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American pop icons and the dark side of fame

From Elvis to Prince, the music stars who burnt out in the limelight.

“A fucking dump full of people who were past their best,” is how Ian Penman described his first impressions on entering the offices of the New Musical Express (NME) in 1978. The 19-year-old proceeded to occupy what his former colleague Paul Morley called the paper’s “experimental wing”, credited with bringing theory to the UK music press (“He uses long words like semiotics and semolina,” the Cure’s Robert Smith once sang of Penman – legitimately, as it happens – in a 1979 Peel session track entitled “Desperate Journalist in Ongoing Meaningful Review Situation”). In the introduction to his latest collection, It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track, (the title derives from a WH Auden poem), Penman recalls an adolescence as an “unformed and insecure 14-year-old in flattest dullest 1970s Norfolk”, a boy with a love of soul music and his heart set on going to art school, having “no real thought of writing at all, never mind for a living, or a lifetime”.

Four decades since venturing to London, with the fables of the NME’s hedonistic heyday nothing but faded memories (the publication ceased print operations in 2018), he now commands his place among the finest essayists in music criticism, consistently finding new angles on artists whose careers have been thoroughly filleted by generations of followers.

As with his previous anthology, Vital Signs (1998), all the pieces in It Gets Me Home have appeared elsewhere, either in the London Review of Books or New York’s City Journal. The collection’s transatlantic feel is supported by the author’s choice to focus primarily on US musicians, though it opens with a wonderful ode to mod – a defiantly British subculture whose origins are found amid jazz “modernists” in late 1950s Soho. The scene became synonymous with Swinging Sixties youth culture, weaving RAF insignia and Union Jack motifs into the nation’s art, film and fashion. But its early adherents had an eye for “European Style, from the Tour de France to the Nouvelle Vague”, marking them out from the more parochial aesthetic of trad (“real ale, CND, the Goons”).

Unsurprisingly for a writer wishing to ape the “playfulness” of Barthes and Derrida, Penman spent his formative years ingesting French postmodernist literature in radical bookshops. He tells us that AJ Ayer and Bertrand Russell were favoured by trads, while mods “backed the darker horse of existentialism”. He notes Jean-Paul Sartre’s “mod-like appetite for amphetamines” and laments the lack of “Camus-rifling aesthetes” in British new wave cinema. Far less admiring of mod’s revival during Cool Britannia in the 1990s, Penman combs through Britpop’s bricolage, stumbling across a Blur photoshoot and impatiently dismissing Damon Albarn (“a strong breeze would knock him over”), and his band as “four art-school herberts leaning against a car”.

From here on, Penman profiles musicians on the other side of the Atlantic: men who helped define the culture of the American century, from superstar crooners Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley to technically gifted black pioneers Charlie Parker (“Bird”), James Brown and Prince, who brought African-American sound into the global mainstream. Their musical impact is in no doubt, so Penman focuses on their individual mythologies, interrogating the internal worlds of these damaged showmen. For Penman, entertainers are “a child-like crew who don’t grow up at the same rate as us, if at all”, and his subjects seem to have experienced varying degrees of arrested development, with upbringings often dominated by doughty, God-fearing mothers (Gladys Presley, Addie Bailey, Dolly Sinatra).

Latent prejudice and a barely acknowledged class divide in the US in the 20th-century meant that while early social or material hardships could be overcome, they continued to dog a performer’s public image. Sinatra, a child of Italian immigrants, was able to cultivate a popular appeal that stood in stark contrast to the snootiness of his Waspish critics. One New Yorker writer described Sinatra’s fan base as “plain, lonely girls from lower-middle-class homes”, while another from the New Republic viewed concert-goers at his celebrated Paramount Theatre shows as exuding “every appearance of being children of the poor”.

Penman walks us effortlessly through his artists’ years of success: the classic albums, sell-out tours and critical recognition that cemented their celebrity status. Not necessarily a diehard fan – he concedes that “Elvis worked far better in occasional jukebox bursts than extended play” – the author is nevertheless willing to immerse himself in the “tone” and “grain” of their music. Performers’ stories are contextualised in historical sweeps through different genres – jazz, rock ’n’ roll, R ’n’ B – and he recognises the role played by his subjects’ trailblazing musical predecessors: Duke Ellington, Hank Williams, Billie Holiday.

The construction of icons can never be achieved single-handedly. Penman goes out of his way to credit sidemen such as William “Bootsy” Collins, whose “sinuously pivotal bass line” on “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” provides perfect accompaniment to the Godfather of Soul’s “sandpaper rasp”; and canny behind-the-scenes operators such as the ruthless manager Colonel Tom Parker, who reportedly marketed “I HATE ELVIS” badges to the anti-Presley
brigade, and upon hearing of the King’s death said, “This changes nothing.”

We catch glimpses of an unscrupulous entertainment industry that overlaps with the world of politics. Showbusiness is commonly considered a stronghold of Democrat-leaning liberals, but it also added glamour to drab Republican campaigns. James Brown, a “stand-alone black conservative” who cultivated a bizarre friendship with the segregationist senator Strom Thurmond, came out to support Richard Nixon during his 1972 presidential run against George McGovern. Sinatra performed at gala fundraisers, becoming “something of a Reagan presidency insider” in his later years, with his own security service code-name, “Napoleon”.

It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track succeeds in showcasing the “paranoid, reclusive” side of the American dream. Penman generally avoids the commonplace “lost boys” narrative whereby narcotics, philandering and violence go hand-in-hand with creative genius, though at one point he asks the reader: “Is it better to endure bad art for the spotless ideology it promotes, or to continue to swoon before sublime art made by awful people?”

These men (all of Penman’s subjects in this book are male) dealt appallingly with fame. Elvis was “drug-coddled” and bed-bound by the late 1960s. Brown developed a gun fetish and a hallucinogenic PCP habit, “beat up girlfriends and wives” and privately behaved like a “Mafia chieftain”. His years on the road, with a .45 Colt in his belt, produced “a combative idea of business ethics not taught at Harvard”.

Penman’s final essay, in his own phrase “a very long and oddly dispiriting goodbye to Prince”, is starkly ungenerous to the “tiny man-diva”. He seems to resent Prince for transforming himself from a pop star renowned for his “breathless eclecticism” into “just one kind of black artist playing just one kind of black music” following what Penman considers his last great work, Lovesexy (1988). In misjudged discussions around race, the writer meanders into fogeyism, accusing Prince – who died in 2016 after an accidental opioid overdose, aged 57 – of everything from lightening his skin tone in publicity shots to wearing “neo-pimp hats” (the word “pimp” is egregiously deployed in the collection in proximity to two other black artists: James Brown and Miles Davis), and trying to act “gangsta” by ditching music “you couldn’t confidently call black or white” in favour of songs with titles like “Pussy Control”.

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Though his prose suffers from occasional overindulgence (young Elvis looking “baked-peach luscious”, girls wanting to “unwrap him like an expensive Easter chocolate”), and he feels no shame in appearing pretentious – he mentions the Freudian “id” in relation to Parker, Prince and Brown – Penman’s essays display a rare ability to draw readers behind the music. For example, he compares the switch in the 1950s from live to recorded music to “Hollywood’s changeover from silent cinema to the talkies”, improving the welfare of instrumentalists who swapped “the marriage-destroying purgatory of touring for well-remunerated union-protected session work”. The writer sparingly allows aspects of his own life to slip through. Unconcerned with cultivating a personal mythology as a hard-living rock journalist (having already snogged Grace Jones and fought off a decade-long heroin addiction), Penman gives glimpses of mundane trips to local supermarkets or recent coastal holidays. His confessions stretch to an admission of owning more than one pair of “antique shoe trees”.

Penman’s many years as an essayist have given him the confidence to judge fellow writers against his own high standards: GQ editor Dylan Jones (author of Elvis has Left the Building) is gently ribbed for including “nearly as much of [his] own biography as Presley’s”. Flashes of a younger, acerbic upstart appear from time to time: unkind about Charlie Parker’s weight, Penman variously describes the jazzman as an “ailing rhino in a crumpled suit”, a “zoot-suit sofa”, “pinstriped Michelin Man”, and the “only addict pre-Fassbinder to get fatter, not thinner, as his habit deepens”. Yet at his best, Penman exemplifies the art of effective music criticism: neither comprehensive nor hagiographical, his portraits of pop-cultural figures have a unique richness. As he says while revisiting images of Bird, “we might discern more of the true story here, if we blur our eyes and dream a little”. 

K Biswas is a critic and co-chair of the Race Beat, a network for people of colour in the media

It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track
Ian Penman
Fitzcarraldo, 260pp, £12.99

This article appears in the 24 January 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power to the people