Addicted to espadrilles: Joe Perry (left) and Steven Tyler of US rock band Aerosmith
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Boys’ own tales: four rock stars who refused to grow up

Stuart Maconie wades through books by monsters of rock Carlos Santana, Neil Young, Joe Perry and Billy Idol. 

The Universal Tone 
Carlos Santana
Orion, 320pp, £20

Special Deluxe 
Neil Young
Viking, 400pp, £25

Rocks: My Life In and Out of Aerosmith 
Joe Perry
Simon & Schuster, 432pp, £20

Dancing with Myself 
Billy Idol
Simon & Schuster, 336pp, £20

Recently, in these pages, Kate Mossman speculated on the idea that rock music was not a permanent cultural phenomenon but a specific, historical phase like the Italian Renaissance. This chimed with my feelings that rock in the classic sense might be destined, like music hall or the madrigal, to be not with us for ever but the defining art of particular places and a time: the US and the UK for a decade beginning in about 1966.

From this point of view, the “rock star” was a man of his time, the cultural and social product of his era, like a conquistador or a Victorian explorer. These four sturdy books are each the story of a self-made rock star, the narratives of which span this feverish golden age of indulgence. The unreliable narrator has become a trope of the modern novel but it has been the default mode of musicians since Robert Johnson had his meeting with the devil at the crossroads and Dylan first claimed that he rode the boxcars.

Both Neil Young and Carlos Santana belong to that first generation of rock adventurer, a Magellan or Cortés of their day. Young wrote a damning song about Cortés, while Santana came from a part of the world subdued by him; Santana remains, along with Shakira and Gloria Estefan, the Latin musician best known in non-Hispanic rock. Raised in rural Mexico, then the bustle of Tijuana in the 1950s, Santana got his musical chops from his native land but his cosmic philosophy from his adopted city of San Francisco. It proved an irresistibly heady dish for the white rock audience of the day and makes for a good tale, filtered through Santana’s unreconstructed hippy fug in which “chicks” want to “share themselves with you” because they dig the way you play. It’s a testament to his geniality that such recollections don’t come over as more creepy than they do.

There’s a guilelessness, too, about Young’s prose that is engaging, even when he is writing about the amorous directness of Toronto groupies of the mid-1960s or the making of records that sold millions. His tone throughout is that of a backwoods boy talking of whittling or going to the hockey game. Aged 21, he is in a band called Buffalo Springfield, living and gigging around the Sunset Strip, where the flower children hang out and get hassled by the cops. Amid ugly scenes, a traffic cop throws Young in jail for having long hair and no ­licence. All of this eventually informs Buffalo Springfield’s call to arms “For What It’s Worth”.

Young originally wanted to call Special Deluxe “Cars and Dogs”, a sweet conceit, and there is much of both in the book. The nerdiness about automobiles is quite charming. “In 1967, near the end of Buffalo Springfield’s short life, I purchased a Mini ­Cooper S, a car that was speedy, popular and trendy.” We also learn that the dog on the cover of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is a German shepherd puppy called Winnipeg, which later eats the corduroy interior of its master’s 1948 Continental.

Readers bored with the gush and heft of rock books might enjoy the throwaway nonchalance of Young’s reminiscence, told in asides and snapshots, like this memory of the sessions for his bleak, muted album Tonight’s the Night. “Beginning at about midnight, we drank a lot of tequila while recording, going on until the wee hours of the morning. Among our occasional guests for these late-night sessions were Mel Brooks and Joni Mitchell. After the sessions we would jump in the Buick . . . and drive down Santa Monica Boulevard to the Sunset Marquis Hotel. Night after night, that’s what we did until Tonight’s the Night was finished.”

Joe Perry is a guitarist in Aerosmith and, to enjoy his book fully, it helps to be insanely keen on them. And here “insanely” is the mot juste, I think. They have never commanded the following here as they have in their native US, where their Stonesy hard rock found a mass teen and male, blue-collar ­market through constant gigging.

All of these books begin with some largely random, writerly flashback scene, which has become de rigueur in such works to give the feel of “proper literature”. In Perry’s, it is a perilous adolescent accident in a home-made submarine, which for British readers is distractingly redolent more of Last of the Summer Wine than of Titanic. In his teens, he switches his allegiance from Jacques Cousteau to Chuck Berry, whom he describes, in an aside as unfathomable as it is striking, as the Ernest Hemingway of rock. Of his early enthusiasm for Dylan, Perry says, “I liked it when he went from guitar to harmonica” – a sentence rarely heard in sane company. Later, when the Aerosmith singer, Steven Tyler, takes him to New York, one excursion more than any is emblazoned on Perry’s memory. “I’ll show you where I get my espadrilles,” says Tyler, alluringly.

Random moments such as this light up an otherwise fairly boilerplate account of 1970s rock star life, a rock’n’roll story as routine and clichéd as Aerosmith’s song titles (“Ain’t That a Bitch”, “Cryin’”, “Dream On”, “Get It Up”, “Livin’ on the Edge”, and so on). One genuine revelation was the story of Perry’s affair with Rowan and Martin’s English “Sock it to me” girl Judy Carne, conducted before Aerosmith had recorded their first album and when they were far from famous. This seems a rare, sunny interlude in a pretty joyless trek through addictions, mismanagement and professional jealousy. Sometimes it’s the little details that illuminate. That Perry prefers the Three Stooges to the Marx Brothers should tell you a lot – and also that, at one point, he ran up a room ­service bill of $180,000.

Billy Idol’s memoir begins with an orgy and stays at this rarefied level for the next 300 pages. A punk fellow traveller with the cute, silly Generation X, he was never the most convincing of nihilists with his peroxide hair and showbiz camp. With the coming of MTV, he became everything punk had despised: a perma-tanned, frozen-nosed LA rock star whose ludicrously excessive lifestyle is chronicled at some length here. Even at its most sordid, there is something puppy-doggish about Idol’s daft reminiscences and many an unintentionally hilarious moment. “I once wanted to be an archaeologist, but I was never any good at languages,” reveals Billy, which reminded me of the Peter Cook character who didn’t have “the Latin for the judgin’” so went down the mines. On laying down his woggle after a detailed account of his life as a Scout, he turns into Alan Partridge. “I’d done my time in the Scouts, and had gotten all I was going to out of it.”

Of all these books, it is Idol’s that best sums up what a marvellously silly thing a rock star is and what an unsuitable profession it is for a grown man – which is why, ­perhaps, so few of them are.

Stuart Maconie is a radio DJ, television presenter, writer and critic working in the field of pop music and culture. His best-selling books include Cider with Roadies and Adventures on the High Teas; he currently hosts the afternoon show on BBC 6Music with Mark Radcliffe.

This article first appeared in the 09 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, How Isis hijacked the revolution

Photo: NRK
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Skam, interrupted: why is the phenomenally popular teen drama ending before its peak?

The show has been building towards high school graduation – but now it’s ending before its lead characters finish school.

“Have you heard they started their bus already?”
“One month into high school – and they started their bus.”

This Skype conversation between Eva and Isak comes early in the first episode of Skam. The phenomenally internationally successful series follows teenagers at a high school in Oslo. The “bus” they're discussing is a key plot point and concern of the students' lives. That’s because, in Norway, graduating high school students participate in “russefeiring” – it’s a rite of passage into adulthood, a celebration of completing high school, and a farewell to friends departing for university or jobs around the country.

Students gather into groups, give their gang a name, wear matching coloured overalls, rent a big car or a van, and spend late April to mid May (17 May – Norwegian Constitution Day) continuously partying. They call it the “three week binge”. It’s a big fucking deal. 

Skam, with its focus on teens in high school, has therefore spent a lot of time thinking about “russ”. The show, which is set at the exact same time it airs, has followed its four main characters Eva, Noora, Isak and Sana (who each have a season of the show written from their perspective, a la Skins), as well as all their friends, from their first few weeks at school in September 2015. In other words, preparations take years, and we’ve heard a lot about the plans for their russ bus.

In season one, Eva has fallen out with her best friend, and is hurt when she hears she is moving on and has formed a new bus, with new friends, called Pepsi Max.

We meet one of the show’s most prominent characters, Vilde, when we see her trying to get a bus of girls together. The show’s five main girl characters, Eva, Noora, Vilde, Chris and Sana, become friends because of her efforts: they bond during their “bus meetings” and fundraising attempts. They flirt with a group of boys on a bus calling themselves “The Penetrators”.

The latest season follows Sana’s struggles to ensure the bus doesn’t fall apart, and an attempt to join buses with rivals Pepsi Max. The joyful climax of season four comes when they finally buy their own bus and stop social-climbing, naming themselves “Los Losers”. Bus drama is the glue that keeps the show together.

But now, in June 2017, a whole year before the characters graduate, Skam is ending. The architect of the girls’ bus, Vilde, has never had her own season, unlike most of her friends. Many assumed that Vilde would have had her own season during her final year at school. Fans insist the show’s creator Julie Andem planned nine seasons in total, yet Skam is ending after just four.

The news that Skam would stop after season four came during the announcement that Sana, a Muslim member of the “girl squad”, would be the next main character. The show’s intense fandom were delighted by the character choice, but devastated at the news that there would only be one more season. “I can’t accept that this is the last season,” one wrote on Reddit.

“I'm so shocked and sad. It’s honestly just...weird. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s not fair. It’s not fair that we’re not getting a Vilde season. Most importantly, it’s not fair that we’ll never get to see them on their russ, see them graduating, nothing. It seems like such an abrupt decision. It doesn’t serve the storyline at all.”

No one has given a concrete reason about why the show ended prematurely. Ina, who plays Chris, said in an interview that “we all need a break”.

Some fans went into denial, starting petitions to encourage Andem to continue with the show, while rumours abound suggesting it will return. 

Many speculated that the show simply became too popular to continue. “I think that the show would have had six seasons and a Vilde season if the show didn’t become popular outside of Scandinavia,” one wrote. “I think the pressure and the large amount of cringy fans (not saying that some Scandinavian fans aren’t cringy) has made making the show less enjoyable for the actors and creators.”

Andem has stayed mostly quiet on her reasons for ending the show, except for a statement made via her Instagram. She recalls how very early on, during a season one shoot, someone first asked her how long the show would last:

“We were standing in the schoolyard at Nissen High School, a small, low-budget production crew, one photographer, the sound engineer and me. ‘Who knows, but I think we should aim for world domination,’ I said. We all laughed, ‘cause I was obviously joking. None of us understood then how big Skam would turn out to be. This experience has been completely unreal, and a joy to be a part of.”

Skam has been a 24/7 job,” she continues. “We recently decided that we won’t be making a new season this fall. I know many of you out there will be upset and disappointed to hear this, but I’m confident this is the right decision.”

Many fans feel that season four has struggled under the burden of ending the show – and divisions and cracks have appeared in the fandom as a result.

Some feel that Sana’s season has been overshadowed by other characters and plotlines, something that is particularly frustrating for those who were keen to see greater Muslim representation in the show. Of a moment in season four involving Noora, the main character from season two, one fan account wrote, “I LOVE season tw- I mean four. That’s Noora’s season right? No wait, is it Willhell’s season??? What’s a Sana.”

Others feel that the subject of Islam hasn’t been tackled well in this season. Some viewers felt one scene, which sees Sana and her white, non-Muslim friend, Isak, discuss Islamophobia, was whitesplainy. 

One popular translation account, that provides a version of the show with English subtitles, wrote of the scene: “A lot of you guys have been disappointed by the latest clip and you’re not the only ones. We do want to finish this project for the fans but we are disappointed with how this season has gone.” They announced they would be translating less as a result.

The final week of the show has been light on Sana. Instead, each character who never received a full season has had a few minutes devoted to their perspective. These are the other girls from the girl squad, Vilde and Chris, and the boyfriends of each main character: Eva’s ex Jonas, Isak’s boyfriend Even, Eva’s current fling “Penetrator Chris” and Noora’s on-off boyfriend William.

It’s understandable to want to cover key perspectives in the show’s final week, but it can feel teasing – we get a short glimpse into characters' home lives, like Vilde struggling to care for her depressed mother, but the scene ends before we can really get into it. And, of course, it takes precious time away from Sana in the show’s final minutes.

Some were frustrated by the characters focused on. “Penetrator Chris” is a particularly minor character – one fan account wrote of his scene: “This is absolutely irrelevant. 1) It sidelines Sana 2) It asks more questions 3) It doesn’t answer shit. This isn’t even Sana’s season anymore and that’s absolutely disgusting. She didn’t even get closure or ten episodes or anything.

“Sana has been disrespected and disregarded and erased and sidelined and that is fucking gross. She deserved better. Yet here we are watching a Penetrator Chris clip. How ironic that it’s not even called just “Christopher” because that’s all he is. “Penetrator Chris”.

It’s been a dramatic close for a usually warm and tight-knit fan community. Of course, many fans are delighted with the final season: their only sadness is there won’t be more. One of the largest fan accounts tried to keep things positive. “I know people have mixed feelings about Skam and who deserves what in terms of screentime this season (etc),” they wrote, “which I totally understand.

"However, everything has already been filmed, so there is nothing we can do about it. I think this last week of Skam will be much more enjoyable for everyone if we focus on the positives in the clips ahead. Skam isn’t perfect. People are allowed to disagree. But let’s go into this week being grateful for everything Skam has given us.”

Some fans choose to look to what the future holds for the show – an American remake. It will keep the same characters and plotlines as the original, and Andem may be involved.

Few think it will be a patch on the current show, but some are excited to have the chance to watch it teasingly as a group regardless. It seems unlikely that the US remake will compare in terms of quality – not least because the original was so heavily researched and tied to Norwegian culture. But for fans struggling to let go of Skam, it can’t come soon enough.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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