Wall Street Journal Reviews


‘Funny Business’ Review: How Great Thou, Art 

Art Buchwald wrote a thrice-weekly column on D.C. absurdities. He’d bang it out in an hour, run the jokes by an assistant and then head to Sans Souci. 


By Dave Shiflett 

June 9, 2022 6:08 pm ET 


The world is thick with commentators who are indistinguishable, in their pretensions to glamour and wisdom, from the political knaves that inspire their furious discourse. The late and legendary Art Buchwald (1925-2007), the subject of Michael Hill’s admiring biography, “Funny Business,” was cut from a different cloth. Short and a bit of a pudge, he primarily wrote satirical newspaper columns. He wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth, though he parked seven or eight cigars there most days. His praises are well worth singing. 

Mr. Hill, a historical researcher who has worked with a wide range of luminaries, including John McCain, Walter Mondale and Ken Burns, begins with Buchwald’s recollection of his rough start. “Soon after I was born, my mother was confined to a mental institution, where she remained for thirty-five years. With my three sisters, I was placed in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in New York, and then boarded out with foster parents . . . in eight different kinds of homes with God knows how many strangers.” His father too was mostly a stranger. 

Yet Buchwald had big dreams. He joined the Marines at 17, seeing action in the Marshall Islands during World War II, then used the GI Bill at the University of Southern California and for a study program that took him to Paris. “I wanted to stuff myself with baguettes and snails, fill my pillow with rejection slips, and find a French girl named Mimi who believed that I was the greatest writer in the world.” 

A job would be necessary to finance this vision, and readers experiencing a stall in their professional life may find inspiration in Buchwald’s job-seeking technique. Though he was without contacts or credentials and could hardly write a lick, he approached an editor at the International Herald Tribune with a column idea. The initial response had an air of finality: “Get the hell out of here!” Unbowed, Buchwald waited for the nay-sayer to go on vacation, then told his stand-in that the initial meeting had gone swimmingly. “Paris After Dark” was launched. From such humble beginnings Buchwald’s later columns would eventually be syndicated to 550 papers in 100 countries. 

 Paris, Mr. Hill writes, was Oz for Buchwald. His star rose, and he made lots of A-list friends and admirers, including Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, James Thurber, P.G. Wodehouse, Peter Ustinov, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway. He married, adopted three children and eventually followed a new dream: moving in 1962 to Washington, D.C., a land of fat satirical targets. 

Buchwald sweated little blood while writing his thrice-weekly column. He typically knocked off the 600-word pieces in less than an hour, ran the jokes by an assistant, then headed to Sans Souci, where he might rub feedbags with the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson. He enjoyed friendships with a vast array of rainmakers, including several Kennedys. 

Was he too much an insider to afflict the powerful? Buchwald didn’t think so. “I’ve always been against the establishment, whatever it is, and I think most humorists should be against the establishment, whoever is in power.” His willingness to ruffle at least some official feathers was affirmed six years after his death, when it was disclosed that the National Security Agency had been ordered to conduct secret surveillance of Buchwald in the 1960s, due to columns ridiculing LBJ’s Vietnam policies. 

How funny was Buchwald? More than a few readers, encountering his columns in the Washington Post in the 1980s and 1990s, might say: not enough. Or perhaps readers found them increasingly lame and tame. But Christopher Buckley calls him “the funniest human being on earth” in a glowing introduction, and while some Buchwald quotations presented by Mr. Hill may seem a bit flat, he could pull off a good line. “Frankly, I did so poorly in science I still don’t know how to make a hydrogen bomb,” he admitted in artful self-deprecation, though he did better in the humanities: “You can’t learn from history, unless you rewrite it.” In an imaginary letter to Soviet chieftain Mikhail Gorbachev about a treaty to dismantle nuclear missiles, he asked: “Where are you going to bury the warheads? If you haven’t decided yet, may I put in a good word for Cleveland?” 

Mr. Hill tells us that Buchwald harvested plenty of bucks, both from his column (and column collections) and from the lecture circuit. By the late 1970s, his annual salary was around $2 million in today’s dollars. He also won a Pulitzer, penned a Broadway play (panned in Washington) and successfully sued Paramount for swiping his and a co-writer’s movie idea that became Eddie Murphy’s “Coming to America” (1988). 

There was a dark lining to his golden cloud, including hospitalization for depression and the collapse of his marriage. In 2003, Mr. Hill writes, Buchwald told his readers that the Herald Tribune, “the paper that had been part of his life for nearly fifty-three years, would no longer run his column.” 

Two years later, when he was 79, vascular distress forced the amputation of his lower right leg. Yet his sense of humor didn’t desert him. Death came on Jan. 17, 2007, preceded by a request that his ashes “be spilled over every Trump building in New York”—a complimentary fairy dusting of sorts. A friend planning a hospital visit received, also free of charge, an aphorism for the ages: “Dying is easy. Parking is impossible.” 

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Mr. Shiflett posts his original music and writing at Daveshiflett.com. 

Appeared in the June 10, 2022, print edition as 'How Great Thou, Art'.

Appreciation: P.J. O’Rourke, 1947-2022 


P.J. O’ROURKE IN 2007. 


By Dave Shiflett 

Feb. 18, 2022 11:28 am ET 



The world seems ragged these days—roiled by viruses, inflation, rampaging woke folk, omnipresent smartphone zombies and a ruling class that makes romantic types pine for the good old guillotine. The good news is that history has provided sages who have beheld the grim and gruesome and have somehow come through with a smile—or at least a smirk—on their faces. Among them is P.J. O’Rourke, who died this week at the age of 74. He now belongs to the ages—which are no doubt happy to have him. 

O’Rourke didn’t have an easy childhood. “My own family was poor when I was a kid,” he once recalled, “though I didn’t know it. I just thought we were broke. . . . What we managed to escape in 1966 in Squareville, Ohio, was not poverty. We had that. What we managed to escape was help.” 

He went on to prosper in a major way, writing for National Lampoon, Car & Driver, the American Spectator, Playboy and (especially) Rolling Stone. He wrote roughly 20 books, including “Modern Manners” (1983), “Republican Party Reptile” (1987), “Parliament of Whores” (1991), “Eat the Rich” (1998) and “Peace Kills” (2004). 

New readers will want to start with “Thrown Under the Omnibus” (2015), a delightful collection of his work and a constant reminder that O’Rourke was a high deacon in the Church of Mirth with a talent for upsetting all the right people. He happily provided tips on how to drive while drugged and possum-eyed drunk while engaging a female companion—one of the many valuable insights found in “Republican Party Reptile,” which assured right-leaners that they need not be bound by the rules they might have picked up in the Revival Tent. 

 “Parliament of Whores” aptly described Congress as a place where non-cinematic Mr. Smiths don’t stand a chance. “How did an allegedly free people spawn a vast, rampant cuttlefish of dominion with its tentacles in every orifice of the body politic?” he wonders. O’Rourke’s commendable cynicism enlightened a multitude of readers, including a young Greg Gutfeld: “He could step back and see the big picture: that the back-and-forth between political parties was simply a time-consuming activity while both sides made money off the rest of us. . . . He reminded us that none of these people we saw in politics or on TV were very smart. You aren’t the idiot; they are.” 

O’Rourke wrote some unforgettable magazine pieces. One of the most striking, which appeared in Harper’s in 1982, followed his infiltration of a “peace” cruise down the Volga River. (He had seen the adventure advertised in the Nation magazine.) These were the good old days, at the run-up to the reign of KGB thug Yuri Andropov, who was too modest to pose shirtless but whose Soviet Gulag, by some estimates, would house five million guests. O’Rourke considered socialism “a violation of the American principle that you shouldn’t stick your nose in other people’s business except to make a buck” and didn’t feel much at home with his fellow travelers either. 

One peacenik, he reported, radiated “not the kind of ugliness that’s an accident of birth but the kind that is the result of years of ill temper, pique, and petty malice. These had given a rattish, shrewish, leaf-nosed-bat quality to her face.” His investigative skills uncovered another telling datum: His shipmates “were people who believed everything about the Soviet Union was perfect, but they were bringing their own toilet paper.” 

O’Rourke reported from more than 40 countries over the course of his career and was often horrified by what he found. Many of his foreign-correspondent dispatches—often from war zones but not always—are found in “Holidays in Hell” (1988), “Give War a Chance” (1992) and “Peace Kills” (2004). He covered the invasion of Iraq, where his traveling companion, Atlantic editor Michael Kelly, was killed in an accident during the assault on the Baghdad airport. His eye was ever sharp: Kuwait City is “Houston without beer,” while suicide bombers in Afghanistan, a guide tells him, usually attack at morning because “it’s a hot country and the explosive vests are thick and heavy.” 

Yet he also found signs of progress during his travels. In Albania, post-communist entrepreneurs raised their game to awe-inspiring levels: “The National Commercial Bank in the city of Gjirokaster was robbed with a tank.” 

But it was mostly the American scene that captured his interest. He loved nothing more than tying a deserving politician to his bumper and taking him for a spin. He also closely identified with ordinary Americans. “We’re three-quarters grizzly bear and two-thirds car wreck and descended from a stock market crash on our mother’s side. You take your Germany, France, and Spain, roll them together, and it wouldn’t give us room to park our cars.” 

He was proudly (or perhaps defiantly) conservative, even declaring the Almighty a Republican, though this didn’t mean all Republicans were worthy of adoration. So appalled was he by Donald Trump that he announced his intention to vote for Hillary Clinton. 

O’Rourke was also a friend and mentor to young writers trying to make their way. Hannah Long, now an editor at HarperCollins, came under his wing while writing an early-career article for American Consequences, an online publication that he edited. “I was hovering on the threshold between the academic and the ‘real’ world,” she says, “and it felt magical to step across it with his blessing.” 

He gave his blessing to other deserving entities, advising us to “wield a heavy hand at the bar” and even describing the resonating pleasure of drinking a cocktail made of cobra blood during a visit to China. None of which likely endeared him to the Surgeon General. 

P.J. O’Rourke seemed prepared for that contingency. “Jesus said ‘love your enemies.’ He didn’t say not to have any.” 

—Mr. Shiflett posts his original music and writing at Daveshiflett.com. 



By Nick Offerman  


Nick Offerman is a man of many talents: actor, woodworker, author, comedian and full-tilt moralizer when the wrong sort of American crosses his path, which seems to happen on a regular basis. 

In “Where the Deer and Antelope Play,” Mr. Offerman—best known as libertarian heartthrob Ron Swanson on the sitcom “Parks and Recreation”—wanders meadow, mountain, glacier and sheep farm in search of Mother Nature’s solace. He finds inspiration in the wisdom of contemporary nature scribe Wendell Berry and in the writings of the 19th-century conservationist John Muir, who, we are reminded, once penned a paean to the river gods: “The rivers flow not past, but through us, thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing.” 

Yet there is trouble in paradise, starting with a host of roadside pro-Jesus billboards in Montana that leave Mr. Offerman feeling “assaulted.” Additional ghouls await in Glacier National Park, where a crowd of chatty hikers “called to mind all of the ill-mannered people I’ve encountered hither and yon who absolutely give Americans a reputation for being loud, rude, and stupid.” He is haunted by other Americans, albeit dead ones, who acquired the parkland from Native Americans the old-fashioned way: at gunpoint. 

Some readers may detect a slight whiff of smugness, and as the pages turn (there are more than 300 of them) they may soon conclude that Mr. Offerman can be far more political than pastoral. He vigorously lashes the infidels, including Brett Kavanaugh, Kit Carson, the country singer Lee Greenwood, Donald Trump and Trump’s red-capped followers. No one detonates his dander quicker than Trumpsters, including a small band of them he encounters displaying DT flags in the wilds of Arizona: “No matter what those people were telling themselves about their stance and their values, for those of us opposed to that candidate and what has slavishly become his party, their flag was little different from a Klan hood.” He is not much kinder to people generally espousing “conservative” politics, defined as “a polite term for discriminatory culture.” It seems a large portion of the U.S. population sets his teeth to grinding. 

 Yet at other times he’s a font of nondenominational wisdom. He suggests “woodshop and welding and baking and sewing and so forth should be taught in our public schools as imperative parts of the curriculum of life.” He would like to see us all learn to seek “acceptable levels of risk” as Covid recedes in order to “reclaim our individual powers.” Additionally, “it would do our society a world of good were we made to participate in a hunt,” to better understand the relationship between ourselves and our food. In the same spirit, he writes: “If we were all made to participate in the raising and subsequent butchering of a farm animal, it would quickly foment a massive shift in our national agricultural policies,” toward less wasteful and healthier food production. 


Not that all Mr. Offerman’s lashes fall on the backs of political adversaries. He engages in gentle self-flagellation, confessing to white privilege and even calling himself a “racist” due to environmental factors: “We exist in a world, a framework, that was constructed by, and for the benefit of, white people.” More than once he calls himself “ignorant,” perhaps affirming that self-effacement can be the sincerest (and subtlest) form of flattery. 

Mr. Offerman’s more pointed observations may inspire personal reflections. His bashing of Trump supporters, for me, brought to mind my aged mother (93), a Trump voter who spent many years teaching in predominantly black public schools, to the great benefit of her charges. No Klan hat for her. One assumes that if Mr. Offerman could claim similar real-world efforts on behalf of the dispossessed he would have shared every heroic moment of them. 

In the spirit of seasonal generosity, we can surely agree with Mr. Offerman that we live in a contentious world. Even John Muir and John James Audubon are in the woke doghouse, and it can’t be long before Mother Nature is also brought up on charges, perhaps for allowing the evolution of Republicans. A book without a bit of socially conscious moral flashing, condescension, smugness and the denunciation of sinners would feel out of step. It might even be totally ignored. 

Luckily, Mr. Offerman leaves us with a few literary memories, like this one: “When you have no electricity and it’s night in the desert, look up. Holy Gila monster, the Milky Way was like a vast, psychedelic puddle of sparkling galactic vomit, to make a figure of speech.” Yet his suggested rewrite of the chorus to “God Bless the U.S.A.”—changing it to “I’m proud to be a white straight American”—is both clunky and forgetful of the fact that most people have a hard time reading when they’re rolling their eyes. 

Mr. Shiflett posts his original music and writing at Daveshiflett.com. 



‘The Deadline Effect’ Review: Countdown to Zero Hour 


July 29, 2021 6:19 pm ET 

Those who reside in the rustic belt often marvel when squirrels, possums and other quadrupeds wait until cars are right on them before commencing a mad dash across the road. Miscalculations result in an unpleasantly memorable squash, perhaps followed by the driver’s gratitude for being positioned higher up the Great Chain of Being. 

Yet humans are also known to wait until the last minute to tackle whatever task is at hand. While miscalculations rarely reduce us to roadkill, they can have negative consequences. The good news, according to Christopher Cox in “The Deadline Effect,” is that we can make deadlines work for us instead of the other way around. 

Mr. Cox, a longtime editor and writer, explains that the deadline was “originally the line on a printing press beyond which no type could be set”; during the Civil War, the “dead-line” was a boundary surrounding the stockade, “outside of which any prisoner would be shot.” Like nooses, deadlines can concentrate the mind. The problem is that, “as soon as you set a deadline, work tends to get delayed until right before time expires.” Rushed work can be shoddy; rushed deals can be ruinous. 

One solution is the simple lie. An editor can issue a July deadline when October is the real drop-dead date. This strategy might even improve the final product, at least according to Viennese writer Karl Kraus (quoted by Mr. Cox): “A journalist is stimulated by a deadline. He writes worse when he has time.” 

 A better solution, Mr. Cox advises, is to set a “soft deadline with teeth.” These often amount to a rigorous rehearsal or dry run in advance of a hard deadline. The Jean-Georges restaurant group was in the process of opening two new restaurants in New York when Mr. Cox visited. “We make sure that we test, we test, we test, and test again,” chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten explained, a regimen that includes “mock services” that replicate opening night. The process, Mr. Cox writes, has “the virtues of the deadline effect (focus, urgency, cooperation) with none of the vices (rashness, desperation, incompleteness).” 

He finds soft deadlines deployed at Telluride ski mountain in Colorado, where opening the slopes as early as Thanksgiving ensures perfect staff performance by the time the ski hordes arrive at Christmas. At the Public Theater in Manhattan, dress rehearsals and helpful revisions to book and music take the sting out of opening night. This is nothing new. Changes to the original “Hello, Dolly!” (starring Carol Channing) were so substantial that a hidden crew member prompted forgetful actors from within an onstage barrel as rehearsals progressed. 

Mr. Cox includes a discussion of the fine art of procrastination, without which deadlines might not be necessary. Once denounced from the pulpit (“Procrastination: or, The Sin and Folly of Depending on Future Time” was one popular sermon), this perennial predilection is now considered an example of “hyperbolic discounting.” This means, Mr. Cox explains, that “we exaggeratedly (hyperbolically) underestimate (discount) the value of future gains and losses. Thus the satisfaction of finishing a project (a future reward) stands no chance against the fun of playing hooky for a day.” Hooky’s not cheap. H&R Block found that procrastinating Americans overpay income taxes by $473 million a year. 

Mr. Cox’s travels take him to bucolic Smith River, Calif., where four small farms produce almost the entire 10 million or so Easter lilies sold annually in the U.S. and Canada. Managers work back from the Easter deadline (which varies from year to year), following a schedule that ensures there will be lilies alongside the holiday lamb. Similarly, an Airbus plant in Mobile, Ala., relies on “backward” scheduling—essentially, deadlines in stages—to crank out a new A320 every six days. 

Mr. Cox has a wry touch—young workers at Telluride “looked simultaneously wholesome and grungy, like the black sheep in a Mormon family”—and a good eye for detail. Jetliner lavatories and galleys are known among designers as “monuments.” Lilies were “discovered” (for Westerners) by the 18th-century Swedish naturalist Carl Peter Thunberg, who was allowed to wander around Japan (then closed to foreigners) after showing a talent for treating syphilis. Everything in Jean-Georges restaurants, down to the amount of olive oil in a salad, is measured to the gram—a virtue in a chef though perhaps a vice in a bartender. 

Mr. Cox finds uplift while visiting the Air Force’s 621st Contingency Response Wing, whose emergency procedures are constantly fine-tuned and animated by a sense of shared purpose “graver than happiness but deeply positive.” There’s also a reminder that meeting deadlines doesn’t ensure survival. “If Home Depot or Walmart decided that an Easter lily was going to sell for eight dollars instead of ten dollars,” he writes, “there was little the farmers could do about it.” The lower-price decrees of big-box retailers, one manager says, could eventually “put us out of business.” 

Mr. Cox sums up his book in seven words: “Set a deadline, the earlier the better.” Valuable advice, no doubt. Many readers will also appreciate learning that they’ve been suffering from “hyperbolic discounting” all these years, when they had simply assumed they were mere slackers. 

Mr. Shiflett posts his original music and writing at Daveshiflett.com. 

BOOK REVIEW: Willie Nelson's Letters To America 

Willie Nelson needed something to do during the lockdown, so he decided to write some letters—to the Almighty, to friends living and dead, to his younger self, even to the Covid virus. The result, as collected in “Willie Nelson’s Letters to America,” is a mix of mash notes, fond memories, a hill country homily or two, and some world-class examples of filler material, including this gem, one of a series of gag-­worthy jokes, lifted from Reader’s ­Digest: “It was raining cats and dogs!” “How could you tell?” “I stepped in a poodle!” 

A crack of that caliber would earn most books a trip to the fire pit, but Mr. Nelson’s fans won’t mind. They’ll also enjoy his retellings of fabled events from his life, including mistakenly mailing a bill for a girlfriend’s maternity services to his then-wife; asking a nephew to pull his car into a burning garage in order to collect the insurance money; and creating hits like “Crazy,” “On The Road Again” and the epic “Red Headed Stranger.”  What fans and other readers will cherish most is the tone of the ­project, alternately raucous, reverent and bittersweet. 

Mr. Nelson, now 88, has traveled a long and interesting road. His journey didn’t start out in first-class. He and sister Bobbie—the recipient of perhaps his most heartfelt letter—were initially raised by grandparents. ­“After my granddaddy died,” he ­recalls, “times were even tougher. For Thanksgiving dinner one year, we split a can of soup!” He felt flush when he began making $8 a night playing in a polka band; his musical income was eventually augmented by gigs trimming trees (for 80 cents an hour) and selling Bibles and encyclopedias. 

His blossoming songwriting talent was not accompanied by a similar ­escalation in business smarts. “I sold my songs Family Bible and Night Life—lock, stock, and writing credits—for $50 and $150, respectively,” he writes. He thanks crooning cowboy Faron Young for refusing to buy his early hit “Hello Walls” for $500. “He said I was crazy and instead loaned me $500.” Young’s recording of the song hit the top of the charts. “My first royalty check was $25,000!” The hits kept coming, including “Night Life,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Mr. Record Man,” “Crazy,” “I Gotta Get Drunk” and “The Party’s Over.” His secret to songwriting success: “Keep it simple, stupid.” 

Several letters go to friends and associates who helped him along the way, including event producer Gino McCoslin, a genius-level hustler. When Mr. Nelson confronted him about selling twice as many tickets as there was capacity at a Dallas venue, he responded: “Hell, the airlines do it all the time.” McCoslin was also known to put a sign on the exit indicating that it was the door to the restroom. “People would go out of the venue by mistake, then he’d charge ’em to get back in.” If he’d been born later, McCoslin might have made an excellent vice president for fee development at Ticketmaster. 

Guitars weren’t the only instruments popular in the rough-and-­tumble Texas music world. “Fort Worth was like the Wild West. When you played a gig, most of the guys in the band were packing heat, and so were most of the audience.” Mr. Nelson knew plenty of hot licks and could also deploy lead with the best of them, once participating in a shootout with a daughter’s unruly husband to help restore domestic tranquility. He relates this information with all due modesty. 

The years have mellowed him, a process enhanced by a strategic switch from whiskey to marijuana. “You saved me, and we both know it,” he writes, or perhaps gushes, in a missive to marijuana. He has also maintained a passion for politics. He writes plugs for family farmers— “factory farms are a sickness and you, our family farmers, are the cure”—and for the Equal Rights Amendment and says we should get rid of the Electoral College. In a letter to Will Rogers about climate change, he writes: “We know what’s causing it, and we’ve had a good idea on how to stop it for a couple of decades but basically haven’t done one goddamn thing. Any advice?” Should Rogers respond that millions of miles in a tour bus might contribute to the problem, his advice would likely go unheeded. Mr. Nelson tells us he’s itching to get back on the road. But he does promise not to preach from the stage. “Because of music’s ability to heal and unite us, my audiences don’t hear me talk politics at my shows. We’ve struck a bargain and have come together to share in the music and the love and the good things that come from it.” 

Like most people who have been alive for nearly 90 years, Mr. Nelson is on intimate terms with life and death. His remembrances of departed pals are heartfelt and often humorous. Singer Jerry Jeff Walker “told me once that the only difference ­between him and Hank Williams was that Hank went backstage to throw up!” The late Roger Miller is remembered for stellar quips, “like when that cop pulled you over and said, ‘Can I see your license?’ And you replied, ‘Can I see your gun?’ ” Another day, while “we gazed at the incredible clouds in the sky, you said, ‘Just think what God could’ve done if he had money.’ ” 

He anticipates his own setting sun. “I used to fake a heart attack and fall down on the floor,” he writes, quoting one of his lyrics. “But even I don’t think that’s funny anymore.” Eternity is on his mind, and perhaps to no surprise he has his bases covered. “I’m a Baptist or a Buddhist. Considering my footwear, maybe I’m just a Bootist.” He’s clearly not allergic to tradition. In a letter to his children he preaches a sermon that has held up well across the ages: “It all starts with the Golden Rule—with treating others as you’d like to be treated.” 

His harshest letter is addressed to Covid, though the flailing is a somewhat tempered one. “You’ve opened our eyes to the reality that our ­enemies are not other nations or religions we don’t understand or even other cultures. You’re the reminder that manufacturing weapons of mass destruction doesn’t guarantee our safety.” He also includes a message appropriate to this holiday weekend. “I love this great nation,” he says in a letter to America, “imperfections and all. I truly hope we can find a way to all come together to talk about our differences and find the right paths to maintain and improve its greatness for generations to come.” 

Mr. Nelson has been generously sprinkled with the fairy dust of American greatness and success. Even the tree company that paid him 80 cents an hour later shelled out $100,000 for a command performance. He takes it all in stride and counsels perseverance to those impatient for glory. “The early bird may get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese”—words worthy of the greatest of sages. 



By Dave Shiflett 

May 26, 2021 11:00 am ET 


As our wondrous herd lurches toward immunity, many Americans have traded their masks for traveling shoes. The book industry is right in step, offering a slew of titles showing the way to destinations great and small and offering innovative ways to get there. 

Jeralyn Gerba and Pavia Rosati offer a comprehensive guidebook in “Travel North America (And Avoid Being a Tourist)” (Hardie Grant, 283 pages, $29.99). It begins with the dizzying observation that we live on a “furiously spinning globe” beset by potential apocalypses. No worries. Healing can be fostered if the wandering class behaves more like “travelers” than “tourists,” the latter notorious for staying in “hotels owned by large corporations” and for drinking too much bottled water. Travelers “avoid big cruise ships,” hold haggling to a minimum, and bunk in places like A Room at the Beach in Bridgehampton, N.Y., a bungalow once owned by Martha Stewart that, for all its glories, might vaporize what remains of a stimulus check far faster than Motel 6. 


Readers hoping to undo the damage inflicted by Grubhub pizza sherpas can follow the authors’ directions to the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail or burn excess blubber by trekking to high-country huts in Colorado. Those suffering from post-pandemic stress can seek healing context at Winslow, Ariz., where Mother Nature dropped a meteor some 50,000 years ago, devastating neighborhood life forms but leaving behind a crater that makes an awesome selfie backdrop. A similar reminder that our era has not been singled out for rough treatment is found at the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles, where many a prehistoric beast met a gooey end, their agonies detailed in a pleasant museum that made the authors’ list. 


Travelers whose artistic sensibilities were not satisfied by the work of Joe Exotic and other lockdown luminaries will find welcome relief in “101 Art Destinations in the U.S.” (Rizzoli Electa, 271 pages, $14.98). Veteran scribe Owen Phillips covers museums famous and remote, cave drawings, and even funk superstar George Clinton’s “Mothership”—an iconic spaceship-shaped stage prop—at Washington’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Along the way Mr. Phillips supplies interesting asides. Money guy Nelson Rockefeller, as we know, made great contributions to several collections at the Metropolitan Museum in New York; the connection between art and commerce is also on display at the nearby Carlyle Hotel, which swapped accommodations for murals by artist Ludwig Bemelmans, famous for his Madeline books. In Boston, the art of art theft is acknowledged at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, whose Dutch Room displays the frames from which thieves posing as police officers sliced two Rembrandts and a Vermeer during a 1990 heist. 


Mr. Phillips reminds us that art raises spirits—and hackles. The Battle of Gettysburg Cyclorama, which depicts Pickett’s charge, may strike some as a cautionary tale about the dangers of joining the infantry. Other observers, he writes, criticize it “for showing valor on both sides with no judgment or sign of the underlying causes for the war”—a message that might require an additional cyclorama or two. A more creative protest met Pablo Picasso’s untitled five-story steel portrait at Chicago’s Daley Plaza, unveiled in 1967. A science-fiction writer erected a giant pickle on the site to pan the piece in advance. Piling on, journalist Mike Royko wrote of the Picasso that “its eyes are like the eyes of every slum owner who made a buck off the small and the weak. And of every building inspector who took a wad from a slum owner.” In Richmond, Va., where most Confederate statuary has been removed, visitors to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts can still pose beside a full-figure statue of Caligula, the controversial Roman statesman. 

Those seeking to end their bout of house arrest with a longer and perhaps stranger trip will find kindred spirits in Ben and Roxy Dawson, authors of “The Falcon Guide to Van Life” (Falcon Guides, 223 pages, $24.95). The authors note that “discontent is on the rise in the sedentary lives of twenty-first-century Americans.” They have a cure: Make like a turtle—hit the road and take your accommodations along for the ride. 

The authors tell us that they’ve been living in a van since 2017 and discovering nomadic bliss: “rock climb in the morning, float a river that evening, have a drink by the fire at the end of the day.” Their book is rich with information about vans both humble and sumptuous; the strategies for finding free campsites; and the best websites for scoring regional work. Practical advice abounds. “When in a pinch, don’t underestimate a water bottle with a hole poked in the top to use as a makeshift shower.” On-board toilets, meanwhile—given the tight quarters—can “make for some awkward mornings if one of us had to use the bathroom while the other was making breakfast.” One solution: “Carry a large shovel. The ease of digging a hole with a larger shovel relieves some stress of going in nature.” This is the innovative spirit that drove prairie schooners across the frontier. 

The authors even offer a strategy for overcoming unreliable gasoline supplies. Diesel-powered vans can be converted to run on the vegetable oil that restaurants dispose of after cleaning their deep-fat fryers. As of now, the ransomware bandits have overlooked this fuel source. 

Yet another threat to placid travel must be noted, one every bit as annoying as bears, mosquitoes and quicksand pits. The culprit, Amber Share writes in “Subpar Parks” (Plume, 205 pages, $22), is fellow humans suffering from what might be called the Yelp virus. 

Ms. Share’s amusing indictment of the “least impressed visitors” to America’s most sublime sites is based on reviews, many from online sources, of the 400-plus parks, monuments and other areas managed by the National Park Service. One critic panned the Delicate Arch in Utah’s Arches National Park for looking “nothing like the license plate.’ ” In a similar spirit, a reviewer found the 6-million-acre Denali Alaskan wilderness a “barren wasteland of tundra” despite, as Ms. Share notes, its 2,000 “species of plants, grizzly bears, wolves, moose, caribou”—not to mention, at 20,310 feet, the highest peak in North America. Another Yelper type complained that at Yosemite “trees block view and there are too many gray rocks,” while another dismissed the Grand Canyon as “a very, very large hole.” The Statue of Liberty, an inspiration to countless wanderers, is merely “a big green statue and that’s it.” 

One hates to dampen the spirit of our Great Reopening, but as of now there’s no vaccine for what ails these individuals. 

—Mr. Shiflett posts his original music and writing at Daveshiflett.com. 



‘And in the End’ Review: Band on the Run  

The Beatles’ final year was silly, crazy and chaotic, but the music they made then is still with us—as are tales of the Fab Four.  

The Beatles circa 1969.  


By Dave Shiflett  

Aug. 20, 2020 7:28 pm ET  

Among the horrors that beset some aging boomers is the harrowing suspicion that there is more music in Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto than in the entire Beatles catalog. But of course not everyone feels that way. Existing for around eight years and gone for 50, the Beatles and their signature hits are still very much with us. If the Fab Four didn’t roll over Beethoven in the composing competition, they certainly overshadowed him in mass popularity. And they continue to inspire a kind of pop anthropology, in which their life and times are chronicled in detail and mined for cultural insights.  

In “And in the End,” the Scottish journalist Ken McNab focuses engagingly, and insightfully, on the band’s final year, starting with an account of its performance on Jan. 30, 1969, atop the roof of Apple headquarters in London. (Apple, we should remember, was a record label, not a computer cult.) The band hadn’t played publicly since an August 1966 gig at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. Lots had happened in the intervening years: landmark albums, drugs, divorce, the death of manager Brian Epstein and the arrival of Yoko Ono.John Lennon complained that the band “had become Paul McCartney’s sidemen,” Mr. McNab says, a view seconded by George Harrison: “You’d have to do 59 of Paul’s songs before he’d even listen to one of yours.” Ringo Starr had tried to keep the peace while acting in Peter Sellers’s “The Magic Christian.”  

The lads were at one another’s throats—and the wolf was at their door. Upwards of £20,000 was disappearing every week, Mr. McNab says, and nobody knew where it was going. Bankruptcy loomed. Lennon, who would later imagine a world with no possessions, worried about spending his senior years playing gigs for anyone who would listen. When he said the band didn’t have “half the money people think we have,” the comment crossed the ocean and aroused the dorsal fin of noted music shark Allen Klein. Like Yoko, Klein is something of a satanic figure to many Beatles fans. But he adds a dramatic surge to Mr. McNab’s narrative.  



By Ken McNab  
Thomas Dunne, 311 pages, $28.99  

Klein had made a name for himself managing the Rolling Stones and other top acts. He deeply desired the Beatles, but his reputation was reptilian. Among his most notable scams was to siphon off most of the Rolling Stones’ U.S. profits. Mick Jagger warned the Beatles against hiring him, and Paul didn’t trust him, but the others liked Klein, who gets a fairly light lashing from Mr. McNab. Klein cut costs and decimated the Apple deadwood, but he would later sue the band (which would also sue him) and be accused of skimming money from the Bangladesh charity concert. His toxic side may have had early origins. Mr. McNab tells us that Klein’s father had put him in an orphanage at an early age, which perhaps also sharpened his ambition and wits. In any case, Klein got the band a significantly better recording contract. They had two projects in the pipeline as the curtain was falling: the albums that became “Abbey Road” and “Let It Be.”  

Mr. McNab is a fan of the band, though not an uncritical one. He dings Lennon for being “high on idealism, low on reality” but also reminds us that the Beatles were uniquely talented and very hard working. “You Never Give Me Your Money” required 36 takes. “Because” had 23 takes of the backing track; producer-arranger George Martin also wrote nine harmony parts for the song. Amazingly, Harrison’s “Something” (which Frank Sinatra called “the greatest love song of the past 50 years”) was initially dissed by Martin, who dismissed it as “lightweight and derivative,” Mr. McNab writes.  

Talent was evident in other forms, including self-promotion. After a post-nuptial hang with Salvador Dalí in Paris, John and Yoko made their way to Amsterdam to promote world peace, arriving in a white Rolls-Royce and taking up residence at the Hilton. Lennon was playing a new tune, “Give Peace a Chance,” which wasn’t entirely impressive. “What did it matter if it read like garbage?” Mr. McNab writes of the lyrics. “What really counted was the message.” He credits Lennon with playing a decisive role in ending the Vietnam War—an accomplishment the Nobel committee overlooked. His claim that rumors of Paul’s death became the “biggest and fastest circulating sensation since the 1963 assassination of JFK” also seems ambitious.  

Mr. McNab leaves no doubt that Lennon engineered episodes of genius-level dissolution. Beethoven had hearing issues, Tchaikovsky was often a nervous wreck, and Schumann ended up in an asylum. But none, so far as we know, descended into “bagism,” a phenomenon in which Lennon climbed into a bag and whistled the “Blue Danube Waltz,” creating a vibe he referred to as “total communication.”  

On April 10, 1970, Paul announced that he was done. The end had arrived before any band members had reached age 30. Bittersweet years followed, including acrimonious legal action. Lennon was murdered on Dec. 8, 1980, three weeks after the release of his “Double Fantasy” album. Harrison made good music and did good deeds until his death from lung cancer in 2001. Paul’s solo career showcased prolonged musical and showbiz prowess: His 2012 “Kisses on the Bottom” album was released on Starbucks’ record label and included “My Valentine,” which channeled Tony Bennett. Ringo maintained a talent for not appearing to take himself too seriously. Mr. McNab’s portrait of the band in its twilight neatly conveys the hazards of fame and the enduring value of youth, talent and a touch of madness.  

As for Yoko, she re-captured the spotlight during the 2016 election cycle over rumors that she had once been romantically involved with Hillary Clinton, which was not enough to get the former secretary of state elected. Ailing but socially concerned, Yoko has lately been involved in creating anti-virus face masks. May her karma be pleasantly instant.  

Mr. Shiflett posts his music and writing at Daveshiflett.com.