The premise of Daniel Nester’s The Memoir Office is simple. Nester sat in a Troy, New York art gallery, wrote and talked to people who inquired about his exhibit, which was the sitting and writing he was doing there.
Reading it and the complications about life writing it presented, reminded me of the essay I’ve been meaning to write, about two rock biographies, Keith Richards’ well-known Life, and the less known but compelling, Sweat, a biography of the American band, The Fleshtones, by writer Joe Bonomo.
The two rock biographies have been circling each other in my head for months now. Both works tell us more about a slice of the world than the limited nature of rock biography would seem to allow. You already probably know about Life, from reading the book itself, the excerpt in Rolling Stone, or the salacious information about Richards and bandmate Mick Jagger that permeated the pop culture world (or even the wonderful ghosted mock takedown of Richards by Jagger through Bill Wyman in Slate). Unless you are a fan of the Fleshtones–and I am, having seen them twice and counting Hexbreaker as one of my favorite albums—you may not have taken account of Sweat.
Part of my interactions with the Memoir Office and Sweat are personal. I know Nester through friends, and I’m a big fan of his work, particular the brilliant two volumes of poetry he wrote about the band Queen, God Save the Queen and God Save the Queen II. I received Sweat when I met Bonomo after talking about my own work on Johnny Cash at SXSW—we exchanged books.
These personal ties influence my reading of Sweat and The Memoir Office, but so does the intimate way I know Richards through a lifetime listening to his guitar licks. Aftermath, the 1965 album with breakthrough hits “Paint It Black” and “Under My Thumb,” was the first album I listened to over and over. [I really liked it for “Look at that Stupid Girl,” but then again I was eight.] Critics have long received music personally, and of course, as music fans, we are almost forced to receive music emotionally.
All of the books make me think about class. The Fleshtones were all working class, and we know Richards was too. After Richards tells his tale about growing up and learning how to be a Rolling Stone, negotiating his liberation from English society, class disappears from the narrative, at least overtly. Richards can’t help but act differently when he becomes wealthy, but somehow the trappings that his immense wealth and privilege bring to him—unlimited drugs, women, luxury travel, a house in Connecticut, first-class lawyers —become invisible to him, at least in the narrative. There is never any sense that he has become privileged, nor that his wealth gives him options in dealing with the difficulties his own bad behaviors have engendered. That his privilege is cultural as much as economic drives our desire to read it—there are very few bands whose reputation are as high. But this doesn’t make Richards seem grateful, just resentful that Mick Jagger has seemingly got more credit than deserved.
The Fleshtones also have a cachet with a group of music lovers from the 80s, myself included. Since the Fleshtones never made it big (except in France, which of course confirms that particular show business joke), class origins remain more relevant. The Fleshtones to a man became different once they chose their rock star lives. The lead singer was an artist. They rented a house in a working class neighborhood in Queens and had blue whale parties. One of the notable connections Bonomo illuminates is that the Fleshtones did not choose between punk and disco, but embraced both at the same, confirming in fact the influence of the art world in New York in the 1970s.
They played the same clubs as the punks and Talking Heads. They moved to Los Angeles and became friends with the Go-Gos. The lead singer got a gig working for MTV. They were befriended by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck. They were signed, probably ripped off, signed again, abandoned, and then began to produce their own records. At about the same time as the Fleshtones rise, the Stones made a brilliant New York album, Some Girls, and were circling in a higher orbit of the same planets as the Fleshtones.
Bonomo and Richards show repeatedly how important the lifestyle is to the bands’ own sense of authenticity. Without drinking and debauchery, there is no rock and roll. Without regrets, there is nothing to write about. And without this narrative of regret and debauchery, perhaps there is nothing for us to read…
Nester’s book is about a different type of performance. Introspective and funny, Nester talks about the weirdness of producing writing in public, which is a metaphor for writing itself—in the sense that if we read writing, it becomes a public act, if only in retrospect. But he is a professor like me, with small children who he cares for much more actively than Richards, who essentially abandons one child and whose neglect helped doom another. As a Facebook friend, Nester’s most visible debauchery is a beer in a dive bar after a reading.
Nester, however, echoes the same type of weird public-private relationships bands have to their audiences, in which they become eminently knowable through live performances and media accounts, and imperfectly through the songs themselves. Sweat! and Life exist to demystify these relationships, but they necessarily leave so many questions unanswered—including who these people really are, and more importantly, what do we have in common with them.
The fantasy is that we know them by our common connection to the beginning of their trajectory. The fantasy is that we come to know Richards through his book, the Fleshtones through Bonomo, and Nester through his. Nester gives us candor, though we can only know it as performance both in the text and the museum; Richards brings in other voices to help tell his story; and although Bonomo is clearly a fan of the Fleshtones, Sweat! is supposed to be objective.
Where the books coincide is in their reckoning of the publicness of the performing life, a publicness that often counts as intimacy for its listeners or readers. And once knowing this, it’s hard to think about Life—and life–as anything but one more performance by a master of its craft. In a sense, Richards’ own Memoir Office is the stages, hotel rooms, and the “homes” he nomadically acquires over his career, and the Fleshtones’ is the van they seem to live in as they travel across the country. But neither public space seems to inspire the type of reflection that Nester does, sitting in a museum, taking questions, and writing about what all of it means.