Diary of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star by Ian Hunter, Omnibus 2019
There is a problem with rock memoirs and it isn’t that most of them are windy ghostwritten doorstops put out for fast cash at Christmas time. No, the real issue is that they are all severely teleological. Readers of Keith Richards’ Life will have noticed that he doesn’t spend a lot of time on Their Satanic Majesties Request, beyond pronouncing it ‘a load of crap’. Exile on Main St gets pages and pages. Sticky Fingers seems to take up half the book. What’s the difference? Well, in retrospect, Exile and Sticky Fingers are two of the greatest records in popular music and high points for western civilization. Their Satanic Majesties Request, if not quite a load of crap, is a rare misstep in Keith’s long and glorious career. The narrative thus moves backwards. Keith Richards might tell the story chronologically but the emphasis is on what is considered valuable now.
So what’s the alternative? If Mike Love had written at length about the MIU Album in his book – wait, he did, bad example! Okay, what if Robbie Robertson had given as much time to Islands as he did to Music From The Big Pink? That might have been interesting but would have seemed odd to all but the most devoted Band fans. The whole point of these memoirs is to explore those moments when the magic happened, not the ones in between.
So imagine a real time book by a major rock star written before rock and roll history had been Rolling Stoned, Mojo’d and Pitchforked into a series of ‘greatest of all time’ lists and canonical albums. Yes, imagine that, for a moment.
What if I told you that this book existed?
Ian Hunter’s Diary of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star, first published in 1974, was written on a series of A4 note pages as his band, Mott The Hoople, toured the US at the end of 1972. Earlier that year, the hit single, All The Young Dudes, had revived a band on the verge of breaking up. Now they were hoping they could build an audience in the US. They might even get as big as Brownsville Station!
It is the painstaking detail of this book that builds the tension, and that tension is its power. It is filled with the minutiae of day-to-day tour life – taxi rides, flights, hotel rooms, soundchecks, shows, repeat. It doesn’t glamourize life on the road but it doesn’t go all gonzo either. Ian Hunter comes across as such a normal guy that more than a few times I had to remind myself that I was reading something written by a man I consider something of a genius. He is neither unusually virtuous nor deeply flawed. He loses his temper and makes plenty of dubious observations about women. But he also shows genuine concern for his band mates and the fans that approach him in every city. This is not a comic book version of rock and roll. There aren’t any epic nights of drug fueled bacchanalia or legendary scenes with multiple groupies. Instead, Hunter worries that he is gaining weight and wishes he didn’t always have to share a room with Verden Allen. He phones his wife, Trudy, every night and occasionally has too many beers.
The gigs were chaotic. Mott The Hoople rarely seemed to be on top of the bill. Instead they shared shows with bands like It’s a Beautiful Day, Flash Cadillac, and New Riders of the Purple Sage. At one point, they have a dispute with Bloodrock about who will go on first and then end up not going on at all. In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine Ian Hunter considering them competition but that’s part of the charm of his account. Bloodrock were on the way up. It is 1972 as it was, rather than how we see it now. The ‘Mott’ album and his solo career were all still to come. Bands were coming and going all the time. All The Young Dudes is a rock solid classic song now but in 1972 it was just another single that was doing rather well. Nothing was guaranteed and, in this book, the reader gets an authentic glimpse of a rock and roll band working their tails off to hold their place at the table.
The most endearing passages are about what the band called ‘Shawn Pops’, their rhyming slang for pawn shops. In every city, they sought out these establishments to procure vintage American made guitars. Hunter makes the rather prophetic observation that these guitars are going to become extremely valuable as less expensive Japanese made instruments become more common. Little did he know that Nixon was in China around that time negotiating for even cheaper guitars! The pawn places were often in the dodgier parts of town and sometimes they had trouble convincing taxi drivers to take them. Once in the shops, they bargained with the grumpy owners and ended up with old Teles, 20 dollar Mosrites, and a slew of dirt cheap Gibson Juniors. The idea was to sell them at a profit back in England but you get the feeling that they kept most of them. I think you’ll read this book, if you haven’t already, so I won’t spoil the story of Hunter’s famous Maltese Cross guitar.
Bowie makes a few cameo appearances as does Keith Moon but this is by no means a litany of ‘then I met…’ stories. The main characters in the book are the members of Mott, their manager Stan, and the people they meet in motels and backstage along the way. I was interested in the glimpses of Mick Ralphs, a loner according to Hunter, who was terrified of flying and seemed to suffer greatly throughout the tour. Ralphs soon left to form Bad Company but Hunter doesn’t dwell on whatever tensions were present in the classic line up of Mott. Again, there is nothing teleological here because obviously he had no idea what was going to happen next.
The reason I’m reviewing a book that appeared 45 years ago is that it has been reprinted, though not for the first time, and now includes some additional material to contextualize the original release and to give Johnny Depp an opportunity to pour love on Ian Hunter in the introduction. It is commonly considered one of the best books ever written about rock and roll but is not always easy to find in between printings. Grab it while you can and settle into your time machine. It’s a bumpy ride but like all great journeys, it ends with a party and a long flight back to England.
Teasers: Ian Hunter as critic. What does he think of Jethro Tull? What does he think of John McLaughlin? What about Zappa’s experimental tapes? And his favourite band of all time? Buy the book!