I posted this review almost two years ago, and at the time most of us considered that Petty had a lot of gas left in his tank. Of all the musical memoirs and biographies I have read–and there are many–this is the one I loved best. The loss of this plucky badass rocker hit me harder than the death of any public figure since Robin Williams died, so reposting this here is my way of saying goodbye to him. Hope he’s learning to fly.
Michael Nesmith is a veteran of the entertainment industry, but his name is most recognizable as the wool-beanie-wearing member of The Monkees. Nesmith has a treasure trove of experience and insight, and he’s very articulate. I really enjoyed this memoir, and if American musical and cultural history interest you, I recommend you get a copy when it comes out April 18, 2017. Thanks go to Net Galley and Crown Archetype for the DRC, which I received free of charge in exchange for this honest review.
Nesmith came of age in Texas, the child of a single hardworking mother, and was mentored by the profane elderly Uncle Chick, whose spoken cadence Nesmith would later find in his own sense of musical rhythm. Because Texas was the exclusive province, at the time, of country and gospel music, Michael and his pregnant girlfriend loaded themselves and Mike’s guitar into his mother’s car and took off for Los Angeles. It proved to be a good move.
Those that cannot remember the birth of rock and roll have no idea how polarizing it was. The cliché term “generation gap” represented a genuine source of friction and alienation in a lot of families; some parents decided that rock was not an art form but instead a type of devil worship. Some disowned their children over it and didn’t take them back later. I’m serious. And so when Nesmith credits his mother for her patience and forbearance—he actually didn’t ask if he could take her only car, for instance—he’s not just being gracious. Here, let him tell you:
It was unthinkable to everyone who had just fought World War II that the music…the whole cultural imperative of the victorious warriors would be torn down by their kids as if it were ugly curtains in the den.
Soon Nesmith would be chosen as a member of The Monkees, which catapulted four little-known young men to instant fame; Nesmith recalls that although seventeen to twenty-year-old Beatles fans were incensed by the TV imitation, the nine to twelve-year-old television kids—of which this reviewer was one—saw them as a fact:
What followed was what Nesmith calls “Celebrity Psychosis”, a sense of disproportion and entitlement caused by instant stardom, obsequious handlers, and bizarre social circumstances. He humorously recounts strange experiences, such as singing at a local school and being pursued by screaming adolescent girls, and being “sighted” shopping in a grocery store.
He recalls his experience as John Lennon’s house guest in London, and he cites Jimi Hendrix as the best rocker that ever lived. He also drops a rather nasty slam at Bob Dylan without any real explanation, and I confess that is part of the missing fifth star. What the hell?
Bette Nesmith, Michael’s late mother, invented Liquid Paper while he entered show business, and her fortune helped finance some of his creative products. Nesmith was a pioneer in the field of country rock as well as the music video. He produced movies and won a Grammy for “Elephant Parts”, an early music video:
He is also an ardent feminist, and his recollections show that he was one before it was cool. Thank you, Mr. Nesmith.
I have to admit that I find the first half of the memoir more interesting than the second half. The author goes on in the latter half of the book to speak at length about his spiritual experiences with Christian Science and the ways in which wealth distorts a person’s character, though he recognizes the latter doesn’t garner a lot of sympathy. “Never complain about the air-conditioning a private jet.” He also does a lot of brow-beating about having stolen a friend’s wife, and attributes the failure of that marriage—his second, or his third maybe—to guilt.
Despite the aspects that I didn’t enjoy, I do recommend this memoir, because it eloquently describes a wide, enormously dynamic period in American film, music, and television. Nesmith unspools the last half of the 19th century with the wisdom of his experience, and it’s a perspective completely unlike any other I have seen.
Recommended for those with an interest in contemporary American cultural history, as well as to fans of Nesmith and The Monkees.
Oh my my, oh hell yes! If Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is a band that lights your fire, you have to read this biography, which comes out Tuesday, November 10. You’ll be happiest if you can do it near a source of music, and the very best of all is to be near a desktop or other screen where you can view and hear the music videos as you read about their inception. Petty made it big just as I graduated from high school. By the time my first-born entered elementary school, I had a backseat full of little kids who bounced their heads along to the unquestionable rhythm of his music playing on the radio. And right about now I am supposed to tell you that I got this DRC free for an honest review, courtesy of Net Galley and Henry Holt Publishers.
Zanes has really done his homework here, interviewing Petty extensively, and also interviewing members of the band past and present, as well as other musicians (Stevie Nicks foremost among them) with whom he occasionally partnered. This was my first exposure to the Traveling Wilburys, a superstar group formed just for the sheer joy of it and consisting of George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, and Jim Keltner. Well, here:
and after Orbison died, his chair was represented in the circle, with his guitar (I assume it’s his anyway):
Petty’s story is one of the ultimate success in spite of everything. Born into the kind of messed up, abusive, impoverished Southern home that America’s shot-to-hell social work system can’t even begin to repair, with a father that got along better with alligators than children and a mother who was stricken with both cancer and epilepsy, Petty was ready to get the hell away from the swampland and Florida immediately if not sooner. Petty tried school several times, but English (oh yeah, poetry right?) and art were the only courses that held any magic for him. He had one marketable skill, and unlimited ambition. As it happens, that was plenty.
If you want to read his story, this is the place to get it. Zanes has filled it with lots of vignettes, some of which are very funny. When a particular episode or situation is remembered differently by different musicians, producers and what have you, he tells what each has to say.
What you won’t find much here is his family, and that is oddly appropriate. Petty himself recognizes that when a guy is a professional musician doing the album cycle—write the songs, record the songs, make whatever changes need to get made, release the album, then go on tour to promote the album, and come back and do it all over again—family just gets left out. His first wife Jane developed some serious problems with chemical dependency and mental illness, and he experienced serious guilt over leaving their two daughters with her, but what else was there to do? Taking them on the road wouldn’t exactly be a healthy environment. Even if he quit making music, who’d pay the bills then? And so it went. So his elder daughter Adria puts in her two cents here and there, but mostly this is a story of Tom’s life as a musician. But reading about Jane’s addiction issues and then watching this video gave me chills (not great for small children, if you have them near you):
There aren’t really any slow parts to this biography; the least interesting to me were the various bands he formed or joined prior to his success as a soloist and then as the leader of the Heartbreakers.
That much said, this is the first, the VERY first time this reviewer (and all the reviews on this site are mine) has ever gone back to read a galley a second time before reviewing it, not because I didn’t get enough notes (oy, the notes!) but because it was just so much fun to follow Petty’s music and read the stories behind the songs.
If you don’t like Tom Petty, I question why you are even still reading my review. But if you’re a fan, this is a great bio to read, intimate without being tawdry or prurient, carefully researched, tightly organized. I am glad I didn’t have to edit it, because he probably had a mountain of extra information that was either cut or not included in the first place. But from anyone that loves good rock and roll, it’s uplifting and absorbing.
The ultimate holiday gift for someone close to you that loves Petty’s music would be his giant discography, the Traveling Wilburys DVD and CD, perhaps the documentary (which is on my own Christmas list), and this book. Rock and roll forever!
Jackson was a musical prodigy whose talent was almost limitless. His brilliant career was derailed by scandal, and his final 50 city tour was aborted by his death the night before it was to commence. Knopper does the best job of objectively recounting Jackson’s life and death that I have seen so far. His portrait is intimate without being prurient. Thanks go to Net Galley and Scribner for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review.
Jackson was born in the 1950’s, a time when the race barrier kept Black performers from being seen by a general audience, with only the rarest exceptions. Black folks could play music for Black folks, and nobody else. The family was terribly poor, with eight or nine people crowded into a house better suited to three or four. They lived in Gary, a steel town in which Black poverty was more the rule than the exception. His father was a struggling musician until it became obvious that his sons had inherited his talent plus some. By the time Michael was five years old, he was the charismatic center of the Jackson Five, who soon were contracted to Motown, the center of African-American music in the USA.
Knopper explains how the family’s progression from a Motown act, where they were not allowed to actually play their own instruments on stage and could not use music they wrote themselves; to an independent family act, apart from one son who chose to remain with Motown; to the final day when Michael got himself an agent and a lawyer and set out on his own, divorcing his family so that he could have full control over a solo act. Until he was independent, iconic creations such as Thriller and Smooth Criminal would most likely never have been launched. And he recounts the family drama that ensued, with bodyguards pulling guns to discourage Michael’s angry brothers when they tried to force their way past the gates of his estate, shouting that he owed them money.
As a fan of excellent music and performance, I was sucked into the maelstrom produced by the press both during his life and afterward. It’s embarrassing to admit how completely I was played. For years I would not permit Jackson’s music to be played in my home because I thought he was a sick creep who used his fame to gain private, inappropriate contact with smooth-faced young boys. Somehow it escaped me that he had never been proved guilty in a court of law; on the one hand, it made sense to pay one family off in order to take the heat off his career, and Knopper documents the advice experienced, famous musicians gave Jackson to do whatever he had to do to shut that shit down so he could go back to focusing on music. But the press was merciless, and the payoff, which came too late to do damage control effectively, was portrayed as a tacit admission of guilt. And I bought it.
A few months after Jackson’s death, I was in a hotel room on vacation with my family, and my youngest son, who is Black, turned on the television, and there was the second round that Knopper documents, the round of memorial tributes that brought a lump to one’s throat as we saw Jackson’s miraculous career unspooled. He pioneered music videos in so many ways I had failed to appreciate, and he employed so many Black musicians that might never have had a steady job, while at the same time reaching out to Caucasian performers as well, creating a bridge between Black music and Caucasian sounds, transitioning from disco-like R and B to the “King of Pop”. I was horrified at the way I had misjudged him.
About a year ago, I read Michael Jackson’s memoir, Moonwalk, and while I took parts of it with a grain of salt, I also came to believe that the guy just didn’t know what was socially appropriate at times because he had never had a normal childhood. I was sold. Poor Michael.
Knopper has a more realistic take on all this. He certainly should; he used over 450 sources, and he wasn’t anybody’s mouthpiece. And so the truth turns out to be more complicated.
What left me somewhat stunned, in the end, was not the sex scandal, and it wasn’t the postmortem resurrection of Jackson as some sort of musical saint. Instead, I was absolutely floored at the number of people that worked for the guy, some of them for a lot of years, who he left without paychecks for weeks, then months on end. Jackson had a tremendous load of debt, was on the verge of bankruptcy and was saved only by his investment in song publishing, a piece of advice given him by friend Paul McCartney that he had followed through on. Yet he continued to buy one extreme luxury estate after another, holding residences he would likely never use again, shopping extravagantly (the example of taking a new friend shopping and telling him to do it “like this”, as he swept entire shelves of merchandise into his cart, astounded me) while leaving his employees, regular working folk with bills to pay for the most part, with no paychecks. There was money for shopping, but not for them, and some of them took him to court for it. It made me a bit sick. This man knew what it was like to be poor, and he knew what hunger was like, but as long as he didn’t have to see the people that he had betrayed, he could continue to play out the Peter Pan thread, irresponsibly trashing the lives of those he had told they could count on him, then leaving them with empty wallets and eviction notices.
Maybe you think I have over-shared. I have news; this is only the tip of the iceberg. If you have followed this review all the way to its conclusion, you will like this book. It is available for purchase October 20.