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Bedtime reading for boomers

You will search in vain for a new life of any rocker who made his name after the advent of punk

This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

There’s no easy way to break this to you, but next year will be the fiftieth anniversary of Don McLean’s “American Pie”. That’s right. Half a century since you first heard that interminable dirge about “the day the music died”. Go back the same distance in time again and Lenin was instigating the New Economic Policy, the Allies were demanding $33 billion in war reparations from Germany, and Einstein was winning his Nobel Prize.

What day did the music die? McLean believed it was back in February 1959, when a charter plane carrying Buddy Holly and several members of his band crashed, killing all on board. Other dates are available. Some people think the break-up of the Beatles meant the end of the rock dream. Some people go for Jimi Hendrix’s death at 27. Some people think the music died the day Freddie Mercury got in on the act. What is inarguable is that here we are, 50 years or so on from the end of rock and roll, and your friends and mine are still giving each other books about pop stars for Christmas.

Sweet Dreams: The Story of the New Romantics by Dylan Jones, Faber, £20

Needless to say, the usual suspects — Dylan, Bowie, John Lennon (the fortieth anniversary of whose death is this month), and Hendrix (the fiftieth anniversary of whose death was in August) – are among the subjects of this year’s crop of rock biographies. You will search the shelves in vain for a new life of any rocker who made his name after the advent of punk in 1976-77. Though Dylan Jones’s Sweet Dreams is a fine oral history of the ’80s New Romantics — Culture Club, Spandau Ballet, Adam Ant, etc — rock books are in the main about people who found fame in the Sixties and early Seventies.

That’s because rock only really means something to the boomers — to the generation that watched Top of the Pops while their fathers rhetorically tut-tutted “Who’s she?” at any pop star with hair longer than iron-filings. Rock was one of the ways the boomers defined themselves against their parents. No such generation gap obtained for their own children. A boomer dad might think Boy George an also-ran next to Bowie, but he didn’t think him the end of civilisation. Indeed, the unstated — perhaps unconscious — thesis of Jones’s book is that the New Romantics were to David Bowie what Alfred North Whitehead said Western philosophy was to Plato: footnotes.

There are no footnotes in Spencer Leigh’s Bob Dylan: Outlaw Blues — which is astonishing because the book is one long series of quotes. I’d call it a scissors and paste job were it not for the fact that Leigh forgot to use any paste. His cuttings are just dumped on the page any old how — rather like the Burroughs-inspired lyrics the young Dylan wrote for Blonde on Blonde, though without their ineffable visionary weirdness.

Leigh’s grasp of Dylan’s work is non-existent. You never believe he has listened to any of the songs — let alone the albums — that he mentions. Devoid of a critical sense, he relies on other people’s opinions for assessing Dylan’s music. Among the people whose opinions he trusts is Julian Lloyd Webber, a good man to have around if you fancy hearing the Arnold cello concerto, but not someone known for his cutting insights into rock. Here he is on Dylan’s “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”: “It is great … and I love it”.

Still, Leigh is Ruskin next to Philip Norman. In Wild Thing, his new life of Jimi Hendrix, the only moment aesthetics come into play is when Norman compares Hendrix’s version of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” to a perfect poached egg. In other words, this is another book about a rock star with nothing to say about the rock that made the star. Norman is more interested in berating the taciturn owner of the Notting Hill hotel where Hendrix died — for “viewing [Hendrix’s death] as a curse rather than a major commercial opportunity” — than in discussing the tempestuous clarity of the Hendrix sound.

Norman claims to offer the most detailed reconstruction yet of Hendrix’s last, contested, 24 hours. Alas, he offers nothing vitally new. There is no mystery about this, because there is no mystery about Hendrix’s early death. He didn’t commit suicide. He wasn’t murdered. And though the people around him cared for nothing but their own back pockets, none of them was guilty of manslaughter. Hendrix liked drugs. He took a lot of them. One day he took so many that he fell asleep, threw up, choked on the vomit and died. To look for murder or even malice aforethought is to look for a mare’s nest.

Rock journalism grew out of the New Journalism, though there is precious little evidence of writerly ambition in these books. In John Lennon 1980, Kenneth Womack uses the doubly tautologous phrase “but even still” eight times in the course of 200-odd pages. (He uses “even still” another four times.) Then again, the redundancies and tautologies are the only entertainment in an otherwise unswervingly dull account of the largely event-free 12 months preceding Lennon’s murder on 8 December, 1980.

The Complete John Lennon Songs by Paul du Noyer, Welbeck, £25

Lennon, Womack’s book makes plain, was even lazier than he let on in such hymns to sloth as “I’m Only Sleeping”. Nice work if you can get it, but unless you’re Nicholson Baker perhaps best not try getting a book out of it. (Paul Du Noyer’s reissued The Complete John Lennon Songs, which this time around reproduces Lennon’s lyrics, is the only necessary book on its subject.) Simon Goddard is no Norman Mailer, but he is to be credited for having a go at reinvigorating rock writing with a novelised life of David Bowie. Actually, make that partial life. Bowie Odyssey 70 is the first instalment in a ten-volume account of Bowie’s voyage through the decade that made him even as he remade it. Starting with 1970 makes things hard for Goddard on the artistic front: though Bowie released a dozen albums during the ’70s, not one of them came out in 1970 itself (in the UK at least). All Goddard has to work with are a couple of 45s that went nowhere, and a rehashed cash-in edition of Bowie’s prentice work that came out on — remember it? — the Music for Pleasure label.

Bowie Odyssey 70 By Simon Goddard Omnibus, £14.99

Still, he dramatises beautifully Bowie’s meeting with Hull’s answer to Jeff Beck, the guitarist Mick Ronson. And his descriptions of Bowie’s pained embarrassment whenever his soon-to-be former manager, old-style showbiz impresario Ken Pitt, hoves into view are excruciatingly well done. He doesn’t quite get Bowie’s first marriage, taking it far more seriously than either of its constituents ever did. Otherwise, though, he has had a great idea, and a few bits of overwriting aside, has carried it off with aplomb.

David Hepworth’s Overpaid, Oversexed and Over There is as suave a pop book as any since his last. Intelligent about rock without ever falling into the trap of thinking that rock is itself intelligent, Hepworth isn’t at all romantic about his subject. He loves it, but he isn’t taken in by it. Certainly he has no time for the idea that rock is the unfettered expression of authentic feeling. He knows it’s an absurd strand of vaudeville. But he relishes the absurdity. The only bad book he has written, 1971: Never a Dull Moment, is bad precisely because he is for once out to make a positive case — that 1971 (the year in which he just happened to turn 21) was rock’s greatest year.

Overpaid, Oversexed and Over There: How a few Skinny Brits with Bad Teeth Rocked America By David Hepworth, Bantam, £20

Otherwise his books are hilarious, high-end gossip. He seems to have read every rock biography, no matter how trashy, and sieved out the most lustrously idiotic moments. Overpaid, Oversexed and Over There is ostensibly an account of how a few British acts — the Beatles, the Stones, Bowie — conquered America. But really it’s just an excuse for Hepworth to riff through his filing cabinet of silly stories. Graham Nash’s line about “What Donovan’s trying to put over will stop wars dead” had me howling. As for the story about how Eric Burdon (late of the aptly named Animals) inspired the Egg Man figure in Lennon’s “I Am the Walrus”, it alone justifies the price of admission.

In between, there are critical aperçus that blow your brains. How about this, on Mick Jagger: “not a young thug so much as a face from Caravaggio”? A paragraph on page 91 tells you all you need to know about Jimi Hendrix. And there’s a startling section on how pop was both nourishment and nursemaid to suburban boomers estranged from their extended families: suddenly, postwar social history looks slightly different. My only complaint is that the book has no notes and a woefully incomplete bibliography. Whence, for instance, Jan Morris’s magisterial quote on the Beatles?

Finally, don’t go anywhere near Paul Morley’s A Sound Mind, in which the one-time NME deconstructionist tries to get to grips with the classical canon he spent the first 50 years of his life dismissing. At one point he tells us he weeps every time he hears Glenn Gould playing the Mozart C minor piano concerto — not just because of Gould’s “hyper-sensitive” playing, but because he (Morley) came to Mozart so late he sometimes fears he might never have got round to listening to him. Nobody need have similar regrets about not having read this wearisome, wit-free, 600-page drag, man.

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