Monday, February 27, 2012

Rock bios leave something to be desired

I don't suppose one gets to my age and still views the rock musicians you grew up listening to as quite the heroes you imagined in your youth. Still, you hope that life has taught them some lessons worth passing on or at least given them a perspective on their own records that might be worth sharing years later. In quick succession I worked my way through three such bios over the last couple of months: Glenn Hughes: The Autobiography; Tony Iommi: Iron Man; and Keith Richards: Life

Glenn Hughes is arguably the most talented of the three but his book reflects unintentionally the damage done in 15 years of coke-induced mayhem. The account up to and including the years with Purple is fascinating and indicative of the times. Young boy with looks and talent finds himself launched to super-startdom, private jets, sell-out tours, an endless stream of beautiful women and an unshakeable belief that the ride will never end. Imagining that the world is waiting with baited breath for his solo outputs or that supergroup alliances are just there for the picking, he never quite comes to his senses for years. While the world moves on he drifts through a series of increasingly embarrassing and desperate attempts at come-back which seem to burn all good will with friends and fellow musicians. Living off the twice-yearly checks from the royalties of bygone albums, he reveals that he paid the rent six months in advance then proceeded to blow the rest, or rather inhale it. No punches pulled in describing the life of a junkie, the book is ultimately unsatisfying as it jumps over years, leaps back and forward down links that only make sense to him presumably, evidence indeed of the damage done. It all ends well enough: cue getting clean, meeting good woman, making comeback recordings, gaining critical acceptance. You learn who his friends are and it's clear that some rock stars are human beings after all. Well done David Coverdale -- if you read this you'll understand.

Tony Iommi comes across as a decent, down to earth chap who can't quite explain how he is the king of devil rock riffs. Interesting opening chapters cover life as a shopkeeper's son in mid-century Birmingham and his passion for music that took root early. Let's just say Tony's wit is dry.  Like Hughes he details the early bands and then relatively meteoric rise before we settle into the album by album account of the next twenty-five years or so. The inner workings of Sabbath are not particularly unique though we learn a bit about how he views riffs and songwriting (he can't write fast riffs easily), the limits of Ozzy's abilities, the creative impact of Dio, the stranglehold of management on bands which explains the sometimes baffling decisions, at least from the fans' perspectives, on line-up changes, album releases and touring schedules. And like Hughes, Iommi seems to be a friend of John Bonham who keeps making appearances and causing upset, often in unpleasant ways.  Perhaps not surprisingly, Hughes and Iommi appear in each other's books, and while music is ultimately the common thread, cocaine is part of their shared history. Why should this surprise you?  On balance, the book breezes along effortlessly, you don't really get detailed insights on the relationships as Tony tends to ease over the rough spots and just roll along, but  you can see in the space of 25 years how rock music eventually became a job and big business from the way bands like Sabbath evolved.

Richards' Life  is the best written, the man clearly is articulate, relatively engaged intellectually in the world and not short of opinions. Again, the last decades are sped through with minimal detail as the bulk of his story is really the early and middle years of the band's history but unlike Hughes or Iommi, Richards was part of a band at the center of the cultural shifts and swirls induced by and reflected in rock and roll. He clearly has little time for law and order and seems to take great pleasure in insulting Mick Jagger's manhood while emphasizing his own credentials (did you know he's really considered a black man by some black musicians, yeah, I know....), but the book does provide a real historical account from the inside of times and people that made history. If anything the book is too long but then, Keef has lived a long life. Surprisingly perhaps, he confesses that he has been off hard drugs for over 30 years but people won't let the myth die, so the image lives on. Proof positive, indeed, that we need our rock stars, real or not, to provide something that makes life richer for us all. I learned from this that he also wrote most of those great songs using only a five-string guitar tuned like a banjo. The reading of this book sent me back to listen to lots of old Stones and ultimately, I was disappointed in the records, way too much filler, and Exile on Main Street is just not as good as people say, but this is still the best book written by a rock star in many a year. A low bar? Perhaps, but he crossed it handily.

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