Friday, November 1, 2013

Morrissey and The 10 Greatest Rock Memoirs

I've been reading Morrissey's memoir, Autobiography, published by Penguin Classics (!) and I have to say that so far it's been pretty great. I'll do a full review when I'm done but what I like about the opening chapters is Morrissey's voice and his beautiful evocation of the Irish diaspora community in 1960's Manchester. There have been several negative reviews of the book, one by Stuart Maconie in The Guardian which I respect and a silly and typically unfocused one by The New Yorker's pop music critic, Sasha Frere Jones that I completely discount. Frere Jones has annoyed me for years because he's an aristocrat who - I reckon - only got his job through influential connections, in hundreds of articles he's evinced no understanding of pop music at all, and by a long way he's the New Yorker's dullest writer. Of course maybe I'm biased, I've always liked Morrissey, and I've done a few oblique shout outs to his music and his prose skills over the years in my books (you may have noticed several mentions of The Cramps' Fanzine Legion of the Cramped in at least two of my novels: Legion of course was edited by Morrissey and was his first prose work.) 
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If it continues to be this good Autobiography could get into the unofficial top 10 list of rock memoirs, which is the kind of thing Morrissey would hold in utter contempt. What are the greatest rock memoirs? Well, there's a list on Rolling Stone Magazine, here, but its a bit of a dodgy effort as you'll see if you go over there. (It really took a ghost writer of genius to make Steven Tyler's life incredibly boring and to include his memoir on their list proves that a) they haven't read the book or b) they have no literary compass at all.) I reckon that you need 3 elements to produce a really great rock and roll memoir: 1) Solid music credentials. 2) Good anecdotes. 3) Good writing. You can be missing or weak in one of these elements but if you're missing in 2 its fatal. Morrissey has all three working for him so far in my read (but the Guardian says the book declines after the midway point).  
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So what are the best rock memoirs? I'm not going to pretend to be some big well read music guy. I'm not. I haven't read a lot memoirs period and I certainly haven't read everything on the Rolling Stone list (or would want to) but for what it's worth here's my little list of the 10 best rock autobiographies which I have actually read. I'm putting Morrissey in at number 7 for now...My number 1 memoir is John Lydon's Rotten: No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs and coincidentally if you look at my list it turns out that being black, Irish or Jewish is a big plus when it comes to rock memoir writing...

10. Touching From A Distance: Deborah Curtis
9. Twisting My Melon: Shaun Ryder
8. The Hacienda - How Not To Run A Club: Peter Hook
7. Autobiography: Morrissey
6. The Tao of Wu: The RZA
5. Take It Like A Man: Boy George 
4. Chronicles: Bob Dylan
3. Rat Girl: Kristin Hersh
2. Just Kids: Patti Smith
1. Rotten - No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs: John Lydon 

43 comments:

Sheiler said...

I'm so glad you're liking Moz's autobiography. I was bored silly after reading the New Yorker review, which made me despair for a couple of minutes. Morrissey is such a character with such an incredible talent. Anyway, sounds like I need to get my hands on the book after all.

adrian mckinty said...

Sheiler

The New Yorker review was so po faced (how dare Morrissey be published by Penguin Classics!) and typically ridiculous that its not worth considering.

The Guardian review however is a lot more thoughtful. Still I'm enjoying the Moz quite a bit so far.

Macca said...

I tried to read Jimmy Fearnley's book about The Pogues a month or two ago. That was a mixed experience. It was interesting to get a few behind-the-scenes anecdotes but the down side was that Jimmy is no great shakes as a prose stylist and the book was pretty flat and lifeless.

I haven't read the Moz yet and probably won't for a while (halfway through The Luminaries at present, with The Goldfinch lined up next) but I like his little gag in having the book published by Penguin Classics. A very Morrisseyesque touch. The extracts I have seen so far have been very appealing.

adrian mckinty said...

Macca

I liked the Luminaries but I still think the book of the year is Red or Dead by David Peace - certainly the most daring book of the year. I wonder too if Luminaries couldn't have been edited a little more tightly. There's some bagginess and quite a few little errors (one character comes from Oslo but Oslo didn't become the name of the city until the 1920's, something an author or editor would know if they'd read Knut Hamsun's Hunger and if you haven't read Hunger you really shouldnt be in the editing business).

I'm nearly half way through Moz now and still no signs of it going shit which the Guardian says will happen in part 2.

seana graham said...

Since people are already wandering away from the music bio topic and on to other books, I wonder if anyone has a good rec for a book on Irish history. Better if it wasn't massive too. But I am open to all ideas.

I wasn't crazy about the Patti Smith memoir, but I have a feeling that music demigods may just not be my kind of thing.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

I tend to avoid books on Irish history. The noise of the axe grinding (especially by American authors) always drives me to distraction.

I'll recommend again The Generals by Thomas Ricks though. Best history book I read this year by a long way. And an important book too.

Matt said...

I enjoyed Johnny Cash's book.

On a side note, I was disappointed in Artie Lange's recent follow-up memoir, Crash and Burn. Surprisingly empty of humour.

adrian mckinty said...

Matt

Is he still doing that radio show? With Nick DiPaolo it was bad but after DiPaolo left/was fired it amazingly got much worse. The one time I listened I couldnt believe that Lange used to be anecdotalist of genius and that he's friends with Stern, McDonald and CK...

Alan said...

Adrian, I am not a great fan of contemporary rock but apropos current books ,have you read Max Hastings"Catastrophe 1914"? David Peace intrigues me but I know little of " British football history".It seems that British civility ends in football stadiums.I have watched on You tube Scotsmen enmeshed in"Old Firm" hostility written with "Billy Boy" attacks in last decades of the twentieth century.Best Alan

Brendan O'Leary said...

I generally don't like pop memoirs.

It may be that having grown up in the sixties when everyone wanted to be a rock star, I'm just jealous of their lives! Or maybe it's a variation of "never trust the artist, trust the tale" even though I'm here posting on an authors blog. I blame Amazon for making me click on it.

I've only read Chronicles out of that list. One of the reasons it was so good is that Dylan did not "over-share" during his period of celebrity and was oblique and reticent in interviews, so he was left with plenty of good stories to tell.

For a "not rock" musical memoir, have you read "Last Night's Fun" by Ciaran Carson?

Brendan O'Leary said...

Another thing about Dylan is that his continuing creativity means his story doesn't follow the usual "early struggle, success, boring afterlife" arc.

adrian mckinty said...

Alan

Football hooliganism is very much a thing of the past in England and is dying out in Scotland too.

adrian mckinty said...

Brendan

Yeah but good writing is good writing. That Patti Smith book is beautifully told.

I'll check out old CC's memoir.

adrian mckinty said...

Brendan

Some day I'll share the tragic story of the signed, numbered, copy of Chronicles I used to own.

Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll second Adrian's recommendation of The Generals, but I'm not sure I've ever read a rock and roll memoir, and I'm unsure I've ever had an interest in reading one. I suppose this is partly because pop music is surrounded by so much bluster and bullshit, and partly because I prefer to let the music speak for itself.

I'm no musical snob, either. Rock and roll is what I listened to growing up, I would play guitar with friends and write songs, and, though I haven't listened to much in recent years, I still like talking about the music with my younger contemporaries.
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Peter Rozovsky said...

I just looked at that Rolling Stone list. As with all such Rolling Stone lists, each item is on a separate page, presumably to build up the number of page views and increase ad revenue, but I'm not a bitter guy; I waited for all twenty-five pages to load, and I read 'em.

The books? I wouldn't mind knowing more about Tommy James' mob connections.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Excuse my French but they are greedy fuckers. I was actually going to write a warning about that in the actual blog. Huffington Post started that trick and now everyone copies them. Its insecure and pathetic. There is a trick whereby you can see all the pages of a list like that on one page that I read about on lifehacker or somewhere but I've forgotten what it is.

Anyway it doesn't matter. My list is better. Their list is the list of suntanned 60 year old men who wear stone washed jeans and exercise at the NY Athletic Club and read Playboy for the articles and think Anthony Bourdain is a cool cat and that the barman at that resort hotel in St Barts really liked them.

You should try the Patti Smith and Kristin Hersh. It doesn't matter the milieu or the subject matter, if the prose sings the prose sings, wouldn't you say?

adrian mckinty said...

Alan

As for Hastings...well, I have to say I've gone off him a bit. How can you trust a historian or indeed any man who dyes their hair?

seana graham said...

Or sings.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Dyeing your hair is worse. Actually dyeing your beard is the worst of all. If I saw James Lipton on a dark night I'd run a mile.

seana graham said...

Beards seem more understandable, though, as they often don't really match the hair on top of men's heads. My dad had very gray hair from a young age, but his beard still came in brown. Not good--or at least his daughters so advised him.

Sheiler said...

I completely glossed over Kristin Hersh in your list. You mean from Throwing Muses? I loved that band.

When I co-managed a candy store in Copley Mall, I had the good fortune of throwing out 3 little, vicious black kids who stole a whole bunch of candy from us and were really slick about it. We caught them, and then warned them that they would never see daylight again if they so much as looked into our shop. They leave, and 20 minutes later, they're being pulled into our shop by none other than Steven Tyler. He wants to buy them anything they want. The kids are looking at us out of one corner of their eyes, and Tyler out of other corners, thinking this is some messed up joke.

We're eyeing them. It's a total EYE OFF.

Meanwhile Steven Tyler is not getting the attention he deserves because the kids have no idea who he is and we don't like Aerosmith. In our shop, we're playing Throwing Muses, Aztec Guitar, the Smiths, Nina Simon, the Blue Nile, Anita Baker, ABBA, Ministry, Kool and the Gang, basically everyone BUT Aerosmith. Plus he's bringing in the truants we just kicked out.

You know RUN-DMC, Walk this Way? he's asking the kids. He's eyeing us. The kids do nothing. They're thinking, It's a set up. Steven Tyler says, It was MY idea. My song. I said Let's do something with RUN DMC. Now I'm clean and sober. RUN DMC Walk this way RUN DMC No more drugs. My idea Aerosmith Steven Tyler me mine have ANYTHING you want in this store One day at a time Anything RUN DMC My idea, Steven Tyler, My song Great Collaboration CANDY You like truffles?

We've got our arms crossed. We've got the worse frowns on, aimed at Tyler and the kids, though it's becoming clear that they're terrified. They can't figure out when it is they'll get into the trouble ... that they're clearly in.

Tyler kind of gets it and says, ok, your mother will wonder where you got all the candy, am I right? There's a slight movement from one kid which signals "maybe?". Tyler says, OK OK I got this. You tell your mother ... what's your mother's name? No, what IS your mother's name? She's got to have a name. Everyone has a name. Just like mine is Steven Tyler. What's your name? Antoine. OK Good. Now tell Steven Tyler what your mother's name is. Sheila? OK Her name is Sheila. Your mom. You tell Sheila that Steven Tyler who is now clean and sober not like those days we partied on tour, Steven Tyler who's in the VIDEO with Run DMC for the song I wrote Walk This Way? Tell her Steven bought you the candy. Take a look around. Anything you want.

They're still not talking and are not picking out candy. So he grabs the most garrish gift basket and says, Here, give this to your mother with regards from StevenTylerAerosmithRunDMCWalkThisWayMySong.

When I ring it up and tell him it's $200 he hands me a credit card. The name on it is Steven Tallerico. I say, I thought your name was Steven Tyler.

He mumbles something about it being a stage name.

After they all get the hell out of the shop, another mall worker comes by and says, he was just in North Beach Leather to buy coke. What, did he get it for his wife but not him?

In conclusion, Ric Ocasek came by after this episode with Paulina Poritzkova. They commented on the art work of two of our workers (they went to Mass Art and have incredible talent), they were extremely nice and self-effacing. Nobody else in the mall had any rebuttals to offer about them.

Sincerely,
Sheiler


adrian mckinty said...

Sheiler

That was a great story.

The rage he must have felt is fucking wonderful. And the complete lack of irony or self awareness. Terrific.

And look dont think anymore about that ridiculous New Yorker review if it can be called that, Sasha Frere Jones is a rich private schoolboy whose dad no doubt got him the job at the New Yorker. The New Yorker does in fact have an excellent music critic, Alex Ross, and they did publish my friend Alicia's poem last week but they are not to be trusted when reviewing someone like Morrissey.

I just read aloud to my wife the Moz's 1.5 page analysis of Lost in Space on page 48 which is worth the cover price alone and is smarter than anything a rich know nothing scion like Frere Jones could come up with in his entire preppy life.

John McFetridge said...

A little while ago I went to see The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream, it's a kind of stage musical/autobiography and it's very good.

I think it would take some real writing skill to get it across in a book so maybe there will be more of these stage/memoirs.

adrian mckinty said...

John

I never saw it but Mindy Kaeling (?) who went on to star in the Office apparently had a brilliant staged version of Ben Affleck meeting Matt Damon and coming up with the idea for Good Will Hunting. Its supposed to be very funny.

Anne said...

I am always impressed by the literary output, be it memoir or novel, of stand-up comedians such as Russell Brand, Alexei Sayle, Dara O'Brien and Sean Hughes. I suppose it's to be expected that verbal fluency and inventiveness should translate equally well to the written word, in the same way as Morrissey's lyrical poetry.

adrian mckinty said...

Anne

I've read Alexi Sayle's stuff but none of the others.

Now that I'm getting deeper into it I can see that the Morrissey book really is in another league. Up there with Patti Smith's memoir I'm thinking now, but it might go rubbish at the end...

Anne said...

Further to my last comment, and having watched your "Sheugh" video, I reckon you could do a decent stand-up routine - which would not probably be the case for many other authors, or rock legends, for that matter.

Anne said...

P.S. On the other hand, we have not heard you sing yet ...

adrian mckinty said...

Anne

I reckon I could sing in front of a crowd at a push but the idea of doing standup is pretty terrifying.

Rob James said...

I'm loving it. 10 pages to go.

What I love is that his voice is so clear on every page.

I also love that his 'northerness' is evident in the writing.

Its the most pretentious thing I have ever read and I don't think he's a very nice man but I love, love, LOVE the book

seana graham said...

Rob, you're confirming exactly the reason I think I'm going to have to read it.

adrian mckinty said...

Rob

I had to put it aside to do some editing. I'm up to the bit where Rough Trade are suing him and some evil git in the Melody Maker accuses him of "hanging around public toilets in Manchester" and "loving Myra Hindley" which, of course, is absurd.

Unless the second half is one long whinge fest, this is going to be one of my books of the year I think.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Its definitely worth getting as a UK import.

seana graham said...

I just bit the bullet and bought it from Book Depository in case other Americans are interested in how to get one.

adrian mckinty said...

Rob, Seana

I'm now up to Morrissey's solo career and the moment when a gunman holds up a Denver radio station demanding that the Smiths be played.

Its strange how many times Denver crops up in the manuscript. Its also strange that the book isn't indexed. To hire an indexer would cost Penguin nothing and would be very useful.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

On page 353 he does get offered a role in Eastenders but he turns it down.

seana graham said...

Okay, I'm cancelling my order.



Kidding.

Craig said...

I was a little startled by how great Slash's autobiography was. Of course it helps if you like Guns n' Roses, but he really has a good sense of humor and it's quite readable. Recently listened to a Nerdist podcast with him and it turns out he's an excellent long-form interview as well.

Adrian said...

Craig

Hmm I shall check to see if its available as an audiobook

Rob James said...

David Morrissey reading the audiobook.

I would have gone for Matt Berry, myself.

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