Books - H

THE HARD STUFF: Dope, Crime, The MC5 And My Life Of Impossibilities - Wayne Kramer {326 pages, Da Capo}
It should not take any explanation that when a musical revolutionary, political agitator, alcoholic (reformed), drug addict (reformed), jailbird, poet and father decides to release an autobiography, it makes for essential reading. When that person has the driven commitment which created the legend that was The MC5, well, it becomes pretty much mandatory reading. Wayne Kramer has lived a life that’s of legendary proportions and this expertly written tome reveals a great deal about the man, his madness, his inspiration and his drive.
Following a prologue/ scenario in which Kramer is party to a full-on insurrectionist riot, he takes us right back to the 1920s, with the birth of his parents. It’s clear he has a lot of respect for his mother, and less so his father albeit until they get reacquainted later in Kramer’s life. His early childhood was spent on the rural Harsens Island, 50 miles north of Detroit and a location Kramer appeared to love. In fact, had his parents not split up and his mum took him back to Detroit (a move the young Kramer abhorred), much of what follows may never have happened.
Once in Detroit, like many others, he discovered cinema, music - and petty theft and in turn alcohol and drugs. Of course the formation and rise to prominence of The MC5 takes up a large percentage of the book, as does their demise into a drug-addled shadow of their former selves. It’s clear that Kramer had a single-minded determination to make the band spectacular, something that was genuinely revolutionary and through a number of contacts and the right musicians, he succeeded. However, there was also a hedonistic streak to Kramer which in turn lead to drug and alcohol dependency in preference to the band.
From there, we get graphic and insightful accounts of his tenure in prison, of drug deals and drug usage, failed marriages (until he met his current wife, Margaret, with whom he appears blissfully happy), the short lived GANG WAR project with JOHNNY THUNDERS and his solo recordings having hooked up with Epitaph Records. There is also mention of his Jazz album and the Jail Guitar Doors project with which he worked with BILLY BRAGG, taking music back into prisons. We get moving accounts of the passing of his parents and how he made recompense following his estrangement due to his wanton lifestyle, the passing of too many people (Fred Smith and Rob Tyner most specifically) too young and of the DKT/MC5 project.
What is most endearing about Kramer’s narrative however is his humility and honesty. He doesn’t flinch from identifying his own failings, the times he let people down and hurt them. There is a brutal honesty about the power of his addictions, his failed attempts to get clean and of the ultimate final low of hitting rock bottom. He emphasises the importance of service in the road to sobriety - service by doing good for others. It’s a cathartic story, and one that is life-affirming when considering all of the substance abuse that Kramer self-inflicted and now, here he is, 70, fit, healthy and a proud family man.
It’s also clear from Kramer’s narrative that he is an intelligent man; from the references to history and art through to the language he uses. There are observations, memories and opinions loaded with insight and pathos.
The book is filled out with 16 pages of glossy, monochrome photo pages.
Yes, Kramer is a legend and this autobiography does justice to that status, without aggrandizing himself, without ego-tripping but being proud and honest of his past, and of the legend that he created. A genuine story of one of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s greatest - and seemingly nicest and most intelligent with it. (23.12.18)
HEAVY DUTY: Days And Nights In Judas Priest - K.K. Downing {290 pages, Da Capo Press}
JUDAS PRIEST... Probably along with BLACK SABBATH they represent the definitive Heavy Metal band. Songs about sorcery and science fiction, sex and cars. Studded leather and spandex. Guitar solos and screeching vocals. Not really the kinda thing that appeals to the average Punk. However, I received this book and, I have to say, thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
If you didn’t know, K.K. Downing was the guitarist and founder member of JUDAS PRIEST. This is his telling of the band’s story, often funny and constantly genuine - even to the detriment of some of his former band mates.
K.K. grew up in West Bromwich - a rather impoverished area of England’s Birmingham area. His father was abusive due to a mental illness, especially to his mother, and squandered all of the family’s money on betting. It was an existence that the young K.K could not wait to escape - and he found that escape through music and, specifically, a life-changing experience of seeing JIMI HENDRIX live.
From there, it’s the telling of how JUDAS PRIEST came into being, from the small take-anything gigs of the early days through to mega-stadiums in the 80s. There’s a lot of interesting stuff here. It’s refreshing to read that the dynamic of being a Heavy Metal band with a gay singer (which was apparent to the band long before Rob Halford came out) was never an issue nor discussed. In the macho Metal world, I wonder how many other bands would have been as accommodating? The band’s feud with IRON MAIDEN is also interesting, with MAIDEN acting as arrogant and dismissive while being given a ride up the ladder of success by PRIEST. The opposite can be said of the likes of AC/DC, UFO and LED ZEPPELIN, all of whom get praised in both musical and personal circles. There’s also some interesting friction between K.K and other guitarist Glenn Tipton. Seems Glenn wanted all the guitar solos and slowly but surely manipulated the band to working his way.
Of course, there are moments of great hilarity. Malfunctioning stage sets, Metal bravado and tales of Rock ‘n’ Roll excess (buying a mansion, a Rolls Royce, recording on Mediterranean and Caribbean Islands, drinking sessions and sex). I’m sure even the most ardent PRIEST fan couldn’t help but chuckle at some of what is written. Punk Rock even gets a mention, albeit rather a rather disparaging mention with the comment, “It was just the UK that had an infestation of ‘ugly stuff’ as far as we were concerned.”
The book is filled out with 16 glossy monochrome photo pages that span from K.K’s childhood through to his post-PRIEST life.
Generally, I wouldn’t be interested in a book about JUDAS PRIEST, but given this is written by the band’s founder, it made for insightful reading. What’s better is the fact that K.K seems a really genuine, easy-going fella. His narrative is direct, unflinching without being vindictive (and in some cases, he’d have every right to be) and very easy to read.
Props should be given to the fact that K.K worked at PRIEST for over 40 years and can register combined album sales of over 50 million. However, for all the work put in (and that includes meticulous songwriting procedures, artwork, live sets etc), the narrative does indicate that this was very much a business also - an income. I’m sure if the albums ‘British Steel’ and ‘Screaming For Vengeance’ meant something to me, this could be quite gripping. As it is, it’s an entertaining and witty (probably not intentionally) autobiography. (30.06.19)

HIT SO HARD - Patty Schemel {290 pages, Da Capo}

For those who don’t know, Patty Schemel is best known as the drummer of HOLE, although she has played in a number of other projects. She was a close friend of Kurt Cobain, who introduced her to HOLE. She was also prone to an addictive personality - be that for music, alcohol, drugs or sex - and frequently all at once.

From childhood, she was exposed to the effects of addiction as both her parents were recovering alcoholics and hosted AA meetings. From the age of 11 she had her first drink and was immediately enchanted by its intoxicating powers. The divorce of her parents sent Schemel spiralling into alcohol, aggression and a new-found love of Punk Rock. On top of all of this, she had to battle with her lesbian sexuality.

From there, it’s a two-fold account of her time: first within Seattle’s Grunge scene, befriending Kurt Cobain and joining HOLE. Secondly, it’s an account of her addictive side - of getting addicted to Heroin, followed by Crack Cocaine, alcohol in their absence and a range of sexual encounters which frequently went to destroy the relationship she was in at the time.

Both sides of her story make for gripping reading. Musically, she possessed a desire not just to be a drummer in a band, but be one of the best drummers around. Her tales of life in HOLE, from auditioning, recording and touring are laden with insight and of Courtney’s whims and outbursts. Much of her HOLE experience runs parallel to her burgeoning use of drugs, which probably takes up a greater part of the book.

It should be noted that Schemel does not in any way glamorize drug usage. She openly states her addiction cost her friends and relationships. She sold possessions to fuel her drug cravings. She was kicked out of HOLE due to her failing health and drug-addled performance. She frequently went into detox and rehab before working with the band, only to rapidly get back to her loaded, pre-rehab condition. At her drug peak, she had lost her identity completely - homeless, prostituting herself to feed the habit, getting arrested and, finally, discovering the drugs had lost their effect and she now had to take them just to function. She describes with clarity her all-encompassing need for drugs, a need which supplanted all other needs, which lead her to befriend very dubious characters and find herself in squalid places. It’s frank, brutal and disturbing yet eloquently written and free from any form of egotism.

Although there is a lot of darkness in this book, including death (Kurt, HOLE bassist Kristen Pfaff and SOUNDGARDEN’s Chris Connell to name just the biggest three names), it does have a victorious, cathartic finale in the fact Schemel is now clean (and has been for many years), has a wife and a child. She is proud of who she is and of what her life has become, but does not flinch from, or sugar-coat her past.

The book is filled out with eight pages of glossy photos (including childhood, Kurt, HOLE and post-addiction happiness), an index and a page of acknowledgements. Have to say too, it was refreshing not have to wade through an ‘inspiration’ preface!

Schemel’s narrative is very readable. There is no pretension in her words, no eulogizing or self-aggrandizing her status as someone who has been part of a platinum selling band and toured the world. Nor does she hide her sexual misdemeanors where she cheated on her partners for no other reason than because she could. She writes in a conversational yet brave tone and, without a doubt, is inimitably likeable.

There’s a lot to absorb from this memoir. You have the fantasized wish of just about every musician of being in the right place at the right time as Schemel was when Grunge exploded. You have the highs of what such a life can bring, and the very dark lows. You have a virtually sadistic story of going as far down the tracks as one can go before the catharsis of getting, not just back on track, but of personal happiness and liberation. And amidst all that there is the one basic: It’s a damn good book!!  (15.04.18)