Life staggers on. The economy is flat, the earth is round, the leaves have fallen and Elvis is still dead. Meanwhile, lesser rock deities are still with us; some are writing memoirs revealing the glories and horrors of the musical life, plus their innermost thoughts, which can be fairly dark and cranky.
Here’s a Wall Street Journal review I did of new memoirs by Graham Nash, Ray Davies and Donald Fagen. If you’re an old crank yourself, Fagen’s your man.
It’s a popular complaint that America no longer produces anything when in fact we churn out vast quantities of music and musical merchandise—T-shirts, posters, ball caps, thongs—and a steady stream of celebrity-musician memoirs.
Three Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees—Graham Nash, Ray Davies and Donald Fagen—have now set down their guitars and picked up their pens (or signed on a ghostwriter), joining such illustrious predecessors as Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Keith Richards in reliving their glory years, or at least the parts they care to remember.
Their books include standard features of the genre: early struggle, breakthrough, truckloads of money, rapacious promoters, and nonstop drugs and women, plus arrests, overdoses and rehab. But there’s another story line: Ambitious young men working their way out of difficult upbringings to make it big in the Promised Land—America—where they eventually grow old and cranky. Just like the rest of us.
Graham Nash, now 71, is best known for his work with the Hollies and with Crosby, Stills and Nash (sometimes joined by Young). But he grew up in Salford, possibly the worst slum in the north of England. The toilet was al fresco, his wardrobe was provided by the Salvation Army and his father’s room and board were supplied, for a time, by the local prison.
Fortunately, Mr. Nash had a talent for singing. As he tells us in “Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life,” he and a classmate opened each school day harmonizing the Lord’s Prayer, though he was not cut out for the ecclesiastic life. He had been transfixed by radio broadcasts of American pop stars: Elvis, the Platters, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley and the Everly Brothers. He left school at age 16, in 1958, to make a go of it as a performer.
The Hollies (named after Buddy Holly) got their big break in February 1963, after a talent scout caught one of their gigs. Mr. Nash, who makes no pretense of being a master musician, admits that his guitar playing was hardly stunning: At this performance his instrument had no strings. Nevertheless, the band cranked out a string of pleasant pop hits that still haunt the oldies airwaves, including “Bus Stop” (written by teenage songwriter Graham Gouldman), “On a Carousel” and “Carrie Anne.”
Soon, though, the young man grew “bored with the moon-and-June rhymes, singing about schoolboy crushes and forbidden sex.” He had also fallen in love with America, where he was introduced to future love interest Joni Mitchell, singer David Crosby and drugs.
Readers still amazed by rock excess will get a fix in this breezy memoir. Mr. Nash, turned on to marijuana by Mr. Crosby and to LSD by Cass Elliot of the Mamas & the Papas, became something of a stoner prodigy; one sometimes senses that he considers getting high a heroic act, like storming Omaha Beach. Yet he supplies a cautionary tale by chronicling Mr. Crosby’s gruesome transformation into a bloated, lesion-covered addict.
Mr. Nash, whose later hits included singalong standards “Teach Your Children” and “Our House” plus “Just a Song Before I Go” (written after a drug dealer bet him he couldn’t compose a song in under an hour), reminds us that rock stars live in a different financial universe than most fans. Soon after moving to California, he found himself short on cash. No problem. Mr. Crosby cut him a check for $80,000. When touring, the band might make $50,000 a day, though Mr. Nash adds that most of the money ended up in other pockets: After one $12 million tour he, Mr. Stills, Mr. Young and Mr. Cosby pocketed $300,000 each. “That left $10.8 million unaccounted for,” he writes, and no doubt highly appreciated.
Yet like other mortals, rockers grow older and are susceptible to putting on a righteous grump. He calls Neil Young “utterly self-centered” and takes aim at fatter targets, including George W. Bush, the tobacco lobby and rifles with “hundred-round clips.” He seems surprised that 10% of his audience sometimes headed for the exits after the political grumbling commenced, especially in the South. The nerve of those hicks! Despite the manifest flaws of his adopted nation, Mr. Nash loved it enough to become a citizen, settle down, get married—36 years and counting—and otherwise live like a member in good standing of the Rotary Club. He’s not alone.
Ray Davies, also from a working-class family in England, found fame and fortune in the U.S., plus a few other things. As a former frontman (with brother Dave) of the Kinks, whose catalog ranges from rock blasters “Lola” and “You Really Got Me” to the serenely beautiful “Waterloo Sunset,” he came to the U.S. in 1965 as part of the British invasion, where he rubbed shoulders with people less glamorous than Joni Mitchell, including serial killer John Wayne Gacy, “at the time a community organizer” involved in a fundraising concert. After the Kinks went toes-up in 1996, Mr. Davies continued recording and touring, despite later health problems; his most recent record was released in the U.S. in 2011.
In “Americana: The Kinks, the Riff, the Road,” Mr. Davies is more reserved than Mr. Nash, offering fairly temperate accounts of the music life’s agonies, ecstasies and ennui. Though Mr. Davies was shot by a New Orleans mugger in 2004, he is far more critical of drugs than firearms, complaining how dope is used to prop up touring musicians: “Pamper them; give them all the drugs they need (legal or otherwise) just to get through. Once the tour is over they can be left to look after their own wreckage.”
But Mr. Davies, too, is upbeat on America, even praising how students recite the Pledge of Allegiance, “which I think in a strange way helps form a bond among all new Americans.” In his spare time he works on an exchange program between high-school bands in New Orleans and London, which suggests he could rise high in Optimist International.
Not so our third musical great, Donald Fagen, a founding member of Steely Dan. If there were a Cranks Hall of Fame, he’d be a multiple inductee.
Mr. Fagen escaped Kendall Park, a New Jersey suburb, after a youth he claims was made bearable only by jazz radio broadcasts and the “subversive” radio talk show of Jean Shepherd (whose “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash” would be made into the film “A Christmas Story”). At Bard College, Mr. Fagen met Walter Becker, with whom he eventually founded Steely Dan (named after a Japanese sexual aid) and produced a string of Classic Rock stalwarts, including “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and “Deacon Blues.”
Mr. Fagen, 65, is a good writer and highly talented musician—many rockers would have a hard time reading his charts—but what makes his brief book sing is his sharp tongue. He could teach Bill O’Reilly and Alec Baldwin tons about how to deliver a proper tongue-lashing.
Post his tour journal on the Internet? “Why should I let you lazy, spoiled TV Babies read it for nothing in the same way you download all those songs my partner and I sacrificed our entire youth to write and record,” he snarls. Mr. Fagen, who once wrote a song called “Godwhacker,” in which he envisioned putting out a hit on the Almighty, is similarly harsh on his Earthbound enemies, citing a British study alleging that conservatives have an “inordinately large amygdala” that makes them delusional. “It’s got to be the amygdala thing,” he insists. “Period. End of story.”
Some listeners might point out that such absolutism is also considered a conservative trait. Indeed, Mr. Fagen sounds like his amygdala is a bit swollen when noting that “I’m deeply underwhelmed by most contemporary art, literature, music, films, TV, the heinous little phones, money talk, real estate talk, all that stuff” and when praising the lack of “soul-deadening porn or violence” on 1960s television.
But what fun is old age if you can’t grouse a bit? Geezers do not live by oatmeal alone. Mr. Fagen describes a 2012 concert at which he was performing. The crowd was so “geriatric,” he says, that he was “tempted to start calling out bingo numbers.” Eventually, the fans were all “on their feet, albeit shakily, rocking out” to the music. “So this, now, is what I do: assisted living.”
There’s a bright side our author may be overlooking. Should Mr. Fagen tire of the music biz he, along with Mr. Davies and Mr. Nash, have an excellent crack at endorsement deals from the manufacturers of adult diapers and other products for decaying oldsters. For some folks, America’s blessings never end.