Thursday, September 28, 2017

BOOKS: SOUL SURVIVOR



AL GREEN DON'T NEED NOBODY
New bio explores the strange life of '70s soul stirrer, grits and all.
by Don Stradley



Al Green's career defies the usual pop star trajectory familiar to baby boomers. There was no defining moment, no appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, no star turn at Woodstock,  nothing where fans can say they remember where they were when they first saw him. Granted, there may be some out there who recall the first time he appeared on Soul Train, and apparently every  child born in 1972 was conceived while "Lets Stay Together" was playing on the car radio, or on the Sansui 8-track, but Green's life story seems so unlikely, so damned peculiar, that a long biography of him never quite gains traction, and not just because he dumped his career as a soul singer to become a preacher and record gospel tunes.

Jimmy McDonough's Soul Survivor: A Biography of Al Green is bursting with details, as well as an insightful  reappraisal of Green's recorded output, but Green is a troublesome subject. Reader beware: Green is neither likeable, nor especially interesting. At the most, he's slightly eccentric, but no more so than the average overpaid celebrity. He talks about himself in third person, is dumb about money, is mean to people, and has had a string of bad marriages. We could say the same about almost anyone in the NBA or the NFL. 


Al Green (as he calls himself, as in "Al Green has got to please Al Green,") was slightly weird from the start, a strangely effeminate boy who was once kicked off his high school football team for being too rough. The Green family landed in Grand Rapids, Michigan by way of an Arkansas backwater; they were unsophisticated and prone to believe in voodoo spells, but the brood was musical, specializing in religious hymns and gospel harmonies. Like a young Michael Jackson did in his own family, little Al Green absorbed what his older brothers were doing and was soon blowing them away with his silky, soaring vocal style.

The family gospel group performed in such such faraway locations as New York and Canada. Al was electric, belting out gospel songs and stealing the spotlight every night, though he remained, in his own words, "the kid under a tree by himself." Al's father, Robert Green, was capable of extreme cruelty - he once shot Al's pet goat and served it for dinner as a joke  - and Al's brothers never knew what to make of their "different" younger sibling. He was the meal ticket, though, and he knew that he was the most gifted member of his mediocre family. He also started to dig the sound of secular singers, namely Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, and Elvis Presley.

He left home at 16 and slept in the guest rooms of various musicians, older cats who knew Al had some talent but needed protection. He was soon fronting a group called The Fabulous Creations, honing his stagecraft in one city after another. He heard Otis Redding sing at Chicago's Regal Theater and it was a revelation. "It was like God or something," Green said, "slipping out of heaven."  There were also prostitutes, transvestite nightclubs, and rumors that Al tried his hand at pimping, a trade his brother Walter had mastered. Al recorded a modestly successful single, "Back Up Train," but when it failed to turn him into a star, he grew desperate. Broke, with little to show for his first few years on the road, he jump-started his career by teaming with music producer Willie Mitchell, the production guru behind a little known Memphis outfit called HI Records. Together, they recorded the string of mesmerizing soul hits that made Green a phenomenon of the 1970s. You might say Mitchell made Green, or vice versa. Neither would ever be as good without the other.

McDonough, author of first rate biographies of Tammy Wynette, Neil Young, and Russ Meyer, has plenty of mysteries to unravel with Green. Here was a man given to violent mood swings, yet capable of singing in a high, romantic falsetto designed to make women crazy. Here was a man who carried weapons, and physically attacked people, yet was thought by many in his circle to be not just gay, but downright feminine. He was capable of great generosity, but those who worked for him recall Green as a stingy jerk, the sort who stifled most confrontations by saying, "Don't you know who I am? I'm Al Green!" 

And, of course, there was the tragic death of Mary Woodson, a mentally fragile woman who had left her husband to be with Green, only to commit suicide in Green's home. One night she purportedly threw a pan of scalding hot grits at the singer's bare back, and then shot herself in the head with his .38. At least that's what we're supposed to believe. McDonough raises enough questions about the incident that one doesn't know what to think. It was shortly thereafter that Green began preaching at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis, though he'll always remind you that he'd found God a year earlier, at Disneyland. 

In the ensuing years he became a ghostly presence in the world of pop and R & B. His music has been sampled endlessly by hip hop artists, he has appeared on award shows to sing alongside Justin Timberlake and others, and a recent Green album was produced by Questlove. Green has won numerous Grammy awards for his gospel work, and even appeared on Broadway, disastrously, opposite Patti LaBelle in a show called Your Arms Too Short to Box With God. In 1995 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where he stumbled through a duet with Aretha Franklin.

McDonough tells us all of this, plus stuff about drugs and guns and domestic violence, but he's too much of a music buff to go full-blown Albert Goldman. He treats Green as a kind of distressed genius, fawning over his talents with something close to blind adoration, describing Green's falsetto at the end of "Aint No Fun For Me" as feeling "like a little balloon escaping into the night sky." Then, seeking gravitas where there isn't any, compares another Green recording to "an ancient screed chiseled on tablets excavated deep within some pyramid."

Somehow, the reverence starts to sound like plain old ass kissing.

McDonough, as if trying to dilute his hero worship, occasionally declares that not all of Green's music appeals to him. Love is Reality, he writes, "gets my vote for the worst Al Green album of all time," adding, "I drove around in my car blasting this thing trying to like it." McDonough is a middle-aged man, but within him beats the heart of a truculent fanboy. A little of this is amusing, but sometimes his puckish asides are like finding a hair in your soup. When he writes that an album sounds "like 1979 on a bad day," you know he can do better.

He's more successful when writing about obscure songs and session players. I like how he describes Bulldog Grimes, a drummer who could "lay down a beat that sounds like King Kong doing a two-step in a metal grass skirt." McDonough's affection for Green's band members is palpable, as is the sense that the world of soul music was a world where men, not women, were the sex symbols. Women listened to Green, and other singers like him, and turned utterly irrational. They'd break into Green's home or church, storm the stage to give him their panties, anything to get close to "the black Elvis." One woman, completely undone by her favorite soul man's sweet vocals, dropped to her knees and begged Green to let her sniff his crotch.

If the book has a shortcoming, it's Green. Despite McDonough's depiction of the singer as a haunted loner, Green is too murky to be compelling. Plus, McDonough bales out of the Mary Woodson chapter too quickly. The book could've used 10 more pages of the Woodson scandal, and maybe 10 fewer pages about the history of Hi Records.

My aunts were all music lovers back in the day, and though their tastes ran towards the Bee Gees and Chicago, each of them had a copy of Al Green's Greatest Hits. I once asked my uncle what the deal was with this Al Green character, who to me looked like a skinny James Brown. My uncle, who never said three words when two would do, simply grunted: "He's for the broads." That was good enough for me. Yet, I've never forgotten the way my aunts talked about Al Green, the way they'd break into exaggerated giggles at the mention of his name. Al Green meant parties and good times and things I probably couldn't fathom in those days. 

I fathom those things a little better now, thanks partly to McDonough. He gets in his own way sometimes, but this exhaustive biography works pretty well.





Monday, September 18, 2017

BOOKS: RICHARD NIXON The Life

He was not a crook!
The story of Tricky Dick is still the most intriguing political saga of our time
By Don Stradley


Richard Nixon shouldn't appeal to me - rotten things happened under his watch, the war in Vietnam dragged out for at least four years while he fiddled and diddled, and by most accounts he was a neurotic, petty politician with enough chips on his shoulder to fill a Las Vegas casino - but he does. It's partly because of the image he had in old newspaper cartoons; the five o'clock shadow, the slope of his posture, the sneaky reputation, and the legend that he spent his final days in the White House on his knees praying with Henry Kissinger. He'd started out as a commie basher and spy smasher, but he ended up as Washington's prince of darkness, as if  so many years playing on the country's paranoia had turned him more paranoid than anybody. In John A. Farrell's Richard Nixon, The Life, we get a thoughtful, realistic rendering of a complex character. It's a weighty book, 558 pages of reading, but it's a fine, full-blooded account of a man who, like Vincent Van Gogh or Edgar Alan Poe, wore the anguish of his calling. Nixon wore it on his face and in his bones.

Late in the book, we're given a quote by Kissinger: "It was hard to avoid the impression that Nixon, who thrived on crises, also craved disasters." A recurring theme in this insightful biography is that Nixon courted controversy, and gambled on himself to overcome his own self laid booby traps. As one insider put it, Nixon was like any gambler, and "the thrill was in those few breathtaking moments when the dice were in the air." The observations, plucked from decades of Nixon-based literature, add up to Nixon being diabolically smart, surprisingly progressive in many ways,  but always digging holes for himself,  partly because he firmly believed he was too intelligent, too tough, to fail. He swung hard, for the fences every time. "A man who has never lost himself in a cause bigger than himself has missed out on one of life's mountaintop experiences," Nixon said. "Only in losing himself does he find himself."

What exactly did he find? And did he like what he saw? "It's a piece of cake until you get to the top," he once said of a political career. Then, in words that may as well be describing a man with a gambling addiction, Nixon added, "you continue to walk on the edge of the precipice because over the years you have become fascinated by how close to the edge you can walk without losing your balance." He was the wiliest of political animals, a diabolical thinker who was always two or three moves ahead of everyone, yet what should have been a great presidency was derailed by a quick series of stupid mistakes and bad choices.

The key scenes and characters play out like parts of a crazy, kitschy, American opera: there's Pat Nixon, the long suffering wife; Alger Hiss; Joe McCarthy; Checkers the dog; Eisenhower, the mentor and ball buster; John Kennedy, a friend, then a foe; the '68 comeback; thousands of burned and butchered bodies strewn across the jungles of Vietnam; Nixon in China; Nixon in Russia; the hiring of Hunt and Liddy, the "sycophants and klutzes" brought into the White House to run Nixon's black ops; and the disastrous coverup of the Watergate break in, a stunt no worse than what we've seen since from other presidents, but because Nixon had broken so many backs on the way up, he was too unlikable to get away with it. Nixon wanted to be a giant, and he very nearly was one. And he did it during one of the most turbulent eras in our history, navigating some incredibly bumpy terrain, while secretly despising the political life, the smiling and the handshakes and the phony dinners and soirees, and people like Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, panned succinctly by Farrell as "a Kennedy coat holder." 

Farrell doesn't gloss over Nixon's cold-blooded style, for if  Nixon was a brilliant politician who could survey any  scene and understand what was needed to get votes, he was also a ruthless mauler of any perceived enemy. There's a jaw dropping opening scene where a 33-year-old Nixon, fresh out of the U.S. Navy, is asked by a Whittier California group to run for Congress. He immediately suggests that spies be sent to his opponent's camp. With his first political breaths, he'd revealed himself to be a willingly dirty player, and set the course for one of the most controversial political legacies in history, one that Farrell has set down with fairness, compassion, and style. 

Still, it's Nixon who has the best lines, like when he tells  H.R. Haldeman, "If I'm assassinated, I want you to have them play 'Dante's Inferno,' and have Lawrence Welk produce it." 

That's my Nixon; hellfire and waltzes. 




Monday, September 4, 2017

SING MIRANDA! SING!


Haters Back Off!, soon entering its second season on Netflix, is many things - a slapstick commentary on YouTube performers, a satire of modern youth's infatuation with celebrity, a send up of show business in general, a cocktail for the social media generation where Facebook is the drug of choice,  and YouTube  its Woodstock - but the message at its center wasn't  apparent until the final episode of its first season. I'd enjoyed it all well enough - I love  Miranda Sings (Colleen Ballinger), an untalented kid who believes she's a star. I love how she sings in a voice that sounds like Steve Urkel doing Billie Holiday, and schemes with her Uncle Jim (the incomparable Steve Little) to ride her unpopular YouTube videos to glory - but was caught off guard by the show's surprisingly serious finale. One of Miranda's videos, you see, finally goes viral, but her family, worn down by her selfishness, has vanished. She's left alone to ponder her new internet popularity. It was sad. I can't recall a bleaker ending to a comedy series.

Early on, though, the funny stuff came fast and hard. There were moments that rivaled the best of Pee Wee's Big Adventure and Napoleon Dynamite. Among the bits that stood out: Uncle Jim's monologue about bread in episode six; Miranda, with top hat and cane,  performing "All That Jazz" in a sex club; Miranda's fear that she was being stalked by an internet fiend ("I need a panic room and a body double!"); and the recurring scenes where Miranda meets Patrick, the young ice cream salesman next door, for her daily popsicle. She stands with him in the front yard of her shabby suburban home, slurping at her gigantic frozen treat, staring out over the horizon, dreaming her YouTube dreams. The boy's unrequited love, and Miranda's self-absorption, manages to be both funny and poignant - elevated in no small manner by Amotz Plessner's beautiful score, and Michael Balfry's cinematography - much more so than any of the recent rubbish pedaled by Hollywood or basic cable. In fact, one could take the front yard image of Miranda and Patrick and sell it as a seedy American Gothic for the digital age. 

It's also a traditional romantic tale, with a subplot that goes back to the Bronte sisters.   Ignoring the  boy who loves her - she likes him but he's not famous enough  - Miranda prefers a toothy blond goof who sings at her local church. She even attempts to join the choir to be near this angelic stud, only to be bounced out after her first rehearsal. Miranda's vulnerability is at least part of what makes the series work.  "What's so funny about someone loving me?" she says in a stirring climactic scene. Still, it's odd that the show ended on such a down note, as if Theodore Dreiser had sneaked into the writer's room and jiggered the plot to bring this ruthlessly driven character crashing to earth. Oddly, had Netflix not asked for a second series of episodes, our last image of Miranda would've been quite melancholy. (But wait...was that the ice cream guy's bell we heard just as it ended?) 

Ballinger, an attractive 30-year-old blessed with a comic's rubbery face  - her oversized mouth recalls 1930s comic Joe E. Brown - has spent many years honing the Miranda character on YouTube. Over the course of 1,000 or so videos, she has endowed Miranda with a strange accent ("Stawp it! Are you keeding?") an inflated ego, and bitterness about everything, from her annoying mother to the haters on YouTube. She'll also take baths in jelly, belch and fart loudly, complain about her Christmas presents, and give comically bad singing and dancing tutorials. Most compelling for me is that she always frowns just before she signs off, as if her life is actually miserable, her only respite coming from a brief interlude with her friends in YouTube land. (In one video, a friend sneaks into her house and sees Miranda alone in her room playing with a Jack in the box. Miranda's weirdness is toned down for Haters Back Off!, where she's less of a disturbed woman-child and more of a traditional television character.)

Miranda is not without antecedents. In some of her grimaces, one can see Lily Tomlin's old characters from Laugh-In, while Miranda's herky jerky movements remind me of Gilda Radner. Even the Miranda accent has an echo of 80's comic Judy Tenuda. The performer who really comes to mind, though, is vintage Carol Burnett. Not only is there a slight facial  resemblance, but like Burnett, Ballinger can sing, act, and do the slapstick. She is that rarity in comedy, a three tool player: she can look funny, sound funny, and move funny.

Where Miranda is entirely unique is in Ballinger's use of  YouTube, paring her comedy down into small, easily digestible tidbits. She plays with the medium the way Ernie Kovaks  played with television in its early days. One of my favorites is Miranda's attempt at a new dance craze called "Juju on that Beat!" At a mere 90 seconds, it is the perfect rendition of a clumsy girl who thinks she can dance just because she saw someone do the moves on television. There's also one where Miranda simply eats a bowl of Cap 'n Crunch. I could go on for hours about that one, but I won't. Then there was her reading of Donald Trump tweets in the Miranda voice, pointing out that our current president is not much different than temperamental, delusional Miranda.

With several videos posted each week, a book, and concert tours that have taken her around the world, plus the Netflix show, Ballinger must be the hardest working person on YouTube. The effort has resulted in the Miranda channel grabbing more than 8-million subscribers. To give you some perspective,  SNL's YouTube channel has only half that number. Granted, there are many YouTube channels with higher numbers, but Ballinger/Miranda does it without major network backing, without a hit single. Unlike other YouTube performers who are content to act goofy, she created a fully realized fictional character, and a labyrinthine backstory of creepy uncles and gay boyfriends and enough personal tics - she loves meat and crunchy things, loves Jesus, believes in Santa Claus, but hates animals, porn, and balloons - to fill a Sears catalog. She's a small phenomenon in our midst, as the endless BMW and AllState ads on her channel attest. (Though how many of her followers, generally kids, are in the market for a new BMW?)

The majority of her admirers are girls in the 12-16 age range.  They attend her concerts wearing lipstick to match Miranda's, so to Ballinger it must look like she's playing to hundreds of little clown mouths. Her "Mirfandas" love her in a way they can't love a regular industry star. For one thing, Miranda mingles with her followers, engaging in marathon hugging and autograph sessions. She'll even ask for their phone numbers so she can prank call them. Part of the allure, I'm guessing, is that Ballinger has her own YouTube channel separate from Miranda's - two, in fact, one called PsychoSoprano, and another called Colleen Vlogs - plus her own busy social media accounts. The little girls love knowing that gawky Miranda grew up to be a beautiful young woman with a Netflix deal. If Miranda taps into the slouching brat living in all girls, Colleen Ballinger is their hope for the future.

Ballinger, when she's not being Miranda, is a standard YouTuber. By that, I mean, she's not so interesting. She strums her ukulele, talks about her cat, shares some personal anecdotes, and like Miranda, belches like a walrus. Ballinger is a generous sort, often taking part in "collabs" with her family. (It seems the entire Ballinger clan, for better or worse, have jumped on the YouTube bandwagon.) As is the case in the  YouTube universe, Ballinger/Miranda will also collab with other YouTubers, mostly shrill young men. These collabs are can be breathtakingly funny, or just plain stupid. Sometimes I wish she'd do fewer videos and make them count, rather than hit us so often. Then again, part of the fun of YouTube is that it's a free for all, largely improvised. The bits of gold that turn up, like Miranda trying to do a yoga challenge, or using a magic 8-ball to see if her boyfriends really love her, make it worthwhile to sift through the less inspired junk.

For the uninitiated, YouTube performers are a distinct lot. They're largely from the generation that grew up on boy bands, Spongebob, the Olsen twins, and The Bachelor. Hence, their own output is predictably silly and lightweight. They're essentially children's entertainers, a few notches below the dross you'd find on the Disney channel. There's a dash of the old "Let's see how many goldfish I can swallow" mentality of the 1920s, and a lot of what used to be called "camp humor." Much of it is awful. Yet, the YouTubers know their audience, and they are relentless self-promoters. Since kids are always looking for something to call their own, they embrace these YouTubers. Here's hoping the tykes will eventually outgrow them and find harder stuff, they way kids once outgrew the Archies in favor of Led Zeppelin.

In some of Ballinger's current videos, the creator of Miranda has looked and sounded weary. Overseeing the second season of Haters Back Off! has been a chore. Shooting in Vancouver keeps her away from her family. She doesn't know what her little "Mirfandas" want now. In August she had something like a nervous  breakdown after a scary cab ride. Though Ballinger tries to remain chipper, the impression she gives is of a frazzled, overworked woman being pulled in too many directions. It seems that any kind of fame, including the flimsy, fleeting kind found on YouTube, comes with a certain amount of weight. 

The whole idea of YouTube "stardom" didn't exist 20 years ago, and Ballinger's genius as Miranda is in satirizing those wannabes who think YouTube is the new version of Schwab's on Sunset Boulevard. Still, there's a fear that unless you constantly feed the beast, it'll turn on you. Even a rare talent like Ballinger is yoked to the demands of her niche, where even the best become like caged chickens clucking for pellets, or parrots who have been taught to say, "Like and subscribe."

As I watched Ballinger's latest, I started thinking about all of those tiny red mouths in the audience of Miranda's concerts, imagining them as poisonous suckers, latching onto this poor young woman, taking as much they give. I felt bad. Then I clicked around Ballinger's channel and found a heartbreaking clip from last year where she talks about her divorce. I wasn't sure what to make of her candidness. She suffers from the same generational tic that has driven hundreds (thousands?) of people to expose their personal lives on YouTube, all in hopes of making money. 

After being introduced to Miranda on Haters Back Off!, I took a crash course in her and her YouTube peers. The effect was insidious. Within weeks my head was polluted with jingles and catch phrases and weird voices. It's a bit like having "Pop Goes the Weasel" stuck in your mind, nonstop. It's peculiar, and I'm not sure who is more bizarre - the people inside the YouTube fishbowl, or the ones on the outside looking in. How many performers and viewers are allowing their engagement with YouTubers to take the place of real relationships? I watch YouTube on a giant Roku TV, so Ballinger's enormous, root-beer colored eyes bear down on me with a kind of unintended intimacy. As the tears rolled down her face in the divorce video, I was tempted to hand her a tissue.

Frantically, I turned to Miranda's channel to see what she was up to. There she was, in her red-lipped splendor, demonstrating cat toys and fidget spinners. All was right in the world. For now.


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Haters back Off! returns to Netflix Oct 20. In the meantime, you can watch the first season.