Who better to represent the true spirit of this season of excess than a bunch of rock stars? This year’s crop of music biographies, auto- or otherwise, sometimes follow a path we know so well: miserable obscurity/glittering success/druggy tarnish/boring old redemption.
Joe Perry’s Rocks: My Life in and Out of Aerosmith (Simon & Schuster, GBP20), like his music, has all the classic elements. Simply check the index under singer Steven Tyler and you can already begin playing bingo: “drugs and”, “fellatio and”, “guns and”, “paranoia of”.
Elsewhere, in Play On: Now, Then and Fleetwood Mac (Hodder & Stoughton, GBP20) we find Mick Fleetwood steering a car from the back seat so that his driver can roll a joint, and detailing the “tsunami of white powder” that engulfed his band during their Seventies pinnacle. “Cocaine certainly got me talking,” he says, with wonderful understatement.
Far less amusing is the latest telling of the Amy Winehouse tragedy, this time from her mother Janis’s perspective in Loving Amy: A Mother’s Story (Bantam, GBP13.99). It should probably be filed with the misery memoirs rather than the music books, and is a sharp reminder that these wild young times can end as something other than a pile of winked scandalous anecdotes.
An artier take on music, addiction and disaster comes in Marcus O’Dair’s authorised biography of Robert Wyatt, Different Every Time (Serpent’s Tail, GBP20). This intricate, detailed read takes in jazz, drinking and the fall from a fourth-floor window that put Wyatt in a wheelchair at 28, as well as depression, suicide attempts and Communism. He’s a worthy subject for such a thorough going-over.
The real big story, however, comes from the biggest rock ‘n’ roller. Jerry Lee Lewis is billed as telling his rampant, exhausting tale in his own words for the first time in His Own Story (Canongate, GBP20). In fact, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Rick Bragg does most of the talking in atmospheric style, interspersed with quotes from The Killer who, at 79, doesn’t actually have a great deal to say. “I knew there was something special going on here,” he reveals of the Million Dollar Quartet session, the famed 1956 meet-up of Lewis, Elvis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins at Sun Studios. Well duh.
More surprising and unorthodox (perhaps predictably) are the old punks. John Lydon has given up on drugs in favour of Liebfraumilch by page 115 of Anger is an Energy: My Life Uncensored (Simon & Schuster, GBP20) and reserves his enthusiasm for his wife Nora and lovingly detailing his fashion choices. Ghostwriter Andrew Perry captures his sweary, sneering tone well (the publisher warns that the reader “will happen upon words not listed in the dictionary” at the start) and the iconoclast misses no opportunity for a dig. He suggests that he came up with the safety pins thing because Vivienne Westwood’s clothes were always falling to bits, and swats at Malcolm McLaren endlessly, but the details of his sickly childhood are touching.
The less-told story of punk comes from the female perspective. Viv Albertine of The Slits dives in unflinchingly in Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys (Faber & Faber, GBP8.99) writing in the present tense for extra impact. It’s graphic and dramatic, startling when revealing that Slits singer Ari Up once got “stabbed in the arse” and defensive when justifying their rebellion. When Up urinated on stage at a gig, she “didn’t do it to be a rebel or to shock, it was much more subversive than that: she just needed a piss.”
After all that, we need to calm down, and Neil Young can help. Just over a year after his memoir Waging Heavy Peace, he’s published another volume, Special Deluxe (Viking, GBP25). It’s specifically about cars he has owned, with a sideline in dogs he has loved, and at times can feel like being trapped with your grandad on a rainy afternoon. But the nostalgic tone is warm and cosy, and if it turns out your rock idol is a bit duller than you’d like him to be, you can’t begrudge him his enthusiasm.
For the younger generation, One Direction couldn’t be less revelatory in Who We Are (Harper Collins, GBP9.99). Everything is amazing and mental but they’re trying to stay normal, you know? Nor does Ed Sheeran give much away in A Visual Journey (Cassell, GBP18.99). The book does show what kind of a person he is though: one who keeps his old buddies close even as his fame balloons. His artist friend Phillip Butah gets equal billing on the cover, around 50 opportunities to draw Sheeran inside and a long chapter to explain his methods.
But if looking at Ed Sheeran 50 times isn’t your idea of fun, there are a couple of music-themed beauties among the coffee table books this year. Look instead at Cathy, a collection of black-and-white photographs of Kate Bush as a child taken by her brother John Carder Bush (Sphere, GBP40). Reprinted for the first time since 1986 in the year that she returned to the stage, its pages are designed like windows and create otherworldly atmospheres with few words.
More exhaustive and tremendously sad is Nick Drake: Remembered for a While (John Murray, GBP35) featuring essays about, photos of and lyrics by the singer-songwriter who died 40 years ago last month and influenced every sad man with an acoustic guitar. Drake’s letters, and his father Rodney’s diary about his son’s mental struggles, are the most affecting. Again, it’s a reminder that a music career isn’t joyful abandon for everyone. Think on, One Direction.