Saturday, September 30, 2017

Runnin with the Devil – A Backstage Pass to the Wild Times, Loud Rock, and the Down and Dirty Truth Behind the Making of Van Halen

Runnin with the Devil – A Backstage Pass to the Wild Times, Loud Rock, and the Down and Dirty Truth Behind the Making of Van Halen – by Noel Monk and Joe Layden

If you went to high school in the early 1980s as I did, going to a Van Halen concert gave you instant access to “The Cool Kid’s Table”. Nobody put on a show as wild and as raunchy as these guys did. Forget about a “quality” show, these guys basically delivered a 2-hour party when they performed.  They toured so regularly back then, that if you did miss a show, it wasn’t THAT big of a deal because odds were that they would be back to your town next year, and would basically put on the same wild show.

Author Noel Monk was the band’s road manager, and later manager of the band during those days, and this book is essentially a backstage pass. (My guess is co-author Joe Layden collaborated in terms of flow and providing Monk with a thesaurus to give the book a lot of big, unnecessary words.) When we get an intimate glimpse into the life of Van Halen, we pretty much see what we expect.  There’s a lot of cocaine, alcohol, fighting, cocaine, groupies, jail, cocaine, sex, debauchery, and more cocaine. Dare I say that, although this book really doesn’t feature any startling revelations that most fans don’t already know, it’s still a fun, quick read.

Give credit to the author for not boring us with his own life story, or the life story of the band members themselves. He’s smart enough to know what the reader wants, and cuts immediately to the chase. We first meet the band when they start a tour to support their first album (in support of Journey and Montrose), which is when Monk enters their lives as road manager.

We also already know that David Lee Roth and the Van Halen brothers are basically jerks, and that Michael Anthony, ironically, is a very sweet guy. So Anthony doesn’t get a lot of attention in the book. Even though we end up not really liking the other three, the author does a good job giving them credit where credit is due, and spends a fair amount of time sharing good times as well as bad with each of them.

Although the author would become the band’s manager, the main focus here is the touring. More specifically, what when on backstage after the show was over.   If you’re looking for a book that spends entire chapters on the making of each album, you’ll be disappointed.  Each album gets very little page space, yet in a strange way, this is forgivable. In fact, it’s probably welcome.  I’ve always been of the opinion that these guys never would have been popular had it not been for their live shows.  It seems like in most cases, a new album was made because it was necessary – and helpful, so the band could schedule yet another tour around it. Plus, Monk states over and over again that he rarely went to their recording sessions anyway. No, he was mainly needed, it seems, to put out fires during the tour and make sure that the show went on, despite all of the X-rated drama.

Not surprisingly, the band imploded during the 1984 tour. In addition to the 3 members firing Michael Anthony (he would stay with the band only as a salaried player for the next 20 years), they also fire Monk at this time.  Why? Who can really say.  Since Roth and the Van Halen brothers were drunk and stoned all the time, they probably just had to let off some steam.  As Monk states in the book, after his firing he never saw the band again.

So, naturally, after he’s sacked, the story ends. He feels that it would be wrong to comment much about the band after his departure, and that’s a fair feeling. Personally, I would have loved another chapter where he could reflect on all the nastiness after he left, and just provide some thoughts around the highlights.  Maybe “lowlights” is a better word. Again, fans know that the drama just got worse in the later years – not surprising when you consider that Edward Van Halen has basically fired everyone in the band that wasn’t related to him at one time or another.

So it’s rock and roll. Sometimes rock and roll just isn’t pretty. Everything in this book is pretty much what you would expect.  I would say this is a must read for fans – even if the internet has probably already given you access to most of these stories already.

The Last Tsar

The Last Tsar – The Life and Death of Nicholas II by Edvard Radzinsky

First of all, if you’re looking for a book about “history” – i.e. the history of Russia during Nicholas II’s tempestuous reign, this probably is not the best choice of a book. This book was written by a Russian author who, I believe, has the assumption that his audience already is familiar with the events that led to the tsar’s exile, and eventual execution.

Instead, this book portrays a very personal account of the man’s life inside the palace walls. I seem to recall that about 25-40% of this book is actual correspondence and diary entries of Nicholas and his wife Alexandra (‘Alix’). It’s quite obvious that the royals led an extremely sheltered existence and were oblivious to most of the pains and necessary remedies for their country. The book makes us believe that the tsar really does mean well, but to reform such a mess as early 20th century Russia requires a very strong leader which, sadly, he is anything but.  Alix seems to not care much. Her main compulsion is producing an heir to the throne.  After four daughters, she finally produces a male heir, who is soon diagnosed with hemophilia.  Because of his fragile condition (which must be hidden from the public), she consorts with the odd mystic Rasputin with uncanny regularity.   I only mention this because this seems to be one of the main narratives of the story.  Again, the book is much more “personal”.

On that note, it should be pointed out that the last half of the book details the family’s exile to Siberia, and eventual execution – in very meticulous detail.  We read diary entry after diary entry during the family’s captivity, along with all of the turbulent post 1917 events that lead to the ultimate tragedy.

In fact, the author interviews and does extensive research in order to uncover all of the details and retell them as truthfully as possible.  If one thinks about it, one realizes that whenever such a tragedy happens, speculation and rumors are abundant in terms of the exact detail (think about the assassination of JFK).

I’m not sure if I’ve ever read any other book by a Russian author, but the style here seems a bit disjointed.  Edvard Radzinsky seems to bounce around a lot during his narrative, and flow isn’t as seamless as I would have liked it to be. Since so much of the story is told within diary entries, it was a bit difficult to transition back to first person narrative many times.

I enjoyed the book, but if you’re looking for a more detailed perspective of the causes and effects of the Russian Revolution – I would recommend looking elsewhere.  A good suggestion from me would be “The People’s Tragedy” by Orlando Figes.


Borderlines - Archer Mayor 

Unless you own a Kindle, you might not be familiar with this author. I only say this because Kindle offers a lot of his books at a discount rate at times, and you can even read many of them on the “Kindle Unlimited” program (these are a select group of titles that Kindle allows Amazon Subscribers to read for free – 1 book per month).

This author has written a series of books that revolve around Detective Joe Gunther. Gunther resides in the Northeastern part of the United States. I’m guessing he’s about 50-ish, a widower, and pretty good at what he does. This is the second book of the series.  The author tells his tales in first person, and I’m guessing that as he writes more of these stories, we learn more about Gunther, and events in his personal life probably evolve within the pages as well. Not an uncommon feature with writers of detective stories.

As Gunther is heading out of town to work on a special assignment, he’s sidetracked when he goes back to his hometown. Apparently there’s a strange environmental “cult” that now resides there, and they have quite the effect on the community. They don’t seem to be particularly harmful, and as long as no laws are broken and these people mostly keep to themselves, conflicts can be mostly avoided.

Things go awry when an older couple show up in town and demand their daughter back from the cult. They claimed she was kidnapped. The cult, of course, denies it.  Next thing you know, there’s a fire within the cult at one of the houses that kills several people. A couple of murders later, and you have a full-fledged crime story to unravel. So Gunther, along with several other police types do what needs to be done. There’s a lot of locals to interact with, a lot of cult members that are rather tight-lipped, and a lot of information about the people in question that start to slowly unravel.  There’s even a lot of unnecessary banter between Gunther and a local girl. There’s an attraction there, but things don’t really go anywhere. I guess this is common when you have a widowed detective as your main character. You have to have some sort of romantic attraction somewhere. Right? It’s only human nature.

Overall a very good story. The author’s first book was about of the same caliber. I can’t say that this book was earth-shattering, nor am I rushing out to read more of these stories.  Still, though, I would say that these books are far better than the average of the same genre, and when one can obtain the book at somewhat of a discounted rate, what do you have to lose?