign. Armstrong fanatics will no doubt enjoy this book (they've probably already read it). It gives a good feel for who he is and also what he has to put up with (such as the drawn-out French doping investigation of his team). He shares many anecdotes from cycling as well as his relationships with cancer survivors. It's a decent book, but knowing how Lance controls his image, one feels like it's only half the story. By the way, a third memoir is coming in December: Comeback 2.0: Up Close and Personal.

Lance Armstrong's War: One Man's Battle Against Fate, Fame, Love, Death, Scandal, and a Few Other Rivals on the Road to the Tour de France by Daniel Coyle - This is the best book of the three. Coyle covers all facets of Armstrong's 2004 cycling season: training, racing, equipment, doping allegations, Sheryl Crow, teammates, trainers, business, lawsuits... plus his primary Tour competitors Jan Ullrich, Tyler Hamilton, and Iban Mayo. Although I followed pro cycling religously in the mid-2000s, I still found new information in this book. It gives the reader an idea of Armstrong's environment with all its challenges and distractions. I think it's reasonably balanced, tilting in Armstrong's favor. Since bookstores are filled with Lance hagiographies, some Amazon reviewers actually think this book is negative, but it's nothing like David Walsh's accusatory, innuendo-filled volumes. Aside from devout Lance-haters, any cycling fan should enjoy the breadth and depth of Lance Armstrong's War.

Current tally: 57 books finished, 54 books acquired

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Late Start for July

Although this is my first review this month, I've been reading a lot. This book took a long time to finish, and I also have a three-book review of Lance Armstrong coming soon.

Great White Fathers: The Story of the Obsessive Quest to Create Mt. Rushmore by John Taliaferro - This lengthy volume is as much a biography of sculptor Gutzom Borglum as it is the story of his most famous work. It begins and ends with the author traveling the Black Hills region, which helps to set the geographic context of the tale. In between, Borglum's life story dominates the first half of the book and Mt. Rushmore fills the second. The biographical part is perhaps 50 pages too long, but it helps the reader to understand some of the conflicts Borglum had during his greatest project. The man was arrogant, abrasive, and accusatory. He often turned against people who were helping him, and he was terrible with money. His previous carving project on Georgia's Stone Mountain ended with Borglum fleeing the state and his benefactors hiring a new sculptor who promptly blasted Borglum's work off the mountainside. Even when work begins in South Dakota, the author devotes so much space to Borglum's other activities that the mountain becomes a background story. The artist was always scheming and begging for funding. The history of Rushmore after Borglum's death includes some interesting highlights, particularly the filming of Hitchcock's North by Northwest and the American Indian Movement's militant antics in the 1970s. The eight pages of black & white photos are exceptional, but more would have been helpful. Great White Fathers is worthwhile for the Rushmore fanatic, but the average reader would probably prefer something with more about the mountain and less about the artist.

Current tally: 54 books finished, 53 books acquired

Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Coolest Biking Illinois Photo?

Yesterday I was thinking that since I'm not working much these days, I should be adding to the Biking Illinois Web site that I intended to finish years ago. I had forgotten about this photo of the Bald Knob Cross of Peace from Ride 55 "Climb to the Cross":

This was actually a mistake. My camera lens fogged up when I pulled it out of the air-conditioned car on this hot, humid morning nearly four years ago (I scouted the route by car before I pedaled it). The fogged lens gave the cross a freaky, mysterious, sort of Biblical look. I wouldn't say it's the best photo from Biking Illinois, but I think it's the coolest.