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The curious connection between these new celebrity biographies

Roger Daltrey. Photo/Getty Images

Our reviewer wades into a flood of celebrity biographies and memoirs and finds they’re all connected in some way.

As this year’s seasonal batch of celebrity memoirs reminds us, famous people suffer too. They’re only human. Fabulously wealthy, yes, but still vulnerable to everything life can throw at us. One day you’re an icon, these books tell us, the next, you’re case notes.

But for the famous, late-career life-support arrives in the form of the book deal, with an attached ghostwriter hoping to turn your memories into something more exciting than a 300-page Wikipedia entry. All of the following books succeed in doing that. Spookily, they also prove that all celebrities are connected to each other.

Roger Daltrey’s Thanks a Lot Mr Kibblewhite (Allen & Unwin $39.99) follows the gloomy but gut-wrenching 2012 autobiography of his songwriting bandmate Pete Townshend. His is a much more chipper memoir about being the microphone-whirling frontman of The Who, a band that invented a fair few things in rock’n’roll – Daltrey got his pecs out before most of his generation – but they didn’t much like each other while they were at it. They occasionally died, too, which, in Daltrey’s account of the deaths of Keith Moon and John Entwistle, was very inconsiderate of them.

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The title is a reference to the headmaster who expelled Daltrey from school as a teenager, setting him on a path from snappy mod to prototype rock god and occasional actor – a calling that performing and interpreting Townshend’s lyrics set him up for nicely, in a way.

His ghostwritten memoir is a gentle plod through decades-later reminiscences, rather than one that takes us back to the scenes of The Who’s crimes against the hotel industry or the rock moments they’re best remembered for.

Still, as a guide to what country manor-owning, trout-farming, stadium-filling British rock stars got up to when we still had such a thing as rock stars, it has its moments. It seems Daltrey maintained a kind of Tom Jones clause with Heather, his wife since 1971, when it came to his on-tour recreational activities. He touches briefly on the four (at least) children from women he wasn’t married to at the time and says he has good relations with the wider brood. A pity that particular chapter wasn’t entitled “Man from The Who’s your Daddy”.

Tina Turner. Photo/Getty Images

Daltrey, of course, starred in Tommy, the Ken Russell film of Townshend’s rock opera, which also starred Tina Turner as the Acid Queen. Her scene-stealing turn doesn’t get a mention in her autobiography, My Love Story (Penguin Random House, $40). Maybe she’s blanked it out. Many would.

It’s her second memoir, after 1986’s I, Tina, which was adapted as the biopic What’s Love Got to Do with It. Her new as-told-to book does occasionally reach to her bad old days with abusive husband Ike Turner. Mainly, it answers the question: whatever happened to Turner – who turns 80 next year – since she stopped touring, in 2008? Lots, it turns out. Not all of it good.

On the brighter side, she got married to Erwin Bach, the German music exec she’s been with since the mid-80s There’s much about their sweet odd coupledom and their comfortable life at home in Switzerland, where she’s now a citizen. On the darker side, she stoically describes suffering a stroke, being diagnosed with intestinal cancer and undergoing a kidney transplant. There’s an afterword on the suicide of a son earlier this year.

The book, done with two ghostwriters, looks like it was designed to end on an optimistic note – the opening of a new stage show about her life. But that dramatic life of hers, it seems, keeps getting in the way.

At least she’s got luckier with her blokes. Whereas Ike broke her jaw, Erwin donated his kidney.

Olivia Newton-John. Photo/Alamy

Turner’s 80s comeback was masterminded by her then Australian manager, Roger Davies, who, at the time, also managed Olivia Newton-John, whose 1981 mega-hit, Physical, Turner turned down when it was first offered to her.

Newton-John’s Don’t Stop Believin’ (Penguin Random House, $48) is subtitled “the long-awaited memoir of Australia’s sweetheart”. What a sunny, exclamation-mark-heavy tale it starts out as, especially when it gets to Grease (“I’ll always be Sandy to a lot of people and that’s fine with me”). Mainly, though, it’s a sanguine memoir of cancer which Newton-John has had since the early 90s, along with accounts of her good works and reflections on her marriages and daughter Chloe.

The ghostwriting offers a mix of self-help and the kind of prose that can feel like an endless press release for the book itself. No, it’s not exactly deep, but it sure is plucky.

Sally Field in The Flying Nun. Photo/Alamy

Plucky is a word that comes to mind thinking of Sally Field and her most memorable roles. So, too, does “earnest” and “needy”. But that’s before reading her autobiography, In Pieces (Simon & Schuster, $40.99). Oh sorry, an actual Newton-John to Field link? They both once owned the same palatial home in Malibu, in different decades. It was a “perfectly disgusting five-bedroom house, as isolated and hard to reach as I was”, writes Field. LA real estate, though, is a minor thread in Field’s dense, intense, revealing, seven-years-in-the-writing, self-penned autobiography.

It does more than just tell the story of a Hollywood life she was born into, with her grandmother, mother and stepfather all minor film actors. Suddenly, she was television’s Gidget, then The Flying Nun. Her career eventually got a second wind of Emmys and Oscars (complete with her much misquoted “you like me” acceptance speech). But Field’s book, while offering frankness about a career and her moments of burning ambition, captivates most with its eloquently written analysis of her fractured personal life.

It’s a book of quiet anguish, telling of her stepfather’s sexual abuse of her as a child, her time on Hollywood’s casting couch, her difficult – if loving – relationship with her mother, and her two marriages that ended in divorce and produced three sons. For bleak comedy, head straight to the chapter about the strange psychodrama of her 1970s relationship with Burt Reynolds.

Yes, she’s plucky, needy, and earnest, but you can’t help but admire Field, film star and writer, after reading In Pieces. It’s a terrific memoir.

Michael Caine. Photo/Alamy

Field’s book is amusingly honest when it does touch on the lesser moments in her career. One was Beyond the Poseidon Adventure. Another was the 1987 romantic comedy Surrender. Both also starred Michael Caine, a man whose long screen career has made more bombs than Lockheed Martin. But he can laugh about it, now. Then tell you what he bought with the dosh.

His Blowing the Bloody Doors Off and Other Lessons in Life (Hodder & Stoughton, $37.99) follows an earlier memoir, 2010’s The Elephant to Hollywood.

So if some of his anecdotes sound like they have been around the block, they probably have. But his self-penned book is largely a long and captivating after-dinner speech, which occasionally strays into less captivating extended award-acceptance-speech territory.

The best bits are when Caine offers his gruff, grandfatherly advice on everything from screen acting techniques to maintaining a work-life balance. It’s as charming as the man who wrote it. Which is very.

One of Caine’s bombs was the 1985 film Water, in which he played the British governor of a West Indies island which was also an early film for a rising comedian called Billy Connolly (bingo!).

Billy Connolly. Photo/Alamy

His Made in Scotland: My Grand Adventures in a Wee Country (BBC Books, $37) is tied to a forthcoming television series entitled Coming Home. It has Sir William, Clown Prince of Glasgow, pondering what Scotland means to him while wandering various memory lanes. His unhappy childhood was thoroughly dissected in 2001’s Billy, by his New Zealand-born psychologist wife Pamela Stephenson.

This is a gentler ramble through his home city and country, and, predictably, it’s laugh-out-loud funny, especially when he’s telling of his early days as both Glasgow shipyard welder and struggling banjo-playing folk musician.

It’s also affecting in how he addresses his upbringing (there’s a lovely ode to the Glasgow library he found sanctuary in as a kid) and the present (one chapter is an extended conversation with Edinburgh research scientist Sir Ian Wilmut about the Parkinson’s disease Connolly was diagnosed with in 2012).

Elsewhere, Connolly offers a slightly barbed but mostly affectionate love letter to the place he left behind while offering his take on what lies behind the country’s national character – something he’s helped redefine in his decades on stage.

It might be a TV tie-in – and sometimes you can detect the episodic divisions and that the occasional Q&A conversations with notable locals are transcribed broadcast interviews – but, riveted together with Connolly’s own amusing musings, it’s an absorbing kind-of autobiography that is as entertaining as it is reflective. Surprisingly, there’s not much swearing. But he has been unwell, after all.

This article was first published in the December 15, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.