musicians Posts

Elton John’s “Me”

I read Elton John’s autobiography Me that has been written with the assistance of journalist Alexis Petridis. It is so full of enjoyable trivia about the music scene. There is not much about the business of music except for passing references to his hunt for a reliable manager or how he founded his own company, Rocket, and discovered new talent. He readily admits he was good at discovering talent and not necessarily nurturing new talent. He talks about his upbringing and never once is his family left out of the narrative. They are always present in his story. It is not as if stardom went to his mind and he forgot his roots.

It is also a memoir that documents his coming out as gay and then his stratospheric rise as a performer. Outrageous acts that helped him become more of the man he was. It also points out that gayness and being gay was not fashionable then as it is now and yet when he came out to his friends or dressed flamboyantly, the circles he moved in did not bat an eyelid. Interestingly he was always so astonished at his meteoric fame that when he began to hobnob with the rich and famous, he could not get over the excitement. A memorable line in the book is about the door of his green room opening and musicians of The Band trooping in. He was astonished. He says it was as if the record sleeves of his music collection had come to life. There are so many instances like this. All along it is so obvious that he simply had the talent to play the piano and he had no qualms catering to the masses as long as it made Bernie Taupin and him money. Even so, they were very critical of some of their very commercially successful songs and albums.

What I find extraordinary is the confident voice. Also he has no problem damning people. I do not know if it is that he has been more than fifty years at the top of his profession that he really could not care less about what others think of him. He has a very refreshing way of talking except that after a while it begins to pall and you begin to wonder when will the showman be done with this gig. Even his arguments with his mother and her bad behaviour on the day of his civil partnership with David Furnish is so much domestic drama detail. Quite unnecessary. It is of course delightful to come across anecdotes of Elton John doing drugs with John Lennon in a hotel in USA when there is a knock on the door. It is Andy Warhol which astounds Elton John who is still very starry eyed about the business but John Lennon does not allow Elton John to open the door as Warhol is known to always carry a camera and Lennon did not want a picture of two rock stars doing drugs becoming known publicly. There is another delightful one of Elton John and his then partner sitting by their swimming pool in their London home when they spotted an old lady cycle up their driveway. They thought she looked very much like Katherine Hepburn. And lo and behold, it was her. She had been told by a neighbour, whose guest she was, go across to Elton John’s home where you can use his swimming pool. 🙂

I wish there had been an interview or an essay by the Guardian journalist who helped ghost write this book. He has captured Elton John’s voice marvellously well. But there are so many questions I would like to know for instance, how on earth did Elton John remember so many details over the past decades? How much of this is really accurate? Did he research this for a while as a passing reference to his being awarded a star on Hollywood Walk of Fame is available on YouTube? How long was this book in the making? How many interview sessions and how many hours of tape were recorded? How many pages of transcript were there? This is the kind of autobiography that Richard Holmes is not exactly fond of the step-by-step account of a person’s life but I suppose a super star’s life cannot be hid. It is so much gossip and at the same time I get the feeling that much of the gossipy sections of the book are mainly about those who are long dead and gone and cannot really speak up for themselves.

On the other hand, compare this autobiography with that of Karan Johar. Both are showmen. Both had their autobiographies ghost written. These books were created after innumerable interview sessions. But Elton John’s maybe frivolous and champagne chatter but it is definitely not insipidly thin as Karan Johar’s book is. I also liked the fact that Elton John is respects himself tremendously — as it should be. In his first live-in relationship, his partner was violent and was known to have a bad temper. Elton John tolerated him because he was in love. But the day the partner hit Elton in their own home and Elton John’s nose was bleeding and face was scratched, Elton John swore he would not remain in an abusive relationship. The self-realisation of a DV victim is so critical irrespective of genders.

I would think an ideal book launch or a panel discussion should be between The Boss and Elton John. Both of them have written autobiographies that seem to ring true. Bruce Springsteen’s biography is stupendous especially his account of his childhood. Both musicians come from tough backgrounds, the Boss more than Elton John. Yet they were astounding successes and it would be fascinating to hear them in conversation with each other about deciding on how much of their life should they make public, what is the best balance to strike, is less more or do you give your fan base more or less how you perform on stage etc. It could be moderated by another book man who comes from as impoverished circumstances as Bruce Springsteen, Damian Barr, and he too has written a tremendous memoir.

Regrettably except for a stray reference and that was because the paper dedicated a section to “celebrity memoirs”, Me has been overlooked in most year-end recommended reading lists. Sad. Nevertheless, read it for yourself. It is a rollicking read!

6 Dec 2019

Bruce Springsteen “Born to Run”

Writing about yourself is a funny business. At the end of the day it’s just another story, the story you’ve chosen from the events of your life. I haven’t told you “all” about myself. Discretion and the feelings of others don’t allow it. But in a project like this, the writer has made one promise: to show the reader his mind. In these pages I’ve tried to do that. 

Reading memoirs and autobiographies of musicians and rockstars is always fascinating. It contains oodles of gossip and magnificent back stories on how iconic songs were created, performed or relationships forged and broken.  For a long time histories of rock music were seen as popular literature and not necessarily given their due space in mainstream publishing. There could have been innumerable reasons for it but the whole notion of pop and rock music is a relatively recent phenomenon. Post-war the explosive music of rock and roll musicians like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Beatles, et al was hugely influential but also path breaking in their experimentation within traditions of music. So histories of rock musicians are also fascinating social accounts of the evolution of music and a rapidly changing society. Bruce Springsteen’s long awaited memoir  Born to Run is deliciously rich for exactly these reasons. It is magnificent for its focused structure, fantastically breezy storytelling ( years of practice as a songwriter?), the ability to know exactly how much to present in words much as a seasoned performer  knows exactly how much to deliver to his audience, and to write a memoir in the good old-fashioned literary style.

Most of my writing is emotionally autobiographical. I’ve learned you’ve got to pull up the things that mean something to you in order for them to mean anything to your audience. 

While writing Born to Run Bruce Springsteen gives as “frank” an account is possible of his childhood and his desire to be a musician. It was watching “this hip-shaking human earthquake” Elvis Presely perform on the Ed Sullivan show ( actually it was Charles Laughton covering for Ed who was recovering from an accident) that changed Bruce Springsteen forever. He wanted “THE GUITAR” too. The next day he convinced his mother to rent a guitar for him. “I smelled blood.” He was six.

His co-musicians remarked that Bruce Springsteen was to be admired for his determination to succeed as a musician and never did he work at anything else. It was music all the way. For a man who has never learned to read music ( like George Gershwin) Bruce Springsteen has had an extremely successful career and he is grateful for it. He is very aware that “we were rock’s early third generation”. At the cusp of the best of rock’s reinventors of blues, pop and soul, the British wave, yet young enough to experience its originators. Also Springsteen and his band were able to experience the punk explosion of the late seventies and hip-hop in the eighties….”yet the band was unique: the cross-tensions of the fifties blue-collar world and sixties social experience clashing and melding in our music. We are pre- and post-hippie sixties soul survivors. It’s a blend that won’t exactly exist firsthand anymore when we’re done. The world and society changes too quickly and too much.”

Born to Run took Bruce Springsteen seven years to write. According to a wondeful profile published in Vanity Fair the genesis of this memoir originated in a few scribbles Bruce Springsteen wrote after performing at the Super Bowl half-time.

The germ of Born to Run, the book, lies in a short, diaristic piece Springsteen wrote for his Web site in 2009, afterbruce-springsteen-october-2016-cover he and the E Street Band played the halftime show of Super Bowl XLIII. The logistics and pressure of doing the 12-minute show threw even as battle-tested a performer as Springsteen for a loop, and he thought the experience would make for a good yarn to share. “Fifteen minutes . . . oh, by the way, I’m somewhat terrified,” he wrote in one passage. “It’s not the usual pre-show jitters, not ‘butterflies,’ not wardrobe malfunction nervousness, I’m talking about five minutes to beach landing, ‘Right Stuff,’ ‘Lord Don’t Let Me Screw the Pooch in Front of 100 Million People,’ ‘One of the biggest television audiences since dinosaurs first screwed on earth’ kind of terror.”

Doing the Super Bowl show, Springsteen said, led him to discover a “pretty good voice to write in.” With time on his hands after the big game, he kept at it, writing down vignettes from his life in longhand while he and Scialfa were staying in Florida, where their daughter, Jessica, a competitive equestrian, was participating in show-jumping events. He was pleased with the results. In fits and starts, back at home in New Jersey and on tour over the next seven years, a full-blown, 500-page autobiography eventually took shape, with no ghost or collaborator. Every word in the book is his own.  ( David Kamp “Cover Story: The Book of Bruce Springsteen” Photographs by Annie Leibovitz, October 2016 http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2016/09/bruce-springsteen-cover-story#1)

Like a veteran storyteller Bruce Springsteen is able to offer a judicious mix of the personal and his professional life to his fans. His revelations include his coming to terms with his Catholicism which for a long time he had rebelled against. But then bemusedly he understands that “once you’re a Catholic, you’re always a Catholic. I don’t often participate in my religion but I know somewhere … deep inside…I’m still on the team.

This was the world where I found the beginnings of my song. In Catholicism, there existed the poetry, danger and darkness that reflected my imagination and my inner self. I found a land of great and harsh beauty, of fantastic stories, of unimaginable punishment and infinite reward. It was a glorious and pathetic place I was either shaped for or fit right into. It has walked alongside me as a waking dream my whole life. So as a young adult I tried to make sense of it.”

Springsteen also bravely reveals the challenges he has faced while tackling his depression. Mental ill-health being an inheritance from his father. “The fire in me felt like it had gone out and I felt dark and hollow inside. Bad thoughts had a heyday. …You feel the thinness of the veil of your identity and an accompanying panic that seems to be just around the corner….I couldn’t get out of bed.”

Born to Run is a title chosen deliberately by Springsteen as an acknowledgement to his legendary music album. Yet it epitomizes his life well. His desire to escape from the poverty and squalor of his working-class childhood home (but not necessarily the deep love and familial affection he received) to performing on the road nonstop with enviable amounts of stamina and energy and becoming a multimillionaire who own a horse farm now. Today he is sixty-seven and still performing live including a concert in summer 2016 that lasted for nearly four and a half hours. Incredibly too and a fact that he is rightly proud of “I’m one of the few artists from those days who owns everything he ever created. All my records are mine. All my songs are mine. It’s rare and it’s a good feeling. ” This is when stories such as of Elvis Presley’s manager, Colonel Parker, who earned notoriety for pocketing most of the singer’s earnings are legendary.

Born to Run is a memoir written with passion and a raw energy reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen the singer and performer. It is a delight to read since it is evident that Springsteen has a critical and sharp understanding of his place in the long line of musicians while happily acknowledging the love for his family. He is at peace with the choices he made and continues to make.

This is a book not to be missed.

Bruce Springsteen Born to Run Simon & Schuster UK, London, 2016. Hb. pp. 520 Rs 799

26 Oct 2016