In a notorious and often misquoted line, Frank Zappa once observed that most rock journalism was people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read. With the market for rock ‘n’ rollers’ memoirs continuing to generate a small library of books credited to famous musicians but committed to paper by lesser-known editorial assistants, Zappa’s quip may be due for a reevaluation. As an avid and thoroughly competent reader, I’ve lately been delving into a number of autobiographies by people who may not talk very well but whose interviewers can certainly write.
Of course, the self-penned celebrity volume is an established publishing genre, and it’s accepted that such works are usually shaped into final form by hired guns who transcribe reminiscences, confirm chronologies, and generally articulate their subjects’ hazy memories and score-settling into intelligible sentences and paragraphs. The harrowing 1956 book, Lady Sings the Blues, “by Billie Holiday with William Dufty,” is an early example. Rare is the performer’s memoir completely written by the performer his- or herself. Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run, and Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace do feel genuinely composed by the artists, each of whom are known for their talent as wordsmiths, whereas Ace Frehley’s No Regrets (with Joe Layden and John Ostrosky), Alice Cooper’s Golf Monster (with Keith and Kent Zimmerman), and the late Gregg Allman’s My Cross To Bear (with Alan Light) come across more as contractual collaborations between loquacious rock stars and dutiful scribes.
In the latter case, the challenge for the writer is to channel the musician’s voice into prose, even though most musicians take up their vocations precisely because they express themselves through song better than any other medium. Some journalists have built full-time careers as co-authors. David Ritz, for example, has worked on autobiographies of Willie Nelson, B.B. King, Ray Charles, Joe Perry, and numerous other show business celebrities, which makes you wonder just whose language is really making it to page. When you see Ozzy Osbourne on TV nowadays, most of what he says sounds like “Mmngghnnuh-Gnnugguh-Dunno-Nngghuh,” but his translator on I Am Ozzy, Chris Ayres, has somehow captured his working-class Birmingham cadence: “At the same time, the coke was fucking up my voice, good and proper”; “I was eating so much pizza and drinking so much beer, I had bigger tits than Jabba the Hutt’s fat older brother”; “I was legless before I even got on the plane”; etc. Whether Ozzy actually spoke those words, or Ayres thought those were the type of things Ozzy could say if he could still speak, it’s pretty entertaining. On the other hand, T.J. Lammer has rendered Tony Iommi’s parallel history in Iron Man rather bland: “All we wanted was to play and tour everywhere and go to America and all that”; “There were so many drugs flying around, coke and Quaaludes and Mandrax, and there was booze and late nights and women and everything else”; “The year 2001 passed without much incident.” Maybe Tony Iommi just isn’t that interesting when he puts his SG down.
Although I’ll always have soft spots for George Harrison’s I Me Mine (with Derek Taylor) and David Lee Roth’s Crazy From the Heat (pared down by editor Paul Scanlon), the best rock ‘n’ roll reflection I’ve yet read is Keith Richards’ Life, which names James Fox as co-conspirator. It may be hard to picture the Human Riff personally sitting down to type out his story (“Believe it or not I haven’t forgotten any of it,” claims the jacket flap), but Fox is an ideal mimic of Richards’ rambling conversational style – the book flows like you’re listening to the guitarist spill out long anecdotes while pulling on a tumbler of vodka, interspersed with the occasional toke. On winning over his prospective father-in-law: “Eventually I took Big Al on at pool at his local favorite bar, and I let him think that he’d drunk me under the table. ‘I got ya, sonny!’ ‘You certainly did, sir.'” On recording solo with the X-Pensive Winos: “Now when we gathered for our second act, the Jack flowed again and other stuff too, and it got a little disjointed…To the point where I, Keith Richards, ordered a ban on Jack Daniel’s at the sessions.” On reprobate tour buddy Freddie Sessler: “Then I always heard the stories of how Freddie was ripping me off, scalping tickets and so on. So fucking what? Compared to the spirit and friendship. Go ahead, pal, scalp as much as you fucking like.” It’s great stuff and, as someone who’s professionally pored over many transcripts of rock ‘n’ rollers discursive, egomaniac utterances, I have to admire the skill of the “with” almost as much as the genius of the “by.”