Here’s a tip: If you’re a musician thinking of writing a rock book, and your name isn’t Keith Richards, leave it to the experts. There are plenty of hungry, talented writers who could write a book more complete than anything you might be able to write. So, seriously- don’t.
And on that note, I’m going to take a jaunty stroll through the back catalogue of flimsy memoirs, flitting from the banal to the brain-numbingly awful. Judging by this list, Salieri can absolve himself of his mediocrity; he didn’t write Who I Am.
It’s a good thing that these rockers – or eight of them, at least – know how to play music, and produce art that stands the test of time. These rock artists know how to entertain a mass audience, and many of them continue to do so – and should continue to do so – until the day they can’t.
But judging by the standards of some of these books, it supports Robert Plant’s theory that rock stars should never commit their memories to print. Unless you’re Keith Richards, that is. That book stands up with the best of autobiography.
The 10 rock memoirs, ranked from bland to blandest:
10. Autobiography – Morrissey
Morrissey’s knuckle-headed attempt to come across as a literary savant backfired when he released this boneheaded book on the Penguin label. Although he always held a dim view of Mike Joyce, the singer unwisely took this as an opportunity to rip into his former bandmate, decrying him as a “flea” in search of a “dog”. His attempts to come across as cute and coy are let down by some truly vicious attacks at the percussionist who personally laid down the propulsive intro to ‘The Queen Is Dead’. It’s hard to imagine another drummer from Manchester playing with such bounce and bravura.
But one thing about Morrissey-he really knows how to write. His syntax is rich with imagination, and the book is steeped with the richness of language that was thought to be long lost from his repertoire. But this isn’t a portrait of an artist tortured by the trappings of success, but a brat undeserving of his acclaim. Maybe Morrissey shouldn’t have bothered.
9. Ronnie – Ronnie Wood
Unlike Morrissey, Ronnie Wood is happy to portray himself as a man fortunate enough to enjoy the tremendous wealth in his life, but unlike Morrissey, his memories are pretty vague, making for a memoir that has spice, but lacks that devilish bite. If you’re looking for catty remarks about Mick Jagger or Rod Stewart, you’re better off reading the latest issue of Vogue, and anyone looking for a better-rounded view of alcoholism will be better off reading Motley Crue’s dizzyingly brilliant The Dirt. Wood isn’t even the Stone who wrote the best memoir – as ever, it’s Keith Richards who walks away with that particular plaudit.
The book isn’t necessarily bad, but bland. Curiously, he omits the recording of ‘Ooh La La’, which was, to the best of my knowledge, the first time he sang on record. But it’s a fun package holiday read, and Wood never fails to showcase the wiry, funny side of him that won him the gig in The Rolling Stones in the first place.
8. Thanks a Lot Mr Kibblewhite – Roger Daltrey
“The book reflects who I am,” Roger Daltrey pronounced in an interview. “It’s about me and my personality. It’s not a book about The Who; it’s my journey. Some of it is about how I dealt with the problems that were thrown up by the band. Who fans are disappointed because I don’t talk about music enough, but talking about music that much is … dull as dishwater.” So, instead, we get a book that’s even duller than dishwater because Daltrey’s life – like most lives – is pretty ordinary. And with a man who decides to treat his music like a nine-to-five job, it’s never going to scream off the page.
And yet there are revelations: He describes Who By Numbers, effectively a Pete Townshend solo album in all but name, as his favourite album, and he also gives an insight into how the band were founded. He comes across as unapologetic, which makes sense considering that The Who continued without Keith Moon and John Entwistle, but he also comes across as someone who is deeply involved in the creative process, despite having only written two songs for The Who.
7. Not Dead Yet – Phil Collins
If there was ever a book that could be described as Partridgesque, then this is the one. Despite his many successes, Phil Collins seems determined to write a number of wrongs that were levelled against him. He practically begged Genesis not to promote him to the front of the band; he says he was forced to speak on television when Led Zeppelin opted for a more dignified silence; and then there are his encounters with George Harrison, a man who can’t appreciate his hard work, but sends him an acetate that The Beatle recorded to mock Collins heavy-handed drumming. Lest we forget, this is also the man who personally wrote to journalists, calling them “wankers”, and wrote a tune about homelessness from a mansion that likely had a swimming pool in the middle of it.
So, Collins doesn’t come across well for most of the book, although the book takes a moving turn towards the end when he discusses his struggles with retirement, and his efforts to make his third marriage work for the long haul. There’s no denying the fact that the man is supremely talented, as a drummer, singer, composer and occasional actor. And more recently, he has taken a more positive view of his trajectory that was absent from his mind in 2016. Either way, he’s deserving of his success.
6. Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd – Nick Mason
The nicest member of Pink Floyd picks up a pen to write a nice memoir. No one wants a nice memoir. Anxious not to step on anyone’s toes, Nick Mason treads carefully, writing delicately about every member of Pink Floyd, no matter if it’s Syd Barrett absenting himself from rehearsals, or Roger Waters taking full control of the band during The Wall. It still didn’t sit well with Waters, who personally wrote the word “bollocks” over some of the drummer’s notes. It would have been much better to read with great honesty, and rip through his bandmates, who proceeded to air their dirty laundry to the world.
I mean, just look at this interview with Rolling Stone. “After the big [Division Bell] tour in 1994, David really had had enough of doing big tours,” says Mason. “I can see why, but I didn’t entirely agree with that. But then it was slightly different for David because he carried most of it on his shoulders. It’s also really hard work and he had young kids and a family at home.” It’s a bit too nice, right?
5. I Am Ozzy – Ozzy Osbourne
Yeah, Ozzy Osbourne comes across as an asshole. I’m sure there’s a more appropriate term for the man, but for now, asshole fits. Yeah, I’m going with asshole, whether it’s claiming credit for other people’s hard graft, or assaulting not one, but two, wives, to the shabby treatment of his children, Osbourne comes across as an asshole with a capital ‘A’. As such, the singer doesn’t come across well in this book, no matter how truthfully he might try to sell them. Basically, he’s a giant asshole, and Black Sabbath had every right to fire him.
But to his credit, the singer does show some level of regret, especially for the way he treated his first wife. Secondly, he does recall some of the early Black Sabbath gigs with great humour and attention to detail, supporting the theory that he is the wittiest member of the band. But given his rampant drunkenness, he openly admits that he can’t recall some of the more sensationalistic aspects of his life.
4. I Me Mine – George Harrison
This is an odd one: The Beatle least likely to embrace the spotlight was also the only one who would write a book about his time in The Beatles. And yet, it’s such a nothing book, barely lifting the veil to offer any reflections of his life’s work. John Lennon was unimpressed by the book, feeling that his influence – such as effectively co-writing the lyrics to ‘Taxman’ – were overlooked. “I was hurt by it,” Lennon bellowed in an interview. “By glaring omission in the book, my influence on his life is absolutely zilch and nil … I’m not in the book.”
Lennon needn’t have worried: no one is in the book. There’s no sense of what Paul McCartney’s bass playing did to lift ‘Think For Yourself’ or ‘I Want To Tell You’, just as there’s no mention of George Martin’s sterling string work on ‘Within You Without You’. Harrison said that was never the intention of the book, but whatever the intention was, it was missing from the general public.
3. Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock – Sammy Hagar
This is certainly the most inessential selection on the list because it’s hard to see why Sammy Hagar felt the world needed to hear his opinions on life, the universe and everything. Because he didn’t write about life, the universe and everything, instead he sanitised Van Halen, at a time when the band needed to get dirtier and more frisky in their output. We also get the niggling sense that he’s giving himself more credit than he’s due, and frequently contradicts himself, especially when it comes to Michael Anthony’s bass playing (which is both stellar and clunky, according to the singer-songwriter).
More importantly, the singer offers a conflicting portrait of Eddie Van Halen, the mercurial guitar whose name imprinted itself on the band in question. Hagar suggests that the guitarist was both his best friend and most nefarious opponent, but if there was tension, it didn’t reflect in the art, which was by in large, fairly awful. But Hagar does offer one blinding moment of confessional insight, as his first session with Van Halen was the sound of his favourite band: Cream. He must be gutted that they never produced Disraeli Gears II.
2. Clapton: The Autobiography – Eric Clapton
Re-reading this in 2022, the book comes across as a desperate attempt to redress his image, particularly in light of the comments he issued in 1974. Clapton was never one of the most exemplary musicians of his generation, being both a man of questionable character and a musician of even more questionable ability. But there’s no denying the fact that the man has lived a life, and his memories should be committed to print. Such a pity he couldn’t tie it together as a book of any worth.
In many ways, Clapton’s autobiography represents the man himself: biting, brusque and betwixt by a desire to write good music, his mediocrity rears its ugly head, leaving the man a shell of his contemporaries. In any other company, George Harrison might come across as bitchy and unfriendly, but next to Clapton, he’s basically a saint. And there’s no way Harrison would have butchered ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ if he’d played the solo.
1. Who I Am – Pete Townshend
There’s a joke in the generally unfunny Gavin & Stacey where one of the characters claims that they cornered Pete Townshend, and asked, “Where’s the book?” Well, it finally arrived in 2012, but it wasn’t the one the critics or the audience wanted. Because whenever he goes into that subject, he’s careful not to go into details. He says he’s innocent, but the clues point to a shadier individual. And considering how little Keith Moon, Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle appear in the book, it would suggest that he’s a deeply unpleasant person to spend time with.
What does come across is someone who is humourless, haughty and determined to write anthems that push the boundaries of rock. Which is more the pity, because Townshend lacks the talent to push the anthems to their point of destination, and the end result is the writings of a disgruntled hack, querying his relevance in the world at large. We’ll save it for you Pete: you weren’t relevant in 1985, let alone 2012.