The Siege of Leningrad by David M. Glantz
Cassell 2004, 334 pages
This book outlines the campaigns around Leningrad, from the beginning of Operation Barbarossa through to roughly the middle of 1944, when the last German units were pushed out of the region.
It is predominantly a detailed account of the thrusts and counterthrusts by the opponents. There is much talk of left flanks and slow progress and lack of command and control.
The numbers are probably the most impactful thing about it. Around 2 million Russians (roughly half civilians and half soldiers) perished around the Leningrad region, which made up only a relatively small fraction of the front. For comparison, the USA lost about 300,000 soldiers on all fronts combined for the whole war. WWII has been described as ‘the eastern front plus sideshows’, and in terms of men and machinery, this is not too far from the truth. Of course, other campaigns were of enormous strategic significance — a quick victory over Britain in 1940 could well have been the catalyst that made everything else turn out differently — but none ranged over such vast areas or cost so much blood and iron. Russia was always Hitler’s primary enemy. His actions elsewhere were more about securing his back before he plunged east. He would happily have left western Europe alone had it promised him a free hand in the east. As such, the battle between Germany and Russia was existential. Hitler conceived of it as Aryan versus Slav. There could be no peace.
The book does not look at those issues. Its focus is narrow. It evaluates the military decisions made, critiques them, looks at lessons learned and at what ramifications the Leningrad fight had for the rest for the front.
There is relatively little about life in the blockaded city. It is not clear from the cover or the blurb, but this is really a book for fans of military strategy and, particularly, tactics.
As such, it has one glaring flaw.
The maps and the text do not mesh well. Repeatedly, pages would be expended describing offensives; the methods, the commanders, the cities and regions they were to fight for. Yet the places mentioned can often not be found on the corresponding maps. I was sometimes able to find them on a map elsewhere in the book, but some locations were just missing and I had to guess or look in an atlas or a map from the interwebs. Or just skip it. It was very frustrating hunting through the various maps looking for one that showed me where somewhere — where a very important action happened — was.
Perhaps it was just about limited space on the page, but it was a distinct annoyance.
Apart from that, I think I am perhaps just not enough interested in the arrows showing the marches of the troops and the details of how many miles they advanced and where. My eyes started to glaze over and in a few places I started to skip ahead.
The proofreading is not great, either.
In short, this is probably very interesting to the fan of military tactics who wants to see a whole major campaign laid out and critiqued. Such a reader would see how the Red Army’s techniques and tactics evolved over the years and how the tide was stopped and then turned by a combination of persistence, weight of numbers and, eventually, tactical skill. For the rest of us, the book lacks context and the human story. But, I suspect the rest of us is not the audience it is aiming at. At times it sounds like a lecture to officer cadets.
Verdict: Good, but for the aficionados.
A book can be good and bad at once. It can have aspects that command admiration and others that elicit involuntary mirth. A wonderful example of this is Nightfighter by W.R.Bennett. This is, objectively, not a good book. The plot is clunky, the characterisation crude, the prose overblown such that I am going to have to quote a bit of it (see below) and yet… it reads like the author knows something about flying a plane over enemy territory. Winding back the boost, operating the AI set (airborne interception — radar, we would call it now), he knows the minutiae. In the best scenes, despite the purple prose, the book does give a sense of wrestling a complex machine through the sky. Flying a Mosquito or other plane of WWII vintage was not a case of being “at one with the machine” and just hurling it around the sky. Everything was manual, so the pilots and navigators had to have substantial knowledge of the mechanicals, had to be able to adjust air/fuel mixture, not just push on the throttles. And this book captures all that prosaic knowledge. I wonder if a prose artist without the knowledge would be able to capture that sufficiently.
Brief, flawed, utterly without pretence; quite enjoyable.
…ing continguity of death, angrily hurling fiery barbs of retaliatively-convulsing objection into sky, vainly attempted to protect its skeletonized remains as the grumbling procession of ghouls came on to claim the last fetid pieces of flesh from its scarified bones.
Not sevenfold, not terrible vengeance, but it would go on. This was war, the price of one man’s Machiavellian crime, paid for in grisly and horrifying currency. Human lives, mutilated bodies, agonized souls and distorted minds — irredeemable, these, all uselessly sacrificed on the cruel altar of a maniac’s desires for world conquest and an unholy ambition to close the ears of his people to the teachings of God.
Jack Williamson and James Gunn
Sidgwick.& Jackson 1978
Space opera. This is it, right in the middle. Great thewed soldier of fortune single-handedly (at first) takes on galactic empire and … much ensues. I first read this book many years ago, when fiction and SF were much newer to me, and I recall finding it a rollicking adventure. Now … it still rollicks, but I can see some issues.
The story revolves around Alan Horn and his attempts to avoid capture after the hired killing — for money — of a powerful man. (All but one of the powerful people are men, and the one exception is beautiful and falls for the hero.) (We also meet a Chinese gentleman whose portrayal might not quite gel with the 2010s.)
First, the prose. While here and there it rises to a height sufficient to describe the stunning vistas and galaxy-spanning civilisation that the book tries to evoke, all too often it is passive and flat. “The room was black.” Lots of passive sentences; the action is often inventive enough, but it does not leap off the page.
The book is essentially a long chase as Horn flees and flies and leaps through the tunnels that connect the worlds of the empire of Eron — the titular star bridges that circumvent the speed of light. The story moves fast, travelling through a series of exotic locations. Horn is a standard but sufficiently likeable hero. He is resourceful, lucky, and skilled. He is charismatic, intuitive and brave.
The book would make a decent movie “in the tradition of Starwars” (though of course the book came first).
The book uses a few devices — chapters are separated by what amount to explanatory extracts from the Encyclopaedia Galactica, and bracketing by an prologue and epilogue — and (a point of interest) it explicitly interrogates the idea of free will. Horn is tough, resourceful, strong — yet is he really in charge of his own fate?
So we have a story that is full of action, hits the requisite plot points of an underdog battling a mighty empire, and has a few more thoughtful ideas chucked in to deepen it. It all works pretty well, if (at least in broad terms) without too many surprises; the only real negative is the prose. While it is perfectly serviceable, it is flat too often. Most of the metaphors are fine, but the mouse of tension nibbling at the corner of his mind (or whatever it was) did bunt me out of the story.
Good, solid space opera, 1953 style. I enjoyed it at a time when I did not feel like reading something serious.
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Fourth Estate, 2018. 338 pages.
First, a caveat; I’ve been listening to Tim Rogers play music since the millennium just gone. I’ve seen him and an assortment of others play in University refectories, various pubs, Casa del Resaca and the Sydney Opera House. I’ve got the CDs, I’ve got a t-shirt somewhere. On the other hand, I refused to go see You Am I go all nostalgia and play Hi Fi Way and Hourly, Daily back to back a few years ago. What does that mean in the context of these comments? It means I want the book to be good. Objectivity … must be in doubt.
It’s probably useful to begin with what this book is not. It is not an autobiography. It does not begin and the beginning and end, if not the end, then at least the present. It’s a memoir, a self-portrait in words. Sure, it covers his childhood — or at least a few key episodes. It covers where he’s at now and how he feels about it and how he gets through the days. But you won’t find out how You Am I formed. Or, at least, not very directly. We get a few words on the band he formed with his brother. That’s about it. How did he meet Andy Kent? Or Russell Hopkinson or Mark Tunaley or … it’s not here. What was it like working with Lee Ranaldo or Jackie Orszáczky or … it’s not here. Not a hint of a discography. Most of the albums are not even mentioned in passing. So, in short, this not not a book about You Am I. It’s a book about Tim, and about what was and is going on inside him. This is not a negative remark; it’s just a statement of fact. I think one useful thing a review can do is give a sense of the kind of book we’re looking at. I’ll admit I’ve panned the odd book on these pages, but I generally try to give an idea of what you’re in for and, yes, that includes strengths and weaknesses. But if I think a book might be solid but just not for me, I try to say so.
So what what does the book give you? It gives you Tim. What he thinks, what he feels, how he reacts, how he gets by, what’s important to him, and who’s important to him. Even there, it’s often off screen. Clearly his daughter is a focus of his orbit, but he never narrates a major episode with her in it the way he does with footy friends and drinking companions. She’s always tugging at his mind, but he doesn’t render the encounter, just a few words of a phone call or something. Maybe it’s too central to him to share with us, and that’s fair enough.
If you like the idea of sitting down (or standing up, more likely) in a bar and listening to Tim Rogers pour out his thoughts on everything from footy to Loudon Wainwright to CheesyBite and Davey Lane, this is the book for you. If you want evocative thumbnail portraits of his dad or his first girlfriend, this is the book for you. If you’ve really listened to his lyrics and noted his preoccupations, this is the book for you — though you won’t find out what triggered the writing of ‘Purple Sneakers’ or ‘Heavy Heart’ or ‘We Hardly Knew You’. Not in any specific sense. But you will get an idea of his preoccupations and working habits, and that’s what these things flow from. You will read ‘the boy’s angry at the water’ and a few other insights, but what we’re really glimpsing here is Tim Rogers’ inner world brought out. He’s frank about his mental struggles and how he’s dealt — or not — with them. It’s like a case self-study written by an eloquent subject.
Rogers writes with style. He uses words you might expect — peccadilloes, wankers, cirrhosis — but as always he turns up unexpected and (usually) effective metaphor. There’s no hint of a ghost-writer in a book like this — there wouldn’t be enough money in it to pay one anyway — and every page is stamped with the character of the author. At one point he discusses the trashing of hotel rooms, and figures it’s just mean to the cleaners, and why would a rock star want to pick on a cleaner who’s working long hours for low pay? Hell, they leave a tip if they spill a beer in the room. He’s been way down yet he’s kind of famous and he’s rubbed shoulders with greats. It gives him an interesting perspective on, well, the big questions of life, like “where’s the next drink coming from?”
If you’ve followed Tim through the highs of ‘Beautiful Girl’ and the Lows of ‘Obviously’ and ‘Part Time Dads’, then a lot here will not come as a surprise. But there’s a lot to like about this self-portrait, a cubist view that gives facets and leaves gaps and relies on technique as much as content.
Just don’t come in expecting a chronology, discography or even an
index. It’s not that kind of book.
sf Impulse Vol 1 No 7
Roberts & Vinter, 1966
This is the seventh issue of Impulse/sf Impulse, the successor magazine to Science Fantasy. It’s the last issue edited by Kyril Bonfiglioli, and in that way possibly marks the beginning of the end — not many more were to come.
If this is anything to go by, it’s not hard to see why.
It contains 70 pages of Make Room, Make Room!, Harry Harrison’s overpopulation novel, the one that led to the movie Soylent Green, and that is far and away the best thing in it. Most of the rest is taken up by ‘The Rig’, a vaguely interesting but very silly story by Chris Boyce. The rest is better left unnamed. It’s not even an interesting cultural artefact, because there aren’t any funky old adverts or naff but nifty examples of internal art. The cover is probably the second best thing about it.
You’ll never see a copy of it anyway, but this is really only for the completist collector or someone who weirdly has the other parts of the serial. It cost me 50¢ as a curiosity many years ago. I finally got around to reading it and I should have waited longer.
This is a very fine book. Bendiner was not a famous pilot like Guy Gibson (Enemy Coast Ahead) — he was a navigator who managed to complete a tour of 25 operations over occupied Europe in B-17 Fly Fortresses that steadfastly continued to attack during daylight hours, and suffered horrendous losses as a result. When 10% per mission was considered an acceptable loss rate, not many can have made it through 25.
But what makes the memoir interesting is not Bendiner’s achievements — not that they are negligible — but the honesty and insight that he brings. The book was published 35 years after the war ended, and that critical distance allows Bendiner to be autobiographer and biographer at the same time, something made possible I suspect by the intensity and otherness of war. There is a point in the book, near the end, when he has finished his tour but not yet been allowed to leave the aerodrome:
How stupid, how cruel to let me stay alive and safe among those who are still hostages to death. No surgeon would leave an amputated limb near the living patient.
This captures his ability to look upon the events from inside and outside at the same time, and to come up with a striking metaphor to capture it. Few war memoirs are as notable for the prose as this one, though it is worn lightly.
A few examples:
The cottage had a fine, dishevelled look, like a girl fresh from tumbling about in the hay.
I cannot take seriously those who adopt the pose of the disenchanted without having experienced the prerequisite enchantment.
It could be J. G. Ballard:
The earth was no longer tilled land. The cities were empty and staring. One imagined a world of grotesque fungi. The only signs of animation appeared in the yellow flicker of burning B-17s.
Or, speaking about a General after a raid that cost many men and machines:
He was in the position of a man who does not know precisely what he has bought but is certain that it was very expensive.
On keeping notes while flying:
I would have noted by heart’s blood dripped to the floor — the time, place, altitude.
Or, showing how we get the inside and the outside at once, he talks about watching a formation of planes heading out on a mission:
I exulted in that parade. I confess this is an act of treason against the intellect, because I have seen dead men washed out of their turrets with a hose. But if one wants an intellectual view of war one must ask someone who has not seen it.
And a little bon mot, yet hardly free of irony:
Navigators must exude self-confidence or abdicate.
I really cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is written with the wit and artistry of a top-line novelist, tackles some of the greatest topics in art, literature and life — war, death, life — and is a page-turner as much as any thriller.
It is interesting to compare it to one of the most famous war memoirs ever written, <i>If this is a man</i> by Primo Levi. Both authors are Jewish, and Bendiner reflects on his war and the experiences of the prisoners in Dachau, and shakes his head and knows that what he saw tells him nothing about that — but the similarities run deeper than happenstances of religion. Both books combine intellect and artistry to deal with the unexplainable. They show how human beings somehow survive, and how important it is that they fool themselves.
Bediner picked a poppy before every mission. He knew it was pointless, but he also knew that without it he was doomed.
A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!
by Harry Harrison
NEL 1976, 192 pages.
Considered logically, this book has many flaws. Read closely, it shows a lot of proofreading errors, and at least one glaring copyediting error — the presence of ‘Brabbage‘ mechanical calculators, rather than ’Babbage’. Yet I think it’s a good book and happily recommend it.
Harrison posits that, through a single small event coming out differently, Spain remains Muslim in the 20th century. As a result, North America was not colonised by the Spanish. The English therefore gained a stronger toehold, with the result that it remains part of the empire, and indeed is not yet even independent.
Harrison lays out the consequences of the events clearly enough. For some reason Germany remains a confederation of minor states. The French are the great enemy, and George Washington, whose heir is the story’s protagonist, is a reviled traitor. Harrison seems to suggest that, because the aeroplane was invented in America and the steam train in Britain, the aeroplane is a large slow device but the train is a nuclear powered miracle. This of course does not hold up to the most cursory inspection. Wasn’t the nuclear reactor just as much an American invention as the aeroplane? And, if we consider the development of nuclear science as accelerated by WWII, would it exist in any form in an alternative world where Fermi and the like were not gathered in the US but scattered across Europe (because here they were not fleeing the Nazis — who do not exist). And Europe was not that far behind the Wright brothers in developing planes, and by 1910 most of the development was happening in Europe.
There are other, similarly unconvincing repercussions, but to pick at them misses the charm of the book. Yes, tunnelling thousands of miles across the Abyssal Plane is … unlikely to say the least. Yes, the stiff Victorian-ness of key characters seems unlikely — just because the empire persisted, does not mean it stood still. But Augustus Washington’s journey by giant lumbering gas-powered helicopter, his battles with the forces of sabotage, privilege and misunderstanding, the races against time, the rescues and cliff-hangers, these things make this a fun read. Perhaps not a scholarly one, even the author admits!
These days, we would consider the book as steampunk And it is. I can’t say I’ve read a lot of steampunk, so I hesitate to recommend this to the modern connoisseur; but it would certainly be worth a look. Harrison wrote a lot of pretty ordinary SF. While his work was popular and widely available, no one considers him as the genre at its most literary. The books he is most well known for are fast actioners like the Stainless Steel Rat books, and another parallel universe series, the West of Eden books, which are in many ways his most major achievement.
This book deserves to be ranked up there with his most highly regarded books. It is still mostly about fast action, but it places it in an interesting time and place. Though there are some pretty cardboard characters, Harrison does not play them false and maintains excellent control of tone. Harrison’ s grip on the required terminology and appropriate technology is solid and never takes you out of the story — as long as the preposterous tunnel of the title doesn’t bother you too much.
I believe this is also known by the inferior title Tunnel through the deeps. By either name, it’s what I would call ‘a good read‘. Perhaps find it in a different, more carefully edited edition, though. While Harrison’s prose and characters never jerked me out of the story, the errors certainly did!
It makes a good airport novel; read it while you fly over the Atlantic, and imagine spending half a day hurtling through an evacuated tunnel inside a sealed can towed by nuclear powered steam locomotive. It’s a glorious vision of a world that never was.
I first listened to The Who when I borrowed one of their anonymous ‘best of’ collections from a relative. I’ pretty sure it was this one. It’s a bit odd in having ‘Don’t let go the coat’ and ‘Sister disco’ on it, though when it came out those were newish songs. It’s also got ‘Tommy, can you hear me’, as a sort of prelude to ‘Pinball wizard’. I liked it, I kept an eye out for other similar stuff and not long after I picked up a cheap tape (this was quite a while ago) of All the best cowboys have Chinese eyes. Not really an album for the young. It’s one of Townshend’s ‘I am so messed up’ albums, the main other one being The Who By Numbers, although it’s a subtext in much of his work. Songs like ‘Slit skirts’, which begins with ‘I was just 34 years old’ and includes ‘once she woke with untamed lover’s face between her legs/now he’s cooled and stifled and it’s she who has to beg’ don’t really resonate when you’re 13. Not with me, anyway.
On the other hand, ‘Uniforms’, about the need to fit in made more sense, and ‘Communication’ doesn’t make sense to anybody, 13 or 34 (‘Selbstdarstellung/Gay Talese/Ronald Rocking/Euthanasia’).
The album uses a lot of syths, though there’s plenty of guitar too.
It certainly polarises fans.
It’s often called pretentious and confusing, though really, apart from ‘Communication’ it’s not really that impenetrable (I say now, many years after first hearing it). And it’s replete with catchy tunes. It’s quite possibly his most melodic solo album, though the use of synthesisers hides that a little and dates it quite markedly.
What it’s not is a rock album. Where Empty glass rocks like a Who album (even though lyrically it would have made a strange one), this does not — it’s too poppy, though it has plenty of energetic moments, like ‘Stardom in Acton’ (the germ of White City, I’m sure) and ‘Slit skirts’. This is not a solo album designed to keep the Who fans happy. This is Pete Townshend following his muse where it leads him, which in this case is a cross between mid-life crisis and the mainstreaming of electronic instruments in the early 80s — it’s basically a new wave record by a guy from the old wave. No wonder a lot of fans who have bought all the Who albums they can and are looking for more product don’t like it!
If you’re a little more open-minded, it’s actually pretty good, though it does make me feel a little like Pete’s therapist. I should charge him each time I listen to it.
Yes, it sounds like 1981. But pop music recycles itself so often, who cares? Yes, there’s spoken word stuff and what looks like free association poetry. But risking being perceived as pretentious is something integral to a lot of really interesting art. Yes, there’s clunky autobiography and tinny synths and bubbly synths and bouncy synths. What it does not sound like is repetition, like a musician happy to stand still. In The kids are alright Townshend carries on about how it’s ‘crucial’ that pop music progress as art. And amidst the rock operas and the symphonic scores and weird experiments and two chord wonders and synthesiseritis and the boredom of The Iron Man and the tedium of the standard version of Psychoderelict (the music-only version is much better), what you don’t find is a guy who’s just trying to give you what you want. Somewhere in his autobiography he says something like ‘we could have just done Who’s next part 2′ in 1972, and then explains why that’s not adequate; yet I have no doubt that thousands of fans would have been quite happy with that. I would have, had I been around at the time. Instead he put together Quadrophenia, a giant flawed masterpiece that in many ways is less enjoyable than a retread of Who’s next might well have been. (Let’s see … ‘Pure and easy’, ‘Naked eye’, ‘Join together’, ‘Relay’, ‘Let’s see action’, ‘Baby don’t you do it’ … yes, there’s most of a solid follow up there just in the non-album singles and Who’s next rejects.)
Favourite tracks? I don’t usually skip any, though ‘Sea refuses no river’ and ‘Somebody saved me’ can get a bit … I dunno. The phrase ‘first world problems’ comes to mind.
Face Dances, Pt. 2
Communication (for the drums and ‘by satellite and solid state’ and because it’s called ‘Communication’ and tells us to communicate while being largely incomprehensible itself)
Stardom in Acton
North Country Girl
Oh, and don’t read any of Townshend’s prose. (Same goes for the back of White City). I don’t know about the CD or download, but the LP comes with this weird essay inside the cover (‘the triangle expands and explodes’ or something), and it really is a weird lump of arty-farty nonsense that the album would be better without. I suspect one reason I like this is because for years I just listened to my old tape, and that is free of the gobbage. Indeed, it has a song on it called ‘Stardom in Action’ (probably ‘corrected’ by a proofreader), so it’s hardly packaged with the care of the vinyl release.
Worth a spin, possibly especially if you don’t like the Who.
Sorry: The wretched tale of Little Stevie Wright by Jack Marx
This is an odd book. My gut reaction to it is distaste. Marx paints both himself and Wright as untrustworthy junkies — which is most likely true — but in doing so he expends a lot of words on himself — for a biography, it’s remarkably autobiographical. Whether this reflects an inability to get much useful material out of Wright, or rampant ego on the part of the author, it’s hard to tell. Perhaps it needs to be viewed as the book plus the ‘making of’ documentary all rolled into one. In fact, that’s what it is.
I’m going to be pretty harsh on the book — yet I did finish it, and pretty quickly. It has a kind of car crash momentum about it. I suspect some readers will really like it, and I may just not be quite the right audience.
The structure consists of alternating sections, one lot following Stevie Wright through his — yes, wretched — life, the other following Marx as he deals with Stevie and Fay(e) and tries to get material for the book.
I’ll discuss them separately.
The main problem with the actual biography part is that it lacks detail and dates. It’s just not a very good biography. Are we in 1969 or 1967? Is it 1975 or 1972 or 1979? It’s impossible to tell. Only by reference to some external source — like the internet — can the reader actually get a sense of when any of this happened. There’s no context half the time, just a narrow focus on Stevie and his drug problems and the emptiness of his life. OK, that’s important — but it’s not everything.
To his credit, Marx evokes the junkie life pretty vividly. Correctly, I can’t say. There’s a core of analysis in the work that seems valid — that Wright spent his life looking for easy answers, waiting for things to go his way, and the quick fixes he indulged in along the way turned from being the means to being the end in getting through life. After the Easybeats, did he make a new path for himself in music (like Vanda and Young)? No. Did he consciously give it up and get a ‘real’ job and work at it like a grown-up, like Snowy and Dick Diamonde? No. Things sometimes fell his way — Jesus Christ Superstar, Hard Road, ‘Evie’ — and often didn’t, and he wasn’t equipped for the mundane slog.
So that half of the book is an intermittently insightful, intermittently evocative narrative that hangs in the air, without context, without grounding in time or space. Interesting, but weak.
The other half … is not that good.
We follow Marx as he stays with Wright and his woman, Fay(e). Marx feeds them money in return for promised cooperation on the book, cooperation we never actually see although near the end he refers to his tape recorder so presumably he has got something out of Wright. Marx drinks, shoots up, mistreats people and generally paints himself as someone most of us would not want to associate with. He indulges in long vignettes that have little or nothing to do with the subject. He seems keen to tell us, basically, how immersed he was in the gutter and presumably this makes his comments on Wright more credible. I don’t know. I should say I have never been a fan of the ‘presenter as star’ kind of thing. It’s like one of those nature documentaries where all we ever see is the presenter telling us how hard it is to find the animal of interest. What it amounts to is padding, making the tiny little bit of real footage go as far as possible.
This is like that. It’s like Marx realised he did not have a whole book, so he’s padded it out with his own adventures and his list of attempts to get the story — all of which are essentially the same (he gives them money, they blow it on drugs, they ask for more money).
Lastly, it’s not clear what if any of the content was actually provided by Wright. Some is very personal, so presumably some of the book comes from actual interviews. Much of it reads like a potted version skimmed from elsewhere and then padded out by Marx’s attempts to guess what was going on inside the band or inside Wright’s head. There are no sources given, so we can only assume it’s either all from interviews or partly from interviews and partly made up, or it’s been gathered from other sources but Marx is too lazy to document them.
If this is ‘gonzo’ journalism, you can have it.
If you want to know what it’s like being a junkie trying to cadge information out of a junkie, it’s a very handy book.
Of course, the Easybeats were a great band, we must never forget that.
Grant & I by Robert Forster
I’m an unusual Go-Betweens fan, if fan is the right word, precisely because fan may not be the right word. I am not rabid. I an not devoted. I just kind of like some of what they‘ve done over the years. If I was to believe the clichés in a lot of the writing about the band, that‘s not how it works. I picked up their CDs in a box. which was most excellent value, and I‘ve got a copy of Bellavista Terrace, and I’m pretty happy with that.
Anyway, Robert Forster‘s book is very easy to read. It evokes the days spent shaping the songs, and playing them, and living on not a huge amount of money.
As the title might suggest, it focuses on the relationship between Forster and Grant McLennan, it is really the story of a partnership. In places, it reads like Forster is trying figure out McLennan, a man who he knew for almost 30 years but who, we come to wonder, perhaps nobody knew. Forster tackles the subject with an and pretty analytical eye that is perhaps possible when so many years have passed.
As a rock n roll memoir, it’s pretty good, though I have not read the genre extensively. There’s no hint of a ghost writer — not surprising, given,the
quote on the back cover: ”It was our long-time predicament — Grant had too many melodies, I had too many words.“
With that title, you’d be entitled to wonder: do the other band members get the attention they deserve? And: I don’t know. This it not a biography of the band — the title tells us that — but it is the story of two men and the band they were in.
As always with these books, I would have liked to see the creative process better explored. How was a song shaped? Who brought what to it? There is a bit of that, but for me the act of creation rarely gets enough attention in books by creative people. I have sometimes wondered what makes for a song writing credit. Neither Jagger nor Richards ever told Charlie when to hit his drum, I‘m guessing. When asked about song writing credit within the Stones, Bill Wyman noted that ‘Under My Thumb’ isn’t much of a song without Brian’s marimba part. I mean, in some sense doesn’t the drummer write the drum part, the bass player the bass part? Is a song the words and the melody? The chord changes? It’s pretty clear that ‘Cattle and Cane‘ rises so high largely because of the drums. Yet …
Some bands (R.E.M., the Manics, Radiohead, Bluetones, late Clash and many more) attribute all the songs to everybody. Now, I am not a musician (clearly, I hear you say) so I guess maybe there are good reasons for bands dividing credit up how they do. Townshend brought fully formed demos with guide vocals, bass lines and drum tracks to the Who; he was clearly the songwriter.
Anyway, I did not quite get a sense of how they put a track together, though the division of credit suggests the Townshend style more than the Radiohead. I just hope it’s fair. (I believe there was some court action on that front by non-Forster/McLennan members of the group at some stage, so maybe those contributions were as substantial as, listening to the records, they seem.)
As I read I wondered at the absence of drugs — perhaps he was just being discrete — and then very late we get a mention of Hep-C and a kind of brief admission. And, much as I like the book, it does have a kind of ‘but it was all a dream’ quality — we need to reassess all that went before. When someone acted weird, or whatever, or argued, or whatever — was it really because of what the chapter suggested at that point in the book, or was is related to drug use? What pressures did that create inside the band?
I’m not that interested in drug use itself – it it was one of the more boring aspects of Keith’s Life — but in a book where personal relationships play a major role, drugs have to feature if we’re really to get a sense of the dynamics. They also have an impact creatively, good and bad. I don’t want drugs to play a major part, but I do want to know what part they played… or I would, as a reader who bought the book in order to find out more about Forster and the band, keeping in mind that Forster wrote the book, which implies a desire to tell.
All that sounds negative, but it’s really good. He evokes places economically and effectively, like a good novelist, and he’s reflective and analytical. There’s no sense of complaint when he looks at why they never became big stars, and not regret. The integrity with which he approached his music is quite apparent.
In summary: Well written, interesting, somewhat enlightening yet perhaps played just a little too close to the chest. Forster has thought hard about music and has a lot of interest to say, and on balance still a worthwhile read.