From Elton John's nappies to Morris Day bickering with Prince: Why I love music memoirs
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From Elton John's nappies to Morris Day bickering with Prince: Why I love music memoirs

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"Me: Elton John Official Autobiography" by Elton John

"Me: Elton John Official Autobiography" by Elton John (Henry Holt and Co./TNS)

The best thing I can say for the Grammys - arguably the televised awards show that's least representative of the quality of the art it purports to celebrate - is that watching the Grammys has become an annual reminder of how little music we share. We don't all hear the same songs. We don't all recognize the same musicians. We don't even buy music anymore. Which is why artists tour all the time now, their vacations are splashed across social media accounts and selling-out to corporations no longer carries a stigma.

Their currency is no longer their music but themselves, their reputations, their failures, their schedules, their lifestyles, their personal tragedies, their self-doubt - their stories.

It's why, in the past few months alone, I have learned that Elton John wears an adult diaper onstage and during his 2017 Las Vegas residency, while "walking across the stage, basking in the crowd's applause and punching the air, I was also, unbeknown to the audience, copiously urinating." Or that Alicia Keys doesn't get along with her dad and refers to him as "Craig." Or that Liz Phair, harboring a sore throat, once tried to blow off a Chicago holiday show then settled for faking her way through a Jason Mraz duet.

Remember the old music video for "Last Christmas" by Wham!? Production was a drunken bacchanal, leading to naked steeplechase through the halls of a Swiss hotel.

I know this because, judging simply by the sheer volume of pop star autobiographies recently released or arriving shortly, we live in the golden age of the music memoir.

And really, the last thing they often want to write about is music.

"The Rihanna Book" ($150, Phaidon), nearly two-feet tall and weighing almost 20 pounds, is billed as an autobiography but devotes pages and pages to glossy spreads of her fashion line and VIP existence. It's much closer to an Instagram account - a lot of her life, little of herself. Neil Young's "To Feel the Music: A Songwriter's Mission to Save High Quality Audio" (BenBella, $24.95), more about sound then songs, is the literary equivalent to being cornered at a party by a guy who wants to tell you about his stereo. Not that I'm entirely complaining. Phair's "Horror Stories" (Random House, $28) barely addresses the origins of her early '90s indie landmark, "Exile in Guyville," famously a song-by-song response to misogyny in the Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main St." But it does recount sexual harassment during an office job at a "prominent Chicago advertising agency," then tells of another summer job, at Ravinia, where she was pantsed in the kitchen by adult male prep cooks.

The best music memoirs are not so different from superhero origins. You're a witness at the reinvention. But rather than gamma rays, the spark is a Dizzy Gillespie album (Flea), The Band's "Music from Big Pink" (Elton John) or a Green Day concert (Tegan and Sara). You get a sense of what it felt like to cower then roar, to be that shy schoolboy who later summons the self-possession it takes to sing before 20,000 nightly, anywhere on Earth. Literary fame wasn't in the cards; these authors were more likely to fail English and get detention. But now they have the lives that writers of more mundane existences - which is the majority of writers - would kill for. They are living the dream.

I have a weakness for these books.

Some devour mysteries, romance novels, self help.

I go for autobiographies of musicians. Way, way too often. I read a lot of them. Even bad ones. Especially bad ones. There are a lot of bad ones. Whenever I tell people this, they look at me as if I were committing myself to sensory deprivation. Which, in a way, you are when you mainline music memoirs. See, I would never use "mainline" unless I was under the influence of autobiographies often full of drugs and "written" by pop stars. My brain operates differently while reading them. Their rhythms become my rhythms. I'm all in for the ascent and relatable parts; by the time success curdles into decadence, I'm hooked. The trouble is the long slog that often mirrors the career, when the book (and the artist) yearns for relevance. It's like the last 30 minutes of disaster movies, when everyone is just crawling out of rubble. In a music memoir that rubble is the last third, when the artist recounts the recording of an album nobody else cares about then meets their current spouse (and/or charitable cause) and decides to stay at home with their new children (and/or travel to a corner of the planet where people are poor and happy).

So I waste a lot of time wading through muck before I strike gold, yet without my addiction to these books, I wouldn't understand life inside the Rolling Stones' bubble (Keith Richard's smart 2010 book "Life"); how it feels to be the most-disliked member of the Wu-Tang Clan (U-God's touching "Raw" from 2018); the value of keeping your mouth shut as a member of Judas Priest (K.K. Downing's "Heavy Nights"); or being married to Phil Spector (Ronnie Spector's harrowing 1990 memoir "Be My Baby"). "Running With the Devil" from 2017 isn't quite a musician memoir; it's by Noel E. Monk, former manager of Van Halen, who paints an image of entitlement so ugly, you yearn for levity - such as that time, backstage at the Aragon in Chicago in 1978, while opening for Journey, Eddie Van Halen hit Steve Perry with so much guacamole the Journey leader began to cry.

Bad behavior is always a plus.

The downside is that, in many of these books, redemption and recovery becomes a drag for a reader, and sometimes the artist. Which is one reason why Elton John's excellent "Me" (Henry Holt, $30) - the best of the latest wave of music memoirs - flows so effortlessly: He's deliciously upfront about addiction, and even better on the difficulty of recovering when you've spent decades surrounded by a culture of enablers. He regards his crazy world for what it is. He checks into rehab in 1990 - at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill., of all places - then quickly realizes he hasn't operated a washing machine since the '60s. He flips out and insists he's being treated differently. He writes:

"That afternoon in Chicago, I stormed out of the meeting, went back to my room, packed by bag and left. I got as far as the pavement outside. I sat down on a bench with my suitcase and burst into tears. I could easily make some phone calls and get out of here but where was I going to go? Back to London? To do what? Sit around in a dressing gown covered in puke, doing coke and watching porn all day?"

A handful of pages later, Gianni Versace is imploring him to spend $100 million on a tablecloth sewed by nuns. It's that kind of book, revealing because he never pretends to settle into ordinary life.

But then, when your life is insane, why wait for someone else to describe it?

We'll never know for sure just how much "The Beautiful Ones" (Spiegel & Grau, $30) by Prince might have revealed about the Minneapolis genius. He died soon after the book was announced and only finished about 30 pages, all of which are included (both handwritten and typed), never quite advancing beyond high school. Of the many archives used to flesh out those pages is a remarkable scrapbook Prince created in the middle of night, just after signing to Warner Bros., that shows the artist both more playful than we're familiar with and more direct - he wrote "bad dad" next a photo of his father.

Ironically, however, his death allowed a degree of candor that gives a clearer picture of Prince the Human Being. Dan Piepenbring, the Paris Review editor hired to ghostwrite "The Beautiful Ones," provides a lengthy, fascinating account of what it was like to work with Prince. Favorite anecdote: Prince held up the announcement of the book until the publisher would agree that the artist could pull the book from circulation, at any point in the future, if he decided the Prince portrayed in its pages no longer jibed philosophically with who Prince had grown into. (Prince lost that demand.) Even better is the rollickingly fun "On Time: A Princely Life in Funk" (Da Capo, $27) by Morris Day, Prince friend, protege and leader of the Prince-constructed band The Time. Read "The Beautiful One," then quickly turn to "On Time."

Day - born in Springfield, Ill., then relocated to Minneapolis as a child - gives his memoir an audacious, oddly effective premise: It's a conversation between Day and a late Prince. They bicker over the star's punishing, unpredictable behavior, but never who deserves credit. Day owes his career to Prince and says so in the first sentence, but he also doesn't shy from describing a friendship derailed. Prince, who became a Jehovah's Witness, insisted that Day join him knocking on doors, evangelizing. In March, Alicia Keys' memoir, "More Myself" (Flatiron, $29.99), also recounts a couple of meetings with Prince, whom she recalls as effortlessly intimidating and bluntly critical, sniffily noting that her audience was getting whiter and the sound at her shows sucked.

I've come to think about these books as adult variations on young adult fiction: nonfiction fantasies best taken in clumps for the full story, binged for a few days at a time.

They read faster this way.

Day's book, for instance, nicely pairs with the much weaker "Wham! George Michael & Me" (Dutton, $28) by Andrew Ridgeley, aka that other guy from Wham! Both Day and Ridgeley became Robins to their respective Batmans, and they don't pretend otherwise. "I waited for George. I always waited for George" - that's Ridgeley's opening. Problem is, by the time Wham! is George Michael, there are still another 170 pages left.

The hope, of course, is a world-famous pop star can offer insight from behind the scenes - surely, that's what the big advances from publishers say - and yet, the constant risk of music memoirs is they reveal just how little an artist has to say about their lives and careers. Phair's book, for instance, which has a floating, detached quality, offers a lot of insecurity and ennui, and because Phair's a thoughtful writer, she plays with the structure, flashing forward and back. But as a window, it comes off as opaque.

A great music memoir makes a reader feel as if they were with us, in a consultation, that the musician is no longer standing behind instruments or the metaphors in their lyrics.

"Chronicles: Volume One," Bob Dylan's beautifully rambling, nonlinear 2004 memoir, somehow reads like a confessional box of a memoir without stripping back Dylan the Myth. Same with Bruce Springsteen's brooding (if unimaginatively titled) "Born to Run," which doubles down on his regular-guy persona by paradoxically (even charmingly) revealing the fraud in the image. Both, though, are as sprawling as "Just Kids," Patti Smith's National Book Award-winning contemporary classic, feels focused and small, offering her career (she develops notable friendships with both Springsteen and Dylan), but only through the scrim of her warm relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe.

Comparably, "Year of the Monkey" (Knopf, $24.95), Smith's second memoir since "Just Kids," also narrows her life to a single beat - in this case, to 2016, a year of loss and mourning - but it's aimless, more like a poetic adaptation of her day calendar.

At least she doesn't offer advice.

Music memoirs by nature are attempts to wrangle coherence from what must feel like a random series of events spread across an unexpected life overstuffed with incident. And so, there's a bad habit in these books of seeing good luck as a parable for self-reliance, veering uneasily close to self-improvement advice, meanwhile conveniently forgetting the armies of assistants and bank accounts that smooth the path. Keys, in her upcoming book, writes that while trying to break away from Columbia Records, she sat at home, "turned down the world's volume and tuned into the whisper of my spirit."

Similarly, Rakim, arguably the smartest writer from the early days of hip-hop, is skilled at explaining his laconic style and evocative with his memories of Long Island in the late '70s, yet his new memoir, "Sweat the Technique" (Amistad, $24.95), gets shoehorned with bland tips for enhancing creativity - "Find your path," "Embrace conscious energy."

You read it wishing the publisher had the faith in Rakim's storytelling that Rick Ross's publisher showed with "Hurricanes" (Hanover Square, $27.99), which plays like a snapshot of the same genre 40 years, several police raids and a lot of conspicuous consumption later, long after rap left the neighborhood block parties and backyard cookouts that Rakim writes about. Ross' book succumbs, however, to a different problem, common in music memoirs by stars still on the rise: They sound too busy to reflect. As with Rihanna, one day Ross dreams of stardom, the next he's an empire.

Some music memoirs get around this by remaining for as long as they can in the scrappy lean times, the formative years. Debbie Harry's "Face It" (Dey Street, $32.50) is hard to put down while it's recounting the deluge of superstars (Andy Warhol, Joey Ramone, David Byrne) and derangement (she's raped at knifepoint, hitchhikes a ride from serial killer Ted Bundy) that defined punk and 1970s New York City. By 2000, she's writing at length about that time in London she walked into a plate-glass door. The Canadian sister duo Tegan and Sara's often compelling "High School" (MCD, $27) wisely stays there, as a tag-team portrait (they alternate chapters) of growing up in Calgary in the 1990s, listening to male-centric alt-rock and realizing they're attracted to girls. Country singer Allison Moorer's "Blood" (Da Capo, $27) goes even narrower, to memories of her late parents, who died when her father killed her mother and himself.

Alive, he stood between her and her mother; dead, "he gets between us now, taking up all the space and spreading over my memories like coffee spilled on a white tablecloth."

If there's a common thread in these books - beyond the music, fame and headaches - it's the parents, who are often bad parents. Indeed, Elton John is less forgiving of his hateful mother than Moorer gets towards her father. Tegan and Sara recall feeling less pained about the suicide of their step-grandfather than the suicide of Kurt Cobain. Flea, the bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, recalls in "Acid for the Children" (Grand Central, $30) how his father abandoned their family and went back to his native Australia, leaving Flea with a mother who "never did understand or relate to children."

Yet it's the opening he needs.

There's a hundred pages of so of "Acid for the Children" that, culled from the rest, separated from the origins of the Chili Peppers that ends the book and a trip to Ethiopia that begins it, might stand as a confident memoir of growing up wild and free in Los Angeles, with few commitments and no restrictions. Instead of work, there's being stoned under a billboard for "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Skinny-dipping in the Pacific. Loving jazz for as long as it's socially acceptable for a teenager. Reading "The Hobbit" and arguing about lyrics and filling long days of free time with nothing at all. It's that rarest of all music memoirs, an account of living the dream, and appreciating it.

Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com

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