Rock 'n' roll biography roundup

by gabeatkinson / 20 December, 2012
Pete Townshend is ordered and Neil Young near-shambolic, as the two musical giants eschew ghost writers for their autobiographies.
The most unusual thing about the autobiographies of Pete Townshend and Neil Young is that they actually wrote them. Whereas peers such as Keith Richards and Eric Clapton have employed the services of ghost writers, Townshend – always the most loquacious rocker of his generation – has had a long association with the literary world. In the early 70s, the Who guitarist and songwriter penned a regular column for Melody Maker. During a Who hiatus in the 80s, he took a job as editor for publishing house Faber and Faber, which also issued a volume of his short stories.

In Who I Am, Townshend gives a methodical, chronological account of his life, and for the first half of its 500 pages it is hard to put down. The son of a jazz saxophonist and a dance-band singer, he hears “the music of the spheres” in the sound of a river during a childhood fishing trip. When attending art school in the early 60s, he joins a band, which becomes the Who. When he destroys his guitar on stage one night, he discovers not only a practical application for Gustav Metzger’s theory of auto-destructive art (which he had been studying) but also the key to a career as one of rock’s greatest showmen.

He describes how he began writing songs, conceiving anthems like I Can’t Explain and My Generation to provide a voice for not just his own frustrations but also those of his young audience. And he draws connections between such traumatic childhood experiences as being sent to live with a mentally unstable and abusive aunt and songs such as I’m a Boy and his rock opera Tommy. The prose, like his music, blazes with energy, passion and intelligence.

Neil Young also muses on childhood, songwriting, family, friends, performing and responsibility in Waging Heavy Peace. But Young’s approach is less ordered; in fact, it is near-shambolic. At best, it reads like a direct feed from Young’s brain that one feels privileged to be receiving. At worst, it is repetitive, clunky and over-decorated with exclamation marks.

Written over a seven-month period in which Young had experimentally given up cannabis and alcohol, the chapters feel like diary or blog entries, often starting in the present (“Last night I saw a movie about Conan O’Brien on cable …”), dropping into memory and back again. Unlike Townshend, he makes little attempt at literary style. When, a few chapters in, he congratulates himself on having only rewritten one paragraph so far, it explains a lot. Could it have been any worse if he was still on drugs?

Young has an irritating habit of mentioning some fascinating conversation he has had – say with Stephen Stills or Bruce Springsteen – yet revealing little of its content. “Stephen and I have this great honesty about our relationship and get joy from telling each other observations from our past,” he begins tantalisingly. Yet all that follows is a trite pronouncement: “The past is such a big place.”

By contrast, Townshend writes frankly and often in surprising detail. Where Who I Am falters, though, is when it concerns the less essential parts of the Who/Townshend canon. Critical consensus has it that albums like It’s Hard and Psychoderelict are sub-par, yet Townshend wastes unconvincing pages assuring us how good they really are. On top of this, his mounting problems with alcohol and infidelity turn the later chapters into a grinding chronicle of recriminations and justifications.

Young, too, has his regrets. The death from a drug overdose of musician Danny Whitten, just hours after Young had fired him from his band, is a recurring source of grief. And he takes the opportunity to eulogise other friends and colleagues, including producers David Briggs and Larry Johnson. But he also uses the pages to even scores. His widely reported endorsement of Ronald Reagan in the 80s is attributed to “two AP jerks” who twisted his words during an interview. Yet he goes on to reiterate: “I liked Reagan for some things he had said.”

Townshend hit headlines when he was arrested in 2003 for using his credit card to access a child pornography site. He addresses this event soberly, explaining how his crime was the consequence of research he was doing for an abuse survivor’s campaign. With the theme of child abuse established in the early chapters and woven through the story, his explanation is convincing. Still, it leaves the book on a downbeat note.

Townshend and Young are both musical giants and have lived unusual and extreme lives. In the end, though, I would rather have one great new record from each of them than this hefty pair of doorstoppers.

WHO I AM, by Pete Townshend (HarperCollins, $44.99)

WAGING HEAVY PEACE, by Neil Young (Penguin/Viking, $48)

Short Takes

In 1982, Mick Jagger was paid an advance of £1 million for his autobiography. According to Michael O’Mara, his appointed ghost writer, nine months of interviews produced a manuscript so “heart-stoppingly dull … I thought we should call it The Diary of a Nobody”. The sex, the drugs, the rock’n’roll – Jagger recalled little of it, or so he claimed. Instead he offered drab reminiscences of Dartford in the 50s. The contract was cancelled and the advance returned.

Although it is hard to believe the Rolling Stones’ frontman didn’t have a fascinating tale to tell, the episode is revealing. He may be an extrovert on stage, but Jagger has always kept his thoughts and motivations well hidden. He appears to live in a perpetual present, enabled by his rock star career. Perhaps this is why both his music and his philandering – the two things for which he is most famous – have remained constant through the years. At 69, he still sings the songs he wrote in his 20s, moves like a man a third his age and continues to romance women not much older than that. Biographer Philip Norman found plenty of tales without Jagger’s help, including the one about the failed book. Interviews with former lovers such as Jean Shrimpton portray the subject as capable of both chivalry and caddishness. Yet although Norman’s MICK JAGGER (HarperCollins, $36.99) shows us in some detail what Jagger does, it brings us little closer to understanding why he does it.

Matt Thorne’s PRINCE (Faber and Faber, $39.99) is not strictly a biography, although it offers as detailed an account of the enigmatic artist’s life as you will find anywhere. Thorne’s specialty is close readings of Prince’s music, which he has supplemented by interviewing musicians, sound engineers and other Prince insiders. Interestingly, by focusing on the work, one comes to understand more about the man than one does from any number of salacious life stories.

When it comes to sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, Led Zeppelin’s lurid reputation surpasses that of either Prince or the Stones. In tracing the group’s Dionysian career, Barney Hoskyns has taken the approach of oral historian, making the jigsaw of TRAMPLED UNDER FOOT: THE POWER AND EXCESS OF LED ZEPPELIN (Faber and Faber, $39.99) from old and new interviews. Was John Bonham “a schizophrenic animal, like something out of Straw Dogs”, as journalist Nick Kent described him, or “a family man who missed his wife when he was on the road”, as musician Glenn Hughes remembers him? Viewpoints as differing as these only help make this book the most believable account yet of Led Zeppelin’s sordid, spectacular saga.


Nick Bollinger is a Listener music reviewer and presents the Sampler on Radio New Zealand National.
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