Greetings from Book Expo America Part I: Steven Tyler comes off as an Arrogant Jerk at the Keynote

The Book Expo America (or BEA to us in the know, as I have become since I got a nametag, or “badge,” to us in the know) is held every year—this year in the pride of New York City, the Javits Center. For those not in the know, the BEA is a big deal in the publishing/bookselling business, as it is the largest convention of its kind.

So what am I doing there? I am crashing it to give you loyal NPI readers the inside dope on all the stuff those “Big Book” fat cats don’t want you to know about. (Sorry, that’s probably the title of Kevin Trudeau’s new book.)

Our first stop on the BEA tour bus is Thursday’s keynote, which was covered accurately, if all too briefly, by New York. The focus of this year’s keynote was “rock star memoirs,” with Steven Tyler and Clarence Clemons. Apparently, this reflects the crisis of confidence in the publishing industry (which is a whole other story), as the conference has usually had political heavyweights in this role.

Steven Tyler didn’t do much to dispel any potential worries about the event becoming a free-for-all. I’ve always vaguely like Tyler, I suppose (“Dream On” is a really good song), but he came off as one giant caricature at BEA. Maybe I just caught him on a weird night or maybe he is just so concerned about being viewed as an aging rocker with waning relevance that he can’t say anything interesting, but this was about as disappointing as celebrity encounters can get.

For some reason, Tyler brought out his friend Mark Hudson, who was dressed in a purple suit, with pink striped socks. Even his beard was partially died purple, which he attributed to oral sex with a bag of Skittles. Not only did he make this joke, but he had the nerve to imply that nobody was laughing because we didn’t understand the joke: “You’ll laugh on the way home”. That’s right, Mark, the Skittles oral sex joke was too highbrow for us.

Hudson was still only the second least tolerable person on the stage, though; his talking at least filled the awkward gaps when Tyler refused to answer questions. The only problem was that pretty much everything he said was unabashed idol-worship of his rock-star friend. He talked about how Tyler once brilliantly observed that white people clap on 1s and 3s and black people clap on 2s and 4s. That’s the kind of insight you only get from Dennis Hopper characters. Everything Tyler said seemed designed to keep us in awe of his great genius, from his implication that if you make a wish while you have an orgasm it will come true to his “revelation” that he meditates on tour.

Moderator Chuck Klosterman (who was trying to class up the event by wearing a suit) did an admirable job of pressing Tyler on a lot of his bull, but Tyler has mastered the art of sounding intelligent by speaking in elusive ambiguities. Whenever Klosterman pressed him on one of his “insights,” Tyler just fell silent or challenged Klosterman. After Tyler insisted that he sees the world differently than everyone else—to which Klosterman replies, “How exactly? Are you experiencing this event differently than we are?”—all he could provide by way of explanation is “the world isn’t black and white, it’s all shades of gray.” Congratulations, you have figured out what every fortune cookie writer already knows.

On top of everything, Tyler had Hudson cut him off in the middle of the interview to tell them they had a plane to catch. Tyler did have time to drop in one last, important piece of information: He hasn’t actually finished his book and, no, he doesn’t know when it is coming out.

The other speaker, Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons, provides a refreshing contrast. Clemons, along with his co-writer Don Reo, is very revealing and open about his career with Bruce Springsteen. Finding out that Springsteen’s band-mates actually refer to him as “The Boss” is revealing enough (I can’t decide if this is pathetic or legitimately cool), but Clemons also provides a nice recap of the recording session when he played his famous “Jungleland” solo. He condenses a 16-hour recording session into about four minutes, but he gamely plays his sax from his seat and provides a nice peek at what it’s like to work with Bruce, whom Clemons describes as a genius.

Some other interesting tidbits he provides involve Clemons’ friendship with Robert De Niro (the New York article mentions how Bruce inspired De Niro’s famous Taxi Driver soliloquy). Apparently, whenever Clemons sees De Niro he yells “Shut Up!”, which refers back to an incident when Bob was playing the Big Man’s sax late one night in a hotel room. It’s nice to know famous actors and musicians have immature inside jokes. Clemons also reveals in the book that he happened to be with Ringo Starr when Springsteen called him to tell him that he was going to tour without the E Street Band for a while—Klosterman, of course, points out how there is probably nobody more fitting than Starr to be with when you get a call about your band breaking up.

The most refreshing aspect of Clemons is his lack of bullshit. When Klosterman asks if the public’s understanding of Springsteen is accurate, Clemons basically just says yes—Springsteen is intentionally open and honest, not just with friends like the Big Man, but with the public. Unlike Tyler, Clemons (and Springsteen) doesn’t perpetually insist that there is more to him than meets the eye, and then refuse to give any evidence of that.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by James Schneider on June 3, 2009 at 9:48 PM

    Uh, John I’m all for this blogging thing you’re doing but i believe the first post said that the writers of this blog weren’t liars, so I’m going to have to bring up how you said that you “crashed” the expo. I do not believe this is the case, so you lied.


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