Is There Rock Memoir Overkill?

Blame Bob Dylan. Just as the former Robert Zimmerman ushered in an era where rock stars wrote their own songs, Dylan's 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume 1 brought us to this era where rock stars write their own books. After Dylan's tome Keith Richards' Life hit the bestsellers list and the flood gates opened. This Christmas you can buy Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace, Pete Townshend's Who I Am, or Rod Stewart's cleverly titled Rod: The Autobiography. And because these memoirs have also sold extremely well 2014 will bring us a John Fogerty autobiography. 

If you needed to know why this deluge of memories are being spewed on to paper and Kindle, Neil Young explains it for us in a chapter of his new opus, "Writing books is a great thing for a musician to do. It's a way to make money without having to play and sing all the time."

That explains the supply part of the equation for all these classic rock memoirs, but where is this demand coming from? The music of the sixties and seventies have been exhaustively covered throughout forty plus years of Rolling Stone magazine, twenty years of Mojo Magazine, and five DVDs of the Beatles Anthology. Can the musicians themselves really have anything to add to the noise?

Yes and no. When the musicians concentrate on the music that allowed them to be bestselling authors, they provide vantage points no third party biographer could ever unearth. When Keith Richards reveals how "Gimme Shelter" was written, it's fascinating for music aficionados everywhere, but these autobiographies focus more on the fabulous life. Richards writes about how he wanted to hit Mick Jagger and Pete Townshend writes about how he wants to sleep with him. They talk about making money and spending money. There's lots of sex and drugs, but one could attend a random Alcoholics Anonymous meeting to hear the equivalent stories. It's the rock n' roll we want.

The problem is it has been over 30 years since most of these artists have created a relevant song. And all the drugs, drink, and passed time make you wonder how much they actually remember about the years that matter to the readers. For the larger part of their own careers, these musicians have been their own greatest cover bands. Concertgoers will put up with a couple of new songs, they pay the big bucks to hear "Maggie May." But can Rod Stewart really remember what it's like to be back in school?

The biggest hurdle for this spate of rock memoirs to seem like anything but a cash grab is it is impossible to get the books we want. Death has a way of making people seem more fascinating. Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon haven't hired ghost writers nor have they become ghost writers. We are left with the remainders. The books by those that faded away rather than burned out.

Still we have the music, and I for one like narcissism to be accompanied by a guitar, bass, drum, and occasional organ.

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David Rolland is a freelance writer for New Times Broward-Palm Beach and Miami New Times. His novel, The End of the Century, published by Jitney Books, is available at many fine booksellers.
Contact: David Rolland