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THE BEST OF 1988 – for Japan Times

A personal selection by Anton Graham

With holidays here again, you may be wondering what to do with yourself. You could do worse than turn on the hi-fi and curl up with a good book. To give you some ideas of what to curl up with, here is my personal list of the best books and music of 1988 (The books were not necessary published in 1988, although probably most were, at least in paperback – I just happened to read them this year):

The book of the year in my, er, book was the rock and roll memoir I’m With The Band, reminiscences by ex-groupie Pamela Des Barres. She never slept with a Beatle, but she did most of the rest of the top ten, and recounts the experience of those frantic years in an amusing and articulate fashion. It’s social history, spiced up with juicy gossip and priceless anecdotes. Also heart-stopping for anyone (like me) with a daughter.

Close behind came P.J. O’Rourke’s Republican Party Reptiles, a collection of articles by one of America’s funniest writers, including “A Long, Thoughtful Look Back At The Last Fifteen Minutes”. Witty, astute and totally off the wall.

In the crime/thriller section, number one for the year has to be Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, superbly written and plotted. All my guesses as to who did it were wrong.

Politics? Nothing could beat Peter Wright’s Spy-Catcher, which Mrs Thatcher tried so hard to ban. It was better than any Le Carre novel because you know it all really happened. A rare insight into how the world really works, even if he should be ashamed of himself for betraying his trust as a civil servant.

In the history section, book of the year was Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore, an account of the penal colony that became Australia. Well researched and beautifully written. His description on page one of Australia pre-Captain Cook — “locked in its historical immensity of blue heat, bush, sandstone and the measured booming of glassy Pacific rollers” — gives you a hint of this book’s quality.

For those interested in China, may I recommend Frank CHING’s Ancestors, a history of a Chinese family over the past 800 years by a Chinese-American journalist. The best China book for a while.

Honourable mentions go to the bitchy Sinatra biography His Way by Kitty Kelley, Edward Behr’s Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English? – a journalist’s memoir full of interesting anecdotes and historical footnotes, the complete Yes Minister scripts and the Tales of the City series by Armisted Maupin, five books which follow the adventures of a number of people of various sexual persuasions in San Francisco. Intelligent humour.

Last but not least, Rice Scott’s Son of It Was A Dark and Stormy Night — the follow-up to his collection of first sentences from the worst novels never written. More laughs per page than any other book I know. Random sample:

“The countdown had stalled at T minus 69 seconds when Desiree, the first female ape to go into space, winked at me slyly and pouted her thick, rubbery lips unmistakably – the first of many such advances during what would prove to be the longest, and most memorable, space voyage of my career.”

* * * *

And here’s some music to listen to while reading the Best Books of 1988. Jazz and pop only …

The best pop music of the year was produced by re-juvenated old timers, my favorites being Joni Mitchell’s Chalk Marks in the Rain, Robert Plant’s Now and Zen and Steve Winwood’s Roll With It. All three artists have managed to absorb rather than succumb to modern music technology and emerge better for it. Strong songs, well produced and sung with the confidence of long experience.

Tom Waits redeemed himself after producing the appalling Frank’s Wild Years in 1987. This year’s offering, a live album called Big Time, was good. He may never recover the genius which produced such mid-1970s gutter poetry classics as Small Change and Foreign Affairs, but listening to Big Time, you have to wonder how he happens to be still alive at all.

Leonard Cohen also convinced his record company to put out another bunch of tunes under the title I’m Your Man. The voice is as bad and as haunting as ever. No classics here to match Bird on a Wire, but good music.

On the jazz front, the bad news of the year was that Pat Metheny did not produce an album. But he played in Tokyo, and is scheduled to do a few more concerts here in mid-January.

The best jazz album of the year was the soundtrack from the movie Bird. Charlie Parker’s inspired playing digitally lifted off the old records and seamlessly plastered onto a new backing. Some of his melodies make me wince with pleasure time and again.

Also worth listening to are drummer Tony Williams’ Angel Street which has more tunes and melody than most drummer albums, and an album by Lyle Mays, keyboard player with Pat Metheny, called Sweet Dreams. The best jazz album of 1987 was Michael Brecker’s first solo album. He produced a follow-up this year called Don’t Try This At Home, but to my great regret, I have to say the title says it all.

The re-issue I enjoyed most was the cool-guy sax of Art Pepper on the complete Alladin recordings from the mid-1950s.

Donald Fagan of Steely Dan fame has still yet to produce a follow-up to his Nightfly album of 1983 — this blatant waste of talent is nothing short of criminal — but a group of Steely Dan fans put together a good collection of jazzified instrumental versions of Steely tunes under the name Hoops McCann Band (Hoops McCann is a character in one Steely song).

Frank Zappa started to release a monster collection of live tapes during 1988. Recommended is You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol 1, which bears constant re-playing and proves once again that Zappa is the Einstein of rock and roll.

I never thought I would say this, but Barry Manilow produced a good album in 1988, too. I’ve hated the man for years, but Swing Street is great. There’s one dud on it – a useless cover of the standard Summertime. But a gem called Brooklyn Blues more than makes up for that.

My god, I’ve recommended a Barry Manilow album. Roll on 1989.

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