One of the genres that I have actively avoided was the biography. Especially those about famous pop or rock musicians. Not because they are a bad read but they’re insincere and often false. When I pick up a non-fiction book I want correct, objective information and not a collection of loosely strung together made up anecdotes that glorify the myth around the musician or band to sell more albums or concert tickets. If it is not true, why would I pick it up in the first place? Nevertheless, during the last couple of weeks I have two of them.
The first one, “Lemmy” by Mick Wall, was a birthday gift from my sister and well, since I didn’t have anything else to read handy, I gave it a try. Before I continue there is something to know about me; I listen to metal, and a lot on top of that, but I have never been a big Motörhead fan. At Wacken 2014, I skipped them to see Icelandic retro rock act The Vintage Caravan, who then became my favourite live act. Earlier I saw the documentary “Lemmy – 49% Motherfucker, 51% Son of a Bitch” where celebrities and A-list rockstars paid homage to the character/caricature Lemmy. Needless to say it left me rather unimpressed although it set me up with the urge to play “Ace Of Spades” again which was perhaps the only purpose of the documentary. Just to say, I didn’t expect this book to be more than a cheap opportunity to cash in on Lemmy’s death. I was wrong.
This book was released almost a year after Lemmy’s death and right in the very first chapter, Wall debunked the myth that some unspecified doctor advised Lemmy against stopping speed because his body had become so accustomed to the habit that he’d die without it. This pretty much set the tone of the book. It was going to be as honest as possible and it was going to tell the story of the man Ian Fraser and not the character Lemmy, meaning that everybody is mentioned in the book gets the chance to give their side of the story.
Without giving away any spoilers, it was a real treat to read. The Dutch translation I’ve read was bit awkward, especially when it came to everybody’s favourite F-word, but it was informative and very entertaining. My favourite chapters were about his period with Hawkwind and the early years of Motörhead but the most touching were the ones that took place in the last year of his wild, breathtaking and adventurous life.
The second one is an autobiography from my favourite bass player in the heavy genre: Harley Flanagan, one of the founders of the Cro-Mags and part of the creative engine behind this legendary New York Hardcore band.
He is not a big, obvious name like Lemmy, Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris or the late Cliff Burton who pushed Metallica to their creative peak and I think it’s a shame. Flanagan’s style is is hard, almost ferocious but underneath all that anger and attitude there is actual musicianship that goes far beyond the typical punk rock approach of “just play the root notes on the low string and follow the guitar player”. He incorporates clever dynamics, rhythm and melody without ever upstaging the band.
His most famous bands were his aunt’s punkrock band The Stimulators where he started his music career behind the drums at the age of twelve, and, as stated earlier, the Cro-mags. My favourite recording of him however is a little EP called “Reincarnation” which he recorded with other former members of the Cro-Mags as White Devil in the period between “Near Death Experience” and “Revenge”. It is out of print but you might find a copy through eBay or Discogs. If you live near Maastricht, NL, Kinsum Records had a few copies last time I checked.
The book covers the entirety of Flanagan’s life, starting from spending his childhood on the road with his mother to her death last year. In between, there is his musical initiation during his period in a Danish hippie commune, moving back to New York, growing up on the Lower East Side which was then an extremely bad neighbourhood, his discovery of punk, skinheads and his role in the shaping of what would later be known as hardcore. All that and more, topped off with a lot of mischief, drugs, violence, genuine love and admiration, drugs and nostalgia.
The first thing to keep in mind when you pick this book is that he is a different person from Ian “Lemmy” Fraser. Lemmy was, despite all of his shenanigans, a very erudite, witty Englishman with great intellect and charisma. Brave, bold, rough but still classy. Flanagan at his very worst was an one-man war machine with a short temper, even for New York standards. It definitely shows in the language of the book: fast, in your face and some sentences are just begging to be read with a thick New York accent. If you’re not used to it, you may need a little time to get used to it but after that you will find Flanagan to be a gifted, up front storyteller who never ceases to lose his grip on the reader’s attention whether it is by amusing and shocking.
And you will be shocked. There is a lot of violence in this book. And not the soft “I smacked him around the head when he was being a dick”-kind of violence. Nope, Flanagan describes field goal kicks to the head, combat boots laced with spikes, cue balls in socks (so called “madballs”), knives, guns, bitten off thumbs, one person beaten into a coma… It’s all the more disturbing since it actually happened. However it fits perfectly with the living conditions in New York’s Lower East Side during the 80’s and the music of the Cro-Mags. Their seminal albums “The Age of Quarrel” and “Best Wishes” contain some of the most aggressive, cynical and angriest music that has ever been recorded. These two albums make “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here Are The Sex Pistols” sound like pop music.
Since it’s an autobiography, it’s all about Flanagan and his side to the downfall of the Cro-Mags. He explains quite well from where the beef between him, guitar player Parris Mayhew and singer Jon Joseph comes but their side of the story is never heard. Flanagan also seems to be playing down the role of the latter in the Cro-Mags, describing him as a rhythm guitar player while he is credited as the lead guitarist of the band on “The Age Of Quarrel” and “Best Wishes”. Still, this is an extremely interesting and sincere read that was long overdue. Highly recommended.