Sunday, October 28, 2012

Rock Books

(Scattered and no doubt self-contradictory, the following post was written in airports on an iPad while I was running from the hurricane and wishing I was blogging about how much I hate US Air, but I wanted to be true to the Rocktober vision even in primitive conditions. Sorry there are no pictures or music.)

 It is appropriate, I think, to finish up my Rocktober posts by focusing on the rockers themselves. Especially since they themselves are so good at focusing on themselves. It's a narcissistic business. It has to be. If someone is going to get it into his or her head that he or she has the talent and the charisma to stand or sit in front of a crowd of people for several hours and entertain, perhaps even enlighten, them, then it is no surprise that these people are, perhaps, even more self-focused on the rest of us. They have to care about every step or misstep they take, every public appearance, every weight loss or gain, every release or re-release. Someone is always watching, always evaluating.

 The disconnect comes when we realize that each of these little aspects of a rock star's life is far more important to them than to us. The problem is that these rockers now have some pretty good years on them, and this has seemed to suggest that this means that they have life stories to tell. Like the WWII veterans who are dying at an alarming rate, these rockers are unleashing biographies, and, especially autobiographies, in numbers that, were we talking about victims of a disease, would signal the beginnings of an epidemic.

As you might guess, I'm not a huge fan of this slew of rock histories, even though I admire or respect the icons who are delivering them (or serving as the focus of them)--Neil Young, Keith Richards, Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen. I don't go to bookstores often these days, but on a recent browsing, all of these books were featured prominently.

Two I own. I bought Keith Richards' Life when it came out and, but for the mistake of loaning it to my neighbor for a quick read, I might have read it by now. As it stands, I left Keith in childhood getting his first guitars. The early childhood years of rock stars bore me, though to be fair, the early childhood years of great writers or statesman also bore me. Give me a few significant details and I'm good. If you killed a bear when you were three, I want to hear about it.

I'm currently deep into Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace, which I'm hanging with, but the path is serpentine and the narrative, by the writer's own admission, is seat-of-his-pants one draft material. I'm interested in where Young is and has been, but his book reminds me that what I'm really interested in is the music, and I wade through the rest of it to get to that.

A few years ago, I read through Eric Clapton's book, and wish I hadn't read it. Frankly, I wish I didn't know what a drugged out, womanizing, careless-with-his-career shithead he was, nor was I pleased to discover his safe retreat into 12-step religion (I know I'll catch some flack for that, but sorry it's so cliched). I'm glad he's alive and off drugs and alcohol, of course, but these last years take up way too much of his story.

There are two key mistakes I think most of these books make: 1) they often rely on sordid details about excesses and sexual liaisons, and 2) the "writing" of these books tends to consist of either dictation into tape recorders or single-draft versions that tell it like it was (remembered) but with little flair. Rod Stewart's new autobiography is getting press for him and Ron Wood not wanting to have plaster casts made of their penises once they saw the mold of Jimi Hendrix's. Rock lore for sure but surely there is something more.

Tell me about the songs. Tell me about the music and the creative process. If you are Eric Clapton, realize that you had peaked by 1972 and tell us about the glory years. If you are Neil Young, realize that while your toy train, alternative fuel, and sound reproduction projects are kind of interesting and let us know who you are today, you have also been involved some of the greatest moments and songs in rock, and if you can't or don't care to remember that those times are where your fame came from, then you are missing out for your audience. It's the music first and last, and platitudes about what a good friend so-and-so is or what a genius Stephen Stills is are going to need some fleshing out to become relevant and believable.

The most satisfying account I ever read was Hammer Of The Gods, about Led Zeppelin. A trashy read with no agenda other than to tell what life in the band had been like, it pulled no punches and glossed over nothing. And since the boys in the band had nothing to do with it, they weren't there to give it their spin.

Many of today's rock books are substitutes for the next record, extensions of the brand. If the music is kind of played out, then the book, the tales can serve the same purpose of providing "new material." The book says here's who I am, just a different way of seeing me and my manager thought it was a good time to write since the other wankers are doing well with theirs. And it's a whole lot harder to share a Kindle or a book than it is an mp3.

The great irony is that the "rock star" who would seem to have the least chance of offering an account that was actually meaningful and coherent set the standard several years ago and none of these newer accounts, based on what I've looked into, can touch him for insight or eloquence. Bob Dylan's Chronicles, Vol. 1. remains the best of the bunch. If you're going to tell about your life, Mr. Rock And Roll, please preserve some of the magic and mystery and take the time to craft the tale. Like Dylan.


G. B. Miller said...

I rarely read any rock star/musician's auto bio much for the same reasons that you've listed.

I would rather read a well researched bio of the musician that was written (hopefully) by a unbiased third party.

If you're interested, there is a good bio of Freddie Mercury that is now out on the shelves that I highly recommend. A bit lengthy, but a thoroughly enjoyable read.

troutking said...

Chronicles IS an amazing book, especially when you realize that it is an autobiography of "Bob Dylan" and just as carefully constructed as that persona. It's really a modernist work of art rather than a memoir. Neil's book is kind of like a lot of his music--here's what's going on with me right now, what I'm doing and what I'm thinking, pretty much unadulterated. I enjoyed it though, especially the quote from his producer: "Life is a shit sandwich. Eat it or starve."

TommyD said...

If you killed a bear when you were three, I want to hear about it. HA!

Bob said...

Mr. Miller--you do our blog honor by hanging with us.

Trout--Obama Man needs to come to the rescue!

TD--That's Davy Crockett, dude!