Monday, 20 April 2009

News, Views and Music Issue 28 (Top Five): AAA Autobiographies

♫ And the latest in our series of top fives – this week, the five best AAA-related autobiographies. Now given what a literary and demonstrative (not to say occasionally egotistical) bunch of people are represented by this site, I thought there’d be millions of these books till I actually came to write this piece. As it turns out, there are only five official AAA-related autobiographies anyway (discounting the Barry Norman/Paul McCartney tome ‘Many Years From Now’, which is a collaboration only in the sense that Norman held a tape recorder for Macca to talk into), and annoyingly two of them are by members of the same band. Expect a top five biographies section coming your way on a future newsletter – there’s lots more to choose from there!

5) ‘I Me Mine’ (George Harrison, 1979). Most Beatles fans don’t even know this book exists, probably because it isn’t really a properly thought out ‘book’ at all, just an excuse for George to see how his words, song lyrics and photographs would look when collected together by an expensive publishing company he admired. The book is one of Derek Taylor’s last official Beatle commissions and he interviewed George on all manner of things (the book, originally sold with a limited edition CD of B-sides and outtakes most of which have since been re-issued, retailed at a mind-boggling £175 originally, but was re-issued in a much cheaper format in tribute to Derek and George after their deaths close together at the start of the millennium). The book is a lovely collector’s item, full of lots of unseen photographs and their insight into George’s creative instincts (most of the song lyrics are shown here in their original, unedited state – many scribbled on the backs of envelopes or tatty A4 notebooks, interestingly). However, this book is marred by two things. One) George sounds far more at home talking about his guitars, his garden or his admiration of formula one drivers than he does discussing his time as a Beatle. And Two) he never got round to writing a second edition, so the story breaks off rather suddenly in 1979 and the ‘George Harrison’ album (we reviewed this album as no 74 on our list and this book’s publication seems to tie in nicely with the idea of George mending his Beatle bridges and feeling at peace with himself for the first time in years). Most memorable moment: it speaks volumes that the most memorable passage in this book is a description of George’s house and garden at Friar Park.

4) ‘X-Ray’ (Ray Davies, 1992). What a mind-bogglingly weird book this is. This ‘unauthorised autobiography’ (!) is, contrary to most reviews, written entirely in the first-person. Unfortunately, Ray isn’t the narrator – instead it’s an unknown cub reporter sometime in the future, trying to get a scoop on one of the ‘old musicians’ who used to rock the establishment before the corporations won and brainwashed people against Raymond Douglas’ music. Ray is in the book, as the subject of the reporter’s questions, but he paints a very odd and exaggerated version of himself  – part media-shy recluse, part brainwashing madman, part dirty old git, part heartbroken cynic. Much as I admire what Ray did with this book (and we never thought for a minute that he’d ever write a ‘straight’ book!), it desperately needs a companion volume to set the record straight, as its just so hard to tell what’s fiction and what’s fantasy (very Ray Davies that, drawing the reader to reflect on the matter of ‘truth’ just as in all the Klassik Kinks songs; is this just fantasy or the real reality?) Ray also points a very un-likeable version of his future self, although the reporter is, in many ways, the ‘60s version of himself as he might have ended up in the future if he’d taken another job (as you can tell from that sentence, this is a very confusing book…) far better are the songs it inspired – look out for Ray’s ‘Storyteller’ CD if you can as, besides extracts of the author reading the more straightforward sections of the book, Ray plays several new songs inspired by it including two of his best for many years – ‘X Ray’ and ‘The Ballad of Julie Finkle’. A follow-up book, ‘Waterloo Sunset’, was even weirder, featuring characters loosely inspired by the characters in some of Ray’s most obscure songs (half of which hadn’t actually been recorded until after the book’s publication and half of which didn’t seem to tally at all with my interpretation of the songs, although the short story ‘Rock and Roll Fantasy’ is a classic and still haunts me a decade after reading it…) Most memorable moment: the death of Ray’s sister Rene from heart failure, weeks after buying her brother his first guitar.

3) ‘Long Time Gone’ (David Crosby with Carl Gottileb, 1989). Please re-issue this book – I’ve been after a copy of it for years (although I’ve requested it from the library lots of times over the years – indeed, it’s always been my first ‘test’ of a library’s services every time I move house!) David Crosby was used to being a pioneer and this book caught the beginning opf a wave of ex-hippies putting their thoughts to paper. It’s still the best of this ilk that I’ve read too: the ascent into Byrdom and CSN-dom and the descent into addiction and a prison sentence is one of the most gripping and moving stories of them all. Cros has a good memory too and a good eye for the world around him (as anyone who knows his songs as well as I do will tell you), although I was slightly frustrated at the lack of details about Cros’ songs (by the standards of, say, Neil Young there aren’t many Crosby songs to talk about either, so it would have been nice to hear a bit more insight into ‘Guinnevere’, ‘Long Time Gone’, ‘Delta’ et al besides the usual stories). A fascinating read and a good complement to an evening of CSN CDs. A follow-up book (of sorts) came out in 2000 called ‘Stand And Be Counted’, although this is actually a potted biography of the movers and shakers of the protest movement, with lots of Crosby’s memories of his own involvement in Woodstock, No Nukes and Live Aid thrown in too. Most memorable moment: when Crosby finds his songwriting skills are returning him a few months into an 18-month prison sentence for drug and weapon offences.

2) ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’ (Brian Wilson, 1992). Not many people actually get to ‘disown’ their autobiographies, but Brian has. His family challenged his harrowing views of his abusive childhood. His brothers, friends and cousins for the most part hated the way they came out in the book (Al Jardine even sued his old school chum over a few things said in this book). His therapist Eugene Landy, who at the time this book was written was living in Brian’s pocket and had persuaded him to give him a percentage of his royalties, was later said to have written the whole thing in Brian’s name. But if that’s true (Brian’s never really told us either way) then Dr Landy should have become a writer, not a slightly dodgy therapist – Brian’s fragile-but-tough personality shines through every page and there are so many believable (and backed up) insights into how Brian wrote some of his best songs that I can’t believe Brian didn’t have at least a majority input into this project. Brian’s tale really is unique in music circles – the abusive dad who saw in his son all the talents he wanted for himself, the ungrateful band who wanted him to stick to formulas and forget such things as ‘Pet Sounds’ and ‘Smile, the decades of staying in bed and being afraid of doing anything. Best of all, this story has a happy ending – you feel it when you come to the last few pages of the book and, for the most part, Brian’s story really has been happy ever since (or, at least, having countless standing ovations from idolatory crowds whilst being backed by a sympathetic and talented band really does seem to have been what the doctor ordered). One of the most moving books you will ever read, be it fact or fiction. Most memorable moment: Brian leaning his head out of his bedroom window during a thunderstorm, desperate to commit suicide and with the lyrics to ‘Til’ I Die’ pounding through his ears. He closes the window in the next chapter with the terrific line ‘there was something very wrong with death – it had no music’.

1) ‘Kink’ (Dave Davies, 1993). This book came out hot on the heels of his brothers’ (not that the two ever admitted to each other that they were working on a book – it came as news to both of them) and is far more accessible, ebing everything you’d ever want an autobiography to be. Dave comes over as very honest and very likeable, two character traits that are usually diametrically opposed in books such as these so its to his credit that his occasional rants against other people (usually his brother) are backed up by his insights into people’s strengths and reflections of his own weaknesses. The most controversial section of this book is Dave’s tale of being visited by alien intelligences in a hotel room in 1982 – and his frustrations afterwards at how his friends and associates think he’s mad or having a nervous breakdown (he gets equally frustrated earlier on in the book when he really does feel like he’s having a nervous breakdown and nobody wants to know). Like the rest of the book, Dave is more than convincing enough in his tale (indeed, the aliens seem more believable than such larger-than-life characters as early managers Robert and Granville). Most memorable moment: Dave’s teenage romance with girlfriend Sue haunts Dave like a ghost throughout the book (both parents try to separate the two after she becomes pregnant at the age of 15 and tell the other that they never want to see each other again; unbeknown to the two love birds who hold a candle for the other for the next three decades). Dave’s story goes on to inspire the Kinks’ ‘Schoolboys in Disgrace’ album.         

Well, that’s it for another week. Just a closing word from our friend Philosophy Phil – ‘I am the eggman, goo goo ga joob’. Whatever that means. See you next week!

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