It’s because I respect musicians who bravely venture into the dark literary territory of autobiography that I am so fascinated by musical memoirs. It’s also why I’m sometimes critical of them. I have high standards regarding what a good memoir should be.
My standards are high but simple. An autobiography of a musician or any other artist must be written in a voice that feels distinct and artistic. It must tell a coherent story in chronological form. Most importantly, a good memoir must tell the truth.
On these terms, I criticized Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace for lacking story coherence, and for substituting undercooked present-tense for thoughtful past-tense. I knocked Steve Tyler’s Does The Noise In My Head Bother You? for an inconsistent voice: the first few chapters about Steve’s childhood and teenage years were very well written, but once Steve grew up and got famous the book shifted in tone to something like a People magazine interview about his rock star lifestyle. That ain’t memoir.
Today I’m going to tell you about a memoir that I bet you never heard of, even though there’s a good chance you dearly love the legendary rock band the author of this autobiography played drums for.
I bet you don’t know that Nick Mason — who played drums for Pink Floyd and is the only member of the band who played at every single Pink Floyd concert and on every single Pink Floyd record — wrote a book called Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd in 2004. Or maybe you’ve seen this book around and maybe even bought it, but I bet you didn’t read it, and didn’t know that it contains a full-fledged personal autobiography that is beautiful, warm, informative, funny, inspiring and reflective. Why don’t you know this? The publisher screwed it up.
Nick Mason’s book should have been published as a straight memoir, like Pete Townshend’s memoir or Bob Dylan’s memoir or Patti Smith’s memoir. Instead, probably because of Nick Mason’s lack of celebrity (all the members of Pink Floyd kept a low profile), Inside Out was published as a big coffee table book, crammed with full-page color pictures and Hipgnosis artworks. Sure, the photos are striking, and there’s no doubt that Pink Floyd’s visual experimentations are good enough to fill a coffee table book. However, the horrible “two-for-one” idea of packaging Nick Mason’s autobiography with an visual record of the history of Pink Floyd seriously devalues Nick Mason’s text, obscuring his thoughtful words like so many clouds.
Let’s face it — people don’t read coffee table books. They buy them as presents, they decorate with them. Inside Out is expensive, and it’s the size of a large dinner plate. It’s as heavy as a brick. The pages are thick shiny cardboard, so you have to pin the whole contraption down with a wrestler’s grip to read a damn page. And you can forget about carrying it on a train or taking it to work for lunch hour. Inside Out was not designed for actual reading, and that’s why nobody reads it. There isn’t even a Kindle version available.
Could it be that Chronicle Books, publisher of the American edition (and an otherwise excellent and innovative publishing company) didn’t know that a Nick Mason memoir would sell on its own, that Pink Floyd is one of the most popular rock bands of all time, that Pink Floyd fans read a lot of books? Have they seen Pink Floyd fans? This book could have been a number one bestseller — after all, many Pink Floyd albums were.
Word of mouth would have boosted sales, because Nick Mason has a very natural voice and a charming British sense of humor. Here, he’s talking about the hangers-on who began to show up after The Wall hit it big:
As always there was some political and financial repercussions as the album climbed the charts. We had lawyers representing all and sundry trying to scramble aboard the gravy train. One voice heard on the album after we recorded a random turning of the TV dial belonged to an actor who thought the success was primarily due to his contribution. We offered him a settlement with the option of doubling the amount if he gave it all to charity. He took the half for himself.
Mason is an observant, detail-minded and philosophical writer. He often muses about the technology of music (or, equally often, the technology of racing cars or lighting systems or houseboats) as it relates to human nature.
I loved the sound he [Alan Parsons] could get on tape for my drums. In rock music, getting this right is still one of the great tests for any engineer. Since the drum’s original use was to spur on troops to warfare, rather than winning over a maiden’s fair heart, it is hardly surprising that many a battle has been fought over the drum sound.
As the anecdotes accumulate in Inside Out, one suspects that the punchlines only work so well because the stories have been worked out over dinners and wine for decades. Well, this is one reason storytellers go to dinner parties — to practice — and it’s one reason that older people write such good memoirs.
The passage of years probably also helped to strengthen Nick Mason attitude in life. He appears throughout the career of Pink Floyd to have been a humble, accepting and nonjudgmental person. This is a good trait in a drummer, who has to get along with guitarists and singers, and it must have come in particularly handy for Nick Mason, who spent two decades as half of a rhythm section with Roger Waters, Pink Floyd’s genius bassist and a notoriously difficult man.
Mason hints wryly in Inside Out at scenes of near-abuse from the temperamental Waters in cold studios on sleepless nights. But he also makes it clear that he considers Roger a lifelong best friend. On the first page of the book, he and Roger Waters are fellow teenage architecture students in a London school, along with a third architecture student and jazz keyboardist named Rick Wright. The first time Roger Waters spoke to Nick Mason at this school was to ask to borrow his car.
The vehicle in question was a 1930 Austin Seven ‘Chummy’ which I’d picked up for twenty quid. Roger must have been desperate even to want me to lend it to him. The Austin’s cruising speed was so sluggish that I’d once had to give a hitch-hiker a lift out of sheer embarrassment because I was going so slowly he thought I was actually stopping to offer him a ride. I told Roger the car was off the road, which was not entirely true. Part of me was reluctant to lend it out to anyone else, but I think I also found Roger rather menacing. When he spotted me driving the Austin shortly afterwards, he had his first taste of my penchant for occupying that no-man’s-land between duplicity and diplomacy. On a previous occasion, Roger had accosted Rick Wright, who was also a student in our class, and asked him for a cigarette, a request Rick turned down point blank. This was an early sign of Rick’s legendary generosity.
I love this opening sequence, and I also like the way a closing sequence in the book’s final chapter echoes it perfectly. Here, the late-period post-Waters Pink Floyd is picking songs for Division Bell.
At band meetings we now started whittling down the possible songs to the probables. We set up an extremely democratic system whereby David, Rick and I would each award marks out of ten for each song, regardless of who had originally generated the piece. This should have worked smoothly, had Rick not misinterpreted the democratic principles underlying the voting system. He simply awarded all of his ideas the full ten points, and everything else got nil points. This meant that all of Rick’s pieces had a ten-point head start, and it took David and me a while to work out why this new album was rapidly becoming a Rick Wright magnum opus …
The same issue reappeared a decade later when we were selecting tracks for inclusion on ‘Echoes’, the compilation album which required input from David, Rick, myself and Roger. As well as the oars being poked in by a whole galley-load of record company executives, engineers, producers and managers, this time we had to deal with the fact that Roger, like Rick before him, would only vote for his own tracks. God bless democracy.
It’s fitting that Nick Mason, Roger Waters and Rick Wright were architecture students, because Pink Floyd’s amazing record albums were among the most diagrammatic and conceptually ambitious of the classic rock era. The albums they are most famous for today, though they are not my favorite Pink Floyd albums, are The Wall (a heavy psychological dissection of Roger Waters’s personality problems), Wish You Were Here (their gentlest work), and Dark Side of the Moon (their most complete masterpiece). As great as these three records are, I sometimes resent the way they overpower Pink Floyd’s previous career, which was even better. I also resent the fact that the blatant, earnest, almost adolescent expressionism of these three rage-filled albums has left an impression that adolescent rage was all Pink Floyd was ever good at. In fact, their earlier records were their best, and these lack the mawkishness of their more famous works.
I’m taking about the amazing experimental albums they recorded in the late 1960s and early 1970s, like Soundtrack from More, Ummagumma and Atom Heart Mother. This was after they recovered from the loss of Syd Barrett (whose Pink Floyd-created solo albums during these years are also masterpieces) and all four members of the band began reaching their potential and fully exploring the possibilities of their ensemble.
These were also the years in which Nick Mason’s ability to create dramatic and dynamic drum parts became most evident. His name is often neglected when listing drum legends like John Bonham of Led Zeppelin or Keith Moon of the Who, but Mason’s clever, theatrical drum style put him in their class. For a glimpse of Nick Mason and the entire band at peak power, here’s A Saucerful of Secrets from the Live at Pompeii movie:
The release of Dark Side of the Moon in 1973 ended Pink Floyd’s reputation as a collegiate prog band. They transformed into blockbuster rockers, specializing in massive stadium concerts (two of which I was lucky enough to see in my teenage years). During this period Roger Waters began to dominate the band, and much of Nick Mason’s later story in Inside Out is about the power struggle that eventually took a surprising twist when David Gilmour and Nick Mason managed to wrest Pink Floyd slyly out of Roger Waters’s hands and recreate the band without him. (As a Roger Waters fan, I mostly lost interest in Pink Floyd at this point.)
Nick Mason reveals many musical secrets in this book, such as the fact that he had to play the heartbeat in “Speak to Me” on a drum because their tapes of real heartbeats sounded too “stressful”, that the climactic crescendo that segues between “Speak to Me” and “Breathe” is a piano chord played backwards, that Rick Wright played the melody of “See Emily Play” on the fading notes of the Wish You Were Here album as a tribute to Syd Barrett, who Nick Mason remembers as a once “delightful” former band-mate who frighteningly lost his mind.
Nick Mason was as sane as Syd Barrett wasn’t, and as calm as Roger Waters wasn’t. Together, Barrett and Gilmour and Waters and Mason and Wright produced a body of work that equals that of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, though Pink Floyd has never reached their level of wide acclaim.
This may be because the members so rigorously avoided celebrity — an avoidance that might have been grounded in necessity, since they didn’t really have the personal charisma to achieve it. Pink Floyd was music by nerds, for nerds. That’s why I’m sure Inside Out would have sold so well: nerds read a lot of books.
Note: While this review is about the American edition of Inside Out, I see that there is a British edition which may be easier to read, and thankfully is available on a Kindle. This British edition, which I have not seen, apparently also includes an update about Pink Floyd’s reunion (including Roger Waters, finally) at Live 8 in 2005. This wondrous 25-minute reunion can be enjoyed in full right here. It’ll probably make you want to read this book, and I suggest you try the British edition.