Category Archives: Books

Bromancing the Stone: Roger Stone dishes on Trump, Florida and political combat

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“They may call me a dirty trickster. I’m a real partisan; I’ve got sharp elbows. But there’s on thing that isn’t in my bag of tricks: treason.” Roger Stone has never backed away from a fight; indeed, he almost relishes starting them. Stone has been a human melee weapon, wielded to great effect in some of the biggest political brawls of the past half-century, dating back to his earliest years in the crucible that was the Nixon White House.

“1968 and 2016 were very similar, in many ways,” he says. “Just as leaders, Donald Trump and Nixon are similar. They’re both really pragmatists, neither is an ideologue, they’re both essentially populists with conservative instincts. … Both of them are very persistent, both of them had to come back from disaster.” The opposition is praying for further disaster, and they may well get their wish. To that end, Stone is one of several Trump affiliates under investigation for their dealings with various foreign nationals whose efforts helped facilitate Trump’s victory.

Stone’s newest book, “The Making of the President 2016: How Donald Trump Orchestrated a Revolution” (Skyhorse Publishing) lifts its title from the seminal series written every four years between 1960 and 1980 by journalist Theodore H. White (1915-1986), a quintessential DC Beltway insider who is, no doubt, spinning in his grave as we speak. One can’t help but view this choice as high-level trolling of the first order, which is his forte.

The subtitle is cunningly phrased, as every conceivable meaning of the words “orchestrated” and “revolution” seem to fit in this case. Speaking of which, Stone’s book notes the crucial role of one revolution—that waged in the Democratic primary by Bernie Sanders—in helping foreshadow the future president’s. “In many ways, Trump and Bernie, they’re riding the same wave. Donald’s voters think these trade deals have fucked America, and Bernie’s voters think these trade deals have fucked America. … And also, new voters: Both Trump and Bernie Sanders attract new voters in the primaries. It’s just more people upset about the so-called ‘rigged system’. Bernie rags constantly about the corruption and the power of Wall Street; so does Trump. So I think they’re very similar.”

This similarity was noted early on, and was key to Trump’s victory, according to Stone. “In order to win, Trump had to win three of ten Sanders voters, and he did.” Despite being a nominal frontrunner, Hillary Clinton was burdened with a top-heavy hierarchical campaign, largely disconnected from political reality. For all her billions spent, that money was squandered on failed strategies and poor logistics, reaching a peak as Trump barnstormed battleground states in the closing days, while Hillary had already begun taking victory laps. The Clintons expended so much time and energy fending off the Sanders insurgency that they never really got a handle on what awaited them in the general.

“I think they made the exact same mistake as did Jimmy Carter,” says Stone, who worked for Ronald Reagan in 1980. “The Clintons misunderstood Trump’s appeal. They didn’t think that his simple messaging would be credible; they didn’t understand that Trump talks more like average people than elites. The underestimated both his skill as a candidate, they underestimated his skill as a communicator, and they underestimated his ability to land a punch.”

When Trump first declared for president in 2015, there was almost no one who thought the man had any chance at all—except for Stone, who had raised the very possibility as early as 1988, when he arranged a meeting between Trump and his earliest political benefactor, Richard Nixon. “It certainly seemed possible to me, but let’s recognize that I’m a professional political operative, and I had at that point nine individual presidential campaigns in which I’m playing a senior role as experience. Plus I’ve known Donald Trump for 39 years; I have a very keen knowledge of his management style, his style on the stump, so I understand a lot of the basis of his appeal. … Trump is a giant, and he ran against a lot of career politicians who were essentially pygmies.”

As usual, Florida was a decisive factor in the election, and Stone expects that to continue in 2018. “Florida has proven once again to be the ultimate purple state. It truly is a state that’s always competitive in a presidential race, and less competitive, leaning slightly Republican, in a non-presidential race. The Democrats in Florida, because they have been out of power in the legislature so long, and because they have (generally-speaking) not done well in local offices, they really have no bench. They are yet to come up with a candidate who is a viable candidate for governor. It’s WAY too early to try to determine how Trump’s candidacy will impact the Florida electorate; it’s an entirely open question. Trump could be exceedingly popular, if he sticks to his agenda and gets things done by the mid-terms, or he could be unpopular, theoretically, for any number of reasons. But in politics, a year is a lifetime.”

Speaking of Florida, 2018 will be the first year in nearly three decades in which the shadow of Jeb Bush will not be blanketing the states political landscape, and by Stone’s reckoning, you can thank Trump for putting our former governor into permanent retirement. “If Jeb had stayed in the race, and there had been another debate, Trump was prepared to say, ‘Jeb, the [FDLE] had over 22 individual tips about the 9/11 hijackers training in Sarasota; you seem to have done nothing with that information. Don’t you think you could have stopped the attack on America if you had actually done something?’ That was coming, and I think Jeb knew it was coming, and of course that’s all documentable. Only Trump would’ve had the courage to do something like that.”

Today, at 64, Stone is prepping for what may be his biggest fight to date, waged on behalf of his good friend, President Donald J. Trump, whose election was somewhat controversial, to say the least. Although Stone has not officially worked for Trump since last fall, he remains very much in the mix, as far as the president’s wider circle of advisors and adjutants. Indeed, the fact is that the very idea of Donald Trump as POTUS originates in the always-fertile mind of Roger Stone, who never stops thinking of new angles and novel approaches to shaking up the political status quo. Of course, a lot of folks really wish he would stop, but after last year, that seems unlikely.

Whereas most folks tend to get all shy and introspective when talk of subpoenas begins, Stone is embracing his opportunity to face off with congressional Democrats before a live, mainstream audience. Having served in the White House under presidents Nixon and Reagan, Stone is by no means a stranger in Beltway circles, but his appearance at the Capitol will mark, for many national observers, their initial introduction to a man that, without whom, everything would be different today.

Stone has still not appeared before Congress at press-time, but he has made no secret of his enthusiasm. “They dragged my name through the mud in a public hearing. Several statements made by members were just flatly incorrect, others were chronologically out of order, and still others were written in such a pejorative way that I must have the opportunity to take that language and re-tell it my way, and then bitch-slap the member for his partisanship. … Here’s my proposal: Waive your congressional immunity, so I may sue you, and we’ll let a judge and jury decide if you have slimed me. And you know they won’t do that.”

sheltonhull@gmail.com

March 28, 2017

 

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Tony Allen: an Autobiography of the Master Drummer of Afrobeat, by Tony Allen and Michael E. Veal. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 192 pp, illustrated.

“There would be no Afrobeat without Tony Allen,” said the late great Fela Kuti (1938-1997), leader of the Africa 70—originally Koola Lobitos, later the Nigeria 80. Together he and Allen rose together from their early years in Nigeria’s ‘Highlife” scene to the peaks of global prominence, together they built one of the hardest-hitting and smoothest-swinging big-bands of all time—a band as tight as Ellington’s or Benny Goodman’s, yet as expansive in sound as the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis group–and that’s only speaking as far as the jazz aspects of it. There are infinite other angles, as the reader likely knows already.

As weird as Sun Ra and as socially-relevant as James Brown, Fela’s music has only grown in popularity since his death, and the most indispensable component of his singular sound was his drummer, Tony Allen, whose memoir was published last month. His co-author, Michael E. Veal, previously wrote a well-received biography of Fela, so he entered the project already prepared and predisposed to tell Allen’s story with the fidelity it merits.

Tony Oladipo Allen was born in Nigeria’s capital city of Lagos on August 12, 1940—well, that’s what Wikipedia says; Allen declares his birthday as July 20 on page 21. The book’s first 40-plus pages covers that early phase in his career before he linked up with Fela. Both men were highly influenced by jazz, and some of my favorite stuff in the book comes from this early session, where Allen describes the evolution of his own inimitable drum style in the context of drummers who came before—giants like Gene Krupa, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones and Max Roach. This section also covers serves as a nice overview of what the Nigerian music scene was like before Fela’s crew became the dominant band of that era, in the process bringing Nigerian culture into the mainstream for the first time. The pages are peppered with long-forgotten names, and in that sense the authors have really done a service, not just for musicologists but for their country.

His career as a professional musician began around 1960. One of his earliest serious gig was drumming for Sivor Lawson and the Cool Cats when they opened for Louis Armstrong in 1960; he notes the great impression left his Pops’ drummer, Danny Barcelona (1929-2007), who became one of his first of his many friends working in western music. Allen himself would later become a major player in the fusion of African and Euro-American musical concepts, starting with the infamous Fela recordings with Ginger Baker, the former drummer for Cream. Baker lived in Nigeria for the first half of the 1970s, and his collaboration with Allen and Africa 70 became one of the great “percussion discussions” ever put to wax; their 16-minute drum battle (from 1978) is appended to the CD reissue of Fela’s album Live! (Capitol/EMI, 1971).

Personally, my first experience with Tony Allen’s solo material came via the World Music section of the Jacksonville Public Library, downtown. There was a compilation CD of music from Nigeria, and one of the tracks remains my favorite of his: “Get Together”, whose locomotive beat, fat bass lines and vocal harmonies—understated, but resonant—offered an ideal introduction to the man’s work. I still put it on mixes and such, a decade later.

Casual fans may recall the song “Heat”, by Common, an instant-classic from his Like Water For Chocolate album (MCA, 2000); was built around a beat J. Dilla sampled from Allen’s “Asiko”, track one on 1999’s Black Voices.

As it turns out, Allen’s experience extends well before and after his tenure (1968-79) with Africa 70, and this book really helps flesh out that history. The concert in Berlin that yielded the drum battle with Baker in 1978 was also Allen’s last as a member of Africa 70. By that point, the band had undergone significant trauma, much of it focused on the leader himself, who had made powerful enemies with his brazen critiques of Nigeria’s military dictatorship. Only by coincidence was Allen not at Fela’s home (known as the “Kalakuta Republic”) when it was raided by a thousand soldiers of the Nigerian military in 1977; it one of the most brutal examples of state-sponsored suppression of art in the post-war era. Fela was nearly beaten to death, his life only spared by an officer’s intervention, but the compound was burned to the ground along with his studio, his instruments and master-tapes. Worst of all, Fela’s mother was defenestrated through of a second-story window, causing fatal injuries, and one of the soldiers shit on her face afterwards. Neither Fela nor his music were ever the same again, and neither would Tony Allen.

Allen’s final break with Fela comes on page 127, and the remaining 58 pages covers the years after, as the author became an ambassador of Afrobeat and a touring act in great demand around the world. His solo work displays the same inimitable rhythms he pioneered with Fela, but the music itself is quite different; Allen long ago began to fuse his native sounds with the emergent aesthetic of hip-hop resulting in some of the most compelling music of the past 30 years.

There’s really very little, if anything, to complain about here, but for exactitude’s sake, a few quick points. First, this book would’ve benefitted from a few sparse footnotes, offering biographical details of some of the artists Allen mentions in the text. Many of the names will be familiar to casual fans, but a lot of them will be unknown and obscure even to obsessive fans of Afrobeat; in some cases, there is literally no information available about them at all. The book walks us back through the rise and evolution of the music, but footnotes would’ve helped flesh out the narrative and situate Allen’s work more comfortably in its broader context. To that end, while the book has a decent selected discography also could’ve used a sessionography—although that, too, is a minor complaint, since that information is available online, for anyone who might be interested.

All in all, Allen and Veal have combined to tell one of the most remarkable stories of the last 40 years of music history. They have also managed to flesh out the history of a man who has never quite been recognized for the vastness of his influence. Ultimately, Tony Allen deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as legends like Clyde Stubblefield, Al Jackson Jr. and Bernard Purdie—a true innovator, and master of a sound that would simply not exist without his efforts. That is a fact, and hopefully it will become even more apparent as time goes by.

Book review: “The Squared Circle”

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The Squared Circle: Life, Death and Professional Wrestling, by David Shoemaker, aka “The Masked Man”. New York: Gotham Books/Penguin. 386pp, ill.

David Shoemaker’s The Squared Circle is only the latest entry into a literary market already well-saturated with books about professional wrestling. Most of these books have been hagiographical scribblings by ghostwriters, passing themselves off as memoir; these books are useful, given their access to the subject at hand, but they often fail to pass muster in terms of actual readability. Others have been written by outsiders, by fans and nominal wrestling “journalists”, some of whom are legit, while others are hacks who lucked into a small-press book deal.

Shoemaker’s book, however, is something of an anomaly within the genre—a full-length, hardcover book about wrestling published by a major imprint (or, at least, a subsidiary thereof) and handled with the sort of care that makes clear that, however bizarre and ridiculous pro-wrestling can be, the author retains real passion for a business that, frankly, makes no sense to the average person. In entertainment terms, pro-wrestling may be the ultimate niche market.

“This is a book about dead wrestlers,” he writes in the introduction, as if he’s offering the reader a spoiler alert for a pre-taped wrestling show that you personally attended. That is, there is no way to tell the story of professional wrestling over the past 30 years with any kind of historical accuracy without directly addressing the unprecedented wave of premature death that has befallen the business in that time, starting with that of David Von Erich in February 1984 and culminating with what the wrestling media now euphemizes as the “Benoit Family Tragedy” in June 2007.

Writing as “The Masked Man”, Shoemaker has done some of the most interesting writing about pro-wrestling in recent years, working mostly for Grantland and Deadspin. This book is not an anthology of that material; it’s rather takes a fresh look at a subject that has already been covered extensively from almost every conceivable angle. The fact that he manages to consistently generate new original insights speaks to his skill as a writer and, more important, his almost-intuitive grasp of what makes the business click. Shoemaker is at his best when explaining why certain characters resonated with fans as well as they did, breaking down their inner motivations and our own subconscious affinity with their message. Basically, he writes like someone who actually respects pro-wrestling; imagine that!

To say that The Squared Circle is a page-turner would be a gross understatement. Making the point more finely, it’s one of the more interesting wrestling books ever written by a non-wrestler. It has a good bit of new material that even seasoned fans will be unfamiliar with, but much of the stories spin around plots well-ingrained in the memories of casual fans from the ‘80s and ‘90s boom periods. Even so, Shoemaker renders all his information in a peppy, easy-to-digest style that, in itself, offers an object lesson in how the wrestling business has managed to achieve a new level of mainstream appeal that, while not as lucrative as in previous eras, is far more pervasive in the long-term, as well as the tragic price that so many stars paid for their success.

November 27, 2013

sheltonhull@gmail.com

Interview with Alessandra Altamura, author of “Music Club Toscana”

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Music Club Toscana: Music time stories, by Alessandra Altamura. Piombino, Italy: Edizioni IL FOGLIO. 192 pp. www.ilfoglioletterario.it

"Music Club Toscana" cover

It was mid-afternoon in late March when the postman’s knock interrupted my nap. (Being in journalistic exile leaves much room for napping, and other forms of self-reflection.) The package I signed for had ten stamps on it—five depicting the Terme Di Bonifacio VIII, and a row of five up top depicting the late singer Nino Reitano (1944-2009)—totaling 12.50 Euros, the equivalent of $16.07. Interesting: I hadn’t even opened the package yet, and I’d already learned something! That was to prove a useful omen.

Inside the envelope was a fresh new copy of the debut collection of 22 short-stories by Alessandra Altamura, an Italian-born literature teacher who turns 40 this November and graduated from the Liceo Classico Macchiavelli and the University of Pisa. The contents were pleasant, but of no surprise; I’d been waiting for it for a few days. Altamura, the author, had sent it off from her home in Lucca (near Pisa), in Tuscany in the great historic country of Italy on March 12. Two weeks days to travel across the Mediterranean, the European continent and the Atlantic Ocean seemed quite reasonable.

I was looking forward to seeing it for myself, and I was in no way disappointed. Music Club Toscana: Music time stories is a labor of love in the most literal sense; it combines her dual passions for music and her own native culture. Translated from the original Italian, the writing is vibrant and briskly-paced; the text moves fast over 192 pages. The book’s contents are like its packaging: smooth, compact and colorful. Speaking as someone who no longer makes regular practice of reading much fiction, I enjoyed the book immensely. After reading her book, I got the chance to briefly interview Ms. Altamura via email from New York City, where she arrived to begin her book tour last week.

SDH: How long did it take to write this book? Where did the idea come from?

AA: I wrote my book in a few months, less than one year, but I collected the material for these stories [over] my whole life. The idea comes from my love for music, especially live music. I have many friends who are musicians, also my brother plays the guitar. Other than that, music clubs are full of stories and characters.

SDH: Are your characters all real people, all fictional, or a combination?

AA: Some characters are real, with their real names, some are fictional and some are a mix of reality and fantasy.

SDH: What kind of music do you like?

AA: The first story was born in a club in Florence where my friends usually play, then came all the others. In the book there are many kinds of music, because each person needs a different kind of music. Personally I prefer jazz, the great songwriters and in general a music that makes people meet and think.

SDH: Which of the venues did you visit first?

AA: I visited first the places closest to my town. Lucca, Pisa, Florence. Then I went to the farest, like Siena, Arezzo or Grosseto, just to have a complete vision for my book.

SDH: Which venue in the book is your favorite?

AA: My favorite venue and also my favorite story is the one that takes place at Le Murate, that was the prison of Florence before becoming a club.

SDH: Tell me a bit about the lady who translated the book into English…

AA: Shayna Hobbs is a friend of a friend, who lived some time in Italy and taught me English. Now they live in Georgia and they will host me after Florida. oh, this is a funny thing, because each story is translated from a different friend. So in English there are really many characters and voices. Then a lady read it to see if there were mistakes. Maybe there are still some mistakes, because we did all quickly when I was leaving to London, but the English version is a proof that my friends love me…

SDH: Do you plan to write more books? Have you decided on the topic yet?

AA: I think to write another book, with stories that take place all over the world. In fact I’m trying to travel and know better other countries.

SDH: Who are your favorite Italian musicians?

AA: My favourite Italian musicians are the big songwriters, who are also poets: de Andrè, Fossati, Guccini, De Gregori and others. I went to the concerts of many of them and I liked much, but I’m sorry, because I never listened to a concert of de Andrè, before he died.

[She will be at Chamblin’s Uptown, in downtown Jacksonville, on Sunday, July 21 to sign copies and give a presentation on her work. If you’re into travel literature or jazz, it’s well-worth checking out.]

sheltonhull@gmail.com

July 19, 2013