"Classics Rock! is the best of both worlds--music and books."
-- CNBC.com "Bullish on Books" blog

Sunday, May 30, 2010

For Memorial Day: The Ballad of the Green Berets/SSgt. Barry Sadler

In the early days of the Vietnam War, writer Robin Moore--perhaps best remembered today as the author of The French Connection--wanted to write a book about the first generation of America's Special Forces.  Thanks to connections within the Kennedy Administration, Moore won the support and cooperation of the military and the United States government.  (Moore's own dedication to the project may be measured by the fact that, at the age of thirty-seven, he agreed to undergo nearly a year of rigorous Special Forces training before being allowed to go into the field.)  After Kennedy's assassination in 1963, however, the Pentagon came to be dominated by a faction that was deeply suspicious of elite units within the military--notably Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Arthur Sylvester.  They objected to the idea that a civilian author had been given complete access in order to "glorify" the Special Forces.  Despite their oppostion, Moore's book The Green Berets: The Amazing Story of the U.S. Army's Elite Special Forces Unit was published in 1965.  For a variety of reasons, it was categorized as fiction, but Moore stood by the veracity of his account.  "You will find in these pages many things that you will find hard to believe," he wrote.  "Believe them.  They happened this way.  I changed details and names, but I did not change the basic truth."  The Pentagon demanded that the publisher put a yellow band on the cover of the book reading "Fiction Stranger Than Fact?" and Sylvester--who had pulled Moore's security clearance just two weeks after President Kennedy's death--even went so far as to suggest that Moore be indicted and tried for revealing top secret information, though ultimately no legal action was taken.  However, all this served to fuel publicity and The Green Berets became a bestseller.  It was then that Moore met Barry Sadler, who was recovering from a leg wound suffered in Vietnam.  In an Introduction to a 1999 reissue of the book, Moore writes:

When Special Forces medic Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler came to me with a tape he had made of his singing and twanging on a guitar The Ballad Of The Green Berets I helped Barry rewrite the words and found a professional to work on the music.  We persuaded RCA Victor to record the song and have Barry sing it on The Ed Sullivan Show.  The Ballad became an instant number one hit on the charts and the Green Beret were indeed glorified, to a point where my old nemesis at DoD, Arthur Sylvester, forced RCA not to let me write the copy on the album cover or mention my  name.  I was, however, the co-author of the song and they couldn't take my name off the label.

The song, released in 1966, specifically honors James Gabriel, Jr., a Green Beret who was executed by the Viet Cong in 1962.  It is currently available on an album called Ballads of the Green Berets. Appropriately, a choral version of the Ballad was heard in The Green Berets, the 1968 film adaptation of Moore's book, co-directed by and starring John Wayne.  Moore went on to write many other books on a variety of topics, but he maintained his associations with the Special Forces community--and enjoyed their respect--until his death in 2008.

The Green Berets (Kindle Edition)

Sunday, May 23, 2010

For BookExpo America: Elvis at the Wheel/Al Stewart

With the publishing industry trade show BookExpo America (BEA) poised to take over Manhattan for three days starting on Tuesday, we decided to see if we could find a song that somehow related to the book industry as well as to an individual book.  We came up with Al Stewart's Elvis At The Wheel, from his 2008 CD Sparks of Ancient Light.  The first stanza offers a sympathetic nod to a long-running issue in the publishing business, the plight of independent book stores:

There's an independent bookstore
The last one that remains
All the others you might look for
Have been eaten by the chains
They soldier on
No one cleans the window panes

Browsing in this embattled store, Stewart comes across a book that recounts a bizarre incident involving Elvis Presley: While driving through Arizona in 1965, the King sees the face of Joseph Stalin in a cloud formation, which then transforms itself into the face of Jesus Christ.  This religious episode has been recounted in many Elvis biographies, but unfortunately Stewart neglects to identify just which book he's singing about.  The source of the story appears to be Larry Geller, Presley's hair stylist-turned-spiritual advisor, who was present at the time.  His first-person account can be found in Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, the second volume of Peter Guralnick's Elvis biography, published in 1999.  (Guralnick's account of the incident draws heavily on Geller's own 1989 book If I Can Dream: Elvis' Own Story, written with Joel Spector and Patricia Romanowski, now out of print.)  Stewart's song serves as a reminder that a bookstore is a great place to browse--you never know what kind of strange tales (or musical inspiration) you'll find.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Englishman in New York/Sting

Last Thursday night, Sting opened the annual benefit concert for the Rainforest Fund, held at New York's Carnegie Hall, with Englishman In New York, a song from his 1987 album . . . Nothing Like the Sun. In the liner notes to the album, Sting explained:

I wrote "Englishman in New York" for a friend of mine who moved from London to New York in his early seventies to a small rented apartment in the Bowery at a time in his life when most people have settled down forever.  He once told me over dinner that he looked forward to receiving his naturalization papers so that he could commit a crime and not be deported. "What kind of crime?" I asked anxiously.  "Oh, something glamorous, non-violent, with a dash of style," he replied. "Crime is so rarely glamorous these days."

Conspicuously, Sting neglected to identify his friend by name, but later acknowledged that the Englishman in question was author, lecturer and raconteur Quentin Crisp.  Crisp's 1968 memoir The Naked Civil Servant--and the subsequent BBC television adaptation starring John Hurt--brought Crisp to prominence with its unflinching account of his early experiences as a male prostitute, his openly gay lifestyle, and his outrageous exhibitionism.  Celebrated for his wit, Crisp became one of the most desirable dining companions of his day.  He went on to write several more books and toured in a one-man show.  He also started acting in television and films, and met Sting on the set of the 1985 film The Bride (in which Sting played Dr. Frankenstein).  When it was first released, many assumed "Englishman in New York," was about Sting himself, but as he explained to Rolling Stone in 1988: "The song is about someone else.  It's about Quentin Crisp. I think he is one of the most courageous men I've ever met, and one of the wittiest.  He was flamboyantly gay at a time when it was physically dangerous to be gay. . . . It was my song to appreciate his singularity.  But it's about me too."  He also told Rock Express:  "I didn't just want to be writing about myself as an alien. I wanted to write about Quentin, someone I admire. So it's not really about being gay. It's about being yourself, never conforming. That's what the song is really about."  Crisp appears in the music video for the song, which was shot on location in New York.  Sting also played a musical prank in the recording:  "One of my favourite little jokes is from an 'Englishman In New York', where at one point we're playing 'God Save The Queen' in a minor key," he told Guitar Magazine.  "It really tickles me but nobody else hears it!" [For a roundup of Sting's comments about Quentin Crisp and the song, see Crisperanto.org.]  A 2009 follow-up TV movie about the latter part of Crisp's life--with John Hurt again playing the author--was called An Englishman in New York after Sting's song.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Celebrate Your Neanderthal DNA: A Trick of the Tail/Genesis

Neanderthals made the news last week.  Genetic researchers announced their discovery that Neanderthals, who died out about 30,000 years ago, mated with modern humans, settling once and for all the most salacious unanswered question in modern science.  For people alive today who are descended from ancestors in Europe or Asia, this means that up to 4% of their genes are Neanderthal in origin.  This got us thinking about William Golding's 1955 novel The Inheritors, which depicts the final encounter between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens and the end of the Neanderthal line.  (It was reportedly Golding's favorite of all his books, and that includes the classic Lord of the Flies.)  It also got us humming the Genesis song A Trick Of The Tail, from their 1976 album of the same name, which was inspired by Golding's novel.  Genesis Forum Italia quotes band member Tony Banks: "I got the idea for the lyric after reading William Golding's The Inheritors. It's about a race who were on earth before man and it's the story of the last survivor of this race. The very last chapter deals with our reaction to him whereas the rest of the story is his reaction to us."  The song's connection to the book is more thematic than literal.  It isn't about cavemen; as Banks says, "It's about an alien with horns and a tail who appears in a modern city and how people react to him."  We wonder if Banks might have been influenced as much by the book's cover art as by the book itself--when The Inheritors was first published, the jacket bore the image of a famous prehistoric cave painting known as The Sorcerer, which depicts a mysterious shamanistic figure with antlers and a tail.  It's comforting to know that Neanderthals have a future, and not just because their genetic descendants are walking around today.  Rumors abound that the new Iron Maiden album The Final Frontier, due later this summer, includes a track called "The Inheritors (William Golding)."  This hasn't been officially confirmed, but consider this:  The album is being produced and mixed by Kevin Shirley--aka The Caveman--and his Caveman Productions.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Of the Blue Colour of the Sky/OK Go

Of The Blue Colour Of The Sky is the third studio album by OK Go, released by Capital Records in January of this year (and re-released last month on the band's own label, Paracadute Records, after their split with Capital/EMI).  The name of the album is a fraction of the much longer title of an obscure book published in 1876: The Influence of the Blue Ray of the Sunlight and of the Blue Colour of the Sky: In Developing Animal and Vegetable Life; in Arresting Disease and in Restoring Health in Acute and Chronic Disorders to Human and Domestic Animals.  This was a pseudoscientific treatise arguing that blue light rays from the sun, and the color blue in general, was beneficial to the growth of crops and to the health of human beings.  The author, Augustus James Pleasonton, had known success as a general of the Union Army during the Civil War (which may explain his affinity for the color blue), but his theories never got any traction with the scientific community. The booklet accompanying the CD features a series of cryptic diagrams that "compare the album's lyrics to an excerpt of the book it is named after." (The specific excerpt is not identified.) Other graphs in the booklet "compare the lyrics with the entirety of Pleasonton's text."  The diagrams were created by artist and designer Stefanie Posavec, working with her collaborator Greg McInerny.  In an interview with the web site Made By Many, Posavec said: "The visuals were created through the analysis of themes, grammatical parts of speech, word syllable analysis, sentence length, and words common to both the lyrics and the book. . . . For the album cover Damian [lead singer Damian Kulash, Jr.] analysed the text and lyrics according to a set of key themes that were important to him..."  [Samples of the diagrams can be seen on Posavec's web site.] The booklet offers further explanation of the CD's cover art: "The front cover displays themes common to the book and the album. Each line represents a sentence, with the album's lyrics fanning to the left and the text of the book fanning to the right.  Each theme is represented by a color.  For sentences dealing with multiple themes, the colors are added together as light is, such that each theme's color both lightens and tints the resultant line." OK? Go!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Lady Writer/Dire Straits

At Classics Rock! we're celebrating our one-year anniversary with a song that appeals both to our occupation (book publicity) and our avocation (songs inspired by literature).  Lady writer on the TV/Talk about the Virgin Mary/Reminded me of you, Mark Knopfler sings on Lady Writer, from the 1979 Dire Straits album Communiqué.  In the song the narrator compares an ex-girlfriend unfavorably to an author he sees on a television talk show (Yeah she had another quality/The way you used to look/And I know you never read a book, he says at one point, and later: She knew all about a history/You couldn't hardly write your name).  It's a song book publicists can embrace because it was inspired by an actual author interview Knopfler saw on TV.  However, we could find no evidence that he ever identified the author.  So who is it?  The title of the song conveniently limits the pool of possible contenders to female authors, and a consensus has formed around one lady writer in particular.  The song's reference to the Virgin Mary suggests strongly that the author in question was scholar, historian and mythographer Marina Warner.  Her controversial book Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary came out in 1976, so she could have been promoting it on television around the time Knopfler was writing the song.  What's more, Warner herself seems to believe "Lady Writer" refers to her:  "When reminded of [the song], said lady writer breaks into peals of embarrassed laughter," wrote another lady writer from Time Magazine in a 1999 feature about Warner.  "I guess that was me," Warner is quoted as saying.  "I wish I could claim something of more distinction in terms of popular culture, but I don't know that I can."  If Marina Warner is indeed the "Lady Writer," we are left with another mystery:  Who's the unfortunate ex-girlfriend?