This late summer has been all about musical biographies and autobiographies.
I wanted to read Tony Visconti’s Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy (forward by Morrissey) mainly because I was interested in David Bowie. Visconti was Bowie’s producer on many albums and together they created some amazing music. He was also personally close to Bowie, all the more reason to feel that you are granted unique access to the backstage, to the extraordinary universe of Bowie, to his first music days, the days when David Bowie invented himself and the decades thereafter when he continued to reinvent himself. If you, like me, are looking to see the view of it all, of Bowie and his music, this is the book to start with.
But there is more to it than that. It was interesting to read about Tony Visconti, the man, the musician, the producer. A hard-working, normal, flawed, honest human, a Brooklyn boy who went to London – the land of The Beatles and George Martin, his standard in music recording – because he wanted to learn the music business. A talented, ground-breaking, visionary music producer, one of the best of all time. The man who helped shape music history.
Tony Visconti’s work with David Bowie and Marc Bolan shaped the landscape of rock in the ’70s and his book takes you back to those glory days of music. And here is something I completely relate to and which I needed to hear (read): “Enjoying a brand new LO record for the first time was a ritual. It involved sliding the black vinyl out of its protective sleeve, carefully placing it on the deck and putting the tone arm down on the large black disc before hurrying back to your favourite piece of furniture. From there you had your own private debut concert of the latest Beatles or Earth Wind and Fire recording. The artwork was large and detailed. The reading of the detailed sleeve notes and sometimes song lyrics were essential parts of the programme. You had to make sure you had something to munch on, a drink, a packet of smokes and maybe a companion or two to share the experience. It was impossible to walk down the road with your new album buzzing in your private headset, this was a concert, it was mandatory to sit there and listen. Your favourite artists knew this too.” I don’t want this kind of experience to be a thing of the past.
Some of the most interesting parts in the book are the insights into creating and recording various albums for Bowie and Bolan and the methods Tony came up with to make the now classic recordings unlike anything that has ever been put to tape. Visconti has also worked with many other important musicians, from Iggy Pop, U2, Paul McCartney and Morrissey and his straight-forward attitude and relaxed and unjudgmental familiarity with all of them is what makes his book so readable, enjoyable and valuable. “I have finally come to understand that love and friendship are what’s really important and should not be treated lightly – and sobriety is the best high.”
Just as in the case of David Bowie, I had not read any lengthy work about The Beatles before. But unlike in the case of Bowie, I am no Beatles fan. But again, that doesn’t mean I am not interested in the phenomenon, in the cultural shift their music produced, in their music legacy. So, after interminable discussions about music and the role the four boys from Liverpool played in it, at my brother’s suggestion, I reluctantly embarked on the reading of Bob Spitz’s 860-page biography, The Beatles.
“I have finally come to understand that love and friendship are what’s really important and should not be treated lightly – and sobriety is the best high.”
As a non-Beatles fan, the first thing that helped and made me appreciate the book was the author’s objective approach. Then, the author clearly has a talent for writing and that shows even in his choice of words for the titles of the main parts of the book – Mercy, Mania, Mastery – and of each chapter. He also paid great attention to every nuance of every scene and moment – the book is richly detailed and researched, Spitz having gathered little known information from all possible sources, which makes up for more than 100 additional pages of footnotes, bibliography, discography and other end matter.
Again, I must mention that I had no other book to compare it with, so I don’t know how much had been left or not unsaid before this book came out. But, for me, it was incredibly interesting to get the whole story: their childhood (one of the most captivating parts); the way each one of them discovered and fell in love with American rock ‘n’ roll; the way they met one another; John’s, Paul’s and George’s first band together; The Beatles; their breakthrough; the Beatlemania; the talent, egos, megalomania, fame, drugs, excesses, struggles, the highs and lows; the humans behind; the Lennon-McCartney teamwork (always) and rivalry (always); the Beatles as in John-Paul-George-Ringo (always) to the very end, in 1969. That’s what I wanted to know. And, yes, this book has helped me better appreciate their music, but, most importantly, music after The Beatles. And, yes, I do share the feeling of complete dissatisfaction with Yoko Ono, more than ever before, that comes through in the book. Does anyone feel differently?
Note: I do pay great attention to a book cover, and I would stick to the first edition cover (as seen in the image below), with the Bob Whitaker photograph. “Another thing I found strange after living and playing in New York for a little while was that a lot of black musicians didn’t know anything about music theory. […] I would go to the library and borrow scores by all those great composers, like Stravinsky, Alban Berg, Prokofiev. I wanted to see what was going on in all of music. Knowledge is freedom and ignorance is slavery, and I just couldn’t believe someone could be that close to freedom and not take advantage of it. I have never understood why black proper didn’t take advantage of all the shit that they can.”
Miles: The Autobiography, by Miles Davis and Quincy Troupe, is, on the one hand, raw, blunt and compelling, an opinionated, undeterred, in-your-face recounting of Miles Davis’ journey, which is not short of great life lessons. His passion, drive and tireless music innovation shine through. On the other hand, I disliked his constant cursing, his poor choice of words and contemptuous behavior in certain situations and the name dropping. He holds nothing back. But this no-nonsense inability to edit himself was part of who he was. The book is both admirable and enraging. It is also a validation of his musical genius. Maybe that’s all that one needs to know. “Miles Davis is the only musician who has captured the power and essence of Spanish music,” said Pedro Almodóvar in his autobiography, Almódovar on Almódovar. Davis’ Skeches of Spain album is an innovative and adventurous re-working of traditional Spanish folk songs, one of his monumental leaps into improvisations.
“Another thing I found strange after living and playing in New York for a little while was that a lot of black musicians didn’t know anything about music theory. […] I would go to the library and borrow scores by all those great composers, like Stravinsky, Alban Berg, Prokofiev. I wanted to see what was going on in all of music. Knowledge is freedom and ignorance is slavery, and I just couldn’t believe someone could be that close to freedom and not take advantage of it. I have never understood why black proper didn’t take advantage of all the shit that they can.”