Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Book Review: Running the Blues - The Real Life Story of Jake and Elwood Blues

Running the Blues - The Real Life Story of Jake and Elwood Blues will go press in December. It is a career defining masterpiece for the author, Ron Rickson. I happened to score a pre-release copy through an arrangement with Bantam Press. Front to back, Hanging the Blues is a surprise packed, almost encyclopedic account of the meteoric rise to stardom of Jake and Elwood Blues, the real life inspiration for the hit 1980 film "The Blues Brothers", and their subsequent fall from grace.

The book covers the entire life story of two brothers growing up in an orphanage in Chicago, their musical career, and even their run-ins with the law. The story is told mostly from interviews with band members, friends, and even co-workers of the Blues Brothers. The author does an excellent job retelling one of the most amazing stories in modern music, not by re-packaging and embellishing details, but by recording the memories of those who were along for the ride. The only weakness in this extremely detailed format is that some chapters are quite boring, almost trivial, as Rickson interviews the brother’s childhood friends and exhaustively details their arrest records.

The author more than makes up for it with tons of details and photos, and even a CD of their earliest musical works with some live recordings of their performances at bars and wedding banquets, along with a recording of police radio from the night of their infamous car chase in Chicago, IL, after a drug bust backstage at one of their performances.

It also dives into the shocking parallels between the lives of Jake Blues and his onscreen counterpart, John Belushi, as both died from drug overdoses at the height of their careers, and includes a poignant interview with Elwood Blues about the death of his brother.

Also detailed was the making of the legendary film and the subsequent lawsuit with Universal Pictures, who, to this day, claim the movie was entirely a work of fiction to avoid paying royalties to Elwood and the estate of Jake Blues.

One of the most interesting, and hilarious stories recounted in the book comes in an interview with Larry Critowski, Jake Blues’ campaign manager in his abortive run for mayor of Chicago against Jane Byrne. Larry regales the reader with stories from the election, such as when Jake showed up to a televised debate with Jane Byrne visibly intoxicated and at one point launched into a profanity-laden tirade about trash service in the city, claiming that his trash had not been picked up “since Mayor Daley died” During the debate, Jake invoked racial epitaphs against the Irish 8 times, and caused the National Irish-American Association to issue the following statement: “We, and presumably all Irish Americans, are shocked and appalled at the implication that Irish Americans are inclined to alcoholism , laziness, or criminal behavior. We demand that Jake Blues immediately apologize for his statements.”

At 783 pages, the length and amount of detail in the book may only be suitable for hard core fans of blues music, or hard line fans of the motion picture, however, the quality of the photos and audio CD are enough to justify the price tag of $39.95, and the overall quality of publication makes this a suitable coffee table book for the enjoyment of guests either at home or in a place of business.

I give this book a high rating of 3 ½ belts of scotch and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in film, music, or Chicago politics.