This summer, the books in our beach bags will lean heavily toward 2013’s bumper crop of musicians’ (auto)biographies. Something about those stories of backstage excess, personal drama and creative history in the making, whether told firsthand or from a remove (authorized or otherwise) just hits the spot for the kind of non-required reading we like to do in a haze of sun and sticky popsicle hands. Here, Billy Manes tells us how frothy music reportage actually inspired a life of professional detail-digging; the rest of us review some of the year’s most essential music bios.
Godhead’s in the details
A youth spent obsessing over pop biographies was the basis for a life of information-digging
By Billy Manes
The notion that screaming it all from the rooftops basically amounts to revealing nothing seemed well-suited to the media-saturated pop reverberations of the 1980s. Buried under layers of angular makeup and tightly wrapped in the required uniform of synthetic fluorescence, the videogenic favorites of the day may have ridden their percolating ambitions into household-name status, but they were, in effect, mere advertisements for versions of themselves – substances reduced to styles, sometimes with the help of substances.
There was something to that A&R-manicured distance, though, an almost rhythmic allure that begged for teenage inquisition. For this suburban Floridian – about as far removed from high-street London as from Mother Russia – that magazine-cover magnetism would lead to an early obsession to trivial detail. I had an emotional attachment to Duran Duran, and it was effectively my duty to justify that via feverish reconnaissance.
The bible of the time, at least as far as the U.K. hit parade went, was Star Hits magazine (the cleaned-up American cousin to Great Britain’s Smash Hits), because in its florid, join-our-club lexicon there existed a sense of taking the piss out of the sterile publicity machine, if only for the sake of revealing the flaws of our pin-up princes (and princesses) in the face of adversity or adverse inquiry. Wham! touring China for the first time was far more hilarious and engaging as a series of personal reactions to travel mishaps than it was as the sort of camera-ready sociocultural tourism it was crafted to be, after all. Don’t bore us; get to the chorus.
As the ’80s crested, my own fascination didn’t decline with the magazine’s subscription base (both iterations soon closed shop). As an avid Pet Shop Boys fan, I was introduced to the longform pop memoir in a roundabout way through singer Neil Tennant (a former Smash Hits editor, of course) and keyboardist Chris Lowe. For their first two unlikely tours – they used to say they’d never tour – the duo enlisted fellow Smash Hits alum Chris Heath to document their bumbling treks through Asia (Pet Shop Boys: Literally) and America (Pet Shop Boys vs. America) in a manner that relied heavily upon candor and immediacy. Just reading the tales of willfully incorrect transcription by U.K. tabloid scribes and of Tennant being refused restaurant entry for wearing, gasp, shorts was intensely immersive. It seemed to round out my record collection with an intimacy otherwise lacking.
That cautiously revelatory bar was raised tenfold with the 1995 release of Boy George’s Take It Like a Man, in which the shamed Culture Club frontman and his sequined habits smashed around the pop-world gutter and eventually vomited on Duran Duran bassist John Taylor’s shoes under a table in a New York nightclub. That book’s biggest revelation – that Bush singer (and Stefani-husband) Gavin Rossdale once had an affair with George’s cross-dressing sidekick Marilyn – is still a source of broadsheet titillation. If the tabloids could take George down pop’s slippery mirror, then he would take the glitterati down with him.
In the ensuing years, the pop memoir has blended with the Twitter climate of familiarity through oversharing. John Taylor recently recounted his cocaine-rimmed blurry ’80s through the pleasantly entertaining looking glass of recovery (In the Pleasure Groove: Love, Death, and Duran Duran), landing him an unexpected worldwide bestseller. Last year’s Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir found the kooky wailer rambling about her checkered past, abortion included, riding the hair-color hit parade down to its inevitable nadir. Blind ambition has a price.
But what becomes of the seemingly unambitious who find themselves swept up into the swish of the hit parade? Everything but the Girl singer (and solo artist) Tracey Thorn brilliantly addresses that conundrum in her new memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to Be a Popstar. For much of the book, Thorn breezily – though sometimes archly – chronicles a Top of the Pops material world of ’80s excess and what it looked like from the sanity sidelines. It wasn’t so much that Everything but the Girl weren’t trying to be successful – indeed, they did score several chart hits in their prime – but rather that they didn’t want to play along with the puppetry of sell-out social climbing. They were tenuously connected to leftist politics, playing benefits for the Labour Party and crafting indie bedsit dramas with a thumbed-nose jazz approach.
But even that ambivalence wouldn’t spare them indignities. In 1985, Thorn and partner Ben Watt (who wrote his own medical memoir, Patient, in 1996 after nearly dying of a rare disease) were recruited as “delegates” to play to students in Moscow.
“Before we went on stage a magician performed, in top hat and tails, pulling doves out of thin air,” Thorn writes. “Then a woman in a pink evening gown came on to introduce us, her long speech in Russian referring to two famous names of English pop: John Rotten and Tracey Thorn.”
By the mid-’90s, following Watt’s brush with death and an artistic low, the band’s career found new life in odd places. First, Thorn guested on a Massive Attack song, “Protection,” then Todd Terry remixed their 1994 acoustic single “Missing” into a dancefloor anthem, selling millions of copies and landing them near the top of the charts around the world (it reached No. 2 on the U.S. charts). The odd appearances began anew; the junkets were beckoning; U2 called upon them to be openers on their tour. Fearing the consequences, Thorn declined. A decade later, Thorn bumped into Tennant at a party – in my pop memoir world, everybody goes to the same parties – and discussed the idea of yet another go at notoriety.
“[Tennant] immediately asks what I am doing these days ‘with my lovely voice,’” Thorn recalls. “‘Shouting at the kids,’ I answer. It’s meant to be wryly funny, but comes out sounding like Waynetta Slob. He looks dismayed.”
These little pieces, the seemingly mundane details that plague even the most glittery life: These are the bits that matter, and these are the books that taught me to look for them.
I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon
by Touré | Atria Books | 176 pages
This was supposed to be The Prince Book: the book that combined voluminous insider information with deep knowledge of the star’s music and, most importantly, a 21st-century perspective on what this weirdo and his music actually mean.
This is not that Prince book.
To start with, omnipresent cultural and political commentator Touré leans heavily on the same exact sources quoted in every other Prince article or book. He offers little new insight and almost zero new factual information.
But what propels I Would Die 4 U beyond mere disappointment is Touré’s utterly banal attempts to explicitly connect Prince to cultural, musical, ethnic and societal traditions. It’s the worst kind of freshman-year essay conceit, filled with dozens of dull-witted and unimaginative “I bet you never thought of that” assertions and the drawing of through-lines which, quite frankly, do not exist except in the author’s mind.
There’s a whole chapter here (“I’m Your Messiah”) in which Touré posits that the lyrics of the Purple Rain era were actively intended by Prince to utilize historical antecedents to deliver a complex and sophisticated message to the world about faith and love and life.
Look, we all know what happens when Prince actually tries to make a religious album: We get the ham-fisted and graceless lyrical explorations of Lovesexy. (Great album, but definitely not poetry.) And it was recorded four years after Prince was supposedly weaving obscure Bible verses and ancient iconography into “Let’s Go Crazy.” In other words, correlation ain’t causation, and Touré may hear it, but that doesn’t mean it’s there.
One gets the sense that the author hung out one night with Questlove (who is quoted extensively in the book), listening to Prince outtakes, and was suddenly struck with several interesting potential theories all at once, many of which were probably rooted in the fact that “Hey, one time I played basketball with the guy.” (Which, as Touré often reminds the reader, he actually did.) Unfortunately, the result is both philosophically superficial and incredibly thin on actual information, leaving the reader wishing that Questlove would just go ahead and write his Prince book. Because, seriously, that would be the Prince book. – Jason Ferguson
I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp: An Autobigraphy
by Richard Hell | Ecco Press |
Hell is other people, in Richard Hell’s new memoir. The book is structured as a series of reminiscences, mostly of people he’s written with, had sex with, or both. Though Hell (né Meyers), an accidental rock star who identifies as a poet, has published two earlier novels of the “thinly veiled aubiography” stripe, he calls this his first and only true accounting, and certainly he spares no effort in making himself seem attractive, cool or even much of a worthwhile person. Then again, he’s not so nice to his friends, either.
Neon Boys, Television, the Heartbreakers, the Voidoids … the bands Hell led in the ’70s and ’80s read like a roll call of punk’s formation. Like a lucky few who also came out of New York’s atonal, avant-garde No Wave scene, Hell managed, though he had almost no musical training, to write at least one genuine contender for classic-song status (“Marquee Moon”), as well as a bona fide punk-era anthem (“Blank Generation”).
The book itself drips with a repellent, gorgeous honesty. Hell is offhandedly brutal to some of his longtime cohorts, randomly kind to others, and though he details some less-than-admirable actions, seems at some points to think he invented sliced bread – the false humility of the junkie’s massive ego. (And yes, his junk years are explored, but it’s the least interesting part of Clean Tramp.)
Hell is quite good on his male friendships, drawing clean-edged, sensitive, distinct portraits of each man. Women’s breasts, hair, or the sex acts he has with them get that same level of attentive clarity (at one point he recalls – from 1967 – “a sad, hysterical girl with red capillaries on her nose and cheekbones, and large breasts that looked like twin Eeyores”) but the women themselves seem interchangeable, not quite human.
Hell and his fellow ’70s punk icon, the ethereal Patti Smith, had pretty much the same influences (French Symbolist poets: Lautréamont, Verlaine, Rimbaud), the same aspirations (poet/rock star), came out of the same tiny intersection of time and place (junk-infused 1970s Lower East Side), yet in her recent memoir Just Kids, Smith gets it across in half the pages with twice the beauty and grace and suffusing soul. I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp is earthy, with a few flashes of sublimity ... a better portrait of an era than of a man or a self. – Jessica Bryce Young
Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings From the Road
by Willie Nelson with Kinky Friedman | William Morrow | 192 pages
Willie Nelson means a lot of things to a lot of people, and his latest book Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die, a combination autobiography and road journal, is largely narrated by exactly those folks. The iconic country star’s latest batch of stories mostly serve as introductions to the most pivotal people in his life – family, business partners and band members – who then take up the pen to offer personal dear-diary-style accounts of how Willie has affected them. At its best, it’s full of detailed gems that recount specific (usually hilarious) incidents during Willie’s lifelong road trip, and at its weakest, it’s a series of personalized greeting cards sent by the songwriter’s dearest friends (but at least they’re Hallmark-quality).
Interspersed with crass jokes (“If a frog had wings, it could get bird pussy!”) and indulgent-but-awesome photos (Willie smooching his horse, presumably called Music), it’s a quick read that does occasionally step out of his music world and into exciting other realms, like his childhood, Occupy Wall Street and the world domino championship he cleverly fixed. He also offers a predictable trick to quit cigarettes, unendingly lists his music heroes and even ruminates on the medicinal quality of his farts. You’ll have to pardon the admitted prodding to purchase his new music, because it’s rare that legends leave journals, and besides, Lefty Frizzell would remind us (if he could) that Willie’s always been successful by being clear that if we’ve got the money, he’s got the time. – Ashley Belanger
Shell Shocked: My Life With the Turtles, Flo & Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc.
by Howard Kaylan with Jeff Tamarkin | Backbeat Books | 304 pages
The performance rights organization BMI has named the Turtles’ “Happy Together” one of the Top 50 Songs of the 20th century. Oh ... that guy. Now you’ve placed Howard Kaylan – that hushed, confessional singer in the verses, modulating to the keening, psychedelic/vaudevillian voice in the choruses.
Although the Turtles were never seen as a banner-carrier of the ’60s music revolution, Kaylan has the stories to compete (and possibly win) in the rock & roll tell-all pantheon. For instance, there’s his first evening out in London in 1967: accidentally insulting the Moody Blues, getting eviscerated (verbally) by John Lennon, and vomiting on the velvet jacket and pants of rising star Jimi Hendrix, all in rapid succession – that’s a winner right there, but there’s plenty more where it came from.
Once the Turtles are stopped in their tracks by a legal entanglement, the story of Kaylan and his perpetual vocal partner from high school forward, Mark Volman, gets more interesting as they wend their way through the entertainment world. Within two weeks of their hit band’s demise, Kaylan turns down the lead vocalist role in the then-nascent Steely Dan because Volman wasn’t on the ticket; the duo then auditions for and joins Frank Zappa’s new version of the Mothers of Invention. Later, the duo survives the Montreux venue fire made world history via Deep Purple’s song “Smoke on the Water.”
In an ancillary career as backing singers, Kaylan and Volman created those intriguing, ridiculous backing vocals on the T.Rex recordings – tiptoeing a line mimicking strings or horns, and selling the fantastical jiggery-pokery of Marc Bolan’s lyrics like commercial pitchmen. Salacious and psychotropic tales aside, the underlying story of Kaylan and Volman sticking together through the sine-wave peaks and valleys is a sublime parable – and possibly their crowning achievement. – Matt Gorney