OTwo Reviews: Music Biographies

Image Credit: Laoise Tarrant

Mike Stebens recommends music biographies that might come in handy this festive season to help fill those Christmas stockings.

Bruce Springsteen – Born to Run

Bruce Springsteen has just a little while ago released his last album ‘Letter to You’, on which he is looking back at his life and reflecting on his journey to this day. Thus, it makes for a good occasion to revisit his 2016 autobiography ‘Born to Run’. Springsteen has written a candid memoir, or in his own words: "The writer has made one promise, to show the reader his mind". Yet the book also promulgates the nearly mythical America that also features in many of his classic songs. Springsteen’s own background and his vision of America coalesce and become indistinguishable: tales of hardworking people living simple but happy lives, people who are materially poor but emotionally rich. Springsteen also does not shy away from taking the reader to the darkest moments of his life and detail his personal struggles that have haunted him at a later stage of his life. It is hence also a story not to give up hope nor stop dreaming when times seem dire. 

‘Born to Run’ is not a typical rock star autobiography where stories of wild parties and drug excesses are retold. It holds many valuable insights of an author who is not only recapitulating his life but also trying to distil the life lessons he learned along the way. Springsteen manages to draw the reader into his story as he teaches us his version of the American Dream and what it means to be American. It is an essential reminder that the USA has much more to offer than the MAGA ideology.

NOFX – The Hepatitis Bathtub and Other Stories

NOFX’s band autobiography stands in many ways in total contrast to Springsteen’s book. For anyone who has heard about the L.A. punk rockers, it comes as no surprise that a lot of weird, shocking stories are told in this tell-all piece. The line between hilarious and funny, and distressing and unsettling is often crossed. At a first glance, the stories about disgusting habits of some band members and seriously insane pranks seem to disqualify the book and make it seem a waste of time for those used to higher standards. However, the band’s complete honesty can be captivating. 

Moreover, the tone frequently shifts from silliness to seriousness, which is made possible by the way the band members tell their story individually. Every small chapter is written by a single band member, meaning the point of view is shifting constantly. This way, one band member may recount terrible stories of suicide or addiction to be followed by another explaining his preference for certain sexual practices. 

While this book will leave many of its readers revolted, it presents the possibility to gaze at unusual paths of life and evolving philosophies diverging greatly from all social norms. Read with an open mind, it can enrich the reader’s own horizon. At the very least, you will read stories that you never thought possible to have taken place. And you will be left wondering how all of the protagonists are still alive.

Bruce Dickinson – What Does This Button Do? An Autobiography

Bruce Dickinson is the singer of one of heavy metal’s most achieved bands of all time – Iron Maiden. Besides that, Dickinson is also an airline pilot, historian, radio show host, motivational speaker, author, fencer and beer brewer. Dickinson lays out the details of each of these vocations at great length. He explains how it came to be that he ended up flying Ed Force One, the Boeing that takes the band around the globe when they are on tour, himself. Or how he, a problem child in school to say the least, still went on to study history. There is one formula that Dickinson applies to all of his work – ‘If you dream something, it might happen. If you never dream it, it will never happen’. Whatever he is currently pursuing in life, Dickinson puts his mind to it and aims to excel at it. 

What Dickinson does not deliver with this book are the typical stories that make up a rock star autobiography. Instead, it is much more of a detailed description of his career. This can make the book seem cold and impersonal at times and it means that the reader will get a picture of Dickinson, and only Dickinson, as personal relations to other people are mostly left out. 

Most inspiring of all is the story of his personal struggle with cancer. A tumour was found at the back of Dickinson’s tongue in 2015, seemingly devastating news for any singer. However, Dickinson approached it with the same attitude he has handled previous challenges in life. He saw fighting cancer as just another project that would need his full attention and where he would eventually succeed. Luckily, he was right, or this book would not have been written.

Greg Graffin – Anarchy Evolution. Faith, Science, and Bad Religion in a World Without God

Greg Graffin is the lead singer of punk rock band Bad Religion. They started as a band when he was only 15 years old and immediately made a name for itself in L.A, the epicentre of the Southern California punk scene which, at the time, saw bands sprout from the ground almost every day. Bad Religion went on a hiatus in the middle of the 1980s as Graffin decided to pursue a career in academia. He studied at UCLA and later received his PhD in evolutionary biology from Cornell University where he still occasionally teaches as a professor - when he is not on tour with his band. 

In Anarchy Evolution, Graffin both recounts anecdotes from Bad Religion’s long career as well as illustrating his philosophical viewpoints on life. This strange mix which intertwines biography and more scientific writing needs some getting used to. While the book is a must-read for Bad Religion fans, it can also be of interest for anybody interested in what a punk professor has to say about religion and science, and how he draws meaning from life. It effortlessly makes the case for a naturalist and humanist view of the world, guided by science instead of religious beliefs. Graffin never comes off as arrogant or as someone who knows all the answers and manages to hand out enough food for thought to cover the holiday season. His optimism and positive attitude is something everybody can enjoy during these times.