It’s hard to write about music. The experience of it tends not to respond to language. It’s very difficult to use the written word to get to the core of it.
I like reading music autobiographies. Mainly of songwriters. I’m not bothered with the big stories of hedonism or wild success. Within a few pages you can usually tell if there’s going to be any insight at all, or if it’s someone cashing in, however righteously, on the most interesting thing that’s ever happened to them. If what musicians perform (as Simon Frith writes) is not music, but identity, there’s a complicated loop the loop for a musician to perform in writing an autobiography: a definitive statement of identity.
Most people’s lives don’t fit into the dull, partly digested narrative structures that are regurgitated into the movies and novels we consume, that’s one of the reasons I’m keen on books like this.
I’m most interested in the music and what it means (and how it’s made) alongside the relationships that bring it into the world. I really love coming across a music biog that is stimulating, intelligent, and doesn’t assume that I’m going to be interested in it. The best would stand on their own without prior knowledge of the music that brought them into the world. Some are great, some are good in parts. Here’s a few.
Bedsit Disco Queen Tracy Thorn
Tracy Thorn sang in Everything But the Girl, a duo I really respect: their album Amplified Heart is one of my favourites. In her book she takes us into a 1980’s youth that’s not all about day-glo and WHAM! She’s able to capture the self-absorption and awkwardness of being a teenager with artistic leanings, and her journey into writing and playing music she loves. There are elements of the old record industry there, but she writes about it not as monolithic, more a relic. This is one of the best music autobiographies I’ve read. She has another book coming out soon about singers, Naked at the Albert Hall, but until then she writes a good column in the New Statesman.
Here Comes Everyone: James Fearnley
The blurb quotes Shane McGowan “It’s exactly how I imagine I’d remember it to be”. And there’s the hook: that poor train-wreck of a man, a once brilliant songwriter overtaken by his addictions and whatever dark force fuels them. But this book isn’t all about Shane (he has his own books which are pretty scrappy) it’s by the accordion player, of all people: a supernumerary, resolutely not a front-person.
This was a punk band that discovered music, and had a road to travel in exploring their collaborative relationship, and their relationship to the music traditions they were innovating.
The story is one of a band forming, gaining some success and sustainability, then falling apart, but what’s most interesting to me is that it’s about the (new) love that dare not speak its name. The intimacy and desire of male friendship. The invincible power of its early flame, the sideways connection and the charred silent blackness of its ending.
Chronicles Volume 1 Bob Dylan
I was confused by Bob Dylan’s Chronicles at first. Its structure’s all over the place, like being trapped with a drunk auto-didact in an airport bar. Then I realised it’s built around moments in Dylan’s life where he met someone (in life or in song) who set him on a new path. Like a satellite that uses the gravity of other planets to slingshot itself further out into deep space. Once I had this key I enjoyed it more, but you’d probably have to be into Dylan to appreciate this one.
Morrissey dedicates more pages to the acrimonious dispute and court case that The Smiths engaged in after they broke up than his actual time in the band. You find yourself awkwardly agreeing with the judge that he’s “truculent and unreliable” It’s such a pity. I found myself flicking forward as I would a biology text I’d been forced to read. Some of the writing is beautiful, rich and funny, but Morrissey’s conviction he’s a tortured, misunderstood genius twists the writing, and eventually the story’s emphasis way out of shape. His quirky passion for pop and movie stars when he’s a young fellow is way more interesting than his time in LA when he actually gets to hang out with them. Like a pop De Profundis, we’re used to the glorious power of his lyrics and his epic epigrams, but when we’re invited inside, we realise what a lovely day it was outside & can’t wait to leave.
Charisma aside, at present Johnny Marr is playing (and singing) the music of The Smiths better than Morrissey can. He’s got a book coming out too. I wonder what it’s going to be like?