Rock'n'roll memories? They wrote the book
Bob Dylan's ex-sideman Robbie Robertson is the latest to join Keith, Patti, and Bob himself on the dustjacket
Friday 13 May 2011
News this month that Robbie Robertson has finally inked a deal to write his memoirs suggests now is an opportune time for rock veterans to tell their stories. Robertson may lack the celebrity cachet to excite those who stock the mainstream supermarkets with tell-alls and cookbooks, but the Canadian musician's time with The Band means there is still plenty of interest.
Robertson has admitted he had previously tried working with ghostwriters before deciding to go solo. Also encouraging him to head out to a remote shack in the woods and get started may have been the public interest and critical acclaim heaped on efforts by his peers – among them Keith Richards, Patti Smith and Bob Dylan. Indeed, a large part of the interest in Robertson's own work will be in his collaborations with Dylan, beginning with his recruitment into the solo artist's first, ground-breaking electric touring band, and including recordings such as The Basement Tapes.
These are key periods in Dylan's career, not touched upon by him in his own engrossing Chronicles: Volume One. This became a literary sensation in 2004, despite the way its author jumped hither and thither between various stages of his life, the highlight being his own early days in the Big Apple before fame hit.
There has been a long wait for subsequent volumes, but Dylan has hired a new agent to make the most of that breakthrough. Now he is reported to have signed an ambitious six-book deal with US publisher Simon & Schuster that includes two more instalments of his Chronicles. Another of the half-dozen proposed works is said to be tied in with his syndicated show Theme Time Radio Hour.
Dylan is not the only figure who found musical fame in the Sixties to become a publishing sensation later on. On its release last October, Life, by Keith Richards, topped the New York Times list and entered the UK charts at No 3. The Rolling Stones guitar-slinger's autobiography generated much pre-publication heat thanks to its dismissive mention of Mick Jagger's todger, though reading the hefty tome reveals less salacious rewards. There is Richards's fondly remembered description of the excitement that early US blues imports brought to wide-eyed suburban grammar school boys and, yes, a no-holds-barred account of life inside the bubble of late Sixties/early Seventies fame. It is a treasure trove not just for fans of the Stones, but for anyone with an interest in rock history and pop culture.
While failing to generate similar sales, Patti Smith has also risen above the tedious navel-gazing of many celebrity memoirs. Her Just Kids is an evocative guide to Greenwich Village in the Sixties that documents a particular period in some detail – her close relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, when they rubbed shoulders with Andy Warhol and Sam Shepard.
This year has already seen the publication of another tome by a songwriter that focuses on a formative time. Kristin Hersh is lauded in indie circles as founder of the US group Throwing Muses. As a precocious teenager, Hersh formed the band in 1981, when she was just 14. Using her own diaries, Paradoxical Undressing covers 1985-6 and takes in attempted suicide, coming to terms with bi-polar disorder, and an unplanned pregnancy that led to the birth of her first son. An invigorating antidote, then, to misery-lit, if not laugh-out-loud funny.
Elsewhere, the internet is revitalising the diary form, despite it often being heralded as the death knell for offline human activity. Last month saw the publication of The Celestial Café, by Belle and Sebastian's frontman Stuart Murdoch, based on online musings previously available from 2002 on the band's website. For Murdoch, the diaries began as a way of bypassing the media as a way of connecting with fans.
"The band had a policy of not doing interviews, we just felt frustrated by the process, and with the internet and laptops we were able to communicate directly with the people that bought our records," he says. This process carried on until 2006 when the band took a break and, although the online diary did return thereafter, entries gradually petered out, leaving a discrete block of time for indie publisher Pomona to come calling.
With judicious editing, the website content has been whittled down and given flow. The result is part insight into the workings of a much-loved band, a paean to Murdoch's home city, Glasgow, and the songwriter revealing rare personal details, including his religious beliefs. Murdoch admits he has not read much in the way of first-person rock writing and counts among his inspirations Scottish kids comic-strip Oor Wullie, PG Wodehouse and Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch. For now, Murdoch continues to pursue the filming of the screenplay that inspired side-project God Help the Girl, though he reckons when he is older he may sit down and write a more considered history of the band based on their recording process and songs.
Another Scottish artist, James Yorkston, has published a set of tour diaries. This member of Fife's Fence Collective has a child at home, so his writing focuses on time spent on the road, with a lack of raucous exploits that Murdoch shares. Instead, Yorkston offers an eye for detail and a droll line in humour familiar to fans of his acoustic, whisky-soaked reveries. He developed It's Lovely To Be Here from a set of diaries that first appeared in the magazine Loops, a collaboration between his label Domino Records and publishing giant Faber. "I was told I would be paid £1 a word," Yorkston remembers, "but it turned out to be 10p a word, which wasn't quite the same. Still, I enjoyed it and after I handed in my 9,000 words I kept up the writing."
Now the label has set up its own imprint with Faber, Domino Press, and Yorkston is the first artist to appear. The quietly spoken performer says he is inspired less by hoary rock-star anecdotes than by the sense of dislocation caused by spending weeks at a time moving from one destination to the next.
"I am more into travel writing like Norman Lewis and WG Sebald," he explains. "The guy at Faber said I should read Diary of a Rock'n'Roll Star [by Mott The Hoople's Ian Hunter], but I had nearly finished my book and didn't want to get involved with something like that. One of the things I've learnt over the years is to just follow my muse and generally things turn out alright.
"When I was in my twenties, I tried writing a book and it was a disaster because I was trying to emulate authors I just couldn't match, people like Marquez and Sebald. I found this writing fun and therapeutic, I could do it after a hard day making music or while travelling. I've been involved in this lifestyle now for 10 years, so I have the knowledge and the stories, which I hope comes across." Now Yorkston reckons he may attempt another writing project while promoting his next album, yet to be recorded.
Noting Domino's interest in publishing, I wonder if this could be a move to offer its signings an extra revenue source, something their debut author laughs off. "If you want to make something interesting, you have to put time and effort into it, not just throw money at it. You don't want to be running up huge debts." A plea, perhaps, for publishers to concentrate on writers with something to say, not just famous names that may or may not make them a quick buck.
'It's Lovely To Be Here' by James Yorkston is out on Domino Press. 'The Celestial Café' by Stuart Murdoch is out now via Pomona
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