Unfictional Bookage

Time to briefly talk up some nonfiction I’ve read recently:

:: Lots of times, people try to reduce the world to two kinds of people. One such method, common to people in my age group, reduces the world to people who either like David Lee Roth as lead singer of Van Halen, and those who prefer Sammy Hagar. (Reasonably enough, no one ever admits the possibility of a third group, those who might prefer Gary Cherrone. Because there weren’t any.)
However, I refuse to be pigeonholed in my Van Halen allegiance. I always liked both equally. I became aware of Van Halen in the days following the 1984 album, and I liked them almost immediately (seriously, how anyone could dislike “Hot For Teacher” after seeing that video is beyond me), but I didn’t really start getting into their music until after 5150 came out, which was Sammy Hagar’s first appearance with them. Maybe it’s one of those “Your favorite James Bond is the first one you saw” kind of things, but I’ve just never felt more strongly about the DLR era or the Sammy era, one way or the other. The DLR years probably produced the harder rock music, marked by blazing guitar work and blistering drums and DLR’s constant tongue-in-cheek front-manning, but the Sammy years produced more refined music-making, with the band trying a lot of new things and producing some of the most deeply infectious songs of the band’s run.
Anyway, I recently read two books dealing with Van Halen. First was Sammy Hagar’s own autobiography, Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock. Hagar writes a pretty engaging book, as fast-paced as the life he has apparently led. Hagar doesn’t really pull punches when he describes the lifestyle he led for many years; he writes matter-of-factly about things like his own sexual escapades, his casual drug use, and the many excesses of his life as a rock musician.
Of course, the parts of the book that are of most interest are probably the chapters dealing with his arrival in, life with, and later departure from, Van Halen. What’s interesting about all this is that apparently Sammy really wanted to maintain his own identity apart from Van Halen, which was ultimately at the heart of his final break with the band…well, that, and the fact that apparently Edward Van Halen’s own years of excesses seemingly made him into something of a lunatic by the time the mid-1990s rolled around.
Hagar writes fairly bluntly about all this, but there’s a tone of regret to it all, not just that it all ended, but that it ended in the way that it ended. I got the sense that Hagar really didn’t want to write this part of the book, but he knew that there was no way anyone would publish it without this part of the book, so he seems to get through it as quickly as possible. Hagar certainly does not write with the tone of someone with any kind of axe to grind.
I remember reading an interview years ago when Sammy Hagar had first left Van Halen (he would return to the group some years later for one last tour, before leaving again permanently). It was a marked difference in tone between his reaction and David Lee Roth’s media tantrums when he had left Van Halen, ten years or so earlier. In that interview, Hagar said something along the lines of, “I’ll never again make music as good as I did when I was with those guys.” Not that he’s wallowing in self-pity, though; Sammy Hagar still plays music with his own band, and he runs a club in Mexico and has his own brand of tequila which is apparently quite good.
The other book is a general history of Van Halen, Everybody Wants Some, by Ian Christe. I got a little ways into the book before I realized that I’d read another book by Christe before, years ago, which stuck in my memory because of his purple prose. And yes, the prose here is purple too. At times, it’s almost obnoxiously so. But it, too, is a fast read, and it was interesting to read it and see a different perspective on the things that Sammy Hagar wrote about. Of the two, Sammy’s is the better book, but his book is about Sammy, where Christe’s is about Van Halen, from the early days to the breakthroughs to the strife with Dave to the Sammy era to the strife with Sammy to the return of Dave to the return of Sammy to the arrival of Gary Cheronne and almost to the present after that.
I was surprised that in neither of these books does Edward Van Halen come off particularly well. The general picture in each volume is of an astonishingly talented musician who lacked the discipline and self-control to keep his lesser appetites from taking control. Alcoholism and addiction aren’t really mentioned, but it’s hard not to see that spectre looming over everything.
:: Part of what makes Ben Mezrich’s Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story Behind the Most Audacious Heist in History a compelling reader is the motivation behind the heist it describes. At its heart, this book tells the story of a young, intelligent man who decides that the best use of his intelligence is to plan and execute something stupid in order to impress a girl. His plan? To break into a laboratory at NASA and steal a bunch of moon rocks so he can, quite literally, give his girlfriend the moon.

A bare few minutes later, they came to the last traffic light – and again, of course, it was red. Even worse, Thad quickly made out a security kiosk just a few yards to the left of the light. He could see at least two uniformed guards inside. Thad held his breath as he slowed the Jeep to a stop at the light; he kept his head facing forward, willing Sandra to do the same. He didn’t want to have to explain why he was at the compound, past midnight on a Saturday. That was counting on the fact that neither of the guards would be eager to step out into the rain to interrogate him. Even so, if one of the guards had looked carefully, he might have noticed that the Jeep was sagging in the back. In fact, the vehicle’s rear axle was bent so low that the chassis almost scraped the ground as they idled at the traffic stop.

The sag of the Jeep was one of the few things that Thad and his two accomplices hadn’t planned. A miscalculation, actually: the safe that Thad and the two girls had hoisted into the back of the Jeep – less than ten minutes ago – weighed much more than Thad had expected, probably close to six hundred pounds. It had taken all three of them and a levered dolly to perform the feat, and even so Thad had strained every muscle in his back and legs getting the damn thing situated properly. That was just thankful that the Jeep’s axle hadn’t collapsed under the weight. As it was, he was pretty sure that even a cursory inspection of the vehicle would be enough to blow the entire operation.

Thad is Thad Roberts, our larcenous “hero”, who ends up being shunned by his family of extremely devout Mormons when he sleeps with his high school girlfriend, and later decides that his life’s goal is to become an astronaut. Once accepted into NASA, Thad finds himself engaged in acts of ever-increasing daring or stupidity, depending on your point of view. Sex on the Moon is a worthy entry in the “con man with a heart of gold” genre; it reads like a space-age variant on the film Catch Me If You Can. Mezrich keeps the story moving very quickly, even as he manages to make Thad both sympathetic and annoying at the same time – which is what he needs to be.
:: There is a comedian named Demetri Martin, of whom I have never heard, but who has written a book called This Is A Book By Demetri Martin. It’s the kind of collection of humor pieces you’d expect to find in a book by a stand-up comedian. If you like such things, and you find the following excerpts funny, give the book a whirl. On the other hand, if neither of those things is true, then avoid the book.

Neil aimed and fired. As the duck exploded into tiny bits, the men stared in stunned silence. Then Walt said, “That’s the third decoy you’ve shot today, you idiot.”

When the stripped jumped out of the giant cake, everyone got excited. But then when she jumped into the regular-size cake, everyone got confused.
The shepherd fell asleep again. But who could blame him? He had been counting sheep all day.
Fortune cookies: “Your mind is like a sponge, in the sense that it would come in handy when cleaning off a countertop or something like that.”
“It is easy to want what another man had; what is harder is to sneak into his house and take it without him seeing you.”
“If you were tiny, this could be a banner.”
Palindromes for Specific Occasions:
Gently informing a DJ that there is a problem with the sound system: No music is, um, on.
A scientist’s reaction to what he finds in a Petri dish: P.U.! Organisms in a group.
A guy explaining to his friend how he feels about operas as he accidentally runs into a beehive: See, bro, operas are poor – Bees!

Yeah, your mileage may vary….
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