In his memoir Waging Heavy Peace (Penguin), Neil Young has some sound advice for his guitar-slinging peers. “Writing is very convenient, has a low expense and is a great way to pass the time. I highly recommend it to any old rocker who is out of cash and doesn’t know what to do next.” But in a memoir-hungry industry these old rockers hardly need telling. If any iconic figures are yet to start writing then, it can’t be for lack of offers.
Few will be as eccentric as Young’s effort. Reading Waging Heavy Peace is like taking a road trip with a hippie version of Grampa Simpson as he randomly expounds on the 1960s, his favourite guitars, and his doomed attempt to invent a car that runs on water. Most of the key episodes of his life are here, but in no particular order. It’s cranky, charming, and sometimes unwittingly hilarious, which is exactly what fans would expect. The Who’s Pete Townshend is also true to form in Who I Am (HarperCollins), scrutinising his past with such relentless candour that you wonder if you should be billing him by the hour. As Young reflects, “The past is such a big place,” and in Townshend’s case it contains monsters.
Gil Scott-Heron died in 2011 before he could piece together the fragments of The Last Holiday (Canongate) but his friend and editor Jamie Byng has done so with skill and care. Scott-Heron was a born wordsmith and this is an elegant, playfully elusive book to file alongside Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One. Scott-Heron’s smart, sardonic voice comes across so strongly that it’s a great shame he didn’t live to record an audio version.
Pogues’ singer Shane MacGowan wrote an autobiography years ago, but he’s a fascinatingly enigmatic presence, either “a genius or a fucking idiot”, according to accordion-player James Fearnley in Here Comes Everybody (Faber), his vivid tale of the band’s too-brief heyday and the ragged bohemia that spawned them. The title comes from Finnegans Wake and Fearnley’s literary ambitions sometimes lure him into some overripe prose (when a sozzled MacGowan wets himself his flow is “artesian rather than ejaculatory”), but he has real storytelling flair.
So too do Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks, whose I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution (Plume) is an exemplary work of oral history, knitting more than 400 interviews into a suitably noisy, bustling account of pop’s blockbuster era. Whether you consider the video boom pop’s zenith, its ruination or both at once, you’ll find someone who agrees with you in this goldmine of insight and anecdote.
In terms of traditional biography, you won’t find better than Sylvie Simmons’ I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (Cape), an uncommon story of an uncommon life. Like her subject, Simmons loves language, hates cliché and takes her time. Written with Cohen’s blessing, enabling access to his friends, collaborators and muses, it recreates long-gone incidents with such vigour that you’d swear Simmons was there at the time, sitting in the corner and taking notes.
Stanley Booth really was there with the Rolling Stones in 1969, and The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones (Canongate) grew out of a miraculous confluence of timing, tenacity and talent. For various reasons, some life-threatening, Booth took 15 years to finish it and barely made a penny, so this new edition to mark the band’s 50th anniversary is well-deserved. With a first-hand account of the Altamont catastrophe at its heart, sucking in light like a black hole, it is still the most brutally compelling book about rock’n'roll and its casualties ever written.
While Booth exposes rock’s blood and guts, two books that involve former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne are more interested in its brain. In How Music Works (Canongate), Byrne draws on his own experiences of music-making over the past four decades, but he’s more interested in politely dismantling ideas of authorship, authenticity and solitary genius. Moving with Gladwellian fluency between sweeping theories and pinpoint examples, he explains how music is shaped by external factors: technology, location, economics, happenstance. In its crisp, unfussy way it might change the way you think about music.
Novelist Jonathan Lethem’s life was changed by obsessive adolescent exposure to Talking Heads’ 1979 album Fear of Music: he compares himself and the album to “Groucho and Harpo, meeting one night in that doorway that pretends to be a mirror”. Annoyingly for those of us who do this for a living, Lethem proves himself an uncommonly passionate and persuasive music critic in his lively study of the album Talking Heads – Fear of Music (Continuum). We need books like this. Reading about musicians’ lives can be riveting but Lethem reminds you that sometimes all you need to do is put a record on, lean in and listen.
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