Monday musings on Australian literature: Musician’s memoirs

Book coverI 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 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, CadenceEmma 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.

Book coverArchie 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?

42 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Musician’s memoirs

  1. I really do like musician memoirs, and biographies. I read Your Own Kind Of Girl by Clare Bowditch when it came out and it’s a terrific book. They are the only type of memoir I’ll willingly gobble up. Thanks for a great Monday musing!

  2. LOL. You remind me of my brush with fame, many years ago. I knew Don Walker just before Cold Chisel were formed, indeed he asked me if I had any suitable names. And if I had come up with one, perhaps the band would be called something else! (I recently thought that “Ruptured Meniscus” sounded like a great band name.) He also borrowed a small screwdriver, but when he said it was really good, I asked for it back. I doubt he would remember me ☹️

    • You never know he might! But still, that’s a fun brush with fame to have Neil. And I agree, Ruptured Meniscus sounds like a great band name. I think you should try to auction if off to the highest bidder!

  3. Lovely reminders – again, WG. Of Emma/Eddie – too.What an amazing life he has led. I have the Archie Roach book – just not got to yet (TBR) – but in my early days in Japan sang with many middle school classes “Took the Children Away” – as a way of introducing aspects of an Australia both very, very important to understand – and yet, however – a part of Australia’s usually “hidden” darkness (as indeed Japan has, too – and I would draw that parallel to my students attention – not that they necessarily understood what it was I pointing out, mind). I remember one lad – a year beyond when I had taught him – about to head away to one of the most famous senior high schools in the country – who sang for me the Archie Roach song! Powerful – and emotional – for me at least – that that song had so touched him…Bright and intelligent students…

    • Oh, that’s a great story Jim about that boy singing that song to you. And you know, they may not have fully understood what you were pointing out, but maybe something seeped in to come back to them later, even.

      • Two interesting facts related to the stolen generations. Late 1975 – Malcolm Fraser as caretaker PM prior to the December election – a political rally in the park on the banks of The Macintyre River in Inverell. I only recall a young well-spoken Indigenous woman who gave examples of the petty and not so petty racism (bigotry, discrimination) she had experienced – last served in stores, difficulty in renting accommodation- years later I realised she was Coral Oomera Edwards – from Tingha – taken from her mother aged five months (hideous those policies) and sent to the Cootamundra Girls Home where was raised by the Matron – and later with Dr Peter Read – to co-found Link-Up – the organisation helping stolen generations of Indigenous people to find their families – such as Archie. The other “fact” is uncovering over the past year the story of a kinship connection in the Northern Territory born in 1925 – Gurindji – taken from his mother (stolen is the correct word) spending some years variously in institutions in Darwin and in Alice Springs then sent to work as a boy on Elsey Station. His daughter-in-law (sister to my first cousin’s wife) took down his story before his death in 2002 – he was introduced to Gough Whitlam on one of his return visits to Gurindji country to commemorate the Vincent Lingiari red soil into his hands symbolic act of land rights. Much more to that story and their is some skulduggery on behalf of Alexander spymaster Downer’s grand-father (Sir John Downer – variously through the 1880s and 1890s Attorney-General and Premier – when South Australia had jurisdictional control of the north – and massacres and land-theft ran rife). Alexander D recently spoke of being a member of the nation-building Downer family! At which point several persons pointed out the bloodstains on that family escutcheon. Apart from East Timor. There is so much in that Archie Roach song that I was unaware of even when I thought I had some understanding. The resonances ripple out – and the politicians generally act as if it is none of their concern – all done and dusted – but it is a searing indictment on our national soul until proper and appropriate acknowledgement is made by those who profited most from the dispossession of family, of language, of connection to country. This is the power of literature – to make us feel the story – of our land and its people – especially its First Nations peoples.

        • Well said Jim … I do think literature is playing a role in raising awareness, and helping us all see and feel just what dispossession (and the associated racism) does to individual and groups of human beings. For as long as I can remember I’ve been committed to social justice and fair treatment of all human beings, regardless of colour, race, religion etc. BUT it’s literature that has put flesh onto the bones of my understanding of the importance of treating everyone with equal respect.

  4. I am glad they we think alike when it comes to artists and musicians.

    Though not restricted to Pop and Rock music, those genres are oozing with salacious and debauchery filled memoirs.

    All of these books look so good. This is indeed an intriguing form of memoir.

  5. “My First Forty Years” by the greatest tenor of them all, Plácido Domingo – the abrupt termination of whose career by the #meToo movement is nothing for its members to be proud of: I imagine they’re really pleased with themselves.
    Sorry. Apologize for bile.
    That he is a Spaniard raised in Mexico means that he needed an anglophonic “ghost”, so it isn’t a great work. But for any lover of opera it’s a must.

    • That’s brave, M-R, calling him the greatest tenor! No need to apologise for the bile, though I can’t really join in, not because the movement was perfect but because something had to be done. That’s what can happen when injustice is bottled up for too long. I’m truly sorry if some men have been unjustly hurt by this but I know that millions of women have been hurt and destroyed through the centuries.

      BTW couldn’t he have written it in his own language and had it translated, rather than ghosted?

  6. The closest I can get is a singer who writes crime fiction, Dave Warner, a rock journalist who writes fictionalised memoir, Lily Brett, and a music student who wrote about an old scandal (Young Cosima) HH Richardson. Though I did listen to and enjoy a while ago a very long biography of ABBA.

  7. Hi Sue, I have read Emma Ayers, Jimmy Barnes and Anna Goldsworthy memoirs. Now I can Dane by Tina Arena is a good read. And, I know The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin was controversial in regard to some of the information on the Aborigines and their songs etc, but I found it fascinating.

  8. I don’t have any musician memoirs to add… like you I am not interested in the salacious and that is what seems to be promoted by publicists… but I have reviewed four biographies, three of which you won’t be surprised to learn) are of classical musicians (Beethoven, Stuart Challender and Marjorie Lawrence), but I also came across Gurrumul, his life and music by Robert Hillman which was a beautiful book. I wrote my entire review listening to his music on YouTube.

    • Not surprised Lisa! I decided to not include biographies because they are a whole different ball-game, but I’m glad you mentioned them. I loved the documentary Gurrumul. Extremely moving.

  9. I just went to Fullers book store’s 100th birthday in Hobart on Sunday where folk musician Ted Egan launched bis newest book Outback Songman. He also demonstrated his skill with the ‘instrument’ he is most adwpt with, a Foster beer cardboard box. He makes amazing music with it. The queue was too long at this event to buy the book but I will pick it up soon. It sounds fascinating. I enjoyed, maybe not the right word, Archie Roach’s book. It is humbling. I’d recommend it in a heartbeat. I also enjoyed the fictional Lola Bensky by Lily Brett. I love her books.

    • Thanks very much Pam. I probably would have added Ted Egan’s if I’d seen it during my research – but I didn’t want to steal it from your post. As I wrote on your post, I first came across him via a late 1970s/early 1980s documentary, A Drop of Rough Ted. I have kept an eye out for him ever since. I think he was in politics briefly too. I reckon his memoir would be really interesting. I’ll look out for your review!

  10. So glad you’ve this post up and yes, I just happened to have finished reading one not too long ago: Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein written by Jamie Bernstein, daughter of Leonard. A note about LB: he was my ‘ldol’ as a teenager loving classical music. I’ve his recordings (LPs sets), read his books…etc. But now decades later, his daughter’s memoir left me with a bad aftertaste. I’m afraid I’ve to re-evaluate my image of the great musician. And what more, the book (a biopic at least, not sure if it’s totally based on the book) is being adapted into a movie! And who’s starring in it? Another ‘idol’ of mine: Carey Mulligan! And who’s playing LB? Bradley Cooper, who also directs. What has this world come to now. 😦

    • Oh no, Arti. It’s hard when you read something disappointing or worse about an idol. It can’t help but taint the work can it? I assume the book feels authentic and not sensationalist?

      • Let’s say it’s confessional regarding intimate matters. Yup, I guess u got the idea. And it feels like Jamie B. enjoys airing dirty family laundry out in the open. And imagine a movie and with Carey Mulligan and Bradley Cooper? 😦

  11. Am I too loud? by Gerald Moore. An oldie, from the 60s, but I vaguely recall it as quite humerous, and my father had a record set of Moore accompanying various singers. My favourite was the Cat Duet.

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