Is there life left in the music memoir?
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While bracing myself for the onslaught of year-end lists I’ll be reading or writing in the coming weeks, I realized something: Over the past 12 months, I’ve read 12 new music memoirs. That doesn’t include biographies; I’m talking autobiographies only. Sounds like a lot, but it barely puts a dent in the glut of music memoirs that have come out this year. From Neil Young’s bestselling Waging Heavy Peace to outliers like Satan Is Real by the late country legend Charlie Louvin, the preponderance of these books has gotten me thinking: Although I’ve been voraciously reading and loving music memoirs all my adult life (and then some), I now find myself wondering if the format is near a breaking point.
That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed much of this glut. David Byrne’s dazzling semi-memoir How Music Works stretches the form beyond its parameters, which is exactly what you’d expect a Byrne memoir to do. And Satan Is Real is a soulful, starkly poetic piece of writing worthy of Louvin’s underappreciated musical legacy. I find it interesting, though, that these two books—my favorite music memoirs of 2012—couldn’t be less alike. Byrne is a widely acknowledged icon who has dabbled in dozens of styles, and who uses his memoir to explore a vast array of philosophical and sociological topics. Louvin, on the other hand, played country and nothing but. And his memoir is full of hardscrabble anecdotes about a mostly obscure life and career that are wise, wry, violent, and heart-piercing.
There’s an even bigger difference between the two. Byrne wrote his book alone; Louvin did not. Satan Is Real’s credited ghostwriter is Benjamin Whitmer, a Colorado novelist whose mix of crime fiction and Americana is ideally suited to telling Louvin’s story. The fact that Whitmer completed the project after Louvin’s death in 2011 means that he may have had a larger hand in the manuscript than originally planned. Regardless of the way they came about, the book’s strengths are undeniable. There’s a unity and purity to its vision and voice that rings as true as any Louvin song.
Many of the memoirs I read this year could have used a ghostwriter as good as Whitmer. Waging Heavy Peace is one of them. Disjointed, unfocused, self-promotional, riddled with holes, and maddeningly repetitive, the book doesn’t do Young or his legacy any favors; it comes across as a feeble attempt at replicating Bob Dylan’s equally scattered yet masterful Chronicles: Volume One. And when Young takes time out from his listless meandering to bash Jimmy McDonough, author of the Young biography Shakey, it’s sadly ironic. Shakey is 10 times the book Waging Heavy Peace is.
In The A.V. Club’s review of Waging Heavy Peace, my colleague Phil Dyess-Nugent does a stellar job explaining why he thinks the memoir succeeds. He also drops an interesting aside: “Young’s book will more likely inspire a fresh round of breast-beating about the death of editing, and a publishing industry that will put out anything with a celebrity’s name attached.” That’s a great point, and perhaps the article you’re reading right now is somewhat guilty of that. However, with all due respect to Phil, I think he sets up a straw man with the whole “breast-beating” thing. The issues he mentions that concern editing and publishing are valid ones, and anyone with a vested interest in the music memoir ought to consider them. For instance, Young’s book could only have been improved by a stronger editorial hand. And it’s not a stretch to assume that Young, being who he is, had the leverage to wave that hand away. The industry not only will publish anything with a celebrity’s name on it, it sometimes gives that celebrity a longer leash—even if, as Waging Heavy Peace proves, being a great songwriter does not automatically make one a great writer.
Pete Townshend’s new memoir, Who I Am, is a more complicated case. In an interview on Morning Joe soon after the book’s release, Townshend said that he’d intended to limit the memoir to the early part of The Who’s career—specifically the first 10 years or so of the band, when it was at the forefront of the rock zeitgeist in so many ways. From what I gathered of Townshend’s comments, Who I Am was originally envisioned as a book that might have looked a lot like How Music Works: an exploration not only of his own life and music, but of the cultural continuum surrounding it. To a certain degree, Who I Am bears that out—but as the narrative progresses past the death of Keith Moon and into the realm of boilerplate rock ’n’ roll sex-and-excess, Townshend’s voice loses steam. As he told Morning Joe, it was “tricky” extending the book’s scope and chronology up to the present day; he also made it clear it was at his publisher’s urging, no doubt in an attempt to make it a more conventional rock memoir.
There’s no indication that a ghostwriter helped Townshend pen Who I Am. His credentials as a writer of both songs and prose—not to mention his experience as an acquisitions editor for Faber And Faber—indicate he’s savvy enough to have navigated the perilous waters of publishing and pulled off the manuscript all by himself. Not all musicians have that acumen. I have to admit, though, that some of the most enjoyable music memoirs I read this year were not only ghostwritten, but may as well have been biographies. A Woman Like Me, the excellent new autobiography of soul singer Bettye LaVette, reads as if it had been dictated to ghostwriter David Ritz, who then assembled it into a trim, compelling tale.
That is, in fact, the method by which many ghostwritten music memoirs are made. Likewise, Michael Shnayerson did a solid job on My Song, Harry Belafonte’s recent memoir. The difference is that a biographer has license to interview others, interpret these interviews, and paint a rounder picture of the book’s subject. Not so with the ghostwriter of a memoir, who is more or less just another publicist. And like publicists, ghostwriters can screw up and make their clients look worse than they might actually be. T. J. Lammers does a pretty horrible job at portraying heavy-metal architect Tony Iommi as anything other than an oblivious, self-absorbed jerk in this year’s Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven And Hell With Black Sabbath—although the point of the book was clearly to make Iommi seem sympathetic (at least compared to Ozzy Osbourne).
Granted, there have always been good music memoirs and bad music memoirs. But from my perspective as a longtime fan, I don’t remember there being half as many of them on the shelves, nor so many written by and about smaller, niche artists. My kneejerk reaction is to accuse the publishing industry of dilution; not only are there more of these books vying for an increasingly thinner slice of the dwindling publishing pie, the standards of these things seem to be slipping along with those of, ahem, journalism.
But in reality I’m finding sharp, bright glimmers of hope. As Iommi unleashes his ponderous, sloppy memoir upon the world, another player in the metal scene—albeit a microscopic one by comparison—is sliding in under the radar. Laina Dawes’ What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life And Liberation In Heavy Metal is a strikingly more powerful, penetrating, and passionate look at metal than the one written by the guy who arguably invented the genre. Dawes is a veteran rock journalist who’s been operating for years in the world of metal zines, blogs, and fandom: in other words, down in the trenches. She also has a potent perspective—and well-expressed views—on how black women must fight to be accepted in a music scene that prides itself on being a haven for outsiders.
Dawes’ book isn’t perfect, but it’s brave, engaging, and unique—and it reaches far beyond the confines of her own skin in its search for context and meaning. In that sense, it’s the closest book to How Music Works that I’ve read all year. Byrne and Dawes have just about zero in common, but they both view the music memoir as both platform and instrument. If the music memoir is to continue thriving in an increasingly unstable publishing landscape, here’s hoping more musicians will follow their lead in trying to distill the melodies, harmonies, and rhythms of their lives in music—not just for the sake of publishing, but for music itself.