As the proliferation of hard rock and heavy metal memoirs continues, there is a growing trend of what I consider very “thin” books. This description doesn’t apply to the actual page counts, but instead the depth of detail and examination. All of these books made the bestseller list so clearly a certain amount of readers enjoyed them. However, the lack of description and general bland nature prevents the books from making a lasting impression as compared with the seminal texts of the rock book genre.
Bestselling rock biographer Neil Strauss once told me that everyone in the room got chills when Marilyn Manson described his grandfather’s basement. That description lead to the the opening to The Long Hard Road Out of Hell where the subterranean shithole featured a “red enema bag,” “a warped white medicine cabinet,” “gray grime,” and was accessible only by “rickety wooden stairs.” Almost 400 words are devoted to setting the scene in the basement, a pivotal location in Manson’s life.
Compare that with Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock where Sammy Hagar recalls first seeing the woman who would be his wife for decades. In the early sixties, he visited his pal Bucky whose family had a swimming pool. “Sometimes I would see his younger sister, Betsy, sitting around in a bikini.” What color bikini? How did Betsy wear her hair? Was she tan or did she turn red in the sun?
Hagar also says his life changed when he first had sex, but it’s similarly lacking in details. “Once I discovered rock-and-roll and pussy, I barely made it through high school,” he writes. “All I cared about was music and girls.” But who was his first sexual experience? Did his parents barge in and catch him in the act? Was it with a cheerleader blonde or a bookish brunette?
No one is suggesting pornographic close-ups in either situation. But both instances clearly shaped Hagar’s life and yet they are just empty ciphers to move the plot along, devoid of any examination or description.
In a similar vein, Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine also glosses over the details in his memoir, Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir. Famously fired from Metallica in 1983, Mustaine’s angst over the ouster is the stuff of heavy metal legend and a million wisecracks. Yet, his dismissal from the group requires only five clicks of the “Next Page” button on a Kindle to complete. One of the most important moments in thrash metal history is over before the reader can even settle in to explore the trauma.
Mustaine also casually tosses aside drug references without elaborating on them. “One of the hard and fast rules regarding the purchase of smack was that you never carried the shit on your body,” the guitarist writes. “You carried it in your body. As soon as the transaction was complete, the balloon went in your mouth.” And then the discussion immediately moves a roadie getting arrested.
But the non-junkie audience flings the book in frustration and screams, “Exactly how do you just gulp down a balloon of heroin? How do you fucking get it out of your body?” And so forth.
No one is suggesting that Mustaine needs to get into Irvine Welsh filthy bog territory here. Aside from readers with a scatological persuasion, we don’t necessarily need to know everything about getting the drugs in and out of the body. But part of the reason that I, personally, read books is to learn about experiences I’ve never had. And when someone casually mentions, “Oh, sure, you just pop the dope down the hatch,” dozens of questions flood through my head. Unfortunately, Mustaine doesn’t answer them.
In My Appetite for Destruction: Sex & Drugs & Guns N’ Roses, Steven Adler does a little better with filling in the details. His description of discovering a friend’s suicide is moving and horrifying. But he glances over his own attempt to end it all with just a few words. “If it wasn’t for the fact that I had to keep it together for the upcoming Key Club concert, I probably would have done something really desperate,” he writes. “I did anyway. I slashed my throat,” he writes simply. “The guys who were monitoring my every move in the house didn’t see that one coming.” And then one paragraph later, we’re reading about Adler putting together a new band.
I’ve been blessed to avoid mental illness and drug troubles in my life. So I’m lucky to say that I don’t have a whole lot of experience sawing at my own throat. How does that happen? What implement did Adler use? How far did he get?
No one is suggesting Saw levels of violence porn here. But you can’t just easily toss out that you slashed your own throat without a bit of explanation or description.
Obviously, an author makes choices about what to feature and what to gloss over in any book. Unless you’re Charles Dickens, not every detail can be fully explored. Yet, if you don’t dive into at least some level of depth, then the book becomes little more than a palate cleanser, something to be quickly devoured and forgotten.
In December of this year, HarperCollins will publish a special 10th Anniversary edition of Motley Crue’s The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band. That book has sold more than half a million copies fueled, in large part, by the equally stomach-turning and hilariously gut-busting descriptions. Several years after the book’s original publication, Nick Hornby somewhat admirably wrote that The Dirt is “disturbingly repellent.” It’s tough to imagine that anyone is going to remember the Hagar, Mustaine, and Adler books even six months from now, much less a decade.