Honestly, this is the only book on Harry Houdini most people will ever need. This tome covers his ancestry and birth in Hungary as Ehrich Weiss, his fHonestly, this is the only book on Harry Houdini most people will ever need. This tome covers his ancestry and birth in Hungary as Ehrich Weiss, his family's emigration to the United States, his growing fascination and obsession with magic, his long and phenomenally successful career as the greatest theatrical performer of the first half of the 20th century, as well dropping loud hints about a potential side career doing espionage work and how it evolved into an obsession with debunking spirit mediums and fortune tellers that he pursued with single-minded zeal right through to the last moments of his all-too-short life.
The research is strong, there are plenty of good illustrations and photographs scattered throughout the text, and the writing keeps things moving. It does, however, suffer from glossing over some aspects of Houdini's story. The implication that Houdini did some spy work for the United States is dropped repeatedly, with no actual follow up facts to corroborate it, except that gosh, he sure seemed to be able to get in to meet with a lot of police captains to check out their local jails. His obsession with aviation, and with being the first to fly an airplane in Australia, is just far enough outside of logic that it requires an explanation about why he sacrificed so much time, money and effort to try something so briefly, only to drop it and come home after a couple of successful flights. A hundred years ago, halfway around the world was a far longer trek than it is today. A bit more on why he did it would have been welcome.
These may sound like quibbles, but they do sometimes distract from the greater arc of the story, which is unfortunate. Harry Houdini was unquestionably a brilliant man, an intellectual genius, with founts of drive and resourcefulness beyond anything I've borne witness to in my own life, ever. And this book covers a ton of ground, detailing the tricks he used, the projects on which he focused, and the turbulent relationships he had with his wife, family, friends, and occasional indiscretions. But I didn't stay with this book to read about his potential affairs or his marital spats; I did so to find out more about about his magic and illusions, his spy work, and his research debunking the claims of the paranormal, because it is in those things -- the actual stuff of being the real superhero advertised in the title -- that this otherwise impressive biography falls short....more
Everyone knows all there is to know about the ascension and destruction of Elvis, and how Chuck Berry violated the Mann Act and Jerry Lee married WinoEveryone knows all there is to know about the ascension and destruction of Elvis, and how Chuck Berry violated the Mann Act and Jerry Lee married Winona Ryder and Little Richard was the Ted Haggerty of Rock And Roll, and Rhythm and Blues was once the music of rebellion that blew open the schoolhouse doors for the Little Rock Nine and all of them and tons of lessers took a little bit of everything this country had ever made up and cranked the torque up to twelve and set it loose on the world under a new made-up term that really meant teens were screwing in those spacious back seats up at Inspiration Point.
And everyone remembers Fats Domino belongs in there somewhere. "Blueberry Hill" and "Ain't That A Shame" are in the canon of Great American Cultural Touchstones, and rightly so. But it's Rick Coleman's contention that Fats hasn't gotten half of his due, and he makes a pretty good case.
"Blue Monday" shows how different the music of the late 20th century and beyond would have been without Antoine Domino, by showing the wide array of people he managed to reach and touch. He may not have been the first to use music as a tool for racial understanding, but without him, the civil rights movement would have had one less bridge with which to cross that divide. He wasn't the first to use the piano as a percussion instrument either, but he taught everyone else you've ever heard of how to do it, from Jerry Lee to McCartney & Billy Joel & Joe Jackson & Randy Newman & Elton John and everyone. Along with Louis Armstrong, he was New Orleans' greatest musical ambassador to the world, a huge mantle he has worn with relative ease and great pride. The triplets, the strut, the Delta whomp that made up the backbeat, Fats became a virtuoso at making pianos do tricks of which Carl Bechstein would never have approved.
The book follows Fats from birth and early influences through his beginnings playing off-the-street clubs in New Orleans, his first recordings with his friend and Salieriesque mentor Dave Bartholomew, his hits and how they managed, inexplicably, to find their way into white ears, and how he just kind of went with it, taking this brand new mongrelized hybrid of dance & make-out music out on the road for a tour that seemed to go on more or less uninterrupted for the next half century.
This is a quick read, full of saucy anecdotes and half-remembered tales, and while it covers Fats' life from birth right through his rescue from Hurricane Katrina, it leans most heavily on his first flourish of stardom, from the mid-1950's through the early 1960's, when his popularity, influence and importance were at their peak. The last 75 pages or so devolve into little more than a list of recording sessions, celebrity meetings, festival show appearances and testimonials from his artistic descendants, with a generous sprinkling of bandmates dying or disappearing, but even that nod to brevity only serves to illustrate Fats' great salvation and curse: that despite his own long-running battles with drink and gambling, he seems to have outlived everyone.
Fats was that rarest of characters in the great mural of Rock And Roll history: he lived hard, worked hard, and mostly avoided the worst decisions about what to do with his life and his work. He kept enough of his royalties that he didn't wind up destitute, and he was always proud of his crucial influence on British pop, reggae, ska and hip hop. He truly loved what he did, he did it for more than half a century, and he managed to get through his life with no small amount of goodwill. May he live long yet, and when he goes, may the second line at his funeral be the grandest New Orleans has yet seen....more
It's becoming a genre unto itself now: The Steroid Memoir, where a previously respected member of the athletic aristocracy decides, at the end of theiIt's becoming a genre unto itself now: The Steroid Memoir, where a previously respected member of the athletic aristocracy decides, at the end of their career, to unburden themselves and tell "the kids out there" that the path they took to fame, riches and adulation is ultimately destructive, and not to be followed.
Of course, such messages ring hollow. These athletes have inevitably achieved incredible amounts of success in their fields, and regardless of the effects their lives may leave, that story is not going to reach those ubiquitous kids. Who cares if you can't walk when you're 50 if you get to party like a rock star between now & then?
Dan "Nitro" Clark tries very hard to avoid this pothole. He lays on the horror stories very thickly, and never loses focus on the childhood trauma that he feels sparked his drive to make it in the NFL, and after that, the TV Sports arena. He softpedals the club life, the women, the money, the comraderie & the fame, and spends a substantial amount of the book alone in hotel rooms, staring at syringes and wondering how it's all going to end.
The problem with this approach is that after a couple hundred pages, it starts to feel a lot like a journey through one man's self-pity, and really, I don't know who wants to read about the Perils Of Being Nitro. Clark's inability to get past the unfortunate events in his life may have fueled his success, but more than once, I found myself turning the page to see another scene with him staring into the mirror and seeing his dead brother or the son he'd abandoned, and thinking, okay, we get it.
I'm glad he's made it through, and I hope he can continue to deal with his addiction -- when he's off the juice, it sounds like there's a decent guy in there. But, and Clark admits as much in the epilogue, if you want an honest and yet readable steroid memoir, the standard against which all others are to be judged is still Jose Canseco's "Juiced."
Maybe if I was an recovering addict looking for a story I could relate to as some kind of catharsis, then "Gladiator" would signify with me more. But as a straight-up memoir of one man's journey through his personal demons, it lacks a certain amount of perspective....more