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You Can't Always Get What You Want: Great book, lousy app

You Can't Always Get What You Want (US$4.99 until the end of August, to celebrate Jerry Garcia's birthday), is one of the best Rock and Roll books I've ever read. It is written and read by Sam Cutler, the tour manager of the Rolling Stones and later the Grateful Dead in the late 60's and early 70's. The centerpiece of the book is the free concert at the Altamont Speedway in Northern California that took place on December 6, 1969, which was made into a gripping documentary film titled Gimme Shelter by Albert and David Maysles.

The line up included: Santana, the Jefferson Airplane, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead, who later decided not to play since it was too dangerous. What most people remember about the concert is that during the Stones performance, quite near the stage, Alan Passaro, a Hells Angels member, stabbed and killed Meredith Hunter after Hunter pulled out a gun. Although horrible and headline grabbing the full story is much more gripping and is only one part of the book.

Sam Cutler, is a gregarious guy who was smack in the middle of the rock scene at the time. He's a great story teller, and has the perfect voice to tell his story. He reads his book in a grizzled and sometimes tired English accent that gives instant credibility to his words. He knew everyone and remembers everything in amazing detail. Naming the cast of characters would go on for pages, but Sam was there at the start of arguably every English rock and roll band at the time and later knew just about everyone in the San Francisco music scene.
Sam is a wonderful writer who not only gives you the backstage stories, but beautifully details all the background in an opinionated and wildly entertaining manner. After hearing about the mountain of drugs consumed and the endless supply of groupies available for the taking, it's amazing that he remembers anything. In reading his blog, he talks about being regressed by a psychologist and in further reading you can tell that he is a natural writer with a huge vocabulary, who revels in stories. The only small problem I had with the book is that Sam is very polite and censored himself from getting into the really juicy bits. He considers the people he writes about his highly-respected friends and purposely did not write a "kiss and tell" book. I recommend the book as required reading for anyone with even a passing interest in rock and roll.

Unfortunately, I wouldn't recommend the app to anyone. Expanded Books has produced what has to one of the sloppiest, most poorly designed apps in the store. At every turn or tap the app prevented me from enjoying the story.

Each time the app is run, you are presented with a splash screen that you need to tap to dismiss, the first design mistake. After a screen with the various content options, tapping on Book brings up a chapter list, and tapping on a chapter brings up the text and Sam's reading of it. Each paragraph is highlighted as it's read. At the end of a chapter, there is an unnerving wait of sometimes up to 20 seconds before the next one starts.

Choosing Videos/Photos from the main menu brings up five clips from Gimme Shelter, along with two multi-part Australian interviews with Sam, from a talk show where Sam regales the interviewer with stories from the book, sometimes contradicting the text. The second is from Bondi Beach in Sydney Australia and comes in six parts. Strangely, the Bondi Beach interviews do not appear in the iPad version of the app.

The Photos section provides about 30 pictures, each with an information button that supplies a scrollable description of the picture. The images are relevant and the descriptions excellent, but there is no back button, so you'll have to either close and reopen the app or swipe up to 30 times to get back to the start.

Feedback provides a useless and unintuitive method of sending a mail message to the app's creators. The Buy option brings up a screen where you can buy the book from five vendors, but wait a minute. You have already bought the book. Why are they trying to sell it to you again?

The final and worst option is Bookmarks, which is fraught with ever changing issues:
  • The bookmark doesn't appear and you have to go back to the main screen and choose bookmarks to see it.
  • The bookmark, regardless of where you are in the chapter, defaults to chapter one.
  • Once you bookmark a paragraph, trying to bookmark another, regardless of how many paragraphs have passed, brings up a red screen telling you that this paragraph has already been bookmarked.
  • The wrong paragraph gets bookmarked.
  • Nothing happens.
It should be fairly obvious that not having a functional bookmarking system makes following the book impossible to actually read through. Worse yet, there's no scroll bar on the screen, so you have no idea of how long the chapter might be. What you're left with is trying to remember what chapter you were last hearing and scrolling and scrolling some more to try to get to where you left off.

There is an Option button which allows you change the font, font size, turn the audio on or off and offers a night view where the display become black with white type. This seems clear enough, but they even screwed that up: when you make some changes and select done, you are taken to the first photo in the photo gallery. When night view is chosen, and you're listening to the book, stopping and scrolling up to get to a prior paragraph can't be done since everything above where you are is just a white screen with black lines that I assume demarcate paragraphs. If you touch one of those white spaces, the paragraph gets highlighted and played but it's no help since with no display, you are tapping on a random paragraph.

Some other annoyances include the app not being iOS 4 enabled, so if a phone call comes in, when done, you are tossed out of the app and have no idea where you left off. The buttons are far too small and it's easy to hit the wrong one. As soon as you put the iPhone in your pocket, within five seconds some button gets tapped and either you're sent to the wrong place or the app quits. I've even had the app quit on me without doing anything.

Frankly, I'm mad and frustrated about this app. I love the book and Sam's excellent reading enhances the experience immeasurably. I'd love to be able to tell you that an easy solution is to just get the audiobook either from the iTunes store or Audible.com, but this app is the only audio version available. I guess the best you can do is buy the book (not available as an iBook, sadly) and read it for yourself, but it will be a lesser experience.

It's too bad Expanded Apps didn't put even a modicum of thought into the experience. The book behind all of the frustrations and annoyances is well worth listening to, but getting there isn't made easy at all.

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