book reviews, celebrities

Repost: A review of Bruce Springsteen’s life story, Born to Run…

I posted this book review on my original OH blog January 4, 2017. It appears here as/is.

In the mid 1980s, I was an adolescent and Bruce Springsteen was at the top of his fame with the release of his album, Born In The USA.  I’m not sure why, but in 1986, I asked my dad to buy me Springsteen’s Live 1975-85 box set on cassette.  My dad obliged, and I used to listen to those tapes over and over again as I rode my bike to and from the barn where I boarded my horse, Rusty.  It got to the point at which I had all of the songs memorized, along with the stories Springsteen would sometimes tell before launching into a number.

As the years passed, I stopped listening to Springsteen as much.  I still admired his voice, though… not so much his singing voice, but the messages he conveyed through his music.  He always seemed like a very down to Earth kind of guy.  It also helped that I had a teacher in high school who knew Springsteen when he was just like everybody else, growing up in Freehold, New Jersey.  They had attended the same school and back then, he was just a greasy guy who played in local bands.  No one knew that one day, he’d be a superstar.

I suppose it was those memories that got me to read Springsteen’s recently released life story, Born to Run.  I have spent a couple of weeks reading about Springsteen’s Catholic upbringing in New Jersey and his colorful Irish and Italian family, as well as the origin of his famous last name (it’s Dutch).  I read about how, as a young guy, he hustled in New Jersey and, curiously enough, Richmond, Virginia, earning gigs and making a name for himself with his music.  He wrote of being really poor and doing all he could to survive and I can tell that he’s never forgotten those days.

Born to Run is a very personal book, with many insights into Springsteen’s life so far.  The writing is very strong.  There were times when I had to stop for a moment because Springsteen used an interesting word that threw me for a loop.  Although he comes across as this working class guy who grew up with very hardcore American ideals, he’s also fabulously deep and intelligent.  If he hadn’t been a musician and songwriter, Springsteen definitely could have had a successful career authoring books.  He’s very generous with his thoughts and expresses them beautifully.

I think my favorite part of Springsteen’s story was when he wrote about learning to ride horses.  He grew up poor and eventually got his thrills riding motorcycles.  Many years later, his daughter Jessica would get her first pony and eventually go on to become a world class equestrienne.  Bruce’s wife, Patti Scialfa, loved horses.  They bought a farm in New Jersey and bought a couple of steeds.  Suddenly, Springsteen was learning how to ride!  And his stories about learning how to ride are pretty funny, especially if you’ve spent any time around horses.  I grew up riding horses and Springsteen’s music was a theme for me during those years, so it was pretty cool to read about how he eventually came to love riding.

Another aspect of Born to Run that struck me was how much Springsteen respects his wife, Patti Scialfa.  She joined the E Street Band in 1984, just days before the Born In The USA tour began.  Scialfa had fiery red hair and a voice for torch songs that clearly touched Springsteen deeply.  He refers to hearing her sing “Tell Him” by The Exciters and how her voice grabbed him.  Many years later, after they had been married for awhile, Springsteen watched his wife informally entertain Frank Sinatra at a party.  They all sat around the piano while Scialfa sang and I could almost witness the admiration Springsteen has for Scialfa as she delivered music to ‘ol blue eyes himself.  Springsteen writes that Frank Sinatra had some very interesting friends, most of whom were not in the business of rock and roll.  Sinatra had befriended Springsteen, not as a musician or a star, but as a fellow New Jersey boy.  When I think of Springsteen’s humble origins and where life has taken him, it gives me some hope and wonder for my own future.

All in all, I found Born to Run a very enjoyable read.  As much as I liked Springsteen before I read his story, reading his book made me appreciate him all the more.  He comes across as a very normal, decent, passionate guy who happened to make it very big in a business where staying power is not always the norm and narcissism is the order of the day.  I appreciate how generous he is with his story… you get over 500 pages of Springsteen tales and they’re all written beautifully.  If I were rating Born to Run on Epinions, I would for sure give it five stars.

Highly recommended!

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book reviews

Repost: A review of The Facts of My Life by Charlotte Rae…

I wasn’t going to put up another repost today, but I just realized that I never got around to reposting my review of the late actress, Charlotte Rae’s, book about her life. And since I’ve been binge watching The Facts of Life, I figure now is a good time to repost this review, dated December 15, 2015.

Having grown up in the 70s and 80s, I watched a lot of TV.  One of my favorite shows was Diff’rent Strokes.  I also loved The Facts of Life.  Both shows starred Charlotte Rae as Mrs. Edna Garrett, a maternal, wise, loving woman who first served as a live in housekeeper, then became the cook/dietician/house mother at Eastland School for Girls.

What I didn’t know was that Charlotte Rae’s career encompassed so much more than just 80s era sitcoms.  I learned much more about her life when I read her book, The Facts of My Life, which she co-wrote with her son, Larry Strauss.

Charlotte Rae Lubotsky was born the middle of three daughters to Russian Jewish parents.  She grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Born in 1926, Charlotte Rae was around to see the Great Depression and watch her parents and everyone else around her struggle to make ends meet.  Nevertheless, Rae and her sisters were musically talented and felt a pull toward show business.  After studying at Northwestern University among several other future stars, Rae moved to New York City and became active in the theater.

Having married John Strauss, Rae bore two sons.  Her older son, Andy, was severely autistic and spent most of his life institutionalized.  After a lifetime of health struggles, Andy passed away in 1999.  Her younger son, Larry, is a writer and teacher.  Rae writes about what it was like to work in the theater and later, Hollywood.  She and her husband battled alcoholism and later, Rae dealt with the fact that her husband preferred the company of males.  They managed to stay friends after their divorce. 

Rae writes quite a lot about her family of origin and her career.  Her attitude is upbeat, even as she describes having to deal with sibling rivalry with her older sister, Beverly, who was an opera diva.  Younger sister, Mimi, was a great pianist.  Rae describes her voice as “bluesy”, which is kind of hard for me to imagine, having seen her be Mrs. Garrett for so many years.  Apparently, she is quite an accomplished singer, besides a great actress.

Sister Beverly Ann became an opera singer, then married a wealthy doctor and became a socialite.  Sadly, she succumbed to pancreatic cancer.  Pancreatic cancer has since become a cause near and dear to Rae’s heart.   

I never knew that Charlotte Rae struggled with alcoholism.  Apparently, she’s been sober for about forty years.  She praises Alcoholics Anonymous and her AA buddies for helping her stay ahead of her addiction to booze.  I also didn’t know that Rae was Jewish.  She shares some interesting anecdotes about what it was life to grow up Jewish in the United States. 

Parts of this book were very witty.  Other parts were kind of sad.  Those who are looking for anecdotes about Diff’rent Strokes or The Facts of Life may come away somewhat disappointed; after all, this book is not just about those two shows, even if they did make her much more visible to the world.  But what she does share is enlightening and heartwarming.  We are reminded that Mrs. Garrett and Charlotte Rae are two different entities, as are the people who portrayed the characters with whom Rae starred.

I think this book will appeal most to people like me, who have enjoyed Charlotte Rae’s talents.  As celebrity life stories go, it’s pretty interesting.  I’d give it four stars.

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book reviews, music

Repost: Shining Star, Philip Bailey’s life story!

Here’s another as/is book review, originally posted in 2015. This review was written before Maurice White’s death.

Having been a child of the 1970s and 80s, I am well acquainted with the fusion genius of the band Earth, Wind & Fire. I had a sister who played their music all the time and, of course, I heard it on the radio non-stop. When I got older, I started to buy the band’s better known albums. I have always admired the great talents of the people who comprise the elements of Earth, Wind & Fire (EWF), especially the band’s founder, Maurice White, and falsetto frontman and conga player Philip Bailey. When I saw that Bailey had written a book about his life and experiences in EWF, I knew I had to read it. I just finished the book the other day and feel like I came away with new respect and knowledge for a very long running and talented band.

EW&F in 1973.

Bailey co-wrote his book, Shining Star, with ghostwriters Kent and Keith Zimmerman, but I always got the sense that the words in this book were coming straight from Bailey himself. He starts at the beginning, explaining how his parents moved to Denver, Colorado, where he was born. Since Bailey’s father was a military man who had a rocky relationship with his mother, Bailey didn’t really know his dad until he was well into adulthood. He and his sister were primarily raised by his mother and his stepfather.

Philip Bailey expressly thanks the public education system of Denver, Colorado for giving him strong instruction in music. That education led him to his chosen career as one of the lead singers for one of the most influential, most talented, and best loved bands in music history. He also writes about Maurice White, who grew up in Memphis and eventually moved to Chicago, where his mother and stepfather, Verdine Adams, Sr., gave him two half brothers. Brothers Verdine White, the frenetic bass player for EWF, and drummer brother Freddie, changed their surnames to White’s out of a sense of solidarity with their older brother. 

Bailey offers a colorful account of the band’s earliest days, when they traveled to gigs in station wagons. I got a kick out of his commentary about how the band got around in the early days. Apparently, Verdine White is a fantastic bass player, but can’t drive worth a damn. He also writes about how the earliest stage shows were conceived, where they got their costumes, and even offers some fun trivia about EWF in its heyday. For instance, I had no idea that the band hired Doug Henning and David Copperfield to make their live shows more exciting and… magical.

Philip Bailey also writes about some of the less pleasant aspects of being in the band. During EWF’s heyday, Bailey was pretty much an employee in the group and was paid accordingly. Maurice White called all the shots and was paid the most, which naturally led to some friction, especially when the band temporarily broke up in the 1980s. Bailey and the rest of his bandmates were enjoying a steady and generous paycheck, which abruptly stopped when Maurice White determined it was time.

One aspect of this book that I found especially interesting was EWF’s association with David Foster. In 1978, Foster was a young, up and coming composer. He approached EWF with a ballad he’d written called “After The Love Is Gone”. It, of course, became a monster hit for EWF and launched a successful partnership between Foster and EWF. David Foster has gone on to have a great career composing music for other bands and movie soundtracks. Indeed, he’s work a lot with another brass heavy band called Chicago, which has been known to share concert billing with Earth, Wind & Fire. Aside from working with David Foster, Bailey also famously sang a duet with Phil Collins. If you were around in 1984, you might remember “Easy Lover”, which Bailey recorded with Collins right after EWF temporarily folded.

Philip Bailey discusses his memoir, Shining Star.

Bailey also reveals information about his personal life. Bailey married his first wife, Janet, when they were both very young. Life on the road presented a lot of temptations, though, and Bailey admits that he was not faithful to his wife. One affair produced an out of wedlock daughter. He also dabbled a bit in drugs. Nevertheless, they went on to have four children. After their divorced, Bailey got remarried to a woman named Krystal with whom he had two more kids. They divorced in 2010.

Unfortunately, Maurice White no longer performs with EWF. He suffers from Parkinson’s Disease, which makes making music at his prior level impossible (edited to add: Maurice White died in 2016). White still maintains an executive role in the band, which is now wholly fronted by Philip Bailey, Verdine White, and Ralph Johnson. I still love listening to this band even without Maurice White at the front. Just watching Verdine White dance while he plays bass is enough to get me going. 

Shining Star is required reading for any EWF fan. Bailey does a great job balancing his personal story with that of the band’s, offering plenty of interesting stories without getting bogged down in minutiae. He includes photos and lots of juicy tidbits about what it’s like to work with some of the finest musicians popular music has ever heard, but he never gets long-winded. Naturally, I recommend his book! It made the music nerd in me sing!

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book reviews

Keith Richards’ book, Life… like dishing with the coolest guy, ever.

Back in 2018, when we were all still blissfully unaware of what was coming in 2020, Bill and I took in our very first Rolling Stones concert. It was an absolutely incredible show. I was blown away by Mick Jagger, and his bandmates, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, and Ronnie Wood. I never understood why Jagger was considered so sexy until I saw him perform live. Even in his mid 70s, he had, and still has, phenomenal charisma.

But I also noticed Keith Richards, playing guitar and, much to my surprise, looking kind of humbled by the roaring crowd of 40,000 people. Everyone in the Stones has charm and poise on stage, and they are a mythical band. But Keith Richards kind of touched me because he genuinely looked like he appreciated the praise, even though he’s been playing shows for decades. I was charmed and disarmed by the sight of the legendary axman, who has been the butt of so many jokes about addiction over the years. I wanted to know more about him.

My friend, Joann, told me about Richards’ book, Life, which was published in 2010. I decided to download it, and I’ve been trying to finish it for weeks. I don’t know why, but lately when I try to read, I often end up falling asleep. I used to breeze through books in hours or days. Now it takes me a lot longer. I’m glad I stuck with Life, though. Keith Richards is a fascinating person who’s led a very unusual life. He had humble beginnings in Dartford, a community in Kent, England, where he met Mick Jagger and became a member of a boys’ choir. Seriously… I was surprised by that.

From there, he goes on to write about how he got in trouble with the law and spent time in prison. He got in trouble for tax evasion in France, had a relationship with Anita Pallenberg and had children, then had another relationship with Patti Hanson, with whom he has two daughters. It turns out that Keith Richards is extraordinary, but he’s also ordinary in the most relatable ways. He loves dogs. He loves Bangers and Mash and Shepherd’s Pie, and even includes his recipe for bangers and mash in the book. He’s unexpectedly funny and witty, as he describes how he and the other Stones went through a period during which they called Mick Jagger “Brenda” and complained about him when he was actually in the room. He describes a pesky bird that he once had that was like a “fractious aunt” who complained constantly. He said it was the only animal he ever gave away, and that it reminded him of Mick in a cage, pursing his lips. Those kinds of quips kept me reading when my eyelids were heavy.

Notice Waddy Wachtel is playing, too… I love his work!

I was kind of surprised by the ending, not because there was an actual surprise, but because it seemed rather abrupt. I was not expecting the book to end when it did. But when it did end, I considered what I’d learned about Keith Richards. I even looked up his band, X-pensive Winos, which he formed during a Rolling Stones’ dry spell. He explains, with some bitterness, that Mick Jagger would go through periods during which he wanted to promote his solo career. He’d hire other musicians to play songs by the Stones. Keith didn’t seem too impressed by that, and his disdain is palpable. And yet, he forgave Mick and still put on a wonderful show in Stuttgart, back in 2018.

Cool story, bro! Seriously, worth a listen.

Keith Richards writes about how he tunes and plays his guitar to get that distinctive Stones sound that so many people try and fail to emulate. He writes about the people who inspired and moved him… like Muddy Waters and Etta James. He seems like a genuinely nice person, despite his reputation for being an alcoholic and drug addict. And yes, there are plenty of stories about drugs in this book, too, some of which are written by guest authors. And more funny quips… like when he wrote about how Charlie Watts punched Mick in the face. Seriously, it sounds like Mick Jagger is a total asswipe at times. I’m glad they reconciled, though.

Life is full of hilarious stories… and some poignant ones, like the one Richards writes about how he once hired a couple of prostitutes in Jamaica at a brothel near his house. It wasn’t because he wanted to have sex with him. He was writing a song and wanted their insights about prostitution. They said they’d tell men they loved them, but “you don’t have to mean it.” Keith used that to write lyrics. Meanwhile, he’d let the hookers sleep, which they really needed to do. It was an easy gig for them, and a creatively fruitful one for Keith Richards.

Anyway… I definitely think Life is a good read, and well worth the effort if you like the Rolling Stones. I think I would love knowing Keith Richards. He doesn’t seem shallow at all. I love a life story that leaves me with the impression that I would like to know the person who wrote it. Keith Richards and his contributor, James Fox, have done just that.

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