Tag: Biography

“Bad Seed: The Biography of Nick Cave” by Ian Johnston review

Bad Seed

Bad Seed: The Biography of Nick Cave

Author:  Ian Johnston

Released:  1995

Prior to reading Bad Seed: The Biography of Nick Cave, I was a bit of a Nick Cave fan. I own all of albums, 16 studio albums by the Bad Seeds, two by Grinderman, a few soundtracks by Cave and Warren Ellis, and a few Birthday Party records. I’ve read both of Cave’s prose novels, And the Ass Saw the Angeland The Death of Bunny Monroe, and bought and enjoyed the films he has written, particularly Lawless and The Proposition. I’ve seen Cave in concert twice, once in Chicago as part of the “Dig Lazarus Dig” tour, and again in Louisville for the “Push the Sky Away” tour. So, take the rest of my review with however main grains of salt because odds are you won’t line up on the Cave fan spectrum at the same level as myself, for good or bad.

That disclaimer out of the way, the biggest takeaway I had from reading Ian Johnston’s book was that it was way to early in Cave’s career to write any sort of a comprehensive biography. Johnson’s book came out in 1995, which was prior to “Murder Ballads” being released. That’s eight studio albums ago. That’s before Grinderman was a band, and released two more. The most prolific collaborate or Nick Cave’s career after Mick Harvey is Warren Ellis, who is not mentioned until page 302 (the book is 304 pages long). The book ends a decade before Cave published another novel or wrote his most successful films. So if you’re looking for a book to discuss all of the amazing work in his career, this book will leave you with less than half of it.

The strength of this book is as a a biography of The Birthday Party band, extensively documenting their early years, discography and breakup. This portion of the book is 150 pages, or roughly the first half. The following half gets into Nick Cave’s sobriety and increasing artistry, but as already outlined it is certainly an unfinished story.

The writing of the book is very detailed and features extensive quotes from people with firsthand knowledge of events. This ends up being the books greatest weakness however as well, as often Johnson will spends over a page quoting the same source and as a reader I would often lose track of who was recanting a story because a quote would go on for so long. It also seemed like for a work of scholarship the number of sources cited outside of interviews was on the low side.

It’s obvious Johnston agrees Cave is a genius, and I learned a lot about Cave’s early years and the critical reception of Cave early in his career by reading this book. I also got more of an idea as to his creative process and the personnel on the classic Bad Seeds albums. Perhaps a part two in another twenty years will help finish where this book leaves off, as Cave was just getting started when this came out.

3-star

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“President James Buchanan” by Philip S. Klein

President james buchanan

President James Buchanan

Author: Philip S. Klein

Published:  1962

Much like Martin Van Buren or Millard Fillmore, Buchanan was a politician through and through, although his ambitions are more clearly defined due to the strategies he used being a conscious reflection of those winning recipes by his predecessors. Ben Perley Poore stated of Buchanan that “never did a wily politician more industriously plot and plan to secure a nomination than Mr. Buchanan did, in his still hunt for the Presidency. Speaking of Martin Van Buren, Buchanan took aim at the highest office in the land from every election from Martin Van Buren to when he ultimately won.

With that lengthy of a political career, one would expect that Buchanan would be attached to all sorts of interesting and important moments in government, but that was actually not the case. Philip Klein writes on page 142:

In this remarkable galaxy of American politicians, Buchanan always stood on the periphery. He never, in all his legislative career, had his name attached to an important bill or became the focal point of public interest in a debate…He quietly exerted a great deal of influence on important legislation, but his steady craftsmanship attracted little public attention.

How did such a man become president? Precisely because of Buchanan’s nature, as well as some fortunate timing on his part, he managed to avoid being caught in a position that made him unacceptable to the new Republican North or the Democrat South. Klein continues to write on page 248 that Buchanan “could not help wondering about the freak fate which had kept him out of Congress during each of the four most violent sectional controversies of the century: The Missouri Compromise, The Nullification Struggle, The 1950 Compromise, and now the Kansas-Nebraska Bill. If he should become president he feared he should not escape the next outburst.” History now ranks Buchanan among the worst presidents as his great fear was certainly realized in the most violent way possible.

Here’s how he scores up on my presidential ratings rubric:

Born into – Buchanan’s father was an Irish immigrant, who bought some land from a public sale after earning some money working for a family member. He ended up becoming a successful farmer and store owner, but nothing particularly prolific compared to many of the other presidential families. James had several sisters, but was also the oldest (surviving) child, whose few brothers were much younger (14 years or more). For his parents humble beginning he scores well here, but being the oldest son was also a ticket to success compared to others. 4/5

Pre-President – George Washington was family hero to the Buchanan’s that that they may have even met in the late 1700’s (when James was 3 or 4), so it’s no surprise that Buchanan ended up being a permanent presidential aspirant. Not a lot is known about his younger years that is distinctive of any many of that era. Buchanan went to Dickinson College to learn pre-law; he was expelled for bad behavior, but was also eventually reinstated. Despite that, it was obvious that Buchanan was disliked by Dickinson faculty for his attitude throughout this time. Although he made his share of enemies in politics, this appears to have been a particularly rowdy period for him as later on he was mainly described as having an accountant’s personality, keeping track of everything paid and everything owed, including keeping books indicating where he stood with everybody.

Buchanan’s first foray into politics was becoming a State Assembly man after being nominated by a friend. The first speech that Buchanan gave convinced people he was a Democrat; Buchanan over-corrected so much that his 2nd speech was so anti-democrat it created lifetime enemies (Note, Buchanan was a Federalist at this time; the family did idolize Washington). For income Buchanan ran a successful law practice, so much so that Buchanan appears to have been one of the wealthier former presidents upon retirement. Once Buchanan was elected to Congress as a Federalist, he was appreciated by his constituents who then reelected him twice more (which had never happened to somebody from his district previously).

Once in Congress Buchanan again made his mark with a speech, this time defending Calhoun on overspending on the war budget, making a formidable ally while doing so. As with every politician alive from the early to mid 1800’s, the election of John Quincy Adams shook up Buchanan’s world. Buchanan played an important role by being the congressman to directly ask Andrew Jackson about promises in his cabinet, as well as alluding to what rumors he had heard. The fallout was Buchanan eventually switched parties from Federalist to Jackson Democrat, even though Jackson never trusted him completely afterwards.

Buchanan was still reelected even though he switched parties, although the shuffling among politicians resulted in his branch of the party (called by the author the Amalgamation group) losing ground in political appointments. While Buchanan thought he was in line for a treasury or even Vice Presidency spot, he ended up being appointed as Minister to Russia (a spot the author says was reserved for sending dangerous politicians). Buchanan held this spot for two years, and thought it appears he was liked he also didn’t accomplish anything of note there. When he returned, he was able to be inserted into a Senator spot after all the shakeouts from party conflicts opened one up, even though he wouldn’t have won at an election (per the author).

Once there, yet another speech made others take note of him, this time defending George M. Dallas’s position during the National bank controversy, once again creating an ally and positioning himself to get notoriety while not defining Buchanan’s individual politics. He became the chairman of Foreign Relations Committee in the Senate, where he got the nickname “10 cent Jimmy” by Whigs based on speech he made about ten cents a day being a sufficient working wage, a nickname that stuck with his detractors afterward. Once note of interest, Buchanan was on the receiving end of the first telegraph from Samuel Morse, which indicated Polk’s surprise Democrat nomination.

Once Dark Horse Polk was elected President, he named Buchanan Secretary of State, but before it was finalized the two acknowledged the possibility Buchanan would seek the nomination the following term but would step down from office if that happened. As Secretary of State, Buchanan picked Nicholas Trist for negotiating a treaty with Mexico; Trist ended up being disaster in the eyes of administration, a man who didn’t follow directions and continued representing the country after Polk wanted him recalled. Polk never trusted Buchanan throughout his presidency, according to Polk’s journals.

Buchanan was “retired” during the Taylor/Fillmore administrations, during which time he bought a big farm and helped take care of orphaned or poor relatives. His reentry to politics was as London Ambassador for the Pierce administration, where dealt with issues of British presence in Caribbean in violation of Clayton/Bulwer Treaty, though he didn’t have any success in resolving. He also got roped into America’s attempt to purchase Cuba; none of those present for these “negotiations” came away looking great due to a mixup of language (the famous use of the word “detach” discussed in my Pierce review) and personalities (Boulle was detested by Spanish).

Following Pierce’s term, the new and strong Republican party (with candidate Fremont) threatened to jail Pierce and others that disagreed with them on handling of Kansas matter if they won. (Between Andrew Jackson’s biography and Pierce/Buchanan, I think I’ve seen every crazy thing from the Trump Administration represented in one of these biographies.) Against this contested political setting, Buchanan was the election by carrying his home state and much of south. It was apparent at that point that the Democratic Party was the only party that was not entirely regional at that point. 2/5

Presidential Career – Buchanan filled his cabinet by trying to represent various states and not ideologies. As a result he was not in touch with the extreme views of the political climate directly prior to the Civil war. Lewis Cass was made the Secretary of State, but mainly an honorary title at that point due to his age. Howell Cobb was the main voice in the Cabinet, a Georgia man against secession as late as 1860.

Buchanan’s goals in taking office were to preserve the Union and quiet the anti-slavery element (which he considered the greatest threat to the Union). History has not been kind to his term in office, as many historians list Buchanan as the worst president. Having just read Franklin Pierce’s biographies, it’s tough to say who was worse. In addition to Buchanan’s views of preserving slavery as an institution, he also had a near million dollar embezzlement scandal involving members of cabinet.

Buchanan was already out of touch with his country when he was elected. In particular he was naïve about the possible outcomes in Kansas, always assuming it would be a free state and that only real issue was making sure it went Democrat. As with Pierce, Kansas became the key issues of his presidency, as Buchanan supported the original vote that settlers made toward government despite allegations that it had been fixed by the pro slavery faction. Buchanan’s decision to favor those that did vote rather than those that stayed at home seems to have been based on his preference for the law than for sentiments as to what he wanted to have happen.

His veto of the Homestead act is defended by author, but apparently not by rest of historians. Per Klein the act was something that would benefit northerners only at expense of mostly southerners and was against all of Buchanan’s already established convictions. Klein also argues that the act was written in such a way that authors were wanting it vetoed by Buchanan so that that they could ridicule him over it and pump up a Republican candidate instead.

The eventual election of Lincoln led to South Carolina seceding, as Klein spends as much time on the last few months of his presidency as on the entire rest of the term. Per Klein, the congressional atmosphere in this time was purely obstructionist with no movement to accomplish anything productive. Coupled with Buchanan’s ideology of balance of powers and not usurping the roles of Congress, that led Buchanan’s chief “accomplishment” being keeping the Union from imploding.

After the secession, Buchanan struggled with the legality of the concept and had research done on what authority states had and what authority the federal government had to police this new movement. Buchanan did everything he could to not set off hostilities, including allowing a sitting cabinet member to travel to discuss his state seceding, not reinforcing South Carolina forts, and blaming the impending conflict on Lincoln and the radical Republicans. As he left office, he had neither reinforced or abandoned Fort Sumter, with his main goal being for nothing to happen while he was in office. 1/5

Vice President –. John Breckinridge was a surprise nomination as vice president, and like many from that era was not mentioned again for much of the book. 2/5

First Lady – Much has been speculated about Buchanan’s sexuality. As America’s only bachelor president, some historians have “determined” that he was in fact gay. After reading this book I would guess that to be correct, but there’s not enough information to prove or refute it. His lack of a love life was certainly interesting. His only engagement was to a very wealthy woman; she accused him of only being with her for her money and then dumped him when he came to the area she lived and didn’t visit her first. She then died mysteriously later the same day.

Also mentioned were a fling/crush with an 18 year old girl when he was about 50; Buchanan wrote her a poem about why it couldn’t work out between the two of them. Finally an attractive widow went to the White House to marry Buchanan, even ending up staying there for awhile, but ended up leaving later in Buchanan’s term unsuccessful in her bid. All the comments about their relationship were by her prior to her even meeting him.

Buchanan’s closest relationship was with Howell Cobb, who Buchanan revered as a man and a friend and would spend time with nearly every day they were in office together. 0/5

Post Presidency –Buchanan’s post-presidency was spent in retirement, with a focus on justifying his own term. This included commissioning multiple biographies about himself, none of which were ever completed (the first biography of Buchanan wasn’t released until after his death. The political climate was not one that favored praising Buchanan during the Civil War, and even his allies suggested he put his mission on the back burner which Buchanan mostly did. The one exception was in some letter writing with Winfield Scott as the two blamed each other for some handling of the South Carolina issue. 1/5

Book itself –I prefer a biography that is objective regarding its subject than one that is written from an obvious point of bias. That being said, I couldn’t help but feel that Klein was as unsure of his opinions of Buchanan as any biographer I’ve read. I’m sure it’s difficult to learn everything about a man and his justifications for his actions and still judge him critically, but I think Klein could have done a better job of doing so. The research here was obviously fantastic however, and I didn’t come away with questions about Buchanan’s actions. 3/5

3-star

“Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union” by Peter A. Wallner Review

Franklin Pierce Martyr

Franklin Pierce: Martyr For the Union

Author:  Peter A. Wallner

Release Date:   2007

From 1860 to 1865, half of America went to war against the other half, and nearly three quarters of a million people died in the process,  In 2017, Donald Trump asked why the Civil War could not have been avoided.  I bring up both of those facts because finishing up the second part of this biography series on Franklin Pierce spends a great deal of time on the eight years leading up to the Civil War, four of which Pierce was in office as president.  Certainly there is plenty to be found here in terms of causes for the Civil War.

In rankings of the best to worst presidents, guys like Pierce, Fillmore, and Buchanan are justifiably ranked near the bottom, however each came into office with issues that presented choices that would anger one half of the country into possible battle.  I mentioned in my Millard Fillmore review that northern presidents of this era came off worse than southern ones in historical retrospect and that continues significantly here.  The reason for that is that each compromise the presidents took to preserve “harmony” was to appease the southern slave states.  Pierce went well beyond Fillmore in his support for the south however, and through fourteen presidents he was by far the worst individual to hold office (though Buchanan looks to be even worse).

Here’s how he scores up on my presidential ratings rubric:

Born into – Pierce’s father was a Revolutionary War soldier who made himself successful farmer afterward and then a tavern owner.  Pierce had several siblings, but was born to his father’s second wife (named Anna Kendrick, who was also referenced in Scrappy Little Nobody which I read while I was reading the first volume of this biography set), who gave birth to Franklin Pierce as the 5th of eight children.  Pierce’s father eventually became sheriff, and used that as a platform to eventually become governor of New Hampshire (while Pierce was in college).  2/5

Pre-President – Pierce was not a great student at first, being last in class after two years at Bowdoin College, before buckling down and finishing 5th out of 17.  Like so many presidents before him, he became a lawyer after college.  His political career began when he was elected to state legislature, becoming the youngest ever speaker of House in New Hampshire.  While in the House, he voted to curtail a number of news papers that had been funded by the government to print laws; in actuality this measure was actually a shrewd manner of eliminating non-Democrat news papers.  Pierce would continue to act with the best interests of the Democrat party ahead of those of the people in his state in country throughout his political career.  Pierce also spent some time in the military during the Mexican American War, which provided no moments of great account for Pierce and possibly some aspersions of cowardice that would follow him around throughout his career.

Pierce followed his state service up with eight years in United States House of Representatives.  While there he did not support Gag Order on discussing slavery, even though he was against abolition.  I mention this because this is pretty much the only time in his political career he did something that was not the prime wishes of the southern democrats.  Like Andrew Jackson, Pierce was involved in a duel that killed another member of the House of Representative, however rather than fighting in it he assisted in finding “a second” for the duel.  Due to his limited role, he managed to escape the wrath of congress afterward unlike the rest of the participants.

Pierce became a Senator next, but retired partially into his only term as he wanted to go back home.  His only real impact as Senator was involvement in vetting claims for Revolutionary War Pensions.  Back in New Hampshire, Pierce focused on directing the path of the state Democrat party.  While there his main political rivalry was with John Hale.  Hale (an idealist, willing to break from party on issues if needed) versus Pierce (follow the party position on all matters) was the most interesting contrast of politicians in the first volume by Wallner.  It was still fairly amazing he emerged as presidential candidate after years as the unofficial leader of Democrat party in New Hampshire, and as a dark horse candidate he even puts famous dark horse Polk to shame.  Essentially it happened by Pierce becaming a compromise pick, everybody’s second choice at Democrat convention.  None of the front runners saw him coming and he secured nomination rather quickly once he was presented as a candidate.  As the candidate, he won in a landslide victory winning all but four states, albeit with a very low voter turnout.  3/5.

Presidential Career –   Pierce’s first acts were all attempted to represent all factions of the Democratic Party in his cabinet.  I thought this was admirable, not quite as much as Washington on Monroe welcoming different party views, but admirable still.  Those that he ended up selecting ended up being the only cabinet (as of the writing of book) to remain the same for entire presidency.  Pierce gave more responsibilities to his attorney general that had previously been done (those had belonged to Secretary of State) and created the modern justice department as a result.  His first crisis/headline involved a man named Koszta who lived in America but was wanted by Hungary for his role in inciting a revolution; Pierce held strong and Hungary eventually relinquished their demand for him.

Pierce’s policy of spreading out appointments and patronage began losing him favor immediately; it cost him support particularly in New York where the “Hard” portion of the party’s appointed leader disregarded Pierce’s instructions and screwed the “Soft” and “Barnburner” democrat portions.  Pierce set precedent by removing the culprit with that as the cause.  Often Pierce’s ideas were good but the execution was poor.  In one instance he sent an individual to finalize the Mexican border with Santa Anna; the problem being the man he sent was also an interested party in a citizen claim affected in that area.  The man of course leveraged his claim into the treaty and insinuated that was Pierce’s wish as well, however Pierce did have that portion removed before submitting it to the Senate for approval.  The Senate (rife with corruption and special interests at the time) reinstated it plus added other private claims.

The most famous act in Pierce’s presidency is the Kansas Nebraska act.  Overturning the Missouri compromise, the act could lead to the first expansion of slavery into the north.  It was supported by Pierce, which contradicted his inaugural statements that he would not agitate the slavery question.  Wallner argues that non-support of the act would have had same effect towards Civil War.  Pierce did not just support the act, he bribed it into existence by promising jobs to 13 House of Representatives members if they changed their vote.  In the mid-terms, twelve of the thirteen were voted out of office as a result and needed them (a theme for the entire Democrat party in the midterms).  Pierce also returned more fugitive slaves than any other president during his four years in office (although the length of his term versus everybody but Polk from this era makes this an unfair statement).  Kansas remained the biggest issue throughout Pierce’s term.  Called “Bleeding Kansas” by the press, pro and anti-slavery groups moved to the territory to try and establish a voting block on the slavery issue, and violence and voter fraud issues were common.  For a time, two separate governments ended up being set up in the territory.

Pierce continued his bribing ways when he authorized $5,000 for use to persuade Canadians for a favorable settlement in a fisheries dispute.  Secretary of State William Marcy was troubled by this as however Pierce did not hesistate.  Once again miscommunications was a problem, as the Canadian ambassador ended up spending tens of thousands more than authorized.  Another instance of this was an ambassador sent to Spain did not understand what was meant by “detaching” Cuba from Spain and failed to present the option that Pierce had intended.

Pierce focused much of his attention on foreign affairs, probably to deflect from his poor handling of issues at home.  The Crimean War was occurring in Europe at the same time, but had little effect for Pierce aside from him authorizing sending three military officers to observe military tactics of multiple European armies.  Pierce focused the most on British involvement in Nicaragua in speeches and inside the office.  This may have had to do with Pierce’s view of the office of presidency, as he vetoed so many bills for internal improvements (which were then overturned by congress) that foreign policy was one of the only areas left for a president to make an impact.  The result for all this intrigue was the Dallas-Clarendon treaty which would have Great Britain exit central America with the exception of Belize.  However after all the time spend on the issue, the treaty was not passed until Pierce was out of office, at which point it was modified so much that Britain rejected it.  Pierce did support the transatlantic cable, one of his positive legacies in addition to building additional Navy ships and modernizing the army prior to exiting office.

Some interesting random notes from during his presidential years.

  • William Atherton (one of Pierce’s best friends and a loyal politician) died unexpectedly and left $8,000 in his will to Pierce. Scholars later found out it was for the care of his secret family and lovechild.  Certainly an oddity for a sitting president to have to deal with.
  • Brigham Young was appointed Territorial governor of Utah and caused problems by showing his power was greater than that of the national government, even colluding with Indians against the army. Pierce made the political move of appointing somebody else to take Young’s place that would end up declining the offer, thus not showing endorsement of Young or polygamy but also not removing him from power in Utah either.
  • Pierce lost the presidential nomination to James Buchanan and never had any momentum in his favor. He is the only president who sought reelection to be denied nomination by his party.

Vice President – Vice president William R. King died very early in office, was never replaced as there was no mechanism for it at that time.  .5/5

First Lady – Jane Appleton was one of the most intriguing first ladies, but not in a good way.  Wallner did not seem to be a fan of her, citing statements that Jane Appleton Pierce’s  only redeeming quality was keeping Pierce sober.  More than anything, she seemed a tragic figure.  Jane and Franklin had three children, one died at three days old, one died at four years old, and the last died at eleven years old.  The last one was particularly sad, as he died when Pierce was on way to Washington with his family via train.  The train crashed, and Pierce’s son Benjamin was thrown.  When Pierce went up to him he thought he was unconscious but discovered the back of Benjamin’s head was missing.  This drove his wife into grieving, and led to a fight 48 hours before inauguration where she told him not to worry about politics.  She also decided not to give him lock of hair from Benjamin to wear at inauguration which she had previously saved.  Jane remained in mourning for entire first year.  In addition to being described as sad  she was also mentioned as controlling, known for criticizing Pierce for his mannerisms (i.e. keeping his hands in his pockets) or for inability to resist alcohol at dinner.  After he death, Pierce made comments to a writer about his wife indicating his favorite thing about his wife that that she needed him to take care of her due to always being ill.  Interestingly enough, Pierce’s friendship with writer Nathaniel Hawthorne seemed more emotional than his relationship with his wife (or siblings).  I’ll give her a decent score here for being memorable, though she stayed out of any roles as a First Lady.  3.5/5.

Post Presidency – Pierce didn’t take any official roles in politics after he left the office of president.   Instead he spent time traveling with his wife across American and Europe.  Pierce’s cabinet stayed loyal to him after office he left office, particularly Jefferson Davis.  Unlike prior presidents that I’ve read about, there was a story of Pierce drinking all night with a friend and spending $30 unaccounted for in area known for gambling and brothels.  It seems like every president that’s been alive four years after their loss has been asked to run again, and Pierce was no exception after the disaster of the Buchanan administration.  Pierce continued to make “pro-National” speeches, chastising abolitionists.  Wallner glosses over his repeated statements that whites and Africans are not equals regardless of how the law characterized them.  This went on throughout the Civil War, as Pierce and other democrats remained critical of Lincoln and abolition until victory in Atlanta assured Lincoln victory.  1.5/5

Book itself –   I enjoyed the second volume of Wallner’s biography better than the first, as it focused more on this fascinating time in American history.  Throughout the two volumes however, there were some things that did not work as well other biographies that I’ve read.  Stories of Pierce as a lawyer were full of hyperbole (there was even a part talking about how everybody would be weeping after his closing arguments were finished).  Wallner also frequently made excuses for Pierce, such as his frequent use of bribes (“it shows how important Pierce felt the issue was”) or using patronage to sway votes (“what president before or after would not have done the same thing?”).  However Wallner also includes some fun critical comments of Pierce such as the critics of his drinking’s nickname for Pierce as the “Hero of many well-fought bottle.”  Possible military cowardice was also mentioned, however like Pierce’s drinking Wallner mainly mentions that the critics said it more than analyzing how much truth there was to it.  Overall as good as can be expected on the subject, but not one of the best biographies I’ve read so far.3/5

3-star

“How To Be a Man (And Other Illusions)” By Duff McKagan Review

how to be a man

How to Be a Man (And Other Illusions)

Author: Duff McKagan

Release Date: 2015

I originally read Duff’s first book, “It’s So Easy and Other Lies” shortly after reading Slash’s autobiography. Between the two, I preferred Duff’s book for several reasons: it was obviously written more by the musician than a ghost writer; the book had more humor in it; and the story extended to the Velvet Revolver era. I’m happy to pick up another book by McKagan based on that one, although where “It’s So Easy…” was a great biography for any music fan “How to Be a Man (And Other Illusions)” is definitely more in the vein of for hardcore fans only.

The style of this book is about half life lessons and half biography of events since “It’s So Easy…” was published. That includes some very cool events, including a book tour, a new band (the excellent Walking Papers that I’d recommend any rock fans check out), and even some reconciliation with Axl Rose. The events stop short of the Guns ‘n Roses reunion however, which is unfortunate because the story of Axl and Slash patching things up would probably be the most fascinating story in any Guns ‘n Roses biography.

Interspersed in those biographical chapters are life lessons from Duff. There are also several short chapters on subjects like dating and parenting, some more successful than others. My main criticism of the advice portions of this book is that McKagan seem to be writing as a character. Much of the advice begins “Make sure your chick….” or something in similar vernacular. While McKagan certainly has a rock and roll attitude to much of his writing, he also comes across much more intelligent in most of his writing that he does when boiling things down to life lessons.

I loved the section on 100+ records every dude should own which gave me some solid education on punk rock. The section on books to read was less successful as it was much more limited in its variety. The van tour by Walking Papers was probably the backbone of the book and served as an interesting anchor to keep coming back to, however the shadow of the Guns ‘n Roses reunion hangs over the book as the mega event that the reader knows the outcome of but knows will take place after the book is over.

With all of the excitement of Guns ‘n Roses successful reunion as well as the popularity of McKagan’s daughter’s band The Pink Slips, one can only suspect that McKagan will have plenty of material for another installment in his biography series. If Chris Jericho and Theodore Roosevelt can justify three volume biography sets, then the bass player from GnR, Loaded, Velvet Revolver, Walking Papers and more will have me back at the book store for round three as well.

3-star

“Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire’s Favorite Son” by Peter A. Wallner Review

franklin

Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire’s Favorite Son

Author: Peter A. Wallner

Release Date: October 2004

I will do a longer review once I read the second volume of Peter A. Wallner’s Franklin Pierce biography, “Martyr for the Union.” This volume covers Pierce’s early years and heritage and ends at him taking the oath of office in Washington. I’ve read a lot of presidential biographies recently (15 on 14 presidents) and my initial take away was that Wallner does as a good of job as he can with making Pierce interesting and conveying information. The problem is that Pierce didn’t do enough in his early life to justify a two volume study. Whereas somebody like John Quincy Adams had vast accomplishments prior to and after being president, Pierce was relative unknown before being elected. He retired shortly after serving his only term in the Senate, and was strictly a party man while in the House of Representatives. At the state level, for the years leading up to his nomination he was the unofficial head of the Democrat party in New Hampshire, well known among the politicians but not exactly a household name. He was best known for being an attorney, drawing crowds in his area due to his skills with language. By far the most interesting aspects of Pierce was the tragedy in his home life, which I’ll get into more in the full review after volume two.

3-star

“Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President” by Robert J. Rayback Review

millard

Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President

Author: Robert J. Rayback

Release Date: 1959

At times, reading Robert Rayback’s biography on Millard Fillmore felt like Déjà vu all over again, and not just because it’s the thirteenth presidential biography I’ve read in the last 18 months. I should have expected similarities after the numerous recurring themes between William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, but sure enough the John Tyler/Millard Fillmore comparisons are too apparent to ignore. Both Tyler and Fillmore were elected Vice Presidents for the Whig party under two older war hero Generals; both elections featured vague promises and unclear politics to try to catch as many Whig votes across the country as possible. Both took office shortly into their President’s first term as illness took their predecessor. Both were then turned on by their party, with neither man even representing the Whigs in the follow-up election. Both men were part of the string of presidents that attempted to preserve the union through compromise rather than confronting the sectional issues head on.

So considering all that, why did I not really care for Fillmore afterward while Tyler was absolutely one of my favorite presidents to read about? It boiled down to two reasons, Fillmore’s home state and Tyler’s convictions. Whereas Tyler was a southern man, his compromises appeared better in an historical light as they showed an understanding for the Northern goal of halting the expansion of slavery. Fillmore’s New York origin naturally meant that his compromises look much worse historically, as he embraced the Fugitive Slave act much more heartily than any other President. Despite being a New Yorker, it was only the Southern Whigs that continued to support him after his term. More intrinsically, Tyler stayed true to his own convictions even when they were completely opposed to Clay’s Whig party platforms. Fillmore was much more willing to bend his convictions to reach compromises and would even wait to see which way the wind was blowing (figuratively speaking) before making a decision.

Here’s how he scores up on my presidential ratings rubric:

Born into – Fillmore scores well here, as his father was a farmer who got duped by the land giveaways for veterans scheme in New York (those that fought in the Revolutionary War had opportunities to be compensated with farm land; in this case not particularly fertile or easy to sell farm land). Fillmore was the oldest son (a common theme with our highest office thus far) and his education was unexceptional. In addition to farming, Fillmore learned how to work in a mill before apprenticing as a clerk for an attorney; this was a great opportunity for him however he ended up quitting due to feeling taken advantage of by the man who offered him this position. Fillmore took a job for $3 using the skills he had picked up, his boss found out and chastised him for it. He caught his big break when he got another Clerk job and was admitted to practice law 27 months after starting, something that usually required seven years of education. 4/5

Pre-President – After Fillmore was an attorney, he went to a small town to be the only attorney rather than work with partners in bigger area. He became an important figure locally as a result. Drawn into politics by the Anti-Mason saga, he ended up becoming part of the Anti-Mason party following Jackson/Adams election (Fillmore supported loser eventual Adams). Taking advantage of his local statute, he was elected to the New York legislature.

Fillmore was quiet first year in legislature, still learning the ropes. After his reelection, he became much more vocal. His most impressive accomplishment in the entire biography was probably the creation of the first bankruptcy laws in the United States. In order to get it passed, he offered it as non-party legislation so Democrats would vote and take credit for it instead of its creators (the Anti-Masons).

After this success, he moved to Buffalo, where he was heavily involved in organizations and local affairs. His involvement directly created the Fire Fighting system that was in effect at least 70 years after its formation. Fillmore began his own law firm eventually employing future politicians Solomon Haven and Nathan Hall, and eventually Grover Cleveland as a law clerk. Haven and Hall were also prolific, in that one of them helped make Buffalo the first publicly funded free school system in America.

Once elected to the national Congress, Fillmore focused on creating a new national party because anti-masons were not succeeding at the national level. Fillmore’s first choice was having Supreme Court Justice John McLean head the ticket as a presidential candidate. Once the Whig Party was formed, Fillmore switched to it and immediately and the party immediately became more successful than Anti-Mason party ever was. Fillmore was instrumental in organizing the New York Whigs, however it is not a stretch to say they were the most divided group of Whigs in the country. As the Head of Ways and Means Committee, Fillmore’s biggest victory was the Tariff of 1842 that placed President Tyler in a no-win situation and contributed to his fall from grace in the Whig party. Fillmore lost interest in Congress however and retired to return to Buffalo.

At the state level, he shortly thereafter nominated for Governor against his will (he had made a promise to endorse John Collier, and did not want to go back on this). However, Thurlow Weed (the closest thing a biography can have to a villain) didn’t want Fillmore to be Vice President and arranged for support for Fillmore’s gubernatorial run to discourage a run for the national office. Fillmore lost his run for Governor and spent a few years as retired. Two years later he ran for comptroller at party’s urging and won in a landslide, moving his family to Albany. There he started newspapers to help the Whig party, including one in German for immigrants and was repayed by John Collier when Collier recommended him for Vice President to the New York assembly. The author noted this was alleged to be a scam by colleagues, and I certainly picked up on some Clay/J.Q. Adams underhandedness. Weed also managed to get Fillmore to support his guy William Seward for governor over Collier, which of course led to Fillmore’s lack of power over Federal patronage in New York and later difficulties as President. 3/5

Presidential Career – Fillmore didn’t get off to a good start, as he needed to build a cabinet from scratch in a short period while the south was threatening to secede prior due to the national question of how to address slavery in the western territories of Utah, New Mexico and California. Fillmore would have been the tiebreaking vote on Compromise of 1850, and while his personal beliefs made him want to support compromise, political aspirations had him wanting to support Taylor. He told Taylor he would support beliefs but ultimately the situation changed and vote never came to pass.

By name recognition, Fillmore created an impressive cabinet, let by Daniel Webster, John Crittenden, and Nathan Hall. As President, Fillmore’s focus was more on preserving the union than being anti-slavery, which turned off many in his party. Fillmore followed the lead of Congress in breaking the agreement up into several sections to make it more palatable to all. In particular, the federal government assuming Texas’s state debt was a novel solution to getting support from a state on that issue. As previously mentioned, Fillmore’s zeal for enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law is a tarnish on his legacy, taking it further than any other president including a well publicized case in Boston. Domestically, Fillmore was also the first president to subsidize railroad.

On the international side, Fillmore laid the groundwork for opening trade with Japan a few years later, however this was more a function of Japan being ready to open its borders than any shrewd execution on America’s part. The other notoriety was an international incident when Webster gave permission to private citizens to go get Guano from South America with the promise of Naval support if things went haywire; the citizens had no claim to the Guano and Fillmore had to come up with compromise of paying back involved parties by government to make avoid hostilities. Fillmore also had opportunities to add definitely add Hawaii and probably add Cuba to U.S., but chose against both as he was anti-expansionist/anti-conflict.

Per Rayback, Fillmore never intended to run for reelection; he had decided early on to not seek reelection but ended up being roped into it got elected because he was talked out of formally withdrawing and made vague statement about accepting will of people who then nominated him. I don’t buy it as Fillmore would run for president again a few years later, and his shrewdness in the Governor/V.P hustle with Collier earlier shows he valued the appearance of not wanting to appear he was seeking office but doing it for “the will of the people.”

Fillmore ended up defeated as nominee by Winfield Scott for reelection, which was considered by Rayback to be death the of Whig party; Scott lost 27 states to 4 but Pierce only got 56% of vote. Southern Whigs supported Fillmore but New Englanders preferred Webster and everybody else wanted Scott. Fillmore’s last attempted act as president was to address the slave issue. He believed shipping blacks to Africa at 100K per year was best solution as it would keep population levels manageable and additional workers could be replaced by Asians. He was talked out of it, so only us real history nerds got to hear his thoughts on it. 1.5/5

Vice President – Like Tyler, it doesn’t seem Fillmore had a Vice President. 0/5

First Lady – Abigail Powers was two years older than Fillmore, and the daughter of a reverend. They were married several years after meeting, once Fillmore was successful enough to propose marriage. She had two children with Millard, Millard Powers and Mary Abigail. By the time Fillmore was president, she was not in great health and Mary Abigail tended to many of the first lady duties. During Franklin Pierce’s inauguration, Abigail Powers got a flu and died shortly afterward. Fillmore’s daughter died shortly thereafter. 1.5/5

Post Presidency – It was a sad time after Abigail’s death. Whigs splintered into Republican (those that were Anti- Kansas/Nebraska act) party and No Nothing Party ( or “American” party, founded on an anti- Catholic and anti-immigrant.stance). Fillmore was concerned about political parties becoming entirely sectional and decided to throw in with the No-Nothing party which allowed him the best option for success after Whigs were no longer effective. He threw his name in for a presidential candidate option, and even seemed to agree that Immigrants were problem and should not be allowed to hold office. Fillmore then traveled the country for several months and Europe for a year to allow others to law groundwork for his nomination.

Alas, it was all for naught as Fillmore then lost convincingly to Buchanan (and actually finished in 3rd place overall) which ended his political career. Fillmore’s post political life included remarrying. This time, a very wealthy widow who actually had enough money that Fillmore took a $10,000 income a year to manage her finances while they were married. He also took part in nearly every new organization in Buffalo, including the Y.M.A., Library, Humane Society, Center for Arts and everything else you can think of. He even served as the first Chancellor of Buffalo University, although more in an honorary capacity.

When the Civil War began, Fillmore was on board supporting the North. He began an organization called the Union Continentals which was made up of older gentlemen former soldiers. The group helped raise morale and enlistments in the area and was in effect for a few years. Unfortunately, Fillmore’s lasting legacy on the Civil War is a speech he made at a community event in 1864, criticizing Lincoln and the refusal to make concessions for the their southern brothers. Rayback argues that this speech was a significant reason why historians have been so unkind to Fillmore. 2/5

Book itself – In the preface, the author discusses how he originally set out to write a history of the Whig party, which ascended with Fillmore (as he switched from Anti-Mason to Whig) and died with his loss for reelection. This was an interesting period in history that often gets overlooked, but Fillmore himself doesn’t appear to deserve much additional scholarship as his lasting legacy was as one of several who did nothing to solve the major issues facing the country. The book did not spend enough time on his personal life for my taste, and also glossed over several important political times such as Fillmore’s first run for national the House of Representatives. Many authors on these biographies do all they can do to make their subject likeable it’s much rarer that the author can make somebody interesting, likeable and understandable. While I understood many of Fillmore’s decisions, I never cared for the man or found this to be much of a page turner. 2.5/5

3-star

“The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune” by Stuart Galbraith Review

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The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune

Author: Stuart Galbraith

Release Date: 2002

“The Emperor and the Wolf” is an ambitious dual biography that succeeds to varying degrees depending on what you are expecting from it. I think there are five main areas that the author attempted to cover in this 600+ page treatise:

1. The professional works of Akira Kurosawa
2. The professional works of Toshiro Mifune
3. Japanese Cinema from the 1940’s through the 1980’s
4. The personal life of Akira Kurosawa
5. The personal life of Toshiro Mifune

I’ve used numbers instead of bullet points, because the amount of time spent on each of these topics is very uneven, which seemed to be the author’s intention. For example, I would estimate that 45% of the book is about topic number 1, 30% topic number 2, 10% about topic number 3, 10% topic number 4 and 5% topic number 5. For that reason, if you are mainly interested in how the films of these two individuals were made, what they were about, how much the cost, and what the critical and audience response to those films are, this is certainly the book for you. If you are hoping for anecdotes about Kurosawa’s personal life, his parenting, or his suicide attempt, you will have to dig through copious amounts of information about the plots of films he co-wrote or the resumes of actors he used in small parts to get a glimpse of it.

There is also much more written about Kurosawa than Mifune in this book, which is likely to be expected considering their statures in the history of cinema. Even prior to their careers however, there is much more information on Kurosawa’s early life than Mifune’s, whose early years in China are tacked on to an extensive Kurosawa chapter as a seeming afterthought. Despite the disparity in content about the two, some interesting similarities were still present, such as both men being able to avoid conflict in World War II; Kurosawa by being medically ineligible, Mifune being stuck working with airplane cameras. Kurosawa was able to become a director much younger than many of his contemporaries that went into the field (at Toho, new directors apprenticed at being 2nd and 3rd assistant directors for years before being allowed to direct) by being recommended for an opening and taking advantage of it. Similarly, Mifune was able to jump to the front of the movie star line by earning Kurosawa’s favor at a “fresh face” audition (this was one of the better stories in the book, as Mifune’s anger confused the original judges on the panel, but Kurosawa saw it as potential unlike anybody else he had seen).

Both individuals early careers are often forgotten or unknown to casual fans of Japanese cinema, with only their massive successes together really permeating American culture (films like “Seven Samurai,” “Yojimbo,” “Sanjuro,” “Hidden Fortress” and “High and Low” have either been seen by cinema junkies or been programmed into our brains by their American remakes and homages). This book did a nice job of educating me on some of those earliest films, such as “Sanshiro Sugata” for Kurosawa and “Snow Trail” for Mifune. On “Snow Trail,” for example, Mifune believed he was only hired because it was a dangerous mountain shoot and he was expendable in case he died during the shoot; there may have been some truth to that as in addition to acting he had to carry 100lbs of gear up with him before they could film. While both individuals had fame and acclaim in Japan by the time films like “Scandal” were made, it was not until “Rashomon” was released that both became well known to international audiences as well.

The most interesting stories recalled in this book were related to “Seven Samurai,” my favorite Kurosawa film along with “Sanjuro.” A film that is about three hours long and tells the story of samurais recruited by farmers to protect their village, and ending with one of the most comprehensible battles scenes ever filmed was the end product of a 500 page script, detailing the history of every farmer, with details planned ahead of time as minute as cutting a characters hair in his first scene to illustrate the passage of time passed in the film by the regrowth of his hair in each subsequent appearance. Taking one year to film (by a company that routinely released over a hundred films a year), at the time it was released it was the longest and most expensive film in Japanese history.

While I enjoyed the detailed histories of the films, and the critical analysis of both figures (both at the time of their work and in retrospect), the lack of personal information about both men was a disappointment for me. Tidbits such as that Mifune would never use an assistant, preferred to do things himself on films, or that he was considered kind by his co-stars, and always knew his lines were interesting, but they tended to add more to what sort of actor he was than what sort of person he was. Similarly, a break from discussing films to discuss Kurosawa buying a new house after “High and Low” was actually jarring in that it deviated the book’s pattern of discussing pre-production, movie plot, production and critical reception.

The things I really wanted to know about these two men prior to reading this book involved their downfalls. Both enjoyed their largest successes working with each other, but despite that, they seemingly avoided each other for the last thirty years of their lives and had their worst critical and financial projects after going on their own. While definitive reasons and answers are never shared by either individual, the turning point for Kurosawa seemed to be his work on “Tora Tora Tora.” What was to be Kurosawa’s first work on an American picture ended up with him being removed and accused of having mental problems. Besides being his first American picture, it would have been his first picture in color and first with a new crew of non-Toho regulars. The result seems to be both a difficult situation for the director and a genuine breakdown on his part if daily set reports are to be believed. (In addition to that, he also had a dishonest translator dealing with the United States parent company). The result was Kurosawa’s temporary fall from grace, and by the time he was making films again, he believed that Mifune’s quality of work had slipped. Although scheduling problems was the official reason for the two not working together (and Mifune’s own production company certainly kept him busy) it seemed more likely it was Kurosawa’s resentment for Mifune appearing in (to his mind) subpar stuff like “Shogun” that disinterested him in his favorite leading actor.

Despite the massive scope of this dual biography, I think it could have benefitted from one substantial addition accompanied by a corresponding major subtraction. Instead of the extensive plot summaries of every movie in both individual’s filmographies, adding a third individual to the subject matter in the form of Takashi Shimura would have provided some excellent contrast. While Mifune gained acclaim by starring in 16 of Kurosawa’s 30 films, his co-star in all of them was Takashi Shimura who acted in 21 of Kurosawa’s films, including starring in “Ikiru” (one of Kurosawa’s masterpieces that is focused on significantly in this book) without Mifune. Shimura also continued to act for Kurosawa through “Kagemusha” and had as interesting of a career outside of Kurosawa’s films that Mifune did (appearing in more Zatoichi films than Mifune, two Godzilla films, and in successful Kurosawa-less Mifune films like “Samurai III: Dual at Ganryu Island”). In addition to that, he was a father figure to Mifune and was close enough to him that when Mifune was dying in a hospital, Shimura’s widow was one of only 2 non-relatives allowed to see him. More than any other person, I associate him with Kurosawa and Mifune, and while mentioned frequently in this book his depiction as just the most common of Kurosawa’s stock actors seemed to shortchange him from his role as the other face of Kurosawa’s best films.

4-star