Thursday, 17 December 2015

How to Write a Music Memoir

As you know I like a good music memoir.  I don't even mind a bad one.  Being a music obsessive I like the insight a memoir can give me into the songs and the times, the way you can get a little way into the head of the person who wrote the songs or performed them and see the process of their creation.  Many of my favourite musicians are getting on in years and are not as prolific as they once were and are turning to writing as way to fill their time, boost their income or secure their legacy, so I have plenty to choose from.

Of course the down side is that the skill of writing a book is very different to that of writing a song.  A song is pithy, allusive, with a compactness that disciplines the composer to say what they need to say in a few short verses.  A memoir stretches out over thousands of words and lots of years.  It needs good (or at least adequate) writing to keep the reader engaged, characters with depth and resonance and a story that keeps you reading.

The most obvious way to write a memoir is to begin at the beginning, with the writer's parents and childhood, and work through to the end.  It seems the easiest choice as the life itself structures the book.  However, it's not necessarily as easy as it looks.  You need to be strict with yourself about what to include, what to leave out.  how much to reveal and how honest to be with yourself.  I was frustrated by Graham Nash's smugness and lack of candour because it made him seem so unlikeable.  On the other hand I enjoyed Bruce Cockburn's memoir despite its excessive length and slightly pedestrian prose because he was prepared to be honest with his readers.

If you are more ambitious you can try for something more arty - stream of consciousness, multiple points of view, leaps back and forward in time and so forth.  David Crosby, for instance, although he sticks to a roughly chronological framework, recruits a large cast of friends and collaborators to help tell his story in their own words, and allows them a fair bit of rope.  He also has a good co-author who keeps a firm rein on the whole.  The result is a highly engaging read.  Neil Young, on the other hand, crashes and burns spectacularly, as only he can do.

I've just read two more, both by seminal Australian singers and songwriters, which pretty much sit at opposite poles on the memoir spectrum.

Richard Clapton's The Best Years of our Lives is, perhaps, an object lesson in how to fail at memoir writing.  This is not because it's badly written - Clapton is no prose stylist but he writes well enough.  Nor does the story itself lack interest - Clapton was at the centre of the Australian music scene in the late 70s and early 80s, writing classic songs and albums soaked in Australian beach and pub culture.  He can tell us about his own music, about the inner workings of the industry, about close musical friends like Inxs that we all want to know about.

Yet despite all this it's hard to stay interested to the end.  The reason is that Clapton has made a strategic decision not to tell the reader much about his life.

It's not hard to understand why.  Clapton's life has not been easy, and everyone wants some privacy.  Still, if you really don't want people to know about you, perhaps it is better not to write a memoir at all.

Clapton begins his story in his late teens as he left school and headed first to the UK and then, after a couple of years, to Germany on a typical Aussie young person's pilgrimage to the northern hemisphere.  Right here is the beginning of the problem.  He introduces himself to us as Richard Clapton, the young nascent musician, making a choice in his late teens and early 20s between a stable career in graphic design and following his muse.  It is as if he sprung up fully formed, at the age of 17, in a prestigious Sydney boarding school.  His family rates a single phrase in the entire book when he tells us he was "estranged" from them.

Yet any reader who knows a little about Clapton knows that this is not the story.  "Richard Clapton" is the stage name (using the surnames of his two biggest musical idols) of a man whose birth name is either Terry Goh or Terry Gonk, depending on the source.  He was born in 1949, the son of a Chinese doctor and an Anglo-Australian night nurse.   His parents' marriage was short-lived and bitter.  The first years of his life were spent in a series of rental properties interspersed with periods of homelessness as his mother battled mental illness before her death (from suicide, perhaps) in the early 1960s.  Young Terry met his father for the first time at the funeral and from this time onwards was technically in his care, but it was a distant kind of care, outsourced to a prestigious Sydney boarding school with minimal personal contact.

Little wonder, then, that young Terry fled the country as soon as he could, and changed his name.  Little wonder, either, that he doesn't want to talk about it.  Yet without its beginning the rest of his story makes no sense.  Having failed to be candid with the reader on this crucial point, other pieces of information just rattle around in an unconnected way.  His alcoholism (about which he is only minimally honest) his clashes with authority figures (about which he is quite explicit and with good reason - after all his record company blocked his chances of US success by refusing to license his recordings for US release) have their own emotional power but become hard to understand.  There are some gems here and his songs are still great, but I was left hungry and dissatisfied.

On the other hand, Paul Kelly's How to Make Gravy is a masterpiece of the genre, a true gem which I could hardly put down.

How to Make Gravy started life as a series of shows in which Kelly sang 100 of his songs over four nights, starting with titles beginning with A and working through to Z (he had to write a Z song specially for the show).  In between the songs he would tell stories, and these eventually became this book, published in 2010.

There's no question this is an ambitious way to write a book and the possibilities of it going wrong are endless.  What if the reader gets lost?  What if Kelly can't think of anything interesting to say about one of the songs?  In the wrong hands it could so easily become a catalogue of recording sessions.  None of this happens, and I think there are a few reasons.

First of all, this structure puts the songs front and centre, and songs are what Kelly is good at.  He leads with his strength.

Second, and perhaps surprisingly, he is very candid.  I say surprisingly because he is known for his reticence in interviews, for being reluctant and even surly with those who want to write about him.  Yet here, where he has control of the story, he is ready to put himself on show, to talk openly about his family, his relationships, his personal failings and successes, his songwriting process, his friendships in the music industry, the causes about which he is passionate.  There's also some off the wall curios - lists, quiz questions, Shakespeare sonnets.  Of course there are no-go areas.  He keeps his children out of the story, he doesn't slander anyone, he is kind when perhaps privately he may be a little more cruel.  But these things are acceptable, even proper, and you leave the book feeling you really know him, that he has been honest with you.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Kelly is a brilliant writer.  He knows how to tell a story, how to select just the right words and just the right incidents to make a point, how to lead readers on and hook them into the story.  Like his songs, his prose is tight and pithy, he doesn't say too much but what he does say is completely engaging.  This book is a long way from Neil Young's rambling opus and much more like that Australian literary classic, Clean Straw for Nothing, in which George Johnston tells the fictionalised story of his adult life in a series of episodes leaping back and forward in time, the story emerging in bits and pieces as the reader is drawn on to assemble the complete jigsaw puzzle.

The picture that emerges is rich and complex.  We see his grandparents and parents, the sprawling and supportive Kelly clan, the Catholic upbringing, the wrench of his father's premature death and his mother's heroic efforts to raise a large family on her own, his early wanderings and struggles with stage fright, his emergence as a singer and songwriter, the people who helped him along the way and some of those he helped in his turn, his engagement with the Aboriginal community, the life of a touring musician, and through it all his songs and their performance.

A couple of tales stand out for me.  The first is the story of his drug use, a tricky subject on which many others have foundered.  Clapton and Nash are inclined to sweep theirs under the carpet.  Crosby talks so much about his that you sometimes feel you're in a Narcotics Anonymous meeting.  Kelly deals with his in a single, arresting story of his relationship with heroin.

Heroin was the one for me, the recreational drug of choice.  Its molecules and mine seemed made for each other.

He describes how he was introduced to the drug, and how he used it on and off for years.  He describes his marriage to a rehabilitating fellow user over the resistance of her father and their mutual falling off the wagon.

I didn't take heroin because I felt bad, or because I had an unhappy childhood. I just liked it. It suited me, freed me up inside.  There were long nights of funny, dreamy, storytelling sex.  Heroin was a lovely secret with a lover.  A big warm blanket in winter.  Shooting up together was intimate, tender, sacramental.

There is so much more along these lines.  A reward for hard work.  An aid to boring household chores. A tool to make you that bit more entertaining, that bit more fun at a party, a way of keeping going.

The trick was not to take too much, to get the dose just right so that people wouldn't notice anything different about you.  So your voice wouldn't be too draggy, your pupils too pinned, your eyelids too heavy.  Maintaining the balance was its own satisfaction.  I'm getting away with this! you said to yourself, purring along.

And you think, "oh no, it's another self-justification, another fake functioning-addict story".  Or else you think, "so, maybe I should try that".  Until Kelly bursts his own bubble.

But of course you weren't getting away with it.  People knew.  Or suspected.... You knew that they knew but you convinced yourself that they didn't.  Heroin rewires your brain.  It's a beautiful brainwasher that makes you believe the dumbest things.  

You weren't getting away with it at all.  What you thought was your witty charm caused intense annoyance, worry or fear (or all three) in those close to you.  You saw friends, long-time recreational users like yourself who'd kept it under control for years, suddenly go under.  The black dog was always snapping at your heels.  The hangovers got longer, roughly double the period of pleasure....

Your children knew when you were acting differently.  You and your wife, soon to be divorced, were like two people on opposite shores of a wide river.  She was waving but you pretended not to see.  You were ashamed of yourself, ashamed of wasting money, sick of deception and alarmed at the shoddiness creeping into your work.

I got lucky.  I met a woman who said, "It's me or it".  She gave me the number of a counsellor who made me write a list.  I threw out certain phone numbers, said goodbye to all that.  I thought about 'it' every day for along time.  Less now.

All this is told, without explanation, next to a song called 'Coma'.  He goes on to describe how the song was written and how it developed over time with the band he was playing with, but he makes you wait until the last line to show you the connection.

...with Sian Prior, the 'me or it' girl, playing the clarinet.

You just want to draw breath, go back and read it again.  David Crosby's endless mea culpa can't pack anything like this emotional punch, the highs, and lows. the tentative happy ending and the depths of unspoken love and gratitude packed into those five pages.  And then it resonates through the book and through your mind as you see the story echoed, without comment, in other songs - 'Careless', 'When I First Met Your Ma', 'Stories of Me', and so on gain new meaning once you know this story.  He doesn't need to say any more.  You already have enough.

Other stories are more light-hearted, and he has a wry way of both expressing gratitude, and letting you see something of people's personalities.  One of my favourites is his account of his friendship with Don Walker and the writing of 'From St Kilda to Kings Cross', one of his earliest successful songs.  Walker is the keyboard player and main songwriter in Cold Chisel, already rich and famous when Kelly was still finding his feet as a singer and songwriter.

I played him some songs in the early 80s.  The songs didn't last but what Don said did.  Not that he said much - he's a man who chooses his words - just told me to keep writing.

All of those songs ended up on the scrap heap but Kelly took Walker's advice.  A few years later he ended up living with Walker for a short time in his Kings Cross house.  He wrote a number of songs on Walker's lovely white grand piano, including 'From St Kilda...'.

The day it came I couldn't stop humming it and by sunset a set of words was attached.  When Don came home I said, "Can I play you something?"  He listened and said "You've got your own thing now."

Eight understated words from a man famous for his reticence and his brilliant songwriting.  "Keep writing".  "You've got your own thing now".  Plus the use of a house and a beautiful grand piano.  You can feel Kelly's gratitude in the care with which he tells the tale, as much as in the explicit thanks that follow.

There's so much more but you should read it yourself.  You won't be sorry.  If you happen to be a famous musician and you're thinking of writing a memoir, read this one first.  Or maybe don't.  It will only make you weep at your own more pedestrian efforts.


Seaton Smithy said...

Although I am still reading it, I tend to agree with you about Richard Clapton's memoir. Not only does he seem to spring up fully formed in 1967, but writing in 2014 he ends the story around 1990 with the birth of his daughters, and completely skirts around his first marriage. While he may want to maintain some privacy for those involved, I find it all a bit dishonest. I'm also inclined to believe he was born a bit earlier than 1949 as well.

Anonymous said...

This is pedantic but... A memoir is not to be confused with an autobiography. A memoir focuses on one single period of time in a person's life for the purposes of telling a story with a theme or outcome. Richard Clapton's book is not a memoir

Jon Eastgate said...

Probably about half-half. He does talk a bit about his life, but mostly about his life in music. He's caught awkwardly between the two.