Joe Bonomo might be rewriting the rules about how we write about rock stars. In 2007, he penned one the great modern band biographies with Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band (Continuum, 2007); a book brimming with a fan's evangelism tempered by a critic's eye. In his recent books Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found (Continuum, 2009) and his ruminations on AC/DC's Highway to Hell (2010) for Continuum's acclaimed 33 1/3 series, Bonomo channels the perspectives of insiders and fans alike through the classic essayism he talks about on his blog No Such Thing as Was and in his classes at Northern Illinois University. The stars in Bonomo's prose are less gods than they are demigods, beautifully flawed and imbued with a simple ambition to do that one simple thing - to rock the house, night after night. We caught up with the loquacious Professor Bonomo via email.
OL: When writing about rock stars, where does the real truth lie: in the songs, in the biographical facts, in the myths and images, in the fans that live a million miles away, in the hangers-on that immediately feed the rock star machine, etc. etc.? What comprises the star?
JB: I'd say all of those things, really. Tunes, myths, back story--it's all part of the truths in rock & roll, which is about music and spectacle and posing. Every musician's a star in his own head, anyway. But what I learned while I was writing Sweat was that it was necessary for me, as it was ultimately for the band, to redefine what "stardom" means. The Fleshtones are stars in the cult sense, obviously not in the Jerry Lee Lewis or AC/DC sense. But Peter Zaremba doesn't refer to his band as living legends for nothing. What attracted me to writing their story was the fact that they're the only band that debuted at CBGB in the mid-70s that hasn't had an inactive year, which is remarkable. But they never sold records or sold out stadiums, or even large theaters following their commercial peak in the 80s, so their definition of success, and by extension stardom, had to change or they would have considered themselves failures and hung it up years ago. So their stardom, I think, comes from their longevity, their never-stop approach to making and living rock & roll in the face of huge odds. And that's all reflected in their songs, especially their material in the last decade or so, and in the fans who come out to their shows, and try to turn their friends on to the band
The Killer and AC/DC don't have this problem. They're stars in every sense of the word. Longevity is obviously a strong characteristic of each, but so is the fact that they've sold millions of records around the world, can tour the world--Lewis less so, because of age and general crankiness--and have reached the upper echelon of material and cultural successes. But they don't have to tour to make pocket change and pay bills and mortgages and their kids' tuition, as the Fleshtones and hundreds of bands like them have to. So, again, what does "stardom" mean? Lifting off the tops of 50,000 heads in a stadium or 75 in a small club? Half a million knowing your songs, or a few thousand?
OL: In both Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found and Highway to Hell, you tend to bypass the sensational details about those books' subjects. Was this a conscious decision to avoid hearsay and to wind up with "mudshark" anecdotes that take over the story?
JB: I took two conscious approaches with that stuff. With the AC/DC and Jerry Lee books, I definitely didn't want to repeat what other books had repeated from other books, etc. In the case of Lewis, I felt that it was necessary to briefly retell the marriage scandal as that dovetailed so nicely, and so obviously, with his commercial decline. And Lost and Found, as the title suggests, is a book about how Lewis found himself again in rock & roll under stage lights, his second home. No matter how much of a has-been he'd become. And because I was telling that story, it was fun to stack up his resurgences against the countless times in his career and in his personal life that he's sabotaged himself, in some very infamous and well-known ways.
Beyond that, I focus on the music. And that's what I try to do with the AC/DC book, as well, explore the power of the music culturally and personally, and avoid as much as I can the stories that have been told before. I make some exceptions, the details around Bon Scott's death, for example. But one of the reasons I open up the book to the voices of my old grade school and high school classmates in the final third is to give voice to average fans who are often ignored, and whose changing responses to a hard rock album over three decades go a long way toward defining what's so unique and interesting about popular music. And quite honestly, beyond the hotel groupie scene and the hard drinking, from what I can gather the guys in AC/DC had a lot of good clean, dirty fun, but not much of the over-the-top mudshark variety. But I could be wrong. They're not talking much and probably never will.
With the Fleshtones, the decision was trickier. Every writer shapes his book, and sometimes that shaping occurs as the story's being written. This time, I was dealing with guys with whom I'd banged around in a tour van, who invited me into their homes, and with whom I'd become, and remain, very friendly. That factored in in terms of how detailed I wanted, or didn't want, to get "fun-wise," but thankfully less so than I'd feared it would at the start. What I realized pretty early on was that the Fleshtones' story, as I mentioned earlier, is really one of perseverance and guts, and a lot of the side road stories, the conventional rock & roll-VH1-narrative-arc stuff, which they certainly experienced, was less interesting to me finally than the details of them getting up hungover in a cheap hotel two-to-a-bed, or on someone's floor in Nowhere, climbing in the van, and driving 400 miles to do it again that night, then returning home sometimes poorer, or many times having been scoffed at and jeered, and doing it again next weekend, because that's what they live to do, make and share rock & roll. The other stuff, the girls? It's there, but kind of incidental over a 30+ year story arc. Their drinking and drug use was to me a more essential element of the story, and that's definitely in the book. They're kind of an unconventional band, and that's reflected in my narrative approach in some ways.
OL: I recently visited Jerry Lee's boyhood home in Ferriday, LA where his sister Frankie still lives. She has transformed the house into an exploded scrapbook with pictures and artifacts everywhere annotated in her delicate hand. Frankie was gone when I went, so we missed out on her guiding us through the exhaustive amount of stuff, but in a way I felt I got a more impartial, organic portrait of the Killer that way. On both your recent books the subjects did not participate whereas you had access to the Fleshtones for Sweat. How important is the first hand presence of a subject?
JB: I've got to check out what Frankie's done to the place. You know, finally it wasn't very important to me that Lewis and AC/DC ignored my requests for interviews and access--very pointedly and quickly in the case of Lewis' camp! Because the books are more about the transformative power of music and songs, less about the makers. There's enough that one can glean from good profiles and books to get some feel for the guys' personalities, what drives them, and to get some good, maybe crucial quotes. Would I have loved to ask Lewis his memories of the Star-Club performance, or Angus his memories of Bon or the Highway to Hell sessions? Of course, but I might've gotten canned, corporate answers or responses recycled from a hundred other interviews, or I might've had to deal with faulty memory or annoying, deflecting myth-making. As far as I'm concerned, the songs and performances tell an interesting enough story. And I was pretty psyched, actually, to talk to folks like members of the Nashville Teens or the photographer of the Highway to Hell cover, guys who you don't hear from too much.
OL: In all three books you deal with archetypal groups and artists, the fallen classic with Lewis, the industry standards AC/DC, and the scrappy road warriors the Fleshtones. Do you think with the relative transparency that the Internet offers, we lose some of that mythic distance we had with our rock stars? I remember as a kid making up lies about Gene Simmons and Ozzy Osbourne while riding bikes around the neighborhood, whereas now Lil Wayne's fans get-up-to-the minute text feeds most likely from their PR firms.
JB: No doubt you're right. Remember when we used to leave a show and have to wait a long time for a boot to emerge, or even for photos of the show. Sending film away to be developed! Hilarious, now, when you look at a photo series of a show that you're still in the middle of. When I worked at the undergraduate library at the University of Maryland when I was a student, I used to run to the periodicals floor to grab a stack of Melody Maker's and NME's to catch up on the last couple months of news. Now, not so much. I used to have to wait weeks or months to ask a favorite musician a question, now you can fire questions to the band's webmaster. So, yeah. A mythic element has definitely been drained from the rock experience -- we're much closer now, and news circulates so much quicker, too.
Look at Madonna in the 80s versus Lady Gaga -- both hyper-aware of their respective images, but Madonna had much more lag-time between events and any mythic retelling of those events, and I think that that contributed to her mystique. Lady Gaga's mystique is different, in that even she has less control of her image that earlier artists did. Unflattering or myth-skeptical photographs and stories can now be posted and sent around the world in seconds. It's weird, and not all good, in my opinion.
But that's the accelerated, neo-democratic, out-with-the-middle-man-and-gate-guardians world that we live in now, and it's unstoppable. Remember all of the stories, mudshark and otherwise, that would circulate about the big bands in the 70s and 80s. Bands still have fans telling wide-eyed, half-true stories about their favorite artists' shenanigans, but they're a lot easier to disprove or to be ignored now. When I was a kid my younger brother and I were huge KISS fans, and so much of the fun was cocking an ear to the wild stories, the endless wait between albums, hearing about their actual blood being used in the red ink of the comic books, hoping for a photo of them without makeup but knowing that it'd never happen. And we couldn't afford to become member of the KISS Army so we were really out of the loop! Now a band like KISS would have to try a whole lot harder to maintain that mystique in the Internet age.
My favorite myth-debunking story comes from an older era. I forget who now, but some celebrated groupie was working her way through the Stones entourage, trying to land Mick Jagger. After bedding each sound man, roadie, hanger-on, etc. she'd tell people, Well, he was no Mick Jagger. After she finally managed to sleep with Jagger, she allegedly said, Well, he was no Mick Jagger. The power and lure of the mythic -- how myths are built to be dismantled. That groupie's story would circulate much, much quicker these days! The biggest changes now are the easier -- over? -- access to bands, and the vanishing lag-time between shows, events, etc. and their reporting. Less time to spin myth, or for myth to naturally, and naturally, excitedly, grow. Is that good? I don't know. It may be a whole lot less fun, actually, and certainly--as with so much of contemporary culture--the imaginative life is devalued.
OL: What do we have to gain in the balance, if anything?
JB: Oh, a lot, I think. It's hard to tell what are simply superficial gains -- which are still fun, of course! -- and which of these gains will really have an impact years from now, and what that impact will be. It's fun and cool that I can fire comments and questions online or in emails to artists I admire, and get responses. It's great being able to look up tour dates, cancellations, etc., and not be plagued by lack of info. The top of my head still lifts off that I can drive across the country with 11,000 songs on my iPod -- that's made road trips something even greater than they were, if that was possible. Smart and knowledgeable fans' and critics' commentary circulate all of the time, and web forums and chat rooms (do they still call them that?) are a blast, when you can gather with other like-minded nuts and go off about your fave bands. That's all fun, and probably substantial. But again, it's hard to know what the impact will be of all of this. I was in a bar with a friend recently and he showed me an app on his phone that tells you what song by what artist is coming out of the speakers. A pretty amazing thing, if obviously limited. Now DJ's post their set lists online. You don't have to wait for anything anymore. You don't have to spend hours or days humming a song to keep it in your head, or lamely sing it to a friend to see if he's heard it, or to pine for the off-chance that you'll hear it on the radio again.
But I have to be careful not to be a Luddite about all of this -- I like these tech toys a lot, and iTunes and downloading have fundamentally changed the way I listen to music, in mostly good ways. But the speed of everything? The not-having-to-wait? I think that it devalues the imaginative life, as I said, and certainly encourages the erosion of one's reflective life, as well. We won't know the impact of all of this for generations.Meanwhile, I'm gonna go look at a YouTube video of the Fleshtones playing "Burning Hell" the other night at some joint in MA. I wasn't there but I'm gonna love watching it.
The photo of Joe Bonomo onstage with the Fleshtones is by Amy Newman.