Rock biographies and memoirs don’t have a lot of literary cachet, though I seem to keep reading them. If I believed there was anything for me to feel guilty about (I don’t), I’d call this my guilty pleasure. It’s more accurate to say that, as with any literary format, books like Does the Noise in My Head Bother You?: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Memoir by Steven Tyler and Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock by Sammy Hagar bring pleasure to the degree that they are authentic, surprising and truthful.
The fact that both of these memoirists are well-known for loud, brash personalities and stadium-level exuberance (Steven Tyler refers winningly in his book to an affliction of the ego known as “Lead Singer Disease”) should not disqualify their books from thoughtful literary consideration at all. Steven Tyler and Sammy Hagar may feel comfortable juicing up gigantic, cheering crowds, but they must each overcome the same creative anxieties and moral doubt as any other writer when they stare at themselves in the mirror and try to describe what they see. Sure, celebrity memoirists have ghostwriters (David Dalton for Tyler, Joel Selvin for Hagar), but that may not help as much as we think. It’s worth analyzing how both Steven Tyler and Sammy Hagar measure up to the memoirist’s moral challenge with these books.
I dug into Steven Tyler’s book with more enthusiasm than Sammy Hagar’s (because, really, I am far more impressed by Aerosmith’s entire body of work than by old Montrose records or Van Halen’s post-David Lee Roth phase), and my initial reaction was fairly positive: wow, this guy is weird inside, and he can write. Here is Tyler describing the childhood summers spent at his parents’ New Hampshire resort:
I used to go up in the woods and sit by myself and hear the wind blow. As a kid, I’d come across places where the woodland creatures lived. Tiny human creatures. I’d see mossy beds, cushions of pine needle, nooks and crannies under the roots of upturned trees, hollow logs. I’d look around for elves, because could it be that beautiful and strange and nobody live there! All of this tweaked my imagination into such a state that I knew there was something there besides me. If you could sleep on moss that thick it would be bliss.
The early chapters about his musical education and club-rocker years are clever, breezy and informative, and we root for Tyler as Aerosmith rises gradually to the top of the charts in a musical era (the post-Woodstock early 1970s) crowded with talent and disparate visions. Tyler’s good-natured acceptance of his own quirkiness — for instance, it seems to mean a lot to him to be deeply in touch with his feminine side, and he talks about this often — makes him very likable. The book’s biggest problem is that, about halfway through, it ceases to be a memoir and turns into a series of themed chapters in which the author spouts his feelings and opinions about various topics (women, addiction, the physical toll of partying, the downside of fame). The book feels less honest and original in these sections, and I begin to feel that Steven Tyler is simply packaging his favorite celebrity interview stock answers into book form. (Interestingly, Jay-Z’s much-hyped book Decoded also suffered from a tendency to lapse into stock storytelling, and also shone most brightly when it felt most like an autobiography and least like a celebrity interview. This is a hazard all famous memoirists should try to avoid.)
When I received a review copy of Sammy Hagar’s book in the mail, I didn’t consider it likely that I would read past the first few pages. The book opens in the orange groves of Fontana, California, where Sammy’s dad Bobby Hagar (surprisingly, “Hagar” is not a stage name) struggles to maintain a mediocre career as a bantamweight boxer, and somehow by the end of the first chapter it won me over and I knew I would finish the book. Where Steven Tyler’s memoir caroms between swooning moments of clever wordplay and dull glimpses of celebrity lifestyle, Sammy Hagar’s finds an authentic voice — rueful, self-aware, searching — and sticks with it, carrying us along. Consistency, we see here, is a valuable part of the memoirist’s art (as it was also in Hagar’s career as a singer).
Unlike Steven Tyler, Sammy Hagar never had a quick ride to fame. His early years as the lead singer in Montrose (a band for whom singing mattered less than guitar) gave him strong stadium chops and lots of earthbound rock-and-roll wisdom, and prepared him to play a similarly thankless role as the replacement for the charismatic David Lee Roth in Van Halen. Hagar takes great pleasure in the fact that he is technically a more skillful singer than David Lee Roth, but his portrait of the late-period, alcohol-ruined Eddie Van Halen is even more damaging than his portrait of Roth, and I can only hope that the great Eddie’s condition is not as bleak as this book portrays.
Midway through his career, Hagar began dabbling in business ideas — mountain bikes, tequila manufacturing — and is justifiably proud of his eventual financial success in music as well as other endeavors. Red will appeal to any hardworking, independent businessperson who tries to win some success in a rough world. It also shows the importance of simple affability and good-heartedness (qualities Hagar seems to have a lot of) when facing life’s struggles.
Honestly index? Sammy Hagar comes off as very honest about himself and his own limits, but he’s slightly unconvincing when he suggests that his pre-Van Halen solo career allowed him to join Van Halen as an equal member. As for Steven Tyler, he owns up to his flaws and concerns as a human being and a father admirably, but he seems to be in denial about the role Run-DMC played in Aerosmith’s 1980s revival (the rappers get a single cursory mention). He also pretends that the Yardbirds were his favorite British blues-rock band of all time (sure, Steve, except for the Rolling Stones, which Aerosmith completely modeled itself after).
In the end, neither Noise nor Red establishes itself as a masterpiece of rock autobiography (like Bob’s book, or Patti’s, or Keith’s). But if you read the first page of either book, I bet you’ll find yourself at the last page soon enough. That’s the proof, I think, of a memoir that works.
(The fact that I went to iTunes and spent a bunch of money on old Aerosmith and Montrose songs after reading Noise and Red is proof that these books work too.)