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

DES WILLIE/BBC
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Man alive! Why the flaws of Inside No 9 only emphasise its brilliance

A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking.​ ​Even as my brain raced, I was grinning.

At the risk of sounding like some awful, jargon-bound media studies lecturer – precisely the kind of person those I’m writing about might devote themselves to sending up – it seems to me that even the dissatisfactions of Inside No 9 (Tuesdays, 10pm) are, well, deeply satisfying. What I mean is that the occasional flaws in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s cultish series, those unlooked-for moments when nothing quite makes sense, only serve to emphasise its surpassing brilliance.

At the end of the final episode of series three, for instance, there came a discombobulating twist. A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. How had this happened? Were the preceding 28 minutes only a dream? Even as my brain raced, I was grinning. That line about Ron Mueck! In a piece that seemed mostly to be paying topsy-turvy homage to the camp 1973 horror flick Theatre of Blood.

Pemberton and Shearsmith are all about homage: a bit of Doctor Who here, a touch of Seventies B-movie there. Inside No 9’s format of twisty one-offs is a direct descendant of ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And yet it is so absolutely its own thing. Only they could have written it; only they could ever do this much (stretch your arms as wide as they’ll go) in so little time (half an hour).

In the episode Private View, guests were invited to the Nine Gallery in somewhere Hoxtonish. This motley crew, handpicked to represent several of the more unedifying aspects of 21st-century Britain, comprised Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a reality-TV star; Patricia (Felicity Kendal), a smutty novelist; Kenneth (Pemberton), a health and safety nut; and Maurice (Shearsmith), an art critic. Hard on their heels came Jean (Fiona Shaw), a wittering Irishwoman with gimlet eyes. However, given that they were about to be bloodily picked off one by one, at least one of them was not what she seemed. “I’m due at Edwina Currie’s perfume launch later,” Carrie yelped, as it dawned on her that the pages of Grazia might soon be devoting a sidebar to what Towie’s Mark Wright wore to her funeral.

Private View satirised a certain kind of contemporary art, all bashed up mannequins and blindingly obvious metaphors. Admittedly, this isn’t hard to do. But at least Pemberton and Shearsmith take for granted the sophistication of their audience. “A bit derivative of Ron Mueck,” said Maurice, gazing coolly at one of the installations. “But I like the idea of a blood mirror.” The duo’s determination to transform themselves from episode to episode – new accent, new hair, new crazy mannerisms – calls Dick Emery to mind. They’re better actors than he was, of course; they’re fantastic actors. But in the context of Inside No 9, even as they disappear, they stick out like sore thumbs, just as he used to. They’re the suns around which their impressive guest stars orbit. They may not always have the biggest parts, but they nearly always get the best lines. You need to watch them. For clues. For signs. For the beady, unsettling way they reflect the world back at you.

What astonishes about this series, as with the two before it, is its ability to manage dramatic shifts in tone. Plotting is one thing, and they do that as beautifully as Roald Dahl (the third episode, The Riddle of the Sphinx, which revolved around a crossword setter, was a masterclass in structure). But to move from funny to plangent and back again is some trick, given the limitations of time and the confined spaces in which they set the stories. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Shearsmith’s character found a size-nine shoe in the street and became obsessed with finding its owner, which was very droll. But the real engine of the piece, slowly revealed, was grief, not madness (“Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John”). You felt, in the end, bad for having sniggered at him.

If you missed it, proceed immediately to iPlayer, offering a thousand thanks for the usually lumbering and risk-averse BBC, which has commissioned a fourth series. One day people will write learned papers about these shows, at which point, jargon permitting, I might discover just how Maurice managed to live to fight another day.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution