Born to Run

[Amazon Link]

True story: in my 1974 graduate dorm at the University Near Here, I was down with the flu. Miserable, unable to do anything, just lying in my tiny thin-mattressed bed listening to the Boston rock station WBCN on my stereo.

But then: on comes a song like nothing I'd heard before. A majestic symphony of drums, guitars, and saxophone. Incandescent lyrics of young love and desperate hopefulness. My heartrate spiked, and I truly believe all the illness was flushed from my body within the four and a half minutes song duration. After it was over, I arose from my bed, feeling fine.

The song was Born to Run. And I had been healed by a guy named Bruce Springsteen.

So I was kind of a natural reader of this book, and I got it as a Christmas gift. Not slim, at 500 pages of main text, and I took my time reading it.

Compared to the other celebrity memoirs I've read, this one falls in between "just the facts in chronological order" (e.g, Clapton) and a consciousness-stream of impressions and interactions (e.g., Dylan's Chronicles). Bruce is big on YELLING IN UPPERCASE sometimes with EXCLAMATION POINTS! And he often overwrites, lapsing into colorful and wacky prose about his artistic influences and opinions. Fine. But I'll also say: sometimes he is, to my ear, exactly on target: when he writes about his parents, or getting stuck in a mountain-pass blizzard while crossing the Rockies on his way to California. You are there with him.

I read these memoirs, I think, because I'm looking for some clue about the secrets of creative genius and talent. So far I've failed, and Bruce's book is not an exception. The common thread seems to be pretty pedestrian: work hard, learn from your musical heroes without copying them, keep your eyes on the prize, practice.

Oh yeah: you also might want to get a good accountant (so you don't get in trouble with the IRS) and have an honest lawyer check on those contracts your manager wants you to sign. Two things Bruce didn't do.

Bruce is relentlessly honest, while being nothing less than gracious to bandmates, family members, managers, etc., even when (maybe especially when) the underlying relationship was contentious. Even though his personal politics are annoyingly left-wing, his professional dealings with his bandmates are hard-nosed; you might call him a benevolent dictator, but the "benevolent" bit is kind of a stretch. (There's a telling and funny anecdote about how he responded to one of the E Streeters asking for a raise.)

One surprising anecdote: Bruce became buddies with fellow Garden Stater Frank Sinatra. Did not see that coming. In fact, he and wife Patti were invited to the Chairman's 80th birthday bash. And there: "Sometime after dinner, we find ourselves around the living room piano with Steve [Lawrence] and Eydie Gorme and Bob Dylan."

Kaboom. As the kids say, "mind = blown". I don't even think of those people living in the same universe.

Given his cheerful public persona, I was also surprised to learn about his psychological problems. He's been on anti-depressants for decades, and in therapy for even longer. I might be reading more into this than I should, but it seems that anti-depressants haven't been good to his creativity. To my ear, there are no recent Springsteen songs that have the spark of Born to Run, Rosalita, or Promised Land.

But that's a quibble. Because, once again: Bruce healed me.


Last Modified 2017-01-24 2:20 PM EST

The Comedians

Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy

[Amazon Link]

The Daily Signal said: "Here Are 21 Books You Should Read in 2017". This was one of 'em, and I said OK, I like comedy, and asked the University Near Here to obtain it via Interlibrary Loan.

It's written by a guy with the unlikely name of "Kliph Nesteroff", and he brings an amateur enthusiasm to his project, a "History of American Comedy". (But he doesn't go all the way back to 1776; for Kliph, history starts with vaudeville in the 1920's.)

Roughly chronological, the book moves on from vaudeville to increasingly modern venues: radio, nightclubs, early TV (primetime and late night), Vegas, comedy clubs, cable.

The book makes some efforts toward scholarliness: there's a "Notes" section at the end and an index. But overall, the tone and coverage is uneven. That's somewhat forgiveable, because there are a lot of interesting stories to tell, and Kliph tells a lot of them. People looking for insights or broad lessons will probably be disappointed. The history is, for better or worse, just a bunch of guys and gals struggling to make a living at making people laugh. As with other celebrities, there's a lot of sex, licit and illicit Substances, unprofessional behavior, and even criminality along the way.

Especially interesting was the tale of "Jack Roy", whose "persona was combative and unlikeable. It didn't matter how funny the material was—the audience despised him." So he quit comedy, went into the home improvement business, which involved criminal scams, which led to his racketeering arrest. So (after an implied plea bargain), he went back into show biz, using the name Rodney Dangerfield. Which, you may have heard, worked out better than his previous try.

Kliph's prose occasionally descends into blog-style commentary. For example, after relating Jack Paar's 1960 walkoff from The Tonight Show: "Talk about a drama queen." And all too often, we get sentence after sentence about how X was represented by Y, but moved on to Z, after being accused of stealing jokes from W, U, and T. Zzz.

Well, I pulled out one broad lesson, actually: The postwar nightclubs were mostly mob-controlled. Comics were basically OK with that—for one thing, it made their access to drugs easier. During the 50s and 60s anti-organized crime efforts shifted ownership to legitimate businessmen. But the comedians tended to prefer the mobsters—they were pretty genial and generous when they weren't engaged in their profession, while the businessfolk were less humorous, more oriented to the old bottom line.

I mentioned there's an index? Yeah, but it's kind of spotty. One of my first lookups: Jimmy Durante. Not there! Outrageous! But Durante does show up in the actual text.

Given the non-comprehensive index, it's difficult to say for sure that someone is not mentioned in the book. There's a lot of name-dropping, especially near the modern-day parts. But one comic apparently missing from the book is Steven Wright. Incomprehensible! And also outrageous!


Last Modified 2017-01-24 9:41 AM EST

URLs du Jour

2017-01-24

Madonna may fantasize about blowing up the White House. But I am fantasizing about replying to thousands of blog articles, tweets, and Facebook posts with: "Your logical fallacy is tu quoque".

  • One more shot at our nation's ongoing epistemological nightmare from Reason's Jacob Sullum: "Alternative Facts' Cannot Hide Trump's Petty Dishonesty"

    The ongoing spat about the size of the audience at Donald Trump's inauguration, in itself a trivial issue, is significant because it highlights the new president's vanity, pettiness, lack of discipline, and casual disregard for the truth. Presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway took that last character flaw to a new level in a Meet the Press interview yesterday when she described White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer's verifiably false assertions about attendance at the inauguration as "alternative facts."

    If you feel compelled to respond to that with something about "If you like your plan, you can keep your plan", fine, but see above: your logical fallacy is tu quoque.

  • Or, I should say, may be tu quoque. At NR, David French uses the issue to offer free (and very good) advice: "Don’t Shred Your Credibility for Your Tribe".

    Our politics is devolving into the pathetic spectacle of liars indignantly calling out liars for lying. Rule-breakers are outraged that other rule-breakers break rules. Norms that could be violated with impunity for “social justice” can’t be violated for “nationalism.” We stick with our tribe, through thick and thin — through truth and lies.

    Our tendency toward tribalism is probably innate and unavoidable. People who think they're free from it are deluding themselves. But step one is recognizing it for what it is.

  • Also at NR, John Fund relates Obama’s Final Whopper as President. (Soon to be followed by "Obama's First Whopper as Ex-President", but let's not get ahead of ourselves.) The issue is Voter ID, Obama's attempt to link it to Jim Crow, and his claims that (1) voter fraud is negligible, and (2) no other "advanced democracy" requires ID.

    Fund observes, sensibly, that nobody knows how widespread voter fraud is, because Democrats do their darndest to thwart any efforts to measure it. But Obama's claim about Voter ID's absence in other countries? "Demonstrably false."

    All industrialized democracies — and most that are not — require voters to prove their identity before voting. Britain was a holdout, but last month it announced that persistent examples of voter fraud will require officials to see passports or other documentation from voters in areas prone to corruption.

    Also worth noting is Fund's conclusion:

    Which is precisely why it’s so disappointing to see Barack Obama use it to raise baseless fears that voter ID is a racist form of voter suppression. Even as he leaves office, the president who promised to unify us is continuing his level best to polarize and divide us.

    Obama's methods of "racial healing" will continue, in other words.

  • Also at NR, Kevin D. Williamson on "Our Unimaginative Politicians, and the Need to Stop Rewarding Them". His immediate topic is political bloviating on wealth and the economy, but his bottom line is more general.

    We’ve just had a weekend of political rioting after progressive-leaning and Democrat-affiliated celebrities and public figures called for, among other things, a military coup d’état to overthrow the democratically elected government of the United States and the imposition of martial law. But after the hysteria dies down — and it will die down — we’ll still be back where we were before: a prosperous, stable, healthy nation with some very serious problems that need addressing, and that cannot be addressed until we learn how to speak and think about them intelligently and until we — we citizens — demand that our leaders do. And that means, among other things, that we forgo rewarding political and media figures with money and power for peddling lies and stupidity. A politician is like any other dumb animal: He’ll do what gets him fed and avoid what gets him whipped. And lament “the system” as much as you like, we citizens still control both the carrot and the stick.

  • At Patterico, "JVW" makes note of a WaPo article: "Shocking Development: Throwing Money at Troubled Schools Doesn’t Seem to Accomplish Much"

    Which most clear-eyed folks have known for decades. But this is a new data point, and it only cost $7 Billion-with-a-b to get this extra smidgen of confirmation. Quoting the WaPo:

    The money went to states to distribute to their poorest-performing schools — those with exceedingly low graduation rates, or poor math and reading test scores, or both. Individual schools could receive up to $2 million per year for three years, on the condition that they adopt one of the Obama administration’s four preferred measures: replacing the principal and at least half the teachers, converting into a charter school, closing altogether, or undergoing a “transformation,” including hiring a new principal and adopting new instructional strategies, new teacher evaluations and a longer school day.

    The Education Department did not track how the money was spent, other than to note which of the four strategies schools chose.

    Yet another thing to remember when Democrats blather about Betsy DeVos's "lack of qualifications". This is what happens when the "qualified" people have been in charge for eight years.

    Also commenting on this is Nick Gillespie, who uses it as a springboard to advocate for school choice. Video:

    Adds Gillespie: "Extra credit if you can guess what letter the asterisk is for." I got it, did you?