August 22, 2011
Best selling author Joel McIver is a one-man journalistic supernova. While legions of music writers across the planet whimper about making a living and building cred in a shit-paying industry, McIver continues to churn out a head-spinning amount of content, ranging from epic books to fascinating interviews with music’s greatest legends, to thought-provoking essays for some of the world’s most prestigious publications. With three books coming out in 2011 and a slate of new projects underway, he will most assuredly continue to make the rest of us look bad for quite some time.
Known primarily for his biographies of heavy metal and hard rock acts like Metallica and Slayer, McIver’s allegiance is to the story, not the genre. He has chronicled the lives of hip hop legend (and beer spokesman) Ice Cube, soul queen Erykah Badu, punk legends the Sex Pistols and American upstarts the Kings of Leon. Additionally he is the author of the virulently-debated volume The 100 Greatest Metal Guitarists and Extreme Metal I and II, and his twenty books have been translated into nine languages to date.
With any prolific author, one might assume that quantity prevails over quality, but not so with McIver. Each of his books is a comprehensively-researched, intimately-written portrayal that both entertains and informs. An accomplished bass player himself, McIver understands the language of music and the creative processes behind it, and he is particularly adept at helping readers understand what it takes for an artist to bring a song from a melody in their head to an arena-shaking anthem.
McIver’s most recent book, the unauthorized biography of Ozzy Osbourne’s former guitarist Randy Rhoads (Crazy Train: The High Life and Tragic Death of Randy Rhoads) has proved to be a game-changer, earning widespread critical acclaim from both fans and colleagues of Rhoads. This is no small feat in view of the fact that musicians hate unauthorized biographies, mainly because they tend to expose all the sex, drugs and mayhem that the musicians quite understandably prefer to keep quiet. This is the double-edged sword of any biography- if authorized, people assume it will be little more than a vigorous dose of literary fellatio and if unauthorized, everybody’s expecting a gratuitous hatchet job.
Many are already familiar with Rhoads’ legacy and the tragic 1982 plane crash that ended his young life at age 25. Through his profound understanding of the context surrounding Randy Rhoads’ brief career- the hard rock landscape in America was reaching imminent detonation, McIver brings a fresh take on the story by injecting it with scores of fascinating interviews with many of Rhoads’ closest associates. There are some stunning revelations in the book, such as the wanton violence that a drug-addled Ozzy Osbourne inflicted upon his young guitarist when Rhoads suggested leaving the singer’s band. But McIver makes it clear that no one was more devastated by Rhoads’ untimely death than Ozzy, who has never completely recovered from the loss.
With so much to discuss, I caught McIver in a rare period of free time and sat down to find out more about his latest book, his approach to research and writing and his candid opinions of some of his most volatile subjects.
JOE DALY: Randy Rhoads is primarily famous for his two-year, two-album stint with Ozzy Osbourne, yet his legend and influence are still touted by music’s most accomplished guitarists. How much of this is down to the “James Dean Syndrome,” and how much would you say is appropriate?
JOEL McIVER: Great question and one I was asked a lot in the wake of the Cliff Burton book I did a while back. Any inflated posthumous praise comes from people who don’t really understand what his achievements were. Those who have an understanding of rock performance, songwriting and guitar playing tend to give him the praise he is rightly due. You can be sure that anyone who labels him a saint or a god or whatever doesn’t really have a frame of reference.
So do you think that his rightful legacy is how he innovated modern guitar playing? Your book identifies his chief competition at the time as Eddie Van Halen. How do you think their legacies compare today?
Randy’s guitar playing was world-class but if you break it down to the actual scales and picking techniques he used, Eddie Van Halen and even Ritchie Blackmore got there first. Randy certainly advanced that particular neoclassical style, but I wouldn’t want to claim that he came up with it, nor did he make that claim himself. What he did that was new was a) lend Ozzy’s rather meat-and-potatoes singing and performance an edge; b) prove that you can come from nowhere, get famous and not become an asshole; and c) invent the shark fin guitar shape.
Great point about achieving fame without turning into an asshole. In the introduction to the book, you stress that while you were prepared to reveal the less savory aspects of Randy’s story, you found precious little evidence of the petulant megalomaniac that often emerges in rock biographies. Was he really that genuinely kind or did you ever get the sense that in death, people are protecting his name?
Oh, Randy could be petulant. In the book Grover Jackson recalls seeing him get quite pissed off about a money issue, and Randy’s school friends showed me pictures of him being “over-served at the bar”, if you get my drift. He was a human being like the rest of us, with the usual character flaws, but most of the time he was nicer, more patient and more humble than most of us usually are.
So do you think fame changed him?
Fame pissed him off. He found himself partying more heavily than he really wanted, just to deal with the pressure. He really didn’t understand why people change when they’re famous and it disgusted him. That’s basically why he wanted to quit Ozzy’s band towards the end of his life.
Crazy Train describes Ozzy’s violent reaction to Randy’s plans to leave. Do you think Ozzy’s (physical and emotional) abuse would have been enough to keep Randy around or was his departure inevitable?
The book covers the songwriting process for Ozzy’s first two solo albums in great detail. I was surprised to hear how little he participated in the process- that 90% of the lyrics came from (bassist) Bob Daisley, with Ozzy only contributing the odd line or two. Where do his talents lie, or is he simply the beneficiary of being surrounded by the right people at the right time?
Ozzy wrote the occasional lyric and was good at writing vocal melodies, which is a more important role than most people might think. I don’t blame Ozzy for wanting to work with people who made him look and sound good.
So he’s more than just a metal version of Britney Spears?
Haha! Yes, the Ozzman does have many talents. Remember, he spotted something in Randy in the first place. Britney is hotter though, if you like that sort of thing anyway…
I wouldn’t be surprised if some of our readers did, in fact, like that sort of thing. Were you surprised by any information that your research revealed?
Yes. I was saddened at how fed up he became at the rock industry after so many years of fighting to get to the top. I was surprised at how mundane Quiet Riot really were back then, when you really analyzed their music. I was interested to learn that his unique guitar style really came about through being a teacher. I was amazed when I realized that a career as a teacher would have been more fulfilling and possibly more lucrative for him than life as a rock star. It was also eye-opening to hear that he felt intimidated by Eddie Van Halen’s playing.
Oh, and he had never played a whammy bar until he got the Sandoval V.
So that’s why we don’t hear any dive bombs on his Quiet Riot contributions? It was certainly shocking to read that despite a comprehensive classical foundation and a relentless practice regimen, he still had inferiority issues.
Yes, he was insecure like the rest of us. No ego there.
I read that due to certain permission requirements, you were unable to show certain pictures of RR that you wanted to. Could you describe what those were?
It wasn’t a permission issue as such, it was more an issue of good taste. I saw a couple of shots of him passed out drunk at a party and while there was nothing particularly shocking going on there, the image of him as a party animal is not particularly accurate and I didn’t feel the need to portray him that way.
Have you heard back from Randy’s family in the wake of your book?
Not yet. I sent them a bunch of signed books out of courtesy, but there has been no response yet and indeed I’m not expecting one. I just wanted to keep them informed as they’re decent people who have a right to know what’s being said about their son and brother.
Your biographies of Cliff Burton and Randy Rhoads reveal a number of similarities- from classical training to premature deaths. Where do the Cliff Burton/Randy Rhoads parallels end?
Randy wanted out of the business, whereas Cliff was just getting his teeth stuck into it. Cliff was happy, Randy wasn’t. Also, Cliff dominated his band.
I’d like to talk about writing a bit. You’ve got 20 books under your belt so I think our readers would be interested in your research processes and writing regimen. Most of your subjects have been bands or musicians who are so huge that you must have an overwhelming amount of books, magazines and internet resources, not to mention a seemingly endless parade of friends, associates or the musicians themselves for interviews. How do you coordinate your attack?
Yes, the mountain of info can be daunting if you allow it to be. Personally, I think the role of the biographer is to know instinctively how much to rely on previous information and when to strike out in a new direction. Otherwise you just end up with a mass of previously-published quotes, the easiest trap in the world to fall into.
Have you run into any subjects where getting interviews was particularly difficult? If so, how did you handle it?
There are always a few interviewees who want to be paid for their time, which is not unreasonable in some cases, but it does make you think twice about whether you really need their voices in the book. Then there are occasional people who are scared of the repercussions if they participate in an unauthorized biog, which again is sometimes understandable but mostly frustrating. Unauthorized books are usually better than authorized versions because there is a critical depth which couldn’t possibly be there if every word you wrote was subject to some shark-like manager’s approval. As to how I handle it, I do what I always do, which is smile sweetly and rise above the issue with effortless grace while inwardly swearing to come back and haunt them in the next life.
Duly noted, should you ever request an interview from me. Once you get going on a book, what’s your writing regimen like?
Depends on the deadline and how tolerant the publisher is if you ask for an extension. Usually I like to focus on a book for several hours a day and get the thing done. If you step away from it, you risk losing focus and resuming it with a different voice and in a different frame of mind.
In addition to your own books, you contribute to Metal Hammer, Bass Guitar, and a number of other publications. Do you have much time to read and if so, what does your reading diet look like?
I’m basically a geek so I read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy stuff. I usually read for a few minutes before falling asleep, just to clean the brain of any lingering crap from the day. I also like to read rock biographies, especially those written by friends of mine, just to keep up on different ways of doing this crazy job.
While your reputation is that of a heavy metal author, you’ve covered much more than metal- you’ve taken on everything from hip hop (Ice Cube: Attitude), to punk (The Making of The Sex Pistols’ The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle) to soul (Erykah Badu: The First Lady of Neo-Soul). How do you choose your projects and which have been your favorites to write?
Metal is the cornerstone for me but I listen to everything else as well. I write a book if certain criteria come into play: 1) I’m interested in the subject; 2) someone wants to publish it; 3) I have sufficient time to do it properly; 4) the deal is right — although I have taken a smaller advance than usual on occasions when a subject has gripped me so much that I want to do it at any cost. My favorites have been Extreme Metal, because it was the first book I wrote; my Ice Cube bio, because it was my first in-depth book; Justice For All: The Truth About Metallica, because I had so much to say about Metallica at a time when there was no comprehensive book about them on the market; and my Slayer and Cliff Burton books, because the subjects are personal heroes of mine. I stand by all twenty of them, though.
You have published an eye-popping three books so far this year (biographies of Randy Rhoads, Deep Purple’s Glenn Hughes and Motorhead). How in the world did you balance them all and what challenges did this present?
Well, I didn’t write them all at the same time, it’s just that the publishing dates have more or less coincided. Still, 2010 was a hell of a busy year and I’m not sure I really want every year to be that hectic. The challenge was really one of time management: I had a fairly clear vision in each case of what I wanted to do, so the actual content wasn’t difficult to produce. The difficulty came when I tried to balance the requirements of books, magazine work, press commitments, family life and some moderate debauchery at weekends. Not easy. Still, this is meant to be fun, and that’s how I see it.
I’ve heard that (Motorhead frontman) Lemmy’s already read your Motorhead book.
His tour manager told me at Sonisphere that he’d read it and said “Great book, but some of the stories are untrue” and wants to meet up to discuss. Sadly, he has other things on his mind right now, notably the premature death of his sometime guitarist Wurzel.
Gutting news about Wurzel. Think they’ll soldier on?
Of course. Nothing but death can stop Lemmy now.
Even death is debatable… So what do you feel are the essential elements to a top-notch rock biography?
A decent rock bio has to be both entertaining and informative and above all, it has to offer the reader something more than they can just get off the web. It also needs to be written in an engaging style and be structured in such a way that the reader wants to keep going. I loved Patrick Humphries’ sober but affectionate portrait of the late Nick Drake and Mick Wall’s new Metallica book is awesome. It leaves mine in the dust in several ways.
With a Metallica bio and a Cliff Burton bio under your belt, I’m interested in what you think Cliff might think of the current version of Metallica.
Ah, Cliff was a pretty chilled-out dude, I think he would have enjoyed their current music. As a bass player he would have been impressed with (present bassist Robert) Trujillo’s eclectic influences and his solid fingerstyle playing. I don’t think he would have enjoyed the Load-era stuff much, but then, who did?
Two songs: “Ain’t My Bitch” and “Fuel.” And “I Disappear” has its moments.
I would be derelict if I didn’t get your two cents on the dismissal of (former Metallica bassist) Jason Newsted.
They (singer James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich) laid into him pretty hard, but he was a tough kid and got his vindication when (producer) Bob Rock made the Black Album so bass-heavy. He also made a mind-numbingly large fortune out of fourteen years in Metallica, so don’t feel too sorry for him. He’s a great player and a decent guy. I had a long chat with him once.
Do you think he’ll ever get over the way his role was handled by Metallica or is he at peace with it?
Yes, he’s pretty relaxed about it all these days.
You’re a fairly accomplished bass player yourself, so I’m interested in your take on Lars Ulrich. He is routinely slagged for being a sub-par drummer, so much so that many feel that his limitations held back his band. Do you think this criticism is fair?
Just listen to his tom rolls and you can hear that he’s not a virtuoso drummer, but as I see it this doesn’t matter, as virtuosity is not what Metallica need from a drummer. He’s an averagely-skilled drummer who perfectly matches his drum patterns to Hetfield’s riffs, and that’s what matters. Also, his skills as a composer and businessman are probably more useful to the band, generally speaking. I think that people who attack Lars for not being good enough on the drums are missing the point about what Metallica are really about.
You’ve ranked Dave Mustaine as the best guitarist around, pointing out that his technical proficiency is unparalleled. Is it fair to say then that your own personal assessment of a great guitarist rests primarily in his technical prowess? Is speed more important than feel?
Second question first: no, of course speed isn’t more important than feel. The first question: in that particular book, The 100 Greatest Metal Guitarists, I used two criteria with each guy. First, how technically evolved is he: can he apply precise downstrokes/alternate picking/sweep picking/tapping etc., in the cleanest, most imaginative way? Second, how influential is he? You can’t really call someone one of the world’s great guitarists if no one has ever been moved or inspired by what he does, so I looked at how much of a pioneer he’d been in his field as well as how technically developed he is. An example is Tony Iommi, who influenced everyone, is not number one because there are certain techniques that he has failed to master, by his own admission. Mustaine was placed at number one because he originated thrash metal (along with James Hetfield and Mantas of Venom) and because his technique is out of this world, as is his choice of notes and the flow of his ideas when he’s playing at peak form.
I’ve got a couple of hypotheticals I’d like you to address. In 1969, a guy crawls into a cave, where he lives until 2011, when he emerges, heads over to a newsstand, and sees Classic Rock magazine next to Metal Hammer. You’re standing at the counter buying a pack of gum, and he taps you on the shoulder and asks, “Say, could you tell me the difference between hard rock and heavy metal?” How do you answer?
I would say “Please take a shower. As to the differences betwixt rock and metal, which are admittedly similar in many ways, the former focuses on lifestyle accoutrements such as cars and emotions such as sexual love while the latter explores abstractions such as war and Satanism. Musically, rock is lighter on the ear; metal is often but not always faster, harsher, heavier and more sonically abrasive.”
Let’s re-write history and say that Randy Rhoads never went up in that plane. What do you think would have become of RR had he cheated death?
He would have quit Ozzy’s band, taken up classical guitar, settled down and got married. After a while he might have re-emerged to form or join another band and become a respected virtuoso along the lines of Steve Vai or Joe Satriani. His death is a terrible thing, even all these years later.
Got a next project lined up?
Six books. Yikes… Three co-written autobiographies with famous metallers, an update of my Slipknot book from 2001, a self-published e-book with a close buddy and then the official autobiography of a particularly awesome death metal band, which we’re starting in 2012.
Six books? Shiza Minnelli! Let’s hope they figure out cloning sooner than later.
To finish up, I’ve got a couple “Either/Or” questions. I’ll give you the choice and you pick whichever one first comes to mind. Cool?
As Arnie said in Predator, “Doo eet!” (spoken in a thick German accent)
“The Four Horsemen,” every time. Actually can I choose “Motorbreath?”
Hmmm… let me ask the judge. OK, you may. Black Metal or Death Metal?
Death metal, although I do have wood for Darkthrone, Emperor and Burzum at times.
Jazz or Blues?
Jazz. Specifically late-50s cool and fusion, in particular Weather Report because I’m a Jaco fan. Blues is respectable but dull.
Los Angeles or London?
London. I like L.A. but the weather is too good and the people are too pretty. We Brits find that stuff makes us uneasy.
The weather isn’t that great here lately. There were a couple clouds earlier and the temp dipped into the high 60s this morning. OK, finally- Ozzy or Dio?
Dio. I’ve interviewed them both over the years and for me, the late great Ronnie James Dio was more to my liking.
Here’s one for you: Reign In Blood or Master Of Puppets?
Master of Puppets. I love Reign In Blood and have worn out many copies, but I prefer Master Of Puppets because it’s got more depth and variety. I can’t appreciate the speed without the slow passages- the heaviness without the melodies. I feel that Master Of Puppets delivers in all areas- melody, rage, songwriting, variety and production.
You’ve written bios on both Slayer and Metallica, so let’s hear your take.
For me Reign just edges it by a tenth of a percentage point. They’re both flawless, or as close to flawless as you can get.
Sabbath or Maiden?
Maiden, hands down. Dickinson’s voice sends an electric charge up my spine. I love the changes in Maiden songs because I think they really complement the overall songwriting. Harris is a monster of a songwriter. I like the lyrics better too- Maiden songs tell stories that are passionate and compelling, and to turn those stories into such timeless anthems is an accomplishment few rock bands can claim. I’ll always love Sabbath, but I tend to get bored with the sound after awhile. I have never been bored with Maiden.
Sabbath are deeper, Maiden are more fun. That’s how I see it.
If I want to plot against someone, I’ll listen to Sabbath. When I carry the plot out, I’ll put on Maiden.
And when you bury the body, you put on Morbid Angel?
Yep, but I’ll put on Burzum when I dig it up.
And on that note…
Joel, thanks a million for your time. It has been a blast and a half.