“SMOKIN’ JOE: THE LIFE OF JOE FRAZIER” — a goddamn book review

I’ve always been fascinated by the Muhammad Ali/Joe Frazier saga. And have read a lot about it. But usually written from Ali’s perspective. So it’s interesting to see how it unfolded from Frazier’s perspective.

It was Joe Frazier’s misfortune (as well as fortune — he made a ton of money off of Ali) to come along during Ali’s era. And he will forever remain in Ali’s shadow. Ali’s perennial foil. Which doesn’t do justice to his greatness as a fighter. In the ring, Ali and Frazier were almost exactly evenly matched (though it should be noted that their fights came while Ali was a couple years past his prime). All three fights were extremely close and could have easily gone the other way. And even though Frazier won the first fight, he had taken such a beating he had to spend several weeks in the hospital recovering, and for awhile they thought he might even die from the damage. And even though Ali won the third fight, he was much more physically beat up after that fight than Frazier. That’s how close it was.

Due to Ali’s incredible showmanship, artistry, and cultural icon status, he elevated his boxing matches to something much more than just fights. He turned the boxing ring into something more akin to a stage in a Shakespearean drama. And “Frazier and Ali” will forever live on as the “Romeo and Juliet” of the sport

The book goes into detail about the hatred Frazier had for Ali because of all the derogatory stuff Ali said about him (Frazier even went after Ali once with a tire iron). Calling him an “Uncle Tom” (because most of the white people were rooting for Frazier to beat up the Black Muslim Ali) and a “dumb beast” and a “gorilla” — the kind of taunts a racist white person might hurl at a black. But Ali always claimed he didn’t mean it, he was just saying it to hype the bouts (“No one possessed the promotional acuity of Ali. He slipped in and out of personas as if he was picking costumes out of an old trunk.”). And trying to get into Frazier’s head as a psychological ploy. But Ali would later admit that he went too far. And he publicly apologized many times, and made many attempts to reach out to Frazier. All of which were rebuffed by Frazier.

So I figured Frazier never forgave Ali and went to his grave hating his guts.

So I was surprised to find out in this book that they actually reconciled near the end of Ali’s life. Ali invited Frazier to join him for dinner at the 2002 NBA All-Star Game. And to everyone’s surprise Frazier accepted the offer. Ali sat at one end of the table, Frazier at the other. Ali was in pretty feeble shape at the time, drooling when he ate, and had to have a bib on. But at one point, Ali stared at Frazier and bit his lower lip in a gesture of pretend ferocity and said:

“Joe Frazier. Joe Frazier. Joe Frazier. I want you. Hey, Gorilla.”

Frazier dropped his fork and said: “Man, Butterfly. I kicked your ass for three goddamn fights. Are we going to have to go at it again?”

Ali was laughing so hard he was crying. Ha ha.

Later, Frazier and Ali sat side by side at the All-Star Game. And all the NBA players looked up at them with reverance and awe.

This is a fun book. Anyone who lived through the ’60s and ’70s and followed Smokin’ Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali in real time and “The Fight Of The Century!!” and all that will enjoy reading this autobiography and re-living it all. And it even made me cry at the end when Joe and Ali finally buried the hatchet.

One Joe Frazier trivia: People might remember that Joe wanted to break into show business and toured the clubs with his band — Joe Frazier and the Knockouts. And predictably he liked James Brown and Marvin Gaye and Ray Charles and all that stuff. But one of his favorite songs was “Proud Mary” by Creedance Clearwater Revival (El Ceritto’s finest). He’d ride around town in his Cadillac and say to his backup singer who was riding along with him whenever that song came on the radio. “Let’s sing this one again.” She’d think: “Not again, Joe.” But then they’d sing along one more time. Practicing their harmonies. Ha ha.

A HIGHER LOYALTY by James Comey: a book review

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Among many other things, the book offers up interesting first-hand descriptions of the three presidents Comey worked with: Bush Jr., Obama, and Trump. Having the most favorable opinion of Obama (“I couldn’t believe a person as intelligent as Obama could be elected president.”). Describes Bush as having a sense of humor, but usually at the expense of others and as a way to assert himself on the top of the hierarchy. And he’s scathing about Trump.

 

James Comey, in this memoir, comes across as a pretty thoughtful person who spends a lot of time considering other people’s perspectives (as opposed to just projecting his own). Of course its fascinating to see how Comey got caught in the middle of the 2016 presidential election. And of his many critics, and the incredible amount of shit he took from people on BOTH sides, he wryly points out that “most of them would do what would be best for their favorite team.” As opposed to things like, oh, rules of law,  truthfulness, or a higher loyalty (hence the title).

And he said that one particular tweet captured the feelings of the times: “That Comey is such a political hack. I just can’t figure out which party.” Ha ha.

Right or wrong with some of the decisions he made, Comey comes across as a very questioning person who sincerely wanted to do the right thing, what was right for the country. While surrounded by people screaming for “their side.” Period.  I don’t question Comey’s integrity. But I’m not completely sold on his intelligence and judgment.  Admittedly Comey was in a difficult position. A “damned if you do damned if you don’t” position. The fact that, at various times, he was getting equal shit from both the Democrats AND the Republicans probably speaks volumes. Ha ha

He never seemed motivated by partisan politics. Always seemed to take great pains to be objective.
I DID question the wisdom of his decisions.  Announcing an FBI investigation into Hillary’s emails just days before the election was probably bad judgment. It tainted Hillary at a crucial juncture. And since the public wouldn’t get the full results until AFTER the election, it was like a “cloud of suspicion” that couldn’t be refuted.

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Comey is one of the many, many people Hillary Clinton blames for her loss in the 2016 presidential election.

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Comey spends a lot of time in the book debating about — and explaining — why he made that fateful decision. To announce the FBI investigation of Hillary’s emails days before the election. Basically he felt that if there WAS something seriously damaging in Hillary’s emails, it would have looked like a “cover-up” by the FBI if they didn’t publicly announce the investigation.

But heres the dumb part. Comey — like most people — assumed Hillary was gonna win by a landslide anyways. So he felt it wouldn’t make any difference anyways.

Wrong.

PS. There WAS quite a bit of damaging stuff on those emails. These were the Hillary emails that for some unknown reason had ended up on the computer of Anthony Wiener, the husband of Hillary’s closest aide. Aside from sex texts that Wiener had sent to minors — which further tainted Hillary’s campaign. There was quite a bit of classified emails that Hillary should have never let get on somebody else’s computer. There were also a large number of “work-related” emails that Hillary had never released to the FBI during a previous investigation. When she had claimed at the time that she had released all of her work-related emails.

For what its worth Comey’s wife and daughter were ardent Hillary supporters. Comey himself claims that he was so disgusted by the behavior of BOTH parties that he ended up not voting.

One oddity in the book. Comey — who is 6-foot-8 — claims he was constantly bullied when he was in high school. I went to the same high school as Comey (Northern Highlands) and I was one of the smallest kids in my class but I never got bullied. Sheesh.

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The part where Comey meets Trump for the first time right after the election is particularly fascinating. One thing about Comey, he has a well-developed ability to “read” people — a trait you’d expect from a lifelong investigator. And he notices the subtle nuances of people’s behavior that reveal their character (for example Comey noticed something about Trump that has always deeply disturbed me — in the thousands and thousands of hours that Trump has been captured on video, he couldn’t find a single example where Trump laughed). Comey is particularly scathing writing about Trump’s character. Virtually every sentence screams out the unspoken message: HE’S UNFIT TO BE PRESIDENT!!

Comey meets Trump and his team for the first time at Trump Tower. And seeing them all sitting there, Comey couldn’t shake his first impression that they reminded him of a bunch of La Cosa Nostra members hanging out at one their clubs. And, like the Mafioso, Trump constantly conveyed the message: You’re either part of our family or you’re the enemy. At one point — to Comey’s great surprise — Trump even asked the FBI director how they should spin this meeting to the press — already assuming Comey was part of his team.

At a second meeting Trump repeatedly tells Comey he expects “loyalty” from him, and implies that he’ll fire him if he isn’t sufficiently loyal. Comey responded that his only loyalty was to “honesty.” And repeatedly tried to explain to Trump that the FBI by its nature must remain independent from the White House, and couldn’t be involved in partisan politics. An explanation that went in one ear and out the other with Trump.

During a third meeting, Comey actually dared to disagree with one of Trump’s opinions. “At that remark, Trump stopped talking altogether. I could see something change in his eyes. A hardness, a darkness. He looked like someone who wasn’t used to being challenged or corrected. The meeting was done.” Later at FBI headquarters Comey told his staff, “I probably ended any personal relationship with the president with that move.”

How Trump fired Comey was absolutely outrageous and classless. He totally broad-sided Comey, with no prior warning or even an explanation. Comey was in Los Angeles speaking at an FBI convention. And Comey is at the airport and he sees on the TV screen the headline: “Comey has been fired.” That’s how he found out about it. . . Then, Trump was outraged when he learned that Comey took the FBI plane back to D.C. since Comey was no longer a member of the FBI. Like Comey is supposed to hitch-hike cross-country to get home or something. . . And then Trump barred Comey from ever entering FBI property. So Comey had to get somebody else to pack up his office.
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Comey is pretty sharp with the details. But he’s often not so good at seeing the big picture. For example, after going through all of Hillary’s emails that were on Wiener’s computer, he ended the investigation by clearing Hillary of all wrong-doing. But for some inexplicable reason,
1.) Comey never got around to asking Hillary HOW all of her emails got on Wiener’s computer in the first place.
2.) Comey never asked Hillary WHY classified information was on the computer of a private citizen.
3.) Nor did he ask Hillary why she had previously claimed that the 30,000 emails that she turned over to the FBI at the beginning of the investigation were ALL of her work-related emails, when hundreds of thousands of MORE work-related emails were found on Wiener’s computer.
4.) Nor did he question her as to why there were many gaps — often 2 or 3 month periods — from which they could find NO Hillary emails, and often during those time periods that were most pertinent to the investigation. (In fact, Comey never talked to Hillary even once.  About anything.)
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All in all, the most disturbing thing about the book is Comey’s portrait of Trump, a man who never laughs and never tolerates a dissenting opinion, surrounding himself with yes-men. And not particularly bright (at one point Trump is admiring the beautiful lettering on a hand-written menu.  “It’s caligraphy,” said Comey.  “No, it’s hand-written,” corrected Trump. Ha ha.)
Comey concludes at the end of the book: “Donald Trump’s presidency threatens much of what is good in this nation. The president is unethical and untethered to truth and institutional values. His leadership is transactional, ego-driven, and about personal loyalty.”

So there you go.

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LOU REED: A LIFE: a book review

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LOU REED: A LIFE by Anthony DeCurtis

 

Probably nobody has acted like more of an asshole, and yet ended up more beloved by more people, than Lou Reed.

As one of the first rock stars to openly sing about gay themes in the 1960s, many of Lou Reed’s songs became anthems for the burgeoning gay rights movement of the ’60s and ’70s, the Stonewall riots and all that. And Reed was considered a hero and an inspiration to many people in the gay community. When Lou Reed became aware of this — ever the contrarian — he said: “For my next album I might write a song ‘Get Back in the Closet You Fucking Queers.'”

Ha ha. Fucking Lou Reed.

People constantly speculated about Lou Reed’s sexuality. He was an enthusiastic participant in the NYC gay underworld; the gay bars and bathhouses and S&M clubs. And he lived for 3 years with a drag queen boyfriend. But he also married 3 women and had long-term relationships with women.

My hunch is that he was primarily sexually attracted to men. But was attracted to women as mother figures and nurturers. Not to get too Freudian, he hated his father who was a cold person, while his mother always worshiped and doted on him.

 Its interesting how highly esteemed Lou Reed was in the rock world, considering he mostly had middling record sales. Only a couple of his albums sold really well. Most of the rest of them were disappointing commercially. And he only had one hit single “Walk on the Wild Side.” Which was probably more because of David Bowie’s golden touch as producer than Lou Reed’s commercial appeal. And yet Lou Reed was considered a legend and one of the all time greats by his peers.

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Lou Reed’s songs were deceptively simple. Probably nobody got more mileage out of 3 chords (and a limited vocal range) than Lou Reed. But as simple and repetitive as they could often be, at their best they were incredibly catchy and nuanced. Especially those songs he wrote for the Velvet Underground in the 60s, and his classics (Sweet Jane, etc ) in the 70s.
So distinctive and singular was Lou Reed’s style, he was virtually a genre unto himself.

As a person Lou Reed was incredibly prickly, abrasive, arrogant, self-centered, narcissistic. In a typically grotesque scene in this bio, Reed is being interviewed by a writer who is going to write the liner notes for a very prestigious boxed set of Lou Reed’s work. During the course of the interview Reed has to go to his bank to get some money from his ATM. Reed is waiting on line at the ATM when he notices a homeless guy sleeping in the vestibule. “THAT’S DISGUSTING!” says Lou Reed. He actually goes into the bank and tells the bank manager that he wants the homeless guy kicked out immediately.

The writer of this bio — who was otherwise a huge Lou Reed fan — was repulsed by this exchange. “No question the image of Lou Reed, of all people, kicking a needy person out of a bank into the freezing cold is like something out of Dickens — just so that he could have a more pleasant experience as he waited to withdraw his money. It’s as potent a symbol of 1% selfishness as can be conjured.”

Lou Reed was always a paradox and a contradiction. Self-destructive AND self-affirming (“their lives were saved by rock’n’roll!”). Degenerate nihilist (“Heroin!!”) AND idealistic romantic (“I’ll be your mirror.”).

Probably very few artists ended up being more identified with the city where they lived than Lou Reed and New York City. Reed was the quintessential New Yorker. On 9-11 Reed was living about a mile from the World Trade Center. He climbed up to the roof of his apartment building and watched as the buildings burned and people jumped to their deaths.

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Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson.

Lou Reed was definitely ahead of his times when it came to the ’60s drug culture. Reed was smoking pot and taking speed, eating peyote, and even slamming heroin when he was still in his teens in the early ’60s way before drugs hit the mainstream. Precocious bastard. He caught hepatitis from a dirty needle when he was still in his teens. And it eventually killed him. But he somehow made it to 71.

“Lou was always more advanced than the rest of us,” said a childhood friend. “While we were looking at girls in Playboy, Lou was reading The Story of O. He was reading Marquis de Sade, stuff that I wouldn’t even have thought about or known how to find.”

When he was 17 Lou Reed had a complete nervous breakdown. So his parents forced him to undergo electro-shock therapy. In the hopes that it would “cure” Lou of his depression and homosexuality (which was considered a form of mental illness back in the 60s). Lou Reed said the electro-shock mostly just wiped out large parts of his memory. And he hated his parents for the rest of his life for inflicting that on him.

The bio was written by a longtime fan and admirer of Lou Reed, and one of the few critics that Reed genuinely liked. The author shows Reed’s “asshole” side but its not a hit piece. Its a well-rounded portrait of an artist and a man. And if you’re a Lou Reed fan you’ll probably love the book.

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