First published on 1 Nov 2011. Updated on 1 Nov 2011.
Chasing the Dragon: the Life and Death of Marc Hunter by Jeff Apter
Hardie Grant Books, 290pp
No Regrets: A Rock’n’Roll Memoir by Ace Frehley with Joe Layden and John Ostrosky
Simon & Schuster, 306pp
It’s So Easy (and Other Lies): the autobiography by Duff McKagan
There are a hell of a lot of books about popular music in the world, you know. And there are two things worth noting about the genre: one, that about 85% of them are about the Beatles, and two, that they fall into two broad categories: the autobiography and the obituary.
Every so often there’ll be one that breaks the mould. Occasionally it'll be by a trusted outsider with complete access to the artists (some particularly superb examples being Fool the World: the oral history of a band called Pixies by Josh Frank and Caryn Ganz, Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa: the adventures of Talking Heads in the 20th Century by David Bowman or Sorry: the wretched tale of Little Stevie Wright by Jack Marx). Sometimes a journalist will get around lack of access to key figures with meticulous research and attention to detail (as with the excellent, brick-sized Bright Lights, Dark Shadows: the real story of ABBA by Carl Magnus Palm and Lowside of the Road: a life of Tom Waits by Barney Hoskyns). Or, very occasionally, you get the cultural-studies-thesis-masquerading-as-a-book-about-pop-music (Wannabe: how the Spice Girls reinvented pop fame by David Sinclair, The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the demise of English rock by John Harris).
However, if you want your book to sell, you need it to be a redemption story. No-one wants to hear about the musician that had it all, kept it, and looked smugly back on a life of love and achievement – that’s why there are so few books about U2 and Coldplay. No, we want our pop stars to suffer for their good fortune and either die or claw their way back, sorrier but wiser. And if there are plenty of juicy anecdotes about snorting’n’fucking, so much the better – as long as it's presented, to use the accepted rock bio shorthand, as "a nightmare descent into booze and pills".
Three titles have recently hit the shelves offering their own variations on this biographical subgenre, which I would like to christen “Rock’n’Roll Hubris Porn”: It’s So Easy (And Other Lies) by former Guns ’n Roses bassist Duff McKagan, No Regrets by Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley, and the Marc Hunter bio Chasing the Dragon by former Australian Rolling Stone editor Jeff Apter.
Two are autobiographies, at least in the sense that McKagan and Frehley’s names appear on the front of the book, though it’s doubtful that either actually sat at a keyboard during their composition. McKagan is actually an accomplished columnist but his shout out to Tim Mohr suggests that the ex-Playboy editor did most of the heavy lifting, while Frehley thanks his “co-author” Joe Layden and “assistant” John Ostrosky.
Apter’s book on the rise and fall of the frontman of NZ-born hitmakers Dragon is the least titillating of the three. That’s primary by virtue of the absence of its subject, who died of cancer in 1998. Everyone – and I mean everyone – quoted in the book goes on and on about Hunter’s intelligence and charisma, so it would have been good to get more of that in the story rather than some generally-nice-but-dull anecdotes from a series of generally-nice-but-dull people.
That said, it’s a rare window into rock’n’roll Sydney during the 70s. It's a too-neglected period, coming as it does in the critical vacuum between the Easybeats and Radio Birdman, and Hunter’s lifelong battle with smack, booze, weight and his own talents makes for a compelling story of a man too easily regarded as the mulleted pop star that sang ‘Rain’ and ‘April Sun in Cuba’, and if it doesn’t make much of a case for any sort of critical reappraisal of the band (no-one accuses them of being anything other than a great singles act who made patchy-at-best albums) it’s a valuable document of a part of Australian musical history too often forgotten.
McKagan’s effort is more your classic flew-so-high-to-come-so-low stories, although he didn’t really come that low – some shrewd business deals early on and a determination to know how the business worked meant that he apparently avoided the sort of down-and-out destitute phase that normally inspires these sorts of books. Still, he did manage to almost kill himself with drugs and, especially, alcohol – in fact, the man’s pancreas actually burst, which is pretty rock’n’roll. It’s comprehensive, but surprisingly low on dirt – colourful bandmates like Axl and Slash appear but little is said about either other that they’re still his brothers in rock, and should-be-fascinating stories like his departure from G’n’R, how Scott Wieland’s recurring drug problems derailed Velvet Revolver, his ill-starred early marriages and so on are all addressed superficially with a vague “…and that’s what made me the man I am today” shrug. McKagan seems like a nice, smart dude and everything, but there’s not a lot of passion in his pages.
Ace Frehley, on the other hand, has passion to burn. And well he might: he’s writing about his absolute favourite subject. The tone of No Regrets is comparable to that of John Lydon in his I Invented Punk, Me autohagiography No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish. Has there ever been a cooler person to come out of the Bronx than Frehley? Not the way Frehley tells it.
In his version of events, he was the best player, the best lover, the best negotiator and the guy that came up with all the best ideas in Kiss, and by extension popular music generally. The lightning bolt font? His idea. The outfits? His idea. And he was more popular than Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley combined, and he left Kiss because he wanted to and not because he was a barely-functional alcoholic, and his solo record was the most successful one, and he has magical occult powers, and can communicate with UFOs… Say what you will about No Regrets: while there’s a lot of the obligatory nightmare descent in there, the book is definitely a window in the mind of Ace Frehley. Which is a large room full of pictures of Frehley fighting dragons and stuff.
So, in short: you have three books about three men who lived the rock’n’roll dream decades back. Apter’s is the most comprehensive, McKagans’s is the most lucid, and Frehley’s is the most insanely self-aggrandising. Choose your holiday reading accordingly.