Category Archives: reviews in brief

Reviews in Brief: Funny, Peculiar: The True Story of Benny Hill (Mark Lewisohn)

Beatles expert Mark Lewisohn brings the same pop culture awareness and spry writing style he lavishes on the Boys to Alfred Hawthorne “Benny” Hill, one of England’s most watched and — in public, at least — least admired comedians. You’ll quickly find that Lewisohn’s surtitle — Funny, Peculiar — is entirely appropriate, for what an odd, complicated, and interesting life it is, full of conflict, sadness, success, unrequited love, stage fright, a little luck, and quite a bit of genius.

You’ll get Benny’s early life, from growing up in a tightfisted family that made its money selling condoms to his brief military service and the odd jobs that would serve as the inspiration for later sketches. A lover of the stage — though terrified of audiences — Benny works his way through the seaside circuit (often as a straight man!) before finding his true calling, and talent, as a television comedian.

Those of us who know Benny only from The Benny Hill Show episodes that aired in the United States actually got to know Benny toward the tail end of his career, when clever comedy gave way to more suggestive sketches that had American audiences howling with laughter, but British critics and self-appointed purveyors of Good Taste groaning. Early in his TV career, Benny was admired for his quick-change ability (playing all the parts, for example, on a live version of “What’s My Line?”), his ability to mimic almost any accent, and his genuine charm. Even as Benny nipped the material of other comedians and (admittedly) raided old American joke books for materials, British audiences adored him, regularly voting him their favorite television personality well into the 1960s.

But as Benny’s fame soared internationally — his agent brilliantly marketed select shows for the new syndication markets in the early 1970s — his interest in even his own material waned, and Hill became a parody of himself, relying on bawdier material and deliberately pushing the censors to their limit.

Yet, those who knew Benny by his material would be surprised to learn that, privately, Benny was a very different man. Rather than a leering, dirty old man, he was haunted by fears of unrequited love — and love lost to an unworthy rival — yet once he was in a relationship, his standoffishness and apparent disinterest (which was most likely shyness) kept him from finding true love. And while he would never marry, he carried on extremely close — and secret — friendships with two disabled women for decades.

Even with his enormous fame and fortune, Benny was one of England’s famous tightwads, living happily in his parents’ unheated flat or in his own sparsely furnished apartment, eating great gobs of cheap food, walking everywhere, and generally baffling friends who would find uncashed checks for enormous sums tucked away in the back of a drawer.

Whether you’re a fan of Benny’s or not (and I am), you’ll be genuinely touched and saddened by Benny’s final years, watching his reputation decline at home, his sad rompings with the children and families of women he could have married, and his often fractuous relationship with his family. When Benny died in his flat in Teddington in 1992, his body sat for days, slumped in front of the television, before finally being discovered by police.

All told, a remarkable story, told in a typically wonderful, readable manner by Lewisohn.

Reviews in Brief: The Lennon Prophecy (Joseph Niezgoda)

lennonprophecyOne of the more fun and fascinating bits of Beatles lore has always been the whole “Paul Is Dead” hoax.  The story spun by that particular hoax is that Paul McCartney allegedly died in an automobile accident in 1966 – a “stupid bloody Tuesday” – and the heartbroken Beatles decided to soldier on without him, replacing McCartney with a lookalike, but planting clues of Paul’s demise in Beatles songs and on album covers. Books could be written about the hoax – and, in fact, a few have – but now comes Joseph Niezgoda, in The Lennon Prophecy: A New Examination of the Death Clues of The Beatles to tell us that everyone’s got it wrong.  The clues aren’t there to detail Paul’s demise, Niezgoda says, but rather to foreshadow John Lennon’s violent death in 1980, payment to the Devil for a 20-year pact Lennon made with Satan in 1960.

Yes, really.

According to Niezgoda, at some point in December 1960 — likely between the Beatles’ anticlimactic return from Germany on December 10, when the group seemed on the verge of breaking up, and their triumphant appearance at the Litherland Town Hall concert on December 27, the night it is generally accepted that Beatlemania was born – John Lennon traded his soul to the Devil in exchange for rock and roll fame and fortune. Twenty years later, in December 1980, the Devil called in the debt, using a demonically-possessed Mark David Chapman as his instrument of death.

On that wacky premise, Niezgoda devotes 186 pages to analyzing John Lennon’s behavior, scrutinizing album covers, scrubbing lyrics for hidden meanings, and generally working way too hard to come up with spooky numeric coincidences to support his theory.  Like the Paul is Dead theory, I don’t buy one word of it; unlike the Paul is Dead theory, however, this one is neither fascinating nor even all that convincing.  Niezgoda’s theories and his interpretations of events, lyrics, and images, are almost always eye-rollingly dopey, and ultimately require enormous leaps in logic or imagination to make lyrics, album covers, or anything else fit his theory.

Part of the problem is that Niezgoda is completely humorless.  Sarcasm, satire, puns and plays on words are completely lost on him.  Lennon’s wit—one of his most enduring traits—baffles Niezgoda, as does Lennon’s use of metaphor and delight in wordplay.  And Niezgoda—who calls himself a “life-long Beatles fan, collector, and scholar”—doesn’t seem to be able to put Lennon or his quotes in context.  He can’t tell when Lennon is joking, bragging, or being dismissive.  He’s absolutely tone deaf.

Anyway, to spare you from ever having to read this thing, I’m going to give you a rundown of some of Niezgoda’s claims to give you an idea of just how loopy, and how spurious, Niezgoda and his claims can be.

Early on, in a chapter titled “Bewitchery of the Masses,” Niezgoda asks how to explain the enormous effect the Beatles had on their fans.  How does one account for the swooning, the fainting, the screaming?  Could it perhaps be their undeniable charisma or talent?  Ridiculous, Niezgoda says; those are exactly the kinds of “intangible” and “indescribable” qualities that manager Brian Epstein and producer George Martin ascribed to the band—and they’re indescribable, Niezgoda says, because they were a gift from the Devil. So, Niezgoda’s first “evidence” of demonic influence is Beatlemania itself, in all its inexplicable, unexplainable wonder.

It’s not enough to sell one’s sell to the Devil, though—as Niezgoda explains earnestly, one must also do all he can to actively deride God and religion. Therefore, any time Lennon mentions God, religion, Christ, or his soul, Niezgoda pounces. While he naturally makes hay of the “bigger than Jesus” statement—though not as much as one might expect, giving it only eight pages—any other reference to God is dissected looking for hidden meaning. For example, when John Lennon, following the massive Shea Stadium concert in 1965, remarked that it was “louder than God,” Niezgoda arches an eyebrow curtly. “Why did he chose that analogy?” Niezgoda demands. And when an exhausted Lennon tells childhood friend Pete Shotton at the height of Beatlemania that he often feels he’s sold his soul, the nonplussed Niezgoda can only take the most literate Beatle literally.

Niezgoda is at his most bizarre, though, when analyzing music, lyrics and album covers.  The intricate, interwoven images on the cover of Revolver don’t trouble him all that much—but he’s convinced that the album’s name has to be a foreshadowing of the kind of gun that would be used to kill Lennon fourteen years later. Certainly, the name Revolver has nothing to do with the fact that vinyl records were played by placing them on a turntable that revolved at a certain speed—thus making any record, in a sense, a “revolver,” right? Again, that sort of word play is lost on Niezgoda.

He’s more fascinated by the infamous “butcher cover” for the Yesterday … And Today album—with the Beatles in butcher smocks covered with dismembered dolls and raw meat—which Niezgoda is all but certain is Lennon’s nod to “the most reviling sacrifice to Satan . . . the killing of young innocent children—infanticide.” Niezgoda quotes Lennon’s enthusiasm for the project (“I would say I was a lot of the force behind it going out,” Lennon once said) as the final word on the impetus behind the photo—but either doesn’t seem to realize or completely ignores the fact that both Paul McCartney and photographer Robert Whitaker have claimed credit for the idea, too. Whitaker’s version, in fact, holds up to the most scrutiny, as the photo was actually part of a series of artsy photos Whitaker staged, including one in which George Harrison appears to be driving nails into Lennon’s head. Lord knows how Niezgoda would have interpreted that photo.


A harbinger of death?

The real stretch, however, comes in his scouring of the cover of A Collection of Beatles Oldies—a relatively obscure album released in the UK and Australia in late 1966.  While the Paul is Dead crowd point to the drawing of the car getting ready to crash into the lounging figure’s head as a “death clue” for Paul’s alleged death by automobile, Niezgoda’s got something much more clever in mind:  “[The figure’s] right crossed leg, with only slight imagination, can be seen as the letter ‘J,’ and it rests aside the word ‘OLDIES’ . . . [t]ogether, they spell ‘JOLDIES'”—or, as Niezgoda explains, “JOL (John Ono Lennon) DIES.” Cue the thunderclap and opening notes of Toccata and Fugue. And don’t try to tell Niezgoda that Lennon was 16 months away from changing his middle name from Winston to Ono when the album was released—he’s already ahead of you: it’s a “craftily constructed prophecy,” don’t you know?

Sgt. Pepper also falls under a similar scrutiny—although, unlike the Paul Is Dead gang, Niezgoda isn’t as much interested in the front cover as he is the back, where the Beatles, with the album’s lyrics superimposed over them, appear against a blood red background (nothing is ever red in Niezgoda’s book; it’s always blood red!).  McCartney famously stands with his back to the camera—“turning his back on John and what he knew of the fatal pact,” Niezgoda says solemnly—but the real clue lies in the layout of the lyrics from George’s “Within You, Without You”:  the words “lose their soul” are perfectly centered on John’s waistline.  Pretty sinister, huh?

The Devil is a sore winner.

The Devil is a sore winner.

Even sillier is Niezgoda’s discussion of the drumhead on the cover of Pepper, an image already overanalyzed by the Paul Is Dead aficionados. Niezgoda relies on the same parlor trick as the Paul Is Dead gang, using a mirror to bisect the words LONELY HEARTS (which, he points out sinisterly, are in a different font from the rest of the drum!) to reveal a messy I ONE IX HE DIE.  For the Paul Is Dead people, this convoluted hidden message means that Paul died on November 9th (with “I ONE” meaning eleven, and IX meaning 9, for 11/9).  Not for Niezgoda.  Instead, he reads this as a taunt from Satan to John Lennon:  “I won! Nine, he die!”  Nine, Niezgoda explains, is the day Lennon died—because it was already December 9th in Liverpool, you see, when John died in New York on December 8th.

That kind of convoluted numerology, in fact, is where Niezgoda becomes wearying. Lennon himself made much of the number 9 in his life—he was born on the ninth and included the number in the title of several songs—but Niezgoda comes up with some truly inane readings and sleights-of-hand to arrive at his nines.  For example, he points out that if you dial the name JOHNONOLENNON on a push button phone, you get 564666536666 – and wow, look at all those sixes, which are really just nines standing on their heads. And only Niezgoda could read “One After 909” as an omen—it’s waaay too confusing to explain how it predicts Lennon’s death down to the day—all the way down to a reference to Yoko as a his “bag.”

The punch my ticket moment, though—the moment I knew Niezgoda was in way over his head—arrives on page 122, as Niezgoda does some headscratching over the band’s name:

“’The Beatles’ was a curious choice of name for a band, especially because it’s spelled wrong. In 1961, John wistfully explained to Mersey Beat where he got the idea: ‘It came in a vision—a man appeared on a flaming pie and said unto them, ‘From this day on, you are Beatles with an A’”

With an absolutely straight face, Niezgoda explains that Lennon had to spell “beetles” incorrectly so he could use the letters to make an anagram of “seal bet,” hiding in plain sight his pact with the Devil. As for the man on a flaming pie, Niezgoda points out, his gears churning, that “man on a flaming pie” scrambles as “pagan flame minion.”

Apparently, the pun on “beat” in the word “Beatles” seems to never have occurred to the humorless Niezgoda—he’s too busy making scary sounds and tut-tut noises.  (As for the “pagan flame minion,” you can also anagram “man on a flaming pie” to make “film an ape moaning,” but that hardly means Lennon had hidden aspirations of being a voyeuristic zookeeper).  I can’t tell if Niezgoda is being intentionally ridiculous here, or if he’s really that clueless.

Niezgoda’s last chapter contains two incredibly odd bits of contrived thinking and backwards logic. The first is a way-out reading of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake – a book published a year before Lennon’s birth, but which Niezgoda is nonetheless convinced contains prophecies of Lennon’s life and death. And that’s mostly because, at certain points over its 600 pages, Joyce uses words like “beetle,” “pepper” and “funeral.”

The second is a wacky bit of mathematics in which Niezgoda chooses three songs he believes “place the final moments of John Lennon’s life to music”: “I Am The Walrus,” “Revolution 9,” and “#9 Dream.”  Niezgoda informs us that the total elapsed time from the moment Lennon was shot to the moment he died was 17 minutes—and I think we’re supposed to get chills when he informs us that the total time playing time for those three songs is 17 minutes, 42 seconds. Niezgoda provides us with absolutely no reason why there should or should not be a correlation between the playing time of these songs and Lennon’s last moments. It’s a completely nonsensical premise and farcical train of thought, and we’re supposed to somehow be spooked by it.

But that sort of spurious thinking is the norm for Niezgoda. His premise is a bizarre one to begin with, but The Lennon Prophecy is full of so many thin, lame, and eye-rollingly ridiculous theories that it’s impossible to take seriously.  Yet, Niezgoda does. And “no one,” he writes in his wistful introduction, “is sorrier than I about what is written here.”  Except maybe those of us who’ve read it.

Reviews in Brief: Columbine (Dave Cullen)

columbine-coverOn April 20, 1999—the day all hell broke loose at Columbine High School near Littleton, Colorado—I was working as an assistant state education chief in Arizona. We had a close relationship with our counterparts in Colorado, and as the Columbine story was breaking on national television, we were on the phone with officials in Denver, asking what they knew. Their answer was always the same. “Not much,” they kept telling us. 

Not much.  That would remain the case most of the days and weeks to come. No one really knew much of anything—and the more information that came out, the more conflicting and unclear everything became.  Eventually, we all came to understand Columbine through snippets reported in the media—and by putting together all the little stories, we came up with one terrible story of epic proportions:  Take two picked-on loner/losers—members of a “Trench Coat Mafia”—and agitate them with Goth culture, German speed metal, violent video games, and a fascination with Hitler.  Throw in bad parenting and bullying and easy access to guns, and you’ve got the Molatov cocktail that eventually exploded in a high school shooting that left 12 students—including one brave girl who declared her faith in the Lord and died at point-blank range—and one teacher dead. 

It all makes for a fascinating, tragic, terrifying, and sometimes uplifting story.  The only problem is that not much of it is true.  And that’s what makes Dave Cullen’s book Columbine so important. 

Sorting through a decade of interviews, police reports, recorded 911 calls, psychiatric analyses, and tens of thousands of pages of assorted documents—many of which were intentionally buried by local authorities—Cullen puts together the definitive story of the what really happened at Columbine and, perhaps even more daring, tries to explain why it happened. 

Prior assumptions are dashed almost immediately as we learn that killers Eric Harris and Dylan Kleibold were neither loners nor geeks nor members of the Trench Coat Mafia.  They dated, had jobs, participated in student theater, went to football games, and got good grades.  As far as Cullen can tell from the data and careful discussion with an incredibly competent FBI psychiatrist, Eric Harris, the mastermind behind the spree, was simply a psychopath with a superiority complex, incapable of true emotion but a master of mimicry, becoming whatever it was parents, police, teachers, or friends needed him to be—all while secretly declaring his hatred for the world and plotting for years his own version of Judgment Day.  Dylan Klebold, meanwhile, was more introspective and empathetic (his journals contain more of the word love than hate), but silently spiraled into petty theft, poor grades, and depression, no longer caring whether he lived or died.  Together, they made for a volatile combination. 

That’s not to say the signs weren’t there—and what Cullen uncovers is both frightening and appalling. Parents had complained for years about Harris’s bullying and threats.  Harris kept a very visible website on which he detailed his progress with bombmaking and ranting about murder.  One police officer, in fact, had written a meticulously detailed request for a search warrant of Harris’s house more than a year before the shooting, but the paperwork was either bungled or ignored and never went before a judge.  After the shooting, local officials huddled together and squashed the report and hid away police records.  Most wouldn’t see light of day until 2005.  Others were shredded or remain hidden. 

There’s been some grumbling that Cullen doesn’t give every victim the same amount of page space, and that’s true—Cullen doesn’t give some any space at all.  But I think Cullen makes the most of the stories he does focus on, giving stories of wasted potential, bravery under fire, teachers and administrators who put their students first, and anguished parents who sometimes can’t cope, whether they lost a child or not. Cullen chooses stories that are illustrative and compelling, and I don’t think the absence of anyone’s particular story made the tale any less tragic or forceful. 

Cullen begins his book with a literal bang, starting with the shooting (and botched bombing) at the high school, then works backwards, alternating Eric and Dylan’s story with chapters on the some (though not all) of the victims, and the investigation.  It might sound like a disjointed approach, but it works.  Further, Cullen writes in a compelling manner—I’ve seen some reviews call his style novelistic, but it’s more magaziney, in the best sense of the word: easy to start, broken into easily managed installments, and always tough to put down.  Cullen’s description of the shootings is as cold and impartial as it deserves to be—very little drama, reporting the events in a matter-of-fact manner, almost as if they were all caught on the unflinching tape of a security camera (as some of it was)—while his discussions of psychopathy and depression never get bogged down in terminology. 

Perhaps his most unpopular job is debunking the Cassie Bernall story, in which Bernall was allegedly asked by one of the shooters “Do you believe in God?” and shot in the head when she answered in the affirmative.  The conversation did occur, but it happened with Val Schnurr—who lived to tell the tale—and was attributed incorrectly to Cassie by an eyewitness.  The story was debunked early, but Cassie Bernall was nevertheless embraced, martyred, and exploited by the religious community. It would be easy to either make fools of the religious community and their stubborn refusal to let go of the story (wouldn’t it have been just as powerful, Cullen rightly asks, to have an example of someone who had proclaimed their faith in the face of certain death and through God’s grace lived to deliver the message?) or to deferentially caveat the story, taking neither side.  Cullen doesn’t do that.  Instead, he relates the tale and the controversy respectfully but firmly, making clear what really happened, but respectfully refusing to condescend. 

Cullen’s narrative is full of plenty of bad guys—including some in unexpected places—and plenty of good guys, but it’s at its best when telling the stories of regular people trying to make sense of the horrifying.  They’re all stories that deserve to be told, and Cullen tells them well without ever stooping to sensationalism.

Ultimately, Columbine will challenge you to re-examine almost everything you know—or think you know—about that horrific April afternoon. Check it out.

Reviews in Brief: The Beatles: First U.S. Visit (DVD)

beatlesfirstvisitIn February 1964, documentarians Albert and Donald Maysles were given an unprecedented amount of access to film and record a phenomenon that had much of America at first scratching its head in curiosity, and then screaming along with the rest of the world — a cheeky British rock group called The Beatles, who were making their first, short sprint across the eastern seaboard of the United States.

Content to let the camera act as impartial observer and generally stay out of the Fabs’ way, what the Maysles’ capture is nothing short of fascinating — a snapshot of one of the most important moments in rock history:  Tens of thousands of screaming girls. Dopey hangers-on. Baffled reporters. And four extremely talented musicians who seem rather unfazed by it all.

While you may likely have seen some of this footage in Anthology or The Compleat Beatles, seeing it for the first time in its complete, raw context is an eye-opener for even the most world-weary Beatles fan.   It’s not quite the Beatles “with their trousers off” (as John Lennon once described Let It Be), but it’s definitely the Beatles with their guards down — and we’re all the better for it.

The Maysles’ footage was eventually shelved by United Artists in favor of the faux documentary A Hard Day’s Night, but comparisons with that film are unavoidable.  As a documentary, it’s the less-idealized version of what ended up in Richard Lester’s jaunty film — but the Beatles in real life aren’t quite the iconic stereotypes that Lester and screenwriter Alun Owen created for the Boys’ on-screen personas (as John Lennon once said derisively of Hard Day’s Night:  “Paul, cute; me, witty…”).  In fact, when you’ve got them in Maysles’ lens, unedited and unscripted, you’ll see that McCartney already looks to be the most business-minded and PR-savvy of the Beatles, while Lennon . . . well, Lennon looks both bored and terrified at the same time, a far cry from the bold, tart-tongued Fab of A Hard Day’s Night.

Just as interesting is seeing the supposedly impartial and skeptical members of the press fall all over themselves, suddenly captivated by the charisma of the four young men they’ve been assigned to tailgate.  The Beatles all but work their wills on the press during the train rides to and from Washington, D.C., while New York deejay Murray the K makes a cringe-worthy spectacle of himself, gushing dopily over the boys even as he tries to paint himself a hipster who truly “gets” the Beatles.

The film cries out for narration at some points (watching it with commentary makes it a completely different and even more entertaining film) but the footage is always clear, and the sound is surprisingly crisp (and Maysles will tell you how he did it in the commentary).  Through it all, what shines through the most is the charm, talent — and, at times, a warm patience — of four young men who were rapidly becoming the most famous band in the world.  Great stuff.

For a taste of what you can expect, here are the opening moments of the Maysles’ film — with the familiar first press conference, some unguarded moments in the car, phone calls to Murray the K to request songs on the radio, and late night hotel chatter:

Reviews in Brief: Chaplin: A Life (Weissman)

chapalifeI’m normally wary of biographies that attempt to put their chosen subject “on the couch.”   I know it’s tempting, when writing about artists, writers, or other creative people  to try to view their work through the gauze of life experience, explaining their art in the context of childhood traumas, distant parents, or failed relationships.  There are some no-brainers out there, certainly — one could hardly write about Edgar Allan Poe or Vincent Van Gogh, to name only two, without looking into inner demons that ended up screaming at the public from the page or canvas.

It gets harder, however, with figures that, for the most part, aren’t quite as haunted or tormented. But that doesn’t mean biographers haven’t tried.   Some Disney biographers, for example, have claimed that Walt Disney obviously had a contempt for women and deep-seated abandonment issues, since several of his early films featured evil mother-figures or mothers who are dead or otherwise unavailable.  It doesn’t matter that Disney’s own life story doesn’t really seem to bear that out; once you’ve got him on the couch, you can use his body of work to explain away anything.  That was the sort of thing that nearly ruined David Michaelis’s otherwise dynamite Schulz and Peanuts for me — Michaelis tried, I thought, a bit too hard to use the Peanuts strip to explain Schulz’s psyche.  It was a valiant effort, but I just didn’t buy it.

And that, ultimately, is my problem with On The Couch biographies:  I don’t like being told that every inch of an artist’s output — whether it’s on film, on audiotape, on canvas, or on the printed page — is a channeling of some remote glob of their psyche, or reflects a subconscious effort to work out some personal issue.  I  believe you can understand an artist’s life by looking at his work; it’s more difficult and dangerous, however, to try to use an artist’s work to explain away an artist’s life.  Ideally, one must view the artist through the prism of both the life and the art together.

That’s a roundabout way of saying that I was skeptical of Dr. Stephen Weissman’s Chaplin: A Life. It’s true that Chaplin, with his mess of a private life and in-your-face politics, practically begs his biographers to put him on the sofa — a challenge to which Chaplin biographer David Robinson all but explicitly refused to rise.  But on the other hand, I did not want to be told that every Chaplin film was merely another psychological exercise in which Charlie either consciously or subconsciously tried to come to terms with some childhood trauma.

Well.  In his first chapter, Weissman — a for real psychiatrist, and not just playing one on TV — immediately put such concerns to rest.  Reading every Chaplin film or sketch as a therapy session, says Weissman,

“. . . does little to advance our undertstanding of how the creative process operated . . . It assumes that the comic mind operates as a seething id-cauldron automatically transforming childhood fears into schoolboy gags which are periodically belched and farted up from the steamy depths of the unconscious.”

Bingo.  That’s exactly what I wanted to hear — and that’s precisely why Weissman’s book works so spectacularly well.  Weissman doesn’t explain away every moment on film in psychological terms;  rather, he helps the reader understand why Chaplin makes particular comedic or artistic decisions, and where in his art Chaplin has borrowed or paid homage to his parents, mentors, rivals, and the London stage.

Weissman is particularly convincing in helping the reader understand some of the broader themes of Chaplin’s work — a particularly high point is his examination of City Lights as an opportunity for Chaplin to, at last, redeem both his mother and his father.  But what’s important is that Weissman isn’t trying to tell us that Chaplin did all these things as an act of psychic cleansing; rather, he’s helping us see where life experience has influenced some of the artistic decisions Chaplin made.

Further he doesn’t get you in the weeds on psychobabble; Weissman’s language is real, and readable — no long ramblings on Freud or lectures on id suppression or whatever.  His themes are larger than that, which is why you’ll find them more thought provoking — and even where you don’t agree, he hasn’t become so mind-numbingly technical that you think he’s overreaching.  Weissman’s so agreeable, in fact, that it’s like watching Chaplin’s movies with a good friend who’s got a particular insight into a film and doesn’t mind at all if you disagree with him.  Enjoy the film anyway, Weissman would probably say.

In a lively afterword, Weissman also does something no other Chaplin biographer has yet done: he’s dared to accept an extended 1915 interview — later published as Charlie Chaplin’s Own Story before being squashed and disavowed by Chaplin — as a reliable text.  It’s a primary source detective story, and Weissman will tell you convincingly why he believes biographers, and readers, can believe it . . . even when Chaplin himself tries to tell you otherwise.

As usual, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that you can read more at Dr. Weissman’s website at — along with lots of interesting essays, photos, and bits of film.

Reviews in Brief: The Beatles Off The Record (Keith Badman)

beatlesotrKeith Badman’s book is a terrific primary source — but it’s definitely not for those who are unfamiliar with the Beatles and their story. This isn’t a biography per se; it’s transcriptions of interviews with the boys and those around them, snippets of news releases and news stories, and transcribed appearances on television or radio shows, all presented in roughly chronological order. Badman provides (rightly) only a minimal guiding track, stepping in only to gloss a name or straighten out a disparity in dates. What he won’t do is try to straighten out or explain events or stories, because — with the advantage of hindsight — watching the key players try to explain everything themselves is part of what makes this so fascinating.

Even if you’re a hardcore Beatles fan, you’ll probably still find something in Badman’s book that’s new to you. For one thing, you’ll get a better feel for the kind of mind-numbing, eye-glazing interviews the Boys had to sit through, especially early in their career. We’ve all seen the interviews compressed to their soundbites for documentaries, but Badham lets us see what gets edited out in the interest of time — mainly one stupid question after another (“Do you get dandruff with all that hair?”) which the Beatles, for the most part, answer gamely until around 1966, when John Lennon finally unloads on a reporter for asking “What do you want to do when you grow up?” (“Why are you being so horrid?” one reporter sulkily asks Lennon afterwards.)

But it’s not just the media that bumbles through interviews; sometimes the Beatles do, too. I was surprised by how non-responsive or rambling their answers could sometimes be — particularly from Paul McCartney, who could obviously make his charm go a long way, but when you read his remarks on the page without the corresponding images, they don’t always make a lot of sense. You can also see the Boys reverting to “talking points” for many questions, answering questions the same way, even when cornered individually.

Badman also reproduces several documents I’d never seen before: the original lyrics for “Yesterday” (as “Scrambled Eggs”), filed when Paul was simply trying to get the song down on paper with placeholder words; the various press releases from Apple as the wheels were coming off (and when is someone going to write a history of Apple?); a snippet from a 1969 newspaper floating John Lennon as the lead role in the upcoming Jesus Christ, Superstar.

Finally, reading interviews and press releases from That Moment In Time — when they had no way of knowing what was coming — the end of the Beatles really isn’t all that obvious. All four of them continue to speak relatively well of each other in interviews (except for George when speaking of Paul) and indicate that they are still interested in working together if the right project comes along. It’s no wonder fans were so shocked when McCartney finally announced he was leaving the group (months after Lennon had already privately left) — there was little indication of disarray or disagreement in the press, not even from the Beatles themselves.

There are places in the book where some interviews or television appearances have obviously been misheard or transcribed incorrectly (at one point, someone describes a crowd of people at an airport as looking like “a sea of hands” from above, when it was probably “sea of ants”) but such errors are easy to overlook in this goldmine of a Beatles book. Highly recommended — but, again, not for those who are unfamiliar with the Beatles story going into it.

Reviews in Brief: John Lennon: The Life (Philip Norman)

“In September 2003, I suggested to John’s widow, Yoko Ono, that I should become his biographer,” writes Philip Norman in the Acknowledgements section of John Lennon: The Life. However, after reading the final manuscript, “Yoko Ono was upset by the book,” Norman tells us, “and would not endorse it . . . [saying] I had been ‘mean to John.'”

I actually don’t think Yoko’s got anything to worry about; Norman’s book is both clear-eyed and appropriately sympathetic as it traces the arc of Lennon’s all-too-brief life and career. While there’s much in here that’s familiar, Norman uses both old and new sources to revisit apocryphal or second-hand stories — most of which are familiar to Beatle fans — and determine their veracity. He puts to rest, for example, the Did they or didn’t they? question that has surrounded Lennon’s vacation in Spain with manager Brian Epstein (they didn’t), and accepts as fact many of the stories that expose John’s darker side, such as his brutal beating of Cavern DJ Bob Wooler, or the lurid sexual fantasies involving his own mother.

There’s also quite a bit that’s new in here, too — or, at least, was unfamiliar to me. Norman explores, for example, exactly what “business” Yoko was doing during Lennon’s househusband years — she was dealing mostly in mundane real estate transactions, but is also given full credit for shrewdly negotiating music contracts that maximized John’s profits and protected his copyrights. He also examines some of the theater pieces that were based on Lennon’s writings in the 1960s — a hidden gem in the literate Beatle’s career — exposes a charming addiction to board games, and explains about as well as one can the complicated legal wranglings that finally dissolved the band and led to years of hard feelings.

For perhaps the first time, too, some of the supporting characters in Lennon’s story finally come into their own. John’s Aunt Mimi — who can often come off as a bit of a shrew — gets a bit of her own narrative, as Norman uses letters Mimi wrote regularly to a young female fan named Jane Wirgman to reveal just how thoughtful and protective of John Mimi could be, even as she continued to be embarrassed by his antics or appearance. You’ll also have a better understanding of Freddie Lennon, John’s seaman father who abandoned his wife and son, then rematerialized after John made it big. Freddie has his own reasons — excuses — for his actions, but for the first time, you’ll have his own words and private correspondence to help you decide whether you buy it or not.

If there’s a complaint I have about this otherwise thorough biography, it lies in Norman’s narrative voice. Norman’s prose isn’t ever stilted — he’s too good a journalist for that — but it can be somewhat stodgy (he calls the lyrics to “Twist and Shout,” for example, “dippy”). He also inserts way too many clunky moments of foreshadowing of Lennon’s fate, often resorting to eye-rollingly lame declarations of irony that are a stretch, at best.

For example, as the Beatles frolic for a photo session in New York during their first American tour in 1964, Norman can’t help but indulge in dramatic voiceover. “Hindsight gives this routine scene a horrible irony,” he writes. “Just across the park lies a craggy Gothic pile known as the Dakota Building” where John would be shot to death in 1980. Later, Norman tell us that for the 1972 U.S. Presidential campaign, “John pinned high hopes on the Democratic candidate, George McGovern, senator for South Dakota — an omen if ever there was one . . . ” It took me a moment to figure out why this was “an omen” — until I realized it was the use of the word “Dakota” in the sentence that was supposed to be so ominous.

Perhaps even more annoying — especially to the biographer in me — there’s no sign of a bibliography, sources, or endnotes, only an index. There were several times in Norman’s book when I found myself saying “Where’d you get that?” and turned to the back looking for his source, only to come up blank. Perhaps, at 851 pages, there simply wasn’t enough room left. But I’m sure I’m not the only one missing it.

Reviews in Brief: The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America by David Hajdu

I think I brought too much to the table for this one.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Hajdu’s book, because I did—I liked it quite a lot. The problem, at least for The Comic Nerd in me, is that there was very little in it that was unfamiliar.

However, for most readers, the material in this book will be new territory—and that’s what makes a book like this worthwhile. The story of the great comic book debacle of the 1950s—with its colorful cast of characters and a story that’s so far out it would seem ludicrous if it weren’t true—is one that deserves to be told, and Hajdu tells it elegantly. While comics-related journals and magazines have been telling these stories for decades—it’s the comics community’s very own Vietnam—there have been very few publicly-accessible books written about it (most are written by comics fans, for comics fans). So it’s nice to have the story dressed up so nicely for its first appearance before a mainstream audience.

My problem, though, was that my expectations were too high—and that’s my fault, not Hajdu’s. I kept waiting for a deep-drill analysis, but Hajdu was too busy running out his characters and telling their stories. And rightly so, because what stories they are.

At the dramatic core of the Plague lies the conflict between upstart comics company EC Comics (with its unconventional publisher, Bill Gaines) and the United States government. Waving the banner of Saving The Children—and armed with the psychobabble of Dr. Fredric Wertham and his book Seduction of the Innocent—an aggressive Senate subcommittee goes looking for a scapegoat for the alleged rise in juvenile delinquency, and trains its fire on the enormously successful comic book industry.

An annoyed Gaines eventually rises to the bait and, against the advice of colleagues, makes an ill-advised appearance in front of the subcommittee. Trying his best to defend horror comics, free speech, and the subjective boundaries of “good taste”—and coming down off of a Dexedrine-induced fog—Gaines implodes on the stand, providing the do-gooders with the villain they need. Defeated, the comic industry bows to a self-imposed (and completely lame) code of good taste, consigning itself to a long creative and commercial decline from which it would take nearly forty years to recover.

Hajdu chooses to focus mainly on the assault on crime and horror comics, but there are times when I wished he would have focused a bit more on the attacks directed at superheroes as well. Dr. Wertham was at his most annoying—and creepiest—when looking for perversity and hidden agendas in superhero comics (Batman shares a cave with a young boy! Wonder Woman might be a lesbian! Superman is a fascist!). Hajdu touches briefly on a few of these charges, but it would have been fascinating to learn how such ludicrous claims were being received at National (DC) Comics at the time.

Finally, Hajdu never really seems to deliver the goods he promises in the second part of his subtitle: How It Changed America. There is some discussion of the fallout from the controversy—and Hajdu includes in his appendix a fascinating list of hundreds of comics writers and artists who never worked in comics again after the implosion—but Hajdu never gets much further than describing some changes in the distribution system for magazines and the lingering presence of the comics code. Instead, he argues persuasively that comics were really just the next big boogeyman for the Establishment to wring its hands about until television and rock and roll replaced it.

Still, I enjoyed The Ten-Cent Plague very much. Hard-core comics enthusiasts may not find much that’s new, but that’s okay—this book isn’t written for us. And there’s something to be said for having such an important story told so well. Hajdu does his topic justice, writing with a journalistic verve that gives even Charles Biro’s gloriously trashy injury-to-the-eye-motif-laden comics a proper tragic heft.

Four stars (out of five).