Category Archives: Books

Review: Howard Kaylan – Shell Shocked: My Life With the Turtles, Flo & Eddie, Frank Zappa

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Early in his freshman year at UCLA, Howard Kaylan told his father he was quitting college to make music. His parents were naturally livid but he promised them that if he didn’t have a hit record within 6 months, he’d go back to school.  It didn’t take 6 months for his first hit record, it took only 4.

50 years later, Howard Kaylan has written his autobiography Shell Shocked: My Life With The Turtles, Flo & Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc., written with Jeff Tamarkin, with a cover by the great Cal Schenkel and an introduction by Penn Jillette.  If you know his music, then you already know this is a great read. If you don’t know his music, allow me to fill you in on his amazing career.

You see, I’m a lifelong Howard Kaylan fan. I grew up watching The Turtles on TV in the 60s. I saw the Flo & Eddie edition of Frank Zappa and The Mothers live at the Fillmore East. I’ve got every Flo & Eddie album and can vividly remember their show at the Bottom Line in New York in the 80s.  They’ve sang back-up for everyone from Marc Bolan to Bruce Springsteen to the Ramones. They’ve interviewed every other rock star in the world on radio and TV.

[Full disclosure: I was provided with a free ebook download for review purposes. Both Howard Kaylan and Jeff Tamarkin are Facebook friends, though I don't know either of them "in real life."]

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Howard Lawrence Kaplan was born in The Bronx (is that one reason I’ve always liked him so much?) in 1947 and spent a mostly angst-free childhood in Brooklyn and upstate New York and finally Westchester, a part of Los Angeles near LAX and not far from Santa Monica.  As a child, he rapidly developed a love for both music and comedy. He started playing saxophone while at Westchester High School and one day found himself in the school choir standing next to another class clown, one Mark Volman. It may not have been as momentous as the day that Mick Jagger met Keith Richards, but it wasn’t far off either.  The two of them have been singing together for more than 50 years.

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In high school, Kaylan was already in a band called the Crossfires. Volman became their roadie (to the extent that a high school band has a roadie) until the day that his father insisted he should be part of the band as well. The Crossfires became The Turtles and rock & roll history was made.

The Turtles had a hit the first time out of the gate with a cover of Bob Dylan’s It Ain’t Me Babe. I believe that The Turtles were the first ones to have a rock/pop hit single with a Dylan song. (Their cover predates The Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man by about six months, earlier Dylan cover hits were all more folk than rock.) Their other hits of course include Happy Together, Elenore, and She’d Rather Be With Me,

Kaylan’s recollection of The Turtles era is filled with wonderful stories of sex and drugs. Most prominent perhaps is his tale of their first trip to London, meeting everybody including Lennon and McCartney, getting asked for his autograph by Brian Jones and throwing up all over Jimi Hendrix.  This was the basis for a feature film in 2003 that Kaylan wrote – My Dinner With Jimi.

Here’s a brief excerpt from the book recalling the time he met Dylan in 1980 (Dyaln was in the audience when they were singing back-up with Springsteen and he came backstage after the show):

And there he was – after all these years – backstage, just milling around, Bob fucking Dylan. I had to approach him.

“Mr. Dylan,” I sputtered. “Hi. I’m Howard Kaylan from the Turtles. Thanks for writing our first hit.”

“Was it any good?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“So we both made money then?”

“Yessir.”

And he shook my hand. “Well then, I thank you. Let’s do her again sometime.” And that was it. Four sentences in fifteen years.

There was a dark side to this as well. The Turtles were young and trusting. People stole a lot of money from them and they eventually discovered that they not only didn’t own the name “The Turtles” or any of their recordings but that, thanks to a swirl of lawsuits that took more than a decade to resolve, they couldn’t even perform or record under their own names.

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So poor management and legal squabbles meant the Turtles were over.  A chance run-in with their old friend Frank Zappa found them joining Zappa and the Mothers, appearing on several Zappa albums as well as Zappa’s film 200 Motels.  Since they couldn’t perform under their own names, they somehow decided to call themselves The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie – the nicknames of two of their roadies.  Kaylan was the Phlorescent Leech (but later it would get flipped around on them when the cover photo on the first Flo & Eddie album was flipped).

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As I mentioned earlier, I saw this edition of the Mothers play at the Fillmore East and to this day Fillmore East June 1971 remains one of my most frequently played Zappa albums.  They were with Zappa at the Casino de Montreux when a fan burned it down (an event immortalized in Deep Purple’s Smoke On the Water). A week later, playing the Rainbow in London, a fan attacked Zappa on stage, badly injuring him.  With Zappa out of commission, Flo & Eddie’s time with the Mothers came to an end.

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So they launched on their own, as the Phlorescent Leech and Eddie, later simplifying it to just Flo and Eddie. I still feel their first album on Warner is one of the great pop-rock albums of the 70s.  The second album was produced by Bob Ezrin, years before he climbed The Wall. All four albums have some brilliant pop songs, songs that clearly build on the legacy of the Turtles’ best work. The later albums all mixed these brilliant pop songs with parodies of the then-current rock scene.  But as George Kaufman said, “Satire is what closes on Saturday night” and these albums never made much of a dent on the charts.  By 1976 they found themselves without a contract and out of work. (There would be a final record 5 years later, a reggae album, believe it or not, recorded in Jamaica with some legendary Jamaican studio musicians.)

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They managed to keep working, in no small part because everyone wanted them as back-up singers. They were especially close to Marc Bolan (listen to Electric Warrior and try to imagine it without Flo & Eddie’s vocals, it just wouldn’t have worked as well). And there was Springsteen, Roger McGuinn, Stephen Stills, The Psychedelic Furs, the Ramones, Duran Duran … the list goes on forever.  They were also a hit for awhile hosting a nationally syndicated radio talk show thanks to support from their friend Howard Stern.

Finally in 1984, they got the rights back to use their own names and use The Turtles name and they got the rights to all of the original Turtles recordings.  There’s big money to be made from licensing old records, especially ones as perennially popular as Happy Together.  And of course now they could tour as The Turtles (featuring Flo & Eddie), doing their own gigs as well as joining packaged 60s tours.  Life would finally work out.

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Today, Kaylan keeps busy in other ways – he’s released one solo album and has turned his talents to writing science fiction.  He’s also recording a new album with former Mother Jeff Simmons.

Shell Shocked worked for me on a variety of different levels.  The first is as a collection of some truly hilarious tales.  It’s like you’re sitting with Kaylan having a beer (or, more likely, a smoke) and he turns to you and says, “Did I ever tell you about the time that Tom Jones waved his enormous schlong at a bunch of teenyboppers from the tour bus?”  “Did I ever tell you about the time I got Zappa to smoke weed with us?”  “Hey, lemme tell you about the time we snorted coke off Abe Lincoln’s desk in the White House.”

But there’s more to it than that. Because this is a tale of survival. This is the story of a man who hit it big before he was 20 and who lost it all – several times. And yet he was never defeated, he was down but he was never counted out. He never comes across as bitter or morose, he just kept plugging away, having faith in himself and his talent and sure enough, in the long run things more than worked out for him.

I don’t know Kaylan. I’ve never met him and I’m not likely to ever meet him.  But I sure as hell liked him after reading the book.  And I have this theory – that just about everyone who ever worked with him liked him, and that’s one reason they kept calling him up to record with them, to tour with them, to hang out with them.  Look, when you’re David Bowie, you can work with anyone you damn please, so you might as well work with people you enjoy being with, no?

What I also love about the book is that there are no regrets.  Howard Kaylan won’t be going on Oprah any time soon to cry and talk about how he found religion and doesn’t want people to make the same mistakes he did.  There’s none of that phony bullshit here. Either accept him on his own terms or not, it’s your choice, he’s not meeting you halfway. And I love it.

The book is definitely Kaylan’s voice.  It says “with Jeff Tamarkin” but both Kaylan and Tamarkin insist the words are all Kaylan’s and that Tamarkin’s contribution was to help him put it all together and shape it into a cohesive narrative.

The one thing that I felt was missing was that there actually isn’t much about Mark Volman in the book.  You’ll learn much more about Frank Zappa and Harry Nilsson and Marc Bolan than you will about the man he’s partnered with for 50 years. (Actually, the parts of the book describing his final visits with both Zappa and Nilsson are heartbreaking.) I’m guessing that Kaylan decided early on that this was his story, not theirs, and that Volman would be free to tell his own side if he ever wanted to.

So don’t come to Shell Shocked expecting great philosophical lessons. It ain’t that kind of book. What it is is a very funny read.  If you already know who Howard Kaylan is, you probably wanted to read the book before you read this review. If you didn’t know who he was, hopefully you want to read it after reading this.

And if you don’t know the music and want to hear it, I’ve done up a Flo & Eddie playlist on Spotify. It includes my favorite songs from the Turtles, Zappa and the Flo & Eddie albums, as well as a few tracks on which they contributed background vocals.  (Note that some of the Zappa tracks are NSFW.)  Do give it a listen, especially the Flo & Eddie album tracks. (Note that when you click on the Spotify link, you’ll have to install the Spotify player if you don’t already have it. But then you’ll be able to stream this playlist, and about 20 million other songs, for free.)

 

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Omni Magazine Back Issues Are All Online

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The Internet Archive now has every issue of Omni Magazine.  You can read all of the issues online or download them in a variety of formats, including PDF, EPUB and MOBI.  Don’t know what Omni was?

From Wikipedia:

OMNI was a science and science fiction magazine published in the US and the UK. It contained articles on science fact and short works of science fiction. The first issue was published in October 1978, the last in Winter 1995, with an internet version lasting until 1998.

OMNI was launched by Kathy Keeton, long-time companion and later wife of Penthouse magazine publisher Bob Guccione, who described the magazine in its first issue as “an original if not controversial mixture of science fact, fiction, fantasy and the paranormal”. Before launch it was referred to as Nova, but the name was changed before the first issue to avoid a conflict with the PBS science show of the same name, NOVA.

The magazine was initially edited by Frank Kendig, who left several months after the magazine’s launch. Ben Bova, who was hired as Fiction Editor, was promoted to Editor, leaving the magazine in 1981. After Kendig and Bova, Editors of OMNI included Richard Teresi, Gurney Williams III, Patrice Adcroft, Keith Ferrell, and Pamela Weintraub (editor of OMNI as one of the first major standalone webzines from 1996-1998). Kathleen Stein managed the magazine’s prestigious Q&A interviews with the top scientists of the 20th century through 1998. Ellen Datlow was Associate fiction editor of OMNI under Robert Sheckley for one and a half years, and took over as Fiction Editor in 1981 until the magazine folded in 1998. The very first edition had an exclusive interview with renowned physicist, Freeman Dyson, the second edition with American writer and futurist, Alvin Toffler.

In its early run, OMNI published a number of stories that have become genre classics, such as Orson Scott Card’s “Unaccompanied Sonata”, William Gibson’s “Burning Chrome” and “Johnny Mnemonic”, Harlan Ellison’s novella “Mefisto in Onyx”, and George R. R. Martin’s “Sandkings”. The magazine also published original sf/f by William S. Burroughs, Joyce Carol Oates, Jonathan Carroll, T. Coraghessan Boyle, and other mainstream writers. The magazine excerpted Stephen King’s novel Firestarter, and featured a short story, “The End of the Whole Mess”. OMNI also brought the works of numerous painters to the attention of a large audience, such as H. R. Giger, De Es Schwertberger and Rallé. In the early 1980s, popular fiction stories from OMNI were reprinted in “The Best of OMNI Science Fiction” series and featured art by space artists like Robert McCall.

OMNI entered the market at the start of a wave of new science magazines aimed at educated but otherwise “non-professional” readers. Science Digest and Science News already served the high-school market, and Scientific American and New Scientist the professional, while OMNI was arguably the first aimed at “armchair scientists” who were nevertheless well informed about technical issues. The next year, however, Time introduced Discover while the AAAS introduced Science ’80.

You’ll have to click through issue by issue to get them all but at least the archive is searchable.  The world was a very different place when Omni was being published and it should be interesting or at least nostalgic to look back at a different (albeit recent) era.

 

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8 Reasons To Tell Your Boss to F#%k Themself

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At first I was thinking, “gosh, this would have been useful at my last job.”  Thinking about it more, I had no shortage of reasons for wanting to tell my boss to go fuck himself.  But I never did.

Reading this morning a bit on Huffington Post about a book called 5 Reasons To Tell Your Boss to Go F**k Themselves: How Positive Psychology Can Help You Get What You Want (Volume 1).  The “Volume 1″ in the title would seem to suggest that this could be at least a trilogy, perhaps an epic series to vie with Hunger Games or that bunch of books about hot teenage vampires who never seem to have sex.   HuffPo already seems to have inflated the 5 reasons to 8.

Actually looking at it now, it looks vaguely lame. The first one starts off, “If your boss thinks ‘leadership’ means trying to intimidate and scare you …”  Check.  The solution?  Tell your boss where to go or find “Jolts of Joy,” which they define as listening to a favorite song or eating lunch under a tree.  Lame.

But it gets a little more substantial after that first slide.  Here’s the one that I zeroed in on.

Unfortunately there’s a very small group of bosses – about 5 out of every 100 – who suffer from psychological disorders that cause long-lasting, uncontrollable emotional disregulation. … The symptoms of these disorders varies but the common element is the inability of these bosses to empathize with others – to feel what another person is feeling – which allows them to perpetuate their acts of cruelty.

Reminds me of someone I know knew.

You might want to head over to HuffPo and view the entire slideshow there.  It all boils down to one thing:  if your boss sucks (and Hong Kong bosses are famous for extreme amounts of suckage), in the end all you can do is go out and try to get another job with another boss and hope you get luckier next time.  That’s certainly what I’m hoping for. But, like the old Mel Brooks song, hope for the best, expect the worst.

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EBook Prices Are Dropping – And a New David Byrne Book

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From PaidContent:

 The Department of Justice’s ebook pricing settlement was approved last Thursday, and HarperCollins, one of the three settling publishers, has already entered into new contracts with ebook retailers – including Apple. The retailers can now set their own prices on HarperCollins titles. So what kinds of changes are we seeing?

Go to that site to see a chart of some price changes.

This I know first hand:  I’ve been waiting for Michael Chabon’s new novel Telegraph Avenue to come out, which it did earlier this week.  Last week, the regular Kindle edition was priced at $12.99 and an enhanced version with some audio & video files was $16.99.  I just checked and the regular version is now $9.99 and the enhanced version is $12.99.   On the U.S. iTunes iBooks store, the regular edition is also $9.99 but the enhanced edition is $15.99.

The HarperCollins website says:

 This enhanced edition includes an original theme song, 10 stunning designs from the artist Stainboy, and a custom-made map of Telegraph Avenue, all commissioned by the author for the digital book. Also includes audio excerpts read by actor Clarke Peters (The WireTreme) and a video interview with the author.

I think for an extra 3 smackers over the regular edition I’ll go for the enhanced edition via Amazon.

David Byrne (yes, Talking Heads David Byrne) has a new book out with the intriguing title, How Music Works.

Dwight Garner, reviewing the book in the New York Times, absolutely hates it.

It ain’t no party, this book. It definitely ain’t no disco. Your money would be better spent on Mr. Byrne’s intermittently lovely new album,“Love This Giant,” made with Annie Clark (who performs as St. Vincent), out just this week.

But Cory Doctorow, reviewing the book for BoingBoing, is head over heels in love with it.

David Byrne has written several good books, but his latest,How Music Works, is unquestionably the best of the very good bunch, possibly the book he was born to write. … this is an insightful, thorough, and convincing account of the way that creativity, culture, biology and economics interact to prefigure, constrain and uplift art. It’s a compelling story about the way that art comes out of technology, and as such, it’s widely applicable beyond music.

Curiously, Amazon is only selling the physical book, a hard cover edition currently priced at $19.04.   (You can get a signed first edition from McSweeney’s for $50.)  The iTunes store does have an e-version of this, priced at $11.99.

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Hello Goodbye Hello

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Looks like Hello Goodbye Hello by Craig Brown is going to be a must-read.  The Kindle edition is available tomorrow.  Sub-titled A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings, the NY Times review notes, “One of the stranger conceits of “Hello Goodbye Hello” is that it describes 101 meetings and expends exactly 1,001 words on each one, resulting in a work that is 101,101 words long.”

No, don’t go to sleep.  Read on, please:

According to the captivating new book “Hello Goodbye Hello” Alexander Woollcott, the writer and Algonquin Circle wit, loved to play a game called Strange Bedfellows. One of his biggest coups took place at a Cap d’Antibes villa in the summer of 1928 when he succeeded in bringing together Harpo Marx and George Bernard Shaw (“corned beef and roses,” as he called them) at lunch. The two hit it off, and later that week Harpo drove Shaw to Cannes, where a friend of Shaw’s cast them as extras in a movie; a scene featuring them playing billiards, alas, would be left on the cutting-room floor.

Mr. Brown also tells us how Tolstoy met Tchaikovsky, who met Rachmaninoff, who had a musical duel with Harpo Marx at the Garden of Allah hotel in Los Angeles: annoyed by his neighbor’s piano playing, Harpo took out his harp and began playing the first four bars of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C sharp minor over and over again for two hours, until he succeeded in driving the composer to another bungalow.

No, it’s not only tales of Harpo Marx (though that in itself would make for a wonderful book I’m sure).

Of the historic meeting of James Joyce and Marcel Proust at a Paris dinner party (also attended by Stravinsky and Picasso) Mr. Brown notes that Joyce arrived after coffee, “drunk and shabby, swaying from side to side.” Proust, he reports, arrived at 2:30 a.m., looking, as one dinner guest recalled, “as though he had seen a light in a friend’s window and had just come up on the chance of finding him awake.”

As Mr. Brown tells it, there are at least seven versions of what transpired between the two writers. In one version they discuss their various illnesses. In another Proust asks “Do you like truffles?” and Joyce replies, “Yes, I do.” In a third Joyce recalls: “Our talk consisted solely of the word ‘No.’ Proust asked me if I knew the duc de so-and-so. I said, ‘No.’ Our hostess asked Proust if he had read such and such a piece of ‘Ulysses.’ Proust said, ‘No.’ And so on. Of course the situation was impossible. Proust’s day was just beginning. Mine was at an end.”

 

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How Creativity Doesn’t Work

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Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer is currently #14 on the NY Times Nonfiction Hardcover Best Seller List and has sold over 200,000 copies to date.  The Times summarizes the book by writing, “An account of the science of creativity argues that it is not a gift but a thought process that can be learned.”  I think this is an interesting topic and I’d previously put this onto my Amazon wish list to check out later.

Now his book is being pulled from the market by publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  I just checked and both the hardcover and e-book versions have disappeared from Amazon (although the audio book version is still there).

It seems that Lehrer might have been a bit too creative when writing his book, fabricating quotes from Bob Dylan.  The Wrap reports:

“Three weeks ago, I received an email from journalist Michael Moynihan asking about Bob Dylan quotes in my book ‘Imagine,’” Lehrer, 31, said in a statement. “The quotes in question either did not exist, were unintentional misquotations, or represented improper combinations of previously existing quotes. But I told Mr. Moynihan that they were from archival interview footage provided to me by Dylan’s representatives. This was a lie spoken in a moment of panic. When Mr. Moynihan followed up, I continued to lie, and say things I should not have said.”

He’s now resigned from The New Yorker.

Lehrer has also come under fire for plagiarizing himself.

The seemingly prodigious young writer drew criticism last month when he admittedly recycled his own writing in blog posts for the New Yorker, including lines taken almost verbatim from previously published Wall Street Journal essays.

Lehrer’s other books include The Decisive Moment and How We Decide.  I’d be curious to know more about the decisive moment when Lehrer decided to simply make up stuff.

 

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E-Book Prices to Drop?

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It would seem as if that’s the case, at least temporarily.  This is from the NY Times today:

As soon as the Department of Justice announced Wednesday that it was suing five major publishers and Apple on price-fixing charges, and simultaneously settling with three of them, Amazon announced plans to push down prices on e-books. The price of some major titles could fall to $9.99 or less from $14.99, saving voracious readers a bundle.

But publishers and booksellers argue that any victory for consumers will be short-lived, and that the ultimate effect of the antitrust suit will be to exchange a perceived monopoly for a real one. Amazon, already the dominant force in the industry, will hold all the cards.

The government said the five publishers colluded with Apple in secret to develop a new policy that let them set their own retail prices, and then sought to hide their discussions.

After that deal was in place in 2010, the government said, prices jumped everywhere because under the agreement, no bookseller could undercut Apple.

HarperCollins, Hachette and Simon & Schuster settled the charges Wednesday, leaving the other two, Penguin and Macmillan, and Apple to fight.

I haven’t had time to check through my want list on Amazon to see if prices have indeed dropped.  I’ll be doing that this weekend.  Anyone else notice any price changes yet?

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Winter Is Coming

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Yeah, that’s right, Game of Thrones season 2 starts on April 1st.  The latest trailer for the HBO series can be found here.

Although we’ve already watched Season 1 of the series, I bought the Blu-Ray set this week and we’re watching it again, 1 episode per night, to refresh our memories and get psyched.  And without even having watched any of the bonus features yet, I have to say that the 1080p transfer is gorgeous.  The colors and the clarity of the image are amazing.

(That’s both good and bad.  We watched Episode 3 tonight and in one of Emilia Clarke’s many nude scenes, it was pretty obvious that she should have removed her bra a bit longer before they started filming the scene.)

I’ve read the first 3 books in the series and I’ve just started the 4th one.

Meanwhile my mom, who as far as I know has never read a science fiction or fantasy novel in her life, has read the first 4 books all within a single week and is now into the 5th and is totally in love with it.  She’s so in love with it that she sent me an email today asking me to write to George R.R. Martin on her behalf.  Martin does provide an email address on his web site and while he says he doesn’t have time to respond to every email he receives, he also writes:

That’s not to say I don’t read it all, however. A few of the letters are cranky and a few are just, well, strange. The vast majority of them are wonderful, however. Believe me, after decades laboring in the sort of anonymity that is customary for most authors, it’s great to hear so much enthusiasm for my work.

What did she ask me to write?  She wanted me to let him know that she’s going to be 91 years old in 3 months and that at the rate he’s writing, she may not live long enough to see the 6th book in the series let alone the 7th (and presumably final) book.  She wanted me to ask him to write faster.  Failing that, she wanted me to ask him if he could share with her how he plans to end the series and that if he clues her in, she promises not to share the details with anyone.

So yes, I have days when I try to be a good son.  I’ve written to him.  If I do get a reply, I’ll let you know.

 

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Reading About Food

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Do people in Hong Kong know about Lucky Peach?  It’s a quarterly food journal published by McSweeney’s and co-edited by David Chang (of NYC’s Momofuku empire).  It’s a literary journal, with recipes.  Issue number one came out last summer and was mostly devoted to ramen.  It includes “Mediocrity,” a conversation between Chang, Anthony Bourdain and WD50′s Wylie Dufresne, sitting around in a bar in San Sebastian, Spain.  And “Harold McGee in Outre Space.”

Issue #2 came out recently and my copy will be arriving this week via Amazon.

Something else that I just ordered is called Notes From a Kitchen.  The first thing to know about this is that it comes in two volumes, is 932 pages long and weighs 15 pounds.

Provocative artist, filmmaker and photographer Jeff Scott and chef Blake Beshore bring you the re-envisioning of the modern American cookbook. Notes from a Kitchen redefines the cookbook genre in a spectacular two-volume, 900 page cloth-covered collection that feels more like a beautiful museum artifact and private chef’s journal than a traditional cookbook.

This beautifully-crafted collection explores today’s most exciting young chefs in their kitchens and in personal conversation. Featuring over 1,000 vibrant color photographs, uniquely edited documentary film footage and private journals, this new form of modern cookbook studies the unique artistry that surrounds their emotional craft.

How do you get documentary film footage on the printed page?  I have no idea.  Huffington Post says it “redefines the cookbook” and has images of some of the pages.

Interestingly enough, they raised the money to publish this book via a Kickstarter project.  At Kickstarter, they describe it this way:

Notes from a Kitchen is the first book ever produced, which accurately portrays the daily creative lives of world-renowned chefs in a strikingly visual and narrative format. Never before has a cookbook focused more intently on who a chef really is as a person and why they place their culinary passion before almost everything else in their lives. This revolutionary cookbook reveals firsthand the daily journey inside a chef’s culinary obsession.

Kind of an unfortunate use of a comma in that first sentence, eh?  Anyway, it’s released on December 10th.

Artist, photographer and director Jeff Scott and chef Blake Beshore have teamed up to produce this inventive two-volume compilation, changing form and function and transforming how cookbooks are utilized today. We want to produce a book that is accessible to foodies, while also stimulating the culinary passions of working chefs, sous chefs, line cooks, servers, culinary students and avid home cooks.  Our intent is to focus on the authenticity of the craft and not on the hype. This reinvention of the modern cookbook is a one-of-a-kind culinary experience.

I’ve pre-ordered one already.

 

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Scattered Thoughts on the Steve Jobs Bio

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I’ve just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography of Steve Jobs.  It’s not the first book written about Jobs and I’m sure it won’t be the last.  Not having read any of the other books on Jobs, I can’t compare it with the others that are out there.  Clearly Isaacson, whose output includes a very well-received bio on Einstein, has an advantage because he had access to Jobs himself, as well as Jobs’ family, friends and professional associates.

First of all, I’d say that the book is even-handed.  It makes the point, repeatedly in fact, that Jobs wasn’t much of a human being.  Prone to temper tantrums, fits and crying at work as well as at home, when given a choice he’d generally go for the jugular, trying (and often succeeding) to humiliate those around him who did not live up to his standards.  I didn’t know him, I wasn’t likely to ever meet him and after reading the book I don’t feel any loss for not having known him.

But that’s okay.  He was human.  Everyone has their flaws.  And almost everyone who achieved something deemed “great” by society seems to have had more than their share of them.  Many of the great artists and creators were, to one extent or another, monsters as human beings.  Not only is it a part of who they are, it goes without saying that they wouldn’t have hit the same heights if they didn’t have those flaws.  I know this firsthand, having once worked for Stanley Kubrick.  No, I’m not saying he was a monster, not by any means.  But after talking with him briefly on more than one occasion and, more importantly, having heard dozens of stories from people who worked with him for ages, I know he loved “humanity” but had little use for people, outside of a chosen few.  Kubrick and Jobs shared one key trait: an almost fanatical attention to detail.

So the second half of Isaacson’s book is about how that attention to detail paid off.  It progresses through most of Apple’s product line – here’s how the iPhone was developed, here’s how the iPad was made, etc.  If this sort of thing is interesting to you, then you’ll love this, because here the pay-off is extensive quotes from Jobs and associates on what the inner circle was thinking, the battles that took place, how the product developed over time.  There’s a level of detail here that you won’t find in most other accounts of these products and I found this stuff fascinating.

It’s so well done that I’m thinking about going out and buying copies of this book to give to the managers who report to me at work.  The lessons here are that the little things do indeed matter and that success comes from intense focus on the customer experience.  I think there’s a lot in the book that I can actually use on a daily basis at work and I’m hoping that at least some of the people who work with me would have the same reaction.  Whatever else one might think of Steve Jobs, you have to credit him for coming into a company that was 90 days from shutting down and within a period of 14 years turning it into one of the highest valued companies in the world – and it wasn’t just the capitalization value or the billions of dollars in the bank, it’s also the way that Apple consistently leads in every consumer satisfaction survey.

I think the clearest evidence of that customer focus and what the lack of it can mean comes in the stories around the creation of the iPod and the comparison to Sony.  Sony was the consumer electronics giant.  They created the Walkman, a truly revolutionary product in its time.  Plus Sony owns Columbia Pictures and the Columbia record company.  They could have done the same end-to-end thing that Apple did, but they didn’t.  The reasons are obvious now, as they should have been at the time.  When creating digital devices, Sony spent about no time on what the consumer might have wanted and put all their focus on protecting each of their silo’d divisions.  The result was one failure after another and Apple came along and ate their lunch.

I can remember back to the early days of the iPod – not so long ago and yet it seems like decades.  I’d already owned two other MP3 players, one from some Korean company and then I think one from Creative.  They both did the job and yet they both sucked.  When the iPod came out, it was a Mac-only device.  I kept bookmarking sites that gave instructions on how to hack the iPod to make it work with Windows.  Then an authorized Windows version came out, using 3rd party software called MusicMatch and that’s when I finally bought one.  From day one, it was a joy to use and it only got better when iTunes was finally ported to Windows.  I had no second thoughts about trashing MusicMatch at that point.  Today I think that iTunes is approaching bloatware.  I appreciate the fact that I only need one piece of software to be the hub for all my mobile devices and a lot of what I do at home.  But I hate its restrictions on video formats and the software crashes on me on an almost daily basis.  (Maybe it would be different if I was running it on a Mac?)

Of course there are also plenty of comparisons with Microsoft.  We get to hear from Jobs about Gates and Microsoft, we get to hear from Gates as well.  We’re flies on the wall when Gates and Jobs meet for the final time at Jobs’ home.  It’s an extraordinary chapter.

Jobs understood that the hackers who liked to take things apart and put them back together in different ways represented just a small portion of society.  Most people don’t want to jump through hoops of fire to get stuff to work, they just want it to work.  And mostly, Apple stuff does work and works well.

One could argue about the virtues of open systems vs. closed ones.  Isaacson does in the book.  He presents both sides and of course he basically agrees with Apple’s approach.  But this is one of the technical things he glosses over to some extent.  This is not Isaacson’s forte and it shows.  Something similar shows in the discussion around “antenna-gate.”  Yes, it was a typical example of Jobs’ famous reality distortion field at work and yes, it was way overblown by the media and Apple’s response to it was something that will be taught in business and marketing schools as an example of how to do things right, yet I felt something was missing here, without being quite able to put my finger on it.

Towards the end of the book, we get the Apple stock scandal (Jobs is shown as being greedy but blameless) and far greater detail about the progression of the cancer and its effects on Jobs.  About the liver transplant.  About the tremendous weight loss and the almost constant pain he suffered in his final days.  I don’t think anyone will do a better job of describing this than Isaacson has done.  At the end, Jobs takes greatest pride in building what he hopes is a company that can thrive after his death, much like HP or Intel, and yet in typical fashion he gets upset when Tim Cook says essentially the same thing to the press.

So it comes down to this for me.  When Jobs died, some treated it like the passing of a demi-god.  And then came the inevitable backlash.  “He was a billionaire who did no charitable work.”  That part is certainly true.  He actually seems to sneer at all of Gates’ charitable endeavors.  There’s no defense for this and Isaacson doesn’t attempt one.  It’s mentioned in the book but never really addressed.  “He invented nothing.”  That part I can’t agree with.  He was the conceptualizer, he was the refiner, and not one of the Apple products that we know and take for granted today would have been the same without him.  I give him full marks here.  I think he had vision and passion and it shows in everything that bears the Apple name.

Where will Apple be without him?  Only time will tell.

 

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