By The Landlord
"It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives." – James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson
"Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man. The biography of the man himself cannot be written." – Mark Twain
"I don't think anyone should write their autobiography until after they're dead." – Samuel Goldwyn
"I'm writing an unauthorised autobiography." – Steven Wright
“I thought John was funny, clever and wise. The only problem with him being my muse was that he was so open about his emotions – he wrote and talked about his mother, Yoko, even his aunt, all the time, acknowledging how important women were in his life – so I assumed all boys were like this--and to my huge disappointment, almost none of them were or are.” – Viv Albertine
How did I get here? Well, basically, there was this little dot, right? And the dot went bang and the bang expanded. Energy formed into matter, matter cooled, matter lived, the amoeba to fish, to fish to fowl, to fowl to frog, to frog to mammal, the mammal to monkey, to monkey to man, amo amas amat, quid pro quo, memento mori, ad infinitum, sprinkle on a little bit of grated cheese and leave under the grill till Doomsday.
So comes the reply to a simple question by the manic, wise-cracking sociopath Johnny, played by David Thewlis in Mike Leigh's film Naked (1993), when most people might have simply said: "the bus". But most life stories, told in any format, focus and go into more individual detail, and so this week we're looking for songs that in any number of ways tell the narrative or arc of someone's life, whether that be famous or fictional, or a real person not widely known.
The voice that tells the story might be in the first or third person, about themselves or others. It's almost impossible to separate biography and autobiography as topics, as the two are so intertwined, but the key element here is that, while arguably most songs contain an element of the biographical or autobiographical, songs in this category should capture some sense of the arc of a life, rather than a passing moment or a single anecdote. As with many many things, the devil is in the detail.
How is this done in song? "Ballad of …", or a landmark age, a place, a particular image that marks a memory, are some of many doorways into this kind of song, but to inspire your choices, this week the Bar is opening its own doorway to host of musical and other stars, becoming something of a book fair of fascinating lives, with tales of strife and struggle, love and loss, triumph and despair, humility, hubris or humour.
So for example, following Johnny's quote above, there is, for example, Darwin: The Life Of A Tortured Evolutionist by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, which recounts the great man's struggles, his flaws and his flights of imagination, his gluttony and gambling at Cambridge, and his long voyage through Victorian society and across the globe to change our entire view of ourselves.
As you browse our bookshelves, there’s also Jackson Pollock: An American Saga by Steven Naifeh & Gregory White Smith, a lively account of the creative struggles of the phoney-hating reclusive alcoholic painter, who famously urinated into socialite art collector Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace during a cocktail party. Or if you want hellraisers, why not read Oliver Reed’s Reed Or About Me? Or the fantastically funny, and warmly wonderful Absolute Pandemonium, the couldn’t-be-better-titled autobiography of the louder-than-life actor, mountaineer, former coal miner, undertaker bodyguard, and just about everything else – Brian Blessed?
Or how about the silent Marx Brother’s hilarious Harpo Speaks! Or indeed David Niven’s The Moon’s A Balloon, in which the charming and rakish British actor tells a racy account of his life in Hollywood and beyond, including losing his virginity to a Soho prostitute, Nessie, and crazy days living with Errol Flynn in a house dubbed ‘Cirrhosis-by-the-Sea’.
The Kid Stays In The Picture: A Notorious Life by Robert Evans is another belter, rammed, even in the first chapter with “Success! Scandal! Sex! Tragedy! Infamy!” by the producer of The Godfather and Chinatown, who slept with A-list stars and fell into cocaine use and murder charges. Or you could dip into Somebody: The Reckless Life And Remarkable Career Of Marlon Brando by Stefan Kanfer, which tells of the actor’s “life of ludicrous excess, outlandish triumphs and appalling sorrows”, the man who fathered 16 children and roamed New York’s streets at night with a pet raccoon named Russell, and sleeping with as many men and women he could meet.
But music biographies and autobiographies might also catch your eye. Ice Cube has now appeared in the bar, and this is his recommendation: “Quincy Jones' autobiography 'Q' is very good. Because he's a master at music, he's one of our greatest composers, and its good for him to have a book and tell the good ole days when he was with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan and Ray Charles.”
There’s of course Keith RIchard’s Life, which candidly tells of his life of excess, his sheer passion for music and also of Mick Jagger’s “tiny todger”. Or there’s Cash, Johnny Cash’s autobiography, in which he reveals how he was nearly disembowelled by an ostrich and other many brutally honest revelations. Other supremely and excessively recommended are Slash by Slash, tawdry tales of the Gun N’ Roses rock guitarist, and Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory, which is an autobiography like no other – containing a certain amount of poetic licence, lots of cartoons, and tales of downtrodden dustbowl America.
Nick Tosches has written two fantastic music biographies that reveal more about the subject than they would certainly have themselves. Dino: Living High In The Dirty Business Of Dreams, tells all about Dean Martin’s life dealing with the mafia and being in the Rat Pack in heyday of Hollywood and mob-linked Vegas. But surely there can’t be a life more outrageous than that of Louisiana hellcat Jerry Lee Lewis (Hellfire) who married his 13-year-old cousin – before he was even divorced from his other wife, shot his bass player point blank with a .37 Magnum and one night repeatedly rammed his car into the iron gates of Elvis’s Graceland mansion, yelling: “Tell him the killer is here!”
The strength of biography, perhaps, over its more personal equivalent is that it can be more objective and more revealing, but that of course depends on the individuals concerned. Both formats can be exceptionally boring and just a commercial manoeuvre, as many footballing or other sport books prove and the Christmas market is awash with this and other fodder, often ghostwritten. But even musicians can wish to avoid the details we crave. Diana Ross has now popped in to the bar to tell us candidly, however, that “I want an autobiography without revealing any personal information.” What’s the point of that? And Emmylou Harris, even more evasively, but for reasons of her own, says of her former collaborator and friend: “I have my own biography of Gram Parsons - I don't want to be part of somebody else’s."
Better not to say, than to fabricate, perhaps, but how truthful is this format? “Autobiography is probably the most respectable form of lying,” quips Humphrey Carpenter. Sir Ian Mckellen swaggers in, glass of champagne in hand, and remarks: “What's upsetting about an autobiography is that the final chapter is always missing. I mean, you want the death, don't you?” Well, my good man, says Orson Welles, “There's no biography so interesting as the one in which the biographer is present.”
So with that in mind, writer autobiographies and biographies can have and interesting spin. The writers who are so good at portraying others are often not interested in delineating themselves. One exceptional example though, in the posthumously published, A Moveable Feast (1964) by Ernest Hemingway, which recounts his time between the wars hanging out boozily in Paris with James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound and F Scott Fitzgerald.
One of the great biographers, of Dickens, London and more, Peter Ackroyd, and never not fond of a drink himself, pops into the bar to tells us how he gained interest in the genre: “I wanted to be a poet when I was 20; I had no interest in fiction or biography and precious little interest in history, but those three elements in my life have become the most important. I think biography can be more personal than fiction, and certainly can be more expressive.”
Talking of poetry, WH Auden has joined him for a drink with this clever definition of the other form: “Every autobiography is concerned with two characters, a Don Quixote, the Ego, and a Sancho Panza, the Self.”
As well as Ackroyd’s works, two other great tragic writer biographers I’d recommend are Butterfly In The Typewriter: The Tragic Life Of John Kennedy Toole And The Remarkable Story Of A Confederacy Of Dunces by Cory MacLauchlin, and Richard Ellman’s appropriately warm and witty biography of Oscar Wilde.
So many lives to look at – big, small, famous, infamous, secret, passionate, profound, but all of them, like raindrops, reflecting the whole world of human nature. So with that, I hand over to our own musical biographer of brilliance, returning guru UncleBen, who will guide and gather up your suggestions of songs on this topic, for deadline on Monday 11pm UK time, for playlists published next Wednesday. It should be quite a story …
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Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist from songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address.