Other musicians had to up their game when it came to putting pen to paper in the year that Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s all very well ‘fessing up to your drug, alcohol and marriage problems, but what about the prose style?
It might be the success of Dylan’s first Chronicles volume in 2005 that helped to make it tempting for the top tier of rock ‘n’ roll to tell their stories in their own words. The likes of Keith Richards, Neil Young, Mick Fleetwood and John Lydon have followed. In 2016 the highest profile, most vital read in music was Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run (Simon & Schuster, £20), self-penned in longhand over a seven year stretch. Always a teller of stories in song, he writes about himself with gripping honesty and clarity. On paper he’s as shouty, exuberant and over the top as he is on stage, often slipping into capitals to express his passion. When Elvis Presley appears on television, witnessed by a seven-year-old Springsteen, he yells: “A HERO HAS COME. THE OLD ORDER HAS BEEN OVERTHROWN!” His early days as an aspiring rock god are a delight. But there’s a darkness here too, first evident as a cloud above his brooding, hard-drinking father, and later when he’s admitting to serious depression as “a significant piece of my own mental makeup”.
Johnny Marr is likeable but less forthcoming company in Set the Boy Free (Century, £20). The Manchester guitarist covers a long career that includes stints with Electronic, The The, The Cribs and Modest Mouse, but unlike Morrissey in his 2013 Autobiography, realises that all anyone really wants to know about is his time in The Smiths. It’s surprising to be reminded how brief that period actually was – four albums between 1984 and 1987, with Marr still only 23 when he broke up the band. He’s a nice guy who doesn’t single anyone out for specific criticism. Mainly he moans that he was too often expected to be The Smiths’ manager as well as the writer of their music. That means that a tale about meeting Morrissey in 2008 to discuss a reunion simply fizzles out, and where there could be gory details, such as when he spends two weeks helping bassist Andy Rourke to come off heroin, Rourke just “did what he needed to do” and Marr moves swiftly on.
Unless you’re 23-year-old One Direction escapee Zayn Malik in the slight, photo-heavy Zayn: The Official Autobiography (Penguin, £18.99), an autobiography usually seems to come in the twilight years of a sucessful career. However, in the case of Phil Collins, who is un-retiring himself to perform five nights at the Royal Albert Hall next June, it can signal a new chapter. In Not Dead Yet (Century, £20) he operates from an unfortunate vantage point: the huge-selling multi-millionaire with a chip on his shoulder. He’s not as cool as Springsteen and their ilk, and he knows it. But after a while, one can acquire a fondness his Eeyorish tones, especially when he’s describing his mad dash to play at the 1985 Live Aid concerts on both sides of the Atlantic in the same day: “Then, shattered, and utterly deflated, like the plug has been pulled, I suddenly remember: ‘Oh, man, I’ve got to sing “We Are the Fucking World” with Lionel Richie and Harry Belafonte.’” You may even begin to pity him after hearing his side of his well-documented marriage troubles, though his first wife doesn’t. Last week she announced that she’s suing him for libel.
One more A-list autobiography arrived this year in the shape of I Am Brian Wilson (Coronet, £20) in which the mentally troubled Beach Boys genius gave more insights into the life of the sweet but confused character portrayed by both Paul Dano and John Cusack in the recent film Love & Mercy. Wilson has done the autobiography thing before, with Wouldn’t It Be Nice in 1991, but that was written beneath the gaze of his controlling therapist Eugene Landy and since discredited. Twenty-five years later, anyone who has read one of Wilson’s excruciatingly stilted interviews will marvel at how ghostwriter Ben Greenman has managed to coax an entire book out of him, but the tone feels like an accurate insight into the way his mind works. Instead of moving chronologically from childhood beatings to overworked musical success to mental breakdown and beyond, the chapters have themes (Family, Home, America etc) and Wilson leaps around the decades as he talks. After that, if you want to hear the story again from the perspective of a man usually viewed as one of the bad guys, Mike Love has recently published Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy (Faber & Faber, £20) too.
Ask anyone about music in 2016, however, and they’ll speak first of the giants that are no longer with us to tell their stories. With David Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen leaving us, plus plenty more, it’s Bowie who so far has prompted the greatest number of new responses in print. Hero: David Bowie (Hodder & Stoughton, £20) sees Lesley-Ann Jones (no relation to the man born David Jones) tell his life story in the journalistic style. A more personal reminiscence is Mick “Woody” Woodmansey’s Spider From Mars: My Life With Bowie (Sidgwick & Jackson, £18.99). Woodmansey drummed on Bowie’s albums from The Man Who Sold the World to Aladdin Sane and is the last surviving Spider. He was on the front line but doesn’t offer the most riveting insights. Bowie playing Mick Ronson’s guitar with his teeth was “controversial stuff for 1972” apparently.
A greater treasure and tribute is A Portrait of Bowie (Cassell, £25), compiled by Rolling Stone writer Brian Hiatt and subtitled “A tribute to Bowie by his artistic collaborators & contemporaries”. Photographs and paintings, some familiar, some less so (he even looks cool eating a big sandwich) are scattered among personal recollections from Debbie Harry, Nile Rodgers, Cyndi Lauper and more. It’s an art book fitting for a true artist, whose surprise departure many would argue provided the most shattering moment in a year full of them.