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Hardcover Rock: Do Music Memoirs Matter?

Elvis Costello

THIS Christmas, booksellers are featuring several memoirs by rock musicians in their product queues. The authors are not all household names, yet new volumes by Elvis Costello (an English singer-songwriter, pictured), Chrissie Hynde (of The Pretenders), Patti Smith (a New York musician), Carrie Brownstein (of Sleater-Kinney) and others have already made it onto the year’s bestsellers lists. The books are diverse in style and tone: Mr Costello’s witty “Unfaithful Music” is a colourful timeline for which the singer serves as his own emcee; Ms Smith’s “M Train” is a sentimental journey through cities of the world ­and the pathways of her singular mind; Ms Hynde’s “Reckless” is an oral history with an unfinished ending; and Ms Brownstein’s “Hunger” is a self-effacing primer on the last of rock’s glory days.

If rock ‘n’ roll has waned on the pop charts for more than a decade, why would the personal histories of artists who hail from the heydays of terrestrial FM radio and MTV matter to readers in 2015? One answer lies in the book-tour trend, in which such authors trek across America and Europe signing copies of their hardbacks, narrating slideshows about their childhoods and performing acoustic songs in front of sold-out crowds. The release of so many memoirs is more than an attempt to cash in on nostalgia. Songwriters are storytellers, and each in their way, these memoirists seem to enjoy prose as much as music and lyrics. Readers respond with an eagerness for more words from those whose melodies have defined memorable moments in their lives.

At an Atlanta theatre, there to peddle his 672-page “Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink” in October, Mr Costello spent more than an hour telling tales from his book and using a tablet computer to swipe between memories, such as a video of his father singing a 1960s big-band version of Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer” and a still of his own first performance at a local Liverpool civic club in 1971. Mr Costello writes like a showman, with a poetic, polished surface and masked emotions; “Unfaithful Music” is full of career details to devour, yet the book feels a bit like sleight of hand compared to this deeper presentation Mr Costello makes in front of a live audience. Reading between the lines of the book isn’t enough to reveal what’s behind the skinny ties and spectacles. At the event, he is a comic, a lexicon of musical knowledge and a master collaborator who drops names like McCartney, Dylan and Cash without a thought. The prolific showman needs his show: at the 90-minute mark, he flipped through a large stack of 45-RPM singles that influenced him—recounting a story for each one, before finishing the evening with a cheeky acoustic take on his “Every Day I Write the Book”.

A few weeks later in the same venue, Patti Smith read from “M Train”, and fielded questions ranging in topic from the record collection she shared with her late husband (Fred “Sonic” Smith, guitarist for MC5) to her favourite coffee shops. As a young woman living in Manhattan in the 1970s with artist Robert Mapplethorpe (about whom she wrote a 2010 memoir, “Just Kids”), she never imagined later touring the world as a rock star or winning literary awards in her 60s. In contrast to Mr Costello’s stories of endless gigs and interchangeable bandmates, Ms Smith’s book contains a series of lonesome reflections scribbled on napkins at restaurants, including her grief upon Sonic’s death. At the end of the event, when Ms Smith performed a sing-along version of 1978’s “Because the Night”, the song’s familiar melody and lyrics had taken on the weight of the discussion which had preceded them.

In “Reckless”, The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde recalls walking miles from her suburban childhood home to downtown Akron, Ohio to sneak into local music clubs and to buy the latest albums at the shop. The book is written in the same tone as her casual, tough singing voice – no extraneous flourishes, only the vibe of black eyeliner and motorcycle boots. In one diary-style chapter, she remembers being a student at Kent State University in the days surrounding the shootings of 1970, when “every dorm room blasted Hendrix” and “the campus looked like an on-the-spot report from Vietnam.” In subsequent passages, Ms Hynde describes being the victim of a sexual assault, surviving the deaths of two bandmates (from cocaine and heroin use), and earning her status as one of the first women to both front a successful rock quartet and pen its musical catalogue. These experiences ultimately yielded “My City Was Gone“ and “Back on the Chain Gang”, among others. “Reckless” is juicy but not salacious, comprehensive yet incomplete; it leaves readers breathlessly dangling in 1984 and and wanting more.

Carrie Brownstein’s “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl” is a Generation X companion to “Reckless”, without the feminist struggle. To most audiences, Ms Brownstein is known as the writer, producer and actress from the television sketch comedy “Portlandia”, but she got her start playing guitar for Sleater-Kinney in the 1990s. In the book, when Ms Brownstein and her bandmates debate about whether to release their third album (“Dig Me Out”) on a major music label, she labours to reconcile the opportunity with her “esoteric and extraneous knowledge of musical minutiae…developed during those formative years as a means of social currency and credibility.” The author unwittingly evokes the hipsters at which she pokes fun on TV: she seems so afraid of selling out that she spends hundreds of words affirming her coolness to herself. The band settles on a label, goes to therapy, tours relentlessly and suffers health problems. The turning point in the book happens at the end, when Sleater-Kinney opens for Pearl Jam, an epiphany Ms Brownstein claims, “changed [her] life.” In the final chapters, she writes of Pearl Jam’s dedication to the purity of its craft, in both songwriting and performance – an influence that not only “emboldened” her own band to briefly enter the mainstream it once feared, but also to broaden its approach to songwriting and business.

Rock biographies written by outsiders often focus on sex, drugs and notoriety. The most successful music memoirs, however, are the ones in which the authors reveal more than what a Wikipedia search and tabloid headlines might turn up. In this regard, Ms Hynde’s descriptions of how she emerged from the Ohio suburbs to become a rock star make Reckless the rawest and most compelling of the season. Ms Smith’s book reads like an richly textured novella; Mr Costello’s is simply a clever chronology; and surprisingly, Ms Brownstein’s autobiography lacks much of the humour which ultimately pushed her fame beyond her band to a wider audience on TV.

In the digital era, artists’ curated lifestyles on social media leave nothing to the imagination. But even if a picture is worth a thousand words, these stars’ 100,000 words are worth even more. There are few shreds of mystery or privacy left in the celebrity world, but readers remain eager to hear even over-covered rockers do what they do best: tell their own stories.


Photo: Kristi York Wooten




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