Read enough rock memoirs and, after a while, their salacious revelations of sex, drugs, and regret begin to sound like small talk. "Nice weather we're having, huh?" you ask. "Yes, yes," Rod Stewart says. "Reminds me of the time me and Ronnie put a capsule of cocaine up my butt." "Ah, very nice," you nod, admiring the flight of a pigeon against the blue sky.
At least this was our experience after spending an entire weekend reading all the latest rock memoirs we could get our hands on. There was Pete Townshend and Neil Young, John Taylor and Rod Stewart, too, among this season's entrants into the publishing frenzy started in 2010 by Patti Smith's National Book Award-winning Just Kids and Keith Richards' bestselling Life.
Yes, these books were fun and dirty and even moving, at times. But after a while, the life stories they told seemed to echo each other so often, it was as though each memoirist was conforming to some set of unspoken social conventions understood only by other rock stars: Do mention sex with strangers; do allude to sex with Mick Jagger, if you can; don't talk about love, unless it provides the back story to a big hit; and never ever be so impolite as to neglect your religious childhood.
If it's a sort of reverse decorum that shapes these tomes, then the reader is best advised not to plunge very deep into their pages to search for what makes each rock star tick. As with all small talk, these books' value rests on their pages' surface, in the range of styles the authors use to address the reader.
Take Young, whose Waging Heavy Peace is arguably the most successful of this season's memoirs, measured by its print run (300,000 copies) and the New York Times review's word count (1,067, plus an additional 1,057 words in the Sunday Book Review). Yet there's really only one word to describe Young's prose, and that's "rambling." Waging Heavy Peace feels more like it was transcribed than composed. So it came as no surprise when New Yorker writer Alec Wilkinson recently began a blog post on Waging Heavy Peace by remarking that Young "is the only artist I have ever encountered who is proud of not reading." A dip into Young's stream-of-conscious riffing on topics as diverse as toy trains and high fidelity suggests a writer who is just as proud of not editing.
Townshend's Who I Am occupies the opposite extreme; sometimes erudite, other times stuffy, but always didactic. Townshend the writer flexes much the same grandeur that moved Townshend the composer to pioneer and refine the rock opera. He demands our space with his style. Writing about the origins of the Who's 1965 breakthrough hit, "My Generation," the songwriter revises his song's meaning, benefiting from the hindsight and wisdom 50 years can grant a garage rock polemicist. "It was actually more a matter of class than age," Townshend writes of his signature tune. "Most of the rich kids around me were striving to be corporate executives of the future — not rebelling against anything. I associated their values with stasis, and therefore with death."
When these books are read one after another, the limited insight they offer into the human character can begin to numb. But the variety of language used to revisit similar episodes of excess from the same bygone era is intriguing, and telegraphs an intimacy unmatched by most of the actual confessions. John Taylor, bassist and co-founder of Duran Duran, opts to write In the Pleasure Groove: Love, Death, and Duran Duran in a direct and practical voice that at times unconsciously apes the language of how-to and self-help books. His tutorial on how to decode the numbers scribbled on a tour itinerary will come in handy for any aspiring pop star looking for lawful shags among these United States. (Taylor's tip: know your state's age of consent.)
The most fascinating stylist of all turns out to be Rod Stewart. He flashes the first tool any good personal essayist should possess: a grounded sense of his own ridiculousness. His memoir, Rod: The Autobiography, places the ex-Small Face and singer of "Maggie May" at the center of an absurd universe where, in a break with the rock memoir's norm, yesterday's good times don't have to exact today's penance. There's even something sweet-natured in some of Stewart's bad behavior. His and Ron Wood's bumbling entrance into the world of groupies — complete with dank hotel rooms and mood-killing oafishness — goes further toward humanizing rock stardom than the boastfully statistical way these books tend to account for their subjects' sex lives.
If most rock memoirs are so pat that we find it hard to differentiate them, then this is one habit where legends resemble us mortals. Everybody asserts themselves through the stories they tell. But what happens when an original life begins to feel like a cover version? When abuse always begets salvation? When a rise always precipitates a fall? When tragedies yield psycho-babble instead of clarity? In the last quarter of Who I Am, Townshend writes: "My problem was not only that I was an addict, but also a fantasist." His fantasy isn't just the ways of rock 'n' roll, though. By now it's something older and more universal: It's mythology, the small talk of the psyche.