history

Tired of California: The Beach Boys’ Holland Revisited

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First, a disclaimer: I’m the author of this book! With that in mind, allow me to note, in all humility, that Tired of California, brief though it may be (weighing in at a mere 25,000 words) offers an extremely thorough account of the Beach Boys’ career in the early 1970s, culminating with the recording of their landmark (if oft-overlooked) Holland album.

For decades, the story of the Beach Boys has been the story told in the 2015 Brian Wilson biopic Love and Mercy: Brian was the genius who put the band on the map, but a combination of drug addiction and mental illness led to his downfall. Some versions of the story, like the TV movies Summer Dreams and The Beach Boys: An American Family  also portray Brian’s “bad-boy” brother, drummer Dennis Wilson, as a doomed romantic figure whose drowning in 1983 cast a pall over the band’s fun-in-the-sun image. While all versions of this story have the band returning to their former glory in one way or another, they also leave out a brief period in the early 1970s when the Beach Boys were producing critically acclaimed albums that barely made a dent in the record charts. This period of dramatic artistic growth culminated in a prolonged visit to the Netherlands, during which the Beach Boys recorded the subject of my proposed book, Holland.

One thing that makes the Holland era so interesting is that it represents a time when the Beach Boys were trying to reinvent themselves. Central to this endeavor was the work of Jack Rieley, a somewhat shady character who insinuated himself into the Beach Boys organization and gradually took over. To give the Beach Boys new life in the public imagination, Rieley urged them to drop their greatest-hits concert act and focus on new material. He also launched a public relations campaign insisting that it was cool to listen to the Beach Boys again. This campaign, however, was built around the myth that Brian Wilson was still an active member of the band when, in fact, his participation in recording sessions was minimal. Nonetheless, efforts at conjuring the illusion of Brian’s participation led the Beach Boys to produce gems like 1971’s Surf’s Up and 1973’s Holland.

I could go on and on about this topic. Indeed, I have gone on and on about it, and I put all of my thoughts, not to mention a lot of research, into the project. If you’re curious, check it out on Smashwords: Tired of California: The Beach Boys’ Holland Revisited.

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Elvis Is King: Costello’s My Aim Is True

Elvis is King CoverWord on the street is that Elvis Costello has a memoir due in October. For those who can’t wait, there’s Richard Crouse’s Elvis Is King: Costello’s My Aim Is True, a meticulously researched account of Costello’s early years and the release of his first LP with independent label Stiff Records. Of particular interest with respect to this volume is Crouse’s attention to the milieu out of which both My Aim Is True and Costello himself emerged. Indeed, the sense one gets is that Costello’s identity congealed around the production and marketing of his first album in ways that few other acts ever did. “Elvis Costello,” the stage name adopted fairly late in the proceedings by singer-songwriter Declan McManus, emerges as somewhat of a construct, an amalgam of various mythical figures of rock’s colorful history — Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly in particular. Crouse also does an excellent job of contextualizing the album in question. Not punk by any stretch of the imagination (Costello’s backing group for this project was an American country-rock band called Clover), My Aim Is True nonetheless appealed to the raw DIY aesthetic as well as the iconoclastic attitudes of the indie and punk movements of its time. Though relatively brief (and appropriately so, given its narrow focus), Elvis Is King presents a tight, thorough portrait of the musician as a young man that will appeal not only to die-hard Costello fans but rock historians in general.

Memory’s Wake

In Memory’s Wake, Derek Owens lovingly revisits his mother’s troubled childhood to offer a hopeful and moving meditation on the relationship between the past and the present. Early in the book, Owens sets the stage for this meditation by explaining that his mother’s memories of the events in question lay dormant for years until the gradual departure of her grown children allowed for their return. Soon the author is traveling in his own mind back to the house where his mother suffered both physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his grandmother to interrogate his own memories and also to ask what it really means to remember.

Reconstructing his mother’s flight from the abuse in question, Owens overlays the young child’s journey with a narrative recounting the violent extirpation of the Iriquois who once populated the same lands his mother wandered as a child. The effect is both chilling and intriguing. We are a species, this telling juxtaposition suggests, that is capable of great cruelty. At the same time, however, our resilience knows no bounds. Still later, similar historical parallels drive home the point that our ghosts — or at least our history — will always be with us, but the fact that his mother did not perpetuate the cycle of abuse with her own children bears silent testimony to our collective ability to change for the better. Haunted though we may be by the past, the narrative insists, the present is what we make of it.

Stylistically, Memory’s Wake offers a highly engaging blend of history and personal narrative that suggests the two are less discrete than we might normally imagine. Throughout, Owens displays a talent for homespun yet telling imagery, as when he describes an average dinner with his grandmother: “ashy potatoes, smears of applesauce. peas grainy from freezer burn. slices of pot roast pearly gray, fibers on the ends sticking out like frayed wires. in the middle of the table a gravy boat, mud colored skin, thick as a bathmat. if you dropped a pea on top it would have sat there, tiny green planet.”

Heartbreaking and hopeful, Memory’s Wake will appeal to anyone interested in exploring the borderlands between history and personal narrative and will also make for an excellent text in any creative nonfiction course.

Time Among the Dead

In the opening lines of Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy writes, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This truism, however, belies a fact that anyone who’s spent any amount of time with an apparently “happy” family knows: each happy family is unhappy in its own way as well. Such is the case in Thomas Reyfiel’s Time Among the Dead. Evoking the Victorian sensibilities of works like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights as well as the yearning for a better age inherent in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Rayfiel’s latest novel bears nostalgic witness to the passing of the age of aristocracy and the social mores that went along with it. What’s more, as the values and traditions of one era give way to the newfangled ways of the next, the uneasy relationship between the past and the ever-changing present comes into sharp and sometimes painful focus, only to reveal that even the past, or at least our recollection of it, is as fluid as any chain of events unfolding in the present.

At first glance, Time Among the Dead appears to be about the tension between the narrator and his shiftless grandson, Seabold. Under the pretense of tending to his ailing grandfather, Seabold arrives at the family estate to live the life of a country gentleman. The only problem with his plan is that the estate is nearly bankrupt, and Seabold has no real prospects for either love or employment — until, that is, he meets the daughter of a local peasant. Though the peasant’s financial footing is firm, he has no title, and so the narrator, William, the Seventh Earl of Upton, has no choice but to put an end to his grandson’s romance. William’s machinations, however, are complicated not only by the sudden appearance of Seabold’s closest school chum, but also by memories of a former life that William has heretofore painted over with the romantic sheen of nostalgia. The past, it turns out, is not what William has been making of it, and in many ways helps to explain his troubles in the present.

One thing that makes Time Among the Dead an especially intriguing read is the narrator’s prescience with respect to the audience who may or may not stumble upon his journals in the future. His desire throughout the proceedings is to set the record straight for posterity, whoever that posterity may include. Yet even as the narrator struggles to recall his past and record the present accurately, he is plagued with doubt and uncertainty, for the fragility of the mind coupled with the complexity of the heart precludes objectivity. Our knowledge of the past and present, Time Among the Dead insists, is always compromised, so the best we can do is work with the information we have and move tentatively toward the future.

A truly enchanting novel, Time Among the Dead offers readers a glimpse into a bygone era and suggests that what really sets humanity apart as a species is our peculiar talent for divining meaning in the present from the ceaseless tension between the past and the future.