August 30, 2010
Sometime during the summer I turned thirteen, my neighbor, who was about three years older, began wearing corduroy pants with little flying ducks embroidered on them.
When a friend strikes out in a bold new direction like this, it can be a scary ordeal for everyone around him. It can also present a number of opportunities. Realizing that the onset of the mallard-inspired cords would likely usher in the obsolescence of all things non-preppy, I petitioned for and became the grateful beneficiary of a number of his now-unwanted possessions. Specifically, his copy of The Grateful Dead’s American Beauty. And most importantly, his copy of the Jim Morrison biography No One Here Gets Out Alive by Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugarman.
My life hasn’t been the same since.
When I picked up that bio for the first time, I had no idea who Jim Morrison was and was largely unaware of The Doors’ body of work. By the time I finished reading the book for the tenth time, the paperback’s binding was shredded. Pages were folded, dog-eared, torn, and scrawled upon, and I was officially a walking, jabbering, obnoxious devotee of all things related to The Doors.
It is amazing that this book could make a 12 year old Irish Catholic kid from central Massachusetts feel like he could relate to The Lizard King. What did I know about drugs back then? Or sex, songwriting, Aldous Huxley, Friedrich Nietzschze, Hollywood, money or the stifling weight of celebrity? Nothing. But I loved Jim’s bravado. Man, did I get that. And I loved how he always pushed the envelope to see how people would react. At age 12, I myself had learned that same trick. I related to his love of books but I resented him for wanting to be a poet instead of a rock star. More than anything, I felt like I understood what he felt, whether or not I could personally relate to it. It is an awesome fucking book.
I don’t listen to The Doors all that much anymore,* but I do feel lucky that the first rock bio I ever read just happened to be one of the best ever written. I have since developed a profound appreciation for the rock and roll biography. I read them all the time. When I don’t have a rock bio going, I’ve got a Classic Rock Magazine going, and my DVR is packed with episodes of “Classic Albums,” featuring bands like Pink Floyd, Metallica, The Sex Pistols, and Nirvana.
After finishing a particularly good rock biography last week, I found myself reflecting on just what makes a rock and roll biography come to life. The purpose of this article is to throw some of those out for discussion and to highlight a few of my favorite rock bios for your fall reading lists.
“I’m sorry- this book is about who?”
Not everyone enjoys reading about music, but a compelling subject and a well-told story can and should engage any reader, not just music geeks.
A good rock bio is about a band or artist that has done more than release one hit single or album. Who wants to read about an artist who’s still in the first act of their career? OK, but besides the people who just said “Me!” who else? Exactly. Books about artists fresh off their first album become irrelevant quicker than you can say “Justin Bieber.”
Also, a compelling biography needs to be about an artist or a band that has endured some sort of soul-whipping crisis that threatened to destroy their music, if not their very lives. They need not survive the conflict, like Phil Lynott, whose story is one of the greatest in rock, sadly ending with his death long before he made an appropriately large boot print on the world. (Incidentally, while putting together an Irish rock compilation a couple years ago, I came up with a calculation that proved that Thin Lizzy is precisely 4,757,634.2644 times better than U2. FYI).**
From Diapers to Math Class- the Early Years of a Rock Star
“Nuh! Nuh!” Nesta shrieked. “Mumma! Mumma! Where yuh? Where yuh?! Nuh! Nuh! Nuh! Mum-maaaa!!”
Nesta fainted, falling to the ground.
“Oh, Come now! You little fool! I’m your bloody father, Robert.”
There are two things you need to know about this exchange. First, this is the part of Robert Nesta “Bob” Marley’s biography where he first meets his father, who turns out to be whiter than John McCain’s fanny. A fairly momentous event in the young reggae legend’s life, no?
The second thing you need to know is that this conversation did not happen.
Using the technique of “creative nonfiction” biographer Timothy White didn’t just describe Bob Marley’s early childhood days in Jamaica- he recreated them by imagining events and conversations steeped in the local patois that Bob would have used at the time. It is a somewhat risky, yet effective way of letting the reader know what life was like for wee Bob.
A good rock bio spends some time telling the reader how the artist grew up. We need to know what life was like for our little Legends and Lizard Kings. Pete Townshend’s parents were musicians, while Joe Strummer’s father was a diplomat. These can be important, if not fascinating tidbits in the evolution of a rocker.
A more straightforward and insightful approach to an artist’s early years is found in Mick Wall‘s W. Axl Rose: The Unauthorized Biography. Wall discusses Rose’s stepfather- a Pentacostal minister who would beat seven shades of shit out of him whenever he would catch the young boy singing pop songs along with the radio. This book gives a tension-soaked tour of Rose’s youth in Indiana, dealing with a broken home, abusive father, and a budding career as a petty criminal. By the time Rose makes his way for the Sunset Strip, you’ve got your hands over your eyes, peeking through your fingers to watch for the train wreck that you know is surely coming. Wall, along with Stephen Davis, is a great example of an author who can craft a book on mountains of research without losing the guts and passion of the story.
Whether the artist is escaping an abusive childhood or simply wading through youthful confusion, a good examination of this period can create both tension and insight, laying a rock solid foundation for the rest of the story.
The Influences Behind Our Little Rock and Roll Acorns
To understand how a band or artist carved out their sound, you need to know who they were grooving to when they first picked up their instruments. Not only does this give you some music tips for your own listening pleasure, but most importantly it tells you what they love most about music. This is where you start relating to them. Even if your musical preferences are different, it’s how music makes you feel that matters most.
Beyond music, people, places, and events can also make big impacts on our budding rock stars. In Scar Tissue, Anthony Kiedis’ autobiography, he describes not just his musical influences (David Bowie, The Beatles, P-Funk), but he also talks about doing drugs with Hollywood A-listers and hanging out in top Hollywood clubs while he was barely a teenager. His experiences as a child actor opened his eyes to the possibilities of the rock and roll lifestyle long before he fronted the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
One book that exhaustively covers a band’s early influences is AC/DC: Maximum Rock and Roll, by Murray Engleheart and Arnaud Durieux. I was ultimately disappointed by this book because I felt like it had cut and pasted a thousand magazine articles about the band, while presenting little, if any, new material. However, the authors did a relentless job of describing the artists that influenced the Young brothers during their early years- influences still easily heard in their music today. If you want a primer on blues and boogie musicians from the fifties and sixties, this is your book. Bring coffee.
The Slings and Arrows of Songwriting and Recording
In Before I Get Old: The Story of The Who, author Dave Marsh describes the incident during the recording of Quadrophenia when the ongoing feud between former sheet metal worker Roger Daltrey and fancy boy Pete Townshend took a violent turn. During a particularly animated argument in the studio, Townshend made the ill-advised decision of smashing his guitar into Daltrey’s head, calculating this to be an effective way of ending (and winning) the disagreement. Townshend had of course made the fatal error of forgetting that Daltrey was one of the hardest men in rock. Daltrey quickly brought this miscalculation to light when he proceeded to get up from the floor and cold cock Townshend with one punch, thus ending (and winning) the disagreement.
That story is not just gratuitous sensationalism- it perfectly explains the anger and restlessness running through the music of The Who, and in particular, Quadrophenia. Fist fights, drug abuse and vitriolic in-fighting all fueled some of the greatest songs of the twentieth century.
One of the most important aspects of a competent rock bio is covering how the songwriting and recording processes are described. Especially over a longer career, watching these elements evolve can be fascinating because it explains how and why their sound changes over the years. Bands like Motley Crue and Guns N’ Roses became so dysfunctional in these areas that they eventually recorded albums one guy at a time, so as to minimize the amount of time the band would have to be together in the same room.
Personally, I feel that the author has done a bang up job of describing the artist’s songwriting methods and studio experiences if I want to put down the book for a bit and go out and listen to the music. The insight should make me want to hear the music (again) with a new perspective. Understanding the complexities within the songs will greatly enhance the listening experience.
Critical Reaction- Take It Like a Man!
In his New York Times bestseller, Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga, Stephen Davis showcases how the rabid reaction of fans outweighed the often lukewarm reception by the rock press. Rolling Stone magazine, in particular, hated Zeppelin. This infuriated the band and drove them to continually strive for bigger, badder sounds just to prove their critics wrong. Jimmy Page was a greedy, competitive, petty musical genius who simply could not endure being regarded as anything less than the best guitar player ever. By showing this give and take between the band and the media, Davis implies that more than simply artistic expression fueled the music of Led Zeppelin.
Critical and popular reaction, both positive and negative, should be a constant theme throughout the entire book. Whether the artist would admit it or not, this reaction has some bearing on the music. Especially with artists that have been around for decades, critical and popular disinterest often suggest the beginning of the end.
Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll, aka “The Dirt”
In Hammer of the Gods, Davis recounts the infamous event in 1969 when Led Zeppelin were staying at the Edgewater Inn, on Puget Sound in Seattle Washington. The hotel was literally on the water, such that guests would fish from the windows of their room. The band was having one of their typically bacchanalian orgies in one of the rooms, when road manager Richard Cole allegedly caught a mudshark from the window. According to legend, members of the band then tied a red haired groupie to the bed and used the fish to penetrate various cavities, allegedly capturing the event on film, though such a movie has never surfaced.
Several versions of this story have emerged, but the core elements remain fixed: hotel, fish, groupie. This is the penultimate tale of rock and roll decadence, and it is an example of the more sordid elements of the rock bio- the dirt.
Part of the allure of these themes is the question of how the artist survives their own abberant behavior. Whether our motivations are prurient or not, the war stories are the most entertaining (and sometimes the most unsettling) elements of the great rock biography.
There is no shortage of rock bios that give good sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Pamela Desbarres, the worlds most famous groupie, has sold millions of books by writing stories about having sex and doing drugs with legendary rock stars. Believing the premise to be too self-serving, I did not expect to dig anything about this book, but I was surprised to find that I really enjoyed it. Desbarres tells a good story because she includes not just the lurid escapades but equal measures of empathy and compassion for her subjects. Still, if you want in-depth information on these musicians, you’ll want to consult something more authoritative.
Then there is Motley Crue: The Dirt- Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band, by Neil Strauss (who, bizarrely, is perhaps more famous for his tomes on how to seduce women, than for his rock writing). As an authorized biography, it has a lot of self-aggrandizing observations from the band, but it remains one of the best examples of how decadent behavior can go from informing the songwriting to becoming the entire creative method. Tommy Lee is a sideshow unto himself (and an amazing drummer, to boot); Vince Neil killed a man in a drunk driving accident, lost a daughter to cancer, and picked up nifty little alcohol and drug addictions. Nikki Sixx became a hopeless junkie who OD’ed, flatlined, was resurrected, and OD’ed the very next day. Mick Mars shot a woman and endured chronic pain and a debilitating condition that nearly killed him. If you blood, you got it.
An often overlooked, but fascinating rock bio is A.E. Hotchner’s Blown Away: The Rolling Stones and the Death of the Sixties, in which he shows how the early successes of the Rolling Stones spiraled into addiction, jealousy, fear, and in-fighting that led to the deaths of both founding member Brian Jones and the Sixties as a culture of peace and love. In this book, Hotchner describes the events leading up to and including the grisly Altamont show, where a fan was caught being stabbed to death on film ( you can see it in the film “Gimme Shelter”). The book deserves special note for being among the first to suggest that Jones’ death in his own swimming pool was neither accidental nor suicide but that he was murdered by the construction workers at his estate. This assertion which went largely ignored until an alleged deathbed confession from one of the construction workers. The case was re-opened in 2009, forty years after his death.
Last But Not Least
There are a few other things that really polish a rock bio for me. They are not indispensable but they give a nice air of completeness to the book:
Pictures- simply put, I like matching pictures of the artist with the various junctures of his or her career, as described in the book. Self-effacing candid shots, pictures of them when they’re not “on” and shots of friends, family, and associates name-checked in the book add an invaluable dimension to the written material.
An index- I like an Index for quick reference. Sometimes I want to go back to or skip ahead to a particular subject in the book. For example, in the AC/DC book mentioned above, if I want to go back to a story about a Bon Scott overdose, the index helps me find it (pp. 99-100, 151). In his Axl Rose biography, Mick Wall goes the extra step of presenting all of his sources, organized by media (books, magazines, internet, video), for easy reference.
The epilogue- I like it when the author ties everything together at the end and sheds some light on how it all stands. Presenting the artist’s story in a final objective light gives the author the opportunity to almost write a mini-essay on what he or she thinks that artist ultimately means to the world.
Rock biographies are not for music geeks alone. Anyone who appreciates a well-told story can dig a good rock bio. An engaging story with tension, conflict, redemption, and interesting characters can and will always find a good audience. But yeah, the sex and drugs are pretty fun, too.
*Incidentally, here’s how my music freakdom unfolded from this period. This is the order of my musical obsessions: The Doors to The Who to The Jam to The Sex Pistols to all things punk rock to AC/DC to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal to Pearl Jam/Nirvana/Alice in Chains to The Rugburns/Steve Poltz to The Replacements to all things alt-country to The Stone Roses back to AC/DC to Metallica to all things Black/Death Metal, and lately back to classic Seventies rock
**I would like to apologize to the memory of Phil Lynott, Ireland’s greatest ever rock star, for placing him in the same section of my article as Justin Bieber