Rock memoirs: the greatest hits and misses

Philip Norman tells a familiar tale of Mick Jagger well
Philip Norman tells a familiar tale of Mick Jagger well
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They live fast but don’t die young, and in print they go on and on, says Aidan Smith

IN PERSON they may be skinny, mincing rock gods, but in book form, Prince and Mick Jagger are solid, sturdy and well capable of supporting a shelf on my desk containing all of 2012’s other rock tomes, some of which are very hefty indeed. How did this happen?

In 1989 Dave Hill’s Prince: A Pop Life ran to 242 pages, a tight read for a tight career. Up to that point, His Royal Purpleness’s albums had been all killer, no filler, but the purple patch would end with Lovesexy. So what does Matt Thorne find to fill the 562 pages of his Prince (£18.88, Faber)?

He goes song by song, covering the entire recorded works. All those double and triple ­albums you didn’t buy. But Thorne is no Ian MacDonald, who wrote the first (and still best) song-by-song book, Revolution In The Head about the Beatles, and the Prince oeuvre simply doesn’t stand up to this scrutiny. There’s no contribution from the man himself so he remains an enigma, albeit a dimming one now. All that said, Thorne is a raving obsessive and I admire his dedication. Given the chance I’d probably hand in 764 pages on the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, 928 on Slade.

The last great Rolling Stones album was 1978 (Some Girls) and Philip Norman has written about the band before. So how does he justify the 622-page Mick Jagger (£20, Harper­Collins)? Jagger is obviously more culturally significant and Norman tells a familiar tale well: Redlands, Altamont, the caddishness, the stinginess (it was Truman Capote, ligging on the Stones ’72 tour, who remarked of the frontman: “He has no talent save for a kind of fly-eyed wonder… he could I suppose be a businessman… that ability to focus in on the ­receipts in the midst of Midnight Rambler while he’s beating away with the whip.”).

Inevitably, though, the tale becomes less gripping as the good songs dry up. This is when we need the book to be an autobiography, for some explanation and reflection on the life of an invented rebel, but a vital life none the less. We need this even more, since the publication of Keith Richards’ Life. But, given that Jagger handed back a £1 million advance for his memoirs because he couldn’t remember much, we’ll probably never get it.

Thorne is a novelist by trade; Norman, according to his dust-jacket, “resists classification as a rock biographer”. Barney Hoskyns, I reckon, would be perfectly happy with the description, although his books are getting longer too.

After profiles of musical ­genres or cities (glam, singer-songwriter and Los Angeles, all much loved in my house), he interviewed all the copper-top bar-owners who ever served Tom Waits a drink when the subject wouldn’t co-operate. The Waits has been followed with Trampled Underfoot: The Power And Excess Of Led Zeppelin (£20, Faber). This one comes in at 571 pages, presumably because there was so much of both. It’s an oral history, drawn from 200 who were there, and Hoskyns doesn’t skimp on the sharks-in-the-bedroom lore and other fishy stuff but is careful that a great band don’t get trampled underfoot.

If you only know Leonard Cohen as the author of Hallelujah, a song ritualistically murdered on talent shows, you might wonder how Sylvie Simmons’ I’m Your Man (£20, Cape) can possibly stretch to 546 pages. Well, Cohen has had a long life with equal-parts fascination for the sacred and the profane (his songs revolve around love, ­religion, sex and death) and there’s been no unremarkable late-career fade-out. Ripped off hugely by his manager in 2004 at the age of 70, this practising monk was forced down the mountain and back on to the road.

The rock scribe’s epic word-count hasn’t been made available to me here but I must mention Ian Bell’s Once Upon A Time: The Lives Of Bob ­Dylan (£20, Mainstream), which brought up the rear in the Zimmerman 50th anniversary splurge but was beautifully written, and Julian Cope’s ­Copendium, (£30, Faber), a glorious glossary of musicians even more bonkers than its author with an imitation snakeskin cover.

My top read, however, was The History Of The NME by 
Pat Long (£14.99, Portico), a truly thrilling ride for anyone who lived for Thursdays in 
the 70s and had the mag ­memorised, small ads for 
loons pants included, by lunchtime – leaving them 
with ink on their hands and lots of pretentious new 
words swirling around in their heads.

Twitter: @aidansmith07