Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Book Review: Rawhide Down by Del Quentin Wilber

Less than two months ago I watched twelve - yes, twelve documentaries on the assassination of President John Kennedy. Several of those specials were well crafted television productions; and a few others were put together to capitalize on the 50th anniversary of JFK's tragic and nation changing death.

It got me thinking about the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. Trying to find information on this piece of history is a slightly more daunting challenge, but I discovered what may very well be one of the best non-fiction books I've read in the last five years.

Rawhide Down, by Del Quentin Wilber, a reporter for the Washington Post is an excellent read. It is compelling and hard to put down.

I was in college when the attempt on Reagan's life was made and I vividly recall the day. It was a cold afternoon and the television was on in the dorm's entry way which housed a television for people that wanted to hang out between classes. This was all way before technology was a 24/7 procedure. We got our news when we got our news, not exactly when it happened, but the television networks were on this monumental story with breakneck speed. Ronald Reagan had been shot and very little information was known even to the networks, so speculation ran rampant. Was he shot? Was anyone else shot? Was he dead?

Lots of relevant information is brought out in this book, including an intriguing look at the "football" that could launch a nuclear attack. We are given a quick education on the contemporary history of the Secret Service. Keep in mind, had the driver of President Kennedy's car (a secret service agent) been trained to recognize the gunshot he would have moved the car quickly. These elements within the framework of the Secret Service weren't addressed until the 1970's.  It seems odd in hindsight, but even by 1981 when President Reagan was hit by an assassin there were still areas that had not been perfected, notably getting the President in and out of vehicles in plain sight. We no longer see that happening.

One of the more fascinating elements behind this story are the details relating to the stalking of Jodie Foster. Foster had literally been stalked by John Hinckley for months. He had been in touch with her via notes and phone calls. She spoke with him on more than one occasion. How on earth she didn't think to contact the authorities is still shocking to think about. As we continue to battle mentally ill people with firearms, people should take "crazy" seriously and report it. Hinckley even sent a note to FBI headquarters stating Foster would be abducted. The contacts with her became increasingly brazen and yet no one ever said a word.   

There are some amazingly intricate and detailed notes on what was going on with the backstage drama surrounding the various Cabinet members and Vice President, George Herbert Walker Bush (Bush 41). Alexander Haig doesn't come off well in this book, but from a historical perspective this is certainly a day that will live long and Haig's actions and reactions are not unpardonable. Caspar Weinberger had often quoted Winston Churchill - "Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never -- in nothing, great or small, large or petty."  Weinberger was close to Reagan.  Reagan even referred to him as his Disraeli.  Obviously, these men were fond of British Prime Ministers.  Weinberger, James Baker and several others on this presidential team come off well. Leadership played a tremendous role on that day.  

On March 30, 1981 President Reagan was headed to a speech before a union. Reagan was the first president to be a card-carrying member of an affiliated AFL-CIO union, so he was looking forward to this moment. Other than that outing, this was supposed to be a relatively average day in the life of the president. Whatever average is for a president.

Reagan had a superb temperament.  He was calm and defined grace under pressure. He also loved a good joke. He wasn't impressed with himself and it served him well in both the business of show and the political world he had gravitated toward in the second act of his life.

Reagan famously supplied humorous one-liners, but when he reflected on the news in the hospital after being told he was shot by a guy from Colorado he said "I had hoped it was a KGB agent."  He paused and added "on second thought, he wouldn't have missed then."

Reagan would eventually write "whatever happens now I owe my life to God and will try to serve him in every way I can." Reagan had a deep faith in God and he felt he had been gifted with the ultimate second chance by surviving the shooting.

This positive and inspiring behavior became public quickly and Reagan became a near mythic figure in politics. When he left office in January, 1989, he had the highest approval rating of any departing president since Harry Truman. History has been kind to the legacy of Ronald Reagan. In 2009 C-SPAN released a survey of historians (many of whom didn't agree with his financial, political or social ideologies) and he was ranked 7th of the most successful presidents in U.S. history.  

Ronald Reagan eventually was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. My father died of Alzheimer's, so I am very prone to listening to any story relating to this horrific diagnosis. Reagan's last note to the public was "I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead." He was optimistic until the last time he penned anything in his own hand.   

This book is so good you even want to read every single page of notes.

Go to Amazon or you local bookstore and order a copy of Rawhide Down. Excellent read. Superbly excellent read.

Copyright Read On Read Now 2014    

Friday, January 3, 2014

Book Review: Linda Ronstadt Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir


Linda Ronstadt was the female voice of the 1970's. She could sing and vocalize like no other woman  birthed out of rock music. The only other woman who was sitting on the same plane of talent in the vocal chops arena is the now nearly forgotten Connie Francis. Ronstadt's voice was luxurious and brilliant in pitch and tone. Other female vocalists of the rock era, notably Pat Benatar and Ann Wilson (of Heart) were superb rock vocalists, but neither of them had the range or depth of either Ronstadt or Francis. Donna Summer had a unique, original and stand-out voice, but she certainly wasn't singing rock music. She was indeed the disco era's queen and she could certainly hold her own even with the likes of Barbra Streisand.

She recently announced she is a victim of Parkinson's disease. With that, we have learned we will never hear Linda Ronstadt sing again. She could sing any genre. Rock, pop, bluegrass, country, classical, opera and of course, the standards. She excelled at singing the great ballads. My heart can break when I hear her lovely voice singing Long, Long Time or pretty much any song she sang under the arrangements of the legendary Nelson Riddle.

It has been said that Linda Ronstadt wrote this book without any ghost writing assistance. I assume that is the truth and if so, she is a wonderfully gifted writer. The book flows quite convincingly from one shade of life to the other. She explores her Tucson childhood with some memorable stories of her growing up and coming of age periods in the desert of Arizona.

We read some memorable stories about questionable management styles, particularly from Herb Cohen and his early take on her career. We also get the music version of the casting couch. When The Johnny Cash Show producer shows up at her hotel you sort of know what's coming next, but with an added twist.

I loved her poetically remembered takes on Jackson Browne and Bernie Leadon from the Eagles. She walks us through music. She teaches about chords, chord progression, timing, singing in front of and behind the beat and she keeps you going with her ever growing knowledge of the musicianship and music. As she learns more, the reader learns more.

She had the good fortune to work with everyone from Jim Morrison to Rosemary Clooney. Loving stories are told about Neil Young, the Eagles, Nicolette Larson, Randy Newman and Emmylou Harris.

Ronstadt lets us in on her insecurities, including her fixation on the voice of Emmylou Harris. The  truth is she was far more gifted than any of her peers. Her favorite album of all time is Frank Sinatra's Only the Lonely. She mentions it several times throughout the 202 pages and it's easily one of the finest albums ever recorded.

There is no mention of George Lucas even though she lived with him for years and I do mean no mention. We learn she was romantically involved for some time with writer Pete Hamill. Hamill famously dated Shirley MacLaine for years prior to his Ronstadt romance. We find out Jerry Brown was tight with a dollar in what may be one of the most humorous stories in the book. He isn't tight with the California budget dollars, but clearly he is with his own.

The problem with Ronstadt's memoir is there is so little to it. If you are a fan of hers you already know much of what she writes and ultimately when one is reading a biography one wants to learn as much as possible and Ronstadt gives very little. She literally has a few pages in the section on the Eagles and a few pages on her experience with The Pirates of Penzance. That's the way the entire book is written. We want to know more.

If you like Linda Ronstadt's music and you find her appealing you should give this book a read. You will be delighted to find out what you find out, but if you are looking for some overall review of her life and career you will be disappointed. She doesn't give enough.  She even manages to let us know that Nelson Riddle was in love with Rosemary Clooney for years, but she doesn't tell us which composer she had an unrequited love for. She spills the beans on his secret, but she doesn't spill the beans on her secret. It's unfair to him and to us.  No point in bringing it up if you aren't going to share the information.

Linda Ronstadt can certainly write. It's shocking she rarely attempted a lyric, because she has some poetic gestures with words throughout the book.

Ronstadt's finest moments in song:

Long, Long Time - Pure and crystal clear. Makes me sad and for a song about romance that is a good thing.

Someone to Lay Down Beside Me - Absolutely gorgeous vocal. Emotional and shattering even years after the record was released.

Poor, Poor Pitiful Me - Her take on Warren Zevon's song may be her best rock vocal.

Easy For You To Say - She speaks of Jimmy Webb's songwriting skills in a couple of sections of the book and this song defines her words.

Blue Bayou - Pop perfection.

Desperado - Desperately fantastic. This song is a superbly crafted song no matter who is on vocals, but Ronstadt brings a haunting version of it to your iPod. One of Don Henley and Glenn Frey's masterpieces.

You're No Good - Pop music rarely gets better than this track.

I've Got a Crush on You - This is the great American Songbook defined.  Thank you Linda and Nelson.

Copyright Read On Read Now 2014