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Posts Tagged ‘Los Angeles’

Crash: The Limits of Car Safety, Nicholas Faith (Boxtree 1998)

It’s got the same name as J.G. Ballard’s book and David Cronenberg’s now notorious film of J.G. Ballard’s book, but Nicholas Faith’s Crash could never have attracted as much attention at those two. A fiction about people deriving sexual pleasure from deaths and injuries in cars is much more important than the reality of deaths and injuries in cars. Rather in the way the fact that Princess Di died was much more important than why she died – which was because she was travelling in a grossly overpowered machine in a crowded city.

Lots more examples of the psychological paradoxes and lunacies of our love affair with the car can be produced, and this book produces them: “[D]uring Ulster’s quarter-century of Troubles, more deaths have been reported from road accidents than from the civil war.” But road deaths aren’t deliberate and malicious, so there’s no satisfying moral frisson to be had from them and they get ignored. Plus, we simply don’t like to face the truth – it’s too horrible to face it. Unless you stay inside all your life, you have to get near cars sometimes. That means that you can die in a very unpleasant and painful way by being hit by a car, whether you’re inside another car or not.

It’s much worse if you’re not, of course, because pedestrians take sixth or seventh place in the priorities of city-planners and architects. And car-designers:

One gesture that motor manufacturers could make an effort to reduce pedestrian injury would be to make the front of cars more pedestrian-friendly. The most dangerous vehicles are those with high ground clearance and ornaments, especially bull-bars – designed to show that the owner is used to herding cattle or elephants. These should be forbidden (or, at least, their owners assumed to be guilty if they ever hit a pedestrian).

They won’t be forbidden, because some people think they look good and they make cars more expensive, which helps the profits of the manufacturers, who have been putting profit above people for a long time. Cadillacs, for example, used to have “a prominent knife-like projection just above the instrument panel. It was designed to prevent reflection of the instrument panel onto the windshield. To accomplish this minor task, they produced as lethal a device as is seen in any American car.”

And was it removed when its lethality was pointed out? Maybe. If that didn’t interfere with profits. During the investigation into the way cars built by Ford were catching fire very easily, an American investigator

found various crucial Ford documents, one of which was a letter from the Ford Motor Company arguing why they should not make fuel-tank system improvements. They said that there will be 180 burn deaths per year at $200,000 value per burn death, there will be 180 serious burn injuries at $67,000 value per serious burn injury, and there will also be thousands of burned vehicles and there was a value on that. When you added all those numbers together it came out to an annual benefit of $50 million. Ford said we can fix the problem for $11 per vehicle but if you multiply the $11 per vehicle by the many millions of vehicle made per year, that came out to $150 million. So Ford was arguing that it was cheaper to let ’em burn.

The same kind of designers and the same kind of priorities were putting cars on the roads in Britain and Europe at the same time – and still are – and if car-manufacturers here were getting up to the same tricks as some American ones it’s quite possible that they got away with it, because we don’t have the same freedom of information laws:

Perhaps the most nefarious example of GM [General Motors]’s power emerged only in the 1970s through a Senate investigation. This revealed that it had headed a group of major companies that had bought and then shut down the light rail systems used for mass transit in Los Angeles, replacing it[,] partially and inadequately, with buses, nine out of ten of which were made by GM. The 1964 riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles were directly traceable to the inhabitants’ inability to get to work by public transport.

That sort of thing shouldn’t be unexpected, but some of the other facts in the book should be. Seat-belts save lives, don’t they? Well, yes, of course they do. Or do they? Maybe not. Studies have been done that show they don’t seem to have had any effect, because they make drivers feel safer, drive faster, and crash more often and with worse effects. Paradoxical, but “paradoxical” is a word that comes to mind a lot when you read this book. Cars have very strange effects on our psychology and for all the huge damage they do and the deaths and injuries they cause, we don’t seem prepared to do anything about them.

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Justice for All by Joel McIverJustice for All: The Truth about Metallica, Joel McIver (Omnibus Press, revised edition 2014)

Metallica matter now because they mattered then. They were never the heaviest or fastest metal band in the world, but for a time they were the best. That time began with their first album, Kill ’Em All in 1983, and ended after their first EP, Garage Days Re-Revisited in 1987. They’ve written good songs since, but they’re no longer the best metal band in the world.

That’s what I think, anyway. It’s also pretty much the verdict you’ll find in this book. Like Mick Wall in his Black Sabbath bio Symptom of the Universe, Joel McIver is an objective fan, not an obsessive sycophant. He calls it as he hears it. When he hears Masters of Puppets (1986), he concludes that Metallica “produced a monster: a record that would expand their fanbase, cement their place in metal and ensure their place in musical history” (ch. 12, “The Truth about Master of Puppets”, pg. 150). When he hears Load (1996), he concludes that it’s “a massive step down in songwriting and concept from any music, even the weakest, most cynically radio-friendly Black Album track that Metallica had done previously” (ch. 19, “1996-1997”, pg. 234).

So maybe the bus crash in Sweden that killed Cliff Burton, the bassist on their early albums, also ended Metallica as a musical force. Burton’s death in 1986 is certainly one of the big “What might have been?” moments in popular music. What would have happened to Metallica’s music if he’d survived? I think it would have stayed better for longer. Burton was an interesting, independent-minded man who might have saved James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich from themselves. With his guidance, Metallica might not have gone the radio-friendly route and ended up playing with the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra.

But I don’t think Metallica would have bettered their early work. That would have been difficult. And success was undoubtedly a factor in their decline. So was getting older. Metallica mellowed and it showed in their music. Slayer prove that this isn’t inevitable and it’s good that Slayer are also part of this book. It’s valuable not just as a biography of Metallica but also as a history of heavy metal. Metallica were influenced by older bands, so McIver discusses Motörhead, Venom and Diamond Head. Metallica were part of a scene, so he discusses Exodus, Slayer and Testament. Metallica influenced younger bands, so he discusses Celtic Frost, Machine Head and many others.

He also discusses the genesis of thrash metal and of newer genres like death and black metal. Heavy metal is interesting in part because it so obviously evolves and mutates, not just musically but sartorially, tonsorially and typographically too. The possibilities of the electric guitar had by no means been exhausted in the 1960s and ’70s. In the ’80s the hunt for greater heaviness and speed was on. This is the drummer Gene Hoglan:

“I used to soundcheck the drums for Slayer on the Haunting the West Coast tour, and all they played at soundchecks were Dark Angel songs. I remember Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman saying to me (adopts worried tone), ‘Dude, Dark Angel, I saw ’em back in LA, they’re faster than us, they’re heavier than us, they’re better than us.’ And I was like, ‘Dude, you’re in Slayer! What are you worrying about Dark Angel for?’” (ch. 12, pg. 150)

The results of metal’s mutations can sometimes be laughable, but the cartoonishness of metal can be part of its appeal too. One of the good things about Metallica is that they have a sense of humour and irony. The liner-notes for Garage Days – which was “Not Very Produced by Metallica” – are both funny and literate. The music on the EP is full of jokes too, but McIver correctly notes that it “boasted one of the best overall sounds they would ever achieve” (ch. 15, “1986-1988”, pg. 183). The good sound and high spirits are absent on their next album, …And Justice for All (1988).

Metallica began to decline with Justice and I suppose I might have skipped the second half of the book. But McIver’s prose, though it isn’t polished, isn’t painful either and there are some interesting things to read about, like the law-suit against Napster and the long-lasting feud with Dave Mustaine. He might have left Metallica very early on, but he stayed true to one of their traditions: make your own decisions. Mustaine has gone his own way and so have Metallica. Good or bad, their choices have been their own. I think McIver does justice to all those choices and delivers what he promises: the truth about Metallica.

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Front cover of Watch You Bleed by Stephen DavisWatch You Bleed: The Saga of Guns n’ Roses, Stephen Davis (Michael Joseph 2008)

The back cover calls the book “AN EPIC TALE OF EXCESS, DEBAUCHERY, ADDICTION, PARANOIA, MANIA AND GREAT F**KING MUSIC”. It gets five out of six right. Stephen Davis is also the author of the Led-Zeppography Hammer of the Gods, first published in 1985. Since then, his writing has got better and his subjects have got worse. I don’t like Led Zeppelin much and I don’t think Robert Plant is a very good singer. But Led Zep sound good set beside Guns n’ Roses. They sound subtle too. A few of GNR’s songs start well. I forget what happens to them after that. As for “November Rain”… Sheesh. It’s so wrong on so few levels that it’s probably prophesied in the Book of Revelation. Yes, you understand American foreign policy better after hearing – and watching – what GNR do to rock music:

Niven cautions that Guns didn’t think Spinal Tap was funny. (ch. 6, “The Big Guns n’ Roses Adventure”, pg. 159)

But the main explanation for what’s wrong with GNR isn’t that they found success while based in Los Angeles. That isn’t fatal for a band. Mötley Crüe did too, but they are entertainingly cartoonish. GNR are obnoxiously cartoonish. No, the main explanation for what’s wrong with GNR is simple: W. Axl Rose. Davis holds his nose – hard – and takes the lid off the kid from Lafayette, Indiana. Racism, sexism, homophobia, killing small dogs – it’s all here in unflinching detail. But Axl has a bad side too. And the cycling shorts are by no means the worst of it. There’s also the plagiarism:

Then something crucial happened. Photographer Robert John took Axl to see a group he was shooting: Shark Island, the house band at Gazzari’s on the Strip. Shark Island was supposed to be a great metal band, but they were too fond of melodies, plus their hair was all wrong, and so they would never break out of the L.A. metal circuit. But Richard Black, Shark Island’s lead singer, was a charismatic front man with killer stage moves, the kind of small-venue choreography that could make a packed club break out in a communal, drenching sweat and get the joint rocking on its foundations. Axl watched Richard Black with total fascination and then proceeded to appropriate his act. …

According to Robert John, “In Hollywood Rose and L.A. Guns, Axl jumped straight up and down, holding onto the mike stand for balance. Axl later admitted he’d got the whole snake move, that S-curve, from Richard. He once told me that he even wanted Richard to somehow get credit for this. Most of Axl’s moves” – the headlong run across the stage, the furious stomp, holding the mike stand straight out with both hands, the blatantly sexual snake dance – “that’s all Richard Black.” (ch. 4, “The Treacherous Journey”, pp. 60-1)

In a better world, Shark Island might have had the big success and GNR the bit-part in their four-hundred-page biography. But success would probably have corrupted Shark Island too and swollen Richard Black’s head. Still, it’s impossible to believe that they would ever have become as bloated and excessive as GNR or that Black could ever have out-assholed Axl. GNR are one of the Big Three among the bands that I hate. The other two are The Clash and Oasis. But GNR are odious in a more entertaining way than those two. I can’t imagine even picking up a biography of The Clash. And if I ever try a biography of Oasis, it will be strictly out of primatological interest. This, on the other hand, is a readable book about risible people. I couldn’t read all of it, but it’s hard to believe Stephen Davis doesn’t sometimes feel the same about the people:

One time, after [Bret] Michael [of Poison] had slagged Guns, Axl confronted Poison backstage and told them, to their face, that they sucked. Bobby Dall, whose band already had a record deal, replied: “Maybe fucking so – but you gotta suck, sometimes, to make it in this business – and you guys will never make it at all.”

This stuck in Axl’s craw. Sucking was against everything W. Axl Rose believed in. (ch. 3, “The Treacherous Journey”, pp. 74-5)

That’s funny and I hope that Davis meant it to be. But the joke wears thin well before the end of this book. Okay, three of the band – Axl, Slash and Duff McKagan – looked good for a bit, early on, but the best thing GNR ever did was inspire this article in The Guardian:

Minute five: Is mainly taken up with Slash being a rock god. For those readers who are unfamiliar with this song – which is possibly a criminal act, may I add – you know when Regina Spektor sings “The solo’s real long, but it’s a pretty song” in “On the Radio”? This is the solo she means.

A helicopter flies around Slash, giving us rockgodness from all angles, although possibly putting his cigarette out in the process, which is not a bad thing, as it will kill you.

Smoking, I mean, not guitar solos. Although if any guitar solo could kill, it would be this one. You can tell Slash is a rock god because his stance is so wide he is almost doing the splits. (Read on: Guns N’ Roses – November Rain)


Elsewhere other-posted:

• More Musings on Music

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The Reversal, Michael Connelly (2010)

As you’d expect from Michael Connelly, the chronicler of Californian crime who now lives in Florida, this book is another detailed examination of the importance of the White Heterosexual Able-Bodied Male, or WHAM. But this time you get a double-dose – in fact, a doubled double-dose. There are pairs of WHAMs on the side of both Good and Evil. The two righteous righters-of-wrong are Harry Bosch, Connelly’s LAPD murder-detective, and his half-brother, the defense attorney Micky Haller, who’s accepted an offer to appear for the prosecution in the re-trial of a child-murderer called Jason Jessup. The murderer doesn’t sound melanin-enriched, does he? But you don’t need his name to know that he isn’t: his crime is enough to ensure he can’t be anything other than a white male, in the Connelly cosmos. And it’s apparent long before the end of the book that he is guilty, although he’s been released on bail and wants to sue the state of California for a false conviction. He was found guilty in the 1980s partly on DNA evidence, when a trace of semen was discovered on the victim’s dress and shown to belong to his blood-group. But it’s turned out that it wasn’t in fact his. Twenty-first-century technology has proved the depraved deposit belonged to someone else – but still a white male, of course.

The girl’s stepfather, in fact. But he hadn’t actually been abusing the girl: she had borrowed the dress from the actual victim of abuse, her slightly older sister. Then she got snatched off the street by Jessup and strangled. Is there no limit to WHAM evil? Not in the Connelly cosmos. But the book raises a related question: Is there no limit to non-WHAM saintliness? If I didn’t know better, I’d almost start to suspect Connelly was taking the piss in one part of The Reversal, when the discoverer of the victim’s corpse testifies at the new trial. The Bosch sections of the book are written in the third person, the Haller sections in the first. Haller describes the witness being brought to the stand:

As I had gone to the lectern Bosch had left the courtroom to retrieve [William] Johnson from a witness waiting-room. He now returned with the man in tow. Johnson was small and thin with a dark mahogany complexion. He was fifty-nine but his pure white hair made him look older. Bosch walked him through the gate and then pointed him in the direction of the witness stand. (pg. 220)

The “dark mahogany complexion” and “pure white hair” are the first stages in the character’s canonization. Here are some more, as the witness identifies himself to the court and describes what he does for a living:

“…I am head of operations for the El Rey theater on Wilshire Boulevard… I make sure everything works right and runs – from the stage lights to the toilets, it’s all part of my job.”

He spoke with a slight Caribbean accent but his words were clear and understandable. (pg. 221)

So he’s Caribbean and highly competent. The saintliness is solidifying, but Connelly isn’t done. The murdered girl was callously dumped in a rubbish-bin by her WHAM killer. Haller projects a police photograph of the scene onto a screen and asks the competent Caribbean to clearly confirm that it is accurate:

“Okay, and is this what you saw when you raised the top [of the bin] and looked inside?”

Johnson didn’t answer my question at first. He just stared like everyone else in the courtroom. Then, unexpectedly, a tear rolled down his dark cheek. It was perfect. If I had been at the defense table I would have viewed it with cynicism. But I knew Johnson’s response was heartfelt and it was why I had made him my first witness.

“That’s her,” he finally said. “That’s what I saw.”

I nodded as Johnson blessed himself. (pg. 220-4)

I, on the other hand, retched. I think writing like that counts as emotional pornography, but this example has an interesting feature: the black saint who is offered for liberal self-gratification isn’t an American black but a foreign one. Is Connelly suggesting that a Caribbean is credible when weeping over the death of a white child, but a native black wouldn’t be? I don’t know, but I do know that the book, like many of Connelly’s previous books, is meant to be titillating in other ways. The details of Jessup’s known and suspected murders – he proves to have floated like a butterfly and stung like a WASP – remind me of something George Orwell said in his essay “Raffles and Miss Blandish” (1944):

It is important to note that by modern standards Raffles’s crimes are very petty ones. Four hundred pounds’ worth of jewellery seems to him an excellent haul. And though the stories are convincing in their physical detail, they contain very little sensationalism – very few corpses, hardly any blood, no sex crimes, no sadism, no perversions of any kind. It seems to be the case that the crime story, at any rate on its higher levels, has greatly increased in blood-thirstiness during the past twenty years. Some of the early detective stories do not even contain a murder. The Sherlock Holmes stories, for instance, are not all murders, and some of them do not even deal with an indictable crime. So also with the John Thorndyke stories, while of the Max Carrados stories only a minority are murders. Since 1918, however, a detective story not containing a murder has been a great rarity, and the most disgusting details of dismemberment and exhumation are commonly exploited. Some of the Peter Wimsey stories, for instance, display an extremely morbid interest in corpses.

That was written at the end of the Second World War. Plus ça change, eh? But something that has definitely changed in detective fiction is the attitude to the societies built by whites in Europe, America, and other parts of the world. Liberal writers like Connelly now attack them constantly: they’re racist, they’re oppressive, they’re evil. The Reversal re-treads a constant Connellyean theme. In several of his previous books, evil WHAMs have committed sex-crimes and hapless non-WHAMs have been unjustly accused instead. In The Reversal, an evil WHAM has committed a sex-crime and a saintly non-WHAM is weeping over the victim. That’s how it works, in the world of Bosch and Haller. But they’re WHAMs too and they’re examples of how, in liberalism, only WHAMs have free will to choose between good and evil. Bosch and Haller choose good and side with the saintly oppressed; Jessup and the stepfather choose evil and commit the oppression against the saints. But the WHAM Connelly and his WHAM fans may soon start to see that their collusion with their critics will not lead to a better world. They may even realize that sex-crimes are not always and everywhere committed by white males. But I suppose that’s what makes Connelly an imaginative writer and The Reversal a work of fiction.

Pre-previously posted (please peruse):

All Bosched-Up

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