Rock of ages: More books to come from decrepit rock idols.
When I was a wee lad with a tie-died t-shirt and hair down to here, I used to regularly refresh my youthful rebellion by listening to the Who’s anarchic anthem, “My Generation,” with its famous line about hoping to die before I got old. Boy, is that one wish I’m glad didn’t turn true.
I imagine Pete Townshend feels the same way. The lead guitarist and primary songwriter for the Who, he penned that ironically immortal refrain back in the ’60s. Now in his 60s, Townshend is about to pen something else: His memoir.
On the heels of bestselling books by the likes of Keith Richard, Sammy Hagar, Steve Tyler and Patti Smith, publishers are now pursuing other classic rock icons like a pack of starving rats after a bread truck. HarperCollins recently outbid the other houses for the rights to Townshend’s book.
Few rockers come to the writing table with Townshend’s literary bona fides. He’s written essays, book reviews, and a collection of short stories, Horse’s Neck that got respectful reviews back in the mid-’80s. He also founded his own publishing concern, Eel Pie, and he worked as an acquisitions editor for the British publisher Faber & Faber in the early 1980s.
So Townshend can be expected to do his own writing, just like Patti Smith, whose memoir Just Kids won the National Book Award last year.
But that’s not really what publishers are interested in. Good ghostwriters are a dime a dozen (or, actually, more like 50 grand a book, for the best ones). No, what publishers slaver after is the signature of one of the remaining “Big Five” at the bottom of a contract.
Who are the Big Five? According to the the Guardian, that august list includes Paul McCartney, Elton John, Robert Plant, Bruce Springsteen and — the “big white whale” of rock memoirists — David Bowie.
Bowie has already signed for a book project with Penguin, but it’s a twee thing called Bowie: Object, in which the Thin White Duke will present 100 items taken from his personal archive as a way to offer insight into his life. What it won’t be is a full-blown memoir.
“I will retire if I can get David Bowie,” says Stacy Creamer, publisher at Touchstone.
This whole thing has got me thinking. For one thing, the list is absent a number of obvious targets: Where’s Mick Jagger? Roger Daltrey? Jimmy Page? Mick Fleetwood? Robbie Robertson? Leon Russell? Joe Cocker? Van Morrison? Stevie Wonder? Ray Davies? Tom Petty?
And how about some ladies? I’d read Grace Slick’s book in a heartbeat. How about: Joni Mitchell (she wrote “Woodstock” for pete’s sake!)? Joan Baez? Stevie Nicks? Carole King? Debbie Harry? Linda Ronstadt? Chrissie Hynde?
Frankly, some of these people may have already written books, I don’t know. With some exceptions, I’d rather read books about my idols than books by them. Incidentally, a new full-length bio of Bowie is just out. Titled David Bowie: Starman, it’s by British music journalist Paul Trynka. The New York Times reviewed it just yesterday.
Better yet, I’d rather listen to the music and read a book by an actual, you know, writer. Just like I’d rather watch Gladiator or A Beautiful Mind than listen to the Ordinary Fear of God (good grief, Russell: You’re kidding, right?).
Me, if I am going to read a rock memoir, I’d rather it be by the less-famous sideman. A book by longtime Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, now that might be worth reading.
Likewise a memoir by Robby Krieger, the vastly underrated guitarist for the Doors, or Skunk Baxter, the guitar whiz who played with both Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers (bands that cancel each other out in a kind of rock singularity).
Of course, the greatest rock side man of all time — Ringo Starr, who else? — steadfastly refuses to write a book. While that’s one I’d probably read, I have to admire his fiber, which is costing him an advance somewhere between $5 million and $10 million, no doubt.
And I know they’re not exactly rock ‘n’ roll, but somebody sign up Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris and Merle Haggard before they get too much older. Please.
Meanwhile, what music heroes would you like to see write a memoir?