Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

"Mick Jagger" by Philip Norman and "Complicated Shadows: The Life and Music of Elvis Costello" by Graeme Thomson

I've been on a rock star binge in the last few weeks. The Jagger biography was a birthday present from Kathy, the Costello one something I got myself because I've been listening to his first four albums a lot recently in my car and wondering about that period in the late 70s and early 80s when he was so incredibly prolific while at the same time being out of his head on drinks and drugs.

I've always been fascinated by that combination of creative flood and hedonistic frenzy, and particularly involving artists from my two favorite eras in pop music: 1965-70 and 1977-82. I'd already read Philip Norman's biographies of The Beatles and John Lennon, and the Fab Four are perhaps the ultimate example of what I'm talking about: startlingly young men (George Harrison was still only 27 when The Beatles SPLIT UP!) who were ingesting ludicrous quantities of mind-altering drugs, going through traumatic relationships, turning from best friends into enemies, dealing with the most intense levels of fame any working-class people had ever experienced, and somehow, at the same time, writing and recording some of the best music ever made.

The Stones and Elvis Costello weren't quite on the same plane, either in terms of fame or music, but they weren't too far off. The Stones made great singles, while Costello made great albums, and both lived in interesting times. So how could the books not be entertaining?

Well, the main problem is that Mike Jagger and Declan MacManus are both very private people, unwilling to talk to biographers and (I'm guessing) perfectly capable of ordering their friends and associates not to talk to biographers either.

One of these two writers overcame this problem, the other didn't.

Mick Jagger was a riot of a read, smoothly and amusingly written, full of stories and quotes and perfectly calibrated in terms of its concentration upon the most interesting years of Jagger's life (the 60s take up well over half of its 600 pages). Complicated Shadows, on the other hand...

OK, it wasn't completely uninteresting. There were a couple of gross/juicy tour stories and a reasonable amount of insight into the beginnings of the 'Elvis Costello' persona (the name was invented by the boss of Stiff Records; the 'angry young man' character was essentially an exaggeration of MacManus's natural personality). But there was so much missing! Call me nosy and vulgar if you like, but surely two of the main reasons people read rock biographies are to find out about the star's sex life and their bank account.

In 450 pages packed with information (we are given the set list for practically every gig he ever played, for God's sake!), I don't feel I got to know the real Declan MacManus at all, and certainly not what he was like in bed, or what his three wives were like, or how much money he (and how little the Attractions) made. It was as if Graeme Thomson was too discreet to divulge such crass facts. Either that, or no one talked. I get the impression, though, that he just had too much respect for his subject, that he wanted Elvis to read the biography and think, 'Well, actually that Graeme Thomson seems like a decent chap'.

Well, I don't care about him being a decent chap. He's a rock biographer! I don't want to read a muck-raking hatchet job (the reason I'm reading these books in the first place is because I'm a fan of their subjects), but I do want some juice, some dirt, some sense of what it was like to be there. It would also be nice to read prose that wasn't dry and clunky and full of clichés. And I must admit I have a serious problem with a professional writer who thanks someone in his acknowledgements for 'correcting my spelling, a task she has been performing since I was old enough to write' and then publishes a book that is FULL of spelling mistakes. I'm not kidding. One sentence sums up everything that is wrong with this book. This is pretty much all the insight we get into Costello's first wife and the mother of his eldest son: 'She was bright, loquacious, funny, temperemental (sic), with a bouyant (sic) sense of humour.' I don't know, maybe I'm being unfair - maybe Graeme is dyslexic - but in that case, FIND A PROOFREADER WHO ISN'T!

Philip Norman is probably the most famous (and best-paid) rock biographer in the world, and (this may just be down to the fact that I read Mick Jagger straight after reading Complicated Shadows, but...) I can see why. He's witty, detached (i.e. his tongue stays well away from his subject's arsehole) without being overly cynical, and he obviously has a bulging contacts book. It's hard to know to what extent the truth is embroidered here, of course, but the book felt plausible and authoritative, and - most importantly - it was never boring. And when you're dealing with a sexagenarian pop star who refuses to talk about the past, that is no mean feat.

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