And now book publishing is choking on it, as rock enters its “memoir” phase.
Sammy Hagar has numbers on the brain. Or rather he had numbers on the brain. One night in Fontana, California, in 1968 or ’69, he dreamed that he saw a spaceship manned by “two intelligent creatures.” Before jolting off back into the Milky Way, the creatures “fired off a numerical code, but it was not of our numerical system.” For Hagar, this late-night vision set in motion a numerical, or rather numerological, “quest” that led him to explore his dreams, his backyard, the stars in search of answers about the future. One day he discovered an ancient henhouse just beyond the edge of his driveway: “Inside there was nothing, except for a dirty, f—-ed-up trunk.” In the trunk he found a pseudo-mathematical tome, which he soon began reading. Almost immediately Hagar (“I’ve always been a bit of a mathematician”) was hooked: “It tripped me out that if you add numbers up, you always come down to one number.”
Unsatisfied after a while with the results of his amateur arithmancy, Hagar decided to see a professional. In nearby Yucaipa he found a fortune teller to whom he gave his last 50 cents. In return, she offered him an assortment of advice: Get rid of your beard but keep the long hair, stay away from drugs and cigarettes, feed your wife a mixture of raw egg whites, honey, and lemon, move to Santa Barbara and then to San Francisco. If he did these things, she assured him, his name would be “in lights all over the world.”
Despite further occult or quasi-occult interludes, including some fairly low-grade color mysticism (“I just started doing red, red, red”), Hagar, of “I Can’t Drive 55” and Van Halen fame, does not return to this incident later in the first edition of Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock, the memoir he published in 2011. (Like so many autobiographies published these days, Red was written in “collaboration,” an arrangement the logistical details of which are usually shrouded in mystery. In Hagar’s case, it was with Joel Selvin, a popular music columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.) But the 2012 paperback version contains an afterword in which he once again mentions the soothsayer, an Italian woman with the odd name of Kellerman, who apparently also told him, “‘Later on in life, you’re going to get a big break as a writer.’” (Oddly, Hagar claims here to have visited Kellerman when he was 20 years old, two or so years before his earlier account suggests.)
One wonders whether Hagar would have been so forthcoming about Madame Kellerman’s other prediction had the hardcover edition of Red, a number-one New York Times best seller, not fared so well with the American bookbuying public. After all, Hagar’s book has had the good fortune of arriving in stores amid a rash of what I shall call, for lack of a better term, rock memoirs.
Surely you’ve seen these books at Barnes & Noble: rows and rows of ostentatious hardcovers with names like Waging Heavy Peace, Does the Noise in My Head Bother You?, Makeup to Breakup, and Rod: The Autobiography. Rock memoirs have done very well in the last few years, and I don’t just mean sales-wise, though it’s true that Keith Richards’ Life, for example, has sold over 1 million copies. I’m thinking of the glowing write-ups that at least some of the rock memoirs (from here on “RMs”) have received in the review sections of major newspapers and magazines. “Terrific”; “oddly beautiful”; “brilliant”; “soul-searching”; “rich and moving”; “compelling, endearing, insightful”; “intensely intimate”; “unusually frank”; “entertaining, revealing, captivating”; “generous and well-written”; “warm, roguish”: the adjectives and adverbs, as you can see, have really piled up.
Lucky, as I said, for Hagar that he caught American readers when he did. He and the other rockers in the RM classes of late 2011 and 2012 were not the first to slap their bleared reminiscences between hard covers. Take poor Ronnie Wood (the Rolling Stones), who sat down with a co-author two or so years before the recent boom. Ronnie wound up heavily remaindered, along with almost two dozen others, including books by Chuck Negron (Three Dog Night), Slash (Guns n’ Roses), Tommy Lee (Mötley Crüe), Ozzy Osbourne (Black Sabbath), Levon Helm (The Band), Ginger Baker (Cream), Ace Frehley (KISS), Brian Johnson (AC/DC), Dee Snider (Twisted Sister), and Sting (the Police).
TIBOR FISCHER ONCE WROTE that Martin Amis’ Yellow Dog “isn’t bad as in not very good or slightly disappointing. It’s not-knowing-where-to-look bad. I was reading my copy on the Tube and I was terrified someone would look over my shoulder.” After a month spent reading eight RMs—on the D.C. Metro, in dive bars and public libraries—I think I understand what Fischer meant. I have also come to accept that it’s better for me not to think about what I might have read instead: more than half the published fictional output of Henry James, say, or the first three volumes of the Pléiade Voltaire. In just short of 3,000 pages, I’ve come across the word “f—-” and its many variants roughly 9,000 times, an average of about three f—-s per page. Sex in print, for which I’ve never had much patience, seems to me now ludicrously banal. There are only so many blow jobs—in bathrooms, airplanes, and bathrooms on airplanes—you can read about before deciding that any attempt to depict sex acts in literature is doomed. As far as drugs are concerned, the big H (heroin), the small h (hash), marijuana, cocaine, speed, sunshine tabs and microdots of LSD, tonics, elixirs, injections, pills—all of them are pretty much old hat at this point. (Anti-drug and pro-abstinence crusaders would do well to assign these books to school-aged children, who might get a sense of how yawn-inducingly dull hedonism eventually becomes.)
Besides, in much the same way that, after making his way through The Tower Treasure and The House on the Cliff, a reasonably clever seven-year-old knows that the Hardy Boys are indeed going to find The Missing Chums or solve The Shore Road Mystery, after reading one or two of these books, the overall narrative thrust of the RM genre becomes pretty clear, and you find yourself wondering whether you really need to pick up the next one (or three or four). “All happy families,” Tolstoy wrote in 1873, “resemble one another,” an observation with which many have since disagreed. It may or may not be true of happy families, but rock lives—all of them—resemble one another, to an almost painful degree. Lower/solid/upper-middle-class kid with one (never two) musical parent discovers music for himself in late teen years; joins or founds band which “makes it” due to brilliant manager/promoter/producer; hits follow hits; much sex is had and now-famous rocker develops drug habit (or drug habit, if already formed, worsens); band breaks up, in some cases at the height of its success, in others after making a string of lousy (i.e., poorly selling) records; time passes; rehab; later band’s fortunes are revived due to high-grossing reunion tour/critically well-received comeback album/admittance to Rock Hall of Fame/overall late ’90s post-grunge mood of classic rock nostalgia (none of the above are mutually exclusive); rocker, now elder rock statesman, arrives, wealthy, at boomer stasis, which is enjoyed alongside pets, grown children, and second/third/fourth/de facto wife. Throw in Peter Criss’ aborted suicide, substitute bourbon whiskey for drugs in the case of Gregg Allman, allow for Neil Young’s farming and model train collecting, and the above outline might well serve as the RM equivalent of Joseph Campbell’s influental work of comparative mythology, Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Speaking of Campbell, I find it worth noting that hard materialism is not a metaphysical stance that many rockers seem willing to endorse. In fact, none of those whose memoirs I read claim to be atheists or agnostics. Peter “Catman” Criss, the original drummer of KISS, is, for example, a communicant member of the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, Criss’ memoir Makeup to Breakup is, somewhat astonishingly given that it is about a founding member of a band whose name is (unofficially, according to bandmate Gene Simmons, whose own memoir I was forced to consult) an acronym for “Knights in Satan’s Service,” full of references to his religion. Early on in the book, we learn that Criss’ grandfather abandoned his faith because “one day he went to church and caught a priest screwing a nun.” He claims to have witnessed a Marian apparition while a teenager, and even at the apex of KISS fame in the late 1970s, we find him praying the Angelic Salutation with “two or three chicks next to me in bed.” Predictably, however, Criss cannot simply say the Creed, genuflect, and get on with it, and so we are also treated to his fulminations (in a kind of sub–Maureen Dowd register) about things in the Church he doesn’t like: the sacrament of penance, for example, the theology behind which he apparently finds confusing.
Criss is, so far as I can tell, the only RM author who is a practicing Christian. All the others fall somewhere along the sinuous continuum of the “spiritual but not religious,” drawing sustenance from what amounts to a fruit smoothie blend of moralistic therapeutic deism, the prosperity gospel, and Eastern-style mysticism of dubious authenticity. Gregg Allman (of the Allman Brothers Band, founded in 1969 with his late brother, Duane) claims to believe in God, but the only consequence of this seems to be that his co-writer, Alan Light, has allowed him the occasional folksy “by God” in My Cross to Bear. Keith Richards doesn’t mind “what Christ said,” but, following Huck Finn, has “never found heaven a particularly interesting place to go to.” Pete Townshend is still big on gurus. Or rather a particular guru, one Meher Baba, a Sufi cum Vedanta who claimed during the 1950s to be Vishnu’s avatar. Rod Stewart, on the other hand is not: “Surely if God had meant us to do yoga, he would have put our heads behind our knees.” For Neil Young, a pantheist of sorts, “scenery is God.” Sammy Hagar, of course, believes in God in addition to “UFOs and aliens.”
HOW MUCH SHOULD WE MAKE of the fact that most of the RMs have been written collaboratively? Not much, I think, if only because it’s been a long time since the majority of public figures—politicians, businessmen, athletes—have been willing to write (or perhaps I should say capable of writing) their own memoirs. If we don’t begrudge John McCain his co-author, or for that matter, Barry Goldwater his ghostwriter, can we really blame Peter Criss for enlisting the aid of Larry “Ratso” Sloman (he of Private Parts and Miss America fame)?
Neil Young, Pete Townshend, and Rod Stewart have all written their own RMs. This is, I suppose, admirable, though, at least in Young’s case, perhaps not altogether advisable. Throughout Waging Heavy Peace, his 500-page account of a nearly half-century-long musical career (in Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Crazy Horse, and as a solo artist), Young simply cannot keep his timeline straight. Much of the book reads like a series of diary entries written over the course of five or six decades, but presented in more or less random order.
Young also lacks all sense of narrative proportion: the exact number of pounds his wife’s dog weighs or arcane details about the conditions under which obscure album tracks were recorded are given as much space as, say, his earliest musical influences. Some of his chapters go absolutely nowhere, while others wheeze for breath after being forced to cover too much ground. “So when he died and left that note, it struck a deep chord inside of me”: Never have the hazards of cliché been more apparent than in this sentence, which, when first read, seems to suggest that, contrary to what I had always assumed, Kurt Cobain’s suicide note consisted not of words but of a musical stave with a lonely G marked on it.
Pete Townshend’s Who I Am, an account of his life as lead guitarist and chief songwriter for The Who from 1964 to the present, has apparently been a decade and a half in the making, in contrast to Young’s clearly somewhat hastily written book. Certainly Townshend, who is probably the only RM author who can claim to have once been an acquisitions editor for the venerable London publishing house Faber and Faber (a position held by T.S. Eliot), gives one the impression that he had read an English sentence or two before he sat down to compose several thousand of them. Here is one, taken at random from near the beginning of Who I Am, that could easily have appeared in one of Dominic Sandbrook’s excellent popular histories: “In 1945 popular music had a serious purpose: to defy post-war depression and revitalise the romantic and hopeful aspirations of an exhausted people.” Townshend also has some understanding of how books are structured, such that, like a 19th-century English novel, his memoir is divided into three volumes, or rather “Acts,” of roughly equal length.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online