(Recently came into two music autobiographies and a biography courtesy of a literary CARE package from my father)
Graham “Suggs” McPherson, primarily known as the lead singer of Madness, maintains a cheerful tone throughout his autobiography THAT CLOSE. He grew up poor in North London, the son of a single mother (he never knew his father a heroin addict) who worked in a pub and sometimes sang, but this is the story of someone who never let life get him down. Instead, we get a number of often very hilarious stories of Suggs' childhood surrounded by teenage hooligans for whom shoplifting is the way of purchasing goods and school is where you cause trouble. Example: Suggs and his mates would run their lighters under the doorknob of their classroom so if their teacher was late when he would arrive he would burn his hand when opening the door. There are also surprisingly humorous stories of football hooliganism as Suggs and friends (Chelsea supporters) clash with fans of rival teams.
Madness doesn’t appear until about halfway into the book and Suggs doesn’t go much into band politics or musical trivia other than the sources for some of his lyrics such as Baggy Trousers and That Close the song that gave the book its title. This is Suggs story not Madness’s story although Madness’s various reunions and their performances at the Olympics and on the roof of Buckingham Palace during the Queen’s Jubilee are discussed. Suggs is not the type of guy to dish any dirt. The most scandalous story here is that a pre-success Elvis Costello took from but never paid a store owner who sold fashionable shoes and clothes on credit.
But that says a lot about Suggs, who enjoys a drink but doesn’t seem to have any substance abuse issues and has been married to the same woman since the early 80’s and is the proud father of two adult daughters. He is a very stable guy and an amusing raconteur. Another part of his book I enjoyed was his descriptions of his many trips around Italy (where he and his family own a home).
I’ve always liked Madness because of their positive, good times music. It appears Suggs himself is a deeply positive guy and that makes his autobio a rewarding read.
The same perhaps cannot be said about Morrissey. He is the acknowledged king of misery so much so it’s become self-parody although really his solo work is not as much in that vein . His AUTOBIOGRAPHY is actually quite a good read and very entertaining despite being wordy as hell and filled with allusions to English trivia that would sail over the head of even the most devoted Anglophile.
Like Suggs, Morrissey spends considerable time discussing his childhood as well as the Manchester neighbourhoods he grew up in. His descriptions of psychopathic teachers who torture children (there seem to be no good teachers) fits in with his overall description of Manchester as a dull, gray, repressive place full of barely controlled violence that occasionally gets out on a Friday night. He discusses the various musical and literary and pop culture influences that got him through adolescence. In particular, I enjoyed his writing about the New York Dolls debut album which is a favourite record of mine too.
Moz’s meeting Johnny Marr, forming The Smiths with him, and their break-up is a fast paced whirl of dates and places and singles. Much more time is spent dissecting and criticising the legal judgement against him after he was sued in the 90’s by the drummer Mike Joyce and the bassist Andy Rourke of The Smiths claiming they’d been cheated on back royalties.
Morrissey, in general, has a lot of axes to grind – Not just with Joyce and Rourke but with Marr (despite his praise for Marr’s musical talents), the judge who decided against him, Geoff Travis, head of Rough Trade (who Moz says never did anything to promote The Smiths and was dismissive of their talents, not at all supportive), various music publications especially the NME, various management and record executives, Bryan Ferry (who he disses for liking veal and for writing a song with Marr while he was still a Smith), Siouxse Sioux, David Letterman ( who keeps his studio too cold), American airport security (who he said harassed him), Margaret Thatcher, The list goes on and on.
In addition to the much written about revelations that Moz has had relationships with both men and women, some other interesting autobio tidbits – Moz loved the tv show LOST IN SPACE as a child, Moz was Johnny Marr’s best man at his wedding, Moz and the rest of The Smiths were pretty good friends with A-HA and attended one of their concerts in the 80’s, A teenage Moz visiting an aunt in Denver, Colorado once interviewed for a job at Target, The Smiths’ first manager Joe Moss attempted to oust Moz as lead singer after the release of their debut album but instead he was fired.
Overall, I felt Moz himself was an unreliable narrator slanting everything to make him look somewhat the victim. I dare say he did get an unfair deal at particular points in his career but a number of his comments about his own financial state contradict themselves and Moz is famous for being a.) frugal b.) a savvy businessman.
However, I did enjoy the way this book was written. Moz is a great singer and one of my favorite lyricists and judging by AUTOBIOGRAPHY I think if he chose to apply his writing to fiction, he could be a superb novelist too.
Holly George Warren, the author of the Alex Chilton biography A MAN CALLED DESTRUCTION, met Chilton a few times in her life but her detailed knowledge of Chilton’s life filled with exact dates of when things happened as well as the states of mind of those involved is really incredible and makes this a very credible accounting of someone’s life.
Chilton initial success as front man for the Box Tops was part tribute to his natural music talent and natural charisma and part sheer luck of being in the right place at the right time. That places is/was Memphis and like any good bio or autobio location is part of the story.
The details of the history of Chilton family, his childhood, teenage years, and time with The Box Tops while still a teenager are painstakingly chronicled.
The period that followed when Chilton made the records he is most celebrated for with Big Star expands the boundaries a bit to talk about influences, work habits, the process of recording. Warren also gives Big Star co-founder Chris Bell, who left after their debut record, his full deserved credit.
The rest of the book shows Chilton as a man who is largely responsible for his own obscurity despite the triumph of Big Star’s music. His substance abuse and infrequent solo recordings which are atonal, sloppy noise deliberately made to confuse and irritate the audience kept him from following up Big Star with a consistent, successful solo career.
The sense I had was of a man who took it for granted having not had to work too hard for all the girls and drugs that came his way (if not the money, Chilton was cheated financially throughout his life and didn’t see any real cash for his music until the 1990’s). At one point in the early 80’s having moved to New Orleans, Chilton worked as a dishwasher, a tree trimmer, and a cab driver.
I can appreciate the level of detail in this story. I was rooting for Chilton to get clean and sober and reach his deserved position in rock history which he finally does. Also there is a great story about Chilton meeting Charles Manson – No spoilers, you have to read it for yourself.