Rock is dead, they say, long live rock

What does the term “rock star” mean to you?  What did it mean in the ’70s versus what it might mean today?

Let me introduce you to an extraordinarily perceptive author who has written a very intriguing book on this subject.

5aa66baa65232_eventDavid Hepworth is an accomplished and respected music journalist, writer, and editor in England.  He was an on-air personality for BBC programs in the 1980s, has written for and led the charge for such influential rock magazines as Mojo and Q, and still contribute regularly to The Guardian newspaper.

His recent book, “Uncommon People:  The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars” (Henry Holt & Co., 2017), offers a thought-provoking series of 40 short essays that take a look at defining moments and turning points in the lives of 40 rock stars between 1955 and 51kdXSxa1bL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_1995.  He busts myths and creates new ones.  He has deftly zeroed in on many of the key players and events that shaped rock music during that 40-year span (which conveniently covers roughly the same period Hack’s Back Pages has always sought to examine).

The names you’d expect to see are there:  Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Led Zeppelin.  You’ll also find a few names that aren’t as familiar to American audiences:  Hank Marvin, Ian Stewart, Ian Dury.

And Hepworth also latches on to key developments that have affected the arc of the rock star era:   Rock tour excesses, the deaths of Elvis and John Lennon, the rise of music videos, ironic rock star parodies, the glitz of Michael Jackson and Madonna and Prince, the increased move toward drug rehab, the rise of the Internet and social media.

His main premise, which I happen to agree with, is starkly stated in the book’s foreword:  “The age of the rock star, like the age of the cowboy, has passed.  The idea of the rock star, like the idea of the cowboy, lives on.”

Although rock ‘n roll and its first big names emerged in the late 1950s, nobody was yet calling those people rock stars.  As Hepworth notes, “The term rock star didn’t come into widespread use until the ’70s and ’80s, when the music business was looking to sustain the careers of its biggest names.  The industry was beginning to realize the value of brands, and there was no better brand than a rock star.  A rock star was supposed to be somebody you could rely on, somebody whose next record you had to have, regardless of its merits.  Eventually, it was applied to everyone from Morrissey to Madonna, from Ozzy Osbourne to Bjork.  By the 21st Century, the term had been spread so thin as to be meaningless.”

He finds it preposterous to label current celebrities like Adele or Kanye West or Justin Bieber as rock stars because they came of age in an entirely different set of circumstances.  “The age of the rock star ended with the passing of physical product, the rise of automated percussion, the domination of the committee approach to hit making, the widespread adoption of choreography, and, above all, the mystique-destroying rise of the Internet.”

pasted-image-0-1He adds, “Rock stars were the product of an age when music, and details about rock stars’ lives, was harder to access and was treasured accordingly…  Today, you simply can’t live the life of a rock star anymore.  The mobile phone alone saw to that.  That was when the rock star’s all-important mystique came to an end.”

Since 1973, he says, “We have grown increasingly used to ‘rock star’ being employed as a descriptor.  Bill Clinton was supposedly the first rock-star president.  Andre Agassi was a rock-star tennis player.  Russell Brand was a rock star comedian.  These days you can even be a rock-star fund manager.”

The reason I have chosen to delve in detail into Hepworth’s book goes beyond his provocative premise about the demise of the rock star era.  Quite simply, he is a hell of a writer.  I marvel at the superb descriptive phrases and metaphors he offers in his examination of the people and events of that time.

led-zeppelin-1980-79b0dc3f-9670-4b70-8c05-5d952da34af7When he discusses how, in 1979, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant seemed to lack the confident swagger he had in the band’s heyday, he attributed it in part to “the death of distance.”  He was referring to how rock stars had once been able to behave recklessly with impunity in the ’60s and ’70s, engaging in shenanigans without their wives or the public at large ever knowing for certain.  There were rumors, of course, but no visual proof, no culpable evidence, no 24/7 speculating.  Rock stars were untouchable mythic beings “who did things you wouldn’t dare do with people you would never meet in places you could never afford to go.”

little-richard-1957His piece on Little Richard as “the first rock star” describes how he came up with “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop, a-lop-bam-boom” when he let out a yelp while playing a beat-up piano in a Macon, Georgia, hangout.  “It was just a little riff, an imagined percussion fill that Richard was in the habit of beating out on the lunch counter, and this time it tumbled out without interruption into a song, if song it could be called.”

davidbowieziggyIn an essay entitled “A ‘rock star’ retires,” Hepworth looks deep into David Bowie‘s Ziggy Stardust persona, which he sees as “the rock star as tragic figure, doomed to enact his own suicide on stage.”  In 1973, he theorized, rock musicians felt “they could indulge themselves in the world of limelight while still retaining some intellectual standings.  They felt it ought to be possible to play the part of a rock star for a while and then walk away without a scratch on them.”

Janis-Joplin-ASC-550x350On Janis Joplin, Hepworth had this to say:  “Before Janis, there had been female musical stars, like Dusty Springfield or Aretha Franklin, who were much admired for their artistry but were not permitted anything as vulgar as a personality.  They were as prim and proper as young women were expected to be at the time.  The idea that the might have a love life was hard to imagine.  A sex life would be wholly out of the question.  Janis came to the fore in the age of ‘let it all hang out.’  She understood what she needed to do to be a star, and she worked at it.  She was smart enough to know that the appearance of spontaneity was something that must be worked at.”

alg-buddy-holly-jpgIn his essay on Buddy Holly, Hepworth explains how early rockers found themselves to be popular paupers:  “Holly figured in his naiveté that there wold be a simple accounting of monies from which everybody would be able to walk away satisfied, but this proved not to be the case.  As 1958 drew to a close, Holly found himself in the unenviable position of being massively famous, widely celebrated, and functionally penniless.”  Holly, therefore, felt he had no choice but to go along with sketchy plans to perform on unpleasant bookings in unpromising venues, traveling on unsafe vehicles in ungodly weather conditions, which ultimately killed him (“the day the music died”).   

ian-stewart_1866315b-600x375

Ian Stewart (left) pictured with The Stones in 1963

Rolling Stones fans know the name Ian Stewart as the unofficial band member who played keyboards on albums and in concert.  He was heard but rarely seen because the group’s manager said he didn’t work visually.  As Hepworth points out in “The man who didn’t fit in”:   “Stewart spoiled the look of the group.  He didn’t fit the picture.  In fact, ‘Stu’ looked as if he came from an earlier decade.  The look the Stones were going for was a look that the presence of Stewart simply ruined.  Furthermore, he wasn’t temperamentally suited to being a rock star.  He seemed impervious to the passion for fame that drives rock stars on.  He could never have been a rock star for the same simple reason that the rest of us aren’t rock stars:  Because we can imagine not being one.”

792913Conversely, drummer Keith Moon of The Who was ideally suited for the rock star world, Hepworth contends.  “The very same things that made Keith Moon an impossible child made him the perfect rock star.  He was hopeless at school and left at the age of 14.  He had a need to be admired and noticed that could be satisfied by being the center of attention all the time.  As a civilian, Keith Moon would inevitably have to find a way of growing up, fitting in with other people, and curbing his excesses.  If he became a rock star, he wouldn’t have to do any such thing.”

The essay “sex, violence and television” explores the rise of MTV, which Hepworth Olivia_Newton-John_Physicalclaims increased the visibility of both rock stars and would-be rock stars.  “Marginal acts with strong visuals (The Stray Cats, the Go-Go’s, Duran Duran) quickly went mainstream.  Older acts worried about how the close scrutiny of the camera could reveal the shortcomings of their appearance.  Elton John’s hairline was retreating and thus his video was shot from one side only in a darkened room, and Olivia Newton John happily cut her hair, toned her body, and belatedly transformed herself into a sex symbol for the ‘Physical’ video.”  

198In discussing Bruce Springsteen‘s rise following the painstaking development of his monumental “Born to Run” song and album in 1975, Hepworth noted that great rock records had often been made quickly.  The recording of the debut LPs by The Beatles in 1963 and Black Sabbath in 1970, he points out, had both been hammered out in a single day.  “If popular music history had one thing to teach, it is that time spent polishing records is usually time spent ruining them.”  But there are always exceptions to the rule, and Springsteen, who was “possessed by a lust for rock and roll glory,” worked for six months to hone the words, and another three months to perfect the arrangements and recorded layers of “the title song’s titanic thrust.”  The result, he said, “felt like some lost masterpiece that had been awaiting discovery for decades.”

Hepworth’s piece “The absurdity of the rock star” reviews the impact of the 1984 rockumentary “This is Spinal Tap.”  He remarks that rock had been parodied before by older funnymen like Phil Silvers and Peter Sellers “who didn’t really understand what they were spoofing, but the difference this time is that Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer knew whereof they spoke.  They slid in the stiletto with loving tenderness.  They revealed the overarching truth of what was now a rock industry:  It relies on the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief.  Once you have seen the world of rock through the lens of ‘Spinal Tap,’ the standard bunch of rock demigods are instantly revealed before you as middle-aged men in unsuitable trousers.”

MV5BYmNjYzYyNjItODNhMS00ZjdiLTk4ZjUtOGMxZDM5YTcyMDBiXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjQ0NzE0MQ@@._V1_Here is Hepworth’s take on the pre-fabricated lack of spontaneity that characterized 1990-era Madonna in “Rock star as celeb”:  “The Blonde Ambition World Tour was what a generation raised on MTV had come to expect of a live show, which was a very big, very loud multimedia assault.  It was an experience that was so beholden to click tracks, autocue machines, and technological whizzbangs that nothing could stand in its way or alter one step or one word from night to night.  The performers were elements in a production rather than autonomous individuals who might at any stage stop what they were doing and change their mind.”

Nirvana-Kurt-Cobain-630x420Kurt Cobain, Hepworth believes, qualifies as “the last rock star,” if only because his death affected his generation of fans as much as, if not more than, Buddy Holly’s death did to ’50s fans.  “Nirvana’s second album, ‘Nevermind,’ which had been released in 1991, did something more for Generation X than other, better-known albums had done for their parents,” wrote Hepworth.  In the note Cobain wrote before shooting himself in 1994, he quoted Neil Young’s “My My Hey Hey,” which insists, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”  Hepworth concludes:  “These aren’t just the words of someone who has fallen out of love with playing.  These are the words of a man who has grown up with all his hopes and dreams invested in the single purpose of becoming a rock star…and has found that he simply can’t live up to the demands of the role in which he has cast himself.”

Finally, there is Hepworth’s view on how things are today, and why there are no rock stars anymore, or at least, none in the traditional/original sense of that term:  “Because there are fewer and fewer places to play, and the audience now has too many options to be willing to put up with and evening’s entertainment from somebody who is only just learning their trade, it’s harder and harder for people to establish the balance between entertainment and invention.  It’s never been easy to make it, and it still isn’t.  You no longer need a record company to make a record, but you might need the record company’s money to make you a (rock) star.”

I heartily recommend this book.  An excellent read.

 

Advertisements

Dear sir or madam, will you read my book?

Everyone has a story to tell.

For those famous enough to get a publishing deal, writing one’s memoirs seems to be more popular than ever.  In the world of popular music, especially rock music of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, writing an autobiography, it seems, has become the latest rite of passage.

12523723_1642229336044092_1094993930_nReaders who know me well are aware that, when it comes to books about rock music, I inhale them.   Reference books about the Billboard charts, in-depth examinations of specific genres or regions, biographies (authorized and unauthorized) of famous artists and producers — I love ’em all, soaking up interesting factoids and arcane album information for use in some future party conversation (or this blog).

But why the spike in rock ‘n roll memoirs from survivors of rock’s earlier decades?  Call me cynical, but I’m guessing many of these aging performing artists figure they better commit their tales to paper ASAP before their memories fail them or they keel over (God knows that’s been happening way too often lately).

These memoirs typically include at least one “tell-all” bombshell that will help sell copies, but the best ones offer truly insightful information and thoughtful opinions from some of the major (and minor) players in the rock music kingdom.  And if the reader is really lucky, the book might actually be well written.

Sadly, the bookshelves are littered with recent examples of what amount to “Dear Diary” ramblings — self-indulgent, immature, lamely crafted and in dire need of major editing or a total rewrite.  But the good news is they’re outnumbered by a few dozen really captivating memoirs written in intelligent prose, with a healthy mix of humor, humility, pathos, perspective and (you can’t avoid it in this business) ego.

Let’s face it, if you’re a popular music artist, let alone a rock and roll star, it’s assumed you likely have an outsized ego, an ego big enough to tell you your life is interesting enough, and important enough, that people are going to want to read all about it, from childhood through early struggles to fame and fortune, to maybe scandal, setbacks and rehab.  How literately you tell your story, it should be noted, makes all the difference between respect and ridicule in the end.

No one can say for sure if some of these “autobiographies” were helped along by seasoned journalists serving as ghost writers, but I’m going to give the stars the benefit of the doubt and trust them if they said they wrote them themselves.  All I know is, if it’s an entertaining read, and I learn things I didn’t know before, and I’d recommend it to others, then it was worth my time and money.

Here are 20 recently published memoirs I found to be worthy of your attention.  Full confession:  I didn’t read ALL of EVERY book listed here.  In some cases, I only skimmed them in preparation for this blog, and read a summary of reviews.  But I WILL read them all someday, because it’s my passion.  But meantime:

born-to-run-9781471157790_hr“Born to Run,” Bruce Springsteen, 2016

As a lyricist, Springsteen has written pungent, heartfelt lyrics both concise and wordy, capturing moments or emotions better than almost anyone.  To no one’s surprise, The Boss writes lucidly and with great precision in his memoirs about his long, slow journey from the dead-end Jersey Shore to the peaks of superstardom.  This one’s a no-brainer.

“My Cross to Bear,” Gregg Allman, 2012  gregallman-5-web

I’m not sure I should have expected anything else, but Allman’s book revealed him to be an incredibly selfish asshole for most of his life, and he admits as much.  There’s no denying his brilliance as a blues singer and keyboardist, but holy smokes, he was horrible to every woman in his life, and self-destructive as hell.  Still, he writes about all this in candid, compelling fashion.

51q7zXHMDGL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_“Boys in the Trees,” Carly Simon, 2016

Largely at arm’s length from the self-destructive lifestyle that damaged many of her contemporaries, Simon survived to tell a decidedly different story from most ’70s singer-songwriters.  She writes from a calm epicenter as a mother/daughter rather than a Grammy-winning artist, and it’s not at all boring but, in fact, invigorating.  

51RBRtjqxEL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_“Not Dead Yet,” Phil Collins, 2016

What a treat!  The fact that Collins tells his long and winding story with such self-deprecating charm and humor lays waste to his unfair reputation as an egotistical jackass.  He even uses his book’s title to debunk the “Phil is dead” rumor that plagued him in the mid-2000s.   This might be the most entertaining book on this list.

A1MrxsO93VL“Life,” Keith Richards, 2011

Given Keef’s notoriety as rock’s drug poster boy over the years, NO ONE expected this to be even remotely as great as it turned out to be.  How could he remember much of anything, given all he’s ingested?  But recall he did, with considerable flair, and the result is the most praised autobiography of the past decade.

“Joni Mitchell:  In Her Own Words,” as told to Malka Marom, 2014

In a different twist on autobiographical literature, Mitchell teamed 512KWX-ziNLup with long-time confidante/journalist Malka Marom on three occasions (1973, 1979, 2012) to do lengthy, detailed taped interviews, which have been transcribed in Q&A format, giving readers a great deal of insight into Mitchell’s creative songwriting process and her development as a consummate musician.  If you love Joni, or songwriting, this one is a must.

51dL7EZc7UL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_“Play On:  Now, Then and Fleetwood Mac,” Mick Fleetwood, 2014

The drummer, founder and mainstay of Fleetwood Mac throughout its multi-colored history wrote an earlier memoir in 1991, and much of it is regurgitated here, but with substantial new sections covering the years since then.  If you missed the first round, by all means, check out this one.  There are plenty of great stories about rock music’s most soap-opera-ish band ever.

nash1n“Wild Tales,” Graham Nash, 2013

Always the most level-headed of the raging egos in CSN&Y, Nash writes thoughtfully and with panache, and a candor that’s almost eyebrow-raising at times.  As a guy who broke into the business with The Hollies back in 1963 and still active 54 years later, he has great anecdotes, and sad stories, to share.  Check it out.

51YLsriErbL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_“Rod:  The Autobiography,” Rod Stewart, 2012

I am no fan of Stewart, but he has played a huge role in rock music over his four-decade ride through rock’s headiest years, from obscure vocalist with the Jeff Beck Group in 1968 to interpreter of the Great American Songbook in the 2010s.  Rod’s memoirs openly admit he was a lucky SOB, but the book also spends an inordinate amount of time on the tabloid-ish blonde-women-he-took-to-bed stuff instead of his musical contributions.  Is it because the former outweighs the latter?

chrissie-hynde-book-cover-2015-billboard-510“Reckless:  My Life as a Pretender,” Chrissie Hynde, 2015

This is one badass woman, surviving as a lady rocker at a time when it was exclusively men’s terrain.  Her memoirs tell a sometimes harrowing story about growing up in hardscrabble Akron, Ohio, fleeing to London during the birth of punk and emerging as a victorious pioneer of New Wave in the early ’80s.  This woman has moxie.

51KO4-JG3bL“Delta Lady,” Rita Coolidge, 2016

My wife met Coolidge at an industry gathering recently and was captivated by her spirit, her guile and her still-impressive artistry.  Many rock fans have no clue how connected she was, professionally and personally, to so many pivotal people in the ’70s and ’80s, and consequently, her memoir makes for revealing reading.

51QF5yqiZvL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_“Who I Am,” Pete Townshend, 2012

The leader of The Who tends to take himself quite seriously, perhaps too much so, and that makes his autobiography kind of exhausting to absorb.  We’ve always known Townshend is a great writer, having contributed numerous cogent commentaries to Rolling Stone over the years, so the high quality of the narrative here comes as no surprise, as he tells us all we’ll ever need to know about his life in and out of the band.

51VbGyrxGaL“My Life With Earth Wind and Fire,” Maurice White, 2016

White, as EW&F’s founder, guiding light and chief songwriter, had everything to do with the group’s success in the 1974-1983 period, and his autobiography, published in September of last year following his death in February, pays glorious tribute to the whole band and all its contributors.  White was a very spiritual guy who seemed to be without ego, happy to give credit to everyone else.  What a breath of fresh air!

ERIC_CLAPTON_CLAPTON-+THE+AUTOBIOGRAPHY-491024“Clapton:  The Autobiography,” Eric Clapton, 2007

A rock idol and guitarist extraordinaire, Clapton led a life full of difficulties, many of them self-inflicted, and his memoir spells it all out in wrenching detail, simultaneously exposing himself as a man mostly incapable of maintaining anything close to a healthy personal relationship with anyone.  Too bad such a fine singer/songwriter and master interpreter of blues music suffered so much in his personal life…but they say that’s what makes the blues so authentic…

51BTaNj39ZL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_“Kicking and Screaming:  A Story of Heart, Soul and Rock ‘n Roll,” Ann & Nancy Wilson, 2013

More so than Chrissie Hynde or any other female rocker, Ann Wilson and her sister Nancy had to cope with a ridiculous amount of sexism trying to be rock stars in a world totally dominated by men.  This duet/memoir, which offers the views of both sisters, sheds a lot of light on what it was like to cope with life in rock music, in the 1975-1990 era especially.

51HfPb3lA4L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_“It’s a Long Story:  My Life,” Willie Nelson, 2015

His first memoirs were published in 1988, and since then his persona has only grown in stature and notoriety.  Consider the title of his 2012 book, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die:  Musings From the Road,” which pays perhaps too much attention to his pro-weed stance at the expense of his sizable impact on country (and pop) music over the last 40+ years.  This one is well worth your time, trust me.

51SLOjQsgsL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_“Sweet Judy Blue Eyes,” by Judy Collins, 2011

Folk chanteuse Judy Collins took us all off guard when she used her memoir, “Sweet Judy Blue Eyes,” to confess a lifelong battle with alcoholism that tormented her personal relationships as well as her recording career.  Her message:  “You don’t have to be a rock and roller to have substance problems.”  Hers is a fascinating story of a journey through the early folk years into the mid-’70s period of hedonistic pursuits that ultimately took their toll on her.

51n-SnV65OL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_“I Me Mine,” George Harrison, 1979, 2017

The “quiet Beatle” turned out to be among the first rock stars to publish memoirs, back in 1979, and that voluminous tome has been updated by his widow and children in a 2017 edition now in stores.  It’s a bit ponderous as he explores his passion for Eastern philosophies and musical stylings, but still well worth diving into.

2128NPiagEL._SX351_BO1,204,203,200_“Journals,” Kurt Cobain, 2002

This one is an exception to the rule.  It’s pretty clear Cobain never thought, nor did he intend, that his all-over-the-map journal writings would ever see the light of day, but in light of his violent, self-inflected demise in 1994, we can gain valuable insight into his fragile psyche by reviewing the things he had to say in his private moments.  It can be agonizing reading, but also amusing and thought-provoking.

14318._UY400_SS400_“Chronicles, Volume One,” Bob Dylan, 2004 

 

Always the mystery man, Dylan chose to jump all over the place in this memoir, skipping huge chunks of time as he focused exasperatingly on certain years while ignoring others.  As recently as 2012, he said he is still working on Volume Two, but there’s no way to guess what he’ll concentrate on in that book, if it’s ever published…

A bonus selection:

“Making It:  Music, Sex & Drugs in the Golden Age of Rock,” Ted Myers, 2017

Myers, as it turns out, lives on my block in Santa Monica, and he recently completed his own memoirs about almost making it big as a member of Lost, a regionally popular band in New England in 1964-1967.  Myers played a role, almost Forrest Gump-like, in the lives of numerous rock legends over the years before and since.  His sex tales are a bit on the “too much information” side, if you know what I mean, but the drugs and rock ‘n roll stories are compelling indeed.

Going back a few more years:

“Secrets of a Sparrow,” Diana Ross, 1993

“Cash,” Johnny Cash, 1997

“Long Time Gone:  The Autobiography of David Crosby,” David Crosby, 1988

***********

Other autobiographies you may want to explore:

“Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir,” Linda Ronstadt, 2013

“Me, the Mob, and the Music,” Tommy James with Martin Fitzptrick, 2010

“Infinite Tuesday:  An Autobiographical Riff,” Mike Nesmith, 2017

“Between a Heart and a Rock Place,” Pat Benatar, 2010

“Dancing With Myself,” Billy Idol, 2014

 

…Today we have young artists writing their memoirs who haven’t even turned 30 yet.  I mean, Justin Bieber?  Adele?  It’s laughable.  Best wait until you’ve had a life long enough to write about.

…I can’t conclude this essay without bashing a few titles that I found pretty much unreadable. Aerosmith vocalist Steven Tyler appropriately titled his excruciating memoirs “Does the Noise in My Head Bother You?”  (Answer:  Damn right it does, Steve, when it consists of incoherent babblings, brash boasts and non sequiturs.)  David Lee Roth of Van Halen evidently vomited his mindless ramblings into a tape recorder, had it transcribed, and slapped a title on it:  “Crazy From the Heat.”  (You’ve got that right, Dave…)