Archive for book review

Book Review: Don Kirshner: The Man With the Golden Ear – How He Changed the Face of Rock and Roll by Rich Poldosky

Posted in History, Music, Non-Fiction, Reviews, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on February 4, 2012 by JE Cornett

This semi-biography of Don Kirshner by Rich Poldosky led me to identify a whole new genre of non-fiction: when mediocre books happen to stellar stories.

The story Poldosky tells in Don Kirshner: The Man With the Golden Ear – How He Changed the Face of Rock and Roll should, by all rights, be riveting. Don Kirshner’s role in the development of rock and roll has long been neglected; for almost thirty years, Kirshner was at the helm of some of the most interesting ventures in rock music. From his pivotal role in the Brill Building pop songwriting scene, to his early melding of music and videos with the creation of the Monkees and his long-running TV show Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. 

Unfortunately, Don Kirshner: The Man With the Golden Ear only tells part of that story. As such, it’s erroneously named; a book about “how (Kirshner) changed the face of rock and roll” would spend more time with the Monkees and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.  Instead, Poldosky focuses on Aldon Music, the publishing company Kirshner formed with Al Nevins in the late 1950s, and therefore is more about how Kirshner changed the sound of rock and roll.

Since Poldosky’s work is actually about Aldon Music rather than Don Kirshner, per se, what we get is a vivid picture of the Brill Building songwriting scene of the early 1960s, where pop songwriters like Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Cynthia Weill, Neil Sedaka and Carole Bayer Sager created some of the most memorable songs in pop music history, standards such as “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” “On Broadway” and “Up On the Roof.”  What’s more, the book reads like a who’s who of big names in early 1960s pop —  Bobby Darin, Connie Francis, Tony Orlando, Bobby Vee, Gene Pitney and the Shirelles all make cameo appearances,

For anyone who enjoys rock music, the pages Poldosky devotes to the halcyon days at Aldon’s Brill Building offices are the highlight of the book, offering  great insight into the way that pop music was written and marketed in the early 1960s. While Kirshner and Nevins’ song factory set-up was hardly unique, originating in Tin Pan Alley a generation before, it’s still fascinating. Poldosky describes some of the era’s most celebrated songwriters hammering away at their craft in cubicles separated with paper thin walls, writing songs on pianos. This close proximity bred fierce if friendly competition between songwriters, especially the husband/wife duos of Carole King and Gerry Goffin and Cynthia Weill and Barry Mann.

This section, however, is the high point of a book that is frustratingly uneven. While Poldosky’s interviews with Gerry Goffin, Jack Keller, Kirshner and others involved with Aldon Music paint a fascinating picture of how the songwriters worked, and provide creditable veracity to the narrative, Poldosky shortchanges his own accomplishment by offering distracting — and frankly unflattering — information about all the interviews he could not get. Instead of adding a few lines at the outset of the book explaining that Carole King, Cynthia Weill and Barry Mann (among others) declined to be interviewed, Poldosky inserts long, wandering asides throughout the book explaining the circumstances of each interview he did not get, and, in many cases, those he did. It’s distracting, to say the least, and interrupts the flow of the book.

Add to this numerous spelling mistakes, a final third of the book that feels rushed and incomplete, and Don Kirshner: The Man With the Golden Ear becomes a flawed, but nevertheless interesting account of one of rock music’s most influential characters.

Hardcover: 304 pages, including many photographs

Publisher: Hal Leonard (March 1, 2012)

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Book Review: California Gothic by Kristin Herrington

Posted in Literature, Reviews, Uncategorized with tags , on January 28, 2012 by JE Cornett

Kristin Herrington’s California Gothic is a classic case of the  “when bad books happen to good stories” phenomenon.  You know the type — all the ingredients of a great story are there, but somehow, it never gels. Despite occasionally inspired writing and a fascinating premise, something went horribly wrong with California Gothic. Sad to say, it’s nothing that a halfway-decent editor couldn’t have derailed.

First, a plot summary: before Aurora’s mother Jane passes away, she arranges for Aurora to receive a series of letters, explaining away some of the mysteries of Jane’s family. These mysteries encompass almost thirty years, beginning in the mid-1960s, when Jane, a singer in a girl group, meets J.C., a record producer, and Charlie, a member of a surf-rock band. The letters relate to Aurora Jane’s history with both J.C., who becomes Jane’s husband and father to her children, and Charlie, who becomes her lover. As Aurora learns more about her family, her life begins to unravel.

Now for the disclaimer: the plot summary makes California Gothic seem much more linear and interesting than it actually is. Which is a shame, because the premise would have made an excellent novel.

By Herrington’s own admission, Charlie is a fictional version of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, who drowned in the early 1980s. As such, the story touches on some of the aspects of Wilson’s life that are ripe for fictional interpretation: the music scene of the 1960s, Wilson and his famous brothers Brian and Carl’s abuse at the hands of their father, Brian’s struggle with mental illness, and even Wilson’s acquaintance with Charles Manson and the Manson Family.

However, instead of delving into these themes, Herrington abandons them. Aside from Jane’s truncated letters, these themes are never explored at all. The good version of California Gothic would have focused on Jane, J.C. and Charlie, but the version we get instead focuses on Aurora, who is quite possibly the least interesting — nay, the least interested — protagonist in print. The reader waits for Aurora to go in search of people who knew her mother, J.C. and Charlie, in order to find out more about Jane’s glamorous, if wrenching, past. Instead, we get to read about Aurora’s mind-numbing interactions with her co-workers and her indulgences in casual sex and cigarettes — and yes, that’s just as boring as it sounds. 

This is as good a time as any to point out that California Gothic appears to be a self-published work. This is likely the reason that an excellent story is buried underneath sleepwalker-as-protagonist Aurora’s story; any sort-of engaged editor would have led Herrington away from Aurora’s story (or lack thereof) and toward Jane’s.

Any merely sentient editor would have done away completely with one aspect of California Gothic in particular: the book occasionally employs a bizarre omniscient dead narrator whose identity or purpose is never fully explained.  While the writing in the dead omniscient narrator sections is good, the whole construct was so nonsensical that I literally can’t say anything else about it, because I have no idea what to say about it.

I can’t imagine that I’m the only reader who has been or will be intrigued by California Gothic‘s premise, only to be disappointed by the book itself. I just hope that someone is inspired enough by Herrington’s book to write a novel that takes advantage of what I would have thought to be a fail-safe setting and characters.