Celebrity books of the year: From Townshend to Everett to Burton

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Picture: Getty
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Picture: Getty
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OWING to circumstances beyond my control I had to stop reading this goodly selection from the great steaming pile of celebrity memoirs and return to them later.

By that point, Pete Townshend was getting the Who going, Richard Burton was on the Côte d’Azur, rising late as usual, for a lunch of poularde de bresse followed by “love in the afternoon” – and, thanks to her book’s index, enabling me to jump 100 dreary pages, Tulisa Contostavlos had just found out about the existence of her sex tape. So, on resumption, what did I grab first?

If you’d asked me 12 months ago which life-story I was most looking forward to reading in 2012 it probably would have been Townshend’s Who I Am (Harper Collins, £20). In the wake of Keith Richards’ Life, musical biogs have replaced comedy ones as publishing’s most-wanted. Rock stars have become the new rock stars. I’ve always preferred the Who to the Stones so was imagining that among the terrific reminiscing, Townshend’s story would contain a certain poignancy over a band who were great but should have been greater. And then there would be the drama over the guitarist’s arrest for accessing child porn.

But the surprise, unputdownable, did-he-just-say-that?, funny, wise, elegant, bitchy treat has been Rupert Everett’s Vanished Years (Little Brown, £20) and I returned to it just in time for our hero to pitch up in Hollywood, to pitch an idea for a TV show. The Beverly Hills Hotel is the pitchiest, bitchiest place in Tinseltown and Everett writes: “I am one of those freaks and it is almost a religious experience to be there as High Mass is celebrated each night in all the candlelit booths as another hopeless, flushed producer with dentures and hair-plugs gives communion.”

Brit actors are always swanning off to Hollywood. When I meet one, just back, I want tales of epic weirdness. Invariably I get dull observations about swimming pools, proving that most thesps really are empty vessels. But Everett has been paying attention and – bonus – he can write. He probably thinks he’s this generation’s Noel Coward and, frankly darling, why not? Here he is en route to a Washington party: “It feels for a chilling moment, as we squawk and clatter to our cars in the setting sun, that nature actually hates us.” At a New York bash, at “Liberty’s sandalled feet” no less, he notes Harvey Weinstein’s resemblance to “a giant old couch left out on the street”, and, having previously called Madonna a “whiny old barmaid”, surmises that their friendship is in its final act: “She probably sets a time limit on everything, including orgasm.”

Everett, a terrible and justifiable snob, dreams of Old Hollywood, ruled by the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, all shooting from the hip. Taylor turns up, as you’d expect, in The Richard Burton Diaries (Yale, £25), but not as often as you’d hope. This is a monster read though incomplete. In the early 1960s Burton was peak-of-his-powers and the boyo superstar with the killer chat-up line: “Do you like Welsh rugby?” But the first time he crash-tackled “E” to begin their sensational romance is not recorded and four key years are missing.

Subsequently, in Swiss tax-exile, not much happens, though once you adjust to the slow pace it’s as if you’re riding in the Roller, roof down, with Burton on a mission to buy E a bikini. Did I say bikini? I meant plane. One day in 1967 he decides she must have the jet in which they’ve just landed. “It costs, brand new, $960,000. She was not displeased.” Did I say plane? I meant fat rock. “I was going to get that diamond if it cost me my life.” This was a “Battle of the Rubies” auction with Aristotle Onassis. Winning bid: $1,100,000.

There are a lot of big numbers here: three books devoured in a day, sometimes five; three bottles of vodka glugged before dinner. Everything’s big, including the rows with E (“We are fighting and have been fighting for a year now over everything and anything”) and his disenchantment with his chosen profession (“I loathe loathe loathe acting”). Big book, big talent, but too many lousy films. Really, he wanted to be a writer.

If the Burton occasionally plods and the Everett is always prancing, then the contrast between Who I Am and Rod Stewart’s Rod: The Autobiography (Century, £20) is something similar. Townshend’s tale is ponderously, sombrely told, but it’s painfully honest and moving. He approaches each subject as if he’s bearing down on a speaker cabinet, guitar looming – even the business of bearing down on speaker cabinets. He was the art-school rocker who firstly believed in art, his speaker-smashing being inspired by Gustav Metzger’s auto-destructivism.

Some might wish for more japery. I would have liked more insight into Townshend’s songwriting, though am pleased to learn that for my favourite among The Who’s great early run of glistening singles, The Kids Are Alright, he borrowed from Purcell. This kid wasn’t always alright, and to make sense of his “insane” attempts to stop the spread of child porn on the internet, he must frantically reach back to childhood when, he’s convinced, a “perfect wicked witch” of a grandmother allowed him to be sexually abused by her lovers.

Rod doesn’t even bother to mention my favourite Stewart song, In a Broken Dream, but I forgive him that for what is a brilliant romp, as picaresque, candid and funny as you’d hoped. When he gets together with Britt Ekland, she instantly declares them the new Burton and Taylor. “I cringed and wanted to die,” he writes. But the reader is amused when characters repeat across these books – eg Lucille Ball: Everett wants to be her; to Burton she’s a “monster of staggering charmlessness” – and when Stewart introduces us to his mincing, chain-smoking, incorrigible publicist, Tony Toon, I want to move him around the other biogs, as fire-fighter or fire-starter.

At the end of every meal without fail, Toon would demand: “Bring me a large amaretto and a big butch man!” Perhaps he’d have been powerless to take the heat out of any situation for Burton and Taylor; for merely departing the dentist’s, that pair would be greeted with bursts of applause. But surely he could have helped poor Tulisa who’s first appalled by that tape’s invasion of privacy, then anxious that the world might suspect she doesn’t know how to give a good blowjob.

Ah, Tulisa. I really should get back to Honest (Headline, £20), but right now I’m re-reading Everett’s account of a charity performance of The Apprentice, the funniest chapter in any book this year. Never having watched the show, our hero mistakes Sir Alan Sugar for Sid James. He gets teamed with Alastair Campbell, Piers Morgan and Ross Kemp, all of whom “glistened with testosterone in the splotlights. The whole thing reminded me of school. Here were the same rugger buggers and bullies I’d escaped all those years ago”. He escapes again – does a runner – after a taxi-ride with Campbell when the former spin doctor orders him to ring up all potential benefactors. Glancing at Everett’s phone, he asks: “Who’s Joe Escort?”

“Um. An escort called Joe?”