The lives behind the music
Admittedly, the topic of this post is far removed from the usual subject matter of this blog, but I conveniently included the words “and whatever else I happen to be reading” in the masthead for just such an occasion as this. From time to time I read biographies of rock musicians, and Old Books by Dead Guys has finally amassed enough reviews of such books to put together an omnibus post on the subject.
What do I look for in a rock and roll biography? Mostly insight into the making of the music I love, the musician’s artistic development, and some insight into the rock star as human being—their personalities, warts and all. I usually opt for autobiographies, because I like to get the stories straight from the horse’s mouth. Rock-star anecdotes about sex, drugs, and partying are fun in small doses, but shouldn’t overpower the music-making narrative (I’m talking to you, Keith Richards!). Lastly, it’s always a bonus when the rock star you admire doesn’t come across as a dick (Bob Mould). If your interest in the subject diminishes after reading his life story, it’s not a successful memoir. On the other hand, a really good biography will make me want to hit the used CD stores in search of more of that artist’s recordings.
Of the eight books listed below, all are autobiographies except for the Warren Zevon book, which also happens to be the best of all the books listed here. The books are listed in order from best to worst. Click on the titles to read the complete full-length reviews.
I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon by Crystal Zevon (4.5 stars)
Crystal Zevon, Warren’s ex-wife, compiled this oral history from interviews with dozens of the deceased musician’s closest friends, family, and business associates, including rock luminaries like Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne. The portrait of Warren Zevon that results is both shocking and touching. More than anyone else on this list, Zevon lived the crazy life of a rock star, and not in a good way. Extreme alcoholism and drug use, sex addiction, obsessive compulsive disorder, spousal abuse, child neglect, occupational backstabbing, and a general tendency toward insecurity and paranoia all rear their ugly heads in this unflinchingly frank portrait of Zevon. The testimonies provided often read like an airing of grievances, yet almost all the interviewees express an undying love, admiration, and respect for the man. Over the course of the book, the reader simultaneously comes to hate, pity, and admire Zevon. It’s a powerful read.
Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream by Neil Young (4.5 stars)
Neil Young is the son of a newspaper columnist, and this articulate, entertaining memoir proves that the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. In Waging Heavy Peace, Young’s writing is unpolished but articulate, with the casual, conversational style of a born blogger. The narrative jumps around all over the chronological map, yet he still manages to give a complete biography of his life and career, interspersed with scenes from his present life. The latter includes his two current obsessions at the time of publication, the high-def audio format Pono and LincVolt, the 1959 Lincoln Continental he transformed into an electric car. Fans of Young’s music will be pleased to know that he delivers loads of personal insight into the writing of songs, the recording of albums, and the living of a rock star’s life on the road. Through candid revelations of his personal life, the reader gains a broader insight into Young’s personality and personal philosophy. Well done, Neil.
Chronicles, Volume One by Bob Dylan (4 stars)
Chronicles is not a full autobiography, but rather five distinct, closely examined periods in Dylan’s life. Those hoping to finally get some candid personal disclosure from this elusive bard will be disappointed to find that Dylan still goes out of his way to hide his inner self from the public. Nevertheless, he has crafted a lively and literary memoir. Dylan does an excellent job of evoking the sights and sounds of the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s, allowing the reader to live vicariously through his personal history. He also talks at length about his reluctance to wear the “voice of a generation” mantle that was so often thrust upon him earlier in his career, and he discusses his techniques of songwriting and musician ship in great detail, though not always intelligibly. Dylan’s prose is often as artfully obtuse and metaphor-laden as the lyrics of his songs, but fans of his music will find his unique writing style more fascinating than frustrating.
Also of Interest: Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, edited by Jonathan Cott; Dylan: Disc by Disc by Jon Bream
Clapton: The Autobiography by Eric Clapton (3.5 stars)
Clapton the book is satisfyingly candid, articulate, and revealing. Your really do a learn a lot about the man, in regards to both his personal and professional lives, though you might not like him as much when you’re done with it. Clapton made a lot of poor ethical choices in his life and treated a lot of women like dirt. There’s something refreshing, however, about the matter-of-fact way in which he admits his wrongs without sugar-coating them or asking for forgiveness. Clapton also engaged heavily in substance abuse, but eventually learned the error of his ways, and the story of his recovery from addiction and his efforts to help others is truly inspiring. Overall I enjoyed this book, but I’d have to say that my respect for the man diminished a little. Because of some of his off-putting moral choices, Clapton just doesn’t come across as smart as you would expect a musical genius to be.
Autobiography by Morrissey (3.5 stars)
An autobiography from Morrissey comes with high literary expectations, since the former singer and songwriter of The Smiths, like some alt-rock Oscar Wilde, is known for his intelligent and acerbic wit. For the most part, Morrissey meets those expectations. The first quarter of the book is a masterful piece of writing in which he depicts growing up in working-class Northern England as a bleak Dickensian hell. His career with The Smiths is covered pretty briefly until he delves into the band’s legal troubles (Morrissey was sued by the drummer), which goes on a bit too long. The book is killed by its final quarter, a tour diary loaded with self-praise. Overall, however this is a strong rock star memoir, both educational and entertaining. Morrissey comes across as egotistical, cantankerous, petty, vindictive, ungrateful, and mean-spirited as you would expect him to be. I’m not sure I’d want to hang out with the guy, but on paper he is hilarious.
Life by Keith Richards (3 stars)
Life attempts to recreate the experience of having an intimate conversation with Keith Richards. To some extent this strategy works, but the prose is so chock-full of colorful slang, gratuitous profanity, and pointless asides that it takes five times longer for him to say anything of note than it should. The result is an autobiography that is a lot more boring than you would expect it to be. Richards spends more time talking about drugs than he does about music. He delves deeply into the lengths he would go to get smack when he needed it and the legal battles over his various drug busts. Though he survived being a heroin addict, he doesn’t seem to have learned much from it. For the most part, the rest of the Rolling Stones remain shadowy characters on the periphery. Though late in the book Richards does finally address his contentious relationship with Mick Jagger, in the end I learned a lot less about the Stones than I thought I would.
Who I Am: A Memoir by Pete Townshend (3 stars)
In his autobiography, Townshend doesn’t spend enough time talking about his music and spends too much time cataloging all the things he has bought: houses, cars, boats, and recording equipment. Amid a morass of tangential detail, one gets little insight into the musical dynamics and interpersonal conflicts of The Who. In fact, he barely mentions his bandmates, almost as if he were afraid of being sued by them (or their surviving relatives). Throughout the book, Townshend comes across as an emotional child who wants so desperately to be liked. Thus, the tone of Who I Am is terribly manipulative. Townshend repeats every word of praise he’s ever received, tries to paint himself as a lovable loser, but then brags about the drugs he’s taken, the women he’s chased, and the money he’s spent. There’s an awful lot of personal disclosure, but the sincerity behind it is often questionable. The reader does learn a lot of trivia about Townshend’s life and career, but you don’t like or understand him any better in the end.
See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody by Bob Mould (2 stars)
Mould is best known as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist in the Minneapolis punk band Hüsker Dü. He later embarked on a solo career and briefly formed the band Sugar. I was a big fan of his music for many years, but reading this memoir really soured my opinion of the man. From page one, he comes across as a total self-centered jerk, dissing his former bandmates and relentlessly praising himself. There is a lot here about Mould’s personal life, but little about the making of music, and Hüsker Dü fans will be flummoxed to find how little Mould thinks of that period in his career. The book’s one saving grace that rescues it from pointlessness is the fact that Mould is gay and has been open about it for most of his career. His candid memories of growing up gay in the ’80s, his eventual coming out, and his coming to terms with being an openly gay rock star provide a few interesting and inspirational moments in an otherwise dull and dreary memoir.