This week’s Grammy Awardss remind us just how uneven music performances – and music itself – can be. As we all know, great artists can be ruined on vinyl or tape by poor production, or over-production. And there’s not much worse that heading to a show, anticipating a night of hearing your favorite group or singer delivering some beautiful sounds, only to have the night ruined by a crappy sound system or a sound guy who’s not in sync with the performers.
Books are much that way, too, especially music memoirs or biographies. We all look forward to reading an artist’s own takes on the forces that shaped him or her, the highs and lows of his or her career, the process of writing that hit song or the song that turned the tide for the songwriter. We’re even happy to read about the effects of the end of a career – the writing well went dry, illness silenced the voice or took away the ability to press the keys or the strings.
Of course, a music memoir we’ve been looking forward to reading since we first heard about it can also be ruined by poor execution. Sometimes, a writer feels that he or she must relive all the excesses of a life of sex, drugs, and rock and roll (such as Gregg Allman’s It’s My Cross to Bear), and sometimes a musician just isn’t able to tell a good story, although he or she reminds us constantly how great the writing is and how happy we should be that he or she has decided to write this book (such as Neil Young’s Special Deluxe: A Memoir of Life & Cars).
Music biographies can be just as disappointing, often because they’re slavish fan’s notes, giving us more insights into the writer’s life than to the musician’s, and ending up as hagiographies. The best biographies – Peter Guralnick’s Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll or Barry Mazor’s Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music – not only animatedly bring their subject to life but also re-create the colorful cultural context through which the subject moved.
Here are a few short reviews of some recent memoirs and biographies, all of which were highly anticipated. Some disappointed and others exceeded expectations.
Fortunate Son: My Life, My Music, by John Fogerty
A cracking good storyteller, Fogerty writes a sometimes mesmerizing, very often prosaic tale in his memoir.
Born in El Cerrito, California in 1945, Fogerty sought music as both escape and solace after his parents' divorce, declaring even then: "Music was my friend. I absolutely loved to listen to it. … There was joy in music. And for some reason, I don't know how or why, that joy only confirmed what I had known since I was small: that it was for me."
With his soulful narration, Fogerty traces the early incarnations of the band – the Blue Velvets and the Golliwogs – to Creedence’s rise to the top of the charts in 1969 with "Proud Mary" and "Born on the Bayou." He gives us insights into the stories of each song. "Bad Moon Rising" grew out of his hearing people at the time talk in astrological lingo such as "I'm a Virgo with Libra rising." "Wrote a Song for Everyone" came out of a reflection on a conversation with his first wife, Martha, when the two were having trouble communicating: "Wrote a song for everyone / and I couldn't even talk to you."
As high as Creedence was flying in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, the group quickly descended into an inferno of contentious legal battles over publishing rights and ownership of the band’s name and music. Fogerty expresses his anger, disappointment, and feelings of being betrayed by Stu Cook and Doug Clifford, and for the first time he shares what he believes were the outlandish courtroom dramas staged by lawyers who knew nothing about music.
The best parts of Fogerty’s memoir are his chapters on his musical influences. But about halfway through the book, when he plows into the details about the legal battles and the demise of the band, his prose plods along, and we eventually lose interest. By the end of the book, we’ve momentarily forgotten exactly why we picked it up in the first place – except that Fogerty is Fogerty, and he’s still a damn good guitarist – and wish that his memoir was as great as his guitar playing and songwriting.
MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson, by Steve Knopper
Drawing on 400 interviews with Jackson's friends and family, as well as key music industry figures such as the Black Eyed Peas will.i.am, Quincy Jones, and Weird Al Yankovic, Knopper traces Jackson's musical genius – his ability to become one with the music both in song and dance – from his early days with the Jackson 5 through his out-of-this-world success as a solo artist with "Beat It," "Thriller," and "The Man in the Mirror," to his final years when he was plagued by legal and medical issues, becoming a hollow shadow of his former self.
When the Jackson 5 hit the big time in 1965, Michael was their star, and he was so engrossed in music and style, he watched artists such as Etta James intently, to learn their every move. By 1968, the group had signed with Motown, and Berry Gordy, Motown's CEO, saw in the Jackson 5 a group he could control, according to Knopper. By the mid-1970s, Jackson met Quincy Jones, whom he saw as a father figure who could take the place of the abusive Joe Jackson, and by the end of that decade, Jackson was working with Jones, moving away from his family toward a solo career, and developing his signature dance moves.
With the release of the videos for "Billie Jean" and "Thriller," Jackson, according to Knopper, "integrated radio and MTV," and will.i.am declares that "he broke the boundaries; there wouldn't be an Obama if it wasn't for the Jackson 5."
Through much of the 1990s and early 2000s, Jackson lived under the shadow of being accused a pedophile – though he was cleared of all charges – and he steadily sank into an oblivion caused by strong prescription drugs that were administered by his doctors, which may have led to his death on June 25, 2009.
For nearly three decades, writes Knopper, Michael Jackson was "supernaturally graceful, the rare show-business renaissance man who could sing, dance, and write songs." But much like Fogerty’s memoir, Knopper’s biography bogs down in the middle of the journey. The trials and legal wrangling grow to be endless and infringe on our vision of Michael Jackson. Still, this is a thoroughly researched, well-written, definitive biography that offers a candid portrait of the King of Pop.
Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, by Elvis Costello
Costello's unconventional memoir opens with a sentence so exceptional and odd that it arouses your curiosity and demands you keep reading: "I think it was my love of wrestling that first took me to the dance hall."
Unlike most traditional memoirs, Costello's eschews any narrative structure, moving freely and lithely, beginning in his childhood in Liverpool and London – where he accompanied his father, a vocalist in a dance band, to the dance halls, soaking up the chords and vibes of the band. In school, he managed to talk a couple of his new friends out an "unhealthy fascination with the music of Emerson, Lake & Palmer," and turned them onto the acoustic music then flowing out of Laurel Canyon.
Costello describes his admiration for the blues guitar of Peter Green and his attempts to learn guitar by playing Green's songs: "I pressed my feeble fingers to the fretboard and some semblance of music came out."
He lightly ranges over his associations over the years with numerous musicians from Emmylou Harris and Rosanne Cash to Nick Lowe and Kris Kristofferson, discussing the influence each has had on him. A prolific songwriter, Costello also shares insights into the composition of his lyrics; for "Allison," which is based on the imagined life of a grocery checkout cashier. He writes:
I have no explanation for why I was able to stand outside reality and imagine such a scene as described in the song and to look so far into the future, or what in the world would make me want this terrible prediction to come true or become untrue.
Costello's aim is true in his peripatetic musings about his life and music.
Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, by Carrie Bownstein
Sleater-Kinney pushed the boundaries of punk and indie rock in the 2000s, emerging at the head of the riot grrrl music movement. Guitarist and writer Carrie Brownstein co-founded the group, and in her palpably reflective memoir, she probes into her life with an honesty that is at once painful and joyous.
Growing up in a suburb of Seattle, Brownstein attended her first concert (Madonna) in fifth grade. She calls it a "moment I'll never forget, a total elation that momentarily erased any outline of darkness."
By the time she was in high school, Brownstein was alienated from her parents and immersed herself in Bikini Kill, whose music provided a home for the chaos of her teenage life. She and Corin Tucker eventually formed Sleater-Kinney, making a name for themselves in the Seattle scene and around the world.
By playing and performing songs about music, she writes, "we created our own, new malleable versions of us…we wrote and played ourselves right into existence."
Brownstein bubbles over with fiercely blunt insights about the music business:
Persona for a man is equated with power; persona for a woman makes her less of a woman…whether Corin was singing from her own perspective or someone else's…her voice was torrential, a force as much as it was human.
Early on in the book, she declares that, for her, performing and playing and living the life of a working artist constitutes her search for a home: "The unlit firecracker I carried around inside me in my youth…found a home in music."
Shimmering brightly with her exquisite prose, Brownstein’s memoir finds beauty in the corners of the everyday, elevating the mundanity of memoir to the enduring power of art.