Friday, October 11, 2013

Lives on the page, part 2

Last time I wrote about a Mary Wickes biography that made her life sound most uninteresting. This time, I'm writing about a book that makes what seems to be a relatively uninteresting life worth reading about. There are two differences: it's an autobiography and it's written with style.

It's probably not fair to compare a book about someone to a book by someone, in this case, Graham Nash, and his book Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life. I'm sure if Wickes had sat down to write her memoir, it would have been fun to read, or sad, or enlightening. Taravella, the author of the Wickes book, didn't have his subject handy to pump for info, she didn't leave a big paper trail, and most of the people who knew her best were dead. Nash writes his own memoir and what's most surprising about it is how uninteresting his life sounds, given his role as a member in good standing of rock royalty: he hung out with the pre-fame Beatles (and wrote out the lyrics to "Anna" so John Lennon could sing the right words at a recording session the next day); belonged to the Hollies, a genuine British Invasion band; lived with Joni Mitchell; was and still is one-third of the legendary supergroup Crosby, Stills & Nash and wrote most of their biggest hits ("Marrakesh Express," "Our House," "Just a Song Before I Go," "Wasted on the Way"), and also the lovely "Simple Man," a moderate solo hit for Nash and one my personal favorite 70s songs.

The material on Nash's early days before he gets to California is engrossing, but once he gets his gig with David Crosby and Stephen Stills, and breaks up with Joni Mitchell, the book tends to focus on others rather than on himself. Nash says he did lots of drugs and had many women, but we hear very little about all that; the most interesting parts of the book are about David Crosby and his well-publicized struggles with drugs. On the subject of Neil Young (occasionally part of CS&N, as CSN&Y), he is clear without being overbearing: Young is a jackass but a musical genius. We don't get much insight about the music; the peak musical experience is a well-told anecdote of the first time he and Crosby and Stills sang together, with Joni as the audience.
But what makes the book worth reading is the style. Nash's "voice" is fun to hear and he sounds natural on the page. It feels like you've been chatting with him over a cup of tea--and maybe a joint or two. We get just enough gossip to titillate, but not so much that we think he's betraying trusts. "Wild Tales" is a bit of a misnomer. I've read Young's recent memoir, which is also written in a unique style but doesn't ultimately reveal much. I haven't read anything by Crosby, but between Nash's book and the headlines of the past, I don't know that I need to. But I suspect that Stephen Stills might have a good book or two in him, if he can remember enough to write about.