Books

What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures by Malcolm Gladwell

Porus P. Cooper
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

Gladwell excels at making unobvious and intriguing connections, and readers are swept along.


What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures

Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
Length: 264 pages
Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Price: $27.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2009-10
Amazon

The US military is under growing stress but nowhere "near a tipping point", the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said recently. The chief executive of Cisco Systems Inc. assured investors that despite a 19 percent decline in quarterly income, the company was past the "tipping point" toward improving sales.

I don't know if either has read Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, about how little things can have an outsize impact, but I'm betting that neither Adm. Mike Mullen nor the technology company executive discovered the phrase in a tome on epidemiology.

When the title of a book becomes a cliché, you have to believe the author has left a deep impression on people's minds. With Tipping Point — and Blink and Outliers, which followed — the staff writer at the New Yorker has established himself as one of America's most unusual and nimble journalistic minds. As his best-seller rankings attest, he is also one of the most wildly successful.

His signature is an unbounded inquisitiveness about human nature. In this, his work belongs loosely to the same genre as Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner's popular Freakonomics books and blog, although Gladwell tends to rely on anecdotal evidence and experts to make his points, Levitt and Dubner on data mining.

Now comes What the Dog Saw. It is an eccentric collection of 19 essays that run the gamut from the trivial (a profile of infomercial maestro Ron Popeil) to the substantial (a less expensive solution for chronic homelessness). What distinguishes each of them is a surprising, often counterintuitive, insight or two, delivered in a no-frills — even formulaic — writing style that could be a flaw in some other context, but here works beautifully, ensuring that the words don't distract from the ideas.

Was John F. Kennedy Jr.'s nighttime flight doomed because he choked or panicked? (The two may look the same, but are "worlds apart", Gladwell says. For the record, had Kennedy choked instead of evidently panicking, he and his passengers perhaps would have survived.) Might the powerful Catholic Church have approved of the birth control pill had John Rock, a devout Catholic who was one of its inventors, not made a tactical error in how he marketed it? Is there a better way to predict who will be a great teacher — or a great pro football quarterback?

Delightful or thought-provoking as all of them are, none of the essays, alas, can claim to be fresh. Each was previously published in the New Yorker, and I found nearly all of them on Gladwell's Web site, Gladwell.com. The original thinker has come up with an unoriginal idea: a stocking stuffer.

That's a fan's complaint; I had hoped for something new from him. Of course, this sampler would be the perfect introduction to Gladwell to those unfamiliar with him: They will discover plenty to relish here, but also might notice some jarring aspects in his approach.

He has honed to a fine art the knack of losing himself in the characters in his essays — Dan Shonka, the football scout trying to assess the NFL prospects of a star college quarterback; Cesar Millan, the brilliant dog tamer of the title story, "What the Dog Saw", and a host of others. He even goes up in a small plane with an experienced pilot to better understand the disorientation that sent Kennedy to his death as he piloted a plane in the dark and lost the horizon.

Gladwell excels at making unobvious and intriguing connections, as between football and teaching or Enron and antisubmarine warfare, and readers are swept along. But read the essays back to back to back in this collection, as you couldn't do when they were originally published, and a few limitations become apparent.

There is nary an unsympathetic character here, and, with notable exceptions, Gladwell relies on experts to affirm positions, not to challenge them. The stronger pieces — the one taking apart the FBI's vaunted criminal profiling methodology is a superb example — are those grounded in skepticism rather than wonder.

Sometimes also, as in his piece on the Enron scandal, "Open Secrets", he prematurely locks into a desired conclusion — in this case that it was too much information that flummoxed the savviest minds on Wall Street, rather than too little. But the essay itself mentions several journalists and a bunch of business school students, presumably not financial wizards, who looked at Enron's financial statements and concluded that something was amiss.

And when an author exudes authoritativeness, as he does, without being an authority himself, Gladwell can ill afford the kind of error that somehow crept into one of his essays. On the Web it has set off a minor debunking frenzy. He is being ridiculed for referring to something he calls "igon" value in a piece on options trader Nassim Taleb when the correct term, from linear algebra, is eigenvalue.

To some, the lapse is proof he's an impostor, or at least a dilettante. But that's a charge that can be leveled at just about any journalist, and Gladwell, singularly talented though he is, has never claimed to be anything other than a journalist.

To me, reading a Gladwell essay is like doing a crossword puzzle — a fine, challenging crossword, by the way. It's for mental stimulation, and in this he seldom disappoints. Besides, eigenvalue was misspelled, not misused.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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