THINK PIECE! the art of the musical memoir : by Julianne ReganAGE CANNOT WITHER THEM?

The timing of music memoir.

Published in 1994, Elizabeth Wurtzel’s ‘Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America – A Memoir,’ read like a confessional rock ‘n’ roll autobiography, but without the music. Its opening line ‘I hate myself and I want to die’, echoed the 1993 Nirvana song of the same title. She was 27 when it was published and 52 when she died of complications of metastasised breast cancer. Sometimes you’ve just got to write young.

Music memoir, an ever-popular literary genre, presents its increasingly older writers presumed to have ‘lived a life’, with dilemmas and ethical considerations concerning self and others.

In the ‘Ethics of Life Writing’, Claudia Mills suggests the argument that, a memoirist should aim to:

“…achieve the great benefits of the sharing of stories while minimizing the cost to those whose stories are shared.” 

However, Mills also suggests that the Instagram and reality TV generation overshares and keeps too few secrets. It’s not so much the actual soul-baring she objects too but “…the glib, shallow sound-bite way” of it, going on to confess that one of her pleasures is to “…tell the truth about bad people.” 

Conversely, it’s possible that someone else out there writing their memoirs, will paint good as bad. It’s all about perspective and the art of remembering. Clearly, to say that there are ‘good and bad people’ is too binary; we’re just people capable of doing good and bad things, often at the same time. Human nature is complex and perplexing; with writing comes responsibility.

In 2016, at the age of 58, Lol Tolhurst of the Cure published his memoir, ‘Cured’. I conducted a Q&A at one of his book readings in September of that year, in front of a small yet attentive audience in a local church hall. I discussed with Lol the dilemma of how candid a memoirist should be, and whether he was concerned about the privacy of those who appeared in his book;

“One person, I wrote about, and had not seen in many years I sent the manuscript to and asked if they wanted me to change anything. They said no, and that they liked it as was. As to privacy, I changed a couple of names, and my publishers had a lawyer read it first too to see if there were any possible lawsuits.”

Scheduled for publication in the 2nd half of 2022, Wayne Hussey is currently penning part two of his memoirs, and if I’m included, I should come out of it okay. We’re good friends, but he may remember that I can be hermetically unsociable, that I’m a bit of a frustrating under-achiever, or he might gently paint me as a one-time pseudo Stevie Nicks character with a knackered old gypsy caravan out the back under a SORN.

In May 2016, I asked him why, after 30 years, he was considering writing his memoirs.

“There’s a little conceit involved in autobiographies. I guess there would be a few people out there interested to hear my story – but it’s not too dissimilar to others. I don’t know whether it would justify my time, particularly when I’ve been making new records at a pace of one a year. I’d rather be making music than sitting down to write my memoirs.”

I checked back in with him two years later and he still seemed slightly concerned about the vanity of memoir;

“By the end of recording the last Mission album in July 2016, I felt exhausted, physically and creatively; the well had run dry and I needed to replenish it. Friends and colleagues had been on at me for years to ‘write a book’. I’d even been approached by a couple of publishing houses, but resisted because I prefer to make music, and I’d always felt that writing a memoir (too posh a word for my sordid little tale) was a bit of a conceit.’

But by the end of 2016, with his 60th birthday on the horizon for 2018, Wayne felt the time was right to ‘…trawl through the memory banks and get it down onto a laptop before all my grey cells finally turn to mush.” This rich memory bank was successfully downloaded into his book Salad Days, the first part of his memoirs, and published by Omnibus Press in 2019. 

Following her death on 12th July 2020 at the age of 71, much has been written about Judy Dyble, in retrospectives and obituaries. She was the first female singer in Fairport Convention, perhaps the most significant folk-rock band of the last century. They didn’t hit the big time with Jude at the helm, but when they unceremoniously replaced her with the now the legendary Sandy Denny, the only ‘outsider’ to sing on a Led Zeppelin song. 

Jude and I wrote a song together and were close cyber buddies; I have megabytes of emails that are testament to her warm wit. Her book ‘An Accidental Musician: The Autobiography of Judy Dyble’ was published when she was 67. I asked her about the process.

“There were a few things in my autobiography which I used to ‘set the record straight’. I tried to be pragmatic about what happened when I left Fairport. Yes, it was devastating at the time, yes it hurt, yes it coloured my confidence in my singing, but it was what it was. They went on to do what they did with their new singer who was a great singer, but not a friend, while I accidentally came across other musicians and worked with them.”

Jude seemed unaware of the cultural significance of the circles she moved in, and the legends they would spawn.

‘People still ask me what it was like meeting Syd Barrett, or Jimi Hendrix etc. and what we talked about… Well we didn’t talk about anything. Most of the other musicians I worked with went on to work with other legends, but I didn’t. I was just me, and half the time I’d be introduced to someone and not realise who they were or their importance till several days later.’

Disenfranchised by punk, a genre which Jude said she ‘didn’t understand’, she left London feeling there was no place for her in music anymore.

‘I was busy back working in libraries which had been my first love and I completely enjoyed being who I was ‘now’ instead of being who I had been ‘then’.

It wasn’t until 30 years later that Jude’s peers and contemporaries had reached cult legend status that people began to wonder what had happened to her. 

‘What had I been doing? Bringing up a family, living a normal life, not wishing myself backwards into a world of music which had changed beyond all recognition and which had no place for me, and I had no time for it.’

She told me she felt invisible, but that she knew was not alone in this;

‘I suspect most women musicians who stopped working in the 70’s/80’s/90’s and who’ve re-emerged lately, just got on with their lives and apart from a tiny passing regret once in a blue moon, weren’t that bothered. I am generalising here; I wasn’t at all famous when I stopped being musical, so it may be different for those who had chart hits and world tours, like that famous goth woman who is such a misery…What was her name? Julianne something. (I am joking… you know I am. We giggle. Don’t think you can be a miserable Goth if you giggle, can you?)’ 

I miss Jude already.

She skipped over several painful years in her autobiography, telling me they were just too deeply personal to share.

‘Both my parents died during those years and then my husband Simon died. No way could I begin to explain the dreadfulness of that time, so I didn’t try. Perhaps that might be included in a future book.’

Unless she had quietly and secretly been working on a sequel to her autobiography, she has now since taken those memories with her.

I’m in my late-50s and from an academic perspective, it seems a worthy pursuit to write and publish my memoir; but as someone fronting a band, All About Eve, that actually wasn’t that ‘big’ in retrospect, is it worth much?

As a University lecturer, I have supervised many dissertations by female students that study the effect of ageing on a female singer’s appeal. One particular student, a singer songwriter herself, wrote about the ‘late bloomer’ effect, while another said she just ‘felt’ she was too old; she wrote her dissertation partially in an attempt to ascertain how much of this reticence to ‘put herself out there’ was down to the way older women are perceived, or her own self-limiting beliefs. 

Kate Bush returned to the stage in 2014 with a residency of 22 shows. She was 56, and despite still being naturally beautiful, she hid, it was presumed, an overweight body, in a forgiving kaftan outfit. The shows were spectacular, and her singing and stage presence were moving, glorious and unforgettable, but there were whisperings of her middle-agedness and less than svelte appearance. In fact, there more than whisperings when a member of the buffoon-heavy Johnson family, Rachel, wrote an article in the Daily Mail headed: “It shouldn’t be a crime to ask who ate all the pasties…” She explained that the Daily Mail’s rock critic Tim de Lisle, had stated that Kate Bush had: “…gone from a sexy sylph in a pink leotard, to a lovable earth mother in a big black coat.’ Johnson admitted she had been less tactful herself when she “…waded in with the observation that the Devon-based singer hadn’t ‘skimped on the pasties’ during her 35-year absence from the stage.” She went on to say: “Everyone also agreed I was a total bitch not just for not ‘getting’ Kate Bush but also for raising her appearance in print.’

I’d suggest that not only was that the behaviour of a ‘total bitch’, but of someone for whom the concept of feminism seems to have meant absolutely nothing. That’s privilege for you.

Personally, I feel old – yes, I know it’s better than the alternative – and not at all sylphlike, and therefore disinclined to perform live only to hear back that I’m fat and perhaps I can’t sing as well as I used to. Why put myself through that? Insignificant compared to Kate Bush, I’d never appear on Rachel Johnson’s radar, but there would, without doubt, be whispers or even loud exclamations that would find their way to me via social media posts, and ugly close-ups of an ageing, sweating, unhappy face. Is it worth it?

At the age of 42, Toyah Willcox published her first autobiography, and followed it up five years later with ‘Diary of a Facelift’, described by the publishers as;

“…a fascinating exploration of the nature of celebrity, ageing and beauty in the twenty-first century.”

In contrast, an Amazon reviewer wrote:

“I’m disappointed in Toyah – that punk rebellious pop star of the 80s was obviously a purely commercial decision… Any free-spirited individual who really wanted to be alternative would not buy into the idealised Barbie standard of beauty.”

The reviewer goes on to say that they find Toyah’s new face bland, expressionless and unrecognisable, and that rather than spend her money on cosmetic surgery, she should have used it on therapy. Sometimes you just can’t win.

In the collection of essays titled The Private Self – Theory and Practice of Women’s Autobiographical Writings, Kathleen Woodward writes a chapter on Simone de Beauvoir called ‘Aging and its Discontents’, which discuses Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Coming of Age’. According to Woodward, de Beauvoir believes that; “We are made aware of our old age only by the gaze of others.”  So, for me, it follows that if I remain sheltered from the public gaze, specifically as a performer, I will feel less aware of my personal aging process, not having to see it reflected back at me in the eyes of others. In de Beauvoir’s words:

“I loathe my appearance now; the eyebrows slipping down towards the eyes, the bags underneath, the excessive fullness of the cheeks, and that air of sadness around the mouth that wrinkles always bring.”

Unlike Wurtzel, at 27 my life experience was limited, and I didn’t have much of a story worth telling. Now I feel I do. There are things people don’t know about me but that might be of interest. I can’t compete with Angela’s Ashes, but there is, if not misery, then plenty of poignancy and bitter-sweetness to be shared. Like Judy Dyble, I’ll discuss elements of a life outside of music, alongside those within it. I want to explore, without whinging, how it happened that at one point I’m playing three consecutive nights at the Royal Albert Hall, and then at another, I’m a cleaner in a recording studio, just someone invisible who, when Bryan Ferry wanders into the kitchen, asks him if he’d like her to put the kettle on.

I also want readers to know that following the loss of record deals, I spent the best part of a year working in the NHS as a healthcare assistant. There are tales stained with ugly things like vomit, blood, diarrhoea, casual racism and bullying, but also some precious moments to share, such as the genuine joy of being thanked for a cup of tea with a whiskery kiss on the cheek, by a 90-year old Irish woman with dementia, and only one tooth. 

The first duty I was ever given during my time in the NHS was working on a block of rooms where TB patients were kept in isolation. I stripped beds and made them up again, brought food in and empty trays out, and all this in a plastic apron, rubber gloves and a duck shaped mask. One patient was a goth. He had Fields of the Nephilim tattooed on one muscle-ripped arm and Siouxsie on the other. Without my duck mask disguise, he may have figured out who I was. I’ll never know, but I hope he cleared TB anyway.

Note: In aid of various charities, Wayne Hussey has assembled the following for a re-recorded version of The Mission’s 1988 single, Tower of Strength, due for release on August 21st 2020. 

Jay Aston, Michael Aston, Kirk Brandon, Budgie, Michael Ciravolo, Steve Clarke, Billy Duffy, Robin Finck, Richard Fortus, James Alexander Graham, Martin Gore, Rachel Goswell, Kevin Haskins, Miles Hunt, Wayne Hussey, Gary Numan, Tim Palmer, Julianne Regan, Andy Rourke, Lol Tolhurst, Trentemøller, Midge Ure and Evi Vine. 2422 words

©Julianne Regan 2020

Books referred to:

Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America – A Memoir by Elizabeth Wurtzel

The Ethics of Life Writing. Edited by Paul John Eakin. Chapter by Claudia Mills.

Accidental Musician: The Autobiography of Judy Dyble by Judy Dyble with Dave Thompson

Salad Daze by Wayne Hussey

Cured by Lol Tolhurst

The Private Self – Theory and Practice of Women’s Autobiographical Writings – Edited by Shari Benstock. Chapter by Kathleen Woodward

6 COMMENTS

  1. Very interesting Julianne, I would definitely buy your autobiography as a big AAE fan in the 80s.You have a story to tell. Slightly embarrassing admission, my first computer password was ‘Julianne’ in honour of you! My children know the lyrics of the songs having sung them so much over the years.

    • No longer true, what with mandatory “must include numbers and non-alphabetic characters”, but two of my passwords back in the day were “scarlet” and “ultraviolet” ;)

  2. I read Prozac Nation in 2005/2006 and I have to say it was very heavy going. In fact it’s one book about MH I have struggled with. From 2004/2010 i was in and out of psychiatric hospitals and read loads of books just to compare. Must admit i didn’t know she had passed. If memory serves me right there was a film but it was a straight to DVD job. Nice piece btw and couldn’t agree more about the Johnson family

  3. Really interesting piece Julianne and I would read your memoir! I’m sorry that body image is a factor in an artist’s decision to perform and that women in particular have to consider it in our society. I saw you in concert twice in AAE and cherish those memories. Your voice and style and songs are so unique as are those of Kate Bush, which is why you are my two favourite female artists of all time and both inspirational to me, even today as I get close to 60 and still make music as a hobby, while passing my love of your music on to my kids. I hope the many and varied parts of your life have brought you joy, Julianne, and thank you for bringing some of that to mine via your songs.

  4. Julianne, I also would very much love to read your memoir. I have been a fan since March 1987 when I saw you with the Mission on OGWT. Would very much love to read about your life pre AAE , especially the development of your musical interests and the early days of AAE. Please also tell us about the post AAE days, the reunion tours and what you did after them up to joining Bath Spa Uni. I am sure many fans out there would appreciate your story so much.

  5. Would definitely love to read your memoirs Julianne, been a fan since the mid 80s and can relate to your thoughts about the ageing of female artists and how it is perceived in the media, and all the degrading comments about Kate…There are many of us out there who would love to read your story from your perspective, and are looking forward…keep safe xxxx

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