Elvis Presley never wrote an autobiography, or any other kind of book and yet a search on Amazon for his name throws up some 1500 titles. Cheryl Cole has 'written' two autobiographies, and the latest sits at #1 and #2 in the Amazon best-sellers/biography chart (HB and Kindle editions respectively) and at #5 in the Top 100 chart (the HB). There are 57 Cheryl Cole-related books available on Amazon. Elvis trumps our Cheryl in the book stakes, and rightly so. Perhaps by not writing an autobiography and dying young (yes, 42 is young) a sense of mystery and legend was inevitably going to develop around the former King of Rock 'n Roll. Knowing less about the real Elvis has contributed to the creation of more speculation, invention, investigation and creation among authors of every kind.
This year there has been a glut of autobiographies published by 'legends' of Rock 'n' Roll, three of whom were stars while Elvis was still making movies, records and stage appearances, and moved in the same exalted circles (or studios, at least). Pete Townshend, Neil Young and Rod Stewart are all competing for the book-buying dollar of their respective audiences and the generic Rock 'n' Roll fan who has an interest in why they didn't die before they got old. At the time of writing Townshend's book is the bestselling R&R book on the US Amazon site, with Neil Young a few places behind and Rod's yet to be published (it comes out on Oct 23). In the UK it is Rod's book that is far outstripping sales of Townshend's and Young's (which is hardly registering in the UK).
All of them are being trounced in sales by Cheryl's second volume of memoirs though, and that's to be expected and is probably a Good Thing. Cheryl Cole is a contemporary figure, her relevance to 2012 is obvious and vital. Whereas the former wild men of Rock are mostly irrelevant in a century that prefers R&R wildmen to be dead or madly damaged: Keith Moon, Steve Marriott and Danny Whitten are enshrined in their youthful glory on social media home pages, tumblr blogs and adverts around the world and they are not likely to ever appear in public looking like old, grey men who go out to get lunch dressed like grandad (as an unfortunate David Bowie did the other day).
Pete Townshend however, has sadly suffered a even more unfortunate public humiliation than simply looking old and sad. He had originally planned to publish his autobiography in the 1990s but didn't, citing 'writer's block'. Following an unfortunate piece of 'research' failure which resulted in his being arrested after giving his credit card details to a child porn site in 2003, the former Who songwriter found his block lifted and he explains why he tried to witness the appalling sight of children being sexually exploited in his book. Inevitably the book ends up being self-justifying and a cry to be 'understood' at last because no-one—least of all horrible former bandmates and ex-wives—ever has before.
Neil Young, possible because he's Canadian and has ploughed his own, often meandering musical furrow for the last thirty years, has not added many young fans to his audience in the past few decades, except for those whose parents brainwashed them into it. He doesn't care, either, it seems and that could make for a revealing and intriguing autobiography. It's a shame then that his book has been allowed to follow the Bob Dylan Chronicles model of being written as if it's a transcript of an old man's rambling monologue. It may well be exactly that, and therefor genuinely by Young, but it doesn't offer a rewarding literary endeavour for anyone but the hardest of hardcore Young fans.
When Rod Stewart's autobiography was announced it was something of a surprise to his fans, because he'd always said that his former wives would object to his revealing all. The focus on his love life is what made the British Daily Mail so eager to buy pre-publication serial rights in the book, which they breathlessly called 'the rock autobiography of the decade'. That the Mail thinks so says more about Keith Richards and Eric Clapton's reluctance to reveal the intimate bedroom secrets of their rock fame in their autobiographies than Rod's book. A quote taken at random from the cleverly titled Rod: The Autobiography reveals the man's inner strength: 'If I wanted a date, she said, I’d have to call her myself — so I steeled myself and picked up the phone.' Fans of Rod's music and those interested in the creative process that led to some sensational records (1969-1976) will have to wait for a different book however. If it's Rod's birds, booze (only a little bit of cocaine, honest) and lots of lovely money that you're interested in, the this is the book for you.
Cheryl's book is full of honest-to-goodness heartbreak, of course. Townshend's is heart-breaking but for different reasons, while Young's could be heart-warming if you can wade through the hokey text. Rod's is as brash, fatuous and insubstantial as his music has been for the last three decades—when he has also been at his most successful, it has to be said. But ultimately, what's the point of any of these books? They are of course money-making PR exercises, and demonstrate the lack of self-awareness and stunted emotional development that is so essential for making truly great Rock 'n' Roll music. But they are not truly revealing, they lack the insight and perspective that the best writers bring to the art of biography—and it is an art.
When considering the best of Rock 'n Roll books ever published, few people list autobiographies, and those that are included are invariably ghost- or co-written with professional writers. As Nick Hornby proved by his musical collaboration with Ben Folds, authors make rubbish musicians or songwriters; so why would we expect musicians to make good authors? Peter Guralnick has done a far, far better job of rendering Elvis Presley in prose than the man could or would have done himself. Distance from the subject allows an objective and sometimes surprising opinion and view of the subject to emerge. The best writing about musicians should send the reader back to the source of their original interest in the subject: the records. Hands up who wants to listen to Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?