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  • Writer's picturePhilip Bryer

Up and Down with Rock Biographies

I used to buy them all, rock musicians’ life stories, but then I stopped. Although I always enjoyed the score-settling and the airing of long-held gripes against former bandmates, I tired of their never-ending attempts to shore up their legacy and point out that (insert name of much more successful group) got all their ideas — and hence a glittering career and pots of money — from the author.

I liked Elton John’s for its humour, bracing honesty, and unstinting willingness to address his demons. However, I disliked Eric Clapton’s because — although his demons compare favourably with Elton’s — they sound like you’re trapped with him on an endless train journey: “After months of therapy, I came to discover that my addictions could be explained by…” And he refuses to take his turn at going to the buffet car.

I enjoyed Rod Stewart’s memoirs first time around; plenty of laughs. Skimming through it a second time, it seemed to mostly be about hoovering up as much cocaine on an hourly basis as the Stewart hooter could accommodate i.e., a LOT, and opening up yet another window on the Models and Actresses Advent Calendar (365-day version).

Donald Fagen’s Eminent Hipsters is not so much an autobiography as a collection of essays “about the people and things that intersected in my life when I was a kid.” The second part of the book is presented in diary format and covers Fagen’s observations of a Dukes of September tour, a hobby band which includes noted crooner Michael McDonald (nobody can sing the word ‘Peg’ over and over like he do) and Boz Scaggs. The agonies and ecstasies of a jaunt across the US in which they intersperse old R&B and soul covers with a few tunes of their own are documented in magnificently sour fashion by Steely Dan’s frontman. He reveals that — on arrival in Alabama — he remembers he hasn’t taught his bandmates the Dan favourite ‘Deacon Blue’ and, because of the song’s references to the region it’s kind of against the law not to play it. He reflects, decides it has “too many chords” and resolves to skip it. Nobody notices.

Keith Richards’ Life is a bizarre mix of sniping at you-know-who and embellishing his own credentials (which he really doesn’t need to do, at least not on a musical level). He’s accepted by Jamaican gangsters and hookers alike because, in his eyes, he’s an honorary black man. Not, of course, because he’s the bloke from the big house with all the dope and all the money. When he talks about his friends, they all seem to be people who are on the payroll but they would “all take a bullet for each other.” Whatever that means.


So, when miserable minstrels’ tales of woe increasingly met with diminished returns and reader interest, I bailed out on the muso-memoir shelf.


WH Smith is generally the platform for the latest opus from him or her off the telly (which they may or may not have got around to reading yet), so despite never holding out much hope, I generally pop in for a browse if I’m passing. One day, I picked up Debbie Harry’s Face It and thought I’d have a bash for old times’ sake — me and Debbie go back a long way, you see…Well, in fact this particular Debbie Harry was a lookalike who was criminally robbed of first place in a local newspaper competition. That’s what I told her, at least. DH’s book is an astounding and gripping page-turner, in which she doesn’t shy away from band conflicts, the saltier details of her private life or — if I picked up the hints correctly — the size of David Bowie’s todger. Recommended.

After Face It, I stumbled across Jazz Summers — who I wasn’t previously aware of — when I saw a Twitter thread which relayed the mordant tales of when he had the misfortune to be Eternal’s manager. Summers played a major part in the success of Wham, was married to Yazz (Jazz ‘n’ Yazz!), liked a drink (for a while), and shagged his way around Romford and beyond. The book, Big Life, is formed of tapes of Jazz talking and it has a refreshing immediacy; just like Jazz might have enjoyed when he was popping Dexedrine. I’m only halfway through, so I don’t know how it pans out, but so far Jazz is excellent company.

Warren Zevon. I have a problem with Warren. This book had been on a list for months, years, even, and finally, flushed with my Summers-Harry success, I waded in. I’m stuck at the bit where he hit his wife, Crystal, kicked her as she cowered in the corner of their hotel room, and then demanded that she leave. And take their baby with her. Oh, and it was 2 a.m. In Morocco. Troubled genius? Violent alcoholic bully? Never have I had such trouble in ‘loving the art, not the artist’. I have a problem with Warren. I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon is credited to Crystal Zevon and, by the way, Carl Hiaasen’s foreword is superb.

I’ll leave you with an all-time favourite, Pattie Boyd’s Wonderful Tonight, in which she documents what life was like with a Beatle and then with a guitar hero. The message: Not all it’s cracked up to be. She speaks warmly of some of Eric Clapton’s pals, such as Gary Brooker from Procol Harum. However, such warmth is not extended to Phil Collins who she describes as “another local musician.” There’s much behind those three words, I fancy. Pattie also tells of the time when George Harrison’s dalliance with Ringo Starr’s wife Maureen was discovered by the injured parties. While Ringo stumbled around in a daze repeating the phrase “Nothing is real, nothing is real,” La Boyd reveals her response: “I was so mad,” she writes, “I went out and dyed my hair bright red.”

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