Thursday, August 27, 2009

Bootleg: The Secret History of the Other Recording Industry

This topic has become near and dear to my heart over the past three years. Thanks to the magic of BitTorrent and, I've built a ridiculous collection of live music recordings. (How many? Thousands. At least five. Compulsive collectors should not be allowed Internet access.)

This book by Clinton Heylin is a fascinating look at the bootleg* industry (it also touches on free tape trading, which is analogous to today's BitTorrent community). The author focuses on rock and roll bootlegs, both studio and live recordings. The first section of the book, my favorite, tells about the vinyl bootleggers of the 1970s and 1980s. There are some hilarious stories, and Heylin reproduces some of the classic cover art. The second section covers the early CD era up to 1994. Much of this section is devoted to copyright law issues, and when things get complicated the narrative drags a bit. In the brief third section, artists such as Lenny Kaye and Graham Nash talk about the importance of bootleggers preserving performances.

This is a great book because no other author has addressed the rock bootleg industry in such depth. It does have some weaknesses, though. Each chapter begins with a 15 cm2 photo of a bootleg cover, but all of the other bootleg covers are restricted to the margins. Those photos are a disappointingly minuscule 4 cm2. I also would have preferred more bootleg stories instead of the lengthy distinctions about copyright law. Finally, be aware that this is by no means a guide to bootleg recordings. Only a few significant releases are discussed with any detail. All the same, anyone interested in rock and roll history should find plenty worth reading in Bootleg.

Note: I read the hardcover edition of the first book below. Although the second has a different title, it is merely an updated edition of the first. Without reading it, I assume Heylin blames stronger copyright laws and online file sharing for the "fall" of the industry.

Current tally: 66 books finished, 61 books acquired

* Note that true "bootleg" records and CDs contain material that has not been commercially released through official channels. Bootlegs are not the same as "pirate" recordings, which are merely counterfeit copies of official releases.

Bastard of the Day

Since BotD is probably the favorite recurring feature on this blog, it's appropriate to name one today as part of the birthday celebration.

Some people just beg to be named Bastard of the Day:
A 45-year-old Near Northwest Side man is facing felony animal cruelty charges, accused of throwing a 17-year-old Labrador retriever to its death from the a third-floor balcony Wednesday, police said.
Okay, "innocent until proven guilty" aside, this guy is one sick bastard. Any dog that age is pretty darn old, but for a dog the size of a Labrador retriever, 17 is ancient (Wikipedia gives a Lab's life span as "12-16 years"). No dog deserves that, especially after all those years of being a faithful companion and family member (even a cat doesn't deserve that, although my daily-barfing roommate here at DJWriter World HQ tests my patience). There could be no excuse for such barbaric behavior. Even if the dog was dying, my wife pointed out, there are several places in the city that will euthanize an elderly dog for free.

***** We interrupt this declaration of bastardry... *****

As I was writing the above, I got this e-mail alert from CNN:
A sex offender abducted an 11-year-old girl and kept her in a backyard shed for 18 years before his arrest, police say.
Damn, I think that's even worse. Too many bastards, not enough days...

One for the Birthers*

For the sore loser Republicans who doubt that President Obama was born in the U.S., I have two words: Hillary Clinton. Knowing the thoroughness (and perhaps ruthlessness) of the Clinton campaign, if there was any truth to this rumor, it surely would have been exposed during the Democratic primaries.

Alas, most of the "birthers" are also Hillary-haters, so they would probably say she's just part of the conspiracy. But seriously, this woman would have done almost anything to win, so what reason would she have to cover up Obama's alleged disqualification from office?

It's frightening how many people are buying into this birther bullshit. And how long will this go on? Sheesh, people, he was sworn in seven months ago!

* The title of this post is a tribute to the Hold Steady's "One for the Cutters", which is named in tribute to the townies in Breaking Away.

Happy Birthday to DJWriter Blog

It's hard to believe I've been blogging for five years.

A lot has changed along the way. I started out with a lot of political content, but eventually I got sick of it all. Then the blog developed into a journal of Biking Illinois filled with entries about signing events, interviews, reviews, etc. For a while, I got tired of blogging altogether and lost 90% of my already limited readership with sporadic posting (my subject matter was always too scattershot to attract a large audience anyway). This year I resurrected the blog mainly to stick to my New Years resolution to finish more books than I acquire. I figured making it public would help me keep it, and so far I've been successful.

In honor of the blog's evolution, today I'll post a political entry for old time's sake as well as the latest book review.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Night of the Gun: A reporter investigates the darkest story of his life. His own.

After I reviewed News Junkie by Jason Leopold, Chris went looking for it at Barnes & Noble. When he got home, he e-mailed me to say that he had purchased the wrong book, The Night of the Gun by David Carr. Who would have thought "junkie journalist memoir" was such a popular genre?

Chris suggested that I compare the two. Although I had plenty of other books to read, I replied, "Maybe I'll check out The Night of the Gun when it hits the bargain shelves." Eleven days later, I found a single hardcover copy for $6 at a Waldenbooks.

Addiction/recovery memoirs are pretty common, and they seem to follow a pattern: share titillating tales of "the Life" including drugs, sex, and crime to pique the interest of the white-bread masses (myself included); hit bottom and go into rehab (this part of the story often repeats); become a clean model citizen for some stretch of time; inexplicably relapse (in Carr's case, with booze rather than cocaine); repeat the recovery process; and swear it's not going to happen ever again. The most striking difference between the two books is how the authors approach their stories. Leopold's book is a traditional, confessional memoir while Carr reports on his life by interviewing people from/about his past, acquiring police and medical records, etc. In addition to the main addiction/recovery plot, Leopold's story is bolstered by his involvement in breaking the Enron story while Carr's memoir adds the challenges of battling cancer and raising twins as a single father.

The more cynical think Carr treats his life like a newspaper story in the wake of challenges to the veracity of James Frey's recovery tale, but the reason he gives is that his own memories too often run contrary to those of others. Carr discovers that many events, even some of the most pivotal in his life, may not have happened as he recalls. The discrepancies are not minor like "what color shirt I was wearing" either -- the book's title refers to an event in which Carr and his friend have different memories of who was pointing a gun at whom.

Unfortunately, it doesn't take long before the gimmick gets in the way of telling the story. Carr bounces back and forth between his past and his current information-gathering process. Sometimes he even rearranges the main story for the convenience of describing his interviews, which strikes me as the opposite of how a book should be written. Carr should have merely incorporated information gleaned from the interviews into the main story rather than making so many chapters into "where are they now?" episodes (while Carr may care how his junkie friends turned out years later, most readers probably won't).

Like most junkies who survive the Life, Carr is extremely lucky. He's lucky he didn't overdose (his coke addiction progressed from snorting to smoking to injecting), he's lucky he didn't kill anyone, and he's very lucky to have had the support of family and friends who helped him hold his life together.

Carr's use of only first names is annoying. I understand that he wants to protect the privacy of friends and fellow addicts, but when he refers to a Minnesota Vikings quarterback named Tommy and a story-fabricating New York Times reporter named Jayson when their last names are easily Googled, it's unnecessary and irritating (not to mention oddly un-journalistic).

Like this review, The Night of the Gun is too long, and Carr's style interrupts his story too much. The reporting approach puts some distance between author and events, which doesn't come across well in a memoir -- it's like watching life instead of living it. Any memoir is narcissistic at some level (which Carr acknowledges), but in this case I think he really wrote the book more for himself than for readers. Although Carr has posted videos of interviews and other material online, I cannot imagine anyone finishing this lengthy book and yearning to know even more about his ugly past.

Back to comparing the two junkie journalists, while I find Carr's approach interesting in concept, Leopold's book is more readable, more engaging, and more enjoyable. But after reading the addiction stories of two journalists and a rock star this summer, I am burned out on addiction/recovery memoirs. Too much drama, too much depressing shit, too many people hurt by addicts being assholes. This is dreary stuff, and I feel like a rubbernecking motorist passing a horrific accident when I read it.

Current tally: 65 books finished, 61 books acquired

Friday, August 14, 2009

Helen Thomas, Gerald Ford, and a Mexican

Front Row at the White House: My Life and Times by Helen Thomas - Anyone who knows anything about Washington knows that Thomas has been in the White House press pool practically forever -- since John F. Kennedy. This book, written ten years ago, is part autobiography but mostly a chance to share stories about the most powerful figures in America. I especially enjoyed the chapter about traveling on Air Force One, but most readers will be drawn to the later chapters where Thomas tells stories about each first lady and each president. She shares lots of humorous or interesting anecdotes, but nothing particularly shocking. As one might expect, the book is very journalistic in nature. Even in a book ostensibly about herself, Thomas knows that the real story is the people she covered. Overall, this book is good but not great. It might have benefited from tighter editing.

Write It When I'm Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Record Conversations with Gerald R. Ford by Thomas M. DeFrank - I've always had a soft spot for President Ford, perhaps because he was the president when I first learned who the president was. Even better, Ford despised Ronald Reagan (though he refused to say anything bad about him in the years after his Alzheimer's diagnosis). Although I wouldn't agree with Ford's ideology, he was a likable, decent man, the last of the reasonable, moderate Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower before Barry Goldwater's acolytes took over the party. DeFrank first covered Ford as vice president, developed a special friendship over the years (a president considering reporters as friends? Yep, that's the kind of guy Ford was), and carried out a series of interviews starting in the 1990s with the stipulation that nothing from them would be published until after Ford's death. The result is a revealing and affectionate paean to our 38th president. Ford was blessed to live so long and so well after leaving the White House, staying active and lucid into his early nineties. The book could be more complete, though -- I wish DeFrank had asked more about the Warren Commission (the only mention being Ford's dislike of Oliver Stone's JFK), Ford's decades in the House, and some of the difficult decisions he wrestled with as president (besides pardoning Nixon). I haven't read other books about Ford so I can't say where this fits into the body of work about him, but I enjoyed Write It When I'm Gone.

¡Ask a Mexican! by Gustavo Arellano - This is a collection of questions and answers from a nationally syndicated (mostly in the border states) newspaper column that explains the culture, customs, and habits of Mexican-Americans. Arellano weaves irreverent humor and thorough research into his replies, making the book fun and informative. I wish a Chicago newspaper would carry the column, which originated in Orange County's OC Weekly.

Current tally: 64 books finished, 61 books acquired