Here's a look at what I've enjoyed reading lately.
Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour"
It's very strange to read about things I remember from my childhood, but I certainly had no concept of the importance of Tom and Dickie Smothers to the television and cultural scene at the time (although I do remember seeing the show as a grade-school-age child and the brothers' gentle ribbing of each other, and I definitely remember hearing Tom's plaintive cries of "Mom always liked you best" to his brother Dick's more stoic straight man)...but I don't remember much about their struggles with network TV censorship or the circumstances of the show's ignoble demise after a few short years' run during the late 1960s.
This book, then, was a revelation to me and gave me a new insight into the times and the quickly changing culture I grew up in.
Never a Dull Moment
This book spoke even more closely to my experiences and gave me a new appreciation for the early 1970s. I always remembered the 70s as a time of superficiality driven by a disco beat, but my memories were really faulty as disco was still several years in the future at that point, the late 1960s were just a pleasant, op-art colored era in my mind, and the year 1971 was surprisingly rich in meaningful music, lyrics and cultural change.
Hepworth's book prodded me to remember rock classics from that year like Carole King's Tapestry, Led Zepplin's album IV, Don McLean's American Pie, acts as diverse as Black Sabbath, David Bowie, the Eagles, Elton John, Grand Funk Railroad (from Flint, Michigan), Roxy Music, Cat Stevens, Frank Zappa, Marvin Gaye, Alice Cooper and more. The rise of FM radio (in which Detroit station WRIF played a crucial and formative role), and the Concert for Bangladesh, which signaled the rise of rock for a cause events, were just a few happenings that came about in 1971.
The book gave me a new appreciation for the music and people making it at the time...and a new appreciation for the longevity of the music and its influence on the culture as well. The book makes a solid case for the importance of the music of this era, rather than the overly-hyped 1960s.
Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night
I was always a big Letterman fan and I enjoyed some of the behind-the-scenes looks at the long-running show, although I was less than thrilled with some of the personality conflicts and Letterman's personal quirks over the years that I learned about here. It was a great look at the early years in Indiana and his move on towards being a national figure on the television scene.
It was interesting to see how his Midwestern upbringing influenced his well-known sardonic style and see how he became a sort of "voice of a generation".
This revealing biography is a must-read for fans and others seeking to understand the late-night scene and how it developed over recent generations.
Like him or loathe him, Letterman was a pivotal figure and pioneering personality, especially during the 1980s through his retirement in recent years. Stupid Pet Tricks and all!
H.H. Holmes: The True Story of the White City Devil
The tale of H. H. Holmes and his reputation as the country's first serial killer lives on such contemporary works like The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, a 2004 book by Eric Larson and an upcoming film from Martin Scrocese and Leonardo DiCaprio, but this new non-fiction book about Holmes and his misdeeds in the Midwest shows us that the tales we've heard in the past are most probably false, or grossly exaggerated at best. The tale usually hinges on Holmes' time in Victorian-era Chicago, but fiction, rather than fact, usually clouds the telling of the industrious swindler's life and misdeeds.
Did he kill 25 or more people? Did he lure fairgoers near the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago to his alleged house of horrors to kill them? Did he just make up a lot of stories about the murders eventually credited to him? Was he a psychopath? Was he insane?
This exhaustibly researched book doesn't come to a firm conclusion about most of the mania and myth surrounding the man, but it certainly sheds a lot of light on the shoddy history of journalism, criminal investigations and human nature on display throughout the era. Not so sure that it will appeal to those seeking a lurid tale of death and dismemberment, but can be pretty fascinating to true-crime fans wishing to see how the world of serial killers developed and evolved through the late 19th century, through the 20th century and into the present day.
Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life
This book gave me a new appreciation for Redding's career and struggles with the racism of the time in the south that hampered his career...even as he chose to remain in his hometown of Macon, Georgia. This is a fascinating look at the life and times during the mid-to late sixties, and the times and transitions during these years all around the country as Redding became a national and international star.
Aretha Franklin had great success with a tune credited largely to Redding..."Respect". The song, sung by the daughter of a well-known Detroit-area pastor, became a sort of feminist anthem of empowerment for women according to this biography.
I vividly remember ("Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay, released shortly after Redding's death...and just ahead of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. I was in Nashville at that time visiting with extended family. My parents eagerly anticipated attending the Grand Ole Opry for the first time during that trip, but my memory of The Grande Ole Opry closing for the first time in its history on a Saturday night is correct.
Tim and I visited Memphis many years later to see the Lorraine Hotel and view the room where King met his death at the hands of assassin James Earl Ray.
Anyone have suggestions for other books that I should check out?