Posts Tagged ‘biographies


A Cat Down Under the Stars: Garcia – An American Life by Blair Jackson

Garcia: An American Life by Blair Jackson

Garcia: An American Life

This is a big summer for Grateful Dead fans, both the 20th anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s death and the 50th anniversary of the band’s formation. It’s no wonder the band is getting back together and playing a few shows – albeit at a rather expensive ticket price.
And in the years since the band’s legacy has changed a bit: people generally look past the troubles of their later years (rough performances, riots among fans, a grueling tour schedule) and focus on the brighter spots. Recent archival releases include their gig at the Gaza Pyramids, two box sets of their spring 1990 tour and an incendiary show from February 1968. So, lots of good times, then.

So with the big anniversary, it seemed appropriate to finally get around to Blair Jackson’s biography of the Dead’s lead guitarist: Garcia: An American Story. It’s a thoroughly researched, interesting book and does a good job charting his unlikely rise and all-too-predictable fall.

Garcia was born into a musical family: his father played in local bands and opened a bar that featured live music. But his upbringing was rough and troublesome: his dad drowned and Garcia wound up splitting time between his mom and grandparent’s place. He drifted into a rough crowd, dropped out of high school and spent time in the Army before falling into a burgeoning folk music scene.

These early years in San Francisco had a lasting impact: he met future band mates, his first wife and Robert Hunter, who’d have a life-long working relationship with Garcia: Hunter wrote the words and Garcia the music for many of the Dead’s most famous songs.

Jackson takes readers through these years fairly quickly, showing Garcia as a drifting, rootless musician: he’d crash with friends, play around in bands and didn’t seem to have much of a future planned. Eventually, one of his bands went electric and started playing around as The Warlocks; soon, they’d rename themselves as The Grateful Dead. They were certainly in the right place at the right time, quickly becoming the house band for Ken Kesey’s infamous Acid Tests.

From there the story is generally familiar to heads: the band slowly shot to fame, playing both Monterey and Woodstock and started releasing albums. But even at this point, Jackson shows Garcia’s darker side: he left his first wife and child to hook up Carolyn Adams, aka Mountain Girl, coming across as someone who doesn’t really think about consequences. It’s an attitude that comes up again and again.

As Jackson points out, Garcia’s musical career was long and varied. But except for the Dead, most of his side projects were very short lived. His bands with Merl Saunders lasted five years before Garcia abruptly fired him; Old and In the Way lasted just more than a year before falling apart. Despite his image as a friendly, almost grandfatherly figure, Garcia was a demanding musician for most of his career while also being someone who’d change directions on a whim – and leave the firing to someone else. It was often the same in his personal life, where he’d leave one partner for another, often leaving them hanging in the wind.

Early in the book, Jackson says he tried to write a positive biography – “the Forces of Light win in this book,” as he writes – but even so, Garcia’s story is tragic: starting in the mid-70s, he started using cocaine regularly and eventually graduated to smoking heroin. Compounded with a poor diet and a serious smoking habit, Garcia’s body gave out several times; a diabetic coma in 1986, a serious illness in the early 90s and eventually a massive, fatal heart attack in 1995.

However, the unspoken aspect of Jackson’s statement isn’t about how he’s treating Garcia, but about the reaction to an earlier oral biography of Garcia: Robert Greenfield’s Dark Star, a book that paints a dark picture of Garcia and his final years: already in poor health and surrounded by enablers, Garcia worked himself to death by relentlessly touring, both as part of the Dead and in his solo vehicles.

While Greenfield’s book is much darker than Garcia, both work well together: Greenfield for the darker elements of the life (including his relationships with doctors and enablers), Jackson’s for the positive aspects. It’s worth noting Jackson never specifically blames anyone for Garcia’s problems, but does come to the same general conclusion as Greenfield: the Dead just toured too much and for too long, especially when Garcia probably should’ve been relaxing and taking care of his health.

As a biography, Jackson’s book is packed with first-hand sources and interviews and provides a reasonably clear picture of Garcia: a talented musician, but someone who didn’t like taking responsibility and didn’t like (or react well to) the pressures and trappings of fame. There are moments where he perhaps overwrites a bit:

“His guitar could cry tears born of existential longing one moment and roar like a firebreathing dragon the next. Sometimes one crystalline, perfectly formed note was all it took to draw a tear or a smile or even ask a question.”

But then again, it’s The Grateful Dead, so you’ve got to expect a bit of hyperbole.

Rating: 8/10. A fully enjoyable, well-researched biography and one I’d recommend to fans of the Dead or Garcia’s solo music. There’s a nice annotated discography in the back, too, although it’s quite out of date at this point.


Richard Nixon: Alone in the White House – Richard Reeves

President Nixon: Alone in the White HousePresident Nixon: Alone in the White House by Richard Reeves

A huge, exhaustive look at Nixon’s first term of office, Reeves’ book is a compelling day-by-day look at the making and unmaking of a presidency, often at the same time. It’s an interesting read.

When Nixon rolled into the Oval Office in 1969, he brought in a handful of loyalists whose jobs were to insulate him from stuff he deemed un-presidential. If people wanted to talk with him, they had to go through Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman first. So right from the get-go, maybe Nixon’s presidency was doomed: he didn’t trust his staff, loathed the media and had nasty, paranoid edge. He assumed everyone else did, too.

The Nixon that emerges out of the pages of this biography is one of a guy who couldn’t trust people and assumed everyone was as paranoid, cynical and prone to backstabbing as he was. He’d lie to one person, tell another lie to a second and wait to see which lie got into the media first. He had a whole cabinet at his disposal but trusted just a handful of people: namely Henry Kissinger, Haldeman, John Mitchell and John Ehrlichman.

So he plotted, plotted and plotted. At his direction, journalists had their phones bugged and conversations were secretly recorded. Even before Gordon Liddy proposed operation Gemstone – more on that in a second – the Nixon White House reads like something out of Machiavelli or Game of Thrones, a place where everyone plotted how best to stab someone in the back. Indeed, things got nasty early on, when the White House helped cover up the murder of a Vietnamese agent by CIA agents, a move Nixon personally pushed along and helped inspire Daniel Ellsberg to leak the Pentagon Papers.

Eventually because of that and other leaks, a second and more infamous cast of characters comes into play: Liddy, Charles Colson and The Plumbers. These people were assigned to find and fix leaks in the White House, to stop people from talking to the press and to deal with what the White House deemed enemies. In one particularly insane passage, Liddy pitches a program he called Gemstone to Mitchell and John Dean:

“I have secured an option to lease a pleasure craft docked in the canal directly in front of the Fontainebleau Hotel. It is more than 60 feet long, with several staterooms, and expensively decorated in a Chinese motif. It can also be wired for sight and sound… we can, without much trouble, compromise these officials through the charms of some ladies I have arranged to have living on the boat.” (pg 430)

Mitchell and Dean both think the plan is insane, but regardless Liddy is kept on anyway, and soon plans are hatched for bugging prominent Democratic leaders.

It’s easy to focus on the seamy side of this book, but Reeves covers the triumphs of Nixon’s Presidency, too. He goes in depth on how Nixon reopened relations with China, the long and arduous peace talks with North Vietnam and the SALT treaty with the Soviet Union.

In many of these foreign deals, Kissinger played a key role, often operating under only Nixon and in total secrecy from everyone, including Secretary of State William P. Rogers. The more I read, the more Kissinger reminded me of Nixon, too: paranoid, often near hysteria and constantly plotting against others. Unlike Nixon, though, he loved attention from the media, which eventually gave him a pass on some of the stuff he does in these pages, like ordering the bombing of Cambodia.

The book more or less focuses on Nixon’s first term, ending with the President admitting defeat and wandering off to soak in a hot tub in April 1973. A brief epilogue covers the final months of his presidency in brief.

Reeves does an admirable job cutting through the many, many documents Nixon left in his wake. There are hours of tapes, thousands of notes and even annotations on his news summary, just to mention what Nixon was behind. And while the book is detailed, only occasionally did I find the sheer mass of information overwhelming.

More often, it read like a screenplay, cutting between Nixon in Moscow and Liddy breaking into Larry O’Brien’s office, two currents representing the highs and lows of Nixon: his success in foreign affairs and his paranoid tendencies that ultimately brought him down.

It’s also worth noting the book is well-researched, with a good 50 pages of notes, a lengthy bibliographic essay by Jonathan Cassidy and had interviews with everyone from Nixon and several of his cabinet officials (although John Connelly is an interesting omission, if not a surprising one; he passed on Caro, too).

A final note: between the lines, Reeves sketches out what we could call the post-Nixon era. As President, Nixon looked to cater to what he called the Silent Majority. The way he went out to make the Republican Party more like that of southern Democrats, the way he relentlessly attacked the media and the way he tried to unite working class people against students, intellectuals and journalists seems like the beginning of the populist playbook used by everyone from Reagan to Sarah Palin, with varying degrees of success. Nixon: he haunts us still. (I believe Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland covers this in better detail; I haven’t had a chance to read it yet).

Rating: 7/10. Although it’s maybe a little too much at once for people looking for a concise look at the Nixon presidency and it ends a little sooner than I’d have liked, President Nixon is a well researched and compelling read about his first four years. Recommended.

View all my reviews


The Rise and Fall Of Folk Music: Positively 4th Street – David Hajdu

Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard FariñaPositively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña by David Hajdu

A confession: I may have a slight Bob Dylan obsession. I own a bunch of his albums, have written a bunch of pieces about him and own a handful of books about him and his music. Dylan’s a fascinating guy: how did this awkward, mumbling guy from Minnesota take the folk world by storm, explode into rock music and revolutionize music in less than five years?

Those questions were part of the attraction for David Hajdu’s book positively 4th Street. His four-headed biography also covers Richard Farina and the Baez sisters, Mimi and Joan. And Hajdu’s book more than delivers. He covers the rapid rise of Joan Baez, the emergence of Dylan and the long incubation period for Farina’s novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me (previously reviewed here!). It’s not always pretty, sometimes not even nice. If I’m being honest, it’s why I enjoyed this so much.

At the book’s centre are the two Baez sisters, Joan and Mimi. They grew up on the west coast with Quakers for parents and learned guitar early. As a musician, Joan was prodigiously talented: before she turned 19, she performed in coffeehouses, popped up on compilation albums and debuted at the Newport Folk Festival. She was also driven to succeed: Hajdu recounts how she hustled her way backstage at Newport, hung just off to the side and asked just about every performer if she could duet with them.

Joan didn’t let people get in her way, even if they were family. Hajdu writes how Joan shut her sister Mimi’s career down almost before it started, telling Mimi she couldn’t sing to protect her own career: “I didn’t want any competition,” said Joan, “and I felt my success would overshadow her.” (pg 25) Indeed, this dismissive attitude comes through at various points; later, upon hearing “Blowin’ In the Wind”, she remarks how she didn’t think Dylan “had it in him.” (pg 120)

Is it insecurity? I don’t think so, especially when compared to Hajdu’s portrait of Richard Farina. While Farina comes off occasionally as a fun guy, prone to throwing parties and generous with praise and adventure, he also appears as insecure as jealous husbands get: opening (and answering!) his wife’s mail, telling his first wife Carolyn Hester what to eat and how to dress and convincing other people to sneak his pistol across international borders.

He does not come off as a nice guy at all. Prone to flattery and lying, Farina would tell people either what they wanted to hear or wild half-truths: he had ties to the IRA, a metal plate in his head, he fought in the Cuban revolution. For all the fun parties he threw, for all his innovations to folk music – Hajdu makes an interesting case for him revolutionizing the way the people play the dulcimer  – he never comes off as someone who’d be fun to be around for any length of time.

It’s interesting to compare him to Dylan, though. They share some traits, especially one for reinvention. But where Farina comes off seeming like a self-promoting liar at times, Dylan comes off like an enigma: he tells so many blatant falsehoods about himself – he raced motorcycles! Ran away to join the circus! Played on early Elvis albums! – he almost dares you to realize he’s fucking with you; Farina just seems to crave attention.

And once Dylan enters the book, his personality dominates it. Hajdu covers his early years and especially his relationship with manager Albert Grossman. It was Grossman’s pushy management style that led to his songs being covered by artists like Peter, Paul and Mary even as his first LP stalled on the charts, but Hajdu alleges cash payoffs to club owners and reporters helped ensure Dylan found stage time and notice in the press.

But if he needed a push to get started, he quickly shot off like a rocket. Before long, Joan and Bob were on top of the folk world. Hajdu covers some of the breathless coverage from the trade papers of the day, who write about them in gushing terms. While they each influenced the other, he’s also careful to show how wide apart they were even at their closest; politically, musically and even in terms of personality, they were ill-matched.

Dylan’s quick sense of reinvention keeps the book moving. While Farina and Mimi became a married folk duo, experimenting with incorporating rock into folk and as Joan’s music took a more direct, anti-establishment bent, Dylan was jumping headlong into rock, playing with The Hawks and writing in wild, pot-fuelled bursts. It couldn’t last.

Throughout the book, Hajdu never lets Dylan get one over on him: Dylan was capable of writing great music, but he was capable of being vicious and cruel, too. Hajdu never shies away from Dylan cheating on Joan, from his ever-increasing drug use or from him eviscerating Joan in songs like “She Belongs To Me.” Here’s his take on “Positively 4th Street”:

“The subject of (the song) is prey to a twisted psychology close to sadism… Once he establishes himself as a wounded victim, Dylan uses this justification to rip his opponent apart.” (pg 279).

Hajdu mixes this criticism throughout the book, providing background for songs and explaining technical points about the music, but it’s never as outspoken as Clinton Heylin’s books on Dylan. It’s well researched, with a nice bibliography and background notes and he’s interviewed just about everyone involved (even Thomas Pynchon!). While only Dylan refused interviews, Hajdu had access to a trove of unpublished interviews from the Experience Music Project.

Rating: 8/10. I enjoyed this one a bunch, plowing through it in only a few days. It’s a compulsive, informative read on an interesting time in music. While nobody really comes off too nicely in this, that’s part of the appeal for me: it’s not an exercise in mythologizing, another book about how great Dylan or Baez are. It’s a book about four young people, each of them flawed in their own way, who broke into folk before breaking it apart. Recommended.


But Who Was Willy Shakes? – Will In the World by Stephen Greenblatt

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt

Lately, I’ve been on a bit of a Shakespeare kick. Over the past year or so, I’ve grabbed just about a shelf full of his plays (generally the Oxford ones, although lately I’ve been grabbing Arden’s versions instead), literary criticism of his plays (Harold Bloom’s Invention of the Modern Mind stands out) and even a biography or two.

So when I grabbed a copy of Stephen Greenblatt’s biography of Shakespeare, I had an idea what to expect: a look at where he came from and of his time in the London theatre scene. Maybe something about his legacy, certainly something on how the First Folio was published. And almost surely a lot of supposition.

And while Greenblatt’s book is a little of all those, but it’s a lot more, too. Thing is, not all of it’s about the man himself.

There’s not a ton of details left unexplored for Shakespeare, which makes the few things we know well-covered. The will leaving the second-best bed to Anne, the story of why left Stratford-upon-Avon, a handful of portraits and first-hand accounts. Greenblatt’s book generally covers all the major events of Shakespeare’s life and takes a critical look at them, too. When he relates a story from John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, he’s careful to note how inaccurate Aubrey’s book is.

Where it stands out best is when Greenblatt turns his critical eye to Shakespeare’s plays. The later chapters are mostly focused on specific plays, rather than a clear chronology of his life, and Greenblatt goes into the social and political contexts of each play, buttressing his conclusions with ample quoting from the plays themselves. For example, he draws a line between King James’ fear of witches and a small play written by Matthew Gwinn to the three witches’ in Macbeth and their role in guiding the action along.

It’s interesting stuff. Greenblatt breaks down why a character like Shylock resonates so specifically, while drawing connections between his character and then-contemporary London, putting the play not just in context but offering an interpretation on how it came together and what motivations Shakespeare may have had.

But read that last sentence again: may have had. For every opinion offered in this book, Greenblatt is careful to point out it’s speculative. Phrases like “…It is difficult to attribute anything in Hamlet specifically to these events…” (pg 310) come up again and again. Another example, this time in a section about how Shakespeare parodyed his contemporary playwrights: “if all the plays had survived, scholars would no doubt have identified other instances.” Possibly, but that’s more supposition.

In a preface, Greenblatt admits the trail is long on items but short on details. “To understand how Shakespeare used his imagination to transform his life into art, it is important to use our own imagination,” he writes (pg 14). All the guesswork isn’t a fatal flaw here, but it keeps a nagging doubt in the back of my mind: how much of this book is Greenblatt’s interpretation? Does it extend further than an analysis of the poems and plays? Does he project on to the facts, like with Shakespeare’s marriage?

In a chapter focusing on that marriage, Greenblatt looks thoroughly through the plays to find evidence that William and Anne’s marriage was an unhappy one. He quotes from All’s Well That Ends Well, Macbeth, Hamlet and elsewhere, each time striking at his idea that the marriage was unhappy and distant. While he eventually concludes Shakespeare may have written a single sonnet to his wife, he also writes it off as almost unworthy of mention: “such an origin may explain its anomalous meter… and it’s ineptitude,” he writes. (pg 143). Nowhere does he mention what role (if any) she played in getting his plays published and barely touches on her life in Stratford must’ve been like. One of the other Shakespeare books I’ve been reading takes a different angle; look for review of Germaine Greer’s Shakespeare’s Wife sometime soon.

Still, even if this is a highly individualist take on the plays, it’s one I’m glad to have read. While I’m sometimes a little skeptical of his conclusions, I’m not going to argue with the breadth of research and knowledge that went into this. It’s obvious that he knows the plays inside and out, but more interestingly, has done volumes of research. His notes in the back aren’t overly specific – he rather mentions what he’s referring to than pointing to each reference specifically – but suggest a whole other shelf full of secondary material: biographies, histories, essays and collections of documents.

Where I found this biography a little lacking was in a clear narrative. Perhaps it’s because of a general lack of resources, but Greenblatt moves around a lot. He’s unable to give much information on the final years of Shakespeare, dryly noting that nobody bothered recording when or how he died. Likewise, his ideas on Shakespeare’s marriage, relationship towards his children and connection to fellow actors and playwrights all seem like guesswork. Educated, yes, but still an opinion.

Rating: 7/10. If I had to summarize this book in a word, I’d use opinion. Greenblatt’s an opinionated guy and one who knows quite a lot about Shakespeare and the world he lived in. But there’s not a lot to be certain about; it’s impossible to write something as through, detailed and insightful as Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce about someone who we generally know so little about. I enjoyed it, but I also enjoying comparing it’s conclusions to other people’s, too.


Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain by Marty Appel

Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee CaptainMunson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain – Marty Appel

On a summer afternoon a good 35 years ago, Thurman Munson’s Cessna Citation crashed just outside a Canton, Ohio airport. It was a sudden and dramatic end for one of the most fascinating intervals on one of the most fascinating teams in baseball history.

As a player, Munson represented the gritty everyday kind of persona. He played through injuries, logging time at the demanding role of catcher. Seen in his lifetime, as a gruff, blue-collar, a regular kind of guy, he resonated with a lot of fans. Still does, too.

But Munson was a lot more than that. He came from a broken home, had a keen eye for real estate and business and a sly sense of humour. He was nearly bipolar towards the media: he could spend entire seasons barely talking to reporters, but would offer to fly one across the country so they could see their family.

It’s too bad only glimpses of this man come across in Marty Appel’s biography. But maybe Munson was too elusive, too private to really be open to anyone, even the man who co-wrote his autobiography.

Appel had a unique relationship with his subject. For most of the 1970s, Appel was Public Relations director for the Yankees. And in 1978, he worked with Munson on his autobiography. Appel has sources and resources most sportswriters would dream of; he was actually there in the clubhouse for most of Munson’s career. He mixes his firsthand experiences with detailed reporting, having spoken with teammates and family, plus occasional extracts from other books. At his best, Munson was a tremendous athlete, someone who could control a baseball game from behind the plate and a good slap hitter and battled through a series of injuries.

Munson’s complex character comes across at times. His acrimonious relationship with his father, for example, helps to explain a lot about his character. Munson’s father was resentful, bitter and angry. After a night when Thurman went 5-for-5, the elder Munson called his son’s play shitty. The drive everyone talks about when speaking of Munson’s play could’ve stemmed from this relationship; it certainly reminded me of Ty Cobb’s infamous relationship with his father.

There are other telling passages: Munson, in full uniform, talking business with Steinbrenner (and tracking dirt all over his bosses office); lending his jacket to a trainer on a cold day; offering to fly a lonely sportswriter’s family out to spring training in his new plane – which, as Appel notes, Munson had moved exceptionally quickly to. In under two years, Munson went from single-engine propeller planes to a powerful, twin-engine jet.

Munson could be cold and caustic with the media – the people who shaped his public image – but he was obviously more than that. After all, he bought his airplane so he could fly home and visit his family during breaks in the season.

Even at about 350 pages, the book feels padded. Appel regularly block-quotes sources, letting them talk for pages at a time. He runs the full, 22-page transcript of an ESPN interview with a survivor of the Munson crash; lets Keith Olbermann (who has no connection to Munson’s life) recount his experience as a young reporter on the night of the Munson crash for three pages. At the same time, occasional unfollowed threads pop up. For example, near the finish, Appel casually mentions Munson’s friendship with Wayne Newton and how it factored into Munson buying a jet. It never comes up again in the book (Newton doesn’t even crack the index!)

There are also wild changes in pacing. Near the climax, Appel breaks down the final days of Munson’s life in excruciating, day-to-day detail. But earlier in the book, he glosses over Munson’s early years, rushing through his high school and pre-pro baseball career. And Appel regularly falls back on clichés (“he knew how to play the game” ) and supposition (“It’s likely Munson would have survived…”) throughout the book, not to mention many personal digressions. In some ways, the book features him as much as it does Munson. There’s also a weird part where he calls Diana Munson pretty and says “she could have dated many men,” too.

Rating: 4/10. On the whole, Munson is a bit of a messy book, long on some details and short on others. It’s an incomplete picture of an interesting man, but what picture comes through makes Munson seem even more remarkable: a rock in the roaring sea of the late 1970s Yankees. Still, not especially recommended, even for Yankee fans; I’d go with Sparky Lyle’s The Bronx Zoo or Jonathan Mahler’s The Bronx is Burning instead.