June 21, 2012


Monster Mash. By David Catrow. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

When I Left Home: My Story. By Buddy Guy with David Ritz. Da Capo. $26.

      Musical fun for young readers and musical autobiography for adults – music connects to people of all ages, albeit in different ways.  David Catrow’s Monster Mash connects through a complete lack of seriousness, with a whole series of monstrously amusing illustrations to the 1962 novelty song by Bobby Pickett and Leonard Capizzi.  Catrow writes nothing here – all the words are from the song itself – but what Catrow does contribute is a finely honed sense of the bizarre and not-too-scary.  After the “monster from his slab [begins] to rise” and starts doing a weird and over-enthusiastic dance with the laboratory rat, or cat, or whatever that thing is, the scene shifts outdoors, where dinosaur-like skeletons cavort and a two-legged, one-eyed, long-trunked something-or-other tromps along followed by a levitating brain, a sort of tailed spider (also with one eye), and…well, you get the idea.  Catrow excels in creating bizarre beings that could be very frightening but, in his renditions, really aren’t.  There’s the amorphous blob with seven eyes stacked one over the next (with one ear next to the third eye and another next to the sixth), a kind of squid with a human skull, a Dracula sporting not only two long fangs but also an entire mouthful of extremely pointy teeth, a doglike something with three eyes and seven noses – and the list goes on.  As does the beat.  As the Crypt-Kicker Five (pretty in pink) performs onstage, Dracula plays an organ made by Vladway & Sons (with exceptionally pointy white keys), and an extremely long checkered snake with a single huge front-facing eyeball (with eyelashes) for a head greets two human children and a traditionally canine dog to the monstrous party…where, it turns out, even kids and dogs can have a great time.  Harmless and often hilarious fun, Monster Mash as envisioned by Catrow helps a 50-year-old song remain a rockin’ hit.

      Buddy Guy rocks, too – he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005 – but this winner of six Grammy awards is primarily known for the blues: he is considered one of the best blues guitarists alive today.  Born in 1936, Guy grew up poor (in a family of sharecroppers), credits Muddy Waters with inspiring his career, and himself became an inspiration for Eric Clapton, John Mayer, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and many other musicians.  With the writing assistance of David Ritz, co-author of biographies of Ray Charles and Etta James, When I Left Home tells Guy’s story from his early days in Louisiana, to his departure for Chicago on September 25, 1957, to his successes and setbacks over the following years.  Ritz deserves credit for helping Guy tell his story in a voice that seems authentic: “I been in jail a bunch of times – but never for nothing I did. Went to get Junior out. It got so bad that one time the cop – a man I knew well – came into where I was playing and put the handcuffs on me. ‘What I do?’ I asked. ‘It ain’t for what you did. It’s for who you know.’ ‘You can’t arrest me for who I know.’ ‘I ain’t arresting you – just making sure you don’t get away.’ We went outside, where he put me in the squad car. ‘Who’s this about?’ I asked, knowing the answer. ‘Your brother.’ ‘I was playing with my brother Phil up in the club when you came to get me.’ ‘Not your blood brother,’ said the cop, ‘your soul brother.’”  This short excerpt shows both the strength and the weakness of this (+++) book: the detail and personal insight are wonderfully well communicated, but there is so much detail that only readers wanting to know the many, many ins and outs of Buddy Guy’s life and times will have an interest in When I Left Home.  The book is, by definition, a niche product, and even fans of Guy’s playing may find there is more about his life here – and less about his music – than they would ideally prefer to know.  The 16 pages of black-and-white photos are, like the text, quite wonderful for those devoted to Guy – the picture of him in jheri curls is quite something – but, again, these are photos for fans so devoted that they want to see Guy with as many of the musicians he influenced as possible.  Guy comes across in this autobiography (or semi-autobiography) as a modest, caring and highly talented man.  Really highly talented: “Things got so good and easy that when Junior Mance was sitting up in the control booth, me and Junior Wells began making up shit on the spot. Those songs – ‘Talkin’ ’bout Women Obviously,’ ‘A Motif Is Just a Riff,’ and ‘Buddy’s Blues’ – were caught on tape and became part of the final album put out by Blue Thumb records.”  Guy’s fans will enjoy hearing his voice come clearly through in this book, and the many names that he drops will be of interest to them, too.  But his music reaches beyond the deeply committed fan base in a way that this book never does, or tries to do.

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