Category Archives: Biographies
On December 10, 1967, a charter plane carrying singer Otis Redding (1941-1967) crashed in Lake Monona in Madison, Wisconsin as it made its final landing approach. Redding was twenty-six years old and left behind a widow Zelma, and three young children. At the time of his death, he was a top-selling recording artist on the brink a stellar career and the song he recorded shortly before his death “Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay”, went on to become a hit that still sounds good to this very day. His widow Zelma, is the president of the Otis Redding Foundation and his children Karla, Otis, III, and Dexter are on the board of directors. Through their hard work, Redding’s legacy lives on as millions of fans of the Soul music replay his songs singing along with an artist who helped define a genre and an era.
Redding died more than a decade before I was born but I have come to appreciate his musical genius. When I saw this book by Jonathan Gould, I knew that it would be an interesting read. And to my satisfaction, my instincts proved to be correct. Admittedly, my knowledge of Redding’s personal life was lacking but I had always known, like millions of others, the particulars of his untimely death. But what I did not know, was the man behind the music. Redding, like other artists such as Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Wilson Pickett, became a larger than life figure and a titan in the genre of music that became known commercially as Soul. But the question remained, how did Redding rise to fame and why did he die so young? Contained within the pages of this definitive biography are the answers to those questions and many others and Gould not only tells Redding’s story, but also takes us back in time as we relive the Civil Rights Movement while taking a closer look at what race once was and still is in America.
Without question the book is a biography, Gould ingeniously intersperses Redding’s story with historical events that changed the United States one step at a time. And the way it is done fits perfectly for in order to understand Redding, it is necessary to understand the America he was born into, a country far different from the one in which more than 300 million now live. Born in 1941 in the deep south, Redding came face to face with the horrors of Jim Crow at an early age and the system of legal segregation and oppression affected every aspect of life for African-Americans. The daily threat of death and deprivation gave rise to a movement for equality, accompanied by music that reached deep inside a person, in effect, touching their soul. Some parts of the book might be a tough read as Gould does avoid many dark episodes that occurred during Jim Crow such as lynching, the humiliating practice of blackface and the absurd laws that once prevented Black and White Americans from being seen together in the same place. The stories and the events are uncomfortable but there is no way around it and its purpose is to remind us of the seemingly endless barriers artists like Redding were forced to overcome in pursuing the passion that they loved as America was being forced to look at itself in the mirror.
Similar to other singers of his time, Redding found his voice in the church as the son of a pastor before realizing that his voice could give him a career. But in contrast to other singers, his early life was not filled with craziness and in many ways was quite ordinary until fate takes over and he crosses paths with Phil Walden, the man who would help make him a star. At this point in the book, the story picks up in pace as Redding sets his sights on Los Angeles while becoming a husband and father. And at twenty-two years of age, he was living a life that many could only dream of. He performed with some of the biggest names in the business from James Brown, Booker T & The MGs to the late Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin (1942-2018). The result is that the book is not simply a biography but a step back in time to a period that we will never see again. In fact, what was being done by singers then could not be done today as Soul is a genre all but retired and there is no equivalent Civil Rights Movement. Hip-Hop and Pop haven taken over the airwaves making the days of Motown a distant memory. But to their infinite credit, the sounds coming out of Detroit, Los Angeles, Memphis, New York and other cities have stood the test of time, sounding as good today as they did when they were recorded.
It should be noted that Redding had his faults like other stars and also saw life through a different lens. Gould includes all of it as any good biographer should do. In the end, Redding was a human being, born with flaws that many of us have. Those flaws as well as his positive traits, are critical in analyzing his life and understanding why he was mourned in death. Stardom was already in his grasp and he was on track to ascend to an even higher level of fame. Gould, did an incredible job of putting together this story that covers Redding’s life from start to finish. Through interviews with those who knew him, Walden and even the late Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records, Gould has created the go-to book on the life of Otis Redding. His writing style brings the past alive and at times I felt as I were right next to Otis as he had discussions with Walden and Wexler. There will never be another Otis Redding who did in fact have, an unfinished life.
One of the definitions of the word irony is an incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result. What seems to be given can ultimately turn out radically different and such was the case in the life of the late Luther Ronzoni Vandross, Jr. (1951-2005), known simply to fans and friends as “Luther”. To the world, he was a household name and his classic Here and Now has been played at countless weddings across the country. His voice was unique with no singer coming to close to its richness and smoothness. When he died on July 1, 2005, many fans were in a state of shock and the idea that Luther Vandross was no longer among us seemed surreal. Sadly, it was true and his voice was silenced as he departed this life and now rest in peace, having left behind a legacy that will far exceed his time on earth. But how much did we really know about Luther and what was happening in his life behind the hit songs and glamorous stage appearances? Craig Seymour once wrote for VIBE magazine, and interviewed Luther becoming very familiar with the singer but even he was unable to completely penetrate the walls Vandross had erected around his personal life, taking many secrets with him to the grave. But what he has captured is presented here in this sharp biography that will surely suffice for Vandross’ fans.
Typically, we tend to view the lives of celebrities strictly based on what we see in magazines, on television and even on the internet. Gossip has a dark tendency to follow any celebrity extremely successful or controversial. And for male celebrities, the absence of a female counterpart fuels the rumor mill of possible homosexual tendencies. Vandross fought all of these throughout his life and while many have their suspicions, the rumors have always remained just that. Vandross was adamant about maintaining the privacy in his persona life but upon closer inspection there was far more than meets the eye. The son of a working class couple, born in New York City, rose through the music industry to become a titan. However, no one could have predicted such feats on the 20th day of April, 1951 when May Ida and Luther, Sr., welcomed him into the world. Vandross’ life is typical of that time until tragedy becomes a staple and his family found itself struggling to keep itself alive. Words cannot truly express the surprise and possible shock the reader will encounter with regards to the lives of those that compose the Vandross family. Their plight would form a cloud over Luther’s head for his entire life, reminding him of the preciousness of being alive another day. But before he made his own departure, he created a legacy and a reputation that will remain with us for years to come.
Those that knew him either loved him or disliked him for various reasons. Personally, he never professed to being perfect but like every great artist, life is far from simple. The blessing of a voice full of soul and the inability to find the very love he sang so passionately about, created a cruel irony that he was unable to escape from. As a singer, he crossed paths with nearly every giant in the industry, collaborating on projects with several artists including the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin (1942-2018). The relationships were not always cozy and Seymour does not shy away from Vandross’ conflicts with Franklin or those with Anita Baker and even the 90s all-female group En Vogue. But one thing they can all agree on is that there was only one Luther and no one can ever take his place.
For years, it had been rumored that Vandross was a closeted gay singer. While he never confirmed or denied any rumors, he only permitted knowledge of being in a relationship. With whom was never known to the public. And while Seymour does not have a full proof smoking gun coming from Vandross himself, there is a revelation by someone close to Luther that might prove to be the clue many people have been looking for. Personally, I could care less about Vandross’ love life. I have always enjoyed his music and felt that whomever he was romantically involved with is his personal business. But as an entertainer in the public life, it is a subject which was and is unavoidable. Luther handle it exceptionally well but I am sure that inside, it took a toll on his mental and emotional well-being. Fitting that the title of this book contains the word longing for that is exactly what Vandross was doing as he belted out love songs while coming to terms with his own quest for love and closure regarding the death of his father Luther, Sr. In death I can only hope that he found the peace that escaped him here on earth. And if we listen closely to his many songs which we will play over and over again, we can listen carefully for the messages contained within their lyrics. The is the life the late and great, Luther Vandross.
This November will mark twenty-seven years since the death of Farrokh Bulsara (1946–1991), known by his stage name of Freddie Mercury. On November 2, 2018, moviegoers will be able to see the anticipated biopic Bohemian Rhapsody starring Rami Malek as Mercury. The film is on my list of those to view before the year is over. I do not know what to expect from the film but I certainly do hope that the filmmakers accurately portray the events in Mercury’s short but extraordinary life. When he died on November 24, 1991, the music world mourned the loss of one of its true greats. Today, if you hear a song by Queen on the radio, you can rest assured that at least several people will be happily singing along, knowing every word to the classic tune. The longevity of his music is a testament to his genius as a songwriter and the talents of his band. The world has yet to see another artist that possesses the aura that Mercury did. Incredibly, for all of his public antics, the singer was highly private and in fact, the world only learned of his battle with AIDS less than twenty-four hours before his death, through a carefully prepared statement. In his final moments, he was surrounded by those closest to him, including his partner at the time, Jim Hutton. Contained within the pages of this book is Hutton’s story of his time with Mercury and life after his death. Hutton died on died January 1, 2010, from the effects of lung cancer and will not be able to see the film about his former partner when it is released. But I believe he can rest in peace knowing that even today, Freddie’s fans are still as fascinated by him as they were when Queen was tearing up music charts.
I instantly loved the book once it began and I think the reason for that is Hutton does not talk extensively about Queen or the music business. On occasion he does mention a new song that Freddie was writing or a hit that was released, but the primary focus is his relationship with Mercury and what made him tick. Readers uncomfortable with homosexual subject matter might decide to take a pass on the book. While there are no descriptions of sexual acts, the story is about a gay couple. Lovers, ex-lovers, domestic issues and the like appear in the book showing the human side of the man deemed by many to be a music God. Hutton is very direct in his words, possibly because of his Irish roots and Freddie, like most musical genius is not a simple character but multi-dimensional and composed of many traits, some interesting and others amusing. But from Hutton’s words, we can see that to know him was to love him.
If you have decided to read this book or consider reading it, then I take it to mean that you are a fan of Queen or interested in Mercury’s life. Whichever applies to you, I believe that this book will appreciated. In comparison with publicity photos and recorded video, this side of Mercury is not from a script but a reality of his very private side filled with shopping sprees, property in multiple countries, lavish parties, the gay scene, a long-term relationship and a love of cats. To say his life was unorthodox would be an understatement. Mercury lived on his own terms and every day was a new adventure. The thrills are high and the pace fast but there does come a point in the book where the inevitable appears and it is the part the reader might dread the most. Roughly about halfway through the book, Mercury’s health begins to become an issue. Hutton, was not oblivious to Freddie’s lifestyle before they met and even after they became an item. And during era in which AIDS wreaked havoc on the gay community, mortality became a dark cloud over daily events. As Mercury makes his descent towards the end, Hutton is there with him and his recollections of those times highlight the devastating effects of AIDS on the human body in the days before advanced drugs kept the virus in the stage of HIV only. But through it all, Freddie remained stoic, accepting his fate and embracing death as the next phase in his life. And there to support him was the partner whom he could always trust, his beloved Jim.
If you like this book and have more questions about Mercury’s life, I highly recommend Somebody to Love: The Life, Death and Legacy of Freddie Mercury by Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne. It will not let you down.
There is something about soul music that is incredibly hard to put into words. Its ability to reach the listener and touch them in ways they never knew give credence to the title of its genre. The men and women who perfected their craft singing soul music became legends in the process. Many of them are no longer with us having died either violently or tragically. Planes crashes, murder, drugs and diseases formed the nexus of poison from which they chose. Nevertheless, their voices still reign supreme and remind us of an era which we will never see again. James Brown is known as the “Godfather of Soul” but in reality there were other challengers to the throne, most notably the late Wilson Pickett (1941-2006). He is best known for his classic hit “In the Midnight Hour” which helped propelled him to legendary status. But behind the music was a man whose life was anything but ordinary. Instead it was filled with genius, vices, love and heartbreak. Pickett’s death on January 19, 2006 at the age of just sixty-four years of age, was the final chapter in the singer’s life which had steadily declined in his final years. However, to this day he still remembered as one of the best to ever do it and his legacy is cemented in the many memorable songs he mastered during his time on this earth.
But just who was the real Wilson Pickett? And how much of his on stage persona crossed over into his personal life? Tony Fletcher was born in Yorkshire, England and some might find it surprisingly that a White Englishman chose to chronicle Pickett’s life. But by Fletcher’s own admission, he grew up listening to soul and the book became a passion. Regardless of his country of origin, he has thrown his weight behind this excellent biography of the late singer. The story begins in Prattville, Alabama when Pickett enters the world on March 18, 1941. His early life was quite chaotic with the young Pickett moving from state to state as he discovers himself and his talent for singing. It isn’t long before he begins to ply his trade and once his career took off, it took him on a ride that some can only dream about. The heights he reached in his career were astounding and his induction into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame was the figurative icing on the cake. His true goal stayed out of reach and until the day he died, he never did get the Grammy Award he coveted. But he did top charts and sell out arenas and his music has stood the test of time.
Like all great musicians, there was a very dark side to Pickett stemming from his unorthodox childhood and indulgence in drugs and alcohol. Combined with Pickett’s hair-trigger temper, the concoction resulted in acts of violence on many occasions, some of which would land Pickett behind bars later in life. Domestic violence also reared its ugly head and not even band members could escape his wrath. In later years he would attempt to make amends for those acts but his reputation as unstable would never leave him. The descriptions of Pickett’s acts of violence and comments from those who were their as a witness or as the recipient, are mind-boggling but also an inside look into the paranoia that nearly consumed Pickett. As his drug use increased, so did his paranoia as he begun to spin out of control. His downfall placed him on the list of celebrities whose lives were nearly or completely ruined by drugs, alcohol, money issues and in some cases, crime. Their daily lives became a walk on a fine line between genius and completely insanity. For Pickett, his genius behind making hit music and captivating audiences was betrayed by his backstage antics and precarious mental state. Some speakers in the book speculate that he may have had a mental condition that was never diagnosed. Whether that was the case, his actions can only be described as surreal. Fletcher brings the past to life leaving the reader mystified at Pickett’s actions.
Remarkably, nearly all that knew him, loved him even with his sometimes dangerous flaws. In death he was elevated to a higher status on order of soul singers whose natural talents were believed to have been given by divine intervention. Some of the make an appearance in the book such as Robert Dwayne “Bobby” Womack (1944-2014), Riley B. “B.B.” King (1925-2015) and the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Louise Franklin (1942-2018). Womack is a critical part of the story and those sections will undoubtedly pull the reader in. Pickett’s lovers including ex-wife Bonnie Covington and his children would all be witnesses and the targets of his rage and his relationship with his son Michael is perhaps the most surreal example of parental fail I have ever seen. But that was Pickett, the good, the bad and the brutal. After his death they would all come together giving him the proper send off to the next life. The world lost a musical legend who suffered from inner turmoil, paranoia and ultimately vices which he could not shake. This is the story of the life of Wilson Pickett, a soul music legend.
September 30, 1955-Two motor vehicles collided at the intersection of Routes 41 and 46 near Cholame, California. The first vehicle, a Ford sedan suffered light damage. Vehicle number two, a Porsche 550 Spyder, was found twisted like a piece of aluminum foil. Inside the car is film star James Byron Dean (1931-1955). His passenger, Rudolf Karl Wütherich (1927-1981) was thrown from the vehicle but survived. Dean was pronounced dead on arrival at Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital. He was twenty-four years old. Nearly sixty-three years have passed since his death but incredibly, he is still the poster boy for youths determined to be the “rebel without a cause”. He is credited with three films during his career and multiple television appearances. By Hollywood standards, his resume is short but at only twenty-four, he had the prospect of a long and successful career first in front of him and then taken away the instant his car collided with by Donald Turnupseed’s Ford. His fans were devastated and Hollywood was forced to grieve for a young star taken before his time. In death, he joins the long list of celebrities who died before their thirtieth birthday. But what is it about James Dean that captivates millions of people, young and old six decades after his death?
David Dalton looked into his life and came away with this biography of the man he calls the “Mutant King”. It is fair to say that before and after him, there was and has never been another James Dean. He was one of those rare stars who stood out not simply on acting ability but on persona that was about the cut, unique and irresistibly attractive. But like all great stars, Dean’s life was as interesting on-screen as it was off-screen and what we have seen in his films and television appearances was not that far from the truth. Born in 1931 in Marion, Indiana to Winton and Mildred Dean, he entered the world as the country was still feeling the effects of the Great Depression. His mother Mildred would only be in her child’s life for nine years, dying of cancer in 1940 at the age of twenty-nine. From this point on, Dean’s life would never be the same and throughout his short but incredible life, he would remember his mother’s untimely death and how it caused his longing for that relationship in all aspects of his life.
Dean’s story is told best not by just factual research but by those who know and worked with him. Dalton has wisely taken this course and the statements of scores of film stars and Hollywood personalities who knew Dean are contained within the pages of this fitting biography. Their stories give the reader of the complete picture of James Dean’s life. Far from the “rebel without a cause”, the real James Dean was a multi-dimensional character for whom one label would not nearly be enough. What I found interesting in the interviews is that the speakers were very candid in their recollections even when the narrative was not favorable towards Dean. Perhaps the most scorching of all of them are the words of the late Marlon Brando (1924-2004). As harsh as some words are, there are words favorable to Dean and what we can gather is that none of them had ever met anyone like him nor did they ever forget him. Jimmy as he was known to those who knew him, always seemed to keep them guessing, rarely revealing his true self as he fought with his inner-struggle and grief over his mother’s early demise and a relationship with his father, temperamental at best. However, if readers are looking for a dysfunctional childhood, it will not be found here. In fact, Dean was supported by many who loved him and no traces of insanity can be found in the story at hand. He was just another child out of Marion and Fairmount, Indiana. But being ordinary did not last for long and in just a few short years, Dean was on his way to becoming a box office legend before his passion for cars and racing led him down the path that ended with his life being cut short on a lonely California highway.
The world will never forget Dean and his image of the rebellious youth is cemented in place for generations to come. We can only guess as to what he would have thought of all of this. From all accounts, he was somewhat shy and secluded in private, a far cry from the larger than life star he appeared to be in front of the camera. For some, he always be the rebel without a cause and for others, another senseless victim of unforgiving roads and fate. His defiant personality and unwillingness to conform to society’s standards helped set him apart from his peers. Hollywood has yet to see the next James Dean and I dot believe that we will. He was a once in a lifetime star who remains in our consciousness as the image of what Hollywood stars used to be. But there is always another side that we rarely see that reveals the humanity or dark side behind the celebrity. Here we get a mix of both in the story of James Byron Dean.
The images that were published in Jet magazine of Emmett Till’s (1941-1955) mutilated corpse still cause readers and viewers on the internet to recoil in shock. With their graphic detail and macabre detail, the pictures of Till’s face become burned into the memory of anyone who has seen them. The story of Till’s murder at fourteen years of age because of allegedly “whistling or cat-calling a white woman” is a dark reminder of the ugly history of racism that prevailed in American culture. Today such a crime is unimaginable, but in 1955 it was not only very real but also encouraged by rabid racists with a vendetta against people of color. In January, 2017, Carolyn Bryant Donham, the woman at the center of the Till story, allegedly admitted that her claims were false. Regardless, the mere thought of such an act was more than enough to get a Black American lynched at that time and Till became one more victim on a long list of senseless murders carried out by maniacs emboldened by racist ideology. Till’s murder was creepy, appalling and downright shocking but another part of the story which is just as dark is the execution of his father Louis Till (1922-1944) by the Unites States Army in Civitavecchia, Italy, after being convicted of being part of the rape of two Italian women, one of whom was murdered during the crime. Till never gave any statements about his innocence nor did he confirm his guilt but the army had what it needed and he fell victim to the hangman’s noose taking any facts with him to his grave. After his death, details of the execution were withheld from his widow Mamie but were revealed ten years later. His final resting place is at the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial in Fère-en-Tardenois, France.
The thought that both father and son were executed because of perceived slights against white women is chilling and it is impossible to escape the aspect of race. Two young Black men accused of having committed crimes against white females could not and would not be permitted to survive. Their deaths are reminder of the misguided belief of the pursuit and dominance over white females by black males. Sadly, it is a misconception that still exist to this day. But what exactly did happen in Civitavecchia? Undoubtedly a crime did take place and most likely by the hands of U.S. servicemen. But there is always the requirement of conclusive evidence and in this case, there is much we do not know. But author John Edgar Wideman decided to take another look at Till’s case, even requesting and receiving a copy of the military’s case file by way of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In the book he does not include the entire file and moves between excerpts of it and his own story which is recounts as he writes about Till. The style of writing might confuse some readers but I believe Wideman presented it that way because of the parallels between his life and Emmett’s. In fact, I would go as far as to say that Wideman is presenting to the reader an idea of the struggle of many Black American families during a time of fierce racial prejudice. But the focus of the book is on Louis Till and it is here that I think it falls just short of hitting its mark.
Wideman’s personal story is highly interesting and he does a great job of showing the plight of Black families in America during his and Emmett Till’s childhood. But I think that more of the Louis Till file should have been presented. He concludes that he could not save Till from either prison or the hangman but from the portions of the file that he does include in the book, it is clear that reasonable doubt exist as to whether Till actually did the crime. And this is where the book should have reached its pinnacle. But this does not happen and the book’s slightly abrupt ending makes the reader yearn for more or some sort of closure. Sadly it never comes. And we are left to wonder about what actions, if any, Till did take on that night. In Wideman’s defense, the Army’s file had no index and was disorganized. I would not be surprised if some portions of it were removed or lost over the passage of time, making a definite conclusion beyond the reach of anyone today. None of figures involved with the case are alive preventing us from having the benefit of spoken words from those that were there. We are left to rely on the case file and our own beliefs. But I think one area where Wideman may have succeeded is igniting interest in Louis Till’s case in those that have read this book. I believe that there is more the Till’s case than we currently know and some day, another independent investigator may uncover the truth about his conviction and execution.
The book is a good read and just enough to get an idea of what did happen to Louis Till. But I believe it could have been much more effective with the inclusion of more of the file and some sort of definite conclusion even if it were the author’s belief. I do not know if Wideman will publish another book on the file but time will tell. For those looking to know more about Till’s sad and tragic life, this is a good resource to have.
When we think of Reggae music, Rastafarianism and the island of Jamaica, the vision that usually comes to mind is of the mythical figure that was known as Robert Nesta “Bob” Marley (1945-1981). He has been gone for more than thirty-seven years but his music still inspires millions of people around the world and his image graces t-shirts, posters, book covers and other items deemed to be collectibles by their sellers. To some, there is no Reggae without Marley and he is considered to be one of Jamaica’s greatest icons, the superstar from Nine Miles who made his way up through the ghettos of Trench Town until making it big in the music business, where he found international fame. His untimely death on May 11, 1981, sent shock waves through the music industry and the sense of loss continues to confuse as many will ask the question, why did he leave this world at such a young age? To answer that question, it is first necessary to understand Marley’s life. Timothy White (1952-2002), a former journalist with the Associated Press, interviewed Marley scores of times and conducted extensive research to compose this phenomenal biography of the late musician. But just who was Bob Marley? And what was it about him that captivated millions?
The story begins in the small village of Nine Mile, St. Ann Parish, where Bob enters the world in the early part of 1945. The son of a white father and Black Jamaican mother, his early life was that of a child caught between two different worlds as his parents each sought to keep him close to heart. In the end, his mother would win out and throughout his life, she would always remain in his corner. Cedella “Ciddy” Marley is a strong presence in the book from start to finish as she raises Bob before making the painstaking decision to relocated to the United States settling in Wilmington, Delaware. Her young son tried his hand at American life but fate intervened and he returned to his destiny in Jamaica where he would rise to stardom and become the king of Reggae music. But his story is far more than just singing tunes.
The reader should know that White chose to include Jamaican Patois as he recounts the statements of Marley and others whose words were critical in the formation of the book. Those unfamiliar with the dialect might have a little trouble at first following along. For others, especially those familiar with Jamaica or those who come from the island, will follow along rather easily. I think the decision to include and not translate the interviews in standard English is what gives the book its authenticity. White transplants the reader from the comfort of the their own dwelling to the village of Nine Mile where language is sharp, words fiercely spoken and modern amenities unheard of. But without learning the story of Marley’s early life, his future would not make any sense. Furthermore, White captures the social climate of Jamaica and for some readers, it may seem like another world. Culture, politics and violence are found in the book bringing the reality of life in Jamaica vividly real. And in the middle of this was Bob, the voice of peace and icon of the infusion of Reggae and Rastafarianism, in which he and others pay their homage to the late Emperor Haile I Selassie (1892-1975). It is critical for the reader to understand the impact of Selassie on Jamaican culture, Bob’s life and the pillars of the Rastafarian movement for these points will explain the path he took later in his life.
No book about Marley or Jamaica at that time would be complete without the political battles which nearly ravaged the island. Marley found himself in a tug of war at times, between the right and left-wing parties of Edward Seaga (Jamaican Labor Party) and Michael Manley (People’s National Party) (1924-1997). Their battles and the violence that broke out across Jamaica, set the stage for the poverty, drugs and turmoil that continue to grip the island. Thousands of Jamaicans would suffer and Marley himself nearly lost his life during an ambush in which he and his wife Rita were shot and wounded. Other musicians would always meet violence and Marley’s former band mate Peter Tosh (1944-1987) would pay the ultimate price in a climate in which violence spiraled out of control. But throughout all, Reggae remained strong and is pioneered today by Marley’s children and a younger generation of singers. The Rastafarian movement continues as well, with more converts growing their locks, embracing Ganja and giving praise to Jah.
Reggae is a genre of music that has brought millions of people together in harmony as the soft tunes and uplifting lyrics reached deep into the soul causing the listener to be engulfed in emotion. Many have come and gone but there will always be the late king, Robert Nesta “Bob” Marley.
“None but ourselves can free our minds.” -Bob Marley
He was arguably the greatest villain in the history of professional wrestling. His trademark shirt with the word “Hot Rod” and the red kilt he wore, made him stand out in an industry overrun with colorful character. To his family he was known as Roderick Toombs and Dad, but to the world, he was known as Rowdy Roddy Piper. You would be hard pressed to find any wrestling fan who does not know his name or story. He truly was one of the greats of the industry who’s ribbing of other wrestlers and shenanigans during his famous show Pipers Pit, cemented his legacy as a legend. When he died on July 31, 2015, the world was in a state of shock. I simply could not believe the news reports. At sixty-one, he was far too young to depart this earth and after a hard life in the wrestling business, it seemed as if his glory days were ahead of him. His shocking death still causes fans to shake their heads in disbelief that a man so loved was taken so soon. In all of the interviews I have watched or read with stars who knew him, not one had bad word to say about him. He is remembered as a kind soul backstage and a man possessed with genuine and undeniable talent that helped make Vince McMahon, Jr., the legend that he is in the wrestling business. But just who was the real Roddy Piper? And how did the world of Roderick Toombs, father and husband coincide with the public image he worked forty years to build? His daughter Ariel and son Colt took what remained of the second book Piper was writing about himself and decided to complete a biography of their father. The result? One of the best biographies I have read about a wrestling superstar.
Piper’s story begins on April 17, 1954 in Saskatoon, Canada when Roderick George Toombs was welcomed into the world by Stanley and Eileen Toombs. An unruly child, no one could have predicted that he would one day become a celebrity with millions of adoring fans. Because the book is written by his children and also based off his own words, there is an intimacy to the book that would be hard to duplicate by an independent biography. What we have here is the family story and it certainly is one for the ages. To understand Piper, it is necessary to understand his background and it is laid out here by those who knew him best. By his mid-teens, the young Piper knew the corporate world was not his calling and his decision to make his own life and not relocate one last time with his parents, set him on the long and brutal path that would take him to stardom. And it is at this point in the book that his life picks up as he descends deeper into the crazy world of professional wrestling.
The anecdotes from his early days in the business are nothing short of hilarious. I do not think a scriptwriter could have penned better narratives. Professional wrestling, sometimes called sports entertainment, is an often unorthodox business. Yes, ground rules and unwritten rules do exist, but spontaneity and creative geniuses are what keep the business alive. At times when I was reading the book, I was shocked and also on the verge of laughing out loud, even while on the subway. His fight with Victor Bear is literally a story for the ages. And just when you think the book cannot get any more outrageous, there is yet another story of Piper’s adventures. From start to finish, I could not put the book down, eagerly waiting to see what where the story would go next. It took many turns and revealed many facts that some fans may have never been aware of. And as Piper moves through the industry, gaining fame and fortune, he also accumulates demons along the way which he was never able to completely shake.
There is one part in the book that stood out not for the length of text but because it is key in understanding Piper’s grief as friends in the business died young reminding others of their own mortality. On July 4 , 1988, Keith A. Franke, Jr., was traveling with several other wrestlers when their van swerved to avoid a moose in its path. The vehicle descended down an embankment before coming to a complete stop. Franke died several hours later and his death sent shock waves through the industry. No one could believe that the man called Adrian Adonis was gone. Piper said that was the last funeral he went to. He never got over Adonis’ death. Their friendship and the haunting that Piper endured were the focus an episode of Celebrity Ghost Stories that aired in 2012 during Season 8. In the episode, Piper reveals that his house has been haunted by Adonis’ ghost since his untimely death and that he was the person who told Piper to buy that particular house. The show itself is chilling and we see a man carrying a life long supply of grief and torment that he is alive and so many of his friends have died in the business. He carried that grief and torment with him until his own death three years later.
No book about Piper would be complete without the Wrestlemania stories with Mr. T, his feuds with Hulk Hogan and Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka or his time in Hollywood where he became a cult icon as the character Nada in John Carpenters They Live. The dark side of the wrestling business is also discussed and Piper never holds anything back. His injuries, car accidents, substance abuse and mental state are all on display showing the reader the agony in his life off-camera. In the last few years of his life as his body breaks down from forty years of abuse, the realities of his life style come crashing home. Nonetheless he did not stop doing what he loved, living up to the name “Hot Rod”. If you are or were a fan of professional wrestling and have fond memories of the era when wrestling giants ruled the industry and the names Hogan and Piper were household items, then this is the book for you.
On February 19, 1979, eleven year-old Norman Ollestad was a passenger in privately chartered Cessna aircraft. He was joined by his father Norman and his father’s girlfriend Sandra. The flight was supposed to be a routine trip but weather conditions and pilot error resulted in a series of events that climaxed with the crash of the plane in the San Gabriel mountains in Northern Los Angeles County, California. Miraculously, he was able to descend the mountain and eventually encountered a family living in the area who alerted authorities that a survivor of the crash had been found. Suddenly without his father, young Norman is forced to keep going in life without the words, wisdom and encouragement of the man he called Dad. In 2006, he began to write this book, his life story and his memories of his father while growing up in Malibu, California.
The book is not so much an autobiography in the traditional sense. In fact, Ollestad does not go into the story of his birth, all of his schooling, etc. When the book opens, he is already age eleven and like many of his peers, he possesses a passion for skateboarding. His father however, has more plans in store for him and teaches him the skills necessary for becoming a seasoned skier and surfer. And in between events, his father gives him small doses of wisdom that have remained with him throughout his life. It is clearly obvious that he adored his father and was proud that he not only had joined the FBI but the resigned a wrote a book about it titled Inside the FBI, published in 1967. Naturally, following the plane crash rumors surfaced about Hoover wanting revenge for the book but no evidence of foul play was found. The accident occurred for other reasons which are revealed in the book.
Norman’s story is pretty straightforward and nothing in it stands out at first. That all changes when Mexico becomes the next destination for father and son. Norman’s grandparents need a new washing machine so his Dad informs him that they will take the machine to Puerto Vallarta on their own and deliver it. The anecdotes from their journey are some of the deepest moments in the book, next to Ollestad’s descriptions of the crash-site and the fatalities that occurred. In the epilogue, Norman tells his son Noah that he could never do the things with him that he did with his grandfather because it would illegal. Most parents would never consider such a trip for their eleven year-old child but as we see in the book, the Ollestads did things differently, never intending to conform to anything or anyone and always with courage. This helps explain Norman’s rebellious streak that intensified after his father’s death.
Prior to reading the book, I did not have any expectations for it and I was not aware of Ollestad’s story beforehand. I do not know what some readers will expect in the book, but it is not simply a memoir about the crash. In fact, the chapters are divided between the crash and his childhood. It reminds me of the flashback to young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II. Some readers may find it confusing but personally, I thought it added a uniqueness to the book. It is critical to pay close attention but the flashbacks set the stage for the crash and events that follow. By some miracle, he survived the crash which surely could have killed everyone on board. Regaining his composure, he finds the courage to make his way down the mountain with a will to live. This drive and determination, was instilled in him by his father as we see in the flashbacks in which young Norman is perfecting his crafts and absorbing his father’s words. And his messages to his son Noah show that Norman learned from his father many things that were great and also some things that need to be changed with the next generation of Ollestads.
I am fortunate to have my father in my life. He is in his mid-sixties and keeps moving forward. He does not believe in sitting still and follows the mantra that you should never let any grass grow under your feet. As I read Ollestad’s book, I repeatedly thought of the importance of a strong bond between father and son. As Tupac Shakur once said, you need a man to teach you how to be a man. I could not have said it better myself. And one day if I am fortunate to have a son of my own, I will teach him how to be a man so that the lessons I have learned can be pass down through him and to future generations. Wisdom is the gift that keeps on giving.
The book is less than three-hundred pages in length so for some it would be considered a short read. I read through it quickly for the story flows very well but I think that more information about his life after the crash through adulthood would have given the book more substance. Nevertheless, it is a nice read full of emotion and the values we aim to have in our lives. And after you have finished the book, you too might be crazy for the storm.
The Cuban Revolutionary war has been viewed through different lenses, typically dependent upon which side of history the viewer falls on. Fidel Castro’s march through Havana after the exit of Fulgencia Batista was paraded as the era of change that Cuba needed in order to break out from Yankee imperialism and the iron grip of organized crime. The charismatic and bearded leader introduced a new pride in Cubans with promises of true revolution and equality for all. Today, nearly sixty years later, we know that did not happen and the true number of people persecuted under his rule may never be known. Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990) was just one of thousands of exiles who were able to leave the island they called home to escape relentless persecution because of their sexuality and literary beliefs. And when he took his own life on December 7, 1990, an end came to a short but painful life in which he never truly found peace. Before his death he made it a goal to complete this autobiography as a sort of farewell gift to those who knew him or his work. His death was no accident and Arenas explains himself that he will in fact leave this world as his choosing. Twenty-seven years have passed since his death but his story is remarkable even today. The book was adapted into a screenplay by Julian Schnabel and the film starred Javier Bardem and Johnny Depp. Both are great actors but as good as the film may be, the only person who told Arenas’ story the best was Arenas himself.
The author begins the book by taking us back to his childhood in Cuba, in particular his village of Holguín where he was born into a village of poverty where he and his closest siblings had no shoes and sometimes ate the earth. The descriptions of the poverty that could be found in his village are shocking but an accurate portrayal of life in small villages just decades ago. At a young age, he realizes he is a homosexual and his sexual orientation will be a major factor in almost all of the events that take place throughout the rest of his life. They are also central to everything in the book. Stories of the persecution of homosexuals in Cuba under the Castro government are well-known but those outside of Cuba may not know just how much. In a society where all were supposed to be equal, the blatant harassment and discrimination of gay men and women contradicted the revolutionary ideology. Nevertheless, from Arenas’ words, it does seem at times as if homosexuality was as common as heterosexuality. His encounters with men are spontaneous, dangerous and also numerous. And his descriptions of his encounters and what he witnesses are graphic and not for readers that are uneasy with explicit sexual dialogue.
As a writer, Arenas also possessed another quality which made him an enemy of the state. He explains himself that Castro does not like writers, either those for or against the government and the suppression of free thought, speech and works of literature is present everywhere as big brother cracks down in Orwellian style manifested in the classic 1984. Informants, mail-opening and surveillance were tools of the trade as ordinary citizens lived under a microscope where everyone was suspected of being counter-revolutionary and forced to live on meager rations with nearly no income. In fact, their lives stood in stark contrast to the opulent lifestyle enjoyed by Castro and his subordinates. In short, it was the classic totalitarian state despite of the image projected by the Castro regime. Cuban exiles will readily agree with this but even in Cuba, there are those who believed in Castro and still do. The debate will go on for an eternity.
Arenas realizes that his sexual orientation and writing have made him a target and he knows it is just a matter of time before the authorities come for him. They do and his incarceration in Cuban jails makes up the central part of the book. His descriptions of life in Cuban prisons defy belief and it is a miracle that anyone survives. Towards the end of the book, he admits that he never fully healed from prison and that no one ever does. But he remains strong in the face of adversity as authorities do their best to break his spirit and turn him into informant. When he finally puts prison behind him, he troubles are over as he has to earn a living but is known to the State and known in society as part of a group of people who are often ostracized. He knows he must get out of Cuba, but the questions remains as to how he will do it. A chance event in Peru changes his life and the lives of thousands of other Cubans and when he finally steps foot on U.S. soil, the next phase of his life begins but not long before it tragically ends.
Although this is Arenas’ autobiography, he tells the story of the lives of many people close to him, all struggling to find peace and happiness in a society which represses anything an everything. Scene and scene of debauchery and tragedy play out by characters just short of despair. Their stories and Arenas’ life reveal the facade behind the triumphant revolution which replaced on dictator with another who was at times even more brutal towards his own citizens. In a cruel twist of fate, Castro outlived Arenas and many other Cuban exiles depriving them of the chance to see Cuba after Castro. The future will tell if Cuba will every truly be free but as the nation moves towards that goal, then it is best served to remember the stories of those who have suffered and Arenas who through his words, one of Cuba’s loudest voices.