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VISIONS OF BABYLON


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Jeff Rovin
TV Babylon
Signet, New York, 1987
(price: $4.99; 304 pages)
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Jeff Rovin
TV Babylon
Signet, New York, 1991
(price: $4.99; 268 pages)

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Alan Doig
Westminster Babylon
Allison & Busby, London, 1990
(price: 6.99; 342 pages)
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Randall Riese
Nashville Babylon
Guild, London, 1988
(price: ?; 290 pages)


Kenneth Anger probably didn't realize what he was letting us all in for when he wrote Hollywood Babylon, his classic collection of tall tales, tittle-tattle and gossip about the seamy, nasty side of the movie industry. The flipside of fame has always been a popular theme, since everyone would like to believe that even the rich and famous screw up on a regular basis, but Anger's concentrated exposé of sex, drugs and insanity set new standards and gave us a title formulation that remains hugely popular.

So here's a sampling of Babylonian fare. We start with TV Babylon, which ought to work as a companion piece to Anger's book, but which somehow doesn't make the grade. Partly this is because I really don't care about the amphetamine habits of Robert Blake, star of 1970s cop show, Baretta, and his ilk, and partly it's because Jeff Rovin doesn't make me care. Admittedly it would take a damn good writer to sell me the story of Vanna White, hostess on Wheel of Fortune (the US original, not the Nicky Campbell version on British TV), but Rovin doesn't even come close. On the other hand he has some nice anecdotes about, for example, the animated series Mighty Mouse being cancelled for fear that the eponymous hero might be displaying the side-effects of cocaine.

More disappointing is Westminster Babylon, which should have been so much better. Published in 1990, it makes the cardinal mistake of devoting its first chapter to Pamella Bordes, who might have been a big name at the time of writing, but who would struggle to merit a footnote nowadays, and similar problems abound throughout. In a section on how everyone has something embarrassing in their past waiting to come back at them, we are told:

one only has to think of the old photograph of Paul Boateng in unusual fancy-dress that duly appeared on a tabloid front-page when he was elected a Labour MP... (p.101)

It rings a vague bell, but I can't place the picture. And Mr Doig is of course talking about the 1987 general election, some time ago. So I looked up in the Index to see if there was any suggestion elsewhere about the nature of the photograph, and Paul Boateng doesn't even get a mention. That's just bad indexing which, coupled with the assumption of contemporary knowledge, and a very poor structure to the whole volume, makes this a terrible waste of an opportunity.

So where do you go to find a Babylon as gripping as that of Hollywood? Well, you got to Nashville, of course, home of big stars, bigger hairdos and enormous ego problems. Randall Riese's book follows the Kenneth Anger blueprint and tops it, playing heavily on the gap between the public preaching of morality and the behind-closed-doors reality. All the obvious suspects are here (Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Tammy Wynette, Merle Haggard, Steve Earle), as well as peripheral figures like Stringbean, the comedy star of TV show Hee Haw who was murdered in 1973, and all are depicted in such lurid peroxide detail that you can't help but be dragged in.

Are you sure Hank done it this way?
Hank Williams in jail

Superbly illustrated, this is essential stuff, juxtaposing tales of madness and murder with petty squabbles. I'm particularly fond of the sheer hatred felt by Porter Wagoner for his erstwhile protegée Dolly Parton, who upped and left his show as soon as she became a bigger star than he was. 'I don't want to be known as the person who discovered Dolly Parton,' insists the man who discovered Dolly Parton. 'I've done many more important things in my career than just discover Dolly Parton.' Oh no, you haven't.


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