In the memoirs of time-worn rock stars, the '60s get old real fast.
By James Marcus
November 4, 2007
When did the '60s end? Joan Didion, one of the great anatomists of
that Aquarian decade, felt it grind to a halt on Aug. 9, 1969 -- when
the news of Sharon Tate's murder first spread through the
lotus-eating entertainment community. Others point to the violent
fiasco at the Altamont music festival later that year, when one
audience member was stabbed to death during a Rolling Stones concert,
or to the Kent State shootings just a few months later.
For a certain segment of the population, however, the '60s may never
have ended at all. I'm talking about classic rock stars: those woolly
mammoths who continue to roam the Earth, practically flaunting their
pickled livers and capped teeth. For them, the gaudy decade has gone
on and on, like a kind of prolonged childhood.
By now, of course, most of these golden codgers are rounding the bend
into old age. If they have any intention of delivering a damage
report, this is the time. Paul McCartney surpassed the proverbial age
of 64 earlier this year. Pete Townshend is 62, while Grace Slick of
the Jefferson Airplane is a village elder at 68. Now as it happens,
four rock 'n' roll icons have recently obliged the public with the
latest batch of autobiographical musings: Eric Clapton, Pattie Boyd,
Ron Wood and Marianne Faithfull. And their books, admittedly the
product of many a fried synapse, make for a sobering read.
Of the four, Clapton is the only major artist (despite some excellent
recordings by singer/actress Faithfull and Wood's career as an
amiable second banana in the Faces and the Rolling Stones). Surely we
might expect something special from him: not only gossip, but
illumination. Well, Clapton's life seems to have been one long
wrestling match with his demons, and the sad fact is that the demons
just kept winning. His life story is essentially a narrative of
recovery. The drug of choice varied -- heroin, cocaine, alcohol --
but Clapton always found something to dim the voltage in his brain.
Despite a good many artistic triumphs, the image that lingers is that
of the strung-out guitarist hiding in his rural manse, drawing
endless, Escher-like doodles with a Rapidograph.
Not that Clapton had a monopoly on substance abuse. For Faithfull,
"doing lots of heroin and coke and alcohol" is a fairly typical
scene-setter. As for Wood, he recalls a delighted John Lennon turning
to Rolling Stone Keith Richard and asking, "What's the drug of the
day?" To give him his due, Wood was more of a traditional boozer,
joining his mates in putting away "fifteen pints of Guinness a minute
for over 10 hours" on a particularly jolly New Year's Eve.
And let's not forget the sex. Model-turned-muse Boyd was initially
married to George Harrison, then left him for Clapton, whose
addictive behavior finally put the kibosh on that marriage as well.
Wood slept with Boyd as her first marriage was collapsing, and
thoughtfully allowed Harrison to sleep with Wood's wife, Krissie --
right around the time Harrison was bedding down with Ringo Starr's
wife, Maureen. Where Faithfull fits into this rumba line I'm not
sure, because she's fairly discreet. Given her ancestry -- her
great-great-uncle was Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the author of "Venus
in Furs" and the man for whom masochism was named -- she may well
have been the friskiest of the bunch. In any case, their intermingled
lives do suggest a bedroom farce, with the cast of characters popping
in and out of the boudoir.
Here's the strange thing. As a music fan and a diligent student of
the '60s, I was looking forward to reading these books. They taught
me a number of important facts: how Clapton finally recognized his
vocation (during an acid trip with Delaney Bramlett), what happened
when Harrison met Frank Sinatra (during the recording session for "My
Way"), and who truly wrote the spooky Rolling Stones song "Sister
Morphine" (Faithfull). If you strip away the surface glitter of
celebrity, you do recognize these people as screwed-up, often
resilient human beings, coping with the same generational havoc that
ruined you and all your friends. Boyd's childhood in particular
struck me with its peripatetic pathos: She was abandoned over and
over, in Scotland, Kenya, England, like a waif out of "A Series of
Yet pondering these lives also makes me feel like a shriveled
moralist -- it brings out my inner Republican. The initial reaction
is envy. These people had more fun on a typical weekend than I've had
since my bar mitzvah. But the drugging and screwing and
self-indulgence soon grow tiresome, then increasingly sad. Nobody is
trading away the perfection of art for the perfection of life, or
vice versa. They're just snorting everything that can fit into their
nasal cavities or picking drunken fights or crashing expensive cars
(the men, anyway). The sense of waste is colossal.
I'm not suggesting that a life of rigorous sobriety would have made
Ron Wood into a star. And Pattie Boyd was a muse -- a formidable one,
having inspired "Something," "Layla" and "Wonderful Tonight" --
rather than a creative participant in the great '60s pageant. But
Clapton is a real artist who seldom treated his gift with the respect
it deserved. His account of his life is decent and unflinching but
also oddly impermeable, as if reality (with one very great, glaring
exception) kept glancing off him. Only Faithfull seems to have
profited from her devil's bargain. In exchange for her extravagant
flameout in the early '70s, she got a new career, a new voice
(darkened by drugs and dissipation) and the sort of
self-consciousness that her peers never seem to have developed.
Recalling the late British writer Caroline Blackwood, she writes:
"The absurdity, and even -- or especially -- the monstrosity of
ordinary life were mother's milk to her."
The absurdity or monstrosity of ordinary life will be familiar
phenomena to any thinking person who has survived beyond the age of
30. Yet they figure very little in the recollections of these aging
rock stars because time really did stand still for the authors -- the
joss sticks they lighted in late 1968 are still, somehow, burning. I
wish them all a happy autumnal era. I respect them too, for keeping
their mouths shut until they could recollect their glory days in
tranquillity. (Nowadays they would have dashed off their memoirs
after that first rehab trip to Hazelden, then promoted them like mad
on "Oprah.") But I'm afraid that the holy trinity of sex, drugs and
rock 'n' roll has lost some of its retrospective luster. Only the
music is still worth listening to.
James Marcus is the author of "Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter
of the Dot.Com Juggernaut" and proprietor of the blog House of Mirth