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Rock of ages: More books to come from decrepit rock idols.

July 22, 2011

Twilight of the sods: Townshend, looking faintly ridiculous.

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?

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    July 22, 2011 12:24 pm

    Long live rock! Be it dead or alive….

    Hooray for Pete Townsend. I read the Steve Tyler one recently. I’d be interested in reading the memoirs of just about any of them. Bring them on….

  2. Connie permalink
    July 22, 2011 1:32 pm

    I was with you when you said you’d rather listen to music and read an actual book. Me too. I love Springsteen, but I can honestly say I would not read his memoir. I’d just put on “Jungleland” again, or maybe “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” and when I was done I’d go back to whatever actual book I was reading. I have a complete and total lack of interest in the lives of musicians, no matter how wild they might be (let’s face it – drugs are only interesting if you’re actually, you know, experiencing them yourself, not that I would condone such a thing).
    And now that I said that, I will totally contradict myself and admit to liking Patti Smith’s book a great deal. But I suspect she’s the exception, not the rule…I’m guessing Pete’s relationship with Roger is not half so interesting as her relationship with Mapplethorpe…

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 22, 2011 2:51 pm

      Plus Patti writes about an important and fascinating time in the cultural history of New York. And she was not remotely famous for much of that time, but instead was a near-feral chick so skinny and odd that Alan Ginsberg, mistaking her for a young man, once tried to pick her up at the Automat. In other words, I definitely don’t want to books that are essentially Behind the Music put down on paper. Townshend, an old fave of mine, is unlikely to write anything approaching the genius of Substitute or The Kids are Alright or Won’t Get Fooled again or the masterpiece, Quadrophenia. On the other hand, it is likely to be a real book, not some cobbled together pastiche of memory and a ghostwriter’s imagination. Does anyone really believe Keith Richards remembers a thing that happened between 1967 and 1987?

  3. Karen permalink
    July 22, 2011 5:07 pm

    Grace Slick “wrote” an autobiography years ago titled “Somebody to Love?”. At the height of her fame, she was usually drunk (not high) and she slept with Jim Morrison. There — I’ve just saved you reading the book!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 22, 2011 5:48 pm

      Ah, Karen, thanks. That’s a service to mankind. Or at least this kind of man. After I wrote those words, “I’d read a book by Grace Slick in a heartbeat,” I knew they weren’t actually true. At least not after they’d cooled off a bit. I guess I meant Grace is a more interesting character than most of the masculine dullards, their brains and personalities blunted by decades of substance abuse, on the list. I have very little interest in reading anything any of these people might write. Syd Barret, rest his soul, maybe I’d have picked up that book. Or maybe I would just ride my Bike instead.

  4. Connie permalink
    July 23, 2011 7:41 am

    “Just Kids” was definitely not a Behind the Music episode…even so, not sure I would have picked it up had I not seen Smith at the book fair (please don’t remind me I had to leave before she sang “Because the Night”; I am still tortured by this.) But the bits she read seemed smart and funny and intriguing (esp. the bit about Ginsburg trying to pick her up in the Automat).

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 23, 2011 11:30 am

      Acapella. She sang “Because the Night” acapella. Everyone rose like it was midnight mass and sang along. I thought we might be Raptured out of the Chapman Center and straight into rock ‘n’ roll heaven. Mitch Kaplan was openly crying when he took the stage after she was done.

  5. July 24, 2011 4:20 pm

    Considering how bad his poetry was, we should probably be glad Jim Morrison didn’t write his memoirs. As for Springsteen (one of my absolute faves), I’m with Connie…his life is there in his lyrics. Or at least the life I want to imagine he led.

    Would have liked to have read John Lennon’s lifestory “in his own words.” It’s a pity he didn’t make it to become a moldy old man, moldy through and through. Because unlike Sir Paul, I think he would have told us the warty truth.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 25, 2011 11:13 am

      Warty truth can be found in Paul McCartney, you just have to swim your way past the sunshine and the daisies and the suffragettes and the silly, silly, SILLY love songs to find it. Remember, Sgt. Pepper was almost entirely Paul’s creation. Having said that, Lennon was always my preference, too. Right now, I’m thinking of “Mother,” one of the great pain ballads of modern times. I’m listening to it right now.

  6. July 25, 2011 12:35 pm

    You forgeot Dylan’s “Chronicles”, thank you; starving rats chasing a bread truck indeed.

  7. July 25, 2011 12:35 pm

    You forgot Dylan’s “Chronicles”, thank you; starving rats chasing a bread truck indeed.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 25, 2011 2:32 pm

      I didn’t forget, but I did overlook it. To me, it’s much less amazing that Dylan’s “book” would sell well than Sammy Hagar’s. I mean: Criminiy: What’s up with that?!?

  8. July 26, 2011 2:49 pm

    I hear you. I would still rather listen to “Blonde On Blonde”, “John Wesley Harding” or “Blood On the Tracks” than read “Chronicles”, or even listen to Sean Penn mug the audiobook.

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