Books

Comedian Albert Brooks Proclaims Some Dead Serious Divinations in '2030'

Despite Albert Brooks’ background in comedy, 2030, particularly in its last third, is a bit of a dour book and is meant as both a warning and a prophecy if the world continues to turn unchecked.


2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Length: 375 pages
Author: Albert Brooks
Price: $25.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2011-05
Amazon

Albert Brooks is a comedian and filmmaker best known for writing and directing some notable comedies during the past three decades, including Lost in America, Mother, Modern Romance and Defending Your Life. While none of these are considered bona fide classics by any stretch of the imagination, they’ve tended to be good, well-constructed films, and definitely worth checking out. (He's also an actor who might be most known for his voice role as the neurotic father fish in Pixar’s Finding Nemo, and he received an Academy Award nomination for his work in 1987’s Broadcast News.)

With 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America, Brooks takes the leap into the world of novel writing and, like much of his film output, he has turned in a book that can be considered to be solidly crafted, but by no means timeless. 2030 is an interesting speculative fiction yarn about the state of America in some 20 odd years, though it's also a bit of a flawed gem.

While one might be quick to lump 2030 into the genre of science fiction, the book has a different feel to it than most books of that genre. Science fiction tends to make fetish objects out of technology, and everything else tends to take a back seat to ideas and imagination. 2030, on the surface, may appear to be no different, but once you start getting deeper into the book, it becomes apparent that Brooks’ view is more philosophical, a a treatise on the future state of America as a nation, and how different sociological groups will come to view each other. Sure, there are moments when Brooks speculates on where technology will take us – cancer will be cured by 2014, movies will be projected in hologram style, and planes will be able to fly without any pilots – but he’s more concerned about the present trajectory of the country’s current policies, and how they may come to bite the nation on the collective rear end in two decades time.

Despite Brooks’ background in comedy, 2030, particularly in its last third, is a bit of a dour book and is meant as both a warning and a prophecy if the world continues to turn unchecked. That’s not to say that there aren’t humorous moments to be found in Brooks’ first novel. Early on in the proceedings, one character remarks at a watch that you can communicate with others with by comparing it to the same style of communications device that Dick Tracy would use – a favourite of this character’s childhood comics collection. The character then goes on to wonder what would have happened technologically if he had read Wonder Woman, instead. (Insert ba-dum-dump drum sound and snare shot, here.)

There are light-hearted moments like this sprinkled throughout the book, at least in its first two thirds, but they’re there to accentuate a thought, not necessarily entertain. When it gets right down to it, Brooks has some dead serious divinations to proclaim, and really wants the reader to walk away from 2030 with the compulsion to do something about the way society is headed.

There’s a lot that goes on within 2030’s nearly 400 pages, and there are almost sub-plots within sub-plots. However, the general gist of the book goes something like this: thanks to the aforementioned cancer cure and the eradication of other aliments that would otherwise affect an aging population, the late-period baby boomers will have, by the year of the book in question, become the most populous and single-handedly influential generation on the planet – even if many of them have lapsed into comas and are being kept alive by feeding tubes and machines in convalescent homes.

Of course, this opens up a serial aspect about euthanasia, and whether or not a person should be allow to hang on to life as long as possible, even though this may place terrible demands upon the health care system. According to Brooks, the reluctance of the boomers to accede power will have a tremendous impact on the lives of 20-somethings, those people being born right now, who will become saddled with an insurmountable debt to keep their parents either alive.

As a result, Brooks predicts a kind of generational war between grandparents and children, one that the author feels will go so far as to incite acts of violence and terrorism against “the olds” by frustrated young people who feel that they don’t have any sort of political voice or clout. In this aspect of the book, Brooks is very sympathetic to the plight of the future’s youth, and reasons very well that the boomers – thanks to their coddled upbringing – will place such a demand on the backs of the millennials that the future for these people will be bleak, miserable and very dystopian-esque.

As Brooks reasons, the youth of 2030 may just very well be the first generation to not better themselves over the previous generation, thanks to their parents’ health care bills and lack of really meaningful job opportunities. Of course, the same thing was said about Generation X some 20 years ago, too, but it seems that that generation more or less is turning out OK.

That old versus young argument would be roughly one half of Brooks’ convincing case about the state of the future. The other part of the book notes that, in 20 years time, America will be so far in debt that when a calamity strikes on American soil – such as the forthcoming “Big One” earthquake on the San Andreas Fault – the country will be unable to rebuild entire cities that could be affected. Brooks’ hypothetical solution is that the United States government would have to make a deal with the much more financially sound China, and let it country embark on a 50/50 partnership where it would literally co-own the western part of the continental US and share in any of the tax revenue generated by that region.

To Brooks’ reasoning, this partnership will go off so well that it will open up all sorts of other ramifications – including amending the Constitution to allow foreign born American citizens to legally run for the country’s highest office: the presidency. It’s hard to say if Brooks views this kind of development to be a good or a bad thing, but he posits that it could very much become a reality, and ultimately change the face of an entire nation.

While this insightful look ahead is very well reasoned and thought out – you get the indication that the ideas Brooks presents here must have been percolating over a very long period of time – the novel does fall a little flat in its characterizations. Brooks falls victim to the science fiction pitfall of creating “info dumps”, which are paragraphs that explain away the technological advancements and ideas about what may befall America, which means that meaningful, well rounded characters tend to take a backseat to all of the hypothesizing. It’s notable that the hardcover’s inner flaps makes no mention of the major or minor characters that populate Brooks’ universe: it’s as though the people who spill out of his’ imagination and onto the page are merely second fiddle and are like puppets for the main points that he wants to hammer home. As a result, characters disappear very early on without being mentioned again and new characters are introduced well into the second half of the novel who play a pivotal part in the narrative.

What’s more, there’s very little insight into character motivation. For example, we find out that one young person in this book, who turns out to be a revolutionary figure in the fight against the state of entitlement that the elderly generally have, is actually extremely wealthy about halfway through 2030. So then why does this character have a gripe against his older counterparts when he’s considerably more well off than most of his peers, and made his money by being a shareholder in the corporation that cured cancer? We don’t know, but it becomes very convenient that he’s so loaded, because he’ll need the money to actually take up his fight against “the olds”.

There’s another aspect that hurts the quality of 2030: a feeling of ‘been there, done that’. This book follows hot on the heels of last year’s superb Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, which covers much of the same ground, at least from a futuristic ideas perspective, but boasts solid characterizations and a framing relationship to really hold onto. Being a bit behind the times might not be Brooks’ or his publisher’s fault, as who knows how long this novel has been gestating? Still, there is a marked sense of déjà vu to the proceedings.

Even Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, another literary title from last year, speculates on life in 10 years time in the concluding chapters – though to a much lesser extent than Shteyngart’s or Brooks’ work. Thus, Brooks’ debut feels part of a literary trend, and not an overtly original idea. Timing has therefore diluted much of 2030’s impact, making it appear to be a bit of an also-ran.

Still, even though 2030 suffers from being too close to other novels of the same ilk and a lack of fully three-dimensional characters that you can really get involved in, the ideation is sound and the book is an enjoyable, page turning read. Its pronouncements may be more depressing than enlightening, and one could argue that Brooks might have been better off interviewing some futurists and penning a non-fiction work to strengthen his agenda. However, Brooks shows some level of competency in going beyond his usual craft of filmmaking into new, uncharted territory by penning a novel – and one that is as unflinching as 2030.

Whether you agree with Brooks’ crystal ball gazing as to where America is going is another matter altogether, but his contention is gripping and compelling, and it's a starting point for debate on issues affecting youth as well as those surrounding the looming debt crisis. If cancer isn’t cured in three years, say, the book could swiftly become a bit of a dated relic, but 2030, for all of its Nostradamus-like prophesising is very much a novel for the present. It's a thoughtful examination of the can of worms that it threatening to cripple an entire nation, and the best take-away from this book is that something needs to be done now to prevent the serious fissures that could erupt if things continue status quo. In Brooks’ view, we'd merely sit on the sidelines and watch it all happen, just as he acutely predicts.

7

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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