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David Glasper: Learning Lessons From Rock Biographies

Sounding Off By David Glasper
Published September 2011

This column could save your life. And $7.99.

I'm a great fan of rock biographies. They're like Enid Blyton books for adults: trashy, often very badly written and with essentially the same plot every time. This plot, for anyone who's never read a rock biography, can be summarised as: 1) youthful exuberance/naivety, 2) success, 3) corruption and 4) decline. Decline is usually the best bit. They are basically a simplified version of Edward Gibbon, and can frequently involve similar levels of debauchery.

Of course it's great fun to read about terrible things happening to people who are more successful than you, but schadenfreude aside, I believe that rock biographies contain important lessons for anyone considering a career in music. Let me tell you about some of the better biographies and what they've taught me...

Head On. Forget the tragi-comedy of Hammer Of The Gods: if you want to read about rock & roll excess, Julian Cope's amazingly lucid account of the years 1976 to 1982 is the definitive article. It follows our hero's progress from Liverpool 'farm punk' to New Wave pop star and eventual acid casualty. Actually, 'acid casualty' doesn't really cover it. No-one else has ever demonstrated such a voracious enthusiasm for psychedelics and survived to write about it so well afterwards. And Cope was originally so puritanically anti-drugs that it's possible to pinpoint the exact moment at which the plot reaches stage three — "Hand me that spliff. I'm going to do all the singing dressed like Lawrence of Arabia.”

The book also includes a lively account of Sock, a game in which players must climb out of the window of a moving tour bus, over the roof and back in through the opposite window. It is so named because one must wear a sock on one's head whilst playing. Obviously.

Goodnight Jim Bob. The autobiography of Jim Bob from Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine is almost unique among rock biogs, because it tells you what it's actually like to be in a band. It is futile. Absolutely, completely bloody futile. It doesn't matter if your band is successful and gets on Top Of The Pops and has a number one album, it will still go horribly wrong. Life will occasionally be very exciting, and you may even get to assault a children's TV presenter live on air, but more often it will consist of long periods of boredom and a nagging feeling that you're being screwed by your record company. That Jim Bob tells us this in such an entertaining manner, with such good humour and an apparent lack of bitterness, is greatly to his credit, but the central message of this book is a clear 'just don't'.

Songs They Never Play On The Radio. James Young's description of his life as live keyboard player for a down-on-her-luck Nico in the 1980s is notable because, although it again illustrates the sheer bloody pointlessness of being in a band, it completely misses stage two of the plot. This, for most of us, is what being in a band is like: unsuccessful, the dark mood of futility lightened only occasionally by moments of macabre comedy. Most of us, however, won't have to put up with quite so gothic a quest for heroin on our lead singer's part.

Cash. Johnny Cash's second volume of autobiography includes an account of how he found Jesus in the Nickajack Cave, but is more interesting when he describes how he was almost killed by an ostrich, and the time his truck started a fire which destroyed 508 acres of forest and 49 endangered condors — "I didn't do it, my truck did, and it's dead, so you can't question it.” (The truck was also, sadly, destroyed in the fire.) While checking that quote, I discovered that both these stories appear on Johnny Cash's Wikipedia page, so you can read that and save yourself $7.99. The Cash Estate's loss is your gain.

So what have I learned from these books? There is no point to being in a band. Being in a band can be fun. LSD is not a major food group. Do attack Phillip Schofield. Stay on the inside of the tour bus while it's in motion. Steer well clear of ostriches. Needless to say I ignored (nearly) all of these lessons and had to go and find out for myself anyway.

About The Author

David Glasper is a millionaire elephant with a purple dressing-gown, a BA from Oxford, and a clean-living past marred by a single, never-to-be-forgotten discreditable incident. In his more lucid moments he is Reviews Editor for SOS.

Published September 2011