I’ve mentioned my review of Neil Strauss’ current bestseller, The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists. The book has spent six weeks on the New York Times list, was optioned for film production, and has been featured in numerous major media outlets. To go along with that book, I thought it would be interesting to provide a brief roundup of Strauss’ other work as well. When someone works as a ghost-writer, even when they are given credit, it’s difficult to definitively critique their work. How much was Strauss? How much was the co-author or subject? Who was responsible for what? Nevertheless, some general thoughts came to mind while glancing at the titles on my bookshelf. Check out his string of hits below, and click on the image to buy any of these great reads.
Strauss’ first book was my least favorite book of the bunch. Admittedly, I’m not a Marilyn Manson fan so it’s hard to know if my criticisms are literary objections to the book or if my opinions are just too discolored by my attitudes about the musician. I do remember when this book first came out and I recall picking it up many, many times in the bookstore. It’s an amazing looking book with an intricate and eye-catching design. The look of the book made me want to buy it, in spite of my antipathy for Manson. I wouldn’t describe the design as elegant, but it shouldn’t be. It’s lurid and dizzying, which suits the subject matter perfectly. It certainly signaled the amazing design work that has become a hallmark of all Neil Strauss books. The book is well-written and exhaustive in its detail. When describing Manson’s grandfather’s basement, you can absolutely smell the mustiness and feel the pine needles digging into the young boy’s arm, so that aspect of the book is great. But, the negative is that I felt the book didn’t completely explain Manson’s genesis. Certain experiences that would seem to be pivotal, such as when a neighbor molests Manson in a dumbwaiter, are tossed aside in one or two paragraphs while apparently less important experiences are discussed in detail. Manson is intelligent, I get that, he reminds us over and over again. He seems to think he was the only disillusioned smart kid in high school in America. But his constant assertions that his deviance was to show make some performance art point just wore on me after a while. As you’ll see, I’m as big a fan of rock star debauchery as the next guy. Whether it’s Zeppelin and sharks or Gene Simmons and women with his face tattooed on their private parts, I’m willing to listen. But I got tired of Manson trying to couch everything with some higher level of meaning. Sometimes debauchery should just be debauchery and if you want to give head to the Nine Inch Nails guitarist onstage or you want to construct a helmet out of raw meat for a deaf girl to wear while you scotch tape penises together, then knock yourself out. But don’t try to claim you’re striking a blow at the hypocrisy of America in the process.
To mark the twentieth anniversary of the Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 single Rapper’s Delight, the makers of VIBE magazine asked more than fifty of the finest music writers available to weigh in on the history of hip hop. Strauss’ chapter, Rap and Rock is an unusual entry in this roundup as it’s the only work I’m discussing that he did not co-write or ghost-write with another artist. The words, the thoughts, and the voice are all his. A pivotal experience in Strauss’ journalism career was getting the scoop on a riot outside of a 1991 Public Enemy/Sonic Youth concert in Chicago. Most media outlets portrayed the incident as a rap riot (yet another incident that proves hip hop incites violence) or as a race riot (evidence that rock’s white fans and rap’s black fans shouldn’t mix and neither should the music). As Strauss pointed out at the time, the real cause of the conflict was a Gulf War protestor clashing with overzealous police but the faulty media accounts helped build the supposed barrier between rock and rap. “However, the truth is that since hip hop’s earliest days the two had been crossbreeding peacefully. Yet at the same time, the two always remained irrevocably separate genres and lifestyles,” Strauss writes. In this informed and insightful essay, Strauss shows what a talented music critic and writer can do. Too often these days, music writing is reduced to twenty five words or less about the latest Ashlee Simpson disc so it’s a pleasure to see what an intelligent musicologist can do when given the opportunity to stretch out and fully examine a topic.
By the way, if anyone is interested in a little extra credit… there is another piece of Strauss’ writing that has been collected and published in book form. Here’s your hint: it was compiled by the editors at US Weekly but luckily he wasn’t forced to write anything like the Stars–They’re Just Like Us! section with breaking news such as “their dogs take naps!”
This past weekend, VH1 ran a repeat of their marathon 100 Most Metal Moments countdown. Coming in at number four, and described by Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach (not necessarily someone who is going to challenge Harold Bloom or Terry Eagleton as literary critics, but we’ll go with the endorsement) as “one of the greatest books ever written by a human,” Strauss’ collaboration with Motley Crue is a testament to rock and roll debauchery that no music fan should be without. I inhaled this book when it first came out and all the dirt is indeed presented here: the drugs, the women, the booze. I mean, who ever thought of filling a syringe with alcohol and injecting it? The most interesting development in this book is that each chapter is written by the various members of the band, with Strauss’ help, so you get to see all sides to the story. This is especially effective when the band starts to split apart and singer Vince Neil either quits or is kicked out, depending on which chapter you’re reading. This is a great book that makes you feel like you need a shower after reading it. Perhaps the best compliment I can give The Dirt is that a pasty, euro-wannabe friend of mine loved it. This pal is an avowed techno and house music freak. He despises anything with a guitar that sounds like a human actually created it. He hates the sexism, the volume, and the lack of brain-power that he feels characterizes heavy metal. And yet, while visiting me, he picked this book off the shelf, devoured it in one sitting, and still to this day refers to what a great read it is.
I don’t have access to Bookscan figures so I can’t tell you exactly how many copies this sold, but if I had to place a bet, I would wager this is the most successful of Strauss’ four appearances on the New York Times bestseller list. Presented in the form of a diary, this book tells the rags to riches story of the most popular and well-known porn star ever. Once again, the best compliment that I can give this book is not that I liked it, but rather that a female friend who had never seen an adult film read it and raved. She said she felt like she understood Jameson’s life, that she could identify with many of her struggles, and that in a weird way, she admired the star’s ability to take control of her life and become one of the most successful people in her profession. How to Make Love Like a Porn Star also marked the first collaboration between Strauss and cartoonist Bernard Chang. Strauss felt that parts of the Jameson story were so dark that some comic-relief would be useful so he enlisted Chang to create cartoons about topics such as suitcase pimps. Chang’s comic work later appears in The Game.
This book starts with a jolt. Guitarist Dave Navarro asks Strauss if he knows what to do when someone shoots up too much. Strauss writes that the question made “it clear that I had more than a life story on my hands: I had a life. Not a series of past events filtered through the dirty grate of memory, but a heart that was still beating. To document the beating of that heart was the goal, and if the past was relevant at all, it was only as the blood that coursed through that heart gave it a reason to beat. Or to not beat. Because at times, that heart didn’t want to beat.” As Navarro descended into more and more dire drug use, he installed a photo booth in his Hollywood home. Every visitor to the residence had to sit for snapshots in the booth. What follows over the next year is a document, complete with photos, of Strauss’ observation of Navarro drifting away. This book is an interesting departure from the others in that Strauss features his own thoughts and opinions in the text, at times even presenting conversations and arguments between the writer and the musician. As usual, this book is well-designed and interesting, presenting hundreds of the photos from that infamous booth. One final interesting note about this Navarro book is that at the end, on the very last page, Strauss writes “As I type this in the kitchen of my Hollywood home, I am trying not to make too much noise: I don’t want to wake up my houseguest.” As readers of The Game know, that houseguest is a very famous female rockstar and this brief mention in one book provides an intriguing connection to another book.