The Universal Tone
Orion, 320pp, £20
Viking, 400pp, £25
Rocks: My Life In and Out of Aerosmith
Simon & Schuster, 432pp, £20
Dancing with Myself
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.