As Mike Love reportedly said to Brian Wilson when The Beach Boys began putting art before commerce: “Don’t fuck with the formula.” He wouldn’t be happy perusing the music books of 2017. The recipe of the rock biography – impoverished childhood, impoverished early life in a band, commercial triumph and finally becoming poverished, ruination by drink, drugs, women or all three, followed by belated level-headedness – has been thoroughly disrespected this year. Fractured timelines, mingled voices and even a graphic novel have all been published.
Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson offers the most traditionally structured tale in What Does This Button Do? (HarperCollins, £20), working his way chronologically from bullied public school days as the son of parents who performed a dog act around theatres, to a cancer diagnosis in 2015. He’s got much more to talk about than just heavy metal – in fact fans of his music are likely to learn more about his passions for brewing, fencing and piloting jumbo jets. Such an eccentric personality doesn’t go light on the dad jokes, even telling promoters that the reasons for postponing a world tour were “too tumorous to mention”, but with tales ranging from a prank with two tonnes of horse manure to a wartime gig in Sarajevo, he’s consistently entertaining company.
The other megastar with a new book has been more daring with his presentation. Reveal, journalist Chris Heath’s second biography of Robbie Williams (Blink, £20) most resembles the reality TV shows that Williams admits are almost all he watches. It’s his day-to-day life over the past decade in forensic detail, whether he’s trapped behind a door that won’t open during a fluffed X Factor comeback performance, or spending too many hours posting on web forums about aliens. Heath is more friend than a hack for hire, and spends vast amounts of time in the singer’s company watching, conversing and recording.
Williams also doesn’t care who knows about his many neuroses. However bad you may think he is, he thinks he’s worse. There’s an ongoing theme, that he doesn’t believe he deserves his success, which is exhausting but fascinating. In his best description of his predicament, he is “Rob” and the cocky entertainer on stage is “Robbie Williams”: “Robbie Williams is sort of the cloak of invincibility that I put on, and sometimes he doesn’t turn up and I have to do it myself, and it’s terrifying.”
Singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III is almost as self-lacerating in Liner Notes (Omnibus, £20). Part of a family music business that also includes his late ex-wife Kate McGarrigle and their children Rufus and Martha Wainwright, the twist here is that the book is just the latest installment of a self-examination that has been going on since he first picked up a guitar. Whatever he tells you about his philandering, his life as an absent father and even a teenage episode involving the theft of a bulldozer, is accompanied by lyrics revealing that he already said it more concisely and poetically in song.
There are more lyrics littered through Eskiboy, London rapper Wiley’s account of how he became a pioneer of the grime scene which now dominates British urban music (William Heinemann, £20). It’s dark and disjointed at 96 chapters, some shorter than a page. He’s such a big personality that he requires three first names – different parts of his story are told by “Richard”, his birth name, “Kylea”, his family pet name, and “Wiley”, his stage name, in addition to passages from his father, mother, sister and oldest friends.
Beefs and stabbings abound. Wiley’s is a tough world, as is that of a trailblazer in urban music from a previous generation, Goldie. His memoir, All Things Remembered (Faber & Faber, £18.99) is similarly scattergun, presented as a chapter for each of his 51 years in which he rants and rambles about everything from yoga and being of duel heritage to dinner with Ed Balls and being attacked by his own boa constrictor. The book is fragmented and tiring, with some very dark patches, but feels like an accurate look inside the swirling mess of the drum and bass giant’s brain.
More impressionistic insights come in Reinhard Kleist’s Nick Cave: Mercy on Me (Self Made Hero, £14.99) in which the German graphic novelist, who has previously grappled with Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash in cartoon form, mixes Cave’s biographical details with surreal encounters with a few characters from his songs. The spidery Australian looks like a tortured superhero drawn in black and white, and the limitlessness of the form means he can also be seen as an astronaut, an executioner and a storyteller physically drowning in his own words.
What we generally want in music books are flawed superbeings. There are plenty more in Lizzy Goodman’s Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001–2011 (Faber & Faber, £20). It’s an oral history of the last time rock music really seemed central to the culture, with The Strokes emerging as the superstars of the tale.
The band’s honesty is impressive, because subjects don’t always appreciate a literary mirror. Anthony DeCurtis waited until Lou Reed had died to feel safe enough to publish Lou Reed: A Life (John Murray, £25). Meanwhile, Jann Wenner, the founder of Rolling Stone magazine and subject of Joe Hagan’s thorough Sticky Fingers (Canongate, £25) has disowned the book as “deeply flawed and tawdry”. Thankfully he only did so after granting Hagan full access to his memory banks, which means a meticulous portrait of one of music’s most intriguing non-musicians, with the gossipy bits left in. It’s another life story that is anything but formulaic.