Thursday, 15 April 2010

Not all books are fantasy...

Much as I love speculative fiction, there is another genre that will always attract me and that is Rock Autobiography/Biography. I am currently reading Just Kids: From Brooklyn to the Chelsea Hotel, a Life of Art and Friendship by Patti Smith, the story of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe and their lives in 70's New York and beyond. I have long been enthralled by Patti Smith and so far I have not been disappointed in her writing.

There are some classic rock biographies, one which got me into the genre was No-one Gets Out Of Here Alive by Jerry Hopkins and Daniel Sugerman. The life story of Jim Morrison, poet, shaman and outrageous lead singer of The Doors, did not have a happy ending, but man, that guy lived! The life of Bob Marley was protrayed in the excellent Catch A Fire by Timothy White. Other recommended reads are:
  • Sweet Scars of Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin by Alice Echols
  • Scar Tissue: The Autobiography by Anthony Kiedis and Larry Sloman
  • White Line Fever: Lemmy - The Autobiography by Lemmy Kilmister
  • The Dirt - Motley Crue: Confessions of the World's Most Notorious Rock Band by Neil Strauss, Tommy Lee, Vince Neil, and Mick Mars
  • Slash: The Autobiography by Slash and Anthony Bozza
  • Bit of a Blur by Alex James
  • When Giants Walked the Earth: A Biography of Led Zeppelin by Mick Wall
  • Hammer of the Gods: Led Zeppelin Unauthorised by Stephen Davis
  • Sex and Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll: The Life of Ian Dury by Richard Balls
  • Long Hard Road Out of Hell by Marilyn Manson and Neil Strauss
So what is the attraction of a rock biography? Personally speaking, it is to understand the person behind the music, away from the headlines and scandals. What drives their creativity and how they deal with the excesses of the rock business fascinates me, especially as so many are tortured souls in one way or another. The hedonistic lifestyle that surrounds rock superstars destroys that it claims to worship, and is a monster in its own right. But the music always triumphs in the end even if the artist does not survive.

There are some quality rock writers around today, many of whom cut their teeth on UK music weeklies like the NME, Melody Maker or Sounds. Collections of their writings are available and provide a wealth of interviews and articles on the music of the day. Some favourites are listed below:
  • Shots from the Hip (Penguin originals) by Charles Shaar Murray
  • The Dark Stuff: Selected Writings on Rock Music 1972-1993 by Nick Kent
  • England's Dreaming by Jon Savage
  • The North Will Rise Again: Manchester Music City 1976-1996 by John Robb
Many music journalists go on to pen biographies, and I have found the quality of the writing to be of a consistently high standard. A good biography, especially on a controversial figure, can add dimension to the music itself. After reading Torn Apart: The Life of Ian Curtis by Mick Middles and Lindsay Reade I gained a deeper appreciation of Joy Division lyrics and the darkness that enveloped the singer.

So, if you like music and want a little break from fiction, check out the music section in your local bookstore. You might be surprised at what you find there.


  1. Rock (and media) biographies take two forms. The most prominent are the ones I think of as a cash-in on current success, often rushed out and whilst of a certain interest also often lacking the perspective of a longer career overview. These latter type are generally better written, deeper researched and more rounded. There are exceptions of course.

    The other aspect of this area is that we mostly read biographies of artists we are already interested in, and whose work we may be quite familiar with, so our judgement is clouded by how well the author matches our own opinions. A handful of rock critics have transcended this enough to have their own distinctive identity and be worth reading regardless of their subject. Paul Williams (who pretty much invented serious rock writing in the 60s) is one whose warmth as a genuine fan with an enquiring mind and an ability to relay the personal, human emotional impact of music makes him stand out. Greil Marcus takes a more rareified philosophical and sociological approach that I don’t always understand but am always fascinated by. Barney Hoskyns I frequently want to scream at but in a constructive way, because of how he engages with the music (this is a good thing, it should be a dialogue.) In contrast I’ve too often been irritated by Victor Bockris’ sensationalising to really enjoy his work.

    Probably the best general rock book I’ve read then is Map: Rediscovering Rock’n’Roll by Paul Williams. His biographies of Dylan, Neil Young and Brian Wilson are also excellent, and his California hippy mysticism from the 70s is fun if you like that sort of thing. Close second would have to be Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train.

  2. What do you mean not all books are fantasy? My world is collapsing! ;p
    Yup, I buy biographies but rarely read them through.