On a high note: music books with stories worth telling
Musical biographies are often sanitised inanities, but intelligent recent offerings by David Byrne, Nile Rodgers and Questlove might signal a change
Questlove, whose Mo’ Meta Blues shies from the conventional
Nile Rodgers with his memoir Le Freak
David Byrne, whose book How Music Works has wit, smarts and insight
You used to know where you stood with music books. If they were authorised biographies and written with the subject’s permission and co-operation, you got a sanitised account of his or her life that family members might find hard to reconcile with reality. Fine-tuned and airbrushed, the warts and blemishes were removed with the precision of a plastic surgeon’s scalpel.
Occasionally, you’d get a book like The Dirt, which traces Mötley Crüe’s many adventures on the wild side, but those were the exceptions. Authorised biographies were family-friendly affairs, a list of achievements and accolades making up for insights and revelations.
If the accounts were unauthorised, on the other hand, you were usually talking cut-and-paste hack jobs done with indecent haste.
Some biographers have produced fascinating stories about their subjects – both Johnny Rogan and Clinton Heylin, for example, are robust, diligent, rigorous chroniclers of music’s more fascinating characters – but again, these are the exceptions. Despite the considerable scope for having the crack with a story, most unauthorised biographies stay in the middle of the road rather than rummaging in the ditches.
Things are looking up
However, there has been a sea-change of late when it comes to music people telling their own story. Sure, you still get lengthy tomes that contain nothing new or of note – The Soundtrack of My Life told the story of record label boss Clive Davis in a 600-page, largely putdownable tome – but anyone who has read recent books by Nile Rodgers, David Byrne and Questlove will have relished what they’ve had to say.
As anyone who has heard or read an interview with Rodgers knows, the man can spin a tale. His 2011 autobiography, Le Freak, was a warm-hearted, fascinating, no-holds-barred tale of a pop career that took him from Sesame Street to disco, Madonna, David Bowie and beyond. Rodgers is open throughout about the highs and the lows of life under the mirrorball and in Madonna’s bathroom. Indeed, he could add several new chapters now, detailing his battle with cancer and his latest renaissance thanks to Daft Punk.
David Byrne is no stranger when it comes to the writing game. Bicycle Diaries was a freewheeling series of musings about life in New York and other cities worldwide as seen from the saddle of Byrne’s fold-up pushbike.
But last year’s How Music Works was a very different freewheeling affair. This was Byrne at large with wit, smarts and insights on a subject that has consumed him all his life.
Far-reaching in width and depth, it may be the only book you will ever read that provides tips on how to create a buzzing nightclub, outlines six new business models for the music business, breaks down the earnings from collaborative work with Brian Eno and deconstructs the philosophy of philanthropy.