I recently blew through a gauntlet of rock bios, as I was a bit tired of fiction. (Well one of them was a screenwriter, but he considers himself a rocker who writes rather than jams, and I need a weak excuse to slide him in here). Now I'm a bit tired of bios.
Let's start with Shakey: Neil Young's Biography by James McDonough. What a turgid mess. McDonough seems to think he's freakin' Norman Mailer, and inserts himself and his opinions throughout the text. You just want to slap him upside the head and scream: "Get a blog if you wanna opine about yourownself, the rest of us wanna read about Neil Young!"
If you do want to get a good picture of Neil Young, sadly this is the book you want to slog through. It really is comprehensive about his life and times. But the format and the writing, and the utter lack of editing (I'm assuming here) make it a labor of love to do so. If you have a casual interest in Neil, just go to the All Music Guide and read his bio there.
The other mistake McDonough makes is he dwells on minor works by Neil and blows by some of the major ones because he didn't think they were worthy. He outlines in detail how music has to be "honest and real" and all that other bullshit that some whiphead music types get all wound up about. Yeah, Britney Spears is poser, but do you like her music or not? (I don't, but that's beside the point.) Bob Dylan, everyone pretty much agrees, is not a poser, but do you like his music? (I rilly rilly do like the Bob, but again it's beside the point.) Crazy Horse, Neil's main band, is almost to a person made up of the latter kind of music people, thank God. Neil himself tries to keep his music honest (his term) and he famously won't sell his songs for commercials. But other than that, he seems to have an eclectic taste in music, which almost always defies that uptight "all music has to mean something and has to be pure" silliness.
Neil himself seems like your typical artist type: Brilliant, visionary, narcissistic, selfish, driven, interesting, and kind of a prick. I'd have a beer or two with him.
Then I read Motley Crue: The Dirt : Confessions of the World's Most Notorious Rock Band, as dictated to Neil Strauss by the band. I've never heard a Motley Crue song that I liked. And I heard them all because my partying buddies at the time felt it wasn't a party without the Crue. Gad, I loathed that band. In my opinion, they were nothing but a talentless hair band. Now, there are plenty of talentless hair bands I've liked, so that's not the issue. It's just that their music never connected with me. After reading their bio, I think I've put my finger on just why. What a bunch of shallow, vicious assholes. My God. These guys are every rock cliche on steroids, with some afterburners strapped on for shits and grins. They had it all: the heroin, the satan worship ("stuff started moving by itself"), killing innocent people while driving wasted, punching anyone that annoyed them (and annoying them could mean just existing in their presence) and the revolving door of groupies that they did stuff to that would make Led Zeppelin blush. Like the jacket blurbs promised, I felt like I needed a couple showers and some mouthwash - and maybe a delousing just to be safe - after finishing it.
It's kind of telling that they never discuss their music - or more precisely the creation of it. They mention writing songs after certain events. They mention configurations of their gear. But there's never a discussion on the sculpting of any songs. Shakey had those wall-to-wall, as did the Aerosmith and the Elvis Costello bios. Not here. The thing discussed with the most passion in the book was Tommy Lee's (the drummer and participant in the infamous "let's record our love" video) first girlfriend who, by all accounts - and I don't know why every guy in the band knew this - would ejaculate so forcefully when she orgasmed that it would jet across the room. What a fitting image for this book. What no one discusses is that Mick Mars, the elderly (compared to the rest of the band) guitarist, has a degenerative bone disease that slowly fuses his entire skeleton together. Everyone just referred to him as a hunched-over troll without even broaching the topic that he was that way from a debilitating disease. Further, when one of them ended up in a hospital or a jail due to a car crash and/or drug overdose, they rarely even checked up on or visited each other. Bastards to the core, all of them.
The only positive thing I have to say is the format of the book was very good. The author interviewed all the guys in the band, and organized their stories in chronological order, bouncing their version of events off of one another. That made it a compelling read, even if the topic was often icky. It made it feel as though you were sitting in a bar (a very seedy bar with an adipose stripper halfheartedly catting around on a tiny, stained stage in the distance), listening to these guys tell their story. I suggest biographers copy this technique.
Next was Walk This Way: The Autobiography of Aerosmith, by Stephen Davis. The debauchery was much less in this book compared to the Crue, and of course Aerosmith is a much more vital, important band, but the stories of excess were much the same. The saving grace was that this was freakin' Aerosmith, arguably one of the best American bands ever. Just considering who it was made the stories fun to read. Though, there wasn't much in this book that wasn't in the many VH1 "Behind the Music" and other film bios of the band.
I followed that with Elvis Costello: A Biography, by Tony Clayton-Lea. About 20 pages in, it became clear this was one of those cut and paste bios that some journalists kick out to make a buck. It did a serviceable job of describing Elvis' life and rise to the top, but I can't recommend this particular bio. In addition, the writer is pungently British, and at times the style got in the way. According to Amazon, there are many other better bios on Elvis than this one. And I would certainly hope so. In my book (har har), Elvis Costello is one of the best and most important songwriters and artists of our age. Even one of the Beatles sought him out to collaborate with, man.
Finally, I read Hollywood Animal: A Memoir, by Joe Eszterhas. Joe is the screenwriter who wrote Basic Instinct and Showgirls. That tells you about everything you need to know. Yes, he's as arrogant, maniacal, oversexed, and deluded as you would imagine the writer of those two movies would be. He really thinks he's telling little tales of morality in his movies. In his view, you can't tell a story of debauched morals unless you show all the debauching. All the Hollywood dirt made it a bearable read, but I certainly wouldn't want to be stuck at a party with this guy. Like most rock stars, he screwed anything with a concave surface while married, and rationalized it all away because he was an important, creative artist who needed the company. Feh.
The main interesting thing I gleaned from reading all those rock bios at once is how small of a world it is - the music world - and how much everyone intersects. Nearly every one of those books mentioned the other artists and encounters they had with each other. The epicenters of these meetings seem to be Stephen Stills and Bebe Buell. Funny how everyone kind of puts down Stephen Stills, but they all know him and have worked with him (outside of the Crue, natch; pretty much no one got near them), and they all grudgingly acknowledge his enormous talent; it kind of makes me wonder what's behind all of that. There is no bio on Stills, which strikes me as odd. Funny how nearly everyone has boffed Bebe Buell, and speaks highly of her. After I get over my bio burnout, I'll probably read Bebe Buell's bio (say that after a fifth of Jack Daniels, three times fast), just to get her side of the story.