Put It In Writing
While the music memoir is certainly not a new literary form — performers from LL Cool J to Pat Boone and Johnny Rotten have already taken turns setting their lives down on the page — the publication of Keith Richards' million-selling Life in 2010 has helped renew focus and interest on the blossoming subgenre of the musical autobiography.
Richards probably would have had a bestseller no matter what kind of book he put his name to, but his insightful, deeply honest reflections on his career set a high standard for those who follow. And plenty more have followed. Memoirs by Steven Tyler, Sammy Hagar, Belinda Carlisle, and Chicago drummer Danny Seraphine have been released in 2011, and authors with books on the way include ex Guns N' Roses bassist Duff McKagan, Jermaine Jackson, Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi, Heart's Ann and Nancy Wilson (working together), and ex-Kiss members Peter Criss and Ace Frehley (working separately).
Why would famous musicians living a public life want to expose even more of themselves in written form? The old-school process of writing a book offers a unique opportunity to tell one's story the way one wants it told. A career can be set in the context of a life's journey, misinformation and misimpressions can be corrected, grievances can be aired, gratitude expressed, and colorful anecdotes shared. Above all, the mythic, larger-than-life realm of making music can be made even more remarkable when examined by way of a real, human-sized story.
"People would ask questions about my life, the most common being, 'How much did you drink and how much drugs did you do?'" says McKagan, whose memoir, It's So Easy (And Other Lies), will be released Oct. 4. "It made me curious to try to explain what that life is like. How do you get from a pretty normal kid excited about playing music to a drug-addled guy who has completely accepted that he could die in his sleep any night? And how do you come back from that? That's really my story and that's what I wrote about."
McKagan worked without a collaborator, having developed his writing chops over several years as a columnist for Seattle Weekly and Playboy magazine. Through the memoir-writing process, he says he tried to stay focused on revealing personal truths rather than making broader judgments.
"It was more of a personal challenge just to tell the story as honestly as I could," he explains. "My mission statement was to be honest about myself. I wasn't going to worry about being honest about other people."
In order to tell a story, one has to remember it, and rock and roll memories can grow hazy. As Seraphine developed Street Player: My Chicago Story, his 2010 memoir covering his 23 years with Chicago, he found that music itself often helped bring the past into focus.
"There were periods that were really hard to recall," says Seraphine, "but I'd listen to some old music and everything would come back like it was yesterday. I'd write down everything I could as soon as it came back to me."
Reliving events over the course of writing a book often means re-experiencing emotions, not all of which will be positive. Seraphine's tenure with Chicago ended when he was voted out of the group by his bandmates, and he might have used the platform of a memoir to express anger or bitterness. But he says he was more interested in writing a work of reflection and appreciation.
"In hindsight you get perspective, and there's usually an element of truth in each side to a story," says Seraphine. "I could have been a lot harder on people I was upset with at the time, but I didn't want to do the blame game thing. I wanted to talk about the positive, because to me that's just as important a part of the story."
Longtime rock and roll author, journalist and consummate insider Harvey Kubernik has been in the interesting position of not only creating a memoir from his own experiences (2004's This Is Rebel Music), but also authoring what might be considered a "group" memoir with his 2009 oral history narrative of Southern California's Laurel Canyon scene in the '60s and '70s, Canyon Of Dreams. (He applies a similar approach to the famed Monterey Pop Festival in the forthcoming A Perfect Haze, due Oct. 15).
Kubernik believes that when a rock and roll life is set on the page, the story told should be richer and deeper than the most salacious of details.
"One of the things that surprised people about Canyon Of Dreams is that there's hardly any sex and drugs in it," says Kubernik. "People always think that's going to be at the center of any book about rock and roll, but those aren't the themes I want to explore. I consider the music I write about and the people whose stories I'm telling to be important enough to be taken seriously. It's worth exploring the craft, skill, artistry, influences and geography that inform the music and the lives."
In writing a memoir, as with hit singles and drum fills, timing is everything. And timing was especially crucial for Tommy James, of Shondells fame, when he penned Me, The Mob, And The Music with co-author Martin Fitzpatrick. Released in February, the book finely details James' experiences in the '60s as a hit recording artist signed to Morris Levy's Roulette Records, which James says was a de facto extension of the Genovese crime family in New York.
"Writing the book was very therapeutic for me," James explains, "because I've been wanting to get this off my chest for 40 years. But every time I started to tell it, I felt like I was taking my life into my hands. I wanted to tell the story of having your dream come true in this dark and sinister environment, but I really didn't feel comfortable doing that until the last of the Roulette 'regulars' had passed away."
While the book is explicit in describing the strong-arm management and financial hardships James was subjected to, it also makes clear an honest affection James has for the late, Godfather-like Levy.
"Every time I wanted to say something really nasty about Morris and Roulette, I had to stop myself," he says, "because I realized if there wasn't a Morris, there would never have been a Tommy James, and that's really the truth of it."
Now that James has finally put his life down in memoir form, he's excited at the prospect that his onetime dark, personal secrets are now being developed into Broadway and Hollywood productions.
"There are no secrets once you do an autobiography," says James. "Making mistakes is part of the drama of living a life, and a lot of people can relate to that. You've got to be ready to tell it all if you're going to bother to tell it in the first place. It's actually very liberating to tell on yourself. And if that helps steer people back to the music, nothing could be better than that."
(Chuck Crisafulli is an L.A.-based journalist and author whose most recent works include Go To Hell: A Heated History Of The Underworld, Me And A Guy Named Elvis and Elvis: My Best Man.)