Saw this too over at Rolling Stone on my way out the door to a friend’s B-day party. Johnny Cash and Keith Richards playing the song Big River. Two people who should be on some kind of musical Mount Rushmore. I loved Johnny Cash growing up. After he died they made that horrible movie and sort of mythologized him to where he lost some of the endless humanity that he had in his life. I had to step away for a moment while he was turned into a pale version of the complex and musically fearless person that he was in life. If you really want to learn about him read Cash by Johnny Cash. I think his autobiography will put his life in context better than any retrospective could. An indisputable cornerstone to all music that came after him.
I recently read John Lydon’s autobiography of his time in the Sex Pistols, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs. Lydon is of Irish stock and the title refers to a sign that used to be hung up on certain establishments in England. The book was excellent as Lydon (Johnny Rotten) was always much smarter than his detractors claimed. However, one of the most interesting things about the book wasn’t even the content, but the way that it was structured.
Lydon is smart enough to realize that events are subject to people’s perspective. Rather then claim he has the definitive take on everything he has other people give their views on seminal events, including those that contradict him.
Earlier in the book he talks about how history can’t be completely trusted. He knows the lies that were written about him in the press, so why should people believe everything that is written about a larger more controversial figure like Napoleon?
So while he tries to be as honest as he can about what he saw and how he perceived events, he again also includes a multitude of other opinions. Many of these were written down specifically for the book. However, even when it comes to the lawsuit that was between him and former manager Malcolm McLaren, he includes all of the opposing depositions, including McLaren’s.
This is not only brave of Lydon to do, as he allows himself to be presented in less than favorable light at times, but also shows that he understands how human perception can color events. Getting to the absolute truth of an event can be impossible. One might think that having conflicting perceptions would actually make finding the truth even harder. But actually, if you are open to looking at things from different angles, you can actually get closer than you can just depending on one source.
This book actually came out in the 90’s. I think the way it is presented is even more relevant now, especially with how unreliable our mainstream media is. The only way that one can have some idea of what is going on is to try to read as much as possible and piece things together for themselves.
I found myself watching a documentary about entertainer and force of nature Elaine Stritch the other day. It was called Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me. If I’m being honest I only watched it because I read a particularly funny passage about her in Morrissey’s Autobiography and I was also aware that she had just passed away. I was in no way overly familiar with her work before coming across the documentary on Netflix by chance.
The film not only dealt with her career and her one of a kind personality, but also with her unbelievable work ethic at the age of 87 and the struggles that she faced from aging and diabetes. She was someone that had more than one memorable quote to say the least. When talking about her diabetes she simply shrugged it off by saying something along the lines of everyone has their sack of rocks that they carry around. When asked about aging she quoted Bette Davis and said, “Aging is not for sissies.”
One of the most memorable parts of the film was when her musical director talked about their first meeting. He described how right away she stated that she wanted someone that was not going to bullshit her. With her truth was essential. In fact throughout the film she spoke openly about how the entertainment business is full of people that you can’t trust completely, and that it was clear that she valued people who would be straight with her. She herself was not one to hold her tongue regarding her opinion to say the least.
The movie itself was a very interesting character study. She was someone that went to a convent before going into acting, yet she swore like a sailor. She was both extremely vulnerable and yet completely brave in many ways. She loved attention, but didn’t suffer fake praise.
I was surprised at how moved I was at this documentary featuring an 87 year old woman whose work I had no relationship with. You see her at times in the movie, especially as she is struggling with her health and talking about her battle with alcoholism, at moments of extreme human weakness. It’s also clear that she undoubtedly liked being at the center of things. However, despite whatever flaws she may have had, one can’t help but marvel at the hutzpah that she possessed.
She was dead within a year of this film coming out. Throughout the movie the end of her career and life hover continuously. If she didn’t exactly rage against the dying of the light, she definitely faced it with more balls than most. I was glad that I discovered this tough old broad by chance, on a Saturday afternoon.
Earth is the Loneliest Planet is Morrissey’s simplest lyric in some time, maybe since Best Friend on the Payroll or Do Your Best and Don’t Worry from Southpaw Grammar. I am probably missing something but those two jump out. (I actually like both those songs and especially love Best Friend on the Payroll. I’ve always found Southpaw to be his most underrated album. Boz Boorer and Alain Whyte kill it on guitars on that record. The whole band is great.) The lyrics are basically the title of the song with a couple key phrases to add some light and shade to it. And for those of you that think he is not living up to his Smith’s heritage all I have to say is Some Girls Are Bigger than Others or Never Had No One Ever. Morrissey has been writing lyrics this way since he started. And if the lyrics are simple in terms of the amount of lines that he has written, trust me, as you play the song numerous times different nuances make themselves known.
The melody is textbook Morrissey; it’s a unique melody that sticks in your craw once you have heard it several times. What makes this track so outstanding, where it really raises the bar, is the music. Flamenco guitar, French café sounding accordion, ghostly female backing vocals, and a take the paint off the barn guitar solo are all there together among other things!
What is really interesting to me now that we have heard three songs from the album is how adventurous and outward looking the production and music is. Along with the three sets of lyrics, that all seem to look out at the world, the music really has a worldly quality to it without being what you would call world music. The writing is still very much in the World of Morrissey, but each song has different flourishes that make you think of different cultures. When Morrissey does what my brother and I call the “victory lap” in his Autobiography, when he talks about all of the success his music has met in all corners of the globe in the last part of his book, it makes me think that he has folded all of these places back into his music. The fact that has been able to do this while still retaining a very unique musical and lyrical identity is really exciting. Please let the next month go quickly, I want this record!
Julie Burchill is, of course, not loveable, and has pitifully late middle-aged legs. Her naked body probably kills off marine plankton in the North Sea…Unchained from the cellar Burchill will make sure that you remember her…I shall be honored to attend her funeral and i might even jump into the grave.
Morrissey on Julie Burchill in Autobiography. Burchill is a music journalist who once worked for the NME. I know from living in the North East that you often rip on the ones you love as sort of a loving past time. I get the sense North England, and Manchester particularly, is quite the same. However, with Morrissey you can never be quite sure when he is giving someone a backhanded compliment and when he is slinging arrows at his enemies. Just don’t ever accuse him of not having a sense of humor.
Whenever I get an autobiography or biography I dread that it will focus too long on the childhood of a subject. These passages are usually dreadfully boring and rarely shed light in any meaningful way on what is important about the person.
I just got the Springsteen biography Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin. This was no exception to the rule. I quickly found myself skipping ahead a few chapters to the formation of the E Street Band. When I am reading about someone, whether they are a politician or a musician or an artist I want to know what makes them tick, why they made the decisions that they made, etc. Although occasionally these childhood passages can be enlightening, they are often a ticker tape of the ordinary. This is usually the fault of the writer and not necessarily because childhood plays no role in the formation of who these people become. It obviously does. An average writer can make a political campaign or a life among celebrities interesting, but only a truly great writer can make an average childhood come alive with meaning. Springsteen’s whole career seems to have been greatly influenced by his relationship with his father, but if a writer tackles these things as just a series of incidents, they don’t seem very meaningful. The director Werner Herzog once talked about how he didn’t like Cinema Verite because it was not ecstatic truth but the truth of accountants. Often these childhood passages are just the truth of accountants, names and dates without any deeper significance imbued in them.
In order for a writer to make childhood an interesting subject it usually helps if they have a greater historical understanding of the time and place in which a subject lived. Often what happens in a home is influenced by the outside world and vice versa. Just writing well definitely plays a part, but having this extra historical understanding goes some ways in creating a better understanding of someone.
Two books that break this mold are Neal Gabler’s excellent biography of Walt Disney and Morrissey’s own Autobiography. Gabler understood that world that Disney grew up in. He not only tells Disney’s family history, but recreates the world that he grew up in. Morrissey makes the facts of his childhood clear, but more importantly comments and describes vividly the dreary world of 1960’s and 70’s Manchester. In fact Morrissey is so adept at recreating this world though image laden and poetic writing, that as great as his book is, it almost is a slight comedown after these amazing opening chapters. With the Disney book you see how the world that Disney grew up in forever had him trying to recapture the fonder moments of his childhood. If his childhood in and of itself is not particularly interesting, the world that was around it surely is.
Our lives are not just a series of interactions and internal reflections. We can’t help but be shaped by the cultural and historical events around us, even if we greatly resist them. Even if you reject and rebel against the culture at large, you are responding to it in some way. Some of us may wish to be the “one from none”, as Henry Rollins once wrote, but we never truly are.
I’ll probably never be done writing about Lou Reed, not completely, but this is the last time I write of his death in any kind of memorial sense. I posted and dissected his lyrics for a week and I felt that fitting enough tribute. Even by the end of the week, if I’m being honest, I was beginning to tire. Not because my love for him and his work had diminished in the slightest, but because his work is powerful enough to stand on its own, without my chirpings.
However, through Morrissey’s Autobiography I have discovered the poet A.E. Housman. I just posted something by him earlier today that was quoted in Autobiography. I was able to download a book of his poetry today for the ridiculous price of $1.99. Amazing that a man’s whole life work can be bought for so little. Well he’s dead now, so at least he doesn’t have to be troubled by it.
Anyway, I had mentioned in my posts about how Lou Reed was often funny and, at least more often than his reputation would allow for, was also quite capable of commenting on the brighter side of life. However, his reputation for treading in the dark was also well earned.
For those of you that don’t have time for writers who dabble in the darker side of the human experience, or don’t understand why someone would, I thought the poem below will say what I, if I had a million words, could not. Although any words fail when trying to represent the true complexities of a human life, I thought that this poem would help explain why Lou Reed was important. He went places other writers in the field of pop music dared not go before him. I believe that this was as much purpose as chance. Those like Lou Reed carve out trails in the night, so that the rest of us won’t feel so alone when we take that similar and inevitable path.
They say my verse is sad: no wonder.
Its narrow measure spans
Rue for eternity, and sorrow
Not mine, but man’s.
This is for all ill-treated fellows
Unborn and unbegot,
For them to read when they’re in trouble
And I am not
– A. E. Housman