We are often fascinated by the twists of fate in the lives by our favourite music artists. The details are often tragic, but rarely dull, as this year’s best biographies show, writes Eoghan O’Sullivan.
“He sounded exhausted, like he couldn’t turn his mind off.”
Dan Piepenbring last talked to Prince four days before his death in April 2016, having been in the process of figuring out what his memoir should be. The Beautiful Ones is not a traditional memoir of the trailblazer, more a collage of stories, notes, and pictures, but it’s still a fascinating document.
Piepenbring discusses how he got involved in the project — he had to write a letter explaining what Prince’s music meant to him (“... like breaking the law”) and then explain that to Prince’s stoic face.
There followed handwritten notes by Prince himself of what was to be his memoir and later, his original handwritten treatment for ‘Purple Rain’.
Flicking through this coffee-table book of lyrics and stunning photographs, you realise just how amazing it is that Iggy Pop is still not just surviving, but thriving.
One of the quotes that stands out is from Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme: “Lemmy is gone. Bowie is gone. He’s the last of the one-and-onlys … Everyone should take a knee for Iggy.
He deserves it.” Whether a lyrics book is essential in 2019 is debatable, but it’s enjoyable tracing the line from The Stooges’ Fun House right through to the new tracksreleased earlier this year.
Joy Division feel like a band where the whole story has already been told a million ways, from Anton Corbijn’s biopic to myriad biographies. Jon Savage draws on three decades of interviews with all the key players of this Manchester story — from Hook to Sumner to Tony Wilson and Pete Shelley of Buzzcocks — to create what is a vital oral history.
What’s striking is that, bar the formative decade of setting the scene, Joy Division’s story begins and ends in less than four years. Exhilarating, funny, poignant.
From best friends at school to the UK’s biggest pop band, Wham! are one of the quintessentials of the 1980s — and Christmas. Andrew Ridgeley says that ‘Last Christmas’ becoming the biggest Christmas single not to make it to number one was a statistic that annoyed bandmate George Michael.
It’s almost about the late singer more than Ridgeley — the reader will gobble up every titbit about a star who craved success: “George feared that coming out publicly about his sexuality at the time of (US tour) Whamamerica! would scupper any chances he might have of competing with artists like Madonna and Michael Jackson in the States.”
With three memoirs this decade, the punk poet Patti Smith has marked herself out as one of the most arresting writers around. Her latest, relatively short, book examines 2016, from the death of friend Sandy Pearlman to the election of Donald Trump.
As dreams (and fiction) weave through her narrative, she asks, late in Year of the Monkey: “Was it all a dream? Was everything a dream?” Like Iggy Pop, Smith — now 72 — is one of the last ones standing, with love and loss never far away. Smith’s beautiful writing will shine forever, though.
Like the subtitle suggests, the poet and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib has not written a straightforward book about the hip-hop legends A Tribe Called Quest, but instead seeks to explain to the reader just how important they were, how they made such a lasting impact on someone like him.
“Black folks have been creating with their backs against the wall for years, telling the future, speaking what is coming to the masses that aren’t eager to hear it until what’s coming actually arrives,” he writes.
Abdurraqib identifies with Phife Dawg, and his letter to the late rapper is particularly moving. Go Ahead in the Rain is not comprehensive, but at times it is as moving as the music itself.
After the less than ecstatic reaction to the biopic Rocketman earlier in the year, Elton John returned with this uproarious story of success and excess. Like with most stories of this era, it begins with seeing Elvis on TV, and soon Elton’s onstage flamboyance has seeped into his everyday wardrobe and he’s wearing a bright orange fur coat and eight-inch platform boots to an afternoon meeting in Surrey.
Written with the Guardian journalist Alexis Petridis, Elton’s got stories to burn about everyone from Yoko Ono to his one-time neighbour Keith Moon. That he’s lived to tell the tale himself is impressive — that it’s endlessly entertaining is no surprise.
Like with Suede’s Brett Anderson, who only told the rock side of his story in his second book, Afternoons With the Blinds Drawn,released this year after focusing on his formative years in 2018’s Coal Black Mornings, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, in his memoir Acid for the Children, ends his story just as the band starts.
Divorcing parents, a love of be-bop, and a wild-eyed wild child abound, though it’s the bromance with Anthony Kiedis that rings loudest. “It was next-level shit,” Flea says of their friendship. We await the next instalment with baited breath.
Tegan and Sara
Indie-pop Quin twins Tegan and Sara alternate chapters — and reactions to each others’ stories — in their joint memoir High School, which is similarly coming-of-age to Flea’s book. Indeed, it ends before their career begins to ascend.
As teenagers in mid-90s Calgary,Canada, they dabble in drugs and wrestle with their sexual identities — and familial reactions to such — while their door-slamming gets so bad that they’re taken off their hinges.
All the while, music starts to creep in and soon you are cheering them on to victory in a battle of the bands. Just like their music, Tegan and Sara’s book is irresistible.
Like so many of the stars lost to the 27 Club, Janis Joplin left a short back catalogue that’s still striking today — she burned bright, but quickly.
In this all-too-inevitable biography, Joplin was bullied at school in Texas, drops out of college, and hitches a ride to the west coast. When drugs come, they never let up. When music comes, despite horrific sexism, it electrifies. Joplin cycles through bands before making it to the vaunted Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. The rest, sadly, is history.