Saturday, April 29, 2017

Adulting is Hard

For those of you reading this who are adults (which I'm guessing is most of you), you almost certainly understand immediately what I mean by the title of this post. This isn't one of those whining and complaining posts, but rather just some wry and timely observations on the subject. In essence, it's going to be just one of those "life" posts that doesn't try to do anything other then let me get my thoughts out onto the paper, or rather screen...merely an exercise in letting these thoughts out of my brain and into the ether.

My life is, overall, really good and I'm incredibly thankful for what I have. I've got a loving wife, children that bring utter joy into my life, a job I really enjoy, a roof over my head, food in the fridge, and good health. I've got tons of friends and family members who I care about and who care about me in return. I really don't have anything to complain about. However, as with anyone, there are from time to time stresses and problems that arise that make life a lot less enjoyable. It's usually during these times that I'll hear my kids saying things like "I can't wait to be a grown-up!" or "I wish I was an adult right now!" Every time I hear them say things like this, I gently remind them that they have the rest of their lives to be grown-ups, but only a very short period of time to be kids. I also let them know that I'd love to be able to go back and be a kid for a little bit, to which I usually get incredulous looks of disbelief. "But what about all of the stuff you can DO when you're an adult?" they usually ask. While they're right that as an adult, I can do pretty much anything I want to (within the confines of the law, or course), it's always difficult trying to explain to them that "adulting," as we'll call it, also comes with a ridiculous amount of responsibility and stress. Just over the last six months, I went through a job layoff, looking for (and securing) a new job, a plumbing disaster that necessitated a complete remodel of our finished basement, coordinating the sale of one house and the purchase of another, filing my yearly tax return...and that's all in addition to the regular everyday issues of raising four kids and supporting my family. Obviously, I didn't do all of these by myself; I had my wife right by my side and we tackled everything together. My point is, all of that "adulting" was above and beyond even what "normal" life throws at us, yet we got through it okay with a lot of hard work, blood, sweat, tears, and praying. It's times like those, however, that make me yearn for childhood again, if only for a day or two. To have time back where my biggest responsibilities were to keep my room clean, do my homework, and get to bed early! Still, it doesn't do to dwell on the past, especially as it can never be again. Rather, it's best to keep the memories of those days close while enjoying being able to "adult" (as a verb) and all of the fun that (usually) comes along with it, not least of which for me is being a husband and a father.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Spring Update

Regular readers here will have noticed that I haven't been posting nearly as frequently as I used to. There are many good reasons for that and despite my best efforts, there simply aren't enough hours in the day to rectify the situation. Between starting a new job, selling a house, buying a new house, and coordinating moving my entire family and all of our belongings to a new city and state, it's been a crazy month and looks to be that way until the end of the summer when the dust has finally settled. I'm also working on a mammoth book for my new review, so it's taking a lot of time for me to go through and read it (but it'll be worth's a great book so far!). So for those of you who enjoy reading what I write, there will always be more on the way, but perhaps just not as frequently. As much as I love writing on this blog, it doesn't pay my bills and my professional scientist alter ago has to come first. Thanks for understanding and bearing with me...I hope you'll find the results to be worth it.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Secondary Songwriters

I've had this theory for years and years, and it's one that I feel has mostly been proven true. It goes like this: just about every great band in rock history are ruled by dictatorships; that is, they all have primary songwriters who compose the bulk of their material and steer the group's artistic direction. This has largely been borne out when one looks at the titans of their respective eras: the Beatles (Lennon and McCartney), the Who (Townshend), the Kinks (Ray Davies), the Rolling Stones (Jagger and Richards), Blur (Albarn), Oasis (Noel Gallagher), Led Zeppelin (Page and Plant), the Smiths (Morrissey and Marr), Cream (Bruce), and CCR (John Fogerty), just to name several. There are also bands that have a very democratic split when it comes to songwriting, like R.E.M. (where all four members get credit regardless of who contributed what) or Rush (Lee and Lifeson write the music, Peart writes the lyrics), and bands where the writing dutiesweare split fairly even between two individuals such as Grant Hart and Bob Mould in Husker Du or Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding in XTC. And of course, there are bands with different situations that fit in between all of the ones I've listed above.

However, for the purposes of this article, I'm going to focus on that first batch of bands I mentioned which are ruled by creative dictatorships. Every so often, those running the band would let one of the other members have some of their own songs on the albums, and while the results weren't always as good as those of the main songwriters, sometimes they were. In many cases, the songs by these secondary songwriters, as I'm calling them, were the highlights of the albums they were on and actually every bit as good as anything written by the main writers. I thought it would be fun to write about some of my personal favorite secondary songwriters and highlight some of my favorite songs of theirs. Ready? Let's go!

John Entwistle

Known mainly for being the bass guitarist in The Who, John is widely considered to be one of the greatest rock bass players of all time. While in the Who, he played exquisite bass, sang backing vocals, and played all of the horn parts in the studio. However, he was also a pretty damn good songwriter in his own right. The problem is that with someone as prolific, brilliant, and strong a personality as Pete Townshend in the band, there wasn't much room for John's songs; he even named his first solo album Smash Your Head Against the Wall in reference to how it felt trying to get space on Who albums. With that being said, John had some truly great moments on Who records. While he's most famous for "Boris the Spider" and "My Wife," those aren't two of my favorites of his. Both are great songs but the former is a bit of a novelty song while the latter has been overplayed to death. Instead, I prefer these John songs:

"Whiskey Man"

Released on their second album, 1966's A Quick One, "Whiskey Man" tells the story of an alcoholic who hallucinates an imaginary friend, Whiskey Man, who only "comes out when I drink." Eventually, the narrator gets taken to a psychiatric hospital, still unable to understand why no one else can see his friend. The lyrics are pretty sophisticated and moving for a 22 year old to have written, and the music is quite evocative and quintessentially mid-1960s British.

"Someone's Coming"

A B-side, and one of the few John-penned song that is sung by Roger. This song tells the poignant and humorous tale of a young man who has to sneak out to see his girlfriend because her parents don't like him. With typical wry Entwistle humor and some nice horn work, this is a perfect little vignette from 1967 that sits alongside anything his bandmate Pete Townshend and Kinks songsmith Ray Davies wrote that year.

"Heaven and Hell"

The Who's high voltage live opener during their 1969-1970 period, this song has strange chord changes and lyrics that warn the listener to about where they may end up in the afterlife depending on how they live.  In concert, it was used to warm up the band for the long set that was to come, but the studio version is pretty damn good in its own right.

"When I Was a Boy"

Another B-side, this is a pretty down and bleak look at adult life and how it compares to childhood. More nice horn work from John, but the real highlight of this song is Keith Moon's as-always incredible drumming. It's actually one of my favorite Who songs, period, based on the music, the lyrics, and the band's performance.


"Postcard' is a song from an aborted EP the Who recorded and tells of the sights, sounds, smells, and ordeals the band encountered during their ridiculously heavy touring years of 1967-1970. Besides the funny yet touching lyrics about homesickness and their various travails on the road, this song also has some humorous sound effects and nice horn, bass, and drum parts.

"Trick of the Light"

With a sound likened by Pete Townshend to a "musical Mack truck," John plays both his usual bass guitar as well as an 8-string bass during this song. Another rare John song sung by Roger (of which there are only three total), this one is about the singer's insecurity and uncertainty as to his, shall we say...performance with a lady of the night. Subtle humor even by John's standards, it's nonetheless a moody and brooding song with some nice guitar licks from Pete during the outro.

George Harrison

(due to copyright restrictions, Beatles songs aren't available on YouTube, hence no videos)

As one of the Beatles, George Harrison obviously needs no introduction. As the third songwriter in a band that happened to have Lennon and McCartney as its leaders, it was unfortunate yet inevitable that George would have a hard time getting his songs on albums. As he also pointed out in the Beatles Anthology documentary, John and Paul had been writing songs long before the Beatles started recording and had worked all of the bad songs out of their systems; George had to do his learning during the early part of their career. While this resulted in him contributing only a handful of songs in the early days (the quality of which was uneven), by the end of their career most of his songs were on par with anything John and Paul were writing.


One of George's most well-known songs, this slashing and angry rocker has some of the sharpest and most incisive lyrics of any Beatles song. That the topic is the ludicrously high taxation on top earners in 1960s Britain, and that it came from the pen of the Beatle most concerned with money make it all the better. The absolute musical highlights of this song are Paul's bass playing and his jagged and angry guitar solo.

"Don't Bother Me"

Maybe you think this is a strange choice, but hear me out. This was the first song of George's to appear on an album (1963's With the Beatles) and as he said later on, was more of an exercise into seeing if he could actually write one. Composed while he was sick in bed on tour with the Beatles, it's a typically dour and sour George song, but the reasons I like it so much have to do with the interesting chord changes and the tremolo rhythm guitar part.


Not much can be said by me about this song that hasn't been written's simply one of the most beautiful love songs ever written. Besides George's exquisite guitar solo, Paul's bass playing and harmony vocals and George Martin's pretty orchestration are highlights here.

"While My Guitar Gently Weeps"

Probably my favorite George-penned Beatles song, this slow burning and beautiful song has fantastic performances from all four Beatles and stunning lead guitar playing from George's best friend Eric Clapton. Eric was the rare outside musician who was invited to play on a Beatles track, but he plays the perfect solo and fits right in with the band and the song. George's acoustic demo of the song has a different feel and is equally pretty, deserving consideration in its own right.

"Within You, Without You"

In my younger days I didn't think much of this fact, I usually skipped over it when I listened to Sgt. Pepper. However, once I actually gave it a chance and really listened to it, I was struck by how beautiful it is both musically and lyrically. My favorite part of the entire song is the blending of the Indian musicians with George Martin's gorgeous orchestral score.

"If I Needed Someone"

The closest the Beatles ever came to sounding like the Byrds, George's chiming electric 12-string Rickenbacker powers this song. The soaring three-part vocal harmonies really make this one for's just a nice, catchy song overall.

Dave Davies

Brothers are natural rivals with each other while growing up, and quite often this competition spills over into adulthood. Taking that natural competitiveness into consideration, it must have been even harder for Dave Davies to be in a band with an older brother as prolific and brilliant a songwriter as Ray Davies. However, Dave managed to contribute some excellent songs to the Kinks alongside his stellar lead guitar playing and harmony vocals.

"Death of a Clown"

Probably Dave's most famous song, this is a beautiful and haunting song about the drag and exhaustion of the endless touring the Kinks were doing at the time. The slightly out of tune upright piano, the melancholy lyrics, and the beautiful harmony vocals from Ray, Pete Quaife, and Ray's wife Rasa, make this is one of the great songs of the 1960s.

"Funny Face" & "Susannah's Still Alive"

Along with "Susannah's Still Alive," "Funny Face" is one of two songs written by Dave that deals with his heartbreak over the estrangement from his first girlfriend Sue. While "Susannah's Still Alive" is bouncier and catchier, "Funny Face" is my favorite of the two. It's haunting, somber, and quite melancholy. Both songs are from the same time period as "Death of a Clown" and are highlights of the Kinks' 1967 sound, fitting seamlessly into the sound of what Ray was writing at the time.

"Mindless Child of Motherhood"

I can't quite put my finger on it, but this is just a song I've always loved. I think what does it for me is the way the frantic and slightly darker sounding verses go into the brighter, jangly chorus that just sounds so...quintessentially Kinks. That it came from Dave and not Ray should end all debate over who was more important to the band's sound...they both were.

"Living on a Thin Line"

Widely considered to be one of Dave's finest songs, I'd have to agree. The music is beautiful and the lyrics are very incisive and appropriate, perhaps even more so today than they were in the early 1980s when this was written. I believe I've read that this was one of Ray's favorite songs that Dave wrote and it's not hard to see why.

I think that's a good place to stop for now. There are many other examples of secondary songwriters I'll write about, but for the time being I think this is a good showcase highlighting how just because someone isn't the dominant creative force in their band, it doesn't mean they never write songs as good as their leaders. Obviously these examples are from some of my favorite bands...those of you reading this may agree or disagree with the examples I've used, or you may have examples from other bands that you like. I'm almost certain that I'll write more articles on this topic in the future, but in the meantime let's discuss. If you have anything to add or comment on, let's talk in the comments below!

Sunday, March 26, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: John (John Lennon)

To the casual observer, John Lennon's wife was Yoko Ono. However, those who know more about the Beatles' history and background know that before Yoko, John was married to Cynthia (nee Powell) and in fact had spent a decade of his life with her before cheating with Ono an leaving her. Always one to shy from the limelight of Beatlemania during the 1960s and content to be a housewife raising their young son Julian, Cynthia had arguably the best perspective on John's life during the most famous period of his life. While she had written a book about her first marriage in the late 1970s called A Twist of Lennon, it wasn't until the late 2000s that a more comprehensive and thorough look at her time was published: the current book titled simply John. Even though I read it when it came out, I've given it a fresh re-reading for this review.

The book begins with an interesting, heartfelt, and candid introduction from Julian Lennon describing the father who "let me down in so many ways." It's rather heartbreaking to read of Julian's love for his father, while he fully understood from a young age that while his dad sang to the world about love and peace, he gave little-to-none of either to the wife and child he abandoned in 1968. From here, Cynthia begins the book with details about her birth and childhood in Liverpool during WWII. Born in 1939 as the youngest of three children, Cynthia, like John, suffered the unexpected death of a parent while she was a teenager. In her case, it was her father and she handled it, at least from an emotional standpoint, better than John did the death of his mother. It was while a student at art school in Liverpool that she first met John in 1958. After being initially wary of him, they ended up falling in love and even though John's jealousy, insecurity, and aggression meant that their relationship was a bit stormy (including an incident Cynthia recounts where John smacked her in the face, knocking her to the ground), there was genuine love and affection for her on John's part. I'm not going to recount the Beatles' history during this period as it's been written about to death elsewhere and Cynthia does a good job summarizing it in the book as it goes along. What does stand out are the countless anecdotes about John where he is boorish, insensitive, uncaring, and just downright nasty. While she does balance these out with stories of his kindness and generosity (especially with his money, which is well-known), as the Beatles' career progressed and his drug use (which she states was the #1 contributor to the demise of their marriage) increased, these became fewer and further between. She suspected that there was something going on with Yoko from the first time she met her in 1967, but was still stunned when she walked in on John and Yoko in 1968. Amazingly, John went back to Cynthia for a very short time and played it off as a one-off fling until leaving for good and abandoning her and their son. The divorce was nasty although, as she fully admits, Cynthia accepted a ridiculously low settlement offer when she could've gotten so much more. What was surprising was that even in light of this treatment at John's hands, she never stopped loving him and spent the next dozen years up to John's murder wishing for them to be friends again, both for Julian's sake and for hers. Sadly, it never happened.

From here, the book details her life bringing up Julian on her own and how his father's abandonment affected him. Some of the stories are heartbreakingly cruel and it's hard not to feel anger at John when reading some of the things he said and did to his young son. Over the next couple of decades, Cynthia had two more failed marriages and another long term relationship that ended before she finally found the right match with her fourth (and final) husband, Noel Charles, in 2002. To her credit, she's very self-aware and reflective throughout the book, realizing that was much too accommodating and deferential to John, and not assertive enough in standing up to him during their marriage. She also admits to rushing into her post-John relationships despite having reservations about all three men. Her stories of Yoko's manipulations and harsh treatment of Julian, especially after John's death, are equally upsetting. Although Cynthia never comes across as being mean-spirited or out to tell salacious tales, it's hard not to be disgusted with the way John and (especially) Yoko treated them. Still, I don't doubt as to the veracity of the stories as not only have they been corroborated elsewhere, but none of them are anything other than entirely believable and in keeping with John and Yoko's behavior. Likewise, her candidness when discussing John's Aunt Mimi is refreshing. Her portrait of Mimi as emotionally cold, distant, and jealous of anyone else who got close to John, as well as Mimi being incredibly class conscious and snobby jibes with much of what's been written about her elsewhere. This is despite Mimi's attempts to soften her own image in later years with the numerous interviews she gave. I realize that we all have preconceived biases when we read something and that I'm perhaps tipping my hand as to how mine lean, but I didn't find anything in this book that ran against what I already thought about the main players in John's life.

The biggest thing that comes through in the book is how caring and supportive in general Cynthia was as a person. She has an especially close and loving relationship with Julian and everything she did to support him and make sure he became a fine grown man are testament to what kind of person she was. The book ended with a somewhat chilling admission that, while she never regrets having her son, had she known in 1958 what falling for John Lennon would do to her life, she would go back, turn around, and walk away from him. This is one of those books that will make you see John in a much less flattering light, especially if you held him in high regard beforehand. I've always been someone who admired his music and much of his life, but also knew about his many flaws and how poorly he could treat people. For me, it didn't change my opinion of him as much as it simply confirmed how I felt about his failings and shortcomings. As Cynthia rightly pointed out, he was a brilliantly creative genius who was also incredibly complex and flawed.  The overall tone of the book is somewhat bleak and downcast, but given John's treatment of her and how much of a struggle her life was after their marriage broke up, it's quite understandable. If you hero-worship John Lennon, then this probably isn't the book for you, but if you've got a more balanced and realistic view of the man, this book (despite its few flaws) will give you a fairly accurate portrait of the man from the woman who was by his side for the most famous decade of his life.

MY RATING: 8.5/10

Monday, March 13, 2017

Baseball is (Almost) Back!

We're just about through the winter, the erratic weather of the last few weeks not withstanding, and as with every year that means one thing (at least to me): baseball is coming back! Ever since I was a little kid, the warming weather, the melting snow (except for this winter, when we didn't get any), and the longer days always get me excited for the upcoming season. It's as much a yearly ritual as the trees budding, the grass turning green again, and putting away the winter coats, hats, and boots. As soon as possible, I like to get outside with my kids and start playing catch or throwing them batting practice. Add in MLB Spring Training starting in mid-February and Opening Day getting closer with each day and the excitement is palpable. 

As far as my team goes, I've got high hopes for this upcoming Red Sox season. While the loss of David Ortiz to retirement will leave a huge void to fill, the acquisition of Chris Sale should beef up the starting rotation while Andrew Benintendi looks like he'll follow up his stellar rookie campaign with an even better season now that he's be the full-time left fielder. The trio young All-Stars who form the core of the team (Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley, and Xander Bogaerts) should be just as good (if not better) while the veterans like Dustin Pedroia and Hanley Ramirez should remain productive (and hopefully, healthy). I have very low expectations for Pablo Sandoval...anything the Sox get out of him this season is gravy (no pun intended) and honestly, if he plays well I'd hope they sell high and trade him while they can. Beyond that, I'm most interested to see if this is the season where John Farrell finally figures out how to make in-game adjustments and helps the team win games rather than he usual pattern of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

As with every spring, the promise of the new season makes fans of every team optimistic. Usually by June, you know who your team is and whether they have a shot at the World Series, but that's why it's so fun. Every season brings renewed hope and for baseball fans, that's one of the great things about the's as reliable and constant as the seasons themselves.

If you're a baseball fan, who will you be rooting for and how do you think they'll do? Let's discuss in the comments below!

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Graham Coxon

It's finally time for another entry in my series of band/artist profiles. For those of you who are new, this is a series of articles where I discuss my favorite bands or solo artists by discussing their background, career, ways in which they've influenced me, and my favorite musical moments of theirs. For this newest entry, I'm using a previous profile on one of my favorite bands of all time, Blur, and using it as a springboard to now focus on their superbly talented guitarist Graham Coxon. While Graham has long been championed as one of the great British guitarists of his (or any) generation, he also has had an acclaimed solo career comprising eight solo albums to date. Because of this, the time is now right to focus solely on Graham and his work both within and outside of Blur.

Since I've already written a profile of Blur, I'm not going to rehash it here. To recap, Graham Coxon was born in in 1969 on a British Army base in Germany where his father was stationed. When he was a child his family moved back to England and settled in Colchester, Essex. It was while attending Stanway Comprehensive School that he met Damon Albarn when he was 11. Famously being the brunt of Damon's comment about his shoes ("your brogues are crap,, mine are the proper sort!"), the two bonded over a shared love of music. In particular, they both loved the Beatles, Who, and Kinks as well as the punk and Two-Tone ska music popular in the UK during the late 1970s/early 1980s. Having switched from saxophone and drums to guitar while a teenager, Graham enrolled in an art course at Goldsmiths College in London where he met bass player Alex James. Bringing Damon as well as drummer from Colchester named Dave Rowntree who he'd been in bands with into the fold, the four young men formed Blur and the rest, as they say, is history. While in Blur, Graham began recording and releasing solo albums, the first arriving in 1998 and called The Sky is Too High. A charming, ramshackle affair, it continued the low-fi ethic Blur incorporated on their hugely successful 1997 self-titled album. The difference this time was that all of the songs were written, sung, and played by Graham, who covered all of the instruments himself (apart from keyboards). Also, his acoustic guitar playing was more center stage than it typically was in Blur, where Damon usually handled these duties. This album was followed by two more: The Golden D (2000) and Crow Sit on Blood Tree (2001). Both continued the rough-around-the-edges ethos of his debut while growing increasingly dark and aggressive in tone and subject matter; it was quite a contrast to the normally gentle and quiet Coxon. In 2002, Graham had a falling out with the other members of Blur and was sacked from the band. Coincidentally or not, his ouster ran parallel with his ascension as a solo artist and he released a series of excellent albums that were accompanied by solo tours. The Kiss of Morning in 2002 was followed by a trio of albums reuniting Graham with Blur's producer Stephen Street. These three albums are arguably his best, and include Happiness in Magazines (2004), Love Travels at Illegal Speeds (2006), and my personal favorite The Spinning Top (2009). It was also in 2009 that Graham reunited with Blur, and because Blur has taken up the bulk of his time since then, he's only released one further album. However, 2012's A+E shows that he's still able to take his music in new and interesting directions, heavily incorporating drum machines and synthesizers and blending them with his gloriously loud and fuzzy guitars.

One of the things that makes Graham such a great and admired guitarist by fans and peers alike is how unique his sound and style are. While he uses a variety of guitars, his main axe has long been a butterscotch blonde '52 Fender Telecaster run through his typical amp rig of Marshall stacks patched through a Marshall PowerBrake. His guitar signal is routed through his collection of stompboxes in order to round out his sonic palette.  Stylistically, while he has the chops to shred with the best of them, he doesn't typically play like that. Instead, he utilizes a lot of hammer-ons, pull-offs, chordal arpeggios, and interesting (and often discordant and dissonant) chord voicings. While he's fully capable of such, his solos aren't your typical speed-fests of notes, but rather orchestrated licks, sustained notes, and dissonance which often rub a bit raw against the melodic backing, but always seem to work perfectly in their context. In addition to his fantastic instrumental skills, Coxon is also a master at manipulating his guitars, amplifiers, feedback, and (especially) his effects pedals in order to create entirely new sounds that push his playing over the top. Even more impressive is his ability to seamlessly recreate all of the crazy sounds that he gets in the studio live on stage.  Some of my favorite guitar work of his is below...this is but of a small sampling of his fantastic studio work with Blur.

As you can hear, no two songs sound the same when it comes to Graham's approach to creating and playing his guitar parts, yet all of them are instantly recognizable as him. I could've given another twenty (or more) examples of his greatness, but I think the examples above should suffice in giving an idea of what makes his playing so special. For me personally, from the moment I first heard Graham's playing twenty years ago to this very day, he's taught me that exceptional technique can be melded with a unique personal vision in order to create a sound that may run counter to traditional playing, but can none the less be appreciated and admired. He's also pushed me out of my comfort zone and taught me to take more risks in my playing and the way I approach writing songs and guitar parts. I certainly don't claim to be nearly on Graham's level when it comes to his approach, but it's definitely been a useful and effective feather in my musical quiver. 
There's a reason that critics and peers alike (including one-time rival Noel Gallagher) have called him one of the finest guitarists of his generation. As with all of the trailblazing guitarists who came before him, Graham Coxon took his innate talent and worked tirelessly at creating a style and sound that is all his own, always unique and instantly recognizable. Ask any musician and I'll bet that they'll tell you that this end result would be their ultimate fulfillment. Graham has done this and then some.

Monday, February 27, 2017

What a Long, Strange Trip It Was (Emphasis on Long!)

(Regarding the title of this apologies to the Grateful Dead)

Now that it's over and I can laugh about it, here's a little story about a trip to interview for a job (my new job, actually) in Indianapolis last month...

As originally booked, I was supposed to fly out of Harrisburg, PA at 2:30pm and arrive in Washington, D.C. around 3:30pm. Then, I was to catch a flight in D.C. at 5:15pm that would land me in Indianapolis at 7pm. After picking up my bag and rental car, I would've gotten to my hotel around 8pm at the latest. A good night's sleep and I would be fresh and ready for my interview the next morning. What's that saying about the best laid plans of mice and men...?

I got to the airport in Harrisburg in plenty of time...I parked my car, checked my bag, went through security, and got to the gate by ~1:30pm. Plenty of time, right? However, my flight to D.C. got delayed 20 minutes. Okay, I thought, no big deal. Then it was delayed another 20 minutes, and then another. It started to look like it would be tight making my flight to Indy but I still wasn't that worried. In the meantime, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to find my former boss (with whom I'm still on good terms)...he happened to be on the same flight to D.C. and was waiting at the gate. We started chatting and when the flight got delayed again, we decided to go talk to the gate agent. After checking on the computer, she told me there wasn't another flight from D.C. to Indy until tomorrow morning. I told her that was no good because I absolutely HAD to get there for my interview the following morning. She said "then I'd suggest driving to D.C. to make it." Can you believe that? I suppose given the sorry state of air travel these days that I shouldn't be surprised, but it still blows my mind that the best she could do was tell me to start driving.

My former boss said he'd drive me because his flight in D.C. was a bit later and he couldn't afford any more delays either. While we were discussing this, two fellows in line behind us chimed in and we started chatting with them. They were in the same boat: one was heading home to Indy and the other was trying to get home to Denver. We asked if they wanted a ride and they said sure, so we all went and had the airline take our checked bags off the plane, piled into my former boss' car, and we hit the road for Dulles. By this point it was 2:45pm and it's typically a ~2 hour drive to was going be tight. Miraculously the traffic was very light and we were dropped off at the terminal by 4:35pm! The fellow heading to Denver didn't have a checked bag so he ran to make his 5:20pm flight. The other fellow was in the National Guard, had spent the last six weeks training at the fort here in PA, and was on his way back home to Indy.

We got to the ticket counter and tried to check our bags. The airline wouldn't let us because it was less than 45 minutes before departure (which is their policy). I explained that I absolutely HAD to get to Indy that night and that I needed to get on that plane but she wouldn't budge. I asked if there was a later flight to Indy on another luck on both. The other fellow had managed to have the airline book him a hotel room and get him on the first flight to Indy in the morning. The best they could do for me was a 10pm flight to Columbus, Ohio. I'd then have to rent a car and drive three hours to Indy. Having no choice, I took it. Hearing this, the fellow asked if he could ride with me as he'd rather get home that night. I said sure, so he changed to the same flight. We had five hours to kill so in return for me driving him, he bought dinner and beers which I thought was a fair trade.

After dinner we had over three hours to kill before the flight. I called to change my rental car pickup to Columbus and to let my hotel know I'd be checking in late. At this point I was exhausted and still had a 90 minute flight and a three hour drive ahead of me. Before the flight took off, the hotel called me back and said they were overbooked and that they'd given my room away. I could not believe it...what else could possibly go wrong?! Thankfully, they then told me they had booked me a room at a much nicer (and more expensive) hotel and paid for it, so it ended up being free for me. It was the one thing that had gone my way all day.

We got on the plane around 10pm, flew to Columbus, and were greeted by icy roads and frigid temps. By the time we got the rental car and our bags, it was 11:35pm, and it was slow going on the highway because of the ice. Eventually as we got further west toward Indiana, the roads cleared and I drove faster. We had a good long chat (he was a very nice guy), and when we got close to his exit near Indianapolis, he called his dad to meet us at a 24-hour White Castle.

By the time I dropped him off it was ~2:30am. I made it to my hotel a little before 3am, checked in, and went right to bed. My interview
 was at 9am the next morning but I was so overtired it took me a while to fall asleep. I eked out as much sleep as I could, skipping breakfast to squeeze in as much rest as possible. When I woke up my limbs and head felt so heavy I could barely move. I had bags under my eyes that made me look like Uncle Fester. All I had time for was a quick shower, getting dressed in my suit and tie, a quick pack of my bag, and down to check out and head over to the company. A Red Bull on the way to pep me up and that was how I faced my interview. All things considered, I think it went very well. Thankfully, my travel home the next day was uneventful and I now have a story worthy of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles that I can look back on and laugh about.

So there you have it, my adventure! In retrospect, it was a real comedy of errors but at the time, it wasn't quite so funny! Do you have any travel disaster stories? If so, please share them in the comments below as I'd love to hear them and commiserate with you!

Friday, February 17, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: I Was Britpopped

I've always believed that the 1990s are second only to the 1960s as rock music's greatest decade. I'm sure some of you will accuse me of feeling this way because I grew up during the decade and these were my prime formative years, at least in terms of music since I was 10 when the 90s began and 19 when they ended. In my opinion, the 1990s were a great decade for a variety of reasons, mainly because it was the only decade other than the 1960s where there was a vibrant, exciting, and quality scene on both sides of the Atlantic at the same time. Between the alternative rock scene in the US and the indie/BritPop scene in the UK, bands were once again writing and recording music that captured the spirit of the times and pushing boundaries in the studio and on stage in a way that sadly hasn't been done since 2000 or so. It was the last decade when rock and instrument-based music was dominant, before rap, pop, and programmed music written by teams of songwriters became the industry norm. In the new book I Was BritPopped: The A-Z of BritPop, authors Jenny Natasha and Tom Boniface-Webb have presented the decade in British music in the form of an alphabetical guide to the bands, albums, singles, TV shows, and fashions that defined Cool Britannia and the entire movement.

***special thanks to the authors for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

As explained in the book's introduction, I Was BritPoppped was designed to not only be read front to back, but to be used as a reference where entries can be immediately turned to when information is needed.  The book doesn't cover the entire decade, but rather the core years of ~1992-1998 which corresponds with the movement's birth, peak, and decline. Understandably, the bulk of the book is dominated by the giants of BritPop: Blur, Suede, Pulp, Elastica, and Oasis. The numerous quality second and third tier bands like the Bluetones, Mansun, the Verve, Ocean Colour Scene, Supergrass, and more are well represented, while loads of one-hit wonders and bands at the margins of BritPop who did little more than cash in and ride the wave for a fleeting taste of fame round it out. I have to say that the breadth of what the authors covered was impressive, as I've always considered myself quite knowledgeable about the movement (especially for an American) yet there were plenty of lesser bands I'd never heard of.

 The classic 1995 TV special BritPop Now, hosted by Blur's Damon Albarn

The entire film of Live Forever is on YouTube and well worth viewing

Overall, this was an enjoyable book and a nice way to stimulate memories of the music from that era, much of which I still regularly listen to while a lot is stuff I haven't heard in years. By focusing on only the most relevant artists and releases and limiting the singles to those that were either culturally significant or charted in the Top 20, the authors prevent the book from getting too long and unwieldy. However, there were some problems I did have with the book. These mainly had to do with numerous typos and printing errors found throughout. The writing style could have been cleaned up and the flow and syntax improved. It simply seems that an additional edit of the entire book was in order. Finally, there were some glaring factual errors that irritated me a bit, the two biggest being when the book stated that Suede keyboardist Neil Codling is singer Brett Anderson's cousin (he's drummer Simon Gilbert's cousin), and that the Rolls-Royce in the swimming pool on the cover of Oasis' Be Here Now album is a tribute to Keith Moon because that's how he died (he actually died from an overdose of anti-alcoholism pills while sleeping in his apartment). Little details like these might not matter to casual readers who may be unaware, but for an obsessive (and some might say excessively so) music fan such as myself, these stuck out like a sore thumb. There also were just too many of the marginal/worthless bands who did little more than latch on to BritPop for a bit of fame at the expense of some more entries from the titans of the genre. In particular, while I understand why the authors wanted to keep the book confined to the core years of the scene, I do wish they'd made some exceptions for the heavyweights like Blur, Suede, Oasis, etc and discussed the albums they made both prior to (if applicable) and after (ditto) the movement ended in order to shed some light on how these bands adapted (or didn't) once the music had moved on. However, besides these criticisms, this is a fun book and well worth the read for anyone around my age who lived through those years, loved the music that came out of the UK in the 1990s, and still carries the flag for BritPop two decades after the movement peaked. It's good for an initial front to back reading before settling in as a fun reference book for future use.


Saturday, February 11, 2017

Once Again, the New England Patriots are Champions!

(I'd meant to finish writing this and post it the day after the Super Bowl, but life got in the way as it usually does, so here it is a week late but no less relevant, especially if you're a fellow Patriots fan!)

As you all know, I've been a massive fan of the Boston sports teams for my entire life. Having been born in Massachusetts and spending my entire life in New Hampshire from the age of 3 until I moved to Pennsylvania two years ago, it's in my blood. The Red Sox, Celtics, Patriots, and Bruins have been my favorite teams since before I can remember and I'll support them until the day I die. I'm 37 years old and for the first 21 years of my life, I hadn't seen much greatness from my teams. Apart from the Celtics, who were one of the dominant NBA teams of the 1980s and won 3 titles in 5 Finals appearances during my childhood, the rest of the teams only gave us heartache. The Red Sox lost the 1986 World Series in crushing fashion, a collapse so bad that even despite the three titles they've won since 2004 I'm still scarred. The Bruins lost in their two Stanley Cup Finals appearances in 1988 and 1990, and the Patriots...let me just say that for anyone under 30, you have no idea how bad the Patriots used to be. They were the laughing stock of the NFL and apart from a Cinderella run to the Super Bowl in 1986 (where they promptly got crushed by the historically great '85 Chicago Bears), being a Patriots fan meant cheering on a perennially losing organization. The low point was when they came a hair's breadth from moving to St. Louis before Robert Kraft stepped in, bought the team, and started to invest money in the team, players, and coaching staff. Still, we cheered for them. Because of this, the past sixteen years of dominance have been especially sweet, but I think the Pats may have topped all of the great moments of the past with their recent victory in Super Bowl LI last week.

Going back two years ago, I wrote that their victory over the Seahawks was the greatest game I'd ever seen. I still think it was one of the best games I've ever seen, but at least right now the latest championship won by the Patriots takes the cake. After they trailed 21-0 to the Falcons in the second quarter, I didn't see how they could possibly win. The nadir was when the score was 28-3 midway through the third quarter...surely the team with the best record during the regular season couldn't go out like this, even to a supremely talented team like the Falcons? My only wish at that point was for them to score a few times to at least make it less of a blowout, but then they began to chip away at the lead little by little, their defense turned up the heat, and suddenly it was a game! I won't bore anyone with the details because if you watched the game, you don't need me to recap it, but when the Patriots completed the comeback to tie the game with less than a minute to go, it just felt like they had 100% of the momentum and that there was no way they'd lose the game. As soon as they got the ball in overtime, I knew it was over and they didn't prove me wrong with their historic 34-28 victory, completing the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history (a record they previously set two years before). As sweet as the game was for myriad reasons (including sticking it to Roger Goodell and the NFL), it was extra satisfying because with Julian Edelman's incredible catch late in the fourth quarter, we finally had a freaky fluke catch go our way after being on the wrong end of them in our previous three Super Bowl appearances. (Two of these completely flukey catches are the only reason the Patriots have five championships and not seven). The other cool thing was that after the game, a lot of my friends who are non-Patriots fans (or even Patriots haters) texted me to congratulate me on the game, and when I wore my Pats hat out and about in the days following, fellow Pats fans and even fans of other teams stopped me to talk about the game. That's one of my favorite things about sports, their ability to bring people together to talk and enjoy them even if they root for different teams (of course, this aspect can also lead to petty disagreements and trolling behavior on the internet, but let's just focus on the positive here).

I know that as a Boston sports fan, I've been spoiled over the last twenty years and that our teams and our fans are hated by most of the rest of the country, but I make no apologies. I've been following these teams my entire life and intend to do so until I die. With that in mind the Patriots latest Super Bowl victory is something I'll never forget. This run of success, spearheaded by Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, is something I'll likely not see again in my lifetime, so I plan to savor every moment of it. These are the kind of times any sports fan wishes for their team, and I and the rest of Patriots Nation happen to be fortunate enough to have witnessed this from 2001 to the present.  Like I keep telling my kids (all of them Patriots fans as well...was there ever a doubt?), enjoy this because it's not normal for a team to be this good for this long. I know I will, and the Patriots winning their fifth title in Super Bowl LI is the latest in a long line of sports memories I'll always remember.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Chemist on the Go

In case any of you were wondering what was going on in my real life as a chemist, I bring to you this brief update on my continuing adventures in securing my next position of full-time employment. Ever since I was laid off in November, I've been working at this non-stop. Because of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years I lost a lot of time since companies were closed for the holidays and those involved in the hiring process took time off for vacation. However, since mid-January things have started to pick up and the handful of phone interviews I had in November and December turned into a lot more. I continue to field a lot of phone calls, while over the last two weeks I've started to do some traveling for interviews. It's exciting since I'm not only learning about potential new opportunities, meeting interesting new people, and having interesting discussions as I move ever closer to rejoining the ranks of the employed, but it's been nice seeing new and different parts of the country in the process. I've logged a lot of miles in the car and the air, several nights at hotels, and not only have I learned about a lot of interesting science, but I'm realizing that wherever I end up that I'll be doing some absolutely fascinating work alongside equally talented and motivated people. For me, that's the most exciting thing when I think about what the future holds. I certainly didn't foresee being in this situation, but as with all things in life it's been a learning experience and will undoubtedly (and presumably) lead to something bigger and better. As always, in order to (hopefully) entertain and inform my fellow chemists or anyone else who may be going through this very ordeal, I'll write more once when there's an update that merits it. Until then, this chemist is still on the go!

Saturday, January 28, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Beatles: I Was There

For the first half of their legendary career the Beatles were not only revolutionizing music in the studio, but they were also a hard working touring band. Honing their craft over countless hours onstage and in front of growing crowds, by the time they finally found fame in 1962 they were seasoned road dogs. As we all know, though, by 1966 they grew tired of the constant mania that followed them and the fact that the sophisticated recordings they were making and the boundaries they were breaking in the studio could not be replicated on stage. Save for a final surprise appearance on the rooftop of their Apple Corps building in January 1969, by August 1966 their days performing onstage were over. For those lucky enough to have seen the Beatles in concert, those are memories they'll carry with them forever and which are shared in the excellent new book The Beatles: I Was There.

***special thanks to Neil for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

In 2015, Richard Houghton collected stories from numerous fans who saw the Rolling Stones in the 1960s and compiled them into You Had to Be There! The Rolling Stones Live 1962-69 which I reviewed and thoroughly enjoyed. For this new Beatles book, he's done the same thing and collected reminiscences from people who saw the Beatles between 1957 and their final performance in 1966. The book is broken down chronologically in sections focusing on the major tours of their career. The entries from 1957 concern people who were watching the Quarrymen on the day John met Paul and are certainly very cool to read...there's even a photograph of one of the contributors being held as a baby right in front of a teenaged John Lennon on that very day. The book then jumps forward to the Pete Best-era Beatles of 1960-61 as they worked their way through the club and ballroom circuit around Merseyside and the northwest of England before Ringo joined the band and they became recording artists in the summer of 1962. From there, the memories of the Cavern Club crowd give way to the first UK tours the Beatles did, first supporting Helen Shapiro, Chris Montez, and Tommy Roe before their breakthrough where they supplanted Roy Orbison as headliner. Once Beatlemania was in full swing by the summer of '63, the main thing almost everyone had to say about the concert was that the screaming and crowd noise was so deafening and relentless that the Beatles simply could not be heard with the primitive sound technology of the time. Apart from a few individuals, however, almost everyone said that it didn't matter because it was simply the experience of being there that was important. What's interesting is that while I certainly understand what they mean, it also is exactly one of the main reasons why the Beatles stopped touring. As John Lennon famously said, "Beatles concerts aren't about music anymore, they're bloody tribal rites" and all of them have said variously over the years that they knew no one was listening and it demoralized them. It was also interesting to read memories from several people who were (and still aren't) Beatles fans, but who went to the concerts simply because it was something to do back then!

The time capsule nature of the book, aided by photographs and memorabilia, does a nice job placing the reader back in those simpler, more innocent (and exciting) times. It's also quite interesting to trace how live music and the rock concert industry has changed over the years; even just from 1962-1966, the Beatles tickets got more expensive and more difficult to get. It also brought sharply into focus the difference between the UK and the US during those years. While in the UK, most tickets cost less than a pound and could be obtained by simply standing in line for hours, in the US even the earliest Beatles tickets were anywhere from $3 to $6 depending on how good the seats were and had to be procured mainly via mail order. Yes, the US is a larger country and people had to travel longer distances to where the concerts were, but even so it seemed like a pretty big difference especially in those days before everyone had telephones, let alone the internet. It was also eye-opening to think about how even though $5 for a concert ticket was fairly expensive in 1960s dollars, it still was a lot less in relation to the incomes (and inflation) of those certainly puts paying $150+ for a similar arena ticket these days into sharper perspective!

While the book checks in at almost 400 pages, it's very enjoyable and easy to read.  The memories shared by the various contributors range in their length and detail and many of them are accompanied by period photographs of them, showing the fashions of those times. It was a little disappointing and surprising that some Beatles tours or significant appearances weren't represented much, if at particular, I'm thinking of their Japanese concerts in 1966, their final UK tour of 1965 (there were only one or two entries), their first American appearances in 1964 (the Ed Sullivan Show, Washington, DC, and Carnegie Hall), and the rooftop concert of 1969. However, the author assured me he did try to track people down for these and wasn't able to find any. Perhaps there will be an updated and expanded edition in the future that might include these? Apart from some typos and a few photos that I believe to be incorrectly captioned, the book was very enjoyable and, in similar fashion to the aforementioned Rolling Stones book, a fun trip down other people's memory lane. These are who were lucky enough to have seen the Beatles and who are able to say "I was there!"


Sunday, January 15, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Beatles and the Historians

There have been so many books written about the Beatles from almost every angle that there are almost too many to count. This is why I'm usually a little skeptical when I'm about to read a new Beatles many of them cover the same tired ground and usually offer nothing new other than more repetitions of fallacies and innuendo, oftentimes wrapped up in the author's personal bias. However, when I was asked to review the new book The Beatles and the Historians, it seemed different enough that it piqued my interest. Once I received the book, a quick glance at the back cover told me this wasn't a typical Beatles book at all; its angle was to look at not only what has been written about the Beatles, but how it's been written. With that tantalizing bit of information it seemed unique enough that it wouldn't be like any other Beatles book I've read and a few pages in, I knew I was right.

***special thanks to Stephanie at Mcfarland for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

Author Erin Torkelson Weber is a history professor at Newman University in Kansas and in the introduction she lays out the premise of the book: she's not writing about the Beatles directly, but rather she's writing about the historiography of the Beatles. More to the point, she's examining how historians have been writing about them over the fifty-five years since they released their first single in 1962. As she stated, the book isn't the story of the Beatles, but the story of how their story has been told. Using established historical methods which she cites, her angle was to look at how the various authors of the most notable works on the Beatles have written about them and how it's shaped the narrative of Beatles history over the decades. As she rightly points out, the Beatles are unique in modern history in that they've been written about almost continually from the very beginning of their existence in the public consciousness and as such, most writings about them haven't (until recently) had the necessary historical distance in order to be fully credible and unbiased.

Weber breaks her book and the Beatles' history in four distinct narratives: 1) the official Fab Four narrative that was propagated by the band, their management, Hunter Davies' official biography, and the contemporary press, 2) the Lennon Remembers narrative based on John's blistering screed of an interview given to Rolling Stone magazine in the immediate aftermath of the band's 1970 split, 3) the Shout! narrative put forth by Philip Norman in his influential biography in the immediate aftermath of John's murder in 1980, and 4) the Lewisohn narrative that has become the prevailing orthodoxy since the late 1980s/early 1990s. By examining each of these narratives in order, not only does Weber discuss in detail the flaws and virtues of each, but she examines the evolution of how the Beatles history has been told over the previous half-century. The initial Fab Four narrative portraying them as a unified band of brothers captained by the unbreakable Lennon/McCartney partnership gave way to Lennon's complete tearing down of the myth in 1970. However, Weber shows that not everything about the Fab Four narrative was a myth, and she also shows how the unintended consequence of Lennon's attack (and Rolling Stone's knowing perpetuation of it even after Lennon disowned what he'd said years later) was to cause writers to take sides and become either "John fans" or "Paul fans." It's also shown how, in doing so, the invaluable contributions George and Ringo made to the Beatles were downplayed, neglected, and even ridiculed in the ensuing years. Later on in the 1970s and up until his death in 1980, John took back much of what he'd said in Lennon Remembers, but his sudden and senseless death froze him forever in the public mind and the resulting narrative spearheaded by Philip Norman in his influential biography Shout! served to almost canonize John. The unsuspecting victim of this was Paul McCartney, who now found his own contributions to the Beatles diminished/dismissed and his place in history reduced to little more than a conniving pretty face who annoyed everyone else in the band. Combined with the critical drubbing he received throughout the 1970s (much of which Weber shows was the result of the music press wanting to get on and stay on John and Yoko's good side in exchange for access to them), Paul has had to spend the last 30+ years trying to set the record straight and reclaiming the credit that's rightfully his. Finally, with the Lewisohn narrative, enough years have passed that, combined with his impeccable historical research methods and unbiased writing style, a new orthodoxy in Beatles historiography has taken hold and become the standard. Alongside seminal works by Mark Hertsgaard, Barry Miles & Paul McCartney, Ian MacDonald, and Peter Doggett (the last two of whom I will review in the near future), Lewisohn has shown that the Lennon/McCartney partnership was not only one of equals, but based foremost on their shared personal bond and friendship. He has also show how George and Ringo were not ancillary to the Beatles success but rather were fully involved and extremely valuable contributors to it, as well as various other myths and half-truths he's corrected.

When I began this book, I was afraid that the writing would be dry and academic given that it was a more nuanced and historical look at writings about the Beatles, and not the Beatles themselves. However, I needn't have worried as it was very engaging and interesting and easily kept my attention throughout its entirety. While I've read almost every book and article Weber cited (and she cited all of her sources), it was revealing to have them all placed into proper context and examined in a way I'd never thought about before. I was in unanimous agreement with her on the authors whose works merit respect (Lewisohn, MacDonald, Doggett, Hertsgaard, Davies) and those who don't (Jann Wenner/Rolling Stone, Goldman, Goodman, Connolly, Spitz, and to some extent Philip Norman). The person who comes off the worst, and deservedly so, is Wenner and his magazine Rolling Stone. Not only does the author cite proof that he forced critics Greil Marcus and Langdon Winner to rewrite their initially positive reviews of McCartney's first two solo albums (McCartney and RAM) to be 100% negative in order to appease Lennon and keep his favored access to John and Yoko, but in the face of numerous new facts coming to light debunking Lennon Remembers (including denunciations from John himself), Wenner continued to double down on his claims that it was a definitive and wholly accurate account. It wasn't until the early 2000s that Wenner had no choice but to admit it wasn't, but by this point in the book if one didn't already have a negative view of the man and his publication, it would beggar belief.

This isn't a book for the casual Beatles fan, but if you're a hardcore fan like me who has read just about everything there is to know about them, I encourage you to read this book. It's a completely different take on the Beatles...think of it as a book about Beatles books. The Beatles and the Historians is a fascinating examination of the history of how the most unique and influential phenomenon in 20th century popular culture, one that is as strong as ever in the 21st century, has been chronicled. For the more cerebral Beatles fan, one with an open mind and an intellectual curiosity beyond the band's well-worn story, this will be a valuable and enlightening book.


Friday, January 6, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Set the Boy Free (Johnny Marr)

Since Morrissey's autobiography came out a few years ago, most Smiths fans had been clamoring for a counterpart book from the other half of the legendary songwriting partnership behind their timeless music. Finally, in late 2016, patience was rewarded with the publication of Johnny Marr's memoir, Set the Boy Free. However, where Morrissey's book proved to be as obtuse, quirky, and cryptically dense as the man who wrote it, Marr's proved to be correspondingly the opposite. Always known for his friendly, gregarious, and conversational personality, Marr's book gave those interested the promise that he would touch on everything throughout his life and career.  On a personal note, the Smiths are one of the bands that have meant to most to me over the course of my life and Johnny Marr is one of my guitar idols; for these reasons, his was one of the books I most looked forward to reading in 2016. I'd waited months and months for its publication since first learning of it in Spring was it worth the wait? Read on to find out!

***special thanks to Kendra at Dey Street Books for sending a copy of the book for me to review!***

The first thing I thankfully noted was that Marr's book was laid out in traditional chapters unlike the non-formatted stream of consciousness that Morrissey's book was.  Beginning with his birth to Irish immigrant parents in Manchester, England on Halloween 1963, Marr (born John Maher) does an excellent and immersive job describing his life first in the two areas of Manchester he grew up in, Ardwick and later on Wythenshawe. These chapters really give the reader an idea of what it was like coming of age in 1960s and 70s Manchester. Johnny was bitten by both the music and guitar bugs at an early age and his earliest memories center on the first records he bought and the first guitar he ever played. By his account he was quite independent, even as a small child, and he was uncompromising in the path he blazed...the was someone who knew what he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it. Marr stuck to his own vision and achieved success at a very early age because of these qualities, which are rare in fully grown adults let alone teenagers. It makes this aspect of his career even more impressive. After playing with a variety of bands in Manchester during his teenage years, by the time he left school at fifteen he had met the love of his life (his wife Angie), played in several bands, and was working at two of the hippest clothing stores in Manchester (X-Clothes and Crazy Face). Spurred on by his boss and mentor Joe Moss and wanting to form a band and play the type of music he was writing without compromise, in 1982 he approached a fellow music fan and singer he had briefly met years before, Steven Morrissey. Together, they formed a songwriting partnership that would prove to be one of the most successful in UK history and after bringing in Marr's childhood friend Andy Rourke on bass guitar and finding Mike Joyce for the drum slot, the Smiths were born.

While the Smiths' history has been discussed in detail in several other excellent books (many of which I've already reviewed and linked to above), Marr's book is invaluable for the personal insight and thoughts on the band's career that he offers, as well as discussions on what his inspirations for writing many of the Smiths' greatest songs. While he shed a bit more light in the form of his perspective on the Smiths' split in 1987, it still irritates me a bit how in conjunction with other books, he and Morrissey continue to portray Rourke and Joyce as second-class members of the band. While it's true that Morrissey and Marr wrote all of the songs and ended up handling (rather ineffectively, it must be added) the management of the band, I had a difficult time reconciling Johnny's insistence that the Smiths were a "gang" and a "close-knit unit" while at the same time saying that the band was really just him and Moz. However, that's for a further discussion outside the scope of this review; on the whole, the book up to and including the Smiths' years were by far the most interesting part.

That isn't to say, however, that the rest of the book wasn't certainly was, especially when reading about Johnny's decision to take his health into his own hands later on by getting into running and fitness and his giving up alcohol and going teetotal. While the discussion of his various projects after the Smiths broke up was interesting, it did feel a lot like chapter after chapter of "I joined this band for an album and a tour and left, and then I joined this other band for an album and tour before I left them and joined another band for an album and tour..." and so on. Marr's quest to keep pushing himself as a musician has been admirable and garnered him a lot of well-deserved respect, but until he began fronting his solo band in 2013 and releasing solo albums, he's been a musical gypsy since 1987. While there's nothing wrong with this on a professional level, it did made the latter half of the book feel a bit disjointed and slightly less engaging. However, there was still a lot of interesting stuff in there, not least of which were his description of a 2008 meeting with Morrissey where they briefly (and not wholly seriously) bandied about the idea of reforming the Smiths, and a jam session he attended where he got to play with Paul McCartney. It was these anecdotes and also his thoughts on things like music, exercise, religion, and politics that saved the second half of the book from being little more than a list of projects he's worked on post-Smiths.

Overall, Set the Boy Free is an excellent, enjoyable, and informative book. Marr writes very well and is quite honest about everything he talks about. His passion and love for his music, his wife, and his kids is evident and seems nothing less than entirely genuine. Even though he's been one of my favorite guitarists for a very long time and even though I've read numerous books about the Smiths, it was always Morrissey about whom most accounts tended to focus on. While Johnny Marr is certainly not unknown, he wasn't as well known as his former songwriting partner, especially given Morrissey's proclivity for speaking (often outrageously and provocatively) to the press. With Set the Boy Free, Marr has given fans what they wanted: the story of his life and the details behind his craft, his bands, and what he thinks about it all. My one complaint would be that I wanted even more discussion on songwriting and guitar playing from Johnny, but seeing as the target audience isn't necessarily obsessive musicians/fans like myself, I'm content with what he gave us. As far as rock musicians go, Marr is highly regarded, healthy, happy, and has avoided almost all of the pitfalls that have befallen so many of his peers.  This is even more impressive when you consider that he was all of nineteen years old when the Smiths burst onto the scene. If you're a fan of the Smiths and/or any of Marr's subsequent projects, this is essential reading and as I said before, infinitely more enjoyable an experience than Morrissey's book.