Pure Dynamite by Tom Billington (book review)

I haven’t read a book in several weeks, so to get back in the habit I’m cleaning up random books lying around the house. Pure Dynamite – The Price you Pay for Wrestling Stardom will mainly be of interest to people who are/were fans of professional wrestling in the 70s, 80s and early 90s. If you’re not in that select category, you might want to give this a miss since it’s a not very well-written autobiography of a not very nice person.

Abridged summary

Pure Dynamite is a blow by blow account of the career of Tom Billington, who wrestled solo as The Dynamite Kid, and with Davey Boy Smith as half of the British Bulldogs tag team. Although he should have been a millionaire when he retired in 1993, after 16 years of professional wrestling, he had little but memories are scar tissue to show for it.

Now confined to a wheelchair as a result of serious damage to his back and legs, his years of steroid use have also damaged Billington’s heart and personal life. Pure Dynamite is as much a cautionary tale as it is a glimpse into the world of a wrestling legend.

If you watched the WWE (then WWF) in the early 90s then you definitely remember the British Bulldog Davey Boy Smith, most likely for his legendary Summerslam 92 match against Bret Hart. If you watched even earlier, you will remember he was part of the British Bulldogs tag team with his less buff, less fan-friendly cousin the Dynamite Kid.

I started watching pro wrestling around 1990, but there were plenty of tapes of earlier Wrestlemanias around. I liked the Bulldogs well enough – not as much as the Hart Foundation, but well-enough. Just not enough to read this autobiography by the less popular (but way more talented, seriously, just Youtube his early matches) half.

What made me get Pure Dynamite? The promise of an honest tell-all book in an industry filled with soft-pedalling books full of “eat your vitamins and say your prayers” kind of talk, that’s what. Nary a mention of drugs or steroids even though we all know they were a big part of wrestling particularly in the 90s. Apart from Bret Hart’s book which laid it all on the line, even allegedly honest books like Jericho’s and Mick Foley’s, while being excellent reads for the wrestling fan, didn’t really expose the seedy underbelly of the WWE in the way the gossip fan in me wanted to see. They were also suspiciously light on the self-criticism. Pure Dynamite, I was told, was written by someone with nothing left to lose and thus was the place to go if you really wanted true dirt from that era.

Brutal Honesty?

Well, was it? Alas, no, though it is indeed much more honest than most of the other books I’d mentioned. In particular Tom Billington makes no secret of what a horrible, horrible person he was – without meaning to, actually. He’s a sociopath through and through who can’t see what might be wrong with setting someone on fire in a McDonalds. Or cuffing someone for ignoring him. Or beating someone up because they might possibly be angry with him.

If you’re interested in reading about wrestling “ribs” i.e. backstage pranks, this is definitely the book for you. Just realize that what Billington considers “ribs” are physical and mental abuse and sometimes outright crimes, stuff that should have landed him in jail 200 times over if anyone had bothered reporting it. Reading it you really wonder if this guy has normal thought processes and feelings, he’s just so amoral and blase about it. This happened and that happened and then I did this (completely immoral) thing.

Billington is also honest about the different drugs and steroids that sent him on his downward spiral. He straight up names those who first gave him speed, where he got his steroids from. What he took, when he took it, why he took it, why he quit both steroids and drugs, the sequence of physical punishments he put himself through that landed him in a wheelchair, it’s all explained frankly and clearly in this book.

Dynamite Kid also wrestled for or with most of the key wrestling figures in Canada, Japan and the USA in the 80s, so his book is a veritable Who is Who of wrestling names. Antonio Inoki, Giant Baba, Andre the Giant, Giant Haystacks, Tiger Mask I and II, Terry Funk and on and on. It seems he tangled with just about everybody who was anybody back then, and he’s not shy to let us know what he thought about all of them.

Spoiler: he thinks the world of all his friends and everyone else sucks. Oh it’s not quite that bad, but there’s a pretty obvious bias towards those he likes while those he dislikes are quickly dismissed with backhand compliments at best. Still, he’s not afraid to name names or criticize even popular wrestlers, so it might be worth it reading Pure Dynamite just to see what Billington has to say about your favorite old school wrestler. The biggest surprise for me was that Vince McMahon was actually portrayed very positively. Guess Dynamite doesn’t want to burn all his bridges, eh?

Dynamite Hypocrisy

That’s not the only place where Billington is shady and hypocritical, however. It’s particularly glaring if you’ve read the autobiographies of Bret Hart and Diana Hart and know the truth behind the dissolution of Dynamite’s marriage. Billington tries to play it off as “we just grew apart” but his years of abuse and outright torture of his wife are well-documented.

He tries to paint himself as a hero for not contesting the divorce and giving Michelle everything he had, but after the hell he put her through, it’s the least he could have done. And he talks about how proud he is of his children while admitting he almost never saw them and that he got a divorce even before his third child was born. There’s something missing here. It’s hard to call this an honest book when Billington won’t come out and admit the wrong he did to this woman – and to her friends if one particularly lurid anecdote by Diana Hart is to be believed.

Billington is also inconsistent in his preaching about his wrestling philosophy as well. Several times he states that he always tried to give everyone he wrestled with a good match. After all, if you make someone look small and pathetic and beat them, you’ve beaten a nobody. All good and nice advice, but in between the philosophizing he also recounts at least two incidents where he and his partner intentionally no sold opposing tag teams (the Nasty Boys and Los Guerreros) for no good reason. There’s really no reason, he just didn’t like the look of them so he was a jerk. That’s a pattern you’ll see a lot throughout this book.

You will also have a lot of unanswered questions at the end of his book, particularly regarding his finances. He’s very diligent to record much of what he made from his tours and matches, e.g. $6,200 for a one week tour with NJPW, $10,000 for a commercial, and so on and so forth. But then suddenly he’s broke and returns to England with less than $30 in his pocket. Wait, what? What happened to all that money? Drugs? Women? (of whom there are suspiciously few in his account) Bad investments? He mentions buying a house for $200,000 cash and having some land, but where did all the rest of the money go? Again it’s hard to call his book “honest” when it has such glaring gaps in the narrative.

Cautionary tale for wrestlers

As the summary says “Pure Dynamite is as much a cautionary tale as it is a glimpse into the world of a wrestling legend.” I don’t think Billington meant it as such, though. He himself says he wouldn’t change a thing if he had to do it all over again. He speaks approvingly of “hard” fighters, i.e. fighters who hit you for real and dismisses wrestlers who didn’t want to work dangerous styles or with dangerous wrestlers. With all due respect, the results show for themselves.

It’s almost funny how oblivious he is to the fact that he’s a walking advertisement for not doing the things he did. At a point where his own body is almost completely broken down, he criticizes Davey Boy Smith for not wanting to get hurt. It’s like, duh? Look in the mirror first?

And this book came out before the Chris Benoit tragedy, so his praise of Benoit for aping the Dynamite Kid’s style comes across all the more as “Don’t try this at home, kids.” I think fans who don’t like the WWE’s present safer working styles and wellness policies will rapidly change their minds when they see the toll unsafe practices took on Tom Billington. It’s definitely a “cautionary tale” whether Billington means it to be or not.

On the quality of the book itself

Last few notes on the book – this review is longer than I’d expected – for better or worse it definitely feels like something Billington wrote himself, even though I know there was a ghost writer. That means a lot of typos, inconsistent spellings and quite a bit of repetition.

It suffers from quite a bit of disorganization and rambling before getting back to the point. Your mileage may vary on this, since it does have a genuine feel of listening to the Dynamite Kid recount his life. A little more editing, cutting out the hundreds of prank stories and “I wrestled this guy” stories and more explanation of his life outside the ring would have really raised the level of this book.

This especially applies to his family in England. His dad shows up prominently but the rest of his family is like a shadow. His mother and his sisters almost never appear. It’s not so much that I want the nitty gritty of his private life, but it’s a very incomplete autobiography when most of the stuff you would expect from such a book are either covered up or completely ignored.

Another ‘mileage may vary’ issue is that many of the matches are written in “kayfabe,” as if the outcome of each match was ever actually in doubt. There are matches where this isn’t the case and Dynamite shows the decision-making process, but the bulk of the matches are written up like they were real fights. For me this wasn’t a problem at all and was actually very interesting to read, but I’ve seen complaints about it online so I just throw this out there. YMMV.

Final thoughts

Pure Dynamite is worth a read on one hand, but on the other hand it’s kind of hard to recommend this book. It’s invaluable for its frank look at the excesses of the 80s Rock n Wrestling era. It’s also useful if you’re the nosy type and want to know how much wrestlers typically made in those days – a lot if you were at the top and a good negotiator.

The problem is the subject, Tom Billington. He is just so, so unpleasant. A lying, unrepentant jerk that it’s really hard to feel sorry for despite all he’s going through now. Not that he wants or deserves your pity, of course. But you will come away with a bad taste in your mouth. Overall I’d say read it if you’re a fan of that era but definitely skip it if you’re not. It makes me grateful the WWE has changed so much these days, even though it does mean the angles and matches are so boring that I can’t watch it any more. At least lives are being saved, and that’s what matters.

Watched Kung Fu Cult Master (Jet Li movie)

Watched it in Cantonese, of course. But with subtitles because Kung Fu Cult Master (a.k.a. Evil Cult a.k.a Lord of Wu Tang) is one of my favorite kung fu movies of all time and I can’t bear to not understand a single line. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!

SummaryTwo different schools of kung fu fight for possession of two magic swords that will let the owner know all martial-arts secrets. Young Chang Mo-kei (Jet Li) is caught between the two but is unable to do anything because he suffers from a curse that prevents him from practicing kung fu. All that changes with an invitation from an alluring young woman one sultry evening…

Don’t worry, nothing happens with the alluring young woman. And in fact the “nothing happens” sends Mo-kei into a rage that drives him off a cliff and into the lair of the only man who can cure his curse. The movie kicks into super-overdrive from that point and doesn’t let up until the rather unsatisfying ending.

Best features: I don’t think too much of Jet Li as an actor, but as a martial artist he’s always a delight to watch. His actions are crisp, fluid and logical. Everything moves smoothly from one attack to the next. Even when he’s firing off balls of light you get the sense it’s the most practical option at the time. And it’s not just him but all the other battles are well-choreographed and easy to follow, even the ones featuring what look like thousands of extras on the screen.

It may also be because I’ve watched this at least 3 times, but I found the story easy to follow despite the sheer number of players. It’s easiest to divide them into two broad groups and remember that the people you spend the most time hanging with are the Shaolin coalition and that the really bad guys are the Yuen government’s dogs.

There’s good chemistry between Chang Mo-kei and his leading ladies, especially between him and the coquettish Chao Min, played by Sharla “Yee Mong” Cheung. You really want to punch her in the face, but at the same time you can’t help admiring her chutzpah. In a world of overpowered martial artists, it’s admirable to have a character who makes her way around with  her wits and an understanding of human nature.

There are also a lot of cute moments between Mo-kei and his servant Siu Chiu as well, making you wonder what secret she’s harboring and if they’ll ever get together one day. I always did like Chingmy Yau’s characters. It’s too bad all three lead actresses in this movie have retired now.

Stuff that’s not so good: The lack of a conclusive ending. This is clearly part 1 of two or even three, but the film was such a bomb (unbelievable!!) and apparently Li had issues with the director, so the promised sequel never came out. Since the story is based on Jin Yong’s Heavenly Sword and Dragon Sabre, I know what drama I’m watching next!

The other negative is the juvenile sexual humor and a bit of bad language – from a bad character, but nevertheless. It’s only in a few brief scenes and not enough to detract from the rest of the movie as a whole, but I include it for the sake of completeness.

I should also say that the story might be a bit confusing if it’s your first time watching. There are so many faction names thrown about that it can be hard to follow. Especially for characters who are mentioned but don’t show up. I also expected some explanation for why Jet Li’s mother and Chao Min are played by the same actress (long lost relatives?) but got nothing.

Overall: Lots of great kung fu action. If you like wire-fu, you should definitely watch Kung Fu Cult Master. Great story once you get the hang of it. Very cheesy, but in a feel-good way. Highly recommended

Silly joke: For monks only

A man is driving down the road and his car breaks down near a monastery. He goes to the monastery, knocks on the door, and says, “My car broke down. Do you think I could stay the night?”

The monks graciously accept him, feed him dinner, even fix his car. As the man tries to fall asleep, he hears a strange sound. A sound unlike anything he’s ever heard before. The Sirens that nearly seduced Odysseus into crashing his ship comes to his mind. He doesn’t sleep that night. He tosses and turns trying to figure out what could possibly be making such a seductive sound.

The next morning, he asks the monks what the sound was, but they say, “We can’t tell you. You’re not a monk.” Distraught, the man is forced to leave.

Years later, after never being able to forget that sound, the man goes back to the monastery and pleads for the answer again.

The monks reply, “We can’t tell you. You’re not a monk.”
The man says, “If the only way I can find out what is making that beautiful sound is to become a monk, then please, make me a monk.”

The monks reply, “You must travel the earth and tell us how many blades of grass there are and the exact number of grains of sand. When you find these answers, you will have become a monk.”

The man sets about his task.

After years of searching he returns as a gray-haired old man and knocks on the door of the monastery. A monk answers. He is taken before a gathering of all the monks.

“In my quest to find what makes that beautiful sound, I traveled the earth and have found what you asked for: By design, the world is in a state of perpetual change. Only God knows what you ask. All a man can know is himself, and only then if he is honest and reflective and willing to strip away self deception.”

The monks reply, “Congratulations. You have become a monk. We shall now show you the way to the mystery of the sacred sound.”

The monks lead the man to a wooden door, where the head monk says, “The sound is beyond that door.”

The monks give him the key, and he opens the door. Behind the wooden door is another door made of stone. The man is given the key to the stone door and he opens it, only to find a door made of ruby. And so it went that he needed keys to doors of emerald, pearl and diamond.

Finally, they come to a door made of solid gold. The sound has become very clear and definite. The monks say, “This is the last key to the last door.”

The man is apprehensive to no end. His life’s wish is behind that door!
With trembling hands, he unlocks the door, turns the knob, and slowly pushes the door open. Falling to his knees, he is utterly amazed to discover the source of that haunting and seductive sound……

But, of course, I can’t tell you what it is because you’re not a monk.

Watching clips of Beautiful Cooking (美女廚房) online

I’ve hit the stage in my Cantonese studies where I think I’ve gone as far as textbooks and manufactured dialogues can take me. It’s time to start piling on the real media for real Hong Kong people, and what better place to start than reality TV?

Unfortunately both the streams for Guangdong TV and ATV have gone offline (and the latter one has gone bankrupt), and TVB is only available to people who live in certain countries unless you have a proxy service. I’m working on getting around that, but not too seriously because I have another option: Youtube! Because I don’t have any particular show in mind and don’t mind checking out a little bit of everything here and there, Youtube is the perfect place to start.

My first subject: Beautiful Cooking from TVB! Yes, the TVB official channel has uploaded several clips of this blatantly sexist cooking show that literally means Beautiful Girls’ Kitchen (美女廚房). It’s all about bringing young female celebrities onto the show so they can flail about pretending not to know how to cook and so the mostly-male panel can savage the results. Because it doesn’t matter how successful your film career is or how much charity work you do or how fulfilling your life is – if you can’t cook then you’re worthless as a woman </sarcasm>.

Oh, this AnimeFangirl again, always getting outraged over the slightest things, you say. Well yeah, I guess. It is a pretty entertaining show. And it’s clear the girls are playing up their helplessness and cluelessness and the guys are mugging for the camera just to be funny. They’re all actors and celebrities after all. But the underlying message is still, hmmm… why not celebrities in general? Why only female celebrities cooking to please judges who are always always men? I am woman, see me cook!

And that’s not even getting into the obligatory “Man saves day for woman” bit in every show, where at least one contestant finds herself unable to deal with a piece of raw meat or seafood and one of the (male) judges has to do it for her. For example a judge has to wrestle seafood from a tank while the lady stands back and squeals “I’m so scared!”

In another episode it’s a raw duck, and the contestant’s feminine hands are so delicate she can’t apply enough pressure to cut its head off. He-Man to the rescue. “Eek!” screams the lady as she scampers off to the side while the man does his thing. Thank you He-Man, how did women ever cook without you?

I’m all for complementarianism and do believe that God created men and women for different roles and purposes in the family, but this is just ridiculous. Luckily I’m watching this show for learning purposes and not for the social commentary – though it does say a lot about Hong Kong culture that they have such a program. Also as I said they are exaggerating for obvious effect – though it does say a lot about Hong Kong culture that they feel the need to behave in such a way.

So how much Cantonese have I learned from watching several clips of Beautiful Cooking? None, haha! Okay, I did learn the word for squid (墨魚) but that’s about it. Instead this is mainly an exercise in training myself to watch Cantonese programming without subtitles and try to get the gist of it. I’m quite happy as getting the main gist of all the clips I’ve watched so far, though it helps a lot that Hong Kongers are so lively and animated. You won’t be in any doubt about how they’re feeling, I can guarantee that.

That aside, it’s too soon to tell if watching this stuff will have an effect on my Cantonese. But I remember making leaps and bounds in my Japanese listening skills from watching lots of video clips from Hey! Hey! Hey! and Music Station on Youtube. All those vids are down now and I was already pretty good at Japanese when I started watching them, but they did help a lot. I’m hoping to get the same effect from doing a little All Cantonese All The Time for the rest of the year.

As for the Beautiful Cooking show itself, eh, it’s okay. I like cooking, I like seeing what the contestants make of the unexpected ingredients, everyone involved seems to be having a lot of fun. It’s exactly the kind of show I could watch a lot of without even meaning to. I’ve linked two episodes in this post and TVB has plenty more on Youtube, so be sure to check them out if you’re interested!

Kaikisen manga review

I don’t have the energy to read long volumes these days, so I turned my hand to a one-volume manga by the late Satoshi Kon. The blurb of Kaikisen goes as follows:

The legend has it that once upon a time, a pact was sealed between the Shinto priest of the town of Amide and a mermaid. Ever since, abundant fishing has guaranteed the town’s prosperity. This pact has always been honored by the priests of the Yashiro family. However, the legend has attracted both media and property developers, and the acting priest has acceded to their demands. Yosuke, youngest of the Yashiro family, has doubts about the existence of the mermaid, but will soon change his opinion as strange occurrences begin to unfold…

What I liked:

The art was clean but detailed. The story was short but action-packed, it felt a lot like an action movie especially near the end. Not too much happened, which kept the events simple enough to understand. The “big bad” was a little ridiculous in the lengths to which he would go to keep the egg, but the other characters in the story were believable and understandable.

The tension between the islanders who wanted to modernize and those who wanted to keep things the same was easy to sympathize with as well. The resolution was positive, but it didn’t magically clear way all the tensions that had existed in the town.

What I didn’t like:

I can understand the motivation of some of the characters, but that doesn’t mean any of them are likeable. The main character Yosuke in particular is just a chain-smoking unmotivated slacker who happens to do the right thing for once in his life. Kudos Yosuke, but that doesn’t make you any less annoying. His friend might as well have been air and his not-really-relationship with that girl who just came back from the city smacks of one of those relationships Hollywood throws into every action movie just for kicks.

That’s the main problem with Kaikisen. You’re not really rooting for anyone, except maybe the mermaid who stupidly entrusted a precious egg to those perfidious humans. The bad guys are given a treatment at the end that suggests they might not be so bad after all but given that their motivations were never really explored and the ‘good guys’ weren’t that easy to sympathize with either, it just smacks of Satoshi Kon trying to end things on a realistic note (bad guys aren’t killed) while not leaving a bad taste in the reader’s mouth. It… doesn’t really work IMO.

Overall:

Well whatever. That’s the beauty of a one-volume manga. On the minus side it might rush a few things and tie up some ends too neatly, but on the big plus side, when it’s over, it’s over. Kaikisen is a short, action-packed read with a good mix of modern-day realism and the supernatural. There’s a bonus, unrelated short story after that, but I disliked it after one page so I dropped it. The main story is worth a read as long as you don’t have to go out of your way to do so. Enjoy~

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