Elton, Rod, Neil, Bruce and More: Rock Gods Tell All
It's a good time to be a music-lover: After recent classics like Keith Richards' "Life," Jay-Z's "Decoded" and Patti Smith's "Just Kids," the past year brought an all-new lineup of rock-and-roll memoirists. From Neil Young to Rod Stewart, and Carole King to Pete Townshend, some of the biggest acts of the past half-century took to the page to tell their personal stories, whether for the glory, the public record or, as Young noted, the cash money. Whatever their motives, these books by true-life maestros have us rocking out all over again.
Old Man Takes a Look at His Life: Neil Young
Neil Young's memoir, "Waging Heavy Peace," is just as rambling and full of heart (and pot smoke) as his musical career, in which he's ranged from rock to rockabilly, country to blues, folk and American standards to grunge, noise rock, protest music and back again. Just like his friends in life, Young's readers must have patience for intense, extra-curricular enthusiasms like model trains, electric cars and reinventing recorded music. He writes about his recent struggle to give up his decades-long dope habit, but that seems like child's play next to surviving childhood polio, lifelong epilepsy and, more recently, a brain aneurysm and subsequent bleeding that nearly killed him. Reviews have been just as varied as the book, but for any devotee of Young or American music, it's necessary reading.
Forever Young: Rod Stewart
Many rock memoirs are full of harrowing stories of near-death, addiction, broken friendships and regrets. Not Rod Stewart's. In his memoir, "Rod," Stewart recounts a life that on the whole has been pretty great. He grew up in North London, obsessed with soccer and R&B. He met Jeff Beck in a club in the late '60s, and together they formed The Jeff Beck Group. By the time he was 24, Stewart had launched a successful solo career with the 1971 hit "Maggie May," and he's continued to rock his signature fringe cut and gravelly voice for the last 40 years to the joy of adoring fans. Stewart is voluble about all of the beautiful women he's slept with, and he only gently ribs Led Zeppelin for cribbing their style from The Jeff Beck Group. ("You Shook Me," a song Led Zeppelin made famous on their debut record, was included on Beck Group's debut, "Truth," a year earlier.) Stewart can console himself with his English Palace (with a regulation soccer field on its grounds), his priceless art collection, eight children and nine-figure record sales.
Smash the Mirror: Pete Townshend
Where Rod Stewart is blithe about the negligible bumps in his road to greatness, Pete Townshend, longtime frontman of The Who, is tortured by his own agonizing path in his memoir, "Who I Am." The hard times started early: At 5, he was sent to live with his demented grandmother Denny, a "perfect wicked witch" who spanked him violently and withheld food if he complained. Parentless, he was sexually abused by adult men, an experience he later turned into his brilliant and strange rock opera "Tommy" in 1969, about a deaf, dumb and blind boy who nevertheless is a "pinball wizard." Townshend is honest about the pitfalls of fame: "My spiritual longings were constantly under siege by all-too-worldly ambitions, undermined by skepticism and ambivalence, and challenged by my sexual yearnings....I could also behave, frankly, like a complete arsehole." It's not all doom and gloom. There are comic moments, too, like when the band drove a Lincoln Continental into a Holiday Inn swimming pool and became banned for life from the hotel chain.
Bigger than Jesus: John Lennon
Not all of the first-person rocker chronicles to emerge in 2012 were by living artists. Newly published 32 years after the artist's tragic death comes "The John Lennon Letters," edited by Beatles biographer Hunter Davies. A compilation of nearly 300 documents written between 1951 and 1980, the "Letters" vary widely, from the revelatory--like Lennon's eight-page love letter to his first wife, Cynthia Powell--to the mundane, with several actual shopping lists. Writing in The Guardian, Jarvis Cocker wryly suggests, "The Post-It Notes of John Lennon, anyone?" Still, the hard-core fan may thrill to see Lennon's famous disses written in his own hand, the tech-savvy connoisseur will want to check out the forthcoming iPad app.
Into Something Good: Carole King
Carole King had a remarkable career as a songwriter for other artists in the '60s. With her husband, the lyricist Gerry Goffin, she wrote "A Natural Woman" for Aretha Franklin, "Just Once in My Life" for the Righteous Brothers, "Up on the Roof" for The Drifters and more. All of this was before she released her own album in 1971, "Tapestry," which stayed on the Billboard charts for the next six years. King recounts her full life and long career in her memoir, "A Natural Woman."
Jersey Boy: Bruce Springsteen
The Boss (as Bruce Springsteen fans call their hero) has been known to make grown men weep. During the horrific storm Hurricane Sandy, New Jersey Governor and Springsteen superfan Chris Christie crossed party lines to work with President Obama (a noted Springsteen pal) for disaster relief. For Christie it was just a tough day at the office. But when The Boss called the governor afterward, the big man wept tears of joy. Springsteen has had many biographers, but not until recently, with Peter Ames Carlin's "Bruce," has he granted interviews and access. Carlin spoke with everyone he could: Springsteen's manager Jon Landau, the surviving members of the E Street Band (including the final interview with the late, star saxophonist, Clarence Clemons), Springsteen's mother, sisters, aunt, cousins, former girlfriends and ex-wife, Julianne Phillips. Carlin includes tasty nuggets like Janis Joplin's attempt to seduce the rocker and Robert DeNiro co-opting Springsteen's stage patter for his famous "You talkin' to me?" lines in "Taxi Driver." While not written by his own hand, this book may be the closest we come to a complete vision of The Boss.
The Bitch is Back: Elton John
Elton John has had the sort of success that produces a lot of statistics: He's got four decades of songwriting experience, more than 250 million records sold, 56 top-40 singles and seven consecutive number-one albums. Among living recording artists, he's behind only Madonna in terms of total records sold. Now he's using his lofty status to reduce another statistic: the number of people who die of AIDS each year. After losing friends like Freddie Mercury to the disease in the '80s, Elton John has made it his mission to help spread awareness and reduce the spread of the disease.
She Just Wants to Have Fun: Cyndi Lauper
Fans of Cyndi Lauper's smash debut album, "She's So Unusual"--the first album by a female artist to rack up four top-five singles including "Time After Time" and "Girls Just Want to Have Fun"--might be wondering what she's been doing since it came out in 1983. As she tells in her eponymous memoir, the intervening years have included activism for gay rights (her song "True Colors" became an anthem for the movement), trouble with depression and addiction and a deeply troubling sexual assault by a band member. Lauper has overcome adversity and in 2010 released an album, "Memphis Blues," that stayed at #1 for 31 weeks.
Damn Right, I've Got the Blues: Buddy Guy
Growing up poor in Louisiana, Buddy Guy strung his first homemade guitar with window-screen wire and saved until he could afford a real instrument. When he left home, Guy brought his home-brewed blues North and became a key figure in the new sound of the Chicago blues. Legendary guitarists including Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan all learned and borrowed from Guy's blues style. Asked in a recent interview how he felt about white rock stars appropriating the sounds he'd spent his life honing--and making millions doing so--Guy said that it was a good thing, since "a lot of white people weren't listening to no blues 50 years ago." At 75, Guy is still going strong: Recently he performed at a White House event with Barack and Michelle Obama in attendance.
Ramblin' Man: Gregg Allman
Founded in 1969, the Allman Brothers Band exploded onto the scene in 1971 with the release of "At the Fillmore East," a live recording of their blues-influenced southern rock that had Rolling Stone extolling them as "the best damn rock and roll band this country has produced in the last five years." The high didn't last long: Months later, founding member and lead guitarist Duane Allman died in a motorcycle crash. The band managed to survive that and other lows and highs over the next 40 years, as Duane's younger brother Gregg Allman recounts in his memoir, "My Cross to Bear."