Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Rock Bios

I have a weakness for pop star biographies. I used to watch VH1 -- back when they did groups I knew -- and I've read a slew of books about the bands and singers popular when I came of age. The Beatles, Dylan, the folk, folk-rock, country-folk-rock groups, from Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell to Graham Parsons to the Eagles, CSN&Y, the Band, the Dead, Warren Zevon, and so on. Books on de blues, too, chasin' that devil music, to Stagolee shooting Billy.

Plus there are the movie stars, from Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, to the rat pack, to Jane Fonda to Burt Lancaster, and now and then, even a writer, for variety.

The latest is a bio of Billy Joel. Hey, I liked his music, so sue me. Play me a song, piano man.

I'm not bothering to mention the title or the writer's name, because I didn't think the book was particularly well-done and I can't recommend it. The writer obviously didn't have direct access to his subject. Those people who would talk to him often had axes to grind, and if they had spoken about a subject frequently, the writer would group those pieces together. The effect was repetitive and redundant -- the drummer player would say something, and the writer would quote it. Then he said pretty much the same thing elsewhere, and the writer would drop that in; then the drummer would offer a slight variation elsewhere, and lo, that would be there too, all clumped together. So you get all this padding that wasn't necessary: Billy was being a dick, so I wrote him this letter. I wrote this letter, because he was being a dick. And yeah, when he was being a dick, I wrote him this letter.

I got it. You wrote him a letter. Why was that again?

When the writer ran out of those, he would offer up numbers: How many people attended which concert, how much money got raked in. And long reviews were extensively quoted, so we know how Rolling Stone had in it for Billy -- except for when they loved him and said so.

Love/hate relationship with the press, Billy had, and that's not unusual. Sometimes the press can be so stupid you wonder how they remember to breathe. Watch some of those interviews with Dylan or the Beatles and marvel at the questions. Ever watch a TV reporter interview a mother whose child had just been killed? How do you feel about that? they ask. Makes you want to take 'em out behind the woodshed and kick the crap out of them.

Probably the most distracting thing was that the writer wanted to present this hagiographic view of Joel, who was the hottest guy on the radio back in the day. (And the first major rock star to put out an album on CD -- remember those?) And because most of his closest sources were disaffected band members who had been booted out, he couldn't pull it off. Billy's this talented, nice, easy-going guy! Followed by, I found out I wasn't in the band any more on MTV. He never called to tell me, he just stopped talking to me.

Nice guy, really -- well, except sometimes, a real dickwad. Kinda hard to reconcile those.

Joel was married three times when the book ends -- divorced from the third wife after the book came out -- and the father of a daughter. He was also rich, but ripped-off by his management; a drunk who sometimes fell over on stage, and slammed three cars into trees -- or once, a house -- in single-car accidents; and all the stuff about how his personal life would periodically dip into the toilet was addressed peripherally: Oh, yeah, by this time, his marriage was falling apart and he and his wife would argue a lot. He went into rehab a couple times. He likes big boats and has a fleet of 'em.

Really? How interesting.

There's a passing reference to Joel being given crappy reviews because the press thought he was a spoiled rock star and a pain in the ass to deal with, but it's blown by in a hurry. And also hurried mentions of some of the classical rock star big-headedness: Somebody gets in the way, and it's Hey! Don't you know who I am?

Always makes me want to say things like, Don't you know? You have amnesia? Have you checked your wallet for ID?

That rock-star career arc has become a cliche, and Joel didn't escape any of the nuances that I could tell, though much of that was reading between the lines. Talented, family deserted by his father early, he got good on the piano. Was in this group and that. Collected some likewise-talented musicians and hit the big time, number one albums and singles. Started taking himself too seriously, kicked out his original sidemen who, in the end, were just hired help. And there's a huge gap when one of them committed suicide. The writer interviews all the other guys in the band who talk about how their old buddy was depressed after being booted and all, and how they regret not picking up on it. No mention of what Joel thought about it, none.

One of the sidemen, waiting for another tour, was broke. He asked Joel for an advance. Joel told him to talk to the managers, he didn't do that stuff. Guess who didn't get an advance, while Billy went off to buy another yacht. Guy backing you on drums from the old days, you let him dangle, then cut him loose. Kind of hard to keep the nice guy image going.

Not the first time I've heard this about a rock star. He's raking in millions, but the boys in the band are getting paid peanuts for being on the records and tours and making the sound what it is. They don't like it? Plenty more where they came from ...

There is a mention that Joel is emotionally distant. Well, gee, that clears that up.

I don't usually read these things with an eye for factual errors, but I came across one that leaped out: A mention of singer/songwriter Paul Simon's twin brother, Eddie. Huh, I told my wife, I didn't know Paul Simon had a twin brother!

That's because he doesn't. (He has a brother who is four years younger, and if he's a twin, Paul's mother must have had a passing strange pregnancy.)

Oh, well. Better luck next bio ...

1 comment:

Shady_Grady said...

I always liked Billy Joel a lot though more his lyrics than his music perhaps. He could write songs that were extremely specific to NY and to a certain kind of person in NY but were still completely universal.