Here's the thing about rock-star memoirs: You may get a Here's What Happened, but you might not get a Here's What It Felt Like. I'm not sure why that is, though I think the truth might be in a twist on something Greil Marcus once wrote about Van Morrison:
If he could explain his songs, he wouldn't have had to write and sing them.
Rock fans reading a rock-star memoir already have a pretty good idea of what happened. What they want to know is what it felt like. And sometimes the rock stars can't tell you. Not in any depth, anyway.
For me, the best rock-star memoir is still Keith Richards' LIFE -- not because it was such a great book, but because by reading it you can pick up some of the feeling of what it's like to play guitar for the Rolling Stones. Keith lets you in on what it's like to create great songs like "Jumping Jack Flash." He puts you inside Nellcote in France while the Stones are recording EXILE ON MAIN STREET. He gives you some of the rush of writing and recording basic tracks for "Happy" in just three hours.
Those were the best parts of the book, for me. That's what I was reading it for.
Now I read that Keith had a ghost-writer, and I think that helped him -- how else is Keith supposed to remember what happened back in the '70s, eh?
John Fogerty had a co-writer to help pull together his FORTUNATE SON, and so you get a little feel for what it was like to record "Proud Mary" and those early Creedence Clearwater Revival albums.
Again, that's the best part of the book -- not the endless lawsuits or John's '70s depression, or how true love saved him. Though those details make his story an inspiring one.
The weakest rock-star memoir I've read is Eric Clapton's CLAPTON. His life story has all the ingredients for a GREAT memoir -- but Eric didn't get much of it down in his book. By the end of the '70s, it's like he was bored. And Eric would be the first to tell you that he ain't that exciting a guy.
Pete Townshend's WHO I AM isn't much better. Again, lots of great material here -- but Pete ended up skimming over a lot of it, even though it's a huge book. Elvis Costello had some of the same problems in his UNFAITHFUL MUSIC AND DISAPPEARING INK. I kept thinking he tried to cover too much.
I'm not a big enough Tom Petty fan to try reading his memoir. I'm not interested enough.
I would have liked to see someone try to dig more out of Chrissie Hynde than we got in her RECKLESS: MY LIFE AS A PRETENDER. I was at least expecting more bare, passionate emotion about some of the things she went through.
But if Chrissie could have written a book that summed up her thoughts and feelings back in the day, she probably never would have had to form the Pretenders, and we never would have heard all their great songs. You make what art you can create. Hynde is a singer-songwriter-guitarist. It was silly for me to expect that her book would be as emotionally affecting as her best music.
I think rock-star memoirs are great. I also think most of them aren't worth the $30 bookstores and publishers are charging for them these days.
I hesitate to call music by artists I enjoy "average." I think you should hear the Tedeschi Trucks Band even if I think their new album LET ME GET BY only has one knockout song on it, and only one other that will grow on you. The rest I think are OK, maybe better if you're a fan -- but nothing that will change your life. And it's hard for me to say that.
I spent $18 I couldn't really afford on their CD -- the vinyl album was $35! I wonder how much of that cash they'll get. I'm keeping the CD, though I don't think it was worth $18. That's just too much. What's the solution to this? Download the best stuff and let the others go...?
Good news for any creatives out there: Check out Austin Kleon's STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST (2012), a short pep-talk of a book for writers, musicians, painters, bloggers, photographers -- anybody who tries to create something new and different. I can't see why it wouldn't work as an inspiration in almost any job.
The book lays out in about 100 pages 10 simple pieces of advice for creatives, along with a lot of other practical, down-to-earth, common-sense tips that maybe you never thought about. If you've got a huge project of any sort staring you in the face -- whether it's for your paying job or your own satisfaction -- you need to read this book.
It's short, personal, punchy, perfect. Some parts are so inspiring that you'll laugh with joy. One graphic outlines the seven steps any major project goes through -- and it's so truthful and so funny that I laughed 'til I cried.
You can read it in an hour or less, and it will make you look at any new project in a whole different way. Get it.
I'm 20 pages into Paul Theroux's DEEP SOUTH (2015), and I already think he's the best travel writer in the world -- and God knows I've tried to read a bunch of others. Nobody else has Theroux's sense of humor, his clear eye for description and detail, his sense of storytelling. He is the best. Only John McPhee can match him for putting scenes and scenery in your head. Only Tim Cahill comes close in the real-life comedy department.
I've tried many other travel writers -- Redmond O'Hanlon, Colin Thubron, Bruce Chatwin all have their fans, and I'm sure they're good, but I can't get into them. J. Maarten Troost has some great jokes, but it's sort of a good thing his books are short.
Theroux is the man. Wonder if he'd consider co-writing an autobiography with some rock star? David Bowie would have been a good subject....
WHY WE WRITE ABOUT OURSELVES, edited by Meredith Maran, rounds up 20 memoirists like Pat Conroy, Anne Lamott, A.M. Homes and others, and has them talk about writing memoirs -- why they do it, what they get out of it, the rewards of it and the prices they pay.
Conroy says writing about his family (in books like THE PRINCE OF TIDES and THE GREAT SANTINI) has almost destroyed it -- but it was a train wreck to begin with. Conroy says anything that has ever happened to you is your property -- and you should use it. Homes talks about learning she was adopted and about when her biological parents came looking for her -- the whole experience ended up in a memoir. Lamott tries to be nice to everyone she writes about, and has gone as far as changing names and incidents to keep people she knows from getting upset. Sometimes that wasn't far enough.
If you write memoirs or are addicted to them, this is also an inspiring book, and I might have a longer review of it later.
Possible upcoming topics:
* Is Obamacare working for anyone?
* How living in the U.S. now is almost like living in Russia.
* And more reviews, of course.