How a show about nothing changed everything

Seinfeldia:
How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything ★ ★ ★ ★

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
Simon & Schuster, 2016

seinfeldiaA free copy was provided through Netgalley in exchange for review.

 

“Everybody’s doing something. We’ll do NOTHING.” ~George (Seinfeld)

 

I think anyone who picks up this book is most likely going to be a rabid Seinfeld fan, and I’m no exception. We are in the midst of PeakTV — a new heralded Golden Age of Television — and there’s a very persuasive argument to be made that it all started with a small show about nothing, that did in fact, change everything. Despite the avalanche of remarkable and groundbreaking TV that’s hit our small screens since Seinfeld exited stage left in 1998, it still remains one of my favorite shows of all time. I’ve never stopped watching it in syndication, it continues to make me bust a gut laughing on a regular basis, and I’ve yet to encounter any situation in life that cannot be captured by applying a Seinfeld quote.

Seinfeldia is a fun book, and a totally immersive experience into the bizarre, unexpected and meteoric rise of a show that probably should have been cancelled after its first season. But after a rocky and uncertain start, the show got traction with fans and critics. As its influence spread, it was clear to see that Seinfeld was bleeding over and breaking the Fourth Wall on a regular basis, blending fact with fiction in an original and inspired way and not just becoming part of the zeitgeist and popular culture but seemingly birthing it out of thin air. The catchy phrases and neurotic dialogue uttered on the show were quickly absorbed by television audiences and recited in everyday life as if we had always been saying such things.

Or here’s what I think — we had always needed these words to describe both the inanity and absurdity of life, and it was Seinfeld who gave them to us.

larry-david-1024

Larry David

The author takes a nice even-handed, well-researched approach describing the “making of” the show, offering a behind-the-scenes analysis of early working relationships, early scripts and the jockeying for power and position between the actors, writers and directors. At the helm of course was Larry David — perhaps the first instance where we really see the genius that can result when a showrunner is given complete creative control over his/her product. And David wielded that power like Thor’s mighty hammer. The only other creative force welcomed into the inner sanctum was not surprisingly David’s right hand man, Jerry Seinfeld. Together, these two gentlemen mind-fused into a comedic entity where the sum of their brilliance far exceeded their individual talents.

The book also has fun dipping into the “bizarro” aspects of the show — how it carried the Midas touch for a lot of struggling actors who would go on to great careers after their stints on Seinfeld, no matter how brief or fleeting their appearance. Probably the most notable here is Bryan Cranston — the inimitable Dr. Whatley — a dentist who Jerry is certain converted to Judaism strictly for the jokes. Even regular people who never acted on the show got pulled into its gravitational belt for better and for worse.

The real people counterparts to the fictionalized versions of themselves on the show would reap financial rewards and a fame by proxy —
1. Kenny Kramer’s Reality Tour is still going strong in New York City;
2. Ali (“Al”) Yeganeh is the real “Soup Nazi” and continues to sell his soup today (and curse Jerry Seinfeld for giving him an infamy and notoriety he never asked for or ever aspired to);
3. and Larry Thomas, the actor who played the “Soup Nazi”, continues to appear at fan conventions and speaking engagements, and has even written a book! Rather than fight against it, the actor has made peace with a role he will never outlive and embraces the benefits with grace and humor.

veep_poster_p_2013The book also addresses the backlash against a show that had become so popular it attracted haters and critics who believed it to be insufferably smug and overrated. The author also talks about the controversial finale episode and how it disappointed many fans and critics (it’s not my favorite episode by any means, but I found things to love about the finale). Then there was the fate of the four leads post-Seinfeld and the various trajectories their careers took, the strangest and most disappointing being Michael Richards and his public breakdown of racist rage. Julia Louis-Dreyfus has always been my biggest girl crush and I’ve been over the moon to watch her role as Vice-President Selina Meyer only get better over five seasons of VEEP. And for Jerry Seinfeld fans you can catch him now doing Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee which just got an Emmy nomination today. I haven’t seen this yet, but I do plan on checking it out at some point.

Not surprisingly, the brains and soul and passion behind Seinfeld, creator Larry David, has had the most enduring and critical success with his show Curb Your Enthusiasm (which ended in 2011 after eight seasons, but it’s just been announced the show will return for a season nine).

To wrap things up (and leave on a high note, with hand), I’m gonna take a page from Dan who in his review listed his ten favorite Seinfeld episodes. For anyone who has ever watched and loved the show, you’ll remember just how packed each episode became, routinely following four sub-plots for each of the four leads — Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer. David’s singular purpose and desire was to strive to have every episode end with the four sub-plots intersect by the ending. And he almost always succeeded. In no particular order (it was too hard to pick just ten, let alone rank) here are some of my favorites.

Mild spoilers ahead for the Seinfeld virgins.


“The Chicken Roaster”:
Jerry and Kramer switch apartments when the searing neon red light from the Kenny Rogers Roasters sign across the street starts disturbing Kramer’s sleep. And who can forget Mr. Marbles.
parkinggarage

“The Parking Garage”

 

“The Parking Garage”:
The gang gets trapped in an underground parking garage when none of them can remember where Kramer parked his car. Highlights: Elaine wanders helplessly holding a goldfish in a plastic bag of water waiting for it to perish. George and Jerry get arrested for urinating in public.

 

“The Chinese Restaurant”:
The penultimate episode of the second season which takes place entirely in a Chinese restaurant while the gang waits to be seated. It remains a fan and critical favorite of Seinfeld’sgroundbreaking approach to comedic storytelling — an episode about “nothing”.

 

“The Bubble Boy”:
The gang travels upstate to stay in Susan’s father’s cabin. Susan and George stop at the Bubble Boy’s house to get directions and play a game of trivial pursuit. Moops!

 

“The Opera”:
The most memorable “Crazy Joe Davola” episode. Elaine and Jerry are trying to enjoy a night out at the opera when Joe turns up dressed as the clown from Pagliacci.

1-seinfeld-the-contest

“The Contest”

 

“The Contest”:
The gang bet each other to see who can hold out the longest from self-pleasuring themselves (the word masturbation is never used in the episode considered too “adult” for prime time television). Part of the fun is all the euphemisms used to avoid saying the actual word, and what eventually makes each character crack.

 

“The Puffy Shirt”:
Jerry unknowingly agrees to wear a puffy “pirate shirt” on the Today Show. George gets discovered as a hand model.

 

“The Marine Biologist”:
After faking and lying about various jobs and careers, George is finally called out and forced to become a marine biologist when confronted by a beached whale in distress. “The sea was angry that day my friends.”

 

“The Fusilli Jerry”:
Kramer starts making figures of his favorite people out of pasta shapes that best suit their personality. Jerry is “silly” so his is made from Fusilli. Highlights: “the move” (David Puddy, my favorite recurring character, starts using Jerry’s sex move on Elaine; Kramer becomes “the Assman”; and Frank Costanza ends up at the proctologist’s office after impaling himself on the Fusilli Jerry. This is also the episode where we get Frank’s move of “stopping short”.

facepainter

David Puddy “The Face Painter”

 

“The Face Painter”:
I love David Puddy and this (along with the “Jesus Fish” subplot from “The Burning” episode, is his best stuff.

 

“The Soup Nazi”:
It’s the Soup Nazi! No soup for you!”

 

“The Little Kicks”:
Two words: Elaine dances. Also, Jerry becomes a bootlegger and we meet Brody.

 

“The Merv Griffin Show”:
Kramer finds the set of the Merv Griffin Show in a dumpster and sets it up in his apartment. Highlights: Jerry is dating a woman with collectible toys from his childhood (that she won’t let him play with); George runs over a squirrel and is pressured by the woman he’s dating to save its life, which the vet informs him will be costly and require the use of “special, really tiny instruments.”

 

“The Slicer”:
Kramer gets a deli slicer and starts slicing meat. Elaine and Kramer conspire to short circuit the power in her neighbor’s apartment only to find out there’s a cat trapped inside starving because its food dispenser no longer works. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg — there’s so much hilarity stuffed into this episode that often gets overlooked.

 

“The Reverse Peephole”, “The Frogger” and “The Bookstore”:
For anyone who ever challenges you that Seinfeldstayed on the air too long, or wasn’t as funny once Larry David left, I give you these three episodes which contain some of the funniest sub-plots the show covered in its nine season run. Highlights:

George’s overstuffed wallet, and keeping the massage chair for himself
Jerry is forced to wear a fur coat
Puddy buys an obnoxious leather jacket with a giant 8 on the back, Elaine is mortified
George must enlist the help of Kramer’s electrician “friends” to move Frogger game to safety
Elaine starts eating Peterman’s $29,000 Royal wedding cake purchased in an auction
Jerry can’t break up with a woman because he’s too afraid of “The Lopper” serial killer
Newman and Kramer try to set up a rickshaw business
Jerry gets Uncle Leo arrested, not knowing about his previous “crime of passion”
Jerry finds out from his parents “it’s not stealing if it’s something you need”
George takes an expensive book into the Brentano’s bathroom and is forced to buy it. He tries to return it and discovers it’s been “flagged”.

cast1I could keep going. Seriously, I feel like I’m just getting started. I haven’t even mentioned “Moviefone”, “shrinkage”, “not that there’s anything wrong with that”, “Delores”, “George’s desk naps”, yada yada yada. It would have been a much shorter list identifying the odd sub-plot or moments that can no longer make me laugh. There are far fewer of those. After all these years and repeated viewingsSeinfeld has more than stood the test of time. If anything, it’s ageless, or like a fine whiskey, keeps getting better with age as it thrives (and finds new audiences) in syndication. And while some outstanding comedies have appeared in the years following its finale — It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia andParks and Rec to name my two favorites — they all owe a debt to Seinfeld and for a show that continues to make me laugh out loud, I owe it a debt too.

And because IT STILL makes me tear up watching it even now — I did have the time of my life. Thanks for asking.

 

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Confessions of a true crime addict

True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Mysterious Disappearance of Maura Murray ★★★★
James Renner
Thomas Dunne Books (May 2016)
Available Now!

truecrimeaddictI came to know author James Renner through his wacky, engrossing, bewitchingly unique novels – The Man from Primrose Lane and The Great Forgetting. And while he has a noteworthy talent spinning wild and crazy tales of speculative fiction, Renner is also a dedicated true crime writer. In fact, the journalism and true crime writing came first. And now he’s returned to these stomping grounds in a big way with his new release True Crime Addict.

What sets this true crime book apart from most is not only the exceptionally sharp, punchy, lucid writing, but that Renner very much writes himself into the story as an observer, participant and one could even argue collateral damage to the unsolved Maura Murray missing person case. We realize almost from the opening paragraphs, that this is going to be a very personal journey for Renner, where he not only loses himself down the addicting, obsessive rabbit hole of trying to solve the mystery of a young woman’s inexplicable disappearance into seemingly thin air, he also lays bare his own personal demons, that include his young son’s struggle with uncontrollable violent outbursts (and quite possibly prescient abilities). This book really is one man’s unflinching look into the abyss, and what stares back at him.

Maura Murray in 2003

         Maura Murray in 2003

Renner is not the only person to have fallen down the rabbit hole of the Maura Murray case (a quick Google search will prove that), but given his personality and dark obsessive tendencies that he comes by quite honestly, Renner is arguably the one who’s fallen the hardest and most completely. The publication of this book is the culmination (and hopefully for him) an emotional catharsis of a very long journey that Renner has recorded in detail on his Maura Murray blog that he launched in June 2011.

This book really could not have come at a better time. We seem to be in the midst of a true crime renaissance with recent cultural watershed phenomena like Making a Murderer, The Jinx and the first season of Sarah Koenig’s podcast Serial which I became obsessed with when it ran in the fall of 2014. And you might as well throw The People vs OJ on that pile too, because it was also fantastic and drew a huge viewing audience.

I want to thank karen for putting a copy of this book in my hands and it is with great enthusiasm I write this review in the hopes it brings even more much deserved attention to what Renner has accomplished here.

What’s love got to do with it?

Modern Romance ★★★★
by Aziz Ansari
Penguin Press, 2015

modern_romanceI’ve been so behind on my reviewing these days, but I had so much fun with this one I wanted to make sure I didn’t let it fall through the dark cracks into the swirling abyss where my non-reviewed books go.

I’m a huge fan of Ansari. I think he’s cute as a button and funny as goddamn hell. I watched him in Parks & Rec, his most recent Netflix original Master of None (which I highly recommend), and thoroughly enjoy his stand-up concerts. He’s not at the same level as Louis CK or Patton Oswalt, but he’s also a lot younger than these gentlemen who have been honing their dark and brilliant comedy for decades now.

Modern Romance is not your typical “comedian writes a book” fare. It’s not a memoir, or a book filled with ruminations on the life of a comedian. It’s a thinky piece, backed up by real sociological research, with pie charts and everything! Ansari’s approach to breaking down the ins and outs of dating and hooking up and settling down in the 21st century is as intriguing and compelling as it is infectious and informative. I loved every minute of it. The layout is light and breezy, and super accessible without distilling and dumbing down the subject matter too much as to be insulting to its audience. Ansari wants to make you laugh, make no mistake, but he’s also very earnest in his desire to tell you what he’s learned.

And can I just say I find all of it utterly FASCINATING. I’m addicted to “meet cute” stories (even though I would never consider myself a romantic, and have an averse reaction to rom-com movies — that make me break out in hives). But how people meet and when they decide “to put a ring on it” (or not) can always get my attention. I have to check myself from being perpetually nosy all of the time, getting the “deets” on all this stuff from my friends, both of the online and the in real life variety.

For me, this book is too short. With its laudable success my hope is that Ansari will be compelled to pen a follow-up, because if there’s one thesis that comes chiming out loud and clear here, it’s that the 21st century dating world is changing fast, at warp speed, impacting how we communicate with one another, form bonds and friendships, and take that scary running leap into “the big commitment”. A lot of the current research being done is showing that the bonds we form online, platonic or otherwise, can no longer be dismissed so easily as superficial and suffering by comparison to those we forge “IRL” (in real life). I do believe most of us on this site would concur that social media has opened up a “brave new world” that’s not just brighter and more vibrant, but has proven increasingly successful in bringing colorful people into our lives that we otherwise would not have known existed, friendships that we now rely upon and cherish.

And that “modern romance” is blooming out of those virtual connections should really be coming as no surprise to anyone.

Ansari does an excellent job of pointing out the pros and cons of modern romance in the 21st century in all its tech’d out, geeked out splendor. We now have more choice than ever before, all at our fingertips with the click of a button or the swipe of a screen, but that landslide of choices might also be paralyzing some of us into making any choice at all. Our standards and expectations for a lifelong partnership might have been raised to exceptionally high, unreasonable levels too. With all that choice at our fingertips, why would we settle for anything less than AMAZING? That perfect “soul mate” who is going to fulfill every single one of our needs every day for the rest of our days. Pfft, people you know this: that person does not exist.

But it’s not all bad news. Technology has not ruined romance for us living in the 21st century. In fact, for many of us, especially women — things have improved vastly. Not because of the tech component, but because women are no longer expected to settle down as early as possible. We can invest in our careers now, and date more and live life as a single, learning about ourselves and the things that are going to make us happy if we do decide to pair off.

There are many areas (due to space constraints) that this book by necessity leaves unaddressed or goes light on, and Ansari is very good about pointing those out at the beginning. One thing missing for me is a breakdown of dating from an extrovert versus introvert point of view. I think our current technology has been an absolute miracle and felicia_daymarvel to introverts who struggle to put themselves out there in the real world of bars and supermarkets and church basements, but are absolutely charming and brave and socially high functioning on the interwebs. It’s been an essential transition for that half of the human population to discover their “tribe” and connect in meaningful ways to people it would have been extremely unlikely they would have ever met IRL.

(and it’s here I’m going to put a plug in for Felicia Day’s memoir You’re Never Weird on the Internet who also describes this “social revolution” for introverts in a way that resonated with me completely).

So in case it isn’t obvious by now, I loved this book and I think everyone should read it, young/old, guy/girl, married/single. While it’s easy to despair of the human race, and we know there are too many assholes and unforgivable idiots and sneaky jerkfaces running around out there, human behaviour and why we do the shit we do is still endlessly fascinating, isn’t it? I think so.

Green River Killer: A True Detective Story

greenriverGreen River Killer ★★★★
by Jeff Jensen, Jonathan Case (Illustrator)
Dark Horse Originals, 2011

My reading/reviewing year is really getting off to an excruciatingly, abysmal slow start. I blame my Netflix addiction that includes a recent binge viewing of The Shield (from which I’m still recovering). In November, I became obsessed with Sarah Koenig’s Serial podcast and literally lost weeks. Archer is back in full throttle splendor — “We need a minute Captain Shit Nuts!” — soon to be followed by the return of Season 3 of The Americans on the 28th.

Throw in work, sleep, eating, alcohol consumption and Words With Friends, and it’s no wonder I’ve fallen way behind.

Zodiac_DVD_WS_Front_Final

Zodiac (2007)

I don’t have a real penchant towards reading about serial killers. I don’t even like them in my movies usually. However, like most things, there are exceptions. One of my favorite films of all time is David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007). It’s an incredible movie that takes a cold case with a million moving pieces that went unsolved for decades and distills it down into this cerebral and frightening coherent narrative about obsession and loss of self. To this day, the Zodiac killer remains unidentified and the lingering torment and regret laid on the shoulders of the men who chased him in vain cannot be underestimated.

The Green River Killer was another notorious serial killer who almost got away. Gary Ridgway was eventually convicted of murdering 49 women but it’s believed his kill count is much higher. The Green River murders began in 1982 and hit their peak in 1984. However, Ridgway would not be identified and arrested until 2001 thanks to DNA evidence.

Gary Ridgway

Gary Ridgway

The lead investigator for The Green River Killer was a man by the name of Tom Jensen. When the Green River Task Force was eventually disbanded, Jensen became the sole investigator. It was a case that would continue to haunt and obsess him right up until the day of Ridgway’s arrest. It’s a story that Jensen’s son wants to tell, an intimate look at his father’s entanglement with evil and desperation, frustration and determination.

I never would have believed this story could be contained in the black and white panels of a 200 page graphic novel. But contained it is. Jensen’s version is a remarkable example of gritty police procedural balanced with a son’s touching tribute to a father he obviously respects and cherishes deeply. The storytelling is sharp and rhythmic, bouncing back and forth from past to present in a seamless montage of events that is impressive. There are hardly any visual or textual clues to orient the reader in time; nevertheless, I was rarely left wondering ‘where’ and ‘when’ in the story I was.

This is one graphic novel that packs an emotional wallop. Not just because of the subject matter, but for the way in which the story is told.

The horror! The horror!

The Horror of It All: One Moviegoer’s Love Affair with Masked Maniacs, Frightened Virgins, and the Living Dead ★★
Adam Rockoff
Scribner, May 2015

This is an advanced review. Reader copy provided by NetGalley.

horrorofitallI always feel guilty when I snag a book from NetGalley and don’t love it. But hey — impartial reviewing and honest reader response is what we all crave, right? So I get over that guilt pretty quickly.

Adam Rockoff has a great idea here. While my real passion is to watch horror movies (not read about them) every once in a while a book like this sneaks past my defenses with a come hither look I can’t resist. That’s what this book did with its great cover and catchy (if wordy) title.

Essentially what Rockoff is attempting to do here (and largely fails) is what Stephen King accomplished decades ago with flair and brilliance in his nonfiction study of the horror genre Danse Macabre. What did I want this Christmas season? What do I keenly long for every year that passes? A goddamn, updated sequel! Get on that Uncle Stevie, before it’s too late!

dansemacabre

Danse Macabre ©1981

King’s masterpiece covers horror in all its manifestations in print, and on the big and small screens. Rockoff narrows his focus to just the movies, and that would be enough if it had been a wide view of horror on the big screen, but Rockoff’s kink is the slasher / exploitation films (the subtitle for this book should have been my first clue).

Rockoff has already written a book about the rise of the slasher film called Going to Pieces — heh, cute title — and without having read it, I’m left with a sneaking suspicion that this follow-up book treads a lot of the same ground. In The Horror of it All Rockoff has a major rant against Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel for a special edition episode of their show Sneak Previews aired in 1980 in which the film critics lambast these “slasher” flicks as a dangerous and despicable trend in film both demeaning and dangerous to women (these men are so high up on their high horse here I can’t imagine they can still see the ground). Don’t get me wrong — I love Roger Ebert, he remains one of my favorite film critics — but boy, was he mostly a fuss bucket when it came to horror movies in general. It wasn’t his genre of choice and it showed in many of his prejudicial (and often undeserved) negative reviews of some great movies.

Rockoff is justified in tearing a strip off these two men in an instance where they show complete ignorance about a genre and its fans. Neither Siskel or Ebert appear to have actually sat through any of these movies they are so quick to dismiss as sleazy and misogynist. They show no awareness of “the Final Girl” who often survives to slay the “monster” herself, as well as suffering from the common misconception that it’s only women killed in slasher films. Quite the contrary; studies show men are just as likely to die violent deaths on screen in horror movies as their female counterparts.

But I get it. As a fan of the genre since before I could tie my own shoes, I’ve come up against that kind of prejudice many, many times. Horror is a genre where the consumer is attacked as often as the content itself. Understanding the appeal factor of horror is difficult for some people to accept, people who will look at you with a wary expression as they ask “how can you read/watch that stuff”? As if we should be ashamed, as if we are somehow mentally warped or our moral compass dangerously askew. Don’t worry, it isn’t. Horror appeals to many of us for very solid, rational, non-psychopathic reasons, I swear. And it appeals just as equally to men as it does women. And that doesn’t make the men misogynists, or the women failed feminists.

But I digress. Back to Rockoff. His goal here is to really champion for the slasher films and the deranged and disturbing pushing all the boundaries it can possibly think of exploitation films. And I wouldn’t have had a problem with that. But it gets a bit repetitive and tiresome and a lot of the movies he winds up talking about are pretty obscure if you’re not a complete and utter fanatic for everything underground and out of print (I’m not).

Adam Rockoff

Adam Rockoff

In his introduction, Rockoff promises to approach horror in a very personal essay, knitting together his experiences of the genre using memoir as a lens. I love that idea. I love hearing about people’s personal reactions to movies or what was going on in their lives when. One of my favorites of these sorts of anecdotes came from my own mother. She was dating my father at the time of the theatrical release of The Exorcist.

It was a date movie for them (these are my genes). They had to park the car at the very back of the mall parking lot. When the movie let out after 11pm the mall was closed and the parking lot was almost empty. They walked to the dark, abandoned hinterland of the lot to their car. When my mother went to open the passenger door (this was 1970’s Newfoundland – people rarely locked their car doors) a giant looming shadow of a man sat up in the back seat and groaned. My mother screamed. My father cursed (and probably shit himself). Turns out that while they were watching the movie, this guy stumbled out of the bar drunk and crawled into my parents car to pass out mistaking the car as belonging to his friend.

Rockoff has a few personal stories like this, humorous and charming, but not nearly enough of them. He can’t help but slip into the film school analysis voice, reviewing and critiquing. Too much of the book’s contents feel like grad school essays, a little pompous and righteous. In an effort to “legitimize” horror and testify to its importance and validity, Rockoff comes off sounding like a bit of a haughty dick.

Then there’s some sections that just don’t work at all, and their inclusion confounds me. Case in point — in Chapter 5 “Sounds of the Devil” Rockoff talks about the (un)natural marriage of heavy metal music to horror movies. The two go together like PB&J in some ways, in other ways it’s a misfit experiment gone awry.

Tipper Gore 1985

Tipper Gore, 1985

He raises a few interesting points and then inexplicably goes right off the reservation with a blow-by-blow account of the time in 1985 Tipper Gore helped found the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) and brought the fight to Washington in the hopes of compelling the music industry to adopt a voluntary rating system warning of the explicit lyrics destined to corrupt and warp innocent children.

Halfway through this chapter I felt like I was reading a completely different book that didn’t have anything to do with horror movies at all. It just seemed really out of context and ultimately onerous. I remember when this bullshit was going on at the time — even at 11 years old I scoffed then, I scoff now. Plus, it’s not nearly as interesting a story as the Comics Code Authority and the war against horror comics of the 1950’s (check out The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America and Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America). And I’m really looking forward to seeing this 2014 documentary Diagram for Delinquents.

If you’ve made it to the end of this lengthy, rambling review I thank you. You are a good sport and too kind. I didn’t hate this book but it failed to really engage me or entertain. I don’t recommend it; instead, pop some popcorn, turn out the lights and cue up your favorite scary movie.

Rob Lowe tells his stories

Stories I Only Tell My Friends ★★★
Rob Lowe
Henry Holt and Co., 2011

rob lowe memoirI don’t read celebrity gossip rags or keep track of who’s marrying / divorcing / screwing who at any given time (not that there’s anything wrong with that people!). I definitely didn’t pick up this memoir of one of Hollywood’s all-time pretty boys hoping for a salacious tell-all about who wears women’s underwear or who includes small animals in their sex play.

So why the hell did I pick up this book? Several reasons top the list:

1) Reviews promised a poignant, self-deprecating coming-of-age tale in the long shadow of the Hollywood sign (I’m happy to report that’s mostly the case).

2) Rob Lowe: yes, I did crush on him when I was a teenager, and lo and behold these many, many years later, I was curious to see what kind of a man he had grown up to be. Not ever having seen one episode of The West Wing or either Austin Powers movies (a ridiculous gap in my pop culture history), I lost track of Mr. Lowe somewhere in the late 80’s.

3) I’m a sucker for memoirs that focus a lot on the making of movies. Don’t ask me why — I don’t act, have never wanted to make a film, but I love movies as only a fan can and every so often a memoir will come along that captures the magic of movie making in a way that enthralls me. I’m one of those geeks who will listen to director’s commentary and “the making of” extra features, not for every movie, but always for the films I love. Should you care, my favorite memoir of this sort is Bruce Campbell’s If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor. Bloody brilliant!

So for all of these reasons, I knew pretty early on Rob and I would be spending a few evenings together. I went with the audio version and am so glad I did. Rob’s voice is lovely, but he also offers up a pretty decent impersonation of almost every person he has crossed paths with. Not all of them are great, but most are funny, and a few are so spot on they had me rolling with laughter. He certainly had Patrick Swayze down cold. I particularly loved his wry assessment of his super energetic co-star: “he makes Tom Cruise look lobotomized”.

I had no idea Rob’s early life included close friendships with the Sheen and Penn family. His one anecdote about the first time he meets Martin Sheen is hilarious — considering Martin is just returned from the jungle and the two year Apocalypse Now drug-induced, frenzied insanity that was that.

There are no earth-shattering confessions. Much of the book reads like a love letter to his long-time wife (a rarity in Hollywood for sure) and children (two sons), and for a man approaching 50, that is as it should be, and I was glad to hear that he chose the road of sobriety and sensibility. Heaven knows it could have gone the other way — Exhibit A.

This is the Life. Keith Richards writes it all down.

life keith richardsLife ★★★★
Keith Richards
Little Brown and Company, 2010

This is the Life. Believe it or not, I haven’t forgotten any of it.
~Life, Keith Richards

Well now, there you have it. Who’d have thunk “Keef” would have lived so long — he certainly won’t be leaving a beautiful corpse when he finally does kick off, that’s for sure. And that will probably be from natural causes at this point in his life on the eve of turning seventy, but who the hell knows with this guy? Sure he’s laid off the dope, but he’s still managing to fall out of trees hard enough to put a crack in his skull, or find himself reaching for a giant tome on the top shelf of his home library and subsequently getting buried under an avalanche of falling books (that one caused him a few broken ribs).

This cat has got more lives than can be counted. Yes, he should be dead, a looooong time ago. That he’s not, is astounding. That he can remember most of his life, even the heavy drug years, is more astounding still. That his telling of it should be so engaging and insightful, raucous and unflinching and funny … well, that astounds me most of all.

Rolling Stones at Glastonbury, 1964 (mirror.co.uk)

Rolling Stones at Glastonbury, 1964 (mirror.co.uk)

I’m not a raving Stones fan, that isn’t what brought me to this autobiography. Sure, there are about 35 of their songs I can sing along to and like many people, there are another 10 I consider to be some of the best rock songs ever written. But I wasn’t born early enough to come of age during the Stones golden era when they were young, ferocious and unstoppable. I wasn’t a “Mick girl” or “Keef girl”. For better or worse, I missed the 60s and 70s, but that doesn’t mean that time in music history doesn’t interest me. It interests me quite a lot actually.

Rock histories and music retrospectives on particular times and places endlessly fascinate me. It’s not enough just to listen to the tunes, I want to know the where, when, who, how and why something was written, recorded, and imbibed. The birth of rock n roll? I want to know the characters, the causes, the culture that spawned it. I want to know when it learned to walk, and then I want to know who made it run. Who was in the engine room? I love hearing about all the little asides and anecdotes about who was where, who saw who perform and then started their own band – the roots of the roots (stretch it back as far as you think you can).

I came to this book hoping I would get a glimpse into that engine room, at all the characters huffing and puffing, fighting and fucking their way along in there, keeping this beast coined Rock n Roll running. Rock n Roll will never die if everyone in the engine room keeps doing their job. In that vein, this book did not disappoint. The first half is a fairly detailed portrait of what was going on in the world of music at the time the Stones stepped onto the world’s stage, how the times were a-changing and people were ready for something different. It’s ironic that what the Stones started out doing was Chicago blues — what was “different” is that it was now reaching a white audience.

Keith, Anita Pallenberg, son Marlon, 1969 source: virginmedia.com

Richards has a very definite opinion on how everything unfolded in his life and in the life of the band (i.e. he didn’t steal Anita from Brian Jones, he rescued her). It may not be the complete truth, but he’s not bullshitting the reader either – it is the truth as he believes it to be. In a lot of ways this is a long conversation with the man that you start in the middle of the afternoon over coffee and don’t finish until dawn the following day when the empty wine bottles lay strewn about you and you have the beginnings of a nasty headache coming on. It’s intimate, forthright, and in your face. There were times I flinched and felt like screaming: “TMI Keith! For godsake, TMI”

I was appalled to hear him so blithely recount his and Anita’s epic drug years, strung out on smack, with two small children in their care. Even after many arrests (and car crashes), it didn’t seem like there was ever any threat of having their kids taken away. When a third baby is born and dies in Anita’s care of supposed “crib death” my stomach rolled over with nausea. Maybe that’s all it was, but maybe it was from junkie neglect. Thank heavens Keith at least had the sense to send his little girl Angela to his mum to love and raise in England. Despite the extremely unconventional upbringing, Keith’s eldest son Marlon seems to be pretty well-adjusted these days with a family of his own. His few reminiscences that are included in the story are not filled with bitterness or anger, but rather with a sardonic humor and a deeply expressed loyalty to his father.

Mick and Keith recording Exile on Main Street

Mick and Keith recording Exile on Main Street

The music bits are really really good and if you’re a guitar player, you’ll even get some awesome tips. Keith’s descriptions of the songwriting process are fascinating too, as well as the realities of recording albums in the pre-digital age. My favourite portion of the book might just be the time the Stones spent in France recording the double album Exile on Main Street. I’ve since found out that a documentary has been made on this very subject called Stones in Exile that I now HAVE to see.

The book does become a bit of a slog in the third act. There are places where Keith begins to ramble a bit and the narrative loses focus. I mean c’mon, you’re not that fascinating bro, how about a little nip and tuck here and there; isn’t that what an editor is for? But overall, I remained completely immersed for the two weeks it took to listen to this unabridged version read by Johnny Depp, Joe Hurley and the man himself.

Keith Richards

Keith Richards, 2011

And what begins as a charming and enchanting coming-of-age tale and a young man’s love letter to the power of music eventually does descend into the pit of hedonism and rock star excesses. How could it not? It’s Keith Richards after all. But through all the shit, there is pure, unadulterated love for the music. That I can admire, that I can respect.

This review is also posted to Shelf Inflicted.

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