Over the years, David Sheppard has been charged with writing or editing more than half-a-dozen musicianly monographs, and lived, as it were, to tell the tale; so he knows from bittersweet first-hand experience how penning a half-decent tome about the life of a popular recording or performing artist can be a pursuit littered with impediments and pitfalls. Here, he explains just what it takes to make a good music biography.
In his Life of Johnson, that most infamous biographer, James Boswell, quotes his subject’s opinion that biography “is rarely well executed.” Dr, Johnson is, as ever, spot on. What’s more, the curious realm of the popular musician, with all its artful, mystique-perpetuating sophistry, soi-disant myth-making and legions of platitude- propagating interlocutors, makes the realization of an original, perceptive, genuinely page-turning musical ‘life’ all the rarer.
Musical autobiographies present no less a mine field of potential hokum and stereotype. Of course, nowadays any celeb worth their salt has likely as not bashed out a couple of volumes of ‘memoirs’ before they’re old enough to vote on something more important than X Factor, and there’s obviously a rabid audience for the stars’ prurient confessionals, as there is for the mountain of so-called ‘misery memoirs’ that clutter bookshops (or their modern equivalent, the aisles at Tesco). Cheesy, ‘I did it my way’ musical autobiographies also abound: the temptation to sculpt the messy, repetitive, often rather tedious business of a life spent in and around the music biz into an epic tale of artistic triumph over ill-starred adversity (or, equally, into an inflated procession of grotesque emotional, sexual and narcotic imbroglios) is just too tempting to resist for most musical self- chroniclers.
In truth, the very best books about popular music tend not be strict biographical works but rather overviews of eras, styles or movements- semi-sociological tomes such as England’s Dreaming, Jon Savage’s masterful, first-hand survey of ’70s UK punk, or Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, Greil Marcus’s vaulting but highly readable cultural analysis of the Sex Pistols as provocateur-scions of Dadaism and French Situationism. But, while the occasional music biography has rocked the broader annals of publishing (Albert Goldman’s controversial, shibboleth-shredding 1981 title Elvis, for example), music books tend to pander to the converted: fans, record-buyers and biddable believers in the myth, and rarely seek to be regarded as works of wider literary merit.
All the same, a few estimable biographical musical tomes have escaped the clutches of cliché over the years, and continue to stand up on their own, even in paperback, by circumventing, or puncturing, passé sex’n’drugs’n’rock’n’roll mythology (or, every so often, inflating it into a thing of truly biblical scale – readers of Mötley Crüe’s The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band will bear me out, I’m sure). Indeed, the best ones manage, ineffably, to enshrine and illuminate the myths in the very process of deconstructing them.
With all that in mind, for your reading pleasure and enlightenment, A&M has corralled ten of the nest exemplars of musical biography and autobiography, as selected and analysed by a cadre of musicians and commentators who know their folios from their frontispieces as well as they do their Gibsons from their Gretsches. If nothing else, any one of the below will make a worthy literary addition to your beach bag or festival tent this summer.
Patti Smith Just Kids (Bloomsbury, 2010)
It was October 2009, and a rumour was rippling around Frieze Art Fair that Patti Smith was going to perform live at Alison Jacques Gallery, in Fitzrovia, to mark the opening of their Robert Mapplethorpe photography exhibition, A Season in Hell. Curious to see how this ‘gig’ would work in a small gallery venue, I went along, and as a huge crowd gathered and caused a road block on Berners Street, Ms Smith appeared on the gallery steps and sang an unforgettable, goose- bump-inducing a capella version of ‘Because the Night’. She also gave a heartfelt and loving tribute to Mapplethorpe whose exhibition featured several iconic photographs of both the singer and artist. Standing just a couple of feet behind her, and seeing the crowd fall to silence, hanging on her every word, I realised this was one of those unexpected and extraordinary moments that stay with you for ever.
A year later, Just Kids was published in hardback, and I devoured its pages in one sitting. Written in a poetic, sometimes humorous but never pretentious style, it tells the story of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, starting at the point when they meet as two young vagabonds, sleeping rough in Brooklyn, and following their youthful quest for a place in the world in late-’60s New York City. Their story has several fateful twists and turns, as it follows their mutual determination to devote themselves to their art, and their intertwined ascent towards fame and success.
There are many intriguing threads to the book that give you an insight into Smith’s own journey as artist, poet and musician – notably documenting the indelible moment when her 1978 hit ‘Because the Night’, co-written with Bruce Springsteen, blasts from every shop-front and car stereo and the realisation that she has ‘made it’ – as well as Mapplethorpe’s obsessive attitude to his work, his complex relationship with religion and the exploration of his sexuality. It also documents the changing face of the New York art scene – Warhol’s Factory, Max’s Kansas City, frequented by the likes of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and Tim Buckley, the ultra-bohemian Chelsea Hotel, the influence of Alan Ginsberg, LSD and, later, the pervasive threat of the AIDS epidemic – and records the evolution of Smith and Mapplethorpe’s own relationship from the innocence of young lovers, through betrayal, to friendship, dependence, support, and unconditional love.
Just Kids begins as a love story but ends as a heartbreaking elegy and underscores the monumental impact that Robert Mapplethorpe had on its author. It also reveals the full extent of the humour, humility and compassion that I glimpsed that evening on Berners Street, when I admit, unashamedly, Patti Smith became a bit of a hero of mine.
Kristin Hersh Rat Girl: A Memoir (Penguin, 2010)
First thing’s first: don’t call this a “misery memoir”. Upon its release in early 2011, Hersh’s book was routinely reviewed alongside various contemporaneously published tales of damage, abuse and betrayal, all lumped together under the glib “misery” banner. Admittedly, a superficial glance at the contents page won’t appeal to those looking for a light-hearted read, featuring as it does mental illness, a suicide attempt, and unexpected teen pregnancy – fun! – but here’s the thing: like Hersh herself, the book is articulate, intelligent, warm and funny as hell.
Rat Girl (published as Paradoxical Undressing in the UK) recounts a year in the life of the 18 year-old Hersh, told through her journal at a time when her band, rowing Muses, were on the verge of signing a record deal and Hersh herself was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Quite apart from the extraordinary subject matter, the writing itself is astonishing – fluent, vivid descriptions of the protagonists in Hersh’s native Newport, Rhode Island’s arts scene, friendship with her bandmates (“turning my sad little arson into a celebratory bonfire… look at ’em go”), her fellow student, bona- de movie star Betty Hutton (“a shiny beast, a warm heart in a cold world”) and, most movingly, her terrifying, exhausting struggle with a songwriting process that threatens her sanity and her life.
Nowhere is there a single rock’n’roll or teen cliché (or at least one that’s not immediately, wryly undercut); nowhere any whining, whinging or self-pity. What you get is a picture of an extraordinarily focused, talented and tough young woman, chock-full of wonder at, and love for, the world and the people around her. The lesson (familiar to fans of Hersh’s music): things don’t have to be pretty in order to be gorgeous; they don’t have to be understood in order to make sense. No misery memoirs here.
Bob Dylan Chronicles, Volume One (Simon & Schuster, 2004)
Chronicles is allegedly the first instalment of a three-part Dylan autobiographical series, although there is no sign of successor volume. Part One arrived in 2004 and made practically everything that had been previously written about Dylan immediately redundant, by which I mean those serious Dylanologist magazines, fanzines and hardbacks I’d feverishly read, solemn and monk-like, in my early teens. I’d grappled with the heavyweight analysts like Clinton Heylin and Greil Marcus, and laughed out loud at A.J. Weberman’s garbage bin-trawling conceits, while the Uncut specials and Telegraph connoisseur fan-mags piled up around me.
Great as some of these publications were for the emerging Bobcat, none of them got me close to Dylan. At best, they tried to compete with the writing they were chasing or got bogged down in dull biographical exposition and historical speculation. At their worst they were just plain boring. I always felt that the man himself was laughing behind the shades at the audacity of the pen-wielding disciples. The only authentic published words I had to go on were the lyrics, back-sleeve prose and Dylan’s previous book, his impenetrable 1967 novel, Tarantula. I never thought we’d ever get anything remotely resembling a real biography.
And then it came. Darting and jumping through chronology and history, five chapters of Huck Finn phrasing, Kerouac nodding and Guthrie prose. Dylan plunges the reader straight in, describing his birthplace and the historic context of the times in full Technicolor, leading on to his hobo arrival in a frozen New York City in January 1961. Here he finds and devotes himself to the ailing Guthrie, sleeps on floors, steals borrows, begs and emerges as singer and songwriter in his own right. Dylan manages to do what all the other Dylanologists have failed to do; he reconnects the reader to the soul of the American ’60s folk revival and reminds us that it was not the twee, ‘innocent’ diversion which history o en reports. Along the way he loves and loses muses Suze Rotolo and Joan Baez, moonlights with Roy Orbison and Bobby Vee, and later binds himself up in family life in upstate New York while attempting to shrug o the ‘voice of a generation’ tag.
He follows up with insights into the recording of New Morning (1970) and then Oh Mercy (1989), hardly the most significant Dylan ‘moments’, but just as compellingly told as chapters on the early ’60s and the making of his debut LP. In the New Morning chapter, Dylan expresses disgust with his more fanatical followers, while struggling to reconnect with his muse and his driven, younger self, wiping out all that came before in a sullen ash.
Much is missing, of course, but Chronicles allows Dylan to reclaim himself. It’s his story after all.
Nico, Songs They Never Play on the Radio James Young (Bloomsbury, 1999)
At the beginning of this absorbing, not always comfortable book, we find the one-time former model Christa Päffgen, aka Nico – erstwhile Velvet Underground chanteuse, Fellini movie actress and muse of Brian Jones, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Alain Delon – living in rainy, early-’80s Manchester semi-obscurity, enslaved to heroin and spending her days fading drowsily into the shadows. Rescued from the margins by an obscure producer called Dr. Demetrius, she agrees to tour with a band of Brits, one of whom, keyboard player James Young, is our author.
The ensuing pages really do read like a novel, with Young’s facility for forensic observation of the world and lore of musicians as tender as it is gimlet-eyed. He details the comings and goings of various picaresque potential band-members (mostly a procession of hilariously inappropriate drummers) while Nico remains aloof yet largely divested of her mystique, not least by the unglamorous privations of heroin dependency.
Despite this, Songs They Never Play On the Radio is not some tragic, bohemian demimonde version of The Commitments; rather, it is both the universal story of the artist struggling to find a meaningful place in the commercially-driven world (hence the book’s title) and, by extension, how the free-spirited creative artistic ethos of former decades has, by the mid 1980s, begun to be eclipsed by the corporate dictates of marketing and commodi cation.
While Nico is depicted spending a lot of time wanly attempting to explain to disinterested journalists the moral ambiguity of growing up in post-war Germany (a crucial component of her lamenting, hymnal songwriting), Young paints a believably rounded picture, injecting considerable humour into the stories of touring travails, misbegotten angel-dust incidents and encounters with a stoically sober John Cale. Indeed, the episode in which Young accompanies Nico to a Manchester reading by Allen Ginsberg, during which the poet regales a conservative audience with graphic descriptions of gay sex, even finds Nico in positively ebullient form. Even here she finds disappointment, however, as Ginsberg, unlike in days of yore, keeps his clothes on throughout.
Nike Drake: The Biography Patrick Humphries (Bloomsbury, 1997)
An essential read for anyone evenly vaguely interested in misbegotten sing-songwriter Nick Drake, or the late-‘60s/early’70s folk scene which produced him, this slim volume tells the compelling tale of a sad young man with a slender catalogue of work who died too soon. If you’re familiar with his work then you’ll already know that Drake was not the happiest of artists. The great strength of Patrick Humphries’ book, however, is that it tries to ignore any kind of romanticised view of Drake as the misunderstood boy-poet and instead gives you the story of a talented young man slowly losing himself to depression, and the inability of those around him to be able to help or understand.
Because we know the tragic ending to come there is something of a sense of doom hanging over the book from the very beginning, magnified by a tenuously linked Titanic metaphor. Humphries does try to dispel this through interviews with school friends and teachers who paint a picture of Drake as a popular, rugby-playing head boy – although these memories are regularly qualified by observations of his singular character: there was something different about Nick Drake, even then.
The book also offers a snapshot of the London folk scene of the time, with bit parts for Fairport Convention, John Martyn and a host of other troubadours. By locating his work in this time and place you can see how the apparent failure of Drake’s career would impact upon a mentally fragile young man, apparently bewildered by the public’s indifference to him, but incapable of doing anything to help himself.
The accounts of his stumbling live performances are particularly affecting and as his peers seem to succeed with ease, both socially and professionally, a depression-ravaged Drake retreats to the obscurity of his childhood bedroom, where his life would end in November 1974 after a (probably accidental) overdose of prescription drugs.
Miles: The Autobiography Miles David with Quincy Troupe (Simon & Schuster, 1989)
This dense, crowded autobiography reveals much about arguably the most influential jazz artist of the 20th century – although it has been suggested that the revelations presented by Davis and his collaborator, jazz journalist Quincy Troupe, are unnecessarily overloaded. Davis reveals that, at various stages in his career, he had been a thief, a wife beater and a street pimp who at one time managed a string of prostitutes in order to feed his chronic drug addiction; confessions which are in marked contrast to his relatively secure upbringing within a bourgeois, East St. Louis family, in the ’20s and ’30s.
The significant subsequent phases of Davis’s musical journey are outlined in some detail: from the early be-bop days of the ’40s, through to the Prestige label years of the ’50s, with its emphasis on the American Song Book repertoire, and ending with the modal experiments of Milestones and the seminal Kind of Blue. Assisted by the classic rhythm section of Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and Ron Carter, Davis’s post-bop 1960s is recalled as a period of consolidation, while the same decade culminates in the colossal commercial success of his jazz and rock fusion albums – a hybrid style which, with the exception of sabbaticals for ill health, was to sustain the trumpeter for the next two decades. It was an artistic direction perceived by jazz purists as a musical betrayal rather similar to the charges of ‘selling out’ directed by folk purists at the electric Bob Dylan.
The account of his beating and arrest by the NYPD outside a Manhattan club does much to explain Davis’s hatred and bitterness towards white authority. But, the book makes clear, he was never a racist. Indeed, many of Davis’s greatest collaborations were with white musicians: from 1949’s Birth of the Cool (with sax players Lee Konitz and Gerry Mulligan) through 1959’s Kind of Blue (featuring pianist Bill Evans) and on to 1960’s Sketches of Spain (in harness with arranger Gil Evans). Indeed, two young white English musicians – bassist Dave Holland and guitarist John McLaughlin – were central to Davis’s early jazz fusion projects. And while the book contains candid accounts of the trumpeter’s many relationships with women – not all showing him in a favourable light – it also reveals that the great love of his life was Juliet Greco, the French, rive gauche chanteuse and friend of Jean-Paul Sartre.
For all the mystique and magnificent moodiness on show in Miles, it may be that history will view the artist’s more orthodox, pre-fusion, American Song Book-referencing, Brooke’s Brothers clothing period as his more lasting legacy. Whatever reservations one may hold about collaborative biographies, there is no denying the power of this vivid and compelling insight into five decades of African-American music which, it is now clear, represented a truly golden age.
Bruce Thomas The Big Wheel (Viking, 1990)
Stockton-on-Tees’ own Bruce Thomas was the nimble- fingered bass player in The Attractions, Elvis Costello’s versatile combo throughout the first, high-profile phase of the bespectacled one’s career. The Big Wheel charts Thomas’s faltering pre-Attractions career, including an ill-starred 1966 move to London in order to launch his band The Wild flowers (one of many so-named at the time) and, a decade later, his life-altering sojourn with Costello and compadres, keyboard player Steve Nieve and drummer Pete omas (no relation).
Self-deprecating but never coy, Thomas is a born travel writer-raconteur (he would go on to pen a respected biography of martial arts star Bruce Lee) who brings a scabrous, laugh-out-loud wit to his observations on the o en absurd life of young musicians on the road. Indeed, when he gets into the meat of the book, the meteoric Costello years, his pitch is pure English-gonzo, equidistant between Hunter S. Thompson and Tony Hancock. Thomas never names names: rather the protagonists are labelled ‘The Singer’, ‘The Drummer’ and so on, but, of course, it’s ridiculously obvious who’s who, and as the cavalcade of tour-bus pettiness, motel debauchery, thinly-veiled testosterone posturing and seething hatred for a manager who keeps adding tour dates into infinity unfurls, we are granted a front-row seat to the curiously stateless paradox (equal parts military rigour and hedonistic freefall) that life is on-the-road.
“It’s a cliché that travel broadens the mind”, Thomas maintains, “…touring bends it.” It’s undeniably true, but without those hard interstate yards, and all the petty, internecine squabbles they induce, we’d never have had this gloriously barbed tome which was nominated for the Ralph J Gleason Prize for Music Writing. Whichever book beat it must be a hell of a read.
A Very Irregular Heard: The Syd Barret Story Rob Chapman (Faber & Faber, 2010)
The enshrining of the Syd Barrett myth began in earnest in 1974, with the publication of Nick Kent’s NME article, ‘ The Cracked Ballad of Syd Barrett’. Here, the Pink Floyd founder’s story was framed and established, cementing various legends, which became key parts of Barrett fan lore. Quotes like the one drawn from one of Barrett’s last interviews where he attests: ‘I’m really quite together, I even think I should be’, capture poignantly the image of the damaged genius, a casualty of the post-swinging ’60s London Acid Wars, taking permanent, shell- shocked retreat in his mother’s house, back in his Cambridge hometown, never to return to the world of music or fame again.
At the myth grew through punk and on into the ’80’s and ’90s – when any self-respecting British rock’n’roll musician with a penchant for lysergic otherness and/or savant literariness would be quick to fete Barrett – so myth-building books about the ‘fallen genius’ started appearing. The same musicians would dutifully purchase these titles and while details of Syd’s various London addresses would prompt much psycho- geographic investigation, ultimately, little was added to our understanding of Barrett’s story.
Until, that is, the publication of Rob Chapman’s A Very Irregular Head, in 2010. Finally, here was the biography that Syd Barrett deserved. Even the title perfectly captures an attitude to eccentricity and mental illness which chimes with the embarrassed, shrugging British-ness that was so much a part of Barrett’s worldview. The book also has a first person dimension, in that Chapman had encountered the artist himself at the end of Barrett’s ‘career’. We learn that Chapman telephoned a reclusive Syd in his at, in the mid- ’70’s, the latter picking up and then apparently going to get someone to ‘help’ – the young Chapman listening to Barrett padding around his at before eventually hanging up.
The research and biographical detail in the book are exemplary; for example, to facilitate an analysis of Barrett’s lyrics, Chapman discovered The Junior Laurel and Gold Anthology, a 1950s children’s poetry anthology beloved of Syd, from which he li ed whole verses for the lyrics to the song ‘Octopus’.
Chapman evinces an obvious affection for Syd but never gushes, and while acknowledging his subject’s flaws, re-positions him beyond the well-worn clichés. Overall, A Very Irregular Head tells the absorbing story of an iconic artist whose reputation and regard continue to grow with each succeeding generation of musicians.
John Cale (with Victor Bockris) What’s Welsh for Zen? The Autobiography of John Cale (Bloomsbury, 1999)
The ‘British one’ in the Velvet Underground, John Davies Cale, OBE, has long held a special place in the hearts and minds of more innovative UK musicians – an enduring umbilical link to the implausibly exotic worlds of Warhol’s Factory in the ’60s, to the Californian Babylon of the early ’70s, and, via his stellar production duties for everyone from Patti Smith to e Stooges, e Modern Lovers to Nico, to the glowing mother lode of cerebral, left -of-centre rock’n’roll itself.
Cale’s elaborately illustrated tome (co-piloted by Factory acolyte and Velvets chronicler Victor Bockris), while littered with famous names, is about as far removed from the notion of a ‘celebrity memoir’ as its possible to image. Witty, literate and brimming with brooding gallows humour, just like his songs, it’s a compelling, sometime tempestuous read, although leavened with beautifully rendered, almost cinematic observations (of one of many fallings out with long-term nemesis Lou Reed, Cale writes: “Lou got into the white limousine and split. at night I dreamed he did not drive back to Manhattan; he swam away, just drifted off into the wild blue yonder.”)
Narratively, we follow chorister and Wunderkind viola scholar Cale from the 1950s South Wales Valleys (where the advances of a predatory chapel cleric make an understandably lasting impression), through adolescent studies with Aaron Copeland and on into the boho maw that was downtown New York City in the early ’60s. There, Cale’s ambit touches that of all manner of avant-creatives, from composers La Monte Young and Terry Riley to fashion designer Bestey Johnson, later his first wife, eventually leading him to Lou Reed, the Velvets and Warhol, about whom Cale has not one bad word.
The Welshman’s later, often grim, battles with drug and booze dependency are frankly dealt with, as are the many run-ins with Reed (and one unexpectedly scary contretemps with Brian Eno), although by the close we find him sober, fit and in redemptive, if rueful mood, resigned to his mistakes but still full of admirably bullish creative energy.
Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story Nick Tosches (Grove Press, 1982)
Jerry Lee- Lewis’ Live at the Star Club, Hamburg is arguably the best concert album by any artist, ever, and singles like ‘Great Balls of Fire’, ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ and ‘Breathless’ effectively defined rock’n’roll’s febrile initial spasm. For anyone who acknowledges Lewis’ musical significance, not to mention his capricious, mythic reputation, there is also Nick Tosches’ monograph, Hellfire, which adds a whole new dimension to any engagement with this singular icon.
The book tells the story of Lewis’ life, from his Ferriday, Louisiana upbringing to career- ruining, late-’50s marriage (his third) to a 13 year-old cousin, and 1970s arrest outside Elvis Presley’s Graceland home, drunk and angry, waving a pistol and looking to even the score with its resident, by way of Lewis’ picaresque relatives, one of whom could bring a donkey to its knees with a single punch. There is no fiction in Hellfire, but it’s easy to confuse it with a novel; it certainly reads like a very good, Southern Gothic one – Lewis’ life as told by Flannery O’Connor.
At the narrative’s core is the searing conflict between the secular and the divine; Lewis, who might have become a preacher like his cousin, Jimmy Swaggart, conflating a blood-and- brimstone religiosity with playing the piano in a Louisiana whorehouse aged 14. While the lyrics ‘Great Balls of Fire’ embody this dichotomy, it’s a recurring leitmotiv in the book, and when Lewis covers Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg standard ‘Over the Rainbow’ on a 1980 Elektra single, the moral turpitude and psychosis of his personal life at the time makes the darkly sentimental reading of the song even more powerful than it already is.
The same goes for his performance at the Plastic Ono Band’s 1969 ‘Live Peace in Toronto’ concert, where John Lennon invited his hero to share the bill with him. Witness Lewis’ control as he drives the band through his oeuvre and holds the audience of hippie innocents in his cold-eyed stare. He was not named ‘Killer’ for nothing: look into those burning retinas, read the book – now a Penguin Modern Classic, resting in the racks next to John Updike. What more could you want?