Music has always been a big part of my life. Well, actually, that’s a lie. Music became a big part of my life when I hit my teenage years, when like any young person, I looked to music to help forge my identity. Up until then, I basically listened to what my parents listened to; the local ‘classic hits’ station, and their records of Elton John, Abba, The Bee Gees and Celine Dion. (A bit daggy, but it influenced my taste: I still love that classic-with-an-edge sound) I have vivid memories of a young me climbing on top of furniture and ripping off my t-shirt to spin above my head to the sounds of Tina Turner, which might have been a sign of my taste to come.
In my early teens, wanting to know what all the fuss was about, I got into music magazines. I eventually discovered a love for folk, blues, indie and rock n’ roll music, which persists, and hosted a rockabilly-themed 21st. Along the way of my musical education though, I ended up listening to almost every type of radio known to Auckland; classic hits, pop, more poppy, student radio, all rock, all kiwi, and even all Christian.
I am more settled in my tastes now, but this brings me to two of my favourite loves: music and books. Ohh, there are some good musical autobiographies out there, and no shortage of people wanting to spill the beans about their fifteen minutes. However, what separates pure, delicious, gossip fodder from a great autobiography, to me, is the level of self-awareness an author brings to their story, to an art form which has attracted and repulsed, mythologised and angered, or just been plain tolerated for as long as humans have consumed art. Here are some great examples of musical biographies I have discovered over the years.
All cards on the table, Love is a Mixtape by Rob Sheffield, is one of my all-time favourite books. It tells the story of the rock journalist Rob, and two of his greatest loves in the world; music, and first wife Renee Krist, who passed away suddenly after five years of marriage. What could easily be a depressing read instead becomes a vehicle for a celebration of life. Music was a huge part of their life, and a backdrop to the momentous and mundane moments of their lives; developing their writing careers, adjusting to married life and doing small-time America. You will marvel at the way a connection between two people grows, mostly based on a shared appreciation for some groups who happen to make noise with their mouths. There is also, for extra music geek credit, a mixtape relating to certain periods of the author’s life featured at the start of each chapter, which makes for some fun googling.
The more I’ve read, the more I’ve seen that partners of (the mostly male) famous musicians tend to be relegated to the background, even when they were perfectly influential people themselves. You might have heard of the name of Pattie Boyd. Famous for marriages to George Harrison and Eric Clapton, she was a well-known model in the 1960’s, who withstood years of intense public scrutiny, witnessed Beatlemania up-close, interested The Beatles in spiritual matters, survived two neglectful marriages, and later in life, became a respected photographer. Her autobiography ‘Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton and me’, tells all of this with gusto, and gives an un-blemished view of the behind-the-scenes life of living with worldwide fame. Especially inspiring for the casual reader is her late-in-life resurgence to re-claim her sense of identity, after years of being in the shadow of her partners. Although it is not a literary masterpiece, it is an interesting cultural snapshot of the 1960’s.
For anyone who enjoyed the movie ‘Walk the Line’, like me, which lead to my obsession with Johnny Cash, ‘I Walked the Line’, will be an interesting read. I’m currently reading an excellent biography of the man himself, but I became curious to read Johnny’s first wife’s memoir, which was released in 2008, after it was revealed that it would publish of scores of letters from Johnny, and tell Vivian’s side of the story of the most famous love triangle in country music history.
Modest and wary of fame her whole life, Vivian wanted to redefine what she called the ‘Nashville view’, of her presence just being a roadblock to Johnny Cash’s and June Carter’s storybook romance. More than half of it is taken up by Johnny’s letters to Vivian in the early days of their courtship, when he was posted in Germany during WWII. While a bit long and tedious, they provide some interesting tidbits into the psyche of Johnny Cash, and his early dalliances with alcohol and women. The second half mainly focuses on Vivian’s story of being on the receiving end of June Carter’s determination to get Johnny Cash. Not as much a technical history, it is more of an emotional history, and shows how the truth tends to get twisted into rock n’ roll mythology over the years.