Monday, June 29, 2020

On The Ripple Bookshelf: Featuring Ace Frehley, Megaforce - Jon Zazula, and Marky Ramone

Blame it on the Coronavirus, but I've definitely been reading more recently.  Books, magazine, cereal boxes, you name it.  My current passion has been to delve deep into rock music autobiographies, so in that spirit, let's take a quick blast through my current "finished" pile.  A broad mix of autobiographies here, and definitely a mix of quality in the read.   We'll run them down in the order I read them.  My honest opinions, warts and all.

Ace Frehley - No Regrets

Let's face it, I didn't really expect Tolstoy from this book. Ace never struck me as being too much of a thinker, but man, could he play guitar and his work with KISS inspired countless famous axe-men to originally pick up their guitars.  As a long-time KISS fan (I bought Destroyer brand new off the shelf the day it was released) I was really looking forward to this one.  No band has taken more liberties and been protective of their history than KISS.  The “Kiss-speak,”  of "KISS-tory" is almost entirely controlled by leaders Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, and is so full of legends and myths that it bears little parallel in reality.  So,it’s always been hard to get at the real truth.

Don't look for it here.

I suspect there is a mighty powerful non-disclosure agreement the band has in place to protect their image, and particularly the images of Gene and Paul, because Ace does almost nothing to give us the much longed for "look behind the curtain."   In fact, once ACE is actually in the band, the book becomes mundane.  Rather, the more interesting stuff was the pre-KISS accounting of his life.  Ace leads us through his childhood, his early bands, his restlessness.  It's all charming and a lot of fun to read.  The bits about the early days of KISS including his famous first audition and the early workings of the band before they reached fame were enticing to read, albeit, too brief, and not nearly enough detail on the creative process, the personalities, limitations or conflicts within the band.   It was interesting to learn that on stage, every single move was choreographed to the precise second, which makes sense as they always had to make sure they were in the exact right spot when a pyrotechnic effect happened or else risk getting burned.  I'd never really thought about how, as Ace relates it, it totally killed any spontaneity, improvisation or fun, such that Ace felt like he was more or less a wind up doll.  This, along with dealing with Gene and Paul, led to Ace's feelings of boredom in the band and his turning to increases amounts of alcohol and drugs to alleviate the monotony.   That was interesting. 

But we learn nothing about the dirt and ugly underbelly of the band other than Gene, even at the formation of the band, was all about the money. No big revelation there.  Gene is portrayed as being completely humorless and so devoid of friends that when he was roasted on the Comedy Channel, they had to hire people to perform, because he had no friends to volunteer.   Paul comes across as just a political mouthpiece for the band who surprisingly plays very little roll in Ace's recounting of his life, and Peter is kinda here and kinda there in stories of alcohol and drugs, and not much else.  We certainly never see his bandmates as fully developed people.

And that's the problem   In truth, there aren't enough stories of alcohol and drugs, or the band mates who achieved amazing fame with Ace.  And even worse, the stories that are told are almost completely without insight or even regret or growth.  Basically, Ace drank because he drank.  He was bored so he drank. He totaled his Delorean because he drank. He lost his house because he drank.  No real insight there.  He glances over any feelings about his long-suffering wife, then mentions his daughter from out of nowhere when he gets her a bit part in the terrible KISS and the Phantom of the Park television movie, and comes across as if he's the father of the year for doing so; whereas she's never even mentioned before that.  He gives no remorse for destroying his family.   His career, his life.

I'm a big fan of Ace, so I'm not disillusioned by the man, just disappointed.   In the end, I didn't come out of this knowing the man any better than before, nor seeing his growth as a man from all the ups and downs of his life.  Add to that there really weren't any major revelations in the book, and it was just a so-so read.

Jon Zazula - Heavy Tales: The Metal.  The Music.  The Madness

I hate to say it, but if I was disappointed by the lack of insight in Ace's book, compared to Jon Zazula's look back at his life and the ascent and crash of Megaforce Records, Ace actually was Tolstoy.  I was really looking forward to this one.  I'd missed most of the thrash metal explosion back in the day because my schooling at the time was too intense to allow me much time to listen to music.  So, my knowledge of Megaforce Records and it's incredible roll in the explosion of speed and thrash metal came after the fact.  One day recently, I was power-washing our front steps and listening to an Eddie Truck podcast where he had Jon Zazula on as his guest, and it was fantastic.  I hadn't known Eddie's roll in Megaforce and his relationship with Jon before, so that was fascinating to learn, and gave me new respect for Trunk.  Hearing Zazula and Trunk talk about the old days, from the record store set up at the Flea Market that birthed Megaforce Records to the early signing of Metallica, I was inspired.  I literally pulled out my phone and ordered the book right then and there from Amazon.

I'm not disappointed I did, but the book left so much wanting.  The early tales of Jon talking about how me was a restless teenager were cool, and how he basically stumbled into the record store business were great.   The unexpected receipt of a demo tape from Metallica and how it inspired Jon to start his own label was also fun to read.   But . . . .

Perhaps it's because I am a record label owner and know first hand all the work, and trials and tribulations of starting and keeping a label going, I really wanted to see Jon dig deep into the nuts an bolts of what they did.  When Trunk comes on, I really want to learn what day to day was like.  It was the most exciting time in recent music history, but it certainly doesn't read like it. I wanted to know what Trunk did, how they functioned, how they looked for new bands, the fights, the arguments, the total stabs in the dark . . .  All the stuff that makes a look inside a label exciting.   Zazula touches onto bands like Anthrax (cool story) and Raven (sad story) but really just glances over bands like Overkill, Kings X, Merciful Fate and even Ace Frehley.  In the end, I got the idea that he loved metal, and stumbled luckily upon some good bands and every good decision he made he credits to God.  No major examination into his mind and all that was happening.  Just God.

We don't learn any true interesting stories about the bands, other than Metallica being driven and drunks from day one, Scott Ian being a record store rat constantly begging to get his band signed (cool story),  and we learn of Jon's hurt when Metallica ditched him (probably a smart career move on their part) and his disappointment at failing Raven.  But not much else.  Basically, the book reads as if the years were days and it all kinda happened then all kinda fell apart.

His wife Marsha is a part and parcel to the whole wild ride, but I have no idea what she really did.  She's mentioned a lot, but not discussed.  Jon references his mania and depression about as casually as I just wrote those words, but no real insight into this mental state or how Marsha dealt with it all.  This all could have been a fascinating exploration of the merger of his mental state and the business.  The collapse of Megaforce came from a series of really bad decisions, including not staying true to their roots, chasing to try and find the next big things, and it's never really clear why that happened. Jon seems like a nice guys, but I can't say after reading this that I really know him any better.

So, an interesting read.  An easy read.  A fast read, at only 193 pages.  Some great old pics, and a few nifty stories.   But I wouldn't say a meaty read, certainly not the meaty read I was hoping for.

Marky Ramone - Punk Rock Blitzkreig:  My Life as a Ramone

Now this is what an autobiography of a famous rock legend should read like!  Man, not only did I come out of this book learning more than I ever dreamed I'd know about the bands, the Ramones, the punk rock movement, addiction, dysfunction and fame, but I also felt like I got to know the man.

And I gotta say, I like the man.

Marky takes us through his entire life in enough detail to taste the pollution of a rundown New York street, to feel the energy in a raging Brazilian Ramones-mania stadium, to fear the unpredictable nature of Dee Dee's next misadventure, and to smell the week's old, unwashed skin of Joey, complete with debris and detritus in his hair.   Marky recounts his early life and love of the drums, we learn of the struggling years (stealing bread deliveries at delicatessens in the early am hours just so he and his roommate could eat), the rise of Dust, one of America's proto-metal pioneers, and his move to the newly developing punk scene.  His stories of Johnny Thunder and the squalor are worth the price of admission alone, as they're always told without judgement or condescension, just unfailing honesty.

Of course the meat of the book is his time with the Ramones, and his in depth dealings with Johnny, Joey and Dee Dee are fascinating as they are dysfunctional.  Man, the pathology riding in that famous Ramones van as they crisscrossed the country!   Marky does a terrific job of bearing his soul when it comes to his own addictions and recovery, his return to the band, and his torn feelings when the Ramones finally start to get the recognition they're due, like the Lifetime Achievement Award and their entry into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame.  His recounting of his friendship with Phil Specter, including the infamous recording sessions, his tales of Joeys' OCD, Johnny's sadistic relationship with his bandmates, and the trials and tribulations of their long-suffering road manager Monte are keenly insightful.

I'd always been a Ramones fan, and had the honor of interviewing Marky once, many years ago, on our Ripple Radio Show, so I came into this book expecting to be pleased, but man, it was so much better than that.  I found myself googling to buy the few Ramones albums I didn't have as I read about them, streaming Rock n Roll High School as Marky talked about adventures on the set, even searching for Marky records with his new band The Intruders.   As Marky walks us through the failing health and passings of his Ramone brothers, it's all relayed with compassion and a touch of regret for lost opportunities.

If you're a Ramones fan, this book is essential and will give you the behind-the-scenes glimpse you've wanted.  If you're a punk rock fan, this book will take you on a wild ride of one of the most influential bands ever in rock music.  And if you just want to read a cool book, about drugs and sex an rock n roll, you won't go wrong here.

Gabba gabba hey.


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