Tag Archives: David Thomas

Guest Post: Elvis Costello & John Pizzarelli – a comparison of memoirs

dave-thomasThis week’s post is brought to you buy retired music teacher & fellow Beatle freak – Dave Thomas. Dave wanted to write a comparison between two books written by musicians that have both colaborated with Paul McCartney. One of the books, Elvis Costello’s memoir, I reviewed on November 15, 2015…you can reread it here.

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While somewhere in the midst of reading Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello, and hearing him talk (albeit briefly) about his collaboration with Paul McCartney, I found myself thinking about a book by another artist who has worked with Sir Paul:  World on a String: A Musical Memoir by John Pizzarelli.  I read the latter book some time ago, and was struck by the similarities, yet drastically different tone and content of these two books.
I have never considered myself to be a huge fan of Elvis Costello’s music, but I have always had a great deal of respect for both the breadth of his musical knowledge, as well as his skills…and while I am not familiar with a great deal of his catalog, most of what I AM familiar with I enjoy very much.  When I am in the mood for lyrics that make me think, Elvis Costello has never disappointed.  His lyrics, by and large, are quite poetic, and in many cases, stand alone quite nicely apart from their musical accompaniment.  In his memoir, he will often slip in and out of these lyrics, using them to illustrate a point, or describe an event in his life.

Overall, his 2016 memoir (Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink) left me with very mixed feelings.  Perhaps it was the out-of-sequence way in which it was told, which made the story a bit difficult to follow at times.  Costello has worked with many musical partners over the years, in a variety of musical genres and styles…but the way the book has been edited left me with a case of musical and literary whiplash as we jumped into and out of stories featuring this eclectic mix of characters.  Perhaps it’s just that after 688 pages, I really don’t feel like I “know” Elvis Costello any better than I did before.  I know many more things about him than I did before, but all of these facts fail to leave me with a clear picture of who he really is. While clearly a talented, intelligent man, neither Mr. Costello’s music, nor this book, gives one the impression that he is “accessible”.  Perhaps that was his intention – he appears to be a private person who, although he sought fame, is not as comfortable with the reality of it, as he is the idea.
Given the length of the book, I would have hoped for more detail in his stories.  I was particularly disappointed at the lack of anecdotes surrounding his late 1980’s collaboration with Paul McCartney, which led to McCartney’s album “Flowers in the Dirt”, and also had an impact on Costello’s album, “Spike”….but the whole book felt somewhat lacking in specifics.  He dances around the edges of stories, especially those originating from a more reckless time in his life, in the earlier stages of his stardom.  He mentions several failed relationships along the way, but we never get a real understanding for why they failed; neither do we hear very much about his current relationship with the talented Ms. Diana Krall.
He talks quite a lot about his musician father, Ross McManus.  Elvis’ relationship with his father seemed to often be rocky, but he does owe a lot of his early musical influences to his father’s work as a musician as a trumpet player and singer.  They even collaborated on a few projects together, starting with a commercial jingle in 1973.  But it is difficult (based upon this book) to draw a clear musical line from the father’s work to the son’s.
There are a few (and just a few) moments of lightness and humor in the book, much of it having an air of lessons learned and a few regrets…but Costello’s tone seems to soften slightly when he talks about his father’s failing health robbing them of the music that was a large part of the bond between them.
This is all in very stark contrast with World on a String, by John Pizzarelli.
First – full disclosure:  While I cannot say I “know” John Pizzarelli, I have had numerous opportunities to interact with him, (along with his father, Bucky, and his brother, Martin) over the years – starting with the wedding of some mutual friends (mine and John’s) about 30 years ago.  John was still in his early 20’s, honing his skills, and I’ve enjoyed watching his talent develop and grow over the ensuing years.  Because of the interactions that we’ve had, I can tell you without equivocation that John Pizzarelli is one of the nicest, hardest working guys in “show business”.  So without any slight intended toward Mr. Costello, I acknowledge that this review may tend to favor Mr. Pizzarelli’s book.
I used the term “show business” above for many reasons, not the least of which is that it evokes an era that Pizzarelli is completely familiar with and comfortable in – the era which gave us the “Great American Songbook”.  The names Berlin, Mercer, Gershwin, Schwartz, Porter, van Heusen and Arlen come up frequently on his recordings, in his shows, and in this book.
John is a master story-teller, a pretty decent mimic (a talent which he employs often when telling stories), a wonderful crooner and a world-class guitar player.  Like Costello’s book, Pizzarelli spends a great deal of time talking about his father’s musical career, but in this case, the direct career line from father to son is unmistakable.  In fact, a great deal of John’s early career was spent playing gigs with Bucky, and the two still occasionally play together, as Bucky continues to demonstrate his mastery of the instrument at age 91 (as of this writing).
Unlike the somewhat dry, factual recounting we get from Costello’s book, Pizzarelli’s mood is upbeat and jovial, his stories full of amusing anecdotes and inside stories of well-known musical figures. The only change in tone comes when he speaks of his 1st manager, and to a lesser degree, his co-star in the Broadway musical Dream, Lesley Ann Warren.  Every story has enough detail to give you a “you are there” feel, despite the fact that at 304 pages, it is less than half the length of Costello’s book.
The Pizzarellis were, and are, a typical New Jersey Italian household: Sunday dinners were a very important event!  What was not typical was the people around the table at those dinners:  Les Paul, Zoot Sims, Joe Pass, and many, many other musical legends who knew and worked with John’s father, Bucky.  Reading this book (or better yet, listening to the audio version, read by John), you’ll feel like you’re at one of his shows, and at times, even sitting around in his living room being regaled with stories of jazz history.  His writing style puts you at ease, with a great deal of humor sprinkled throughout.
Unlike Mr. Costello, whose parents divorced when he was not yet out of secondary school, John’s childhood centered around a very strong home life.  It is no coincidence that Bucky, who was the original guitarist for the Tonight Show, decided not to move to California when Johnny Carson took the show from New York City to Burbank, because most of the Pizzarelli family was on the East Coast.  John was taught to play guitar by his father and uncles, and has worked all over the world for the last 30 years, often with his father Bucky on guitar and/or his brother Martin on bass.  In fact, both John and Bucky perform on Paul McCartney’s 2012 release, Kisses on the Bottom, (along with Costello’s wife, Diana Krall), and Pizzarelli’s stories about working with Sir Paul are much more forthcoming than Costello’s.
The reader gets the impression that his strong family ties are the main reason why John has stayed so grounded over the years, despite working with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Doc Severinsen, James Taylor, Paul McCartney, and probably most of the jazz musicians any reader could name.  The book leaves you with the impression that John is every bit the same person in private as he is on stage.
Two artists of our generation, born 6 years and 3,500 miles apart, with very different backgrounds, very different talents, and each having (for the most part) a very different fan base….  but both their paths intersected musically with Paul McCartney.  Such is the power of music to unite, and such is the magic of a Beatle.  But then, The Beatles have been uniting people through their music for over 50 years, so I guess that’s no great surprise.

 

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Documentary Review: “Eight Days A Week”

img_37581I thought I would take my time writing my review about Eight Days A Week since I know all the Beatles fans will be scurrying out to see the film themselves and every Beatles media person will be in a hurry to post their own review about it. But just when I thought I could take my time, everyone else’s reviews started popping up on my social media timelines. I won’t read other’s reviews before writing my own. I want mine to be fresh. Even in this case, I’ve asked guest review and friend David Thomas to also write a review for the film (it’ll appear after mine on this same post), and I’m not reading his until after I’m done.

So where to begin…

large_large_uv7syi4vryjvwob8qexbqnbucu5Was it a great movies? Yes, it was awesome! I know people who are already planning to see it multiple times. My thought was that I can’t wait for it to come out on DVD/Blue Ray. It’s absolutely a film you’re going to want to see again and again. Ron Howard did an excellent job of choosing the right footage and cast of characters. He interviewed both  Sigourney Weaver and Whoopi Goldberg to talk about what it was like to be a fan in the early years and about their own experiences of seeing the Beatles live in concert as teenagers, two ladies I would never have guessed would have attended. I think my only complaint might be that we never hear Whoopi’s reaction to the actual concert at Shea Stadium.

Beatles fans need to give Ron Howard a lot of credit for not beating the obvious points and trivia into our heads…like the  Jesus vs. The Beatles comment from John Lennon. It’s in there, but he keeps it in the flow of the documentary…same as the riot in the Philippines. Mr. Howard brings up early footage of the wives and families with quick glimpses of Ringo, Maureen and Zack, and John, Cynthia and Julian, (where were George and Patty Boyd though?) and then moves on. No Beatles family members were interviewed on camera for this…and that ain’t so bad! It’s keep as documentary about the Fab Four and not the opinions of their feuding family members.

I think my readers get the point without me continuing to ramble on. It’s a great film, wonderful footage and of course, Ron Howard is already talking about doing a second Beatles documentary! Go see the movie or pre-order the DVD.

I rate this movie, 4 out of 4 Beetles!

Now…what does David Thomas think? Here is his review:

Ron Howard’s “Eight Days a Week” – A fan’s perspective
cid_c8fc7d00-da8a-43bf-8ebe-98e1f177c821I titled this review “a fan’s perspective” as somewhat of a disclaimer.  It is often difficult to know what would be of interest to anyone who has not been as steeped in the history of The Beatles as I have been over the last 50 years.  Not that I claim to have seen it all, or that I know it all (far from it); but I also cannot assume that everyone has read all the books and heard all the music that I have over that period of time.
 
I will say at the start, I think that Ron Howard and the others involved in this film have put together a solid documentary telling the story of The Beatles “touring years”.  What many forget (because their music is ubiquitous, and we are still writing, talking, and making movies about them 50 years later) is that they were together in the “John, Paul, George and Ringo” incarnation for only eight years, and performed “live” for only 4 of those.  Although the focus of the film is on “touring”, it does give you a good sense of how busy the boys were during those first four years, besides playing live.  The stills and film footage have been collected from a multitude of sources around the world, and they vary widely in quality.  There are only a couple of “complete” live performances in the movie (i.e., continuous, complete songs), and producer Nigel Sinclair has said that this was because they found it interrupted the flow of the movie.  I happen to agree with him, but it doesn’t matter; this is not intended to be a Beatles concert movie. *
 
What the film does best, is give the viewer a clear picture of the mania that surrounded The Beatles during their career.  This movie brings it home in a way that no fan has experienced before.  Although I have been a Beatle fan since their first performance on Ed Sullivan’s show in 1964 (the quality of which was strangely poor on the big screen – I thought that would have been one of the better examples), I was too young to have actually attended one of their live concerts in person:  I was only 7 when they played their final show in Candlestick Park in 1966.  Even if you had the rare privilege of actually attending a Beatles concert in person, that was just one mad night that you will likely remember forever.  The Beatles experienced that madness every day of their career, and most intensely during their touring years.  I left the theatre wondering how it is that they were not all afflicted with some sort of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  
 
A few pieces of footage have been colorized.  Some of the concert colorization is nicely done, but the famous NY Pan Am press conference has a rather unnatural look to it.  None of this lasts long enough to be a major distraction, however.  In some cases audio had to be “synced” to the film from a separate source; i.e., the film may have been a silent film, but the audio was recorded separately, and then combined, or simply brought in from a better source than the one accompanying the actual film.  This can get dicey, especially if done poorly.  Music producer for the film was Giles Martin, son of The Beatles original producer, George Martin.  Giles has worked magic with many previous Beatles projects, including the re-mixing and re-mastering of 1977’s “The Beatles at The Hollywood Bowl”, which was released in conjunction with the film.  Giles was quoted in a recent interview as saying  “Imagine going to a concert today, recording something on your phone, and then intending to play it in a movie theater,” Martin says. “That would be better than what I was given.”  The talented Mr. Martin did a tremendous job of making the music performances not only watchable and listenable, but for the most part, truly enjoyable as well.
 
The theatre where I saw the film had people queuing up more than an hour before show time in order to get a good seat, and there were 3 showings scheduled that night, 2 of them sold out.  I got there an hour before show time, and there were 20 people ahead of me.  20 minutes later, there was a line behind me that went on for as long as I could see.  The anticipation in the theatre was visible, although one person I talked to in line had not read or seen anything about the movie prior.  He said he “just saw it was The Beatles, and bought a ticket.”  The power of the name “Beatles” more than 45 years after they broke up is still truly remarkable.  Fans all have their own Beatle experiences, memories, and reasons for seeing a film such as this.  And fans will find something to criticize, be it the fact that they have seen some of the footage before, the colorization was not to their liking, the audio was not perfect.  In this digital age we take for granted near perfect sound reproduction and 4K resolution.  But considering what they had to start with, none of the obvious shortcomings should be enough to keep you from enjoying this movie.  To paraphrase Paul McCartney, “it’s the bloody Beatles…shut-up”.
 
For the non-fan (is there such a thing as a non-Beatles fan?) or even the casual fan, it should serve as a concise historical document, which informs as well as entertains; what more can one ask from a documentary?
 
 
  • If you are fortunate enough to see this in a theatre, it IS being followed with a  full 30 minutes of footage from the famous Shea Stadium concert.  We have been told that that footage will NOT be on the DVD or blu-ray release.  It looks great, is a lot of fun, and even though Giles Martin toned down the screaming considerably in the mix (no small feat), I could see why they said enough in August of 1966.

 

 

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Book review: “Get Back: Imagine…saving John Lennon” by Donovan Day

Guest reviewer David Thomas takes on the new novel Get Back: Imagine…Saving John Lennon by Donovan Day.

This is the author’s first novel, and it shows in many ways. For starters, consider the title. This is a time-travel fantasy about the possibility of “saving John Lennon”, so the 2nd half of the title is clear and purposeful. I could understand “Get Back: Saving John Lennon” or “Imagine: Saving John Lennon”. Juxtaposing 2 song titles as an opening seems like he’s trying too hard or just couldn’t make up his mind. Not an auspicious start.

The author also says that he “wrote it for young adults”, but thinks “everyone — baby boomers, their kids and grandkids — will enjoy this trip back in time.” That’s true to a point.

It is certainly written on a level for young adults, but playing fast and loose with facts does not make for a good introduction to history. One of the main characters is a girl named Yoko (no, not that one) who is the granddaughter of someone named Lily Chang who supposedly was a close friend of The Beatles and even sang back-up on some of their records. The problem is, Lily Chang never existed, nor was she apparently modeled after any actual historical person. Furthermore, the main character time travels several times over the course of the story, with no more than a passing nod toward the consequences that his trips have on other events. It would not give too much away to tell you that for instance, Jim Morrison (The Doors) is now still alive and is living as a Shaman in the desert of Arizona.

The actual portion of the book that deals with what happens if John had lived, (which, given the title, one would think is the focus of the book) is not only quite short, but quite ludicrous. That was a major disappointment. The rest of the story was mainly about the main character, Lenny Funk, and his relationship with the aforementioned Yoko. All of that is pleasant enough, and somewhat entertaining, even for the adult reader.

My main problem with the book is this: If you’re going to write a time-travel fantasy about John Lennon, and would like to speculate on what happens to him beyond December 8, 1980, let your imagination run wild; this author failed pretty miserably at that, in my opinion. However, if you are trying to write a book as an introduction to The Beatles for a new generation, or to educate younger Beatles fans, I think it’s important to stick to the facts regarding events prior to that date, unless you explain (via time travel interference) how they were changed.

I rate it 2 out of 4 Beetles.

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Book review: “The Fab One Hundred and Four (The Evolution of The Beatles from The Quarrymen to The Fab Four, 1956-1962)” by David Bedford.

This week’s blog comes from: David Thomas – Guest Reviewer Extraordinare!

Jennifer has a lot of plates spinning at the moment, so she asked me to fill in on her review blog this week – I am happy to do so, since I always seem to be reading at least one book on The Beatles at any given time.


Question:  Who played drums with The Beatles before Ringo Starr?  a) Mike (McCartney) McGear, b) Pete Best, c) Norman Chapman, or d) all of the above?  If you answered anything other than “d”, your Beatles education is incomplete.  Not only is the answer “d”, but there are quite a few other names on that list as well!
I had the pleasure of meeting David Bedford last March at The Fest for Beatles Fans.  His first entry into the field of writing was Liddypool, Birthplace of the Beatles (To Understand the Beatles, You Have to Understand Liverpool).  Mr. Bedford appears to be a fan of lengthy subtitles, but those subtitles really explain what the book is about, as well as his motivation for writing it.  One might think there is little that has not already been written about The Beatles, but “Liddypool” gives the reader many valuable insights into the city that made John, Paul, George and Ringo the people they were and are. Having grown up in The Dingle, Mr. Bedford knows of what he speaks…and whether or not you know what The Dingle is, you really should grab a copy of “Liddypool” before it becomes impossible to find – it is now officially out of print, and according to a recent interview, there are no plans to reprint it at this time.
The Fab One Hundred and Four is David’s 2nd book.  It is an outgrowth of “Liddypool”, which contains a chapter entitled “The Fab 27”, where he charts every band member, name-change and lineup, from The Quarrymen to The Beatles.  He said that writing that chapter “brought home the realization that, at the heart of The Beatles’ story is the tale of a long line of musicians who came and went through the band until it became The Fab Four we all know and love by the end of 1962.”  He also “became fascinated with the story of how The Beatles were inspired and encouraged to begin their musical journey”, and “decided to find every musician who had played with The Beatles in their formative years, plus those who influenced them.”  Thus was the genesis of “The Fab One Hundred and Four”.
The book begins with a 2-page time line overview, followed by a list of the “104”, each entry being followed by a brief summary.  The book then devotes a chapter to each individual or group in the outline.  David’s research is thorough and meticulous, and he provides ample documentation for why each of the “104” should be included.  He also says that “along the way there may have been extra musicians not recorded here…but without further corroborative evidence they cannot be included.”
I am certain that even the most devout Beatle fan will learn something from this book.  Some of the more interesting chapters for me include those regarding John Duff Lowe (keyboards), Tommy Moore (drums), and Royston Ellis (beat poet).  The chapter on Norman Chapman (drums) was especially interesting to me, and few people know how close he came to being a full-fledged member of the group at one point.  There is even a chapter on Janice the Stripper, for whom The Beatles provided backing music at “Cabaret Artists’ Social Club”, owned by Allan Williams.
Although there is a tremendous amount of information to absorb here, the way the book is structured makes for very easy and enjoyable reading.  This book is a must have for any serious student of The Beatles music.


I rate it 4 Beetles


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Book review: “Allen Klein: The Man Who Bailed Out the Beatles, Made the Stones, and Transformed Rock & Roll”, by Fred Goodman

(This is a Guest Review by David Thomas.  He’s a retired music teacher and huge Beatles fan that I met a year ago at the Fest for Beatles Fans in New York.  If you love his review, leave a note for him in the comment section and maybe we can make him a regular guest. Enjoy!)


And now for something completely (well, partially) different; a guest review!  I was so pleased to be asked to fill in for Jennifer on her review this week as she tends to very pressing writing matters of a different kind. 
 
Yes – Allan Klein, the man we Beatles fans love to hate!  For a very long time, I’ve had an idea in my mind of what Klein was like.  Unfortunately, it was based solely upon not very flattering anecdotes, and the knowledge that he had caused trouble between the Beatles.  Besides, Paul McCartney, didn’t like him, so that was good enough for me!  But deep down, I knew there had to be more to this man than the stereotypical caricature I had in my mind, so I sought out this book.
 
The book itself is well written, albeit a bit tough to follow in spots where they are discussing the details of Klein’s financial and legal deals.  These spots are numerous but short, and they are really quite integral to the story, because Klein was extremely creative for his time in the way he structured deals for his artists (and himself).  Many of the things he did are commonplace (or in some cases, illegal) today, but back then, they were considered revolutionary and brilliant. 
 
Klein, as you may suspect, was far from a one-dimensional stereotype; in fact, he was a man of many contradictions.  One minute he seems to be the most despicable figure EVER in the entertainment business, and the next there is something about him that evokes your sympathy. He was greedy with some, yet generous with others; he was a fierce negotiator, yet full of insecurities about himself and his abilities.  He worked tirelessly to get a better deal for his clients, while simultaneously almost always getting an even better deal for himself.
 
The book gives an excellent history of Klein the man, and gives the insight I was looking for into what made the man “tick”.  We find out why he spent a good deal of his childhood in an orphanage, and over the course of time, how he transformed an early talent for numbers into a remarkable career….through a combination of hard work, perseverance, luck, and a little (okay, maybe more than a little) deceit thrown in along the way.  

As the title suggests, his dealings with the Beatles are only a part of what is discussed in the book, although from long before his first meeting with John Lennon, Klein made it his ultimate goal to work with them; an achievement which would say to the world, and more importantly to himself, that he had finally succeeded.
Guest Reviewer
 
A great read about a key figure in Beatle history.  I give this book 4 Beetles!
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