- 11 Feb 11
The poachers have turned gamekeepers, or vice versa: musicians turn to the written word
These damn musicians are trying to put decent, hard-working music journalists out of a job. James Yorkston recently published his wry and chaming It's Lovely To Be Here – The Touring Diaries Of A Scottish Gent on the Domino imprint. Kristin Hersh's Paradoxical Undressing, based on diaries kept while was still in her teens, is a carefully written and minutely observed piece of work somewhere between Amerindie dreaming and Sundance entry strangeness.
By far the most high profile music book published in the last year was Keith Richards' Life, touted as the best of its kind since Bob Dylan's Chronicles. Praise indeed. Dylan's memoir combined Beat Generation energy with a scholarly love of folk idioms and an insider's perspective on the life of a songwriter that could encompass military strategy, literary history and even mathematical musical systems. It also gave some insight as to what it feels like to have your face eaten by fame. Life covers a lot of the same territory, except in a looser, more informal style. It's a very rock 'n' roll book in the way that Patti Smith's Just Kids, the other major musician's memoir of last year, was not.
This can be attributed to co-writer James Fox's fidelity to Richards' speaking voice. The memoir as literary artifact has much in common with the first person novel (and many would argue that the fiction-versus-fact quotient is the same in both). Never mind the self-mythologising: measure the authenticity of cadence. This is why Huckleberry Finn or The True History Of The Kelly Gang feel more real than any ghostwritten political memoir. If you've ever heard Keith Richards speak, you'll recognise his slurry, wheezy speech rhythms all over Life. Its closest cousins are past testimonials by jazz devils: Charles Mingus's Beneath The Underdog, Miles Davis's autobiography with Quincy Troupe, even Iceberg Slim's Pimp.
But for me the real point of Richards' book is that any vocation, be it music, writing or painting, requires stubbornness, bloody mindedness and ruthless self critcism. In an age of ADD addled addiction to the quick pay-off, those who devote themselves to the pursuit and perfection of an art or craft with no promise of financial renumeration are labeled 'geeks' or 'nerds'. There’s something heartening about Richards’ accounts of his monk-like devotion to learning the blues. But Life, no matter how significant a document, is undoubtedly a once-off. Dylan may produce another installment of his Chronicles, but for Keef, one imagines, there'll be no second act.