Charles Shaar Murray reviews
ROCK STARS STOLE MY LIFE!
Any autobiography worth reading (ghosted or not) will reflect the character and personality of its author. It should therefore come as no particular surprise that this account of Mark Ellen’s decades of writing, editing and broadcasting stuff to do with poppy rocky stuff should be bluff, boisterous, bustling, tiggerishly-bouncily energetic, insightful and oft-times coached in urbanely Wodehousean rodomontade. The aforementioned ‘stuff’ began with a stint at the NME and proceeded via a long and winding road which included editing Smash Hits, fronting the Whistle Test and Live Aid and founding Q, Mojo and the much-missed Word. This latter was the best mag of its type you could get: it collapsed just two issues short of what would have been its tenth anniversary, and I miss it both as a reader and as a contributor.
All in all, not bad for a former lumpenhippie devotee of truly awful prog-rock who briefly shared a college rock band with a hog-whimperingly embarrassing Mick Jagger impersonator later better-known as Prime Minister of the UK turned megalomaniac war criminal. The book contains somewhat less about their subsequent encounters than this reader would have liked: Mark being both a diplomatic and a loyal soul, he continued to insist that his former bandmate, Tony Blair, was ‘a good man’ long after the evidence clearly suggested otherwise.
Mark considered himself too old for punk. In fact, he was only a year older than Mick Jones, two years younger than Joe Strummer, three years younger than yr correspondent and considerably the junior of anyone in The Ramones, let alone Patti Smith or Debbie Harry. Despite considering the NME posse a standoffish lot when he first arrived, he evidently felt that I hadn’t been too horrible to him because he subsequently offered me gainful employment on three of the above-mentioned magazines.
As well as being an entertaining, enlightening and anecdote-stuffed ride, Mark’s provided a sobering requiem for a majorly fun era in both music and its attendant media which is rapidly disappearing, its smoke and funk being relentlessly sucked away by the air-conditioning of harsher times.
The Mark Ellen you meet in these pages is, for all practical purposes, the Mark Ellen I first met as a freshfaced lad hanging around the NME office hustling for the chance to write a 300-word gig review. He’s almost as entertaining on the page as he is in RL.
Charles Shaar Murray reviews
BLUES ALL AROUND ME: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY
BB King with David Ritz
Hodder & Stoughton, 1994
Somehow, this extraordinary memoir slipped through my net on original publication, back when BB was a mere 70 years old. Indeed, when I found it on Charity Shop Row (or a single solitary squid!), I almost passed it by under the impression that I already had it. (Yep, I AM slow on the uptake sometimes: I won’t embarrass myself by revealing how long it took me to figure out why Bill Haley’s band were called The Comets.)
BB King was second only to Louis Armstrong for the ability to combine the roles of Beloved Entertainer and game-changing, globally influential virtuoso: of the ’60s-and-after Rock Guys, only Paul McCartney really came close. Since this book was published, much of his back-story was eloquently depicted in the recent biodoc Life Of Riley, but here on the page — coaxed from him via the alchemy of confidant/confessor David Ritz — the Big B’s narrative takes you further behind that genial, self-deprecating façade than most could possibly have predicted. Until this book was written, B very rarely spoke about the pain in his life: he channelled it via his voice and his guitar. Then he’d smile and thank the ladies and gentlemen.
So here it is: an upbringing (or shall we say ‘non-upbringing’? ‘Semi-upbringing’?) gruelling even by the standards of those born black and poor in the rural Mississippi Delta during the 1920s. The struggle to acquire and master his chosen craft and then turn it first into a means of making a living, and then into a career. No drugging and not that much drinking, but a near-lifelong battle with sex addiction and a massive gambling habit. A cosy-schmoozy showbiz autobiog this most certainly isn’t, but neither does it drip with self-pity or lapse into therapese. Even at his most scarifyingly self-revelatory, B retains both his dignity and his charm.
If, gentle reader, BB King’s work has any significance for you, then try and be smarter than yr correspondent. In another words, don’t leave it 18 years before you read it.
Anna Chen is back with a bang! To be precise, her new eight-week radio series of Madam Miaow’s Culture Lounge on Resonance 104.4FM on Tuesdays 5-6pm starting this week, 4th March.
To kick off, I’m giving my Guide to the Blues, Parts 1 and 2, Ancient and Modern: the 1920s to the early 1960s when the Blues was almost entirely African-American, and the mid-1960s to the present when the white kids got it and joined in (Part 2 follows on Tuesday 11th March).
In brief, pre- and post- Stones.
With guest Stephen Dale Petit. There will be a listen-again opportunity to hear it after broadcast on Soundcloud which we’ll post here.
The new and improved Hothouse Project Journalism as Craft and Art writing course continues its march towards our 26 September launch in Camden NW6 and is now live on Hotcourses and LoveMyCourse.