Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Pop Culture Icons

By Jeff Burns

If you were around in the second half of the twentieth century, your life was touched by television and music.  There’s no way around it.  Now, as adults,  deeper into the 21st century, we grow nostalgic and many of the icons  of our younger days are passing, from life and from memory.  This fall, publishers have released a number of notable biographies and autobiographies of major celebrities.  They provide fascinating insight into the subjects’ lives and the times that they had a large part in shaping.

I’ve just completed Norman Lear’s autobiography Even This I Get to Experience.  Norman Lear is perhaps the most successful television creator of all time, dominating 1970s television; at his height – at a time when only 3 networks existed – he was the creator of nine different shows on the air, including some of the most controversial, groundbreaking, popular, and critically acclaimed shows of all time, including All in the Family, Good Times, Maude, The Jeffersons, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Lear spares no details about his childhood and tumultuous family life, his marriages and his own shortcomings as a father and husband, his political activity, and his professional career which spanned 50 years of radio, television, and movies.  I didn’t know, for example, of his close relationship with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis at their height in the 1950s.  It was also interesting to learn about the relationships and conflicts behind the scenes of the shows I grew up watching, among the network executives, creators, actors, and political groups.

Next up is Jerry Lee Lewis:  His Own Story by Rick Bragg.  Rick Bragg is a journalist and author of great books about his own southern family’s story that reflect the 20th century history of the South.  In this book, he has collaborated with rock and roll legend Jerry lee Lewis.  It is exactly what you’d expect a candid autobiography of Jerry Lee Lewis should be:  full of wild and crazy, full speed ahead, rock and roll experiences.  Even his birth was wild and crazy; Lewis was a breech baby delivered by his own father because the doctor was passed out drunk. 

The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, released an autobiography  about 15 years ago, co-written with noted musical biographer David Ritz.  Then, it was criticized for being superficial and glossy.  Now, Ritz has written his own biography which digs deeper and uncovers more stones,  Respect:  The Life of Aretha Franklin.  While it’s not a smear in any way, it does reveal facts about her life and personality that she did not want revealed before.  It’s still a respectful rendition, that treats her more like a real, fully formed personality, with the good and the not-so-good on display.

Finally, in the music arena, there’s Fleetwood:  My Life and Adventures in Fleetwood Mac.  For a long time, Fleetwood Mac’s album Tusk was the biggest selling album in the world, and nobody expected it to be surpasses until Thriller  came along.  The band has an incredibly long and chaotic career, engaged in a sold-out tour currently, after 40 plus years.  Fleetwood doesn’t hold back revealing the rock and roll, drug fueled excess and the relationship issues within the band that not only fueled some of its greatest work but also caused tremendous stress and strain.

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