Three Rock Bios Worth Reading
After finishing the new biography on The Smiths, A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the The Smiths by Tony Fletcher, I realized that it’s been a pretty good year for music bios. Here are three of my favorites.
A Light That Never Goes Out is truly epic. 700-pages in length, it’s clearly not for the casual fan. Frankly, it’s not even for the reasonably committed fan. With the first 200 pages presenting a detailed historical account of the establishment of The Smiths’ birthplace, Manchester, this book is for the super fan. Given The Smiths’ (justifiably) enduring legacy, there is no shortage of people out there who, like myself, will delight in the minutiae.
The book, like fans’ relationship with the band themselves, is really a tragic love story; tragic because of its all-too-soon end and unfulfilled promise. The book details Morrissey and Marr admitting several times throughout their tenure their love for each other. To watch them devolve from being the two people in the world who truly understood and protected each other’s visions, to an estrangement—brought upon in large part by their inability to let anyone into their hermetic world to aid them in navigating their iconoclastic success (The Smiths never had an actual manager)—is very sad.
This element of the book succeeds remarkably well. We, of course, know the split is inexorable and inevitable, but, like great movies with known endings, we still root for an alternate, happier outcome, and the collapse is hard to bear when it arrives.
The book doesn’t succeed as in analyzing the songs and recordings. The Smiths’ albums like the band itself seemed to appear fully-formed as if by magic. Pre-Internet (and its related hyper-contextualization/reporting of all creation), fans could only marvel at the release of song after song, lapidarian and perfect in nature. While some light is shone upon the process, I would have gladly traded the 200 pages on Manchester’s history for 200 pages on the creation and recording of The Queen is Dead—or any of their other albums.
At its core, A Light That Never Goes Out is successful in the only way that counts: all you want to do while reading the book is go back and listen to the songs from this remarkable band again—and appreciate them even more.
Mike Doughty’s The Book of Drugs is the most honest book about drug use I’ve read since David Carr’s The Night of the Gun. Doughty’s story is tough to read, and I can only imagine even tougher to write. To say that his experience fronting Soul Coughing was difficult is a vast understatement. His relationship with his bandmates makes the travails of the members of The Smiths seem like first graders arguing over who gets to be Luke Skywalker during recess.
It’s logical (though, it’s not right for me to make any type of causal connections), that Doughty’s descent into addiction was tethered to the increasing dysfunction of the band. Like The Smiths, the conclusion was inevitable: Soul Coughing breaks up. Unlike Morrissey and Marr, whose—with very occasional moments of inspiration aside—post-Smiths work serves only to immediately make one wish the two would get back together, Doughty’s descent and re-emergence gave rise to not only his best work, but also his most individualized. In this, like the book itself, there is redemption. Not to mention that Doughty gives us one of the best music or business aphorisms of our age: “Vending your sexiness works in any medium.”
I read The Book of Drugs upon the heels of Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock, by Jesse Jarnow. While very different in tone, the two work as a nice continuum in terms of presenting about as good picture as possible of the rise and fall of the now-sepia-toned-nostalgia that was the halcyon days of “indie rock” from roughly 1980 to 1995. Those 15 years also correspond roughly to the first wave of one of the most enduring rock bands and rock relationships, Yo La Tengo, and its founders, husband and wife Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan.
Jarnow details the band’s inception and its hometown of Hoboken in as loving detail Fletcher does with The Smiths’ Manchester—using thousands of fewer words. However, Jarnow’s details provide insight not only into the band, but also into the entire rise of what we now think of as indie rock.
The strange pull and tie that connects, for instance, The Velvet Underground, and its related cosmology with YLT and theirs is not only musical in nature, but truly aesthetic and almost anthropologic. That is, we can almost see the pre-YLT-music-journalist Kaplan not just wanting to honor the music of the Velvets and Television, but somehow continue the spiritual zeitgeist. As the long-running just-concluded annual Chanukah shows at Maxwell’s in Hoboken attest, he’s succeeded in some material way.
Where both Soul Coughing and The Smiths succumbed to any number of the myriad reasons for why things fall apart, YLT/Hubley/Kaplan did not. As the book beautifully shows, YLT’s ongoing commitment to creating a world (musical and otherwise) of one’s own idiosyncratic design highlights precisely what eluded both The Smiths and Soul Coughing, and, really, indie rock writ large.