Book Review: Brian May’s Red Special, The

By Ernest Barteldes

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Although not essentially a guitarist (my main instruments are the electric bass and the ukulele), for many years I have been a huge fan of Queen’s Brian May – not only his songwriting, which contrasts strongly with the style of his bandmates but also for the signature sound of his homemade Red Special guitar, which can be recognized immediately even if it is not on one of the band’s or his solo albums – for instance, its tone is distinctive on Joe Cocker’s performance of “With a Little Help From My Friends” at Queen Elizabeth II’s Jubilee Concert at Buckingham Palace in 2002 even though there were other guitarists on hand.

Other examples include Brazil’s Os Paralamas do Sucesso’s “El Vampiro Bajo El Sol, and Lady Gaga’s “You and I,” where May was prominently featured – even if some fans were not aware of it.

His guitar has always intrigued me – built with hand tools because he couldn’t afford his much-desired Gibsons or Fenders, the Red Special is an essential part of Queen’s sound so much that when it is not present (in tunes like “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” which featured a Fender Telecaster) you can actually hear the difference in sound and texture.

Many stories have been told about how the guitar was built, but until recently it hadn’t been the whole story from the beginning – which finally happened with Brian May’s Red Special: The Story Of The Home-Made Guitar That Rocked Queen And The World (Hal Leonard, Hardcover – $ 22.40 on Amazon), which brings the whole story together with rich illustrations of every piece of the guitar, which was painstakingly taken apart and photographed for this project.

Written by Brian May with the assistance of co-writer Simon Bradley, we follow May’s initial days learning the ukulele and then transitioning to the guitar – which brought the necessity of going electric as rock music invaded the airwaves of Great Britain via Radio Luxembourg – the same station that inspired The Beatles in the days before there was any kind of young music on the BBC.

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A young Brian May with his guitar (from Brianmay.com)

The writing style is quite conversational, but this being a musician who also happens to be an astrophysicist, things get a bit puzzling for the layman when he goes into the physics of acoustic resonance or when he describes the formula of calculating the distance between the guitar’s frets, which he sorted out using a computer at EMI’s laboratories while he interned there as a teenager.

In spite of those few moments that might go over one’s head a bit, it is a highly pleasurable read, and the illustrations  – which include early pictures of a short-haired Brian May playing with some of his early bands prior to his career with Queen and his signature (now gray) mane.

There is also a section with the different copies made of the Red Special over the years, and a description of his historic performance on the rooftop at Buckingham Palace, which was clearly much harder to put together than it sounds like.

The book is recommended not only for Queen fans but also for guitar enthusiasts in general – it’s rich enough in detail that one might want to build your own Red Special someday.

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The TV Networks Fear Conservative Backlash? Maybe.

By Ernest Barteldes

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I know this might be old news to some, but something in the televised media has been bothering me for a while, and it reached a boiling point when I heard a new show I discovered on Amazon Prime called “Good Girls Revolt” had been unceremoniously cancelled a month after its premiere – and more suspiciously following the 2016 presidential election – after only one season in spite of positive response by audiences and critics alike.

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For those who are unaware of it, the series is based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Lynn Povich that chronicled the 1970 sex-discrimination lawsuit brought by female researchers against Newsweek magazine because the publication’s editors policy of not allowing women get promoted to reporters or editors.

I discovered the series at random as I browsed content on my Amazon Video library (Renata and I recently installed a Fire Stick onto our TV) one day. I watched one episode and was hooked – the storyline is complex and so are the characters – the pilot episode introduces the characters in a busy newsroom at the New York headquarters of the fictional “News of The Week” (I guess they couldn’t license “Newsweek”) in late 1969. On that first episode a new researcher is hired – a young Norah Ephron (Grace Gummer) and quickly breaks the office rules by rewriting a reporter’s copy. After being scolded by one of the editors (Jim Belushi), she abruptly quits and sparks a revolt among the other ‘girls’ in the office, who decide to do something about it.

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As I watched the show I tried to learn more about it and was crushed to see that Amazon had let the show go and that no other network (streaming or otherwise) had picked it up. A piece on the Hollywood Reporter quoted co-star Genevieve Angelson’s tweet about it, which pointed at the election results as one of the causes for the show being pulled: “@Amazon dunno what to tell women, scared of their own president, who ask why you canceled a hit feminist show 30 days in.”

Her reaction got me thinking of another recent situation – in October 2016, NBC pulled an unaired Law & Order SVU episode based on the presidential election in which a Trump-inspired character is accused of sexually assaulting a woman. The episode was scheduled to run the day after the election but it following the upset on November 7th, the episode was pushed and still hasn’t been aired.

NBC might have reasons to fear backlash from the White House – after all, Trump is still credited as executive producer on “Celebrity Apprentice,” and during the campaign he made multiple appearances on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon (including a much-derided episode in which the host was a bit too friendly with the then-Republican nominee), but this is no reason not to run an episode of a show whose stories are, after all, “ripped from the headlines.”

But what would Amazon have to fear? Did they fear their conservative subscribers (who praised a piece of shit, thinly-veiled conservative documentary called “Silenced” in which

Book Review: Rita Lee’s Candid and Brutally Honest Autobiography

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By Ernest Barteldes

Rita Lee: Uma Autobiografia

Globo Livros

$ 8.99  Kindle Edition(in Portuguese)/ $ 38 paperback

The music of Brazilian rock superstar Rita Lee Jones has been part of my life as far as I can remember, starting from when her signature song “Ovelha Negra” hit Brazilian airwaves in the mid-1970s until pretty much present day, even if I haven’t yet listened to her 2012 release Reza (“Prayer”).  I have attended her shows over the years (including her last NYC appearance in 2003), and her music has been part of the soundtrack of my life along with every other musician or band that I have admired over the years.

When I heard that she had released an autobiography I was a bit curious but didn’t really make a point of reading immediately. However, my mother so kindly bought it for me as a Christmas present and I could not resist to crack the tome and find out what it was all about.

Like with any rock biography, readers tend to want the author to go straight to the stories behind the music, but since this is also her own story, we spend a few pages learning about Lee’s childhood and her relationship with her parents,  two sisters and extended family in a large house in Sao Paulo.  I was actually surprised to learn that she had quite a stable family life – she went to Communion with her family, and had a pretty normal life save for the horrible story in which Lee was raped with a screwdriver at seven years of age – and that the culprit was never caught.

When we get to the 60s, things get juicy, as she describes her years with Os Mutantes and their relationship with the Tropicalista movement started by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. We also learn the ugly side of the band and the way she was unceremoniously ousted from the band once the two Brandao brothers decided to take the band into a Yes-inspired progressive direction, and then we follow her entire career with details on the recording of every album she made all the way to her retirement, when she decided to stop touring and dedicate herself to family and a quieter lifestyle.

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The book is highly personal, and she does not gloss over the darker moments of her life, including her infamous 1976 arrest for drug possession while she was pregnant with her first son Beto Lee, her addictions and especially the self-destructive behavior that almost destroyed her relationship with husband and longtime songwriting partner Roberto de Carvalho. She is brutally honest when it comes to her disdain to the Mutantes reunion and also her detractors – especially late rock critic Ezequiel Neves, who openly hated her and printed his vitriol in the press with impunity, even spreading rumors about her health.

It is a very good read – it is not yet available in English, but it surely deserves to be translated even if it only reaches a small audience of her die-hard fans who did not have a chance to learn Portuguese, as suggested by the English lyrics of Caetano Veloso’s “Baby” – which she recorded with Os Mutantes, by the way.