Bob Dylan’s bad at charades, TV cops make Patti Smith cry – what Helen Brown learnt from 2019’s top music books. For 20% off all these titles, visit the Telegraph Bookshop
I’m going to struggle to sit down for the usual family games this Christmas without recalling the most shocking revelation of Elton John’s riotous memoir, Me (Macmillan, £25). I don’t mean the (very funny) stuff about sex on the snooker table, or the dressing-gown-agape descriptions of drug addiction. I’m talking about the part where we learned that Bob Dylan is terrible at charades.
“He couldn’t get the hang of the ‘How many syllables?’ thing at all,” says John. “He couldn’t do ‘sounds like’ either, come to think of it. One of the best lyricists in the world, the greatest man of letters in the history of rock music, and he couldn’t seem to tell you whether a word had one syllable or two!”
The book doesn’t give much space to John’s own music. Melodies just seem to tumble from his “stubby” fingers and he doesn’t ask how or why. But his gossipy and self-aware account of his “unlikely” ascent from lonely, suburban boy to A-list party animal then family man (and rehab consultant to the stars) is as eye-popping as his stage wardrobe.
I’d forgotten John was Eminem’s AA sponsor. But Anthony Bozza’s thorough (if overawed) second volume about the rapper, Not Afraid: The Evolution of Eminem (Blink, £20), reminds readers that the Detroit rapper was only two hours from death when he was rushed to hospital at “Christmastime” 2007 after overdosing on methadone. Ironically he had switched to the drug after learning that his addiction to prescription painkillers was damaging his liver and kidneys.
It was an accidental overdose of prescription drugs that killed Prince in 2016. He had grand ambitions for the memoir he’d begun co-writing with 29-year-old Paris Review editor Dan Piepenbring earlier that year. When Piepenbring was summoned to Paisley Park for their first meeting at 2.30am, Prince said he wanted to write lots of books: about his life, the music industry and the philosophy of “cellular memory”. He asked if they could write a book that “solved racism”.
But he died before work on The Beautiful Ones (Century, £25) really got going, so the resulting book is a compelling curiosity that finds its author orbiting around a few touchingly intimate encounters with his sphinx-like subject, scrap-booked together with passages, lyric sheets and photographs from the Purple One himself. What to make of a man who took selfies with his bathroom heater and invited his biographer to watch Kung Fu Panda 3 with him? Part of me is relieved he remains a funky conundrum.
No such evasions or enigmas in the convivial company of Madness’s Before We Was We (Virgin, £20), a lively conversation in which the group relive their “ragamuffin” early years in Seventies London. Nicking vinyl from Woolworths, getting their heads shaved for 50p and embroidering punk logos on to their Levi’s all helped brew what frontman Suggs calls their “comic malevolence”.
A similar – if less cheeky – immediacy marks the oral history of Joy Division collected in Jon Savage’s This Searing Light, the Sun and Everything Else (Faber, £20). Savage thoughtfully orchestrates three decades of interviews with a band (and their circle) who started off, in the words of one early photographer, as “four young guys who were standing there smoking, shaking, like this – ‘Are we OK?’ – underdressed, malnourished”.
While Savage and co reflect on the melancholy inspired by the “brutal landscape” of Seventies Manchester, Debbie Harry was electrified by New York in the same period. In Face It (HarperCollins, £20) the Blondie front-woman recalls the buzz of a wild city, full of rebel art, sex, drugs and violence. Harry is franker, friendlier and weirder than you might think: revealing a childhood obsession with the furnace in her basement and her frank delight in her sexuality. She unpicks the genesis of her Blondie character: a sly, feminist subversion, inspired by Marilyn Monroe and consciously flipping the male gaze back on itself as she sang about watching her lover shower. It’s a treat to meet the woman behind that cool façade.
I recommend reading Harry back-to-back with Defying Gravity (Omnibus, £20) by punk poster-girl Jordan (with noir novelist Cathi Unsworth) and Revenge of the She-Punks (Omnibus, £16.99) by Vivien Goldman, a music journalist caught in the “grime, grit and glitter” of London’s early scene. The 40 female artists she interviews here remind us how important (and difficult) it is for women to make their own noise – as do the 18 women in the music industry that Amy Raphael speaks to in A Seat at the Table (Virago, £14.99). “After one of my first gigs,” says Christine and the Queens's non-gender-conforming Héloïse Letissier, “a guy came up to me and said, ‘Do you really think you’re interesting enough to look at for 45 minutes? You’re not even f---able.’ This is where we are!”
Letissier should take heart from the survival of a woman who was wearing suits on stage before she was born. Patti Smith’s Year of the Monkey (Bloomsbury, £12.99) finds her reflecting dreamily on 2016: the year in which she turned 70, and her Nobel Prize ceremony performance of Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall went viral. While some shut themselves away from life as the decades pass, Smith’s engagement with the world – and with art – deepens and drifts. “I notice that I cry more when watching television, triggered by romance, a retiring detective shot in the back while staring into the sea, a weary father lifting his infant from a crib,” she writes.
My own tears were relentlessly pricked by Tricky’s memoir: Hell is Round the Corner (Blink, £20). It’s a story that begins with the suicide of the rapper’s mother, Maxine, in 1972 – an event he has spent his life trying to understand – and ends with the suicide of his daughter, Mazy Mina, earlier this year. In one agonising passage, his other daughter (a social worker) tells him “you’ve had a terrible life and I think you’ve got awful coping mechanisms.”
As a companion piece, fans should invest in Ian Bourland’s stocking filler on Massive Attack’s Blue Lines (Bloomsbury, £9.99) which explores how Tricky and the Nineties Bristol collective created an inventive, introspective blueprint for the “headphone hip hop” that inspired later stars such as Frank Ocean.
Ocean’s 2012 debut album, Channel Orange, makes the list of “Comfort Records” listed in the back of Flea’s waffly-but-cuddly memoir Acid for the Children (Headline, £20). The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist begins his book with a lot of stoner stuff about his “endless search to merge with infinite spirit” but it’s hard not to warm to his openhearted embrace of jazz, funk and his eventual bromance with bandmates Anthony Kiedis, Hillel Slovak and Jack Irons. The book ends, sweetly, with the band’s first show.
Last year, Suede’s Brett Anderson also ended his evocative first memoir, Coal Black Mornings, before he found fame. He concedes that this year’s follow-up, Afternoons with the Blinds Drawn (Little, Brown, £18.99), is “the book I said I wouldn’t write… about the things I said I didn’t want to talk about”.
The story of Suede’s rise and fall, the drugs and the feuds with other bands isn’t pretty. But as a songwriter, Anderson has always been at his best on the “not pretty” and this second volume finds him on typically sharp form. He’s particularly strong on the early days of fame – living “on Walkers crisps and nicotine while a low frenzy began to build” – and the thrill of being recognised for the first time by a girl who approached him in a bar to ask if he was the singer from Suede. He’s already imagining kissing her as he smugly replies that he is. “I thought you were,” she says. “I think your band are s---.”
Like Elton John, Anderson takes a wicked – and very British – delight in sticking pins in his own balloon. Back in the Nineties, Suede were, famously, hyped as “the best band in Britain” before they had even released their debut single. Today Anderson writes that they were “nothing special, despite our ambitions and pretensions, and our time ended, like a thousand other bands after us, in the same unhappy rat-run of dead ends and disillusionments and bitterness.”
Fans will be pleased to know that he’s harder on his old (unnamed) enemies, Blur, whom he calls “witless, opportunistic mockneys” twisting “British life, which I saw as more akin to a Mike Leigh film, into a Carry On film”. I’ve heard they're not half bad at charades, though.