Nick Johnstone - Patti Smith: a Biography (Omnibus pbk)
Mick Middles - Arcade Fire: Behind the Black Mirror (Omnibus pbk)
Martin Power - The Story of Manic Street Preachers: Nailed to History (Omnibus)
Patti Smith: a Biography - Nick Johnstone
Patti Smith was responsible for one of the most unforgettable nights of my life when I saw her and the Stranglers at the Roundhouse in May '76, so I'm always interested when a new book on her comes along. In fact, Nick Johnstone's book first came out in 1997 - this new edition brings the story up to date since then in her life and music. With a new album - "Banga" - out very soon, it’s worth recalling the trajectory of a career that started in the formative years of punk, survived a lengthy retirement from the scene before she came back to claim her mantle as one of the most successful exponents of poetry, music and live performance.
The author is out front from the start about the lack of involvement from Patti Smith herself and her veto on any involvement from her close circle of musical/arts colleagues, family, friends or lovers. This isn't really a star trip on her part though, more that she'd prefer to wait until she tells the story herself (now that's something to really look forward to!), and is naturally wary of telling it all to someone else first. One of the major events since the 1997 edition has been the writing and publication of "Just Kids", her account of her early days on the New York scene and her relationship with photographer/mentor Robert Mapplethorpe, so hopefully she'll get round to the story of the NYC punk days and after in due course - or maybe it's one of the four books she says she wrote during her Midwest years with Fred Smith and after his death?
Where the book is often strongest is in exploring and illustrating the roots and development of her words and music. It doesn't duck the paradox that for someone so associated with the origins of punk and its Year Zero mentality, Patti Smith's outlook was distinctly backward-looking in terms of inspiration: 19th century French Symbolist poets, the Beat writers of the Fifties (especially Burroughs and Ginsberg), and Sixties’ Rock Gods like Hendrix and Brian Jones.
All in all, Patti Smith’s had a massive influence since the release of "Horses" in 1975, especially in showing that a woman could operate on her own terms without having to be a clichéd Rock Chick or any other type of record company puppet. In the meantime this book provides a really well-written account of her career, life and music. It's best on the early years, documenting the underground art scene and clubs like CBGB's that nurtured her and the other early punk groups. The new chapters are at times a rather breathless list of gigs, tours and albums, but still tell a fascinating story of her return to music and public life after her time away from the scene. She's much more politically engaged in the current climate of war, propaganda & crisis. Where previously she'd been very much "art for art's sake" and expounded 70’s-style "personal politics", now you'll find her raising bucks and awareness around issues like Gaza and Guantanamo.
Arcade Fire: Behind the Black Mirror - Mick Middles
Like most people, I was blown away by the Arcade Fire's "Funeral" album - was it really seven years ago? "Arcade Fire -Behind the Black Mirror" takes us from the group's early days struggling in Boston, before they came together personally and musically on The Montreal “alt arts” scene, and on to their breakthrough on the global stage. It's totally up to date, ending with the success of last year's “Suburbs” album, and wondering where the group can go next.
Mick Middles is an absolutely ideal writer for this book - his Manchester background (previous book subjects include Ian Curtis, the Fall, Stone Roses, Elbow and even Bernard Manning) tallies nicely with Arcade Fire's main source of inspiration being the Manchester groups of the early 80's (with a large side order of the Cure). Alas the author's planned guided tour of the city with the group didn't come about. Sense of place is an important element to in the group's story & the writing of the book. Mick Middles does a good job of reminding UK readers of the cultural, social and economic difference between the US and Canada. The early part of the book describes the importance of playing live to the group, and the crucial impact this had in 'breaking' an act who, in normal music biz terms, should have been way off the radar. Like many people, it was seeing performances on MTV which hooked me - sure, I'd heard and liked “Funeral“, but this was something totally different - the group lined up across the stage, generating one crescendo after another, all the while trading instruments like it was the most normal thing in the world. It was a serious reminder that this is what rock'n'roll or whatever you want to call it - should be about: the excitement of a group putting everything into their act in order to generate excitement with an audience who aren't prepared to sit like dummies watching TV at home.
The book starts with the group winning their Grammy award, and the general 'wtf are they?' response from the likes of Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Kanye West. It's a theme that runs thru the book - how Arcade Fire have managed to bypass and overtake many of the mainstream pop stars, and also leave most of the "Corporate Alternative" big hitters (Kings of Leon, Foo Fighters, Red Hot Chillis, Killers) trailing in their wake. The author is very good at describing and evoking the intensity of the group’s live experience, which was the momentum of their early success. The book isn't a PR puff job, tough, taking on some of the more difficult questions around the group - the rather overblown “Neon Bible” album, and there's a very perceptive and amusing account of a gig at the Latitude festival, where they're adopted by an audience of middle-aged Guardian reader types (like me) who are always likely to be diverted by the next new cultural thing (Mumford & Sons, anyone?).
There's an in-depth analysis of all their recordings, from the initial Bowie and Byrne-attracting “Arcade Fire EP” right up to last summer's “Suburbs” album. I'd heard of "second album syndrome", but Mick Middles convincingly extends this to 'difficult third album" - particularly in Arcade Fire's case, where the unexpected mega-success of their first album suddenly put them under pressure to come up with new material for the next one. “Neon Bible” was the result - although successful, it feels like an over self-conscious attempt at making a Big Statement about Man. God, the world & life in general. That kind of rapid projection from indie-label/hometown success to global status is a hard one to manage (ask REM).
The book ends with the author asking not so much "what next?" but "where can they go from here?", and there's a rather downbeat feel to the conclusion. The endless global touring has finally come to an end, an even bigger and better recording facility than their converted church has been bought in Montreal, and the word is that they plan on taking two years off. It remains to be seen whether they can keep the close personal bonds intact, whether they can sustain the intensity of their live performances, retain their hunger - all assuming that the audience will still be there.
Maybe Arcade Fire could take some lessons in career longevity and survival from the Manic Street Preachers. I’ve never liked the group’s music or bought into their image/ideology, and to be honest I wasn’t looking forward to reading this. However a strong story and good writing make all the difference. Martin Power’s last book was a really good Jeff Beck biography, and he’s also written about Shane MacGowan and David Sylvian among others. He tells a really engaging story of the group’s emergence in the heyday of the Thatcher Dictatorship, when their community was being torn apart by closures and conflict. Starting out as self-proclaimed “Generation Terrorists”, they’ve managed to keep going and are now doing better business than ever. There was a massive Clash influence to their early sound, appearance and live act, but in many ways their real goal was to be a kind of left wing Guns and Roses, selling albums worldwide by the million. The story told here shows how they found their own voices and achieved undreamt of success but at a price...
The Story of Manic Street Preachers: Nailed to History - Martin Power
For all the career details, lengthy analysis of tours, albums and singles, there's an inexorable black hole in the Manic Street Preachers’ story, drawing in everything before and since - the unsolved disappearance of Richey Edwards in 1995. At the time I thought it was the familiar "pressures of stardom", and like most people assumed the story would soon reach its conclusion for better or worse. The mid-book chapters "Intermission" and "A Beckoning Silence" tell the story of the incident and its immediate impact on the group, Edwards’ family, and the group’s fans. It’s a situation that the author handles perceptively and sensitively, having shown Richey Edwards to be a very intelligent and very intense man - in many ways the soul/inspiration/conscience of the group - burdened by a complex series of personal problems (he believed his difficulties in relationship were caused by an unplanned childhood encounter with porn, for example). Anyone who's suffered from insomnia knows what a relentless enemy it can be, and in Edwards’ case early vodka self-medication in order to sleep developed into a serious case of alcohol dependency. Martin Power avoids speculation or sensationalism, and doesn't give an explicit view on what happened in the end, but given Edwards’ history of self-harm, the finality of leaving presents for friends with an "I love you" message in his hotel room don't leave much room for doubt in my honest opinion.
His disappearance overshadows the rest of the book, with some very poignant descriptions of the effect on his family, reluctantly declaring him dead after a decade‘s absence. Once they'd decided to carry on, the group understandably struggled to find direction for a while - back-to-basics or change? As for playing live, even the act of looking round to where he'd always been on stage unsettled Nicky Wire and James Dean Bradfield for a long time afterwards. The huge success of “Everything Must Go” showed the way forward, with the group now established as one of the biggest acts around.
Clearly there are still a few more chapters to come in the Manic Street Preachers, but the author completes the circle, as it were, with the discovery of previously unknown Richey Edwards lyrics & the triumphant “Journal of a Plague Year” album that followed. It’s probably as near as they or the fans will ever get to closure, and it’s a very thought-provoking and well-handled conclusion to the book, with life once again outstripping fiction.
It’s worth mentioning that all three books are really nicely produced - meaning they don’t fall apart mid-read, and the print doesn’t rub off on your hands - and well-illustrated with b/w and colour photos. One day it’ll be compulsory for all non-fiction books to have an index but I guess I’m just doing my BOF thing there. Meanwhile, there’s a stack of things to read for next time here - can anyone recommend a speed-reading course?!?