My Name is Val and I'm a rock-star-memoir addict. It all started with Philip Norman's seminal biography of The Beatles, Shout. I was on a years-long break between sophomore and junior year of college and had just left my job as a record company receptionist. I wasn't much of a musician and didn't see a future for female A&R execs so I was forced to get my music fix elsewhere. Shout was my gateway drug. I reveled in every detail of Paul and John's first meeting at the local fete, John's group the Quarrymen playing on the back of a flat-bed truck as they rolled through town. Paul showed John how to tune his guitar properly. He'd had it in banjo tuning. The rest, of course, is history.
They say it's the first book that gets you hooked, and I was. Hungry for more salacious minutiae and insider dish, I devoured Robert Greenfield's Stones Touring Party, and the ne plus ultra of rock biog debauchery, Stephen Davis' Led Zeppelin shocker Hammer of the Gods,Its graphic tales of highly imaginative revelry left me a little dazed and confused, but that didn't stop me from going back for more.
I started trying to control my reading, the first sign of a problem. At first, I could keep it to weekends and the odd weekday. Eventually, I couldn't make it through a Monday without using and then it became nightly, reading into the wee hours, Visine at the ready before work so they couldn't tell I'd used. It escalated into daily use, a minute on the subway, a stolen moment on an elevator ride. I was like an alcoholic with an airline miniature vodka in her purse, taking a nip when I thought no one was looking. I had to admit it: I was powerless over sordid tales of life on the road and my literary life had become unmanageable. Taking a book into a bathroom stall at work one day for a quick two pages to see if the protagonist was going to leave his wife for the long-suffering groupie (he didn't), I realized it had become an addiction. But I didn't care.
I read just about every memoir and biography I could get my hands on. My first choices were the highest quality memoirs - the lyrical, evocative, entertaining musings of Sting, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, and Keith Richards (in which he infamously threw Mick Jagger's genitalia under a bus, so to speak. Though I hear Mick's former paramours can attest to his ample manhood. But I digress.) For variety, I looked west with music journalist and my friend Barney Hoskin's wonderful Hotel California. It eased my craving for sun-dappled, patchouli-scented hippy singer-songwriter tales from the famed 1970's Laurel Canyon-Sunset Strip scene, its gifted musical denizens passing around joints and lovers in an intoxicating cocktail of creative ferment, competitive spirit and romantic betrayal.
Pre-Amazon.com, you had to leave the house to score. When I'd run out of high quality reads, I'd buy street grade books in sketchy neighborhoods by name-dropping B-list rock stars, telling tales on themselves and their mates at the contractual behest of their six and seven-figure book deals (oh yes, these books are big business for publishers and musicians alike), or even, sadly, dog-eared, oil-stained paperbacks with sticky pages by hack biographers who know there are people out there like me
Nothing shocks me now. Jack and Coke-fueled sexploits with 13-year old groupies, septums disintegrated by cocaine use, and the infamous Led Zeppelin red snapper erotica (not a mud shark as long rumored), have inured me to behavior considered outré by the common man. They are all in a day's read for me.
For those of you not acquainted with this genre, let me walk you through a typical book, including some alternative scenarios.
• Grows up in a middle class English home in London suburb, though in a curious bit of revisionism becomes working class by the time he needs some cred for the liner notes. Or, he grows up in New Jersey.
• Gets first guitar from high street for 20 quid (£), sits in front room of his two up two down, practicing endlessly and listening to American blues and rockabilly.
• Worships Elvis and Chuck Berry; or Robert Johnson and Leadbelly; or Woody Guthrie.
• Plays at schools and village fetes. Leaves school at 16 after his O levels (or, attends art college for one year before dropping out).
• Moves to London with his band mates, makes the rounds of small clubs until they hit it big sometime in the 60s.
• Suddenly rich, famous and fawned over, the bacchanalia begins.
• Gets addicted to pot, pills, booze, smack, coke, sex or some combination thereof.
• Marries at least twice; miscellaneous children appear from road exploits.
• Band breaks up acrimoniously. Our hero's solo career is great; or, an embarrassment.
• Everyone in the band gets clean. Or, enough do.
• After many years, band attends their induction into the Rock Roll Hall of Fame. After jamming at the show, they decide to tour for old time's sake and cash, which the bass player really needs.
• Their label makes them release yet another greatest hits album, including two mediocre new songs. Or, they do a duet with a country singer.
• Our hero, the lead singer, and his lead guitarist get book deals. As usual, the drummer gets nothing.
Knowing what will happen doesn't deter me. I go back to the trough again and again, picking up that next book. I buy hard cover; cost loses all meaning. I find a friend, Jenny, with the same addiction. I think she's even worse than me, which momentarily lulls me into thinking I'm not so bad after all. We share our drugs with one another, passing books back and forth, pushing our books on others, trying to get them hooked.
Neither of us is ready to get clean.
I can't quit yet. I live in hope that there'll be some new drugs to try, something to repeat the lovely madness of, say, Steven Tyler's Does the NoiseInside My Head Bother You?? Life will not be complete without memoirs from Bowie, Macca, Bruce, Joni. Alas, I fear Mick Jagger will never write one, nor Robert Plant. They're famously unsentimental about the past. But one can dream.
My loved ones call in an interventionist. I admit to them that it's out of control. Maybe I'll go on the wagon for a bit. I'll even read Ulysses, will that make you happy? But I'm in the middle of my mate Barney's illuminating Led Zeppelin: The Oral History of the World's Greatest Rock Band, and I'm only up to 1970!! And Rod Stewart is sitting sultrily next to my bed, beckoning me forth into tartan tales of multiple blond wives and tow-headed children.
I promise I'll quit after Rod. I really, really mean it this time.