Sunday, January 29, 2017

READING ROCK STARS



Late last year I got into reading rock star memoirs. It started with Pete Townshend’s Who I Am, back around Thanksgiving, which I’d had on my shelf awhile, and then continued through Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, in early December, and Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace, which I got for Christmas.

The main thing this trio of personal stories did (besides giving me some insight into the character of each of these songwriters—songwriters that each made a big impression on me before we all got out of the 1970s) was point up how privileged the rock star lifestyle is and how, to a certain telling extent, success doesn’t change anything. Granted, if any of the three had not been a success I wouldn’t be reading their books, and if any had been a mere flash in the pan—like, if their influence stopped with the 1970s, say—than it’s not so sure I’d be reading them either, unless I just wanted to go back to that heyday for purposes of jogging my own memory. (Which, by the way, was probably the biggest effect of reading these three worthies.) But, to further expound on the point about success: it made them “who they are,” so that I care, but they each maintained some quality they already had even before they made it. Which was a way of noticing that one reason all three mattered to me is that I believed in them, when I first encountered their music, and, though in each case there were later periods when I cared about their releases not much at all, I still feel tied to, even rooted by, the music of theirs that got through to me first.

And the other thing all three books have in common, on that score: None of the three talk very much about their songs or songwriting. I don’t mean the technical side of what went into the song—the guitar tuning or the chord sequence, and so on—but rather its intention as a song. Springsteen is the best of the three at that, but that’s true mostly of the more autobiographical songs that help him to talk about himself, which is the point of the memoir, mostly. In each case, it’s interesting to see how a musical artist’s career looks through his own eyes. But these books aren’t going to give you much insight into how writing certain songs at certain times clarified anything for these writers.

It’s not a complaint so much as an observation. What matters to me, as I’ve tried to show with the Song of the Day posts, is how songs become part of the listener’s psychic life. My assumption that songs, for the songwriter, were already a necessary part of the songwriter’s psychic life might be na├»ve, but I don’t think that’s the problem. It’s not that the songs aren’t a part of the songwriter’s psychic life, it’s that they are to such an extent that any of the three would have to be a much better writer of prose to get at that. It’s much easier to write about the surface phenomena—how you get along with band mates, the influence of collaborators on the final product, the memorable experiences with family and friends and lovers, the bad judgments, the mea culpa moments, the struggles with the career valleys, the effect of the commercial side of all this—than with the “so, you’re alone with a notebook and a guitar” moments.

As a person, Townshend is the least likeable, no surprise. He knows he’s kind of an arrogant prick, but, so what, he’s Peter Townshend, and in the big book of rock, The Who matter—then, now, and for all time. I guess the thing I learned that interested me most was how much the group was Roger Daltrey’s. It was Daltrey’s first—he’s the front man after all—and Pete was invited to join. So, much of what The Who were had to be agreed upon by Roger and John Entwhistle, the bass player, who was also in the band before Pete was. Because Pete wrote mostly all the material and was lead guitar, I always looked upon him as the leader, and because I’m biased toward writers. And I blamed him when The Who’s product became sub par, especially when he did such a great solo album, Empty Glass, while the concurrent Who album was middling. But that’s not entirely his fault. Roger’s an ass too, y’see. And Pete has had to do a lot of coping with what The Who fan base expects of the band and what the band is comfortable with doing. But then again I don't care that much about what he has done since The Who’s heyday and the Broadway version of Tommy was kind of a sell-out of what the album required, so that, of all its various incarnations, seeing The Who perform it was still closest to what it was—Ken "Excess" Russell's kitschy film version notwithstanding.

Neil is the most likeable, and that’s mainly because his prose style is so disarming. It’s like hanging out with him and getting to know him. It’s almost off-hand at times, and yet he does, in non-chronological fashion, cover most of the albums and events you expect to hear about. It’s a long, varied career and, for me, his comments kept bringing back to mind how much his music has mattered to me over the years and for many years. More than the others, he revived himself in the 1990s to an almost unprecedented extent. Of the three, only Springsteen experienced a great career upsurge in the 1980s, but he still didn’t keep my interest to quite the same degree thereafter. The other two really lost ground with me in that decade, though Young less than Townshend/The Who. But then Neil came on strong in the 90s and made it his decade. No one of a similar degree of longevity was even remotely comparable. And that matters. And Neil has gone on with some really good albums and some just so-so ones and some pretty off-hand ones into the current dearth of rock relevance. He’s a maverick, and his approach seems to be much like his personality, doing what interests him at the moment.

Springsteen’s memoir is probably the most lucid. It’s a great performance by a guy who has worked hard to develop his persona—what they like to call now “his brand.” Bruce Springsteen, as an entity, has a lot of associative affect. And that’s why I was so pleased by the amount of time he spent with his early days, before there was any “Brucers”—or Bruce fans—in the world. His long struggle to make a decent living from playing music may be familiar ground—having known, here and there, people from the same basic geographical area trying their hand at it—but I didn’t know much about it in his particular case. What his experience creates is a certain enduring humility—even after Born to Run he had to work hard just to stay financially solvent to say nothing of having to “top” it or at least not fail it too badly—and, with the huge success in the mid-Eighties, a certain wry sense of how fortuitous such success can be. It made him, yes, but he was already who he was. And he’s the kind of guy who, once he’s got the attention, can handle it but who also tries to make it useful.

All three, in that regard, have conscience about how their success brings responsibility. Maybe it’s because his greatest success came by being a band member that Townshend seems the one least concerned with giving credit to others. Springsteen and Young are both very interesting, and completely sincere, when they give credit and when they sometimes take to task the ways things didn’t go the way they could’ve. Young, not surprisingly, given his many great songs, seems to have the deepest self-knowledge, even if he’s quite willing to concede that he doesn’t really understand himself fully, at least at this point when he’s becoming an old fart. Townshend seems to have the least self-knowledge, but I think that’s more a case of not delving into much for the purposes of his narrative. There’s a rather passive sense in a lot of it, as though things happening to Pete Townshend, the rocker, are just the kind of things you’d expect and Pete Townshend, the author, has no duty other than to note them. Only Springsteen seems to be driving for the clarity that a personal account can bring. He’s trying to get how it looked to him—more than “how I did it”—on paper, and the main thing he keeps in mind is the learning curve. Like his perceptive fans, he expects each album to tell him something about who he is as an artist at that moment. While the big interpretations of that can be left to others, he does let us see how his own creativity keeps him moving—and his love of music-making, and his love of his fans and his band, and his burning desire to make better records, not lesser records.

Young has a similar conviction that the music he is a part of matters. He respects his forebears and tries not to let the franchise down. Rock made him and he tries to make it, to the best of his ability. But he’s also quite candid about the ways in which the music business and, specifically, the technology that came in with mp3s, is a disservice to the music, in evolving ways. The problem early in his career was just getting a good deal; the problem now is with the product itself and the ways in which the internet has morphed music in ways radio didn’t. He doesn’t have that much to say about what TV did to it, because, in the era of real stereos, the box didn’t matter much and now, in the era of computers and smartphones, it again doesn’t matter.

Granted, there’s a certain post mortem aspect to the whole notion: rock writers writing memoirs, if only because “the greatest is behind.” That’s true with these three because they were each a major part of the pop culture furnishings of the 1970s and, whatever one makes of the decades that have followed, that particular point in time is back there somewhere in personal and cultural history. All three have to take stock of deaths that altered, for each personally, the world they live in and who they can count on being in it with them. That aspect of the books is actually a bit moving at times. Survivors speaking of those who did not make it to this point. Danny Whitten, Clarence Clemons, Keith Moon, John Entwhistle, Danny Federici, Ben Keith ....

The odd thing about our celebrity heroes is how much we live in their world too, even if we’re just abstractions—fans, listeners, followers—in their view. But, in the memoir sense of autobiographical criticism, getting down when and how these artists make their mark is of the essence in how they shape our world, for periods of time.

On the one hand, it would be easy to make autobiography as criticism simply a record of one’s likes and dislikes, to determine how one shaped a taste and varied it, adapting it to the changing times. Or, with an eye on the latter, one could look at how the market made certain things available and how one’s identifications with certain products, certain careers furnish the dimensions of one’s own life within a cultural matrix, in this case rock—“capitalismus’s favorite boy-child” as the Mekons say. But my stress on songs a moment ago—and by extension albums as a specific collection of songs (and Young is very adamant about his records being arranged, so that he doesn’t like the easy sharing out of context on playlists)—aims, of course, at something more lyrical than historical. Because that level of identification detaches—to the extent that anything in our times can—from strict market forces with, yes, a sense of what charisma means in the old religious sense. All the bad or good advertising copy in the world doesn’t make you experience or live the song with its singer, not really. Or at least that’s a starting point for accounting for that kind of “life.” A life lived in other people’s music? A life spent choosing the soundtrack? Perhaps, but in the end you either believe that poetry and music are recognizable, knowable events—within the vast configuration of events that make a life—or else you are left only with prose. And yeah, in our lifetimes, that prose will be either ad copy or press releases or the merger of advertising and reporting into something called “media.” Or else it will be criticism. Or, maybe, the hero’s “own story in his own words!”

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