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Book buzz: 2019’s key sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll memoirs

“The autobiography is the most outrageous form of fiction.” — George Orwell

By and large, I’m not a great one for most ‘rock’ autobiographies. Call me cynic to the bone but from my industry knowledge of some of the individuals who create them, these books often have little redeeming purpose other than to self-promote through glorified half-truths and, in certain cases, pure delusional fantasy.

To be fair, some of them have lead extraordinary lives, and to the wider purchasing public, the broad appeal of these memoirs is obvious: artists are perceived as inherently fascinating already because of their music — and because us plebeians are nosy, we want to know everything about their personal lives. 

We’re living in much more narcissistic times. An age of confession where every Tom, Dick and Harry has their story to tell. Indeed, autobios by formidable figures of the entertainment world have landed in droves in recent years. It used to be a milestone, and you wouldn’t do it lightly because it’s a summation of something, such as when a band retires. But with record sales in terminal freefall, a book deal has become a supplementary source of income for established acts who rely on almost constant touring to support their lifestyles.

The tills are alive with the sound of music

You could say it’s been a banner autumn for superbly written, funny and revelatory celebrity memoirs: Julie Andrews (Home Work), Andrew Ridgeley (Wham!, George And Me) and a posthumous Prince (The Beautiful Ones) have recently released books, while there’s a soul-baring autobiography from Judas Priest gayer Rob Halford due next year. 

So if you have a prurient need to dig into salacious showbiz gossip, band drama, and drug-and-sex-fuelled debauchery then I’ve selected a tasty triumvirate for your Kindle queue or nightstand stack. 

Debbie Harry: Face It (HarperCollins)

When I heard last year that Debbie Harry was publishing her memoir, I have to admit I felt sorry for her ghost writer. A reluctant interviewee at best, the times our paths have crossed (usually under strictly professional circumstances), the Blondie bombshell has always been cool, cordial but distantly diffident, with an impenetrably aloof air that was both magnificently laconic and maddeningly vague. In other words, the “cold as ice cream but still as sweet” persona of Sunday Girl. As she said herself during a telling spoken word interlude on her 1989 album Def Dumb & Blonde

“I don’t like talking about the old days except if it tells where the future will lead.”

The mind boggled to think how anyone was going to get Harry’s life story out of her. Luckily, I was half wrong. Based on a series of interviews with my old Mojo colleague Sylvie Simmons, Face It is a riot of jaw-dropping rock ’n’ roll anecdotes, packed with sex, drugs and pretty much everyone who was anyone in the 1970s and 1980s — Divine, Miles Davis, Andy Warhol, Muhammad Ali, Nile Rodgers, even the Hells Angels setting fire to her Manhattan apartment block. 

Ring of fire: From the “In Marilyn’s Dress” series. Photo by Chris Stein, via Face It

Debbie’s at her best when rhapsodising about her years spent living the bohemian life with fellow Blondie founder Chris Stein in the gritty Lower East Side, before fame got in the way. She’s already on record as having a close call with New York serial killer Ted Bundy. In the interests of chronology, that claim has been challenged ever since her first mention of it (the dates don’t sync), but the platinum blonde’s sticking to her story, and probably figures it’ll maybe help sell a few more copies of the book to boot. 

While beautifully presented on amply illustrated heavyweight paper (which elevates its list price by a few bucks), Face It is a no-frills read: “He got me hot.” “I made it with him once.” “It was a really good scene.” Many of the stories are funny, but some will make post-#MeToo readers’ hair stand on end — among them abduction, paedophilia, rape, even celebrity indecent exposure (David Bowie flashed his girthy grower at her in front of Iggy Pop, who, amazingly, stayed zipped up).

It’s all done in the best possible matter of fact. What the book neglects to mention, though, is how the author felt, or what she thought, about almost anything. As a memoirist, she has little of the raconteur’s eloquence of fellow Jersey godhead Bruce Springsteen, nor the pretentious intellectualism of her showier New York City punk rival Patti Smith. What Deborah Harry is is a plain-spoken rock goddess holding fast to her public image and mystique, even when there’s nutters in the house.

Ultimately, it shows this icon of pop culture’s grit and moxie. There have been minor blows, and catastrophic setbacks: an abusive, stalker boyfriend (who was the inspiration for One Way Or Another, from Blondie’s breakout album, Parallel Lines); punitive record contracts; a felonious business manager who “forgot” to pay the band’s taxes; those fires; heroin addiction (“Drugs aren’t always about feeling good. Many times they’re about feeling less”) and the dreadful period in 1982 when her “co-conspirator” Stein fell ill and was unable to pay his hospital bills. Sounds familiar.

On a slight tangent, here’s a bit of goss for you: Before Blondie’s reformation, Debbie approached Pet Shop Boys, hoping Tennant/Lowe would work their dynamic duetting magic on her sagging solo career. Alas, conscious of potential typecasting as the serial revivers of legendary divas in need of a career boost, they unceremoniously turned her down. Dang. If only they’d been a bit firmer with the Rocket Man.

Elton John: Me (Macmillan)

Gay activist, surrogate dad, serial shopper, pays people’s rent; Elton John has been a household name for so long it’s almost impossible to remember that once upon a time the portly pianist from Pinner was actually famous for making music, albeit one kitted out in the kind of regalia even Liberace would have balked at. And until around 1976 there were some decent records too.

Now that he’s sober if a little bipolar, Elton’s the slightly more conservatively dressed, happily married elder statesman of British pop, a proper establishment figure, albeit one who’s still unafraid to pick fights with everyone from the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards (“a monkey with arthritis”) to our favourite hyper-narcissist Madonna (“looks like a fairground stripper”).

From the start of Me, where he describes his somewhat unhappy childhood in Middlesex, the former Reg Dwight regales in a self-deprecating manner that is instantly engaging. It’s the brutally frank story of a shy, funny music nerd who became a megastar and who, at his lowest ebb, was a cocaine-addled alcoholic sitting at home alone for days, masturbating, clad only in a vomit-caked dressing gown.

He looks back at his long slog to success as something that couldn’t have happened until the 1970s, where a new decade ushered in a new breed of talent hungry to be heard: “It felt like the time was right. The Sixties were over. The Beatles had split up and there was a new wave of artists that were all starting to make it at the same time: me, Rod Stewart, Marc Bolan, David Bowie.”

His enmity with Bowie is touched on. Elton “loved his music, but there was always something distant and aloof about him, at least when I was around. He’d always make snippy remarks about me in interviews: ‘the token queen of rock and roll’ was the most famous one, although in fairness, he was absolutely out of his mind on coke when he said it.”

As if to hammer home the point, “but I adored Marc and Rod. Meow!

That he has celebrity anecdotes to burn is not a surprise. And then the hellzapoppin’ one moves on to the next tale, which might be about the time he told Tina Turner, a bigger diva than even he, to cram her duet sideways, or the night he and John Lennon refused to answer the door to Andy Warhol because, as the Beatle hissed to Elton: “Do you want him coming in here taking photos when you’ve got icicles of coke hanging out of your nose?”

The musicality takes a back seat in the second half (neatly coinciding with his artistic decline), which is dominated by his struggles with addiction, relationships (his friendship with Queen’s Freddie Mercury is recounted with just the right amount of heart-tugging affection), and his tireless charity work for his AIDS Foundation.

Freddie Mercury and Elton John, House of Commons, London, 1980. Photo by Richard Young

‘Sir’ Elt has a great sense of how to season sadness and madness with a very British humour. When he mentions how he met German sound engineer Renate Blauel and decided to marry her (in Sydney on Valentine’s Day 1984), his conjecture that perhaps his previous relationships with men hadn’t worked out because he hadn’t found the right woman bright a chuckle to this hardened hack’s face.

I’m the first to concede that Reg is a superb storyteller, which makes his professed inability to pen lyrics all the more curious (the process of how he and longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin write their songs is dealt with in a single paragraph, surprisingly). He has his own ghostwriter, of course – the “auto” in “celebrity autobiography” is always a loose concept – in the form of Alexis Petridis, the Guardian’s pop critic. Ghostwriters such as he are the cosmetic surgeons of celebrity memoirs, smoothing down and plumping out what the celebrity wishes to show the public.

Nonetheless, credit really must go to Elton, whose amusing and self-lacerating voice very much drives the book, which includes the ultimate anecdote: in 1976, the mayor of Los Angeles established Elton John Week, where John unveiled his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, played two gigs in Dodger Stadium and was followed around by a documentary crew. But halfway through the week he made a very half-hearted attempt to kill himself. “I suppose I was doing something dramatic to try and get attention,” he writes. That’s right: in the middle of Elton John Week, Elton John felt overlooked. Now that’s a proper celebrity.

Me is easily a contender for best celebrity memoir of the year and very possibly the decade. One thing that was clear from the opening chapter was that he had no intention of being boring. Talking of which, one thing that was mildly disappointing was the complete omission of any reference to the Pet Shop Boys, of which he’s on record as a fan (“my favourite English band,” he told viewers on TFI Friday), friend and, of course, occasional collaborator.

Having that, the dynamic duo are notoriously controlling when it comes to how they’re portrayed in print… as Brett Anderson knows only too well. 

Brett Anderson: Afternoons With The Blinds Drawn (Little, Brown)

Neil Tennant caused such a rumpus when Brett Anderson blabbed he’d done cocaine with the PSB one in Love And Poison, David Barnett’s suavely excellent Suede bio from 2003, that “it was agreed to remove that line (boom boom!) from subsequent editions,” the author tells me. “I couldn’t really understand what all the fuss was about. Pop star occasionally does recreational drugs with other pop star is hardly earth shattering news.” Quite.

A decade and a half later, Suede’s languid lead singer has undertaken the herculean task of writing his autobiography by himself, in instalments. In the foreword to 2018’s widely praised Coal Black Mornings, Anderson explained that “the last thing I wanted to write was the usual ‘coke and gold discs’ memoir” (Hi Neil!) and so he limited the book “strictly to the early years, before anyone really knew or really cared” about the band. 

So where the first volume was a striking portrait of a melancholic childhood in the council house suburbia of Haywards Heath, it ends in 1992, just as Suede sign their first record deal. Afternoons With The Blinds Drawn covers his heyday as a bona fide pop star. It’s the book he said he would never write.

The story of Suede’s place in that thing they called Britpop is fascinating, especially since they’re often attributed with igniting the scene in the first place, although as with most declarations about who did what in music is keenly argued over. Nonetheless, it was Suede who made it to the cover of the Melody Maker before they’d even released their first single, before their main competitors Blur, and well before Oasis had even recorded a note.

All the tales you’d expect from the Bowie scholar who declared he was “a bisexual man who never had a homosexual experience” are present but not always correct: the bitter rift with first guitarist Bernard Butler; the press-magnified Britpop soap opera that also featured Anderson’s former girlfriend Justine Frischmann and the vicious arch rival she left Brett for, Blur’s Damon Albarn; Suede’s spiralling drug abuse. 

This is no Hammer of the Gods-style exposé of life on tour though. Anderson strips out insulating layers of mythology to reach something that feels touchingly real. The emphasis of this story is on pontification and reflection over salaciousness. The time he gave CPR to his overdosing girlfriend is handled in just a few lines.

There is heavy baggage here, however, and ultimately, this is a book that seeps regret rather than nostalgia. Afternoons, in the end, is just as personal as Coal Black Mornings. Anderson’s writing is as he is in real life: sharp, unsparing and sensitive. He understands, fully, from his own experience, how being in a rock band comes down to relationships – with the media, with fans, with drugs, success, music and, especially, with other members. This is his particular story about his particular band, but it’s not a solo project. It’s about how he felt about and dealt with everyone else around him, and how the consequences changed his life.

It ends bleakly with 2002’s disappointing A New Morning and the band’s decision to call it a day the following year, at least until their happily ongoing reunion in 2010; a perfect example of there’s always a little light at the end of every tunnel.

Steve Pafford

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