Rock biographies often contain a strange mix of unexpected revelation, unorthodox behavior and jarring encounters with mundane reality. The best also have very human stories that linger in the mind far longer than, say, lengthy descriptions of the recording process or bitter examinations of old contractual problems.
Former Sex Pistol Steve Jones’s recently released memoir, Lonely Boy, is a good example. As you might expect from such an unabashed and frank storyteller — albeit one who confesses to having a terrible memory — the revelations are often graphic. However, it’s the little details that are often the most fun, like the time he scaled a balcony, cat burglar-style, just to spy on his bandmate Glen Matlock enjoying some private time with John Cale’s wife, Miss Cindy of the GTOs: “is it a bird, is it a plane? No it’s a peeping Tom with no fear of heights.”
Better still, the guitarist with the Sex Pistols, who on the one hand saw fit to include a list of things that are and are not “rock ‘n’ roll” as a coda to the book, admitted becoming so keen on spin classes he ended up damaging his back.
“I got so obsessive about this whole process that I did it six days a week for a year,” he says, “I even reached the point where I was the guy on the podium and everyone was looking to me for a lead.” But without the appropriate warmups, his back eventually gave way, leading to sciatica and, wishing to avoid surgery, a lot of alternative therapy: “I went to every charlatan in town, which in L.A. is quite a lot of charlatans.”
Here are a handful of similarly arresting moments, from other recent rock biographies:
1. Grace Jones has the best excuses for lateness
Grace Jones does exactly as she pleases, and quite right too. So if she’s in the middle of a massive fight with her boyfriend Dolph Lundgren and receives a call from her producer Trevor Horn to come in and do some singing, she’ll do it when she’s ready. In her case, this can take quite a while, as she explained in her book I’ll Never Write My Memoirs: “The relationship had reached a turbulent period. Trevor had called because he really needed me to get down to the studio a few blocks away and add some vocals [to “We Need Some Money”] so he could check that he had cracked the rhythm problem — He called just when I was setting fire to Dolph’s trousers. I was in a very bad mood.
“Trevor said, ‘I need you now, please get down here.’ The studio was only fifteen minutes away from my apartment. It wasn’t like I had to cross the Atlantic. I made it three days later. I had some things I needed to clear up. A few more items of clothing to cut up and burn. When I got to the studio, though, I was in a very good mood. Did he want me on time and in a bad mood, and therefore of no use, or late and in a good mood, and ready for action?”
2. Morrissey and David Bowie have led very different (sex) lives
Morrissey’s memoir was given a title that is both thrillingly iconic and boringly on-the-nose: Autobiography. In it, he recalls his youth in Manchester, the formation of the Smiths, the breakup of the Smiths and the foundation of his solo career. There’s a section on the court case the Smiths’ drummer Mike Joyce leveled against him and guitarist Johnny Marr, which goes on a bit, but there are a reasonable supply of sparkling witticism to leaven the doughy bits.
A particularly good one takes place during a breakfast with David Bowie, in which talk turns to the pleasures of the flesh. Morrissey says: “David quietly tells me, ‘You know, I’ve had so much sex and drugs that I can’t believe I’m still alive,’ and I loudly tell him, ‘You know, I’ve had SO LITTLE sex and drugs that I can’t believe I’m still alive.'”
3. Thurston Moore is not getting high on office supplies
Kim Gordon, former singer and bass guitarist with Sonic Youth, wrote Girl in a Band as a juxtaposition of observations from the fringes of art, fashion and music scenes in Los Angeles and New York. While getting the band together and taking an active role in New York’s No Wave scene, she observed that Thurston Moore, the man she would go on to marry, could become astonishingly grumpy if technology let him down. He is, in fact, to the humble stapler what Keith Richards is to televisions.
She explained: “Amongst other things he had a temper which flared up whenever he put together an issue of his ’zine, Killer, and he would become incredibly stressed out. Once, when his stapler wasn’t working, he picked it up and threw it through the window, shattering the glass. It scared me.”
4. Robbie Robertson broke Marlon Brando’s tooth
Testimony is the suitably traditional title Robbie Robertson, songwriter and guitarist in the Band, chose to give his memoir. He was on the road with a successful rock ’n’ roll band from his mid-teens, and wound up taking a lead role in Bob Dylan’s first electric touring band, and he’s had access to some unexpected areas of show business, such as the day he found himself accidentally at the recording session for “Like a Rolling Stone” as an observer.
There’s a sweet little moment when Robbie and Bob Dylan are taken by Robbie’s friend Pat to meet Marlon Brando on the set of the cowboy movie The Appaloosa. Marlon plays the welcoming host, offering a round of drinks. Dylan asks for tea with honey and lemon, while Robbie chooses a Coke, which Brando promptly opens with a back tooth. Afterwards Robbie expressed surprise at the Brando Coke-opening technique, to which Pat replied: “Yeah, he chipped a tooth doing that. But he don’t care.”
5. Bernard Sumner sent vomit through an airport scanner
After a particularly fun night out while in New York, Bernard Sumner of New Order found himself rushing towards JFK, ready to fly home. But he was feeling a little sick — a situation made worse by having to go through airport security.
It’s all in his book Chapter and Verse, but he also summarized the whole affair for the Guardian, saying: “I had to go straight to the airport, but was throwing up into this bag. The security guy was looking at my eyes, which were so bloodshot I looked like some crazy acid casualty. I thought I was for it, but I put this bag of puke on the conveyor belt and he was concentrating so much on searching me that he didn’t notice that a bag of sick had just gone through the machine. I picked it up on the other side.”
6. Viv Albertine taught herself to play the guitar twice
In Clothes Music Boys, Slits guitarist Viv Albertine tells the story of growing up around the musicians who became the Clash and Sex Pistols, of teaching herself to play the guitar, forming a band of fearless women and taking to the stage, and then having to find other things to do once her rock ‘n’ roll life stopped. Eventually, after years of musical inactivity, she is moved to pick up her instrument again — having first to buy a guitar, as she’d already sold all of her gear and forgotten how to play. But the second time around, she has a little helper, her daughter:
“One day as I’m struggling with the bar chords I get frustrated and let go. I thrash at the guitar, zinging up and down the strings, strumming wildly. From this outburst comes a strange but very Viv-like riff – oriental, modal, lots of open strings ringing – and I know I’m back. My daughter looks up from her homework and with an emotional catch in her voice says, ‘Mummy, you were born to play guitar.’
“That phrase, and the way she says it, sustains me for years.”
7. Eric Clapton suffered supernatural lovesick blues
In Eric Clapton: The Autobiography, one of rock’s premier guitar heroes details a life devoted to the cause of learning and playing, and let’s be clear, living the blues. Eric battles various addictions, but his most troubling times come after his split from Pattie Boyd, the woman who inspired him to write both “Layla” and “Wonderful Tonight.”
Heartbroken, and not thinking straight, Eric describes a strange series of unsolicited phone calls he took from “a lady with a strong European accent” who informs him she knows how he can win Patti back, with magic. Treatment included incantations, bathing in herbs and smearing blood on a cross with his and Patti’s names written on it. Surprisingly, none of this worked, so she instructed him to meet her in New York. Once they were face-to-face, she informed him he would need to sleep with a virgin to “complete the spell.” Then she offered her services.
Eric explains what happened next: “God knows why I didn’t just run then. I wish I had, but I was drunk and desperate, and still under the illusion that a reconciliation with Patti would solve everything, so I went through with it. It was humiliating, and I did run, but only after the damage was done.”
Eric Clapton and Patti Boyd remain separated.Read More