Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Bad Boy Bios

Life, the autobiography of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, reached bookstores almost simultaneously with Decision Points, the memoirs of George W. Bush, the 43rd president of the United States. Richards, two years older than Bush, has written a memoir almost 100 pages longer (564 pages, excluding the “About the Author” page) that gives readers an almost exhaustive account of his days since birth, but dwells on the nights in whose dark shadows most of his waking hours were spent. “Believe it or not, I haven’t forgotten any of it,” he scrawled in cursive on the front jacket flap, right above his indecipherable signature. In his introduction, Bush says “I decided not to write an exhaustive account of my life or presidency. Instead I have told the story of my time in the White House by focusing on the most important part of the job: making decisions.”

Those of us who have read any of the unauthorized biographies of Bush 43 might be tempted to wonder if his story, had he decided to write that “exhaustive account” that Richards favors, might bear more than a striking resemblance to the life of the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer.

“I have a habitual personality,” he tells us as a way to explain his nine year cigarette habit, broken only by switching to snuff which he quit by turning to chewing tobacco before finally settling for cigars. Bush’s biggest habit, however, was drink. “Can you remember the last day you didn’t have a drink?” Bush recalls wife Laura asking him. On Mondays it was a “few beers with the guys,” on Tuesdays it was Benedictine and brandy after dinner, on Wednesday “I’d have a couple of bourbon and Sevens after I put Barbara and Jenna to bed,” while Thursday and Friday were once more devoted to drinking beer. On Saturday night, there was more beer, as well as martinis and more B&Bs (Benedictine and brandy).

Bush makes a brief mention of the incident in which he drunkenly drove over a neighbor’s trash can which led to an angry confrontation with his father, but Oliver Stone made more of the encounter in his film, W, than Bush does. On Labor Day 1976, Australian tennis star John Newcombe “introduced me to the Aussie tradition of drinking beer with no hands. You put your teeth on the edge of the mug and tilt your head back, and the beer goes down your throat. We had a great old time, until the drive home.” Police saw Bush driving “about ten miles an hour” with “two wheels on the shoulder.” Bush pleaded guilty to DUI and paid a $150 fine.

Bush doesn’t dwell on his moral failings because, as a former president, he represents law and order, even if he has been lax in adhering to either in his private or public life. Richards is a rock and roll star, and, it could be argued, an artist. In detailing his misadventures with drugs and alcohol (mainly drugs), there’s no need for “spin.” He’s not running for office. As Bob Dylan said, “To live outside the law you must be honest.” Richards also had a run in with police following a mishap with a motor vehicle. In 1969, in a period when the Stones were working on their Let It Bleed album, “I turned over the Mercedes with Anita (Pallenberg) in it when she was seven months pregnant with Marlon (their son).” After a visit to the hospital, Richards was questioned by police. “They suspected drugs,” he writes. “Of course, there were drugs involved.” Drugs are in his system throughout many pages of Life, and not just alcohol (Jack Daniels being his drink of choice, as it was for Frank Sinatra), but heavy duty substances like heroin and cocaine.

Bush beat his demons through prayer, or so he says. “Faith showed me a way out. I knew I could count on the grace of God to help me change . . . Prayer was the nourishment that sustained me.” Apparently, prayer was not an option for Richards. Growing up in Dartford, England, “the church, organized religion, was something to be avoided. Nobody minded what Christ said, nobody said there wasn’t a God or anything like that, but stay away from organizations.” Though continuing to indulge in other drugs, Richards got off heroin shortly after making headlines in Toronto where he was charged with drug trafficking for entering Canada with an ounce of heroin in his possession. He got clean with the help of a doctor who treated him with electrodes “attached to your ear (which) released endorphins, which, theoretically, cancelled the pain.” Even if prayer didn’t enter into it, the Lord was present through the doctor’s family, who, according to Marlon Richards, were “right-wing Christian American” with a “white-picket fence and skateboards, and I started going to an American school where you had to say prayers every day. That was really shocking.”

Shortly after 9/11, which was to the Bush presidency what the albums Beggar’s Banquet through Goat’s Head Soup were to the Stones (“backbone stuff,” says Richards), Bush passed out in his study after he supposedly choked on a pretzel. Sadly, Bush the author didn’t choose to elaborate on that incident in his book. It might have been a nice companion piece to Richards’ account of how he fell off a ladder in his library, puncturing a lung. Some people doubted Bush’s pretzel story, convinced something more ominous led to his blackout, and Richards also had to deal with a skeptical public. “Nobody believes that I was looking for a book on anatomy by Leonardo da Vinci,” he writes. Then there was the infamous fall from a palm tree while trying to pick a coconut. Well, that’s what the media reported. Richards corrects that in his bio. “Forget any palm tree. This was some gnarled low tree that was basically a horizontal branch.” It was a more serious accident than believed at the time, and it required brain surgery. He now has a steel plate in his head.

They move in different circles, or so you’d think, but George W. Bush and Keith Richards know some of the same people. British Prime Minister Tony Blair was the first foreign leader Bush invited to Camp David. “The more time we spent together, the more I respected Tony,” Bush writes. After his fall from that tree, Richards received a letter from Blair that opened with “Dear Keith, you’ve always been one of my heroes. . . “ Bill Clinton, Bush’s immediate predecessor in the White House, also sent a get well note, and don’t forget he took to the stage of the Beacon Theater in New York to praise the Rolling Stones during a performance captured on film by Martin Scorsese. Bush and Clinton are now warm buddies, always quick to praise each other.

Bush and Richards are bad boys, one reformed (or so Bush wants us to think), and the other as unrepentant as he is unapologetic. “I can rest on my laurels,” Richards writes just before concluding his autobiography. “I’ve stirred up enough crap in my time and I’ll have to live with it and see how somebody else deals with it.” Bush stirred up enough crap in his time, too, from phony wars to banker bailouts, and the United States will be dealing with it for decades to come. At least Richards has given us some great music.

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks


Monday, March 7, 2011

Who was Harry Nilsson?

Harry Nilsson wrote the song, “One,” as in “the loneliest number you could ever do,” which became a top 10 hit for Three Dog Night in 1969. He also wrote “Cuddly Toy” for the Monkees, and “Best Friend,” the theme to TV’s The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. So it’s a bit ironic that his own first hit single, “Everybody’s Talkin’,” and his biggest hit, 1971's “Without You,” were covers written by others. Nilsson, who preferred to be billed by his last name only, had an erratic career. These days, if he’s known at all, it’s as the guy who partied too hard with John Lennon during the latter’s infamous “lost weekend” of 1973-74. He’s also the guy who owned the London flat in which both Mama Cass Elliot and Who drummer Keith Moon breathed their last, respectively, in 1974 and 1978.

There was a time, however, when Nilsson was big. His 1971 album, Nilsson Schmilsson, produced by Richard Perry, sold a million copies and was nominated for Grammys as Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Best Engineered Recording, etc, and won Nilsson a second Grammy for Male Pop Vocal (the first was for “Everybody’s Talkin’”). Rather than follow that blockbuster with something equally commercial, he chose to litter 1972's Son of Schmilsson with profane lyrics that guaranteed it would receive minimal exposure on the radio. He followed that with an album of standards, then Pussy Cats produced by John Lennon, wherein he sang so forcefully that he damaged his voice. Robert Altman recruited him to write the songs for Popeye, released in 1980, the same year that Lennon’s murder inspired him to campaign for tougher gun control laws. The next time the world heard from Harry Nilsson was in 1994. On January 15 that year, he died of a heart attack at age 52.

Nilsson is the subject of a documentary film, Who Is Harry Nilsson and Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him, by John Scheinfeld, who previously made The U.S. VS John Lennon. With his blonde hair and sad eyes, Nilsson looked like a choir boy when he first emerged on the scene in late 1967. Terry Gilliam may have said it best: “He was a fallen angel.” Nilsson started on the path to self-destruction almost as soon as he became successful. The song “1941,” named after the year of his birth, may have offered a clue to his troubles:

“Well, in 1941, a happy father had a son,
and by 1944, the father walked right out the door.”

After moving from New York to L.A., he got a job in a bank’s computer center. He wrote songs on the side that were impressive enough to attract music published Perry Birken, Jr., who signed him up at $25.00 a week. His first album, Pandemonium Shadow Show, was released by a reluctant RCA (which already had poet Rod McKuen on the label and didn’t want another singer-songwriter) in 1967. It didn’t sell, but Derek Taylor of the Beatles’ empire heard it and passed it on to the “Fabs” who raved about it during a 1968 press conference in New York to promote their new Apple Corps. John Lennon said “Nilsson is my favorite group.” His next album, Aerial Ballet, wasn’t a big seller either, but his name was on the tip of the tongues of people who could make things happen. Film director Otto Preminger asked him to write the score for his deranged, LSD-drenched 1968 misfire, Skidoo, and he was one of several songwriters (Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell were some of the others) asked to write songs for the soundtrack of Midnight Cowboy. “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City” was rejected (as was Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay”) when director John Schlesinger decided to stick with the Nilsson recording from Aerial Ballet that he had been using as a temporary track. “Everybody’s Talkin’,” written by Fred Neil, became the song heard over the credits of the Oscar winning X rated film starring Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight, and Nilsson’s first big hit.

A career in the fickle world of pop music requires a certain consistency and Nilsson’s career was perversely inconsistent. He was a songwriter, but after scoring a hit with someone else’s song, he followed that with an album devoted to Randy Newman compositions. Despite sterling reviews and a citation from Stereo Review proclaiming it the album of the year, it tanked, and Nilsson’s career didn’t get back on track until he hooked up with hit maker Richard Perry who had successfully produced Carly Simon and Barbra Streisand, for 1971's Nilsson Schmilsson, a lavish recording put together with scraps of songs that Nilsson completed only once the sessions were underway at London’s Trident Studios.

He obviously had some pretty good scraps. The infectiously loony “Coconut” became a top 10 hit, and the psychedelic “Jump Into the Fire” would be given a second life when memorably used on the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese’s 1990 masterpiece, Goodfellas. Once again, however, Nilsson the songwriter was overshadowed by Nilsson the singer who sang the hell out of the Badfinger ballad, “Without You,” a dramatic torch song that became a huge number one smash. He and Perry found themselves awash in Grammy nominations and gold records.

“Harry was the most insecure person I’ve ever known, He just didn’t have any self-esteem,” a former wife said in explaining Nilsson’s refusal to perform in concert. Whereas the big “Rock Tour” was a common practice for every artist (except the former Beatles) at the time, Nilsson never hit the road to promote his albums. It didn’t seem to hurt him, but another associate describes him as having a “death wish.” He seriously damaged his career by following Nilsson Schmilsson with Son of Schmilsson, once more under Perry’s guidance, but this time the whimsy of “Coconut” and “The Moonbeam Song” was replaced with the hostility of “I’d Rather Be Dead” and the notorious “You’re Breakin’ My Heart” with its message to a former lover: “F___ you.”

A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, was something else again. An album of standards like “As Time Goes By” and “For Me and My Gal” with Sinatra favorite Gordon Jenkins conducting, it was a beautiful production, but hardly what the world was expecting or wanted in 1973, a year when Led Zeppelin and David Bowie were all the rage, and Elton John released Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Derek Taylor, his mentor from the Beatles empire, produced the disc when Perry refused, warning Nilsson that it wasn’t the right time in his career for such an adventure. The album sales proved Perry right, and it’s little wonder that RCA was preparing to drop Nilsson from its roster of artists. He was spared that fate when John Lennon intervened on his behalf, visiting the record company with Nilsson and hinting that he, and maybe Ringo, might, just might, sign with RCA when their contracts with Capital expired in 1976, but only if they were willing to keep an artist as important as Nilsson on the label.

Nilsson’s life and career rolled downhill rather speedily after that. RCA kept him for a time, but Nilsson was proving successful only at getting his now bearded mug in the papers by joining Lennon (and some say, egging him on) in heckling the Smothers Brothers during the comedy duo’s comeback engagement at L.A.’s fabled Troubadour. According to Lennon’s lover at the time, May Pang, it was Nilsson who instigated trouble but always escaped to let others take the blame. “Harry was a wonderful perpetrator, an agent provocateur,” remembers percussionist Ray Cooper. Lennon and Nilsson were ejected from the club, and though it was the former Beatle who got most of the ink in the tabloids, Nilsson’s reputation took a hit from which it might have recovered if he had been producing some other kind of hits, but his well had gone dry.

“In the End, Only Creditors Talked to Nilsson,” was the headline of a Los Angeles Times article about the singer’s troubled final years published in the year of his death. A business manager had made off with his savings, leaving him bankrupt. Years of drinking, drugging, and chain smoking had caught up with him, and he was now suffering from diabetes. Other than some chest pains, he was apparently unaware of the massive heart attack he had in 1993. A second heart attack on January 15, 1994 ended his life at the relatively youthful age of 52. Appearing on an HBO Comic Relief telethon that night, Dustin Hoffman, star of Midnight Cowboy and the original narrator of the animated film, The Point, which Nilsson had created for ABC’s Movie of the Week in 1971, broke the news to the audience and praised him as a “great artist.”

Who Is Harry Nilsson and Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him may not rescue Nilsson from the obscurity to which he had been consigned long before his death, but it succeeds in rehabilitating his reputation for those who do remember him, but only vaguely, as the guy who sang that song in Midnight Cowboy and gave free rein to his emotions when belting out “Without You.” He was so much more than the guy in whose bed Mama Cass and Keith Moon died, and tore up the town with John Lennon, which, he told Rolling Stone, “still haunts me. People think I’m an asshole and a mean guy.” As the film proves, he could be an asshole at times (though there’s little to suggest he was mean), but he was also a great artist deserving of more kudos than he has received.

See the trailer HERE.

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks


Saturday, March 5, 2011

John Belushi R.I.P.

It was 29 years ago today that John Belushi died of a drug overdose at age 33. He rose to fame on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, though it took him awhile to make his mark. When the show debuted with little fanfare in fall 1975, Chevy Chase was the most prominent member of the cast, opening each show with a pratfall and anchoring the high profile Weekend Update. Chase had preppy good looks that made him a natural for media stardom. He also had an ego that couldn’t resist the big offers that Hollywood was dangling before him. After one season, Chase was gone, and Belushi slowly emerged to become SNL’s most popular performer.

It was, indeed, a slow rise. Until August 1978, some of the show’s more casual fans might have still been referring to him as “the fat guy on Saturday Night Live” more than by his name, but then came National Lampoon’s Animal House. One of the biggest grossing movies of the year, it actually starred Tim Matheson, a fresh-faced veteran of TV westerns (and a member of the Bonanza cast during the show’s final season in 1972-73) in a role that might have been ideal for Chase if he had been 10 years younger. Belushi played the obnoxious but lovable Blutto. His screen time was limited, but he owned the movie. He was prominently featured on the poster’s illustration, and the principal draw for audiences. Suddenly, Belushi was on the cover of Newsweek. Following close on the movie’s heels, A Briefcase Full of Blues, the first album by the Blues Brothers, the shades and Fedora wearing singing duo that Belushi formed with SNL pal Dan Ackroyd, went to number one on the charts. Then came Goin’ South, the Jack Nicholson-directed Western in which most of Belushi’s role as a bandido ended up on the cutting room floor, but it was nonetheless another credit that put his name and face before the public.

Television, even cutting-edge quality television, has a limited allure for those on the path to superstardom. When Hollywood called, Belushi packed his bags almost as quickly as Chase did, and, joined by Ackroyd, appeared in Steven Spielberg’s mega-budgeted mega-bomb, 1941, then took The Blues Brothers to the big screen in a John Landis-directed comedy whose laughs were often overwhelmed by action and musical numbers. In 1981, Belushi tried something different with the romantic comedy, Continental Divide, for which he earned the kind of notices that suggested critics, if not the public, were willing to accept him as something other than a likeable slob. He closed the year once more with Ackroyd in tow with Neighbors.

Having come of age at a time when rock ‘n’ roll stardom obliterated success in movies or TV, Belushi hung out with the Rolling Stones who appeared on the first Saturday Night Live of the 1978-79 season, and lived a life that even alarmed that poster boy for chemical excess, Keith Richards. Belushi lived like a rock star, and, sure enough, he died like one. On March 5, 1982, viewers tuning in to the nightly network newscasts saw his bloated body outlined under a white sheet as it was being removed from the Chateau Marmont where he had fatally partied the night before. Had he gone quietly and alone, he might have avoided the nasty headlines that followed. A groupie had been on the scene and recounted how she had injected Belushi with a “speedball” at his urging. It was all so tawdry that many let their sympathy for Belushi turn to contempt, and for them he was just another sleazebag junky whose troubles were self-inflicted. Bob Woodward’s Belushi bio, Wired, was equally unsympathetic when it appeared a few years later.

Now that the scandal has faded, Belushi is no less dead, but his work speaks for him more than his personal life. What we have are four seasons of Saturday Night Live where Belushi’s most famous character was probably the Samurai who one week operated a delicatessen, then reappeared as a hotel clerk, even a disco performer (Samurai Night Fever). There was also the diner sketch in which customers were served “cheeseburger” no matter what menu item they ordered. And who can forget his exasperated “But NO-O-O”? Then there are seven films, including a supporting role in the previously unmentioned Old Boyfriends starring Talia Shire, and a couple of Blues Brothers records. Does the work that exists display the promise of a talent that was still developing, or did we catch Belushi at his peak when his gifts were in full blossom?

More than any of his castmates, Belushi seemed to have the potential to segue into dramatic roles if he chose, and perhaps establish himself as a film actor of the first rank, on the order of Brando and DeNiro. We’ll never know. In an appearance on The Today Show with Ackroyd to promote Neighbors less than three months before his death, he expressed no desire to stretch his talent. Instead, he was planning to reteam with Ackroyd for another comedy, this one about spies. “In 10 years,” Ackroyd told Gene Shalit, “we’ll still be working together.” Sadly, that would not be the case, and Belushi’s role in Spies Like Us would be filled by his old rival, Chevy Chase.

The track record for movies starring SNL’s original alumni isn’t particularly distinguished, and most of them only appear rarely on the big screen these days. Ackroyd earned a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for 1989's Driving Miss Daisy, but lately seems more preoccupied with UFOs than films, while Chevy Chase has been banished to a supporting role in a lame but successful NBC sitcom, Community. Bill Murray has had the most consistently successful and interesting film career, and was nominated for an Oscar as best actor for 2004's Lost in Translation (losing to Sean Penn in Mystic River), but he seems to fade in and out, with long stretches between film projects.

Would Belushi have fared better? Maybe, but he could very well have ended up in sitcom hell himself, or been reduced to reviving the Blues Brothers with Ackroyd on endless reunion tours. Like James Dean, Belushi left us with a mystery than can never be solved, and may keep his star burning brighter in death than it ever could have in life.

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks