I love biographies. What are the qualities, the chances or choices, that lead to achievement and fame? Just how does a writer decide which events to include or omit from the narrative of a lifetime. A linear sequence of episodes does not make a story. There has to be tension and suspense, just as there is in a novel. To write a story about a human being seems to me to be far more complex than creating a character from imagination. And autobiography, even more problematic. Where on earth would I begin? Well, with my books of course.
I have a fascination for music. It has always been in my life. During my childhood it played on the family wireless or on my transistor radio. Inevitably, I have rows of books recounting the life stories of famous music stars.
The Beatles crashed into British culture at all levels. Christmas carols were subverted. The three kings memorably followed Ringo Starr. Dora Bryan sang that all she wanted for Christmas was a Beatle. Anything associated with the word “Beatle” sold. Even the party game Beetle Drive had a short lived resurgence in popularity, despite its spelling and mind-numbing dullness. On Christmas Day evening 1963 cousins fought for the right to be Paul McCartney as they mimed to the Beatles. I suspect this was the only time in the sixties when left-handed children were advantaged. Their audience of grandparents, aunties and uncles had already been interrogated about the origins of long-dead relatives. This was in the hope of discovering that there was some genealogical connection to Liverpool. Everyone knew the words to the number one single “I Want to Hold your Hand”, not just the kids. The explosion of youth culture in the north impacted all generations. It gave their elders permission to be proud of their roots, until then disparaged and marginalised by the media. BBC reporters initially treated the Beatles like representatives of some curious alien planet, but the quick wit and humour of the Liverpudlians quickly exposed the brittlesness of the stuffy representatives of the establishment. For the first time in living memory it became fashionable to speak with a regional accent, especially if it had a tinge of Scouse.
In July 1972 David Bowie looked straight into our sitting rooms from the Top of the Pops studio and things were never the same again. He was like no-one else we had ever known. An out-of-this world being, at once regal and coquettish, who seduced a generation of teenagers when he pointed directly at us with a flourish of his wrist singing, “so I picked on you-ou-ou” then brazenly draped his arm around lead guitarist, Mick Ronson. The following year Nationwide, the magazine show of middle England, screened a ten minute feature about the Aladdin Sane tour. The reporter employed the same condescending manner that the Fab Four had endured ten years before. Like the Beatles Bowie influenced a generation of musicians and teenagers but he did not have the family-wide appeal of the Merseysiders. We knew the androgynous singer represented something new and edgy but we weren’t quite sure what it was.
The “David Is” exhibition at the V&A in 2013 was a delicious treat. I went twice. I was mesmerised by the original lyrics of Ziggy Stardust, written on ruled paper in David’s hand. The walls of videos transported me back to the exhilaration of the seventies, the flirtatious grin penetrated my soul yet again. Some idols fall, but David’s standing soared when I discovered that he had rejected a knighthood in 2003.
Ray Manzarak’s (RIP) tireless promotion of the memory of Jim Morrison (RIP) and the music of The Doors spurred me to rediscover the band sometime during the early nineties. I had already been touched by their music and a Top of the Pops performance by the charismatic Morrison. I was initially drawn in by Danny Sugarman’s (RIP) biography and his fascination for the compelling Morrison. Now I have a small collection of books on the band.
Motown stars are also prominent. Berry Gordy’s account of the setting up of Tamla Mowtown is fascinating. I have read the Smokey Robinson autobiography twice. What a life.
24 hour party people was written by Mr. Manchester himself, situationist Tony Wilson. Steve Coogan played the reporter in the film, one of my favourites. Tony Wilson was the anchor on Granada Reports up against Stuart Hall’s Look North West on BBC. No contest for me. Granada was at its best in those years. Wilson had been one of the audience at the famous Sex Pistols gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall which influenced a generation of Mancunian musicians. He used his position at the television station to showcase punk and new wave music, predominantly acts from the North West. His show So it Goes was always a thrill to watch when I returned home from university for the weekend. Always something new and something exciting.
Now that my appetite for the trivia about musicians is largely satisfied by Google I don’t buy as many biographies, although the tomes still demand more space than the shelves provide. Rod and Elton your days in my bookcase may well be numbered as newcomers demand to be shelved. But there will always be space for books,new and old, about David Bowie.