#1 - Chronicles I by Bob Dylan (71 years old)
#2 - Life by Keith Richards (69)
#3 - Who I Am by Pete Townsend (67)
#4 - Clapton by Eric Clapton (turns 68 today)
Before I write separately about each book there is one common shortcoming all of them have - they don't talk enough about the music. I want to know how the bands worked musically together, where they got the ideas for some of their songs and about choices they made in lyric writing. I really don't care about the drugs and the women or regrets they have about their lives - I want to know what it was like to write Highway 61, to come up with the riff for Brown Sugar, to improvise with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker and to find out the real story behind the lyrics of I'm A Boy and Happy Jack and whether Baba O'Riley means anything at all (the subject of THC's forthcoming post Nonsensical Rock Anthems).
Chronicles I: An unexpected pleasure. I didn't read this when it came out and had no interest in knowing more about Dylan but it was strongly recommended by a friend so I took a chance. What a delightful and entertaining book! Very Dylanesque. Episodic, jumbled up, sometimes opaque and not a chronological telling of his career - for instance, nothing about his breaking on the national scene in 1963-64 as a folk music avatar, nothing on his 1965-66 explosion of creativity and move into rock (Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde all released within a 14 month period!). If you want to know the "truth" about the mysterious 1966 motorcycle accident this is not the book in which you'll find it out.
What it does provide is entertaining and insightful writing and glimpses of what might be the real Dylan (always hard to know for certain since he is the originator of his own myth). My favorite part is the first section when he tells of his start in Greenwich Village, the 1960-1 folk scene and how he read and absorbed musical and historical influences and how his ambitions changed from singing traditional folk songs to writing his own compositions. He also writes of his "retirement" period after the motorcycle accident and about recoiling from being treated as a "messiah" who was supposed to lead music and society to a new realm when all he wanted to do was spend some time with his young children. There's also a fascinating piece about his 1989 comeback album Oh Mercy, when, at the recommendation of Bono, he goes to New Orleans to record with Daniel Lanois, producer of U2's The Joshua Tree. Lanois advises Dylan that he should write songs like Mr Tambourine Man and Gates Of Eden for the new album and Dylan thinks "I'm not 23, I'm not that person, I can't do that anymore".
Life: It's Keith Richards, of course it's fun to read. In fact, as you read the book it sounds like Keith Richards talking. He certainly plays to his legend and you can learn quite a bit about various drugs and, in particular, the recording of Exile On Main Street (actually, that's the same subject as drugs) and his periodic feuds with Mick. You expect certain things from a Keith Richards autobiography and it delivers the goods.
Who I Am: The Who remain my favorite band four decades later. Pete Townsend is "almost a genius" as he himself declared (the full quote is "Entwhistle was a genius, Moon was a genius, I was almost a genius, Roger was just a singer"). The best rhythm guitarist in rock, a great showman (see The Windmill) and songwriter. Articulate and very insightful about himself and others. Also irritating, arrogant, contradictory and frustratingly disagreeable at times (over the years and in the book). But without that combo we wouldn't have gotten the music.
Parts of Who I Am are quite good - on his childhood and the origins of the band and about his later life but there's too much about his failures as a husband and what a jerk he was over the years (yes, he was). One of the legends of Who history is how Townsend's ambitious Lifehouse Project failed but the songs written for it became the basis for Who's Next, their epic 1971 album (with Won't Can't Fooled Again, Baba O'Reilly and Behind Blue Eyes). I've seen interviews over the years with his fellow band members and others who worked with The Who at that time and all of them admit they had no idea what Townsend meant with the Lifehouse concept. After reading the lengthy explanation by Townsend in Who I Am, I still don't have a clue - but at least it gave us some of the best rock songs ever recorded.
I like his closing acknowledgement:
" . . . to my greatest supporters and allies - my fans and those fans of The Who. Thank you for giving me a day job, and not sacking me when I didn't show up for work. You've been the best boss a man could have."
Clapton: The guitarist's sense of self-loathing overwhelms the book and obscures his musical achievements. A heroin addict for five years and an alcoholic for more than twenty who portrays himself as a pretty lousy person for most of his life (and it's a very convincing portrayal), this book may have been important for him to write but it is a difficult read. It is ultimately a story of redemption as he pulled himself together in the mid-1990s and found happiness in a new marriage and three new children. I'm happy for him but I didn't need to hear about it. Reading Life and Clapton it's interesting to think about different personality types and how they react in the similar circumstances. Keith and Eric follow similar trajectories with drugs and women but have completely different mental makeups and outlooks on life.
EXTRA BONUS TRACK
The Last Sultan by Robert Greenfield, a biography of music mogul Ahmet Ertegun which I read on the recommendation of alert THC reader GCP. Ahmet Ertegun was the son of the Turkish Ambassador to the United States during the Roosevelt Administration. As a teenager he fell in love with jazz and when his family returned to Turkey after WWII, Ahmet stayed, getting involved in the music industry and founding Atlantic Records in 1947. For its first 15 years, Atlantic focused on rhythm & blues and soul music and its top artist was Ray Charles. Ahmet co-wrote and produced Ray's first hit, Mess Around (if you've seen the movie Ray you can see this portrayed onscreen).
(Ahmet with Robert Plant)
In the 1960s, Ertegun moved into rock working with Sonny & Cher, Frank Zappa, Buffalo Springfield and eventually signing Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones. His career extended into the 2000s with his last big artist being Kid Rock with whom he became good friends (the book has a very funny story about Kid Rock calling Ahmet to ask him to join he and Pamela Anderson on their honeymoon because they wanted someone to talk with after they got tired of . . . well, you'll just have to read the book to find out). He was also the moving force behind the establishment of the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame.
Ahmet was one-part R&B and rock music lover (and apparently epic party animal) and one-part a well educated, well traveled and elegant Turkish gentleman who collected classic art. The Last Sultan shows the two parts of his life coming together in the 1970s when he introduces Wilson Pickett to Henry Kissinger. Appropriately enough, he died at the age of 83 in 2006 after a backstage fall at a Stones concert.