Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Chrissie and Phil

Ground rules: When it comes to music and books, I have some pretty obvious biases, and I'll admit them. I'm easily bored. I want people to get to the point and not waste my time. I have no patience for BS. I want real emotion expressed directly and clearly. If you're gonna get arty and clever, it better be worth the trip. And I want to know everything.

I wanted to love Chrissie Hynde's RECKLESS: MY LIFE AS A PRETENDER (2015). After all, this woman's first album (PRETENDERS, 1980) helped get me through 1980 without going nuts. And she's done some great stuff since -- "Message of Love," "Talk of the Town," "Birds of Paradise," "Back on the Chain Gang," "2000 Miles," "Time the Avenger," "Don't Get Me Wrong," "Human," "I'll Stand By You," etc.
But RECKLESS is a little thin as a Pretenders memoir -- Hynde's memories of the band take up less than half of the book, and the book ends with the deaths of guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon in 1982.
It's as if she didn't think the rest of her career was worth writing about, or she didn't want to be bothered. She touches on her relationship with Ray Davies of The Kinks and their constant arguing, but she never gets to her marriage to Jim Kerr of Simple Minds, or how Hynde pulled her band back together for her comeback LEARNING TO CRAWL. There's a photo of Meg Keene, who wrote "Hymn to Her" on the GET CLOSE album, but Hynde never gets close to talking about that album.
This is disappointing. Everything after 1982 is summed up in a very brief two-page "Epilogue." Did Hynde maybe see she'd have to write another 300 pages to cover the rest of her career?
The first two-thirds of RECKLESS covers Hynde growing up in Akron, Ohio, getting in trouble in school, chasing rock stars and "tattooed love boys" (and getting abused by them), going to Kent State University (she devotes a chapter to the shootings there in 1970 when she was a student), and later going on to London and Paris, hanging out with and working for Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood in their London clothing boutique at the start of Punk, living with music journalist Nick Kent, writing for the NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS for a year, and much more. Drinking and sleeping with Iggy Pop! Trying to steal Lemmy's drummer from Motorhead when she started The Pretenders!
Some of this is written with depth and real affection. She doesn't back away from the more sordid details. There's a lot of drugs, a lot of drinking, a fair amount of sex. Her account of The Pretenders on the road is about what you'd expect. But it all goes bad so quickly.
By the end, with the drug deaths of great guitarist Honeyman-Scott and Hynde's former boyfriend Farndon, the book becomes distant, depressed, sad.
The book's dust-jacket mentions that we're lucky to be living in "a golden age of rock star memoirs." Hmmm, maybe. But how many of them are really that good? How many of them really have the emotional depth you'd hope for, based on these musicians' great songs of the past?
A co-writer could have gotten more out of this story, maybe could have prodded Hynde to remember more, in more depth. By the end, the things she maybe doesn't want to write about are the things we want to know.
And half this story is still waiting to be told.

Science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick has had a helluva career since dying back in 1982. He's been quite a cult figure for the last decade or so. All of his SF novels from the '50s and '60s have recently been reprinted in flashy new Vintage paperbacks. Even half a dozen mainstream novels he couldn't get published at the end of the '50s have made it into print. His fans love the gritty, earthy, real-life details in many of these books. The gritty day-to-dayness of it all is what often makes him a bore, to me.
Exceptions: Dick's THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRICHT (1964) is one of a kind, an amazing, dark, sinister novel that really will turn your mind inside-out. A MAZE OF DEATH (1970) focuses on colonists who die one by one on an evil alien planet as they search for their versions of God. None of the questions the novel raises are ever answered. Short stories like "Frozen Journey" and "Faith of Our Fathers" will also pop your eyes wide open.
It's been years since I read THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE (1962) -- I can hardly remember anything about it. But I bogged down early in MARTIAN TIME-SLIP (1964), DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? (1968), the anti-drug A SCANNER DARKLY (1977), and VALIS (1981) -- though I did read the long section from Dick's "Exegesis" at the end. The complete version of this Bible-like account of Dick's early-1974 experience with a strange light and an alien voice speaking inside his head was published as the huge EXEGESIS a few years back.
Seeking a way back into Dick's work, I ordered and read Paul Williams' ONLY APPARENTLY REAL (1986), a short biography and sections of a days-long interview that Williams held with Dick back in the mid-'70s, parts of which were published soon after in ROLLING STONE. I loved Williams' writing about The Beach Boys' SMILE album back in the '60s, and his BACK TO THE MIRACLE FACTORY includes more fine writing about The Beach Boys, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Nirvana, The Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Liz Phair, and many more. I figured if Williams was a big Philip K. Dick fan, there must be something there worth finding.
The interview is lengthy, but rather than focusing mainly on his experience with that strange light and the voice inside his head (which is touched on), Dick keeps circling back to an incident in November 1971 -- in which local dissidents allegedly broke into his house and blew open a safe housing Dick's financial records and manuscripts ... an incident that police thought Dick did by himself to gain attention from local authorities.
Would PKD have destroyed his own home just for some "attention"? Williams leaves that question open, but Dick can't stop talking about the break-in and everything surrounding it. He admits he hung out with some odd people, people heavily into the drug culture, even some extremists. Dick was a little extreme himself -- and a few years later, after supposedly using speed and psychedelics for years, Dick would argue violently against all drug use in A SCANNER DARKLY.
Throughout the interview, PKD is totally down-to-earth, very straightforward, not at all a raving nut-case. Just a modest, normal guy who some pretty weird stuff happened to.
As a reader, you end up trying to psychoanalyze Philip K. Dick, who was actually a pretty odd character. And just like in his novels, none of the questions that are raised are ever answered.
Williams adds a timeline of the key events in Dick's life -- the 30-plus novels he wrote, the four marriages, the several emotional collapses. Even more valuable is a list of all those novels, and when and where they were finally published up through 1986.
What sticks with me is a description from A SCANNER DARKLY: Looking in the mirror, a drug-addicted police investigator is trying to go straight and can't see himself clearly. All he sees in the mirror is a vague blur. Despite his caginess and his game-playing with reality, Philip K. Dick at least came across as if he saw himself clearly.

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