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- The Best Reviewed Books of the WeekMay 25, 2018
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David Bowie turned even his death into a work of art. In releasing what he alone knew would be his final album just days before his demise, pop’s Picasso made dying an extension of living, or living as he knew it: just the latest in a series of reinventions.
Bowie took ownership of his final bow, but his death (unless he has a surprise for us from beyond the grave) left us without what so many of his fans hoped he would one day produce: his final testament in the form of a written memoir. It’s a book that devotees of life-writing would have embraced too, confident that his spiky, knowing playfulness would have offered a unique account of 20th-century culture, especially of the years of “peak Bowie,” between the Summer of Love to the ascent of punk, years that for so long seemed an urgent part of the cultural present but now have the sepia look of historical fact.
In dying without having written his autobiography, Bowie joins a glittering hall of fame. Of course, a tragic number of pop’s grandest figures never committed their life story to the page because they lived too fast and died too young. Tupac Shakur, Kurt Cobain, and Janis Joplin would have all had compelling memoirs in them, and even an inevitably bowdlerized and airbrushed Elvis autobiography would have been a plum pudding of rock n roll anecdotage. In other cases, anything approaching frankness would have been a virtual impossibility; Michael Jackson’s considered take on his supremely strange life would have been riveting, but surely could only have been achieved with the sort of ellipses and omissions that defeat the point of autobiography. And then there’s Prince, who was in the midst of committing his life to paper at the moment he died. Fans of His Purpleness will consider any extant fragment of the work to be essential reading, and have their fingers, toes and everything else tightly crossed that it will see its way to publication.
If it does, it will cap what has been a bumper couple of decades for pop memoirs. Until the early years of this century, the genre consisted almost exclusively of entertainment industry time capsules, stuffed as full as Derek Smalls’ spandex with anecdotes of excess and bad behavior. Though even that tradition has been reinvigorated in the last few years, most notably with Keith Richards’ memoir Life, which combined astonishing honesty with the author’s unique voice; Terry Thomas caddishness weighted by grandfatherly wisdom, rendering what could have been just another collection of hoary old ’60s survivors’ tales into a genuinely insightful take on what it’s like to have lived the life of a globe-straddling rock star.
But in recent times the Arabian Nights-style of rock reminiscence has been augmented by more curious, expansive stuff, and the genre has matured into a vivid—and sometimes formally innovative—branch of life-writing. In part, this has come about because those first generations who grew up thinking of pop as art rather than entertainment—mainly those who came of age in a post-Dylan and Beatles world—are now north of 50 and feel a desire to record their experiences in a way that mirrors the manner in which they approached the making of their music. Patti Smith has pulled focus in this way better than anyone. Her two recent memoirs, Just Kids and M Train are such thoughtful, elegant works of prose that in distant decades to come, she may be better remembered for them than for Horses.
It’s not just the A-listers who have produced terrific books. In fact, some of the most enjoyable and enlightening have come from pop’s less rarefied heights. Sleater Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, Dean Wareham of the indie bands Galaxie 500 and Luna, and RZA of the Wu Tang Clan have all written distinctive accounts of their lives that recast the standard pop culture mythologies from unexpected angles. But, for my money, the most engrossing additions to the canon in the last few years are Morrissey’s Autobiography and Jay-Z’s Decoded, the latter for its stylishness, its sense of ambition and its inventiveness, the former because it’s every bit as brilliantly absurd as its author.
On the surface, it would be difficult to find two more disparate pop stars: Jay-Z, a former crack dealer and self-styled hip-hop plutocrat from Brooklyn who fits somewhere in the artistic lineage of Jean Michel-Basquiat and Chester Himes; Morrissey, a fey Mancunian animal rights activist, who has used his album sleeves to pay homage to kitchen-sink author Shelagh Delaney and the British soap opera Coronation Street. Their books are strikingly different too. Where Morrissey gives us a conventional autobiography in an unconventional way—no chapters, paragraphs that run for half-a-dozen pages, and seemingly no contribution from an editor—Jay-Z is more formally experimental, mixing memoir with manifesto in chapters that are centered on extensive, line-by-line analysis of some of his most famous, and infamous, lyrics. But the two books are united by the fact that, in their various ways, they both engage with pop’s great cause: the frustration of the misunderstood outsider.
Jay-Z’s mission in Decoded is not to tell all but, as the title suggests, to be understood, something he thinks rap and hip-hop as a whole almost never are. “Being misunderstood is almost a badge of honor in rap,” he says in explaining that he wrote the contentious lyrics of his hit “99 Problems” as “bait for lazy critics,” who are quick to dismiss rap as the glorification of vacuous materialism and violent misogyny. “Growing up as a black kid from the projects, you can spend your whole life being misunderstood.” Onto his shoulders Jay-Z has taken the burden of defending and explaining not just himself but an entire art form, if not an entire culture, examining “the art of rap and the artlessness of some of its critics.” To this end, the words to 39 of his songs are transcribed, annotated and explained in the way of a poem study. It is a laudable, often riveting, but not entirely successful endeavor. Rap rhymes only truly take flight when spat aloud; pinned flat to the page like butterflies to a board they lose the wit, subtlety and playfulness that Jay-Z is so eager to have recognized. Still, it’s a welcome opportunity to tour the mind of a hip-hop colossus—and it’s a hell of a place, crowded with art, politics, jokes, and the thoughtful, albeit egomaniacal, reflections on a truly extraordinary life.
As part of his mission to be understood, Jay-Z gives us a privileged view of his creative process, letting us peer over his shoulder as he scribbles rhymes in spiral notebooks or builds beats in the studio. It’s a treat, the type of insight we crave from all artists’ memoirs, and what makes Decoded such a successful work of life-writing. Morrissey takes another path: he tantalizes us with the prospect of seeing how he crafts his songs, but never truly allows us to snoop on where and when the magic happens. For Morrissey, there is something almost sacred about the writing of a song, and he keeps his readers a seemly distance from the miraculous act of creation. The notion of being misunderstood is also one that runs as a spine through Morrissey’s book. Like Jay-Z, he claims to have been egregiously and sometimes wilfully misinterpreted by all manner of people. His list of culprits is exhaustive: close family, distant family, neighbors, teachers, the English judiciary, journalists, bandmates, record company execs, drink-sodden has-beens, his heroes, his fans. The list isn’t exactly endless, but it’s so lengthy that you wonder whether he doesn’t resent even his readers for having to expend such effort for their benefit. Jay-Z takes time and effort to engage with criticisms and dispel misconceptions, Morrissey simply swirls his cape, turns on his heel and sighs “infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me.”
As much as he might complain about it, being misunderstood is the crucial part of Morrissey’s identity as an artist, and the fabric from which he has spun his cocoon of self-mythology. It is the key difference between his book and Jay-Z’s and it highlights the basic two purposes of all pop star memoirs: to either demystify or mythologize; to let the reader peer behind the curtain, or apply another layer of greasepaint. A perfectionist who never leaves a ragged edge on anything he does, Jay-Z collaborated with a ghost writer on Decoded, dream hampton, to ensure that he expresses himself as clearly as possible, dropping the bombast and wordplay that are his usual stock in trade. Morrissey will have none of that and writes every word himself, appearing to lay himself bare when in actual fact he cloaks himself on every page. What results is a remarkable book, one that contains interminably dull passages as dense as jungle and from which the reader fears they will never emerge, interspersed with hilarious one-liners—some intentional; some not—and many sections of genuinely beautiful writing. It is self-pitying, self-aggrandizing, and self-obsessed, at times parodically so. And, because of all that, it is a masterpiece in its genre, the world according to Morrissey, fabulously authentic in its inauthenticity, bringing to mind The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein, that self-mythologizer without superior.
Ultimately, Morrissey and Jay-Z are two sides of the same coin. Both use their memoirs to explore the transformative qualities of pop, but they arrive at crucially different notions of what that transformation amounts to. In his description of the Manchester of his childhood—a lumpen, dull, thuggish place, apparently, in which every day is “Kafka-esque in its nightmare”—Morrissey feels a kinship only with the exotic and mysterious people who radiate through the television screen and the speakers of his record player. He is obsessed with “glamor” (notably devoid of its seemingly unglamorous British “u”) and notes its every appearance in his young life: Marc Bolan, Miss World, the Eurovision Song Contest, Batman, George Best, Top of the Pops, the actor Richard Bradford, and Bryan Ferry all transport him beyond his drab alienation with their otherworldly allure. David Bowie, the patron saint of the different, is “impossibly glamorous” in his extra-terrestrial Ziggy Stardust guise. Morrissey feels at home only in the company of these exotic creatures, and Autobiography paints him as one of their unknowable kind. Pop music for Morrissey offered access to another world beyond the “streets upon streets upon streets upon streets” of his childhood.
Yet rap was transformative for the young Jay-Z not because it allowed him to escape his world, but because it drove his world—an entire community of people who felt themselves outsiders—into the solar plexus of American culture, “grabbing its nuts, refusing to be ignored.” Even though the Marcy Houses, the project “as complicated and intimidating as a Moroccan bazaar” in which he grew up, has exhausted and scarred him, Jay-Z never looked to music to help him cut the cord in the way Morrissey has; he wants music to ennoble the streets he grew up on, not to escape them, to build bridges rather than burn them. “This is what the streets have done for us, for me: They’ve given us our drive; they’ve made us stronger,” he writes. “Through hip-hop we found a way to redeem those lessons, and use them to change the world.”
What Morrissey and Jay-Z add to the genre of life-writing is exactly what each has given to music: an emphatically singular personality communicating in a distinctive voice about an experience of life at the margins. In this century, no other branch of the arts, entertainment, or any sphere of public life has contributed to the art of autobiography such elan and inventiveness—and with such an array of unusual, arresting voices. And, at a time when pop is accused of having reached the end of the road, both commercially and creatively, these books by Morrissey and Jay-Z remind us why pop still matters: there remains no other medium that affords such opportunity for creative talent from marginalized backgrounds to stake a claim at the heart of our culture.
Since his death, Bowie has been lionized by people at both ends of the Morrissey-Jay-Z continuum, those wanting to escape dreary reality, and those wanting to hold on to it, to engage with it and explain it, elevating the everyday to an art form. What made Bowie such a compelling figure was that he seemed to embody both those impulses, simultaneously at the centre of things and permanently aloof; demystifying and mythologizing in the same breath. Discovering quite how he saw himself would have been the joy of reading his autobiography. Instead, he’ll keep us all guessing, the same as always.