Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll Biography
Neil Young is to write his own rock and roll biography with the doom laden title of Waging Heavy Peace. It’s the thing to do these days, isn’t it? Writing about yourself in a revealing yet totally not revealing way. Music makers are masters at it, filling former trees with self-aggrandizing, hubristic lies. Many, many lies.
It’s not just the false truths, though – you expect a bit of exaggeration – sometimes, the entire book is fiction. In other cases it’s the bits that are true that are the problem.
So without further words, letters or introductory commas, here’s a look at the stories behind some of rock music’s luminaries’ musical biographies.
Wouldn’t it be Nice: My Own Story – Brian Wilson
The singer, songwriter, producer and all round musical genius is a well-known troubled soul. After crafting all the Beach Boys early hits he then went and created the greatest album, nay thing, ever in Pet Sounds. Then, in trying to out do himself with the follow-up Smile, he had something of a mental breakdown, and has never been quite the same since. Still, when his autobiography hit the shelves in the eighties there was something of a stir. Would we find out what really happened with Smile? Or how he came up with the utterly heartbreaking melody and intricate arrangement for “God Only Knows” and just what did he think of cousin and fellow Beach Boy Mike Love?
All of these questions and more were at the very least addressed in the book, though not by Wilson. Turns out the entire thing was written by his psychologist-guru-mind-raper Dr. Eugene Landy. A man who quite probably saved Wilson’s life when his spiral of over-eating and depression got out of hand, but then took control of his business interests, co-wrote songs, doubled his fee and prevented the singer from talking to any of his old friends.
Landy over-medicated Wilson to the point where his heart was in danger of stopping. He eventually lost his license and his relationship with Wilson was ended in 1992 by a court order.
Wilson also testified in court that he had never even read the book which described Landy as this:
“Business partner, teacher, adviser, manager, protector, voice of sanity, collaborator, and closest friend. Gene Landy was all of those to me and more.”
Chronicles Volume One – Bob Dylan
Never in the history of popular music has one man’s output garnered such intense scrutiny from his fans. Ever since he shuffled on to the stage as a Woody Guthrie impersonating folkster, Dylan’s supporters have alternatively labelled him “the voice of a generation,” “the word’s finest lyricist” and for a brief period “Judas.” What did he think about it all?
He’s given many interviews over the years but has perfected the art of not really saying anything much at all. His answers to questions in the mid sixties were wonderful surrealism at its best with famous quips like “keep a good head and always carry a light bulb” or when asked is there was anything he was sure of, replying, “the existence of ashes, door knobs and window panes.”
Over the years the humor disappeared and his answers became more sombre and occasionally quite bleak. Although he could crack the odd joke at his gigs like, “I almost didn’t make it tonight. Had a flat tire, there was a fork in the road.” Or “I once went out with an artist, she gave me the brush off.”
Then word broke that Dylan was writing not one but a three-volume rock and roll biography. The most reticent man in music was going to spill his guts on the page and let us in on a few of his secrets. Few thought it would ever see the light of day. Then in 2004 it did. Full of malapropisms and sly wit, it was a fine piece of writing. A helluva lot of it happened to not be true, though. Whole characters were invented, conversations made up and many of the key points in his career were completely skipped over. The mid sixties. Blood on the Tracks and his conversion to Christianity merited barely a mention. Yet strangely the autobiography worked, even if that was a term used loosely.
Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography- Jimmy McDonough
Speaking of Neil, Young’s first major biography also warrants a mention. Written with the cooperation of the singer it also featured extensive interviews with family, friends and band members. Writer Jimmy McDonough worked exhaustively on the book over an eight year period constantly seeking assurances from Young that he was fine with what he was doing and his own contribution to it, right up until the day the manuscript was delivered to his door. A few months later Young changed his mind and decided he didn’t want it to come out after all. The whole thing ended up in a $1.8m lawsuit.
Eventually, twelve years after he started the project, McDonough was allowed release his book. Young later revealed he thought it was fine but didn’t want his daughter reading it until she’d turned 18. Which must have proved a satisfactory explanation for the book’s understandably furious author.