Book notes

Runnin’ with the Devil: A Backstage Pass to the Wild Times, Loud Rock, and the Down and Dirty Truth Behind the Making of Van Halen, by Noel Monk

I have no real liking for 95% of Van Halen’s music and never have. So why did I read this book?

Because it’s a case study of the 20th century music industry. Noel Monk was Van Halen’s manager in their prime, between 1978 and 1985. His story delivers the nitty-gritty work of management: keeping the band going, keeping the support staff going, dealing with chaos, making sure the merchandising comes through, and, most importantly, keeping a hawk’s eye on the money. It’s all anecdotal, but it’s vibrant, funny, and involving.

Unfortunately, it’s also a case study of how Celebrity destroys character. When Monk first meets Van Halen, they’re four decadently naive L.A. party teens, eager to please. By the end, three of them are cutting the fourth, their old friend Michael Anthony, out of the band proceeds, surgery without anesthesia. We watch Eddie Van Halen, a shy guitar genius, devolve into a slurry of cocaine and vodka. Roth’s ego sprouts wings and carries him off. Alex Van Halen gets mean, honing his paranoia like a razor in a sock. Finally Monk himself is shitcanned after years of faithful service. It makes for depressing reading, and reminds one of Robert Hunter’s tenth commandment of Rock ‘N Roll: “Destroy yourself physically and morally, and insist that all true brothers do likewise as an expression of unity.” If this is what success means, no one should want it.

This week read Jimmy Carter, a short bio by Julian Zelizer. Some thoughts on the first president I can, if barely, remember:

–“In March 1953, the family moved to Schenectady, New York, where Jimmy took classes in nuclear physics at Union College and prepared to become the engineering officer for the USS Seawolf, the second nuclear submarine. All of these years as an engineer helped to shape Carter’s approach to tackling issues. He developed a technical and managerial, as well as a nonideological, mind-set to problem-solving that would inform him throughout his career.”

Which was entirely the problem. Carter was an engineer by temperament, but he was elected as a pious, humble, peanut farmer. He was a walking symbol, tossed up by Seventies nostalgia. When things got bad, he reverted back to his technocratic mindset and then couldn’t understand why people disliked it.

–Amy Carter was not the Carters’ only child. In fact, her oldest brother was 21 years her senior. He was a pure Boomer, she was pure GenX. Amy was actually a symbol for children of the Seventies. We were all compared to Amy circa 1977.

-Carter was a very appropriate president for the Seventies. He represented the flux of the decade. A Republican accused him of trying to combine two contradictory ideas, the Southern good ol’ boy and the post-Sixties liberal, but the promise of Jimmy Carter was maybe they weren’t contradictory, maybe there could be a synthesis. Maybe you could have an evangelical semi-liberal Democrat who invoked Bob Dylan. The lines hadn’t hardened yet.

-People forget that the first part of the Carter administration went pretty well. The economy bounced back from the ’73-’75 recession. Hedonism was in fashion. The Cold War was on low flame. He arranged the only real advance in Arab/Israel peace the world has ever seen. You could make a case that the years 1975 to 1978 were some of the best America has ever known, a reasonably golden period.

-But the reason folks forget is that after 1978 things went dramatically into the toilet. Iran fell, chopping global oil production off at the knees, which engendered a new energy crisis. That torpedoed the economy and brought back stagflation, inspiring Fed Chief Volcker to resolve to choke off inflation once and for all by raising interest rates past all previously considered ceilings. Khomeini came to power, the hostages got taken, their rescue failed. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan

And all of these events were completely outside Jimmy Carter’s control. If Jerry Ford had been re-elected, he’d have been in the exact same vise. Ronald Reagan should have thanked his lucky stars he didn’t get nominated/elected in ’76, because everything would have played out the same. Instead, he got to come in as a savior, and benefited from the natural cycle of change.

Just finished “The Way Things Were,” by Aatish Taseer. It’s the story of an upper-class Indian living in New York who gets word his father, a scholar of Sanskrit and minor raja, has just died. He must bring his father’s ashes back to India, where he finds himself grappling with his, his family’s, and his country’s intertwined histories.

If that strikes you as thin gruel for a narrative, you’re right. The book is grievously afflicted by Litfic Fear of Plot. It’s more an extended collection of interlocking character sketches than anything. The last 200 pages or so dribble out, and the end contains no real resolution, redemption or climax.

Despite this, I enjoyed much of TWTW. The writing is gorgeous. Taseer can craft a great sentence, and is skilled at deploying little moments of insight. The central theme of the novel is “What does mean to be Indian?” and while there’s no answer (that would smack far too much of plot), there’s a lot of interesting discussion along the way. Taseer talks at length of the connections between languages, literature and life, a subject I love to see.

TWTW might be tough for those without a background of Indian history since the early 1970s. If you’ve never heard of the Emergency, the 1982 Blue Star troubles, or the early 90s reforms & the Ayodhya demolition, much of the book will read as gibberish. Taseer’s practice of throwing untranslated Hindi into his dialogue probably won’t help. But if you have an interest in Indian culture, where it’s been and where it’s going, the book has many valuable insights.

“Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin,” by Alice Echols

Very good bio of Janis, well conveys the transition between the folk/beatnik early Sixties and the rock/hippie High Sixties (a transition that Janis herself experienced). Things that stick with me are:

-the idea of the “Saturday Night Swindle,” which Janis heard from her father: “…about how you hear over and over that if you work real hard, you’ll go out Saturday night and have a really good time. And everybody lives for that good time, but it never really happens.”

-that Mnasidika, one of the first hip businesses in Haight-Ashbury, was originally intended as a store for lesbians. Due to lack of lesbians in the neighborhood, it switched focus to hippies.

-From Linda Gravenites, one of the best one-sentence summaries of the Haight I’ve ever heard: “Up until then [1967], people came because they were full to overflowing and were sharing their fullness. After that, it was the empties who came, wanting to be filled.”

The story of Janis herself is very sad, a cautionary tale of wanting fame and getting it. The main testimony to Echols’s abilities as a biographer is that you want to reach into the page and give Janis a hug, to comfort her. But it’s far too late for that.