JR Books £16.99
Trailblazers: The Tragic Lives of Gram Parsons, Nick Drake & Jeff Buckley, By David Bret
Rock Roadie: Backstage and Confidential, By James Wright
Two über-salacious rock bios reveal little of interest
Sunday 26 July 2009
Nick Drake was gay! Jimi Hendrix was murdered! There, you've now been saved the bother of having to read two works of rocksploitation as unsavoury as anything to be found in a field renowned for salacious and unsubstantiated gossip. Not that both of these pieces of information might not have been interesting 40-odd years ago. But now, with the main players dead and their bones already picked over by a swarm of biographical vultures, the reaction is less a case of "Gosh, really?" and more one of "Does any of this matter any more?"
It's easy to feel some sympathy for David Bret. The shelves are already heaving with better-written and better-researched books about his subjects, so it must have seemed like a good idea to combine three artists in a single tome. The links between them are tenuous to say the least, but Bret never misses a chance to cross-reference: Nick Drake once played a Bert Jansch song called "Strolling Down the Highway", "which was [also]," Bret points out in desperation, "covered by Gram and Jeff Buckley". His introduction ties the three together more dramatically: "Three young men: handsome, temperamental, sublimely gifted. Three young men with more in common than their early demise." More? Go on... "Two were Francophiles. Two came from broken homes. All three put their careers before personal relationships." You don't say. Was Elliott Smith – also sublimely gifted and from a broken home – deemed not handsome or temperamental enough? The links really do feel that arbitrary.
Trailblazers is book-ended by pedestrian run-throughs of Parsons' and Buckley's lives, and it's the Drake section that will grab any media attention going. This is not the first time this author has used his subject's "secret" homosexuality to drum up sales; Elvis Presley, Rudolf Valentino, Tallulah Bankhead and Maurice Chevalier have all had the same "charge" levelled against them in Bret's hands. Was Drake gay? Who, besides Bret, really cares – and would it make his poetic, cryptic and enigmatic lyrics any clearer if he was?
Bret certainly thinks so, going into pink panic at the slightest provocation. The labels on the vinyl released by Island, Drake's record company, were pink. His song "Pink Moon", widely acknowledged to be about the end of the world ("The pink moon is gonna get you all"), actually "contains a hidden message that the gay community's time had come" and is the title track of an album that "centres around the joys and pain of gay love". Drake's first album was released on 1 September 1969, "just two months after New York's Stonewall Riots". Such nonsensical theories might have some place if the author could string an elegant sentence together: those same riots, apparently "had gone a long way towards eliminating gay emancipation".
Sex is also at the heart of James "Tappy" Wright's Rock Roadie, but at least this time it is (largely) his own escapades he writes about. Wright, a roadie/tour manager for The Animals, Herman's Hermits and Jimi Hendrix, mostly kept away from the alcohol and drugs many of his charges would feast on. But before you think, bless, what an angel, that's largely because Wright was addicted to copping off with the young ladies who were routinely to be found around their pop idols. He describes such encounters in paragraphs to make the Bad Sex award blush. "I was sitting at my desk and watching the beads of perspiration creeping down into Billie-Jo's cleavage," he writes, before, just one page later, Billie-Jo is to be found under Tappy's taps, as it were, where "I quickly pulled off my clothes and climbed into the shower after her. Her nipples stood out, rigid against the cold stream, and I couldn't resist a moment longer."
By the time Wright gets around to his book's brief and distinctly unrevelatory revelation about Hendrix's death, it is the reader who needs a shower. Based entirely on a confession made to Wright in 1973 during a late-night drinking session with Hendrix's manager Mike Jeffrey, Hendrix was killed, apparently, by Jeffrey for money to pay off the Mafia. That Jeffrey himself died just a few months later only raises the question: why has Wright waited until now to spill the beans? He is, he says, comfortably off and the book is really for "those departed souls [who] were not only my heroes but my best friends. Each and every one of them," he adds hopefully, "would be happy in the knowledge that I have revealed the secrets of the past."
Whether such undeparted souls as the former Animal Alan Price will be quite so happy that Wright has suggested he favoured groupies with huge knockers and found nothing funnier than a fanny fart remains to be seen. But if that's the kind of information you feel life is incomplete without, this is the book for you.
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