I had been toying with a different topic for today’s post, but Brian’s (Babbling Books) comment on my post on Anna Goldsworthy’s memoir, Piano lessons, sent me off in a different direction. Brian said that he was “interested in the lives of artists”, that “there is something about the subject that is inherently fascinating”. He also said that he’s attracted to “both fictional and non fictional accounts”.
I related to all of that, and I suspect that many readers here do too. One of the reasons I read is to learn about – and experience vicariously – the lives of others, and the lives of artists are among those that most fascinate me. I am fascinated and impressed by the combination of passion, dedication and talent that enable them to do what they do. For this reason, I love reading about writers, but in this post I’m talking about another group I love to read about, musicians. And although, like Brian, I’m happy to read both fiction and non-fiction, I’m focusing here on memoirs.
However, there are many, many musician’s memoirs out there. They cover the whole gamut of music – rock, folk, classical, and so on – and different types of musicians, from performers, and composers, to composer-performers like singer-songwriters. During my research, I came across an article in beat.com.au discussing two memoirs by two members of the band The Smiths. The article starts:
The musician’s memoir is a salacious sanctity in which readers are afforded a rare, fly-on-the-wall type glimpse at debaucheries, creative methods and inner-workings to which they wouldn’t be otherwise privy, and no matter the author’s prowess for prose, there is usually much to be learnt between the pages.
Here is my problem. I’m not particularly interested in salaciousness (even if in a sanctity!) or debaucheries. Indeed, these are among the reasons I tend to be hesitant about memoirs in general, but I am interested in those memoirs which explore being an artist, or which tackle the musical and/or other challenges an artist has faced. The books I’m sharing below do, I believe, offer these learnings and insights. They are just a selection – a diverse one in form, approach and content – of those that have been published in the last decade or so.
Emma Ayres, Cadence: Travels with music – A memoir (2014) (my review): Classical music string player and broadcaster Ayres wrote this travel memoir about her year-long bicycle journey from England to Hong Kong, accompanied by her violin. Like all good travel memoirs it is about more than travel, meaning in her case that it includes her childhood, her reflections on her life as a musician, her analyses of classical music, and gender identity and how it played out during her travels. She also talks about playing music along the way, and how it brings people together.
Jimmy Barnes, Working class boy: A memoir of running away (2016): You won’t be surprised to hear that I don’t gravitate to rock musician memoirs, so I haven’t read Australian rocker Jimmy Barnes’ memoir. However, I’m including it here because it isn’t apparently your traditional celebrity memoir, and, in fact, finishes before Barnes makes it big with Cold Chisel. It is about his difficult childhood and the neglect, violence and abuse suffered by him and his siblings. It could be a misery memoir, but I believe it is more than that.
Andrew Ford, The memory of music (2017): Ford is well-known to many Australians as the presenter, since 1995, of Radio National’s weekly program, The Music Show, but he is also a classical music composer. Publisher Black Inc says that Ford “takes us from his childhood obsession with the Beatles to his passion for Beethoven, Brahms, Vaughan Williams, Stockhausen and Birtwistle, and to his work as a composer, choral conductor, concert promoter, critic, university teacher and radio presenter”. They also say, and here’s what interests me, that it is “more than a wonderful memoir – it also explores the nature and purpose of music.” The smh’s review of the book provides a good overview.
Anna Goldsworthy, Piano lessons (2009): The book that inspired this post, this takes the form of a musician’s coming-of-age memoir, telling of the author’s years of learning music, from the age of 9 to becoming a concert pianist and professional musician by her early to mid 20s. There is much to learn here about hard work and talent, about the role of exams and competitions, about dedicating one’s life to a passion, and, also, about what the arts mean.
Maureen and Leora O’Carroll, Maureen O’Carroll: Musical memoir of an Irish immigrant childhood (2019): This is the left-field addition to my list for a couple of reasons: it was self-published, and was written by Maureen’s daughter who posthumously credited her mother as co-author. I haven’t heard of Carroll, but, according to a review, she was “an acclaimed cellist, who played in the Sydney, New Orleans and Seattle Symphony Orchestras, the New Zealand National Orchestra and others”. She also played for Tony Martin and Frank Sinatra, not to mention singer Dame Joan Sutherland and composer Aaron Copeland. However, this memoir covers much more, including her Catholic Depression-era childhood in Sydney.
Archie Roach, Tell me why: The story of my life and my music (2019): Now, this book by Indigenous Australian singer-songwriter, guitarist, and activist, Roach, is one I should read in July for Lisa (ANZLitLovers) 2020 Indigenous Reading Week. Roach’s significance in the Australian music scene can be exemplified by the fact that one of his most famous songs, “Took the children away”, was written long before the term “stolen generations” was common parlance for Australians. It has become one of the anthems of that part of our history. Roach’s memoir, is, I gather, as much about his life – and thus works as a consciousness-raising book for Australians about indigenous people’s lives – as it is about his music, though music is and has always been, an integral part of his life.
So, there are musicians here who had comfortable childhoods, and those who didn’t; there are immigrant musicians and a First Australian; there are classical musicians, rock musicians, and alternative rock/folk/protest musicians; and there’s a travel memoir, a self-published one, and some that verge on the “misery memoir”. All, though, are by musicians passionate about what they do. I’ve stopped at six, but others include Clare Bowditch Your own kind of girl; Peter Garrett’s Blue sky; Chrissie Hynd’s Reckless; Paul Kelly’s How to make gravy; Linda Neil’s All is given: A memoir in songs (my review); Tim Rogers’ Detours; and John Paul Young’s JPY: The autobiography.
Have you read any of these, or, do you have any favourite musician memoirs to share with us?