Rock of Pages

Alex Rawls examines the often maligned art of the rock biography.



"It is because of ... the genuine warmth and gratitude that he radiates to his audience that the next few years may see him established as one of the major international Superstars of the Seventies. Having seen so many others come and go, he knows the pitfalls -- and my belief is that he will avoid them."

George Tremlett wrote these words in The Gary Glitter Story. The book came out in England in 1975, a mere two years after Glitter's "Rock and Roll, Parts 1 and 2" topped the charts, and after Glitter released two albums and three more singles, none of which went to number one. Twenty-five years after Tremlett predicted Glitter would make wise career moves, the singer was convicted of possessing child pornography.

Tremlett's words, though, were the ones Glitter's fans wanted to read, and throughout the 1970s, such fan biographies made up the majority of books on rock 'n' roll subjects. Publishing houses saw the music as a novelty and didn't take it or its fans seriously. "They didn't think rock fans read," says writer John Swenson, who wrote fan biographies of the Eagles, KISS and the Who among others. Swenson, who now contributes to Gambit Weekly among other publications, also spent two years writing the first scholarly biography of Bill Haley for British publisher W.H. Allen in 1982, while American publishers consigned the books to pulp imprints such as Ace and Tor, names more commonly associated with the then-equally disreputable genres of science fiction and horror.

Contracts generally called for books to be completed in six months, a remarkably short time considering the years commonly spent on a well-researched biography today. When Mark David Chapman shot John Lennon Dec. 8, 1980, Leisure Books asked Swenson to complete The John Lennon Story in 72 hours. He met the deadline, largely because he had already done much of the research for a previous biography on the Beatles.

Most early rock bios simply told happy stories to fans, and those that didn't developed cult status. Mott the Hoople's Ian Hunter's The Diary of a Rock 'N' Roll Star from 1974 is striking because Hunter's description of Mott's 1972 American tour is neither triumphant nor glamorous, instead showing it to be a deadening grind. 1979's Up and Down With the Rolling Stones by Tony Sanchez was notorious because it put in print all the stories about the Rolling Stones that had become underground legends --Êsomething nobody else had done at the time. Sanchez documented the Stones' prodigious drug use, particularly that of Keith Richards, and the cruelly indulgent lives that Richards, Mick Jagger and Brian Jones led because they had the money to insulate themselves from consequences.

Rock biographies of the time usually looked leniently on their subjects, ignoring their less savory aspects. In 1981, Albert Goldman couldn't see anything but the tawdry and decadent in Elvis, his biography of Elvis Presley that showed money could be made on books about rock 'n' roll figures. His book has subsequently been discredited and widely panned for its programmatic hostility toward Presley and the South, but it made The New York Times Best Seller List anyway.

A year later, Nick Tosches wrote Hellfire, a biography of Jerry Lee Lewis that showed rock biographies could have literary merit. The book was published by Grove Press, the progressive company that published the unexpurgated version of D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer and William Burroughs' Naked Lunch. In Hellfire, Tosches told Lewis' story in ways that recalled magical realism and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. "The flood of 1927, when men rowed boats over what had been the cotton fields of Richland Parish, when Mississippi catfish swam through the streets of Mangham, had been the worst flood that anyone there could remember," he wrote.

The music industry came to recognize by the end of the '70s that there was more money than anyone imagined to be made selling rock 'n' roll, and publishing firms soon came to the same conclusion. Fan biographies still exist, but they're larger and glossier now, loaded with pictures. On's e-shelves, they metaphorically sit beside 844 books about Elvis Presley and 430 on Bob Dylan, books that examine almost every facet of the artists' lives and art. Those in turn, exist side by side with books on such cult figures as Captain Beefheart, Nick Drake and Dusty Springfield, and giants including Neil Young and Kurt Cobain.

That doesn't mean rock bios are more respected, though.

Memoirs and autobiographies traditionally are held in high esteem for offering the most insight into public figures, but they can also be suspect for being self-serving, depending on the subject. Where rock 'n' roll is concerned, everyone's suspicious. Johnny Cash's 1975 Man in Black is what he calls his "spiritual odyssey," a book written to counter secular writing that focused on "the low and high points, and the changes which have come about, both in my personal and professional life." He's obliquely referring to reports of his erratic behavior due to drug use, behavior less acceptable for a mainstream figure who hosted his own variety show from 1969 to 1971.

Ray Davies of the Kinks wrote his "unauthorized autobiography" X-Ray in 1994, posing as a journalist doing the biography of Raymond Douglas Davies. It's typical of Davies, whose songwriting for the Kinks explored other voices and points of view, but the device feels like Davies is trying to seem revealing without giving away much. Choosing that voice also gives him a chance to take shots at the press. "The Journalist" quotes Raymond Douglas as saying, "Oh yes, oh yes, the tits, the broads, ... the excess, that's what you want. You're just a journalist, after all."

Stephen Davis, author of the recent Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend, and more famously Hammer of the Gods about Led Zeppelin, contends writers aren't the only ones who want that kind of information. "The only reason people buy books is to go into a secret world," he says. "Why do you buy a rock book? Because you always wanted to have that laminate to go backstage."

Ray Davies' brother Dave had no problem providing examples of excess in his 1996 autobiography, Kink. In it, he recalls his mother telling him he had to move out when she caught the teenaged Kink in bed with five girls. He also recalls the time he and older brother Ray went to a party at the home of the wealthy, gay David Watts -- later the subject of a Kinks song:

"'Ray says he's concerned about your future,' Watts [said to Dave Davies]. 'He's made me a proposition.'

"'A what?'

"'You, for my house,' he said. 'This house.' His arms spread wide. Me, in exchange for a Georgian manor house."

Such revelations are certainly memorable, but the best autobiographies are more revealing than the writer likely intended. Dave Davies knew what he was showing about the odd nature of brotherly love, Davies-style, but did Ike Turner when he discussed his abuse of Tina in Takin' Back My Name, his 1999 autobiography? In the book, Ike says, "Sure, I've slapped Tina. We had fights and there have been times when I punched her without thinking. But I never beat her."

Turner's book appears to be transcribed interviews edited by author Nigel Cawthorne. His spoken voice gives an immediacy to his account of his early days, when he was arguably a part of the birth of rock 'n' roll for his song "Rocket 88." Hearing Turner's voice makes his rationalizations of his drug use and his violence all the more disturbing.

Autobiographers often need help like Cawthorne, and those collaborators face a variety of challenges. Stephen Davis also worked with Aerosmith and Mick Fleetwood on authorized biographies, but it took him a year to get Fleetwood to talk about his rumored affair with Stevie Nicks. That was easier than getting Aerosmith's stories by their wives. The band wrote Walk This Way in 2003 as a part of the process of sobering up, which meant telling all the stories, no matter how debauched. Some of the wives, however, objected to Davis' manuscript. "The wives are suburban women in their 40s," he says. "These are soccer moms whose husbands were crack addicts and heroin addicts."

In Neil Strauss' case, he had to figure out how to approximate four different voices in The Dirt, the Motley Crüe autobiography from 2002. "I tried to write how each person would write, if they could write," he says. "For Tommy, sometimes he'd send me emails, that would be, like, 'Rad, dude. I was marinating when I pulled out of AA,' so I'd use words like 'marinating' and 'rad' and 'dude' and things from his email that would never be part of my language normally. With Mick Mars, I went on his computer and found all these crazy writings he had done, his weird thoughts on life."

Strauss also had to be a politician to keep the project from falling apart. "We had certain ground rules," he continues. "One was that no member can read another member's sections until we're all done, and then you can't change it. You can only respond to it in your own section." His concern was that if one knew what the others were saying about him, he'd pull out of the project and perhaps the band. Tommy Lee was fighting with Vince Neil at the time and didn't want to be a part of it until he warmed up to Strauss.

The other challenge Strauss faced was logistical. The Dirt took two years to write because, he says, "You need to meet Vince at the Cabana Room between beers two and four to get a great interview. Each person had his own program. You go to Nikki Sixx's house and Donna (D'Errico, his wife) served these weird New Age vegetables that were called 'inspiration.'"

The Dirt is more than just an encyclopedia of decadent behavior. "When I choose a book, I want to write about someone who stands for something larger than they are," Strauss says. "Motley Crüe stands for a certain period of the '80s and that decadence." In fact, the book reads like a screenplay to an X-rated John Hughes movie, with immature guys discovering exactly what money and stardom make possible.

Part of the appeal of the autobiography is reading the artist's voice, even if collaborators construct that voice. Brendan Mullen has used a variation on that technique to chronicle another side of the Los Angeles music scene than the one the Crüe inhabited. The booker for many of L.A.'s punk clubs, including Club Lingerie, has written We Got the Neutron Bomb and recently Whores: An Oral Biography of Perry Farrell and Jane's Addiction, both as oral histories.

In 1982, George Plimpton and Jean Stein popularized the use of oral history as a modern storytelling technique in Edie, about socialite Edie Sedgwick. Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain used the technique most famously in Please Kill Me, their 1996 history of punk. Those books evoke milieus -- Andy Warhol's Factory and CBGB's, respectively -- by collaging together the recollections of the scenes' denizens. They tell their stories in a way that mimic how scenes are genuinely remembered, presenting conflicting points of view and collective memory gaps.

"When you start to do a biography and you interview a lot of people as part of your research, you find all these conflicting views," Mullen says. "The advantage of [oral histories] is that they remove authorial interpretations and analyses and leave it to the reader. I don't have the answers. I don't have the conclusions. That's for someone else to do, i.e. the reader."

In Whores, that means letting readers decide if Perry Farrell is a genius or a charlatan, the debate that Jane's Addiction's supporters and detractors have been in since the band formed in 1986. It also means readers have to assess the merits of the band since Mullen's self-imposed absence from the book means he's not there to make claims for Jane's Addiction and its art. A sense of self-importance comes through the pages, though, from people who thought themselves celebrities because of the residual fame derived from being in Jane's Addiction's orbit.

As a source of information, the book is dubious because drugs were such a part of the scene that memories are suspect, though Mullen fact-checked as much as is possible and discounted those that varied too radically. "Some memories were too sketchy," he says, a problem inherent in dealing with rock 'n' roll figures. Neil Strauss wanted to do a biography with Ozzy Osbourne, but he found Osbourne's memory too shaky.

Stephen Davis faced a different challenge working on Jim Morrison. "I can't vouch for the book's accuracy because so many people are dead," he says. "I go out of my way in the book to say we made a few leaps of faith for the sake of a narrative." He spent two years researching the book, interviewing people, following leads and eventually, in Paris, he found people who knew Morrison when he lived there. They led Davis to Morrison's notebooks, files of photos and other memorabilia that helped piece together Davis' harrowing account of Morrison's final days. Still, Davis had to fill in some blanks.

Usually, research is the hallmark of a good biography. Davis did his share, even arming himself with a knife to meet some of Morrison's shadier drinking buddies. But Davis admits he is first and foremost a storyteller in Jim Morrison. He leans a little heavily on portentous lines such as, "Three days later, on Friday, December 11, the Doors went out for what turned out to be one last weekend of the concerts." The last of those gigs, incidentally, was in New Orleans at the Warehouse on Dec. 12, a show that ended with Morrison having a breakdown onstage, smashing a mic stand against the floor until the planks splintered and the stand broke. Davis succeeds in making readers care about the often-unlikable Morrison, and he makes Morrison's final days seem tragic.

Still, the best biographies crystallize a resonant moment or relationship, even when the writer's sentences don't spell it out. Though Davis focuses on Morrison, the other Doors' fear of being trapped by the band's irreplaceable and self-destructive singer is palpable. Similarly, Tony Fletcher's Moon (1999) has a passage that recounts the Who drummer Keith Moon living in California in the early '70s, drinking for months with John Lennon and Harry Nilsson. The indulgent pointlessness of their lives is poignant because of who they were, where they were and how profoundly lost they were.

In recent books like Andy Gill and Kevin Odegard's A Simple Twist of Fate and Michael Streissguth's Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, the authors focused on specific albums instead of full careers. John Harris' upcoming The Dark Side of the Moon recounts the making of Pink Floyd's defining album, but it hints at the whole story. "Dark Side of the Moon represents the pivot around which their career turns," Harris says. "The fact that everything comes together on this record and they find out who they are and what they should be doing makes it a very interesting moment in their career."

Streissguth is writing a Johnny Cash biography, and for him, writing a book about Cash's Folsom Prison album allowed him freedom he doesn't have in the career-length biography. "As I write about Cash in a biography, I realize I can't go into the kind of depth album by album or single by single with Cash that I could with the Folsom book," he says. Such books are almost inevitably about details, such as Streissguth's discovery that the prisoners' applause that follows the lyric, "I shot a man in Reno / just to watch him die" was overdubbed later by someone at Columbia Records.

He found this out listening to the raw tapes. When Greil Marcus listened to the Bob Dylan session that produced "Like a Rolling Stone," he realized how close the song came to not existing at all. His Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads ends with Marcus' more-or-less transcriptions of the 15 takes of the song, only two of which made it all the way through the song, and only one -- the one -- usable.

Like a Rolling Stone is ostensibly the history of a song, but it's an impressionistic history, with less concern for the chronological series of events leading to a finished song than critical consideration of the elements of the song and how they interact with other elements in our culture. He finds the significance in the single snare strike that begins the song and finds connections between the song and the Pet Shop Boys' recording of the Village People's "Go West." He acknowledges that readers don't always share his takes and associations, but says that "to me, criticism is taking part in an imaginary conversation, and it's not about taste. ... It's kind of like, 'What if this was true?' without my necessarily knowing it is or believing it is."

Dylan has been Marcus' primary focus for some time now, and Like a Rolling Stone is his second book on Dylan's work in the last 10 years. "He's gotten more and more interesting to me in the last 15 years, and it seems that he has become far more interested in the history of music, the history of the country, his place in a tradition," Marcus says. "Chronicles (Dylan's autobiography) was a real revelation to see how conscious he has been of everything he has been doing, certainly over the last 15 to 20 years. There's nothing accidental."

Books of criticism like those that Marcus writes mirror the way listeners consume music. Hearing is just one part of the pleasure; fans think about the music and form opinions, even if they're as simple as, "I like it because it has a good beat." Critical books present more complex assessments such as Marcus' belief that "If you treat (Dylan) songs as doors, every time you listen to one of his songs that really attracts you, that really touches you, and you open the door of that song, you are opening a door into a house with hundreds and thousands of rooms."

Continuum Books' "33 1/3" series similarly blurs the distinction between an album biography and a critical work. Each book is dedicated to a specific album, ranging from acknowledged classics like Neil Young's Harvest and the Beatles' Let It Be to more idiosyncratic choices like My Bloody Valentine's Loveless and Jeff Buckley's Grace. The series has allowed for fairly traditional treatments like Michaelangelo Matos' examination of the recording history of the songs on Prince's Sign O' the Times, as well as less conventional approaches such as a novella by the Pernice Brothers' Joe Pernice for the Smiths' Meat Is Murder and Warren Zanes' refutation of Alan Lomax and Southern myths in Dusty in Memphis.

One of the most remarkable in the series is Franklin Bruno's recent book on Elvis Costello's Armed Forces. "One of the things I like about Franklin's book is that he wrote a really good book that is basically about the Columbus incident, and it wouldn't have worked nearly as well as it does if he had written it in chronological order," Michaelangelo Matos says. The incident in question is Costello's drunken barroom confrontation with Bonnie Bramlett April 15, 1979, when he used racist epithets referring to Ray Charles and James Brown. Bruno writes the book as a glossary, moving alphabetically through song titles, relevant phrases and names to assemble, piece by piece, a portrait of an unforgivable moment and its personal and professional aftermath for Costello.

The past decade or so has produced a number of classic rock biographies. Timothy White invokes The Grapes of Wrath in his hypertext-like biography of the Beach Boys, The Nearest Faraway Place, and Robert Gordon's It Came From Memphis tells the story of the city's music -- leaving out Sun and Stax Records -- and creates a picture that could be a story of many cities' scenes. Jon Savage's England's Dreaming depicts the small scene from which British punk became a worldwide phenomenon. Yet many critics still think of these and countless other books as literary junk food because of the genre's heritage. As Neil Strauss says, though, "A good story only needs a reason for you to turn the page." Because many musicians live and create on such a large scale, their stories and art almost invariably touch on moments of genuine drama and affecting situations.

Then again, Michael Streissguth says, "To me, (a rock biography) reconnects us with the song and music, whatever first turned us on about the artist. They reconnect us with our love of the music." Buying a CD or downloading a song is an attempt to recapture the excitement that occurred the first time you heard it. Reading a rock book could similarly be a way to revisit an album or artist.

For Marcus, though, the answer is a simple one. "I read books because they look interesting, because they're going to take me somewhere I haven't been before," he says. "Mainly I'm just looking for something that will suck me in."

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