Considering the Police's definitive place in the history of New Wave, it's initially surprising to hear them described as such mediocre, opportunistic, and profoundly flawed human beings. However, as the story unfolds, it becomes obvious that author Campion has a serious axe to grind, as his seemingly comprehensive tome on the band devolves into a feature-length exercise in character assassination, tinged liberally with a not-insignificant helping of judgement and smirk.
Much of the early section of the band's history casts them as ruthless manipulators of the punk movement, a group of schemers masquerading as serious-minded musicians to cash in on whatever trend could be ridden to riches, all the while insulting their audience's intelligence and good will. Campion seizes on the regular instances of disharmony - particularly between Sting and Stewart Copeland - as if this were proof positive that, beneath their marginal talents, this ground-breaking band could be reduced to a bad marriage that stayed together for the sake of kids. The only positive words are effusively heaped on Henri Padovani, the Police's original but fundamentally limited guitar player. Which, I guess, makes Andy Summers the homewrecker.
Of some distraction is the interspersing of New Wave historical information, and even here, the focus is squarely on Miles Copeland (the Police's manager), A&M Records (the Police's original label) and Copeland's Faulty Products / I.R.S. stable of performers (ie. Squeeze). Not only is this shockingly inadequate coverage of New Wave (even as an overview), but these sections veer away from the Police narrative regularly, leaving the listener wondering when the main story will resume.
In the later segments, Sting's solo career is cast as a cold and calculating exploration of jazz/world music and black musicians bordering, it is imagined, on racist exploitation. Too, Copeland's post-Synchronicity adventures are dismissed as desperate grasps at respectability, while Summers drifts aimlessly as an aging relic, lost without the band as his meal ticket.
Fred Berman's narration is clear and straightforward, though on multiple occasions he seems to unconsciously slip into a weak Sting vocal impression (the only character in the story for whom he does this), which at least underscores the prominent role Sting plays in the life and subsequent demise of the band. In being forced to deliver this literary hate-fest, he could probably be excused that one eccentric habit.
In a more honest assessment, I would assume that Campion would ultimately confess that, once upon a time, Sting stole his prom date, Summers wrecked his car, and Copeland shot his dog. Little else could explain this pointlessly negative hatchet job of a history. What could otherwise have been an effective and objective account of the Police's career (and the complicated dynamic between its headstrong members) is reduced to preachy diatribe (the word "petulant" is trotted out with exceeding regularity), which has the listener eventually hoping to quit walking on the moon and instead float out into the serene vacuum of space.
First, let me start by saying I LOVE HEART. Great records, great songs, great performances, and a wide variety of music - what's not to like? The early history of the band is a great story of finding one's way and overcoming adversity (ie. weight, the perceptions of others, etc.) to carve out a truly great body of work. There's also a very clear sense of exactly how the Wilson sisters ultimately came to holding full control of the band, edging out the founders in the process - and that's actually a compelling and rational part of the story, which doesn't leave a sense of false ownership. Really, the band's appeal was always squarely focused on the sisters (for better or worse), not the various other members. Hats off to Howard Leese, quite frankly, for sticking around as long as he did; he clearly contributed significant amounts to Heart's legacy.
As the story makes its way into the 80's, however, the tone changes from empowerment to embellishment. It is awkward to hear a pair of trail-blazers for women in music (a term they are tired of hearing, I'm sure) describe their 80's-era output of music in such calculating terms - that the outside-written songs were terrible, that their outfits were involuntarily foisted on them, that the image and direction of the band was seemingly out of their hands, etc. It would be easier to respect that period of their career if they took responsibility for the choices that characterized it - and make no mistake: these were choices within their power to direct otherwise, and they instead opted to pursue an adulterated image and made-to-order song selections to maintain their profile and popularity in an ever-changing musical landscape. Others have opted to remain absolutely true to their musical integrity, which has led to bands being dropped, independent recording, and overall downsized fame (or even flame-out) and audience base - but I'll bet the audience that stuck around for those bands were the true believers that recognized authenticity and an unwavering sense of purpose.
The Wilsons will unfortunately probably never know how many of their 80s-era fans were fans of them or of the highly processed pop music they were recording at that time. And, again - I love Heart, and I really love a lot of what was on those Capitol albums (Heart, Bad Animals, Brigade, even Desire Walks On), because a great pop song is a great pop song, and a great performance is priceless. I just wish they were proud enough of that period to take ownership for their part in it, rather than suggesting they were involuntary participants, which seems a bit like having your cake and eating it too (enjoying the popularity, but disdaining the artistic compromises that made it possible). Hell, I'm sure Pat Benatar is sick to death of "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" (an outside-written song, itself), but she still retains the pride of where that song took her to continue performing it in concert - a fact that I'm sure Eddie Schwartz (its writer) continues to appreciate.
Bottom line: this audiobook is a great story about a great band, then becomes a not-quite-apology for a period of their career they freely embraced at the time, to significant fame and financial gain. It seems that, if a band doesn't want to forever be defined by a song as mundane (my apologies, Mutt Lange) as "All I Wanna Do Is Make Love To You", they probably shouldn't have recorded it in the first place. Celebrity and adulation need to be actively pursued - no one has ever been forced to become popular at gunpoint.
The fact that Lauren Drain herself reads the material gives it a poignancy that 3rd party narrators can't provide. Less expressive, perhaps, but more authentic.
The Phelps girls (particularly Jael and Megan) are always interesting, because they've never known a life outside of the cult-like family environment. Their sense of superiority is consistently undercut by having to keep themselves in check. I feel legitimate sympathy for them, as for any abuse victim, because they have no conventional "normal" to gauge their own conduct by.
Salvation from salvation.
The story is fascinating, particularly for its insights regarding Steve Drain, a clearly sick individual - in the sense that his behavior seems to be in real need of psychiatric intervention. After seeing Louis Theroux's two excellent documentaries on the WBC (the second of which interviewed Lauren post-departure), Steve comes off as quite the self-righteous narcissist, while his wife exists as the doormat of the family. Shame on her, in particular, for not advocating more for a normal life for her children - especially since she clearly knew life before the WBC and had insight to Steve Drain's behavioral inconsistencies for quite some time.
The first reviewer of this audiobook is clearly either a current church member or a sympathizer, but that's the price of truly free speech - hatred and ignorance continue to be well protected. Jack, your review was worth everything I paid to read it.
At this point, I'll wait patiently in the hope that Megan and Grace Phelps will also break silence on their experience inside this horrible organization. As far as Libby Phelps goes (another departee interviewed by Theroux), she seems paralyzed by the fear of a fiery hellish damnation - a mindset that I think sadly probably afflicts most of the clan. Call me crazy, but I can't visualize a God who creates humankind to deny its enjoyment and revels in its suffering and torture. And if that's the case, I'd want even less to do with him.
In the meantime, I will proceed with a beautiful quotation: "Live your life in such a way that the Westboro Baptist Church would want to picket your funeral". I certainly plan to.
Fantastic book, Lauren. Thank you for sharing a painful journey with us.
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