MOST fans of 60s and 70s rock would have heard of Pattie Boyd, the British model who married George Harrison of the Beatles, and then split to wed Eric Clapton, only to leave him much later. What many wouldn’t probably know was the fact that Pattie’s sister Jenny was married to (and later left) Mick Fleetwood of the band Fleetwood Mac, and that another sister Paula dated Clapton much before she herself had got to know him.
This, and lots of other rock trivia, can be found in Pattie’s autobiography ‘Wonderful Today’, which I recently completed. Marketed as ‘Wonderful Tonight’ in the US (after the famous song, naturally), the book talks of Pattie’s upbringing, her entry into modelling, her introduction to Harrison, Beatlemania, their exposure to Indian spiritualism and music, the Beatles break-up, the predominance of drugs in rock music, the entry of Clapton, the split from Harrison, Clapton’s drinking binges, his children from other women, her leaving Clapton, John Lennon’s assassination, her next boyfriend Rod Weston (not a rock star, thankfully), Harrison’s marriage to Olivia, Harrison’s death and how her own life moved on.
Some brilliant love songs have been written about Pattie — Harrison’s ‘Something’, and Clapton’s ‘Layla’, ‘Wonderful Tonight’ and ‘Old Love’ — and this book clears any doubts about what made her so special. Though it’s based on a model’s life story, it’s a typical rock n’ roll book, with loads of tidbits and nostalgia.
I hadn’t known of the existence of this book till I met good friend Parag Kamani over one of our regular dinner outings a few days ago. Besides our passion for music, the other thing we have in common is our fondness for music-related books, specially those revolving around rock stars. Both of us like collecting rock biographies. Each time we meet, we exchange music books: this time, he lent me Pattie Boyd’s ‘Wonderful Today’ and ‘Rod Stewart: The New Biography’, whereas I gave him ‘ABBA: The Name of the Game’ and Albert Goldman’s ‘Elvis’.
Over the years, scores of rock biographies have been published. On the surface, most of them follow similar patterns, in that they begin with the subject’s birth and family situation, and then talk about his first exposure to music, education (or lack of it), his influences (mainly, the blues or rock n’ roll), his first band, his famous band (or how he went solo), success, failure, recordings, songs, record sales, alcohol, drugs, affairs (and extra-affairs), and in some cases, death, legacy and legend.
However, if one is passionate about the genre, this repetition doesn’t matter. What’s interesting is what influenced our favourite songs, the artiste’s musical ideology and some of the specific personality traits each rock star possessed.
Personally, I have been lucky to have read about some of my favourite artistes in detail through some wonderfully written biographies or autobiographies. At the same time, I haven’t yet read books about other 70s favourites like Santana, The Who, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Simon & Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, Dire Straits and Deep Purple. I haven’t read much or practically any book on post-80s bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Van Halen, REM, U2, Metallica, Nirvana or Guns N’ Roses. The Rod Stewart biography and Dennis McNally’s ‘A Long Strange Trip’ (about the Grateful Dead) are on my soon-to-read list.
But if I were asked to recommend 25 rock biographies, here’s a list below — besides the Pattie Boyd autobiography, of course. As I said, the focus is only on 60s and 70s legends as I’ve mainly read about them. While the titles are self-explanatory, I have put additional notes in brackets, if necessary. Pardon the Doors overdose, but then, that’s one band that’s been written about enormously.
1 The Beatles/ Hunter Davis (first published in 1968, this is the only authorised biography of the Fab Four)
2 Lennon: The Definitive Biography/ Ray Coleman (very in-depth look at John Lennon’s life)
3 Paul McCartney/ Paul James Carlin
4 Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyssey/ Nicholas Schaffner
5 Comfortably Numb: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd/ Mark Blake (updated to cover keyboardist Richard Wright’s death)
6 Clapton: The Autobiography/ Eric Clapton (extremely honest autobiography)
7 Crossroads: The Life and Music of Eric Clapton/ Michael Schumacher (not to be confused with the racing champion)
8 Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend/ Stephen Davis (my favourite rock biography)
9 Riders On The Storm: My Life With Jim Morrison and the Doors/ John Densmore (drummer of the Doors)
10 Light My Fire: My Life With The Doors/ Ray Manzarek (keyboardist of the Doors)
11 No One Here Gets Out Alive/ Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugerman (a biography of Jim Morrison)
12 The Doors: The Illustrated History/ Danny Sugerman (contains some amazing pictures of the Doors)
13 Jethro Tull: Pocket Essential Series/ Raymond Benson (this is a mini-biography; I haven’t read the better-known ‘Minstrels In The Gallery: A History of Jethro Tull’ by David Rees)
14 Midnight Riders: The Story of the Allman Brothers Band/ Scott Freeman (the book that got me into rock biographies, back in the late 90s)
15 The Eagles: Flying High/ Laura Jackson (the writer has also written biographies of Queen, Bono, Jon Bon Jovi, Paul Simon and Neil Diamond, but I’ve only read this and Queen)
16 Queen: The Definitive Biography/ Laura Jackson
17 Hammer Of The Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga/ Stephen Davis (Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page rejected this one, saying it misrepresented the band: interesting reading, all the same)
19 Chronicles: Volume One/ Bob Dylan (The singer-songwriter talks about his influences and glorious moments — in his own inimitable style)
19 Do You, Mr Jones?: Bob Dylan with the Poets and Professors/ Edited by Nick Corcoran (various poets and professors analyse Dylan’s work: perfect for diehard Dylan fans, not for those who’ve heard him only superficially)
20 According to the Rolling Stones/ The Rolling Stones (members of the band relive their experiences)
21 Rolling With the Stones/ Bill Wyman (bassist of Rolling Stones)
22 Elvis/ Albert Goldman
23 Crosby Stills & Nash: The Biography/ Dave Zimmer
24 Jimi Hendrix: Inside The Experience/ Mitch Mitchell (drummer with Jimi Hendrix)
25 Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy: Classic Rock & Pop Writing from Elvis To Oasis/ Edited by Dylan Jones (not a biography, but an essential collection of articles revolving around rock and pop stars including Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Chuck Berry, Frank Zappa, Elton John, George Michael, Annie Lennox, Sid Vicious and Oasis)
Well, that’s my list. As mentioned, there are many which I haven’t yet read (recommendations are welcome). All the 25 books may not be brilliantly written — and none of them would qualify for the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Laura Jackson books, in particular, are not as detailed as some of the others. But where they score lies in the trivia, and the wealth of information they provide.
Rock star Frank Zappa once described rock journalism as ‘people who cannot write doing interviews of people who cannot think in order to please peope who cannot read’. Nothing so exterme about these books, but if you possess the rare and deadly combination of rock and reading, do try them out.
Jagdeep Singh, who’s read this blog, suggests some books. He writes:
On the subject of biographies, I am an avid reader of rock biographies too. While some turn out to be written by ghost writers and hold nothing interesting than the surface level info we already know, some are painstakingly written…I wanted to mention some in my collection:
1) Smoke On the Water: The Deep Purple Story: Nothing new here, written by a fan, it has all the quotes and story matter we already know of, no special insights, at some level turns out to be the a series of events during their hey days put together….I was pretty disappointed since I was expected something interesting like The Hammer of Gods…
2) Ian Gillan: Child In Time: Very nicely written and interesting read.. insight on (Deep Purple’s) Gillan’s struggles post his resignation from the band in 72 upto his rejoining in 84 (in fact life in 84 is the last chapter of the book)…you know the man has written it himself…
3) Slash / Eric Clapton: another set of nice books, you get some interesting insights into their lives…
4)Keith Richards’ Life: A ‘thick’ book…I am currently reading it and it is pretty engrossing, you know the man has written it himself, because the writing is how Keith would have been speaking, it defies the literary rules of English writing every now and then, his own imaginative sentences
5) Bob Dylan: Chronicles….don’t know about this one…it started out interesting, but I havent finished it in 4 years…so there….
Honorary mention: Biddu: Made In India: It’s short and interesting, didn’t know Biddu’s Mumbai fame and the struggles he had to go through to reach Kung Fu Fighting status…
Thanks Jagdeep, for the inputs