On Writing Something So Strong 1997
A backgrounder written in 1997 to accompany the NZ Herald excerpt from the book.
In the recent Anthology television series, each surviving Beatle mentioned the legendary Shea Stadium concert of 1965. It was their biggest concert crowd ever, they all agreed. Then their answers went something like this: the crowd was 55,000, said George; 60,000 said Paul; 70,000 said Ringo.
I say “something like this” to be safe; there’s no time to check the videos. But somewhere out there will be fans who have watched Anthology over and over again and they’ll have their own memory of what was said.
Years ago, I met and interviewed the Beatles’ close friend, press agent and bon vivant, Derek Taylor. For most of the Beatles’ story, he was there. But, he said, “When it comes to facts, I always believe the fans.”
The fans have usually done their homework, they’ve put the time in, they’re obsessive enough to care and their brains are usually not as addled as the participants.
Although it’s unfair to even mention the Beatles, that group constantly made its presence felt during the Crowded House biography project, like some wise old mentors who had been there first. The first serious biography of a rock group (ie, researched, not exploitative hackwork) was about them: Hunter Davies’s The Beatles. It was also the first one I ever read, when I was 13.
But it was subtitled “the authorised biography” and, although it’s well-written, accurate and he talks to all the key players, there’s a fine layer of gauze over the pages. Sensitivity holds it back. Because of the Beatles’ wives, there’s no mention of sex; because of the police, any drug use is “in the past”; because of Brian Epstein’s mother, his homosexuality is ignored (although he was already dead, Davies did ingenuously describe him as “charming, popular and gay”).
Well, my book on Crowded House isn’t authorised. Sex and drugs are the staples of rock’n’roll legend, but there is no more sex and drugs in the book than your neighbour may have indulged in last night. The parasitic efforts of Albert Goldman (author of scabrous best-sellers on Elvis and John Lennon, both conveniently dead, as is Goldman now) have changed the expectations of readers of biography, and the suspicions of any intended subject.
When Neil Finn gave me the go-ahead to write the story of his band, I don’t think either of us had much idea of what would emerge. He didn’t want it “authorised”, or “squeaky clean”, but wanted it to accurately convey what they had been through. Cranking up any salacious stories to reach Goldmanesque heights of drama (and sales) would have made it fiction, not fact. But nobody wanted to read (or write) a dry, academic history. There had to be drama – they are in show business, after all – to make it a good story.
Luckily, the members of Crowded House are intelligent, witty characters. There are elements of Spinal Tap in every rock’n’roll story, but these guys are not Slade. Unsurprisingly, the best storyteller was the drummer, Paul Hester. His gift for a laconic turn of phrase, colourful description and deadpan quip often made the process more like transcription than writing. (Describing his final concert, he became an Ocker sports commentator: “Here’s Hessie, lookin’ down the last 100 metres of his career with the Crowdies …”) Having left the band two years before I started the book, he had had time to reflect on what had happened. Now outside the inner circle, he pulled few punches.
Inevitably, any story about yourself contains some self-justification, but I found that Hester, like everyone I interviewed, tended to make himself the target when in critical mode. The bonds around Crowded House were strong, especially for those still involved (and when I started, the group was still a going concern). But even those outside the fold, such as Hester, ex-roadies, or the departed American manager Gary Stamler, showed a refreshing mix of loyalty and honesty.
I had to be wary of fishermen’s tales, though: each time a story gets told, the fish gets larger, the fight more intense. That’s where the historian comes in, using research to fill in the gaps, make sure the chronology’s right, that you’re not taking myths on board as facts. It may sound boring, but the fans loom overhead like fact-checking storm clouds ready to rain on your parade.
Just before starting the book, I interviewed Michael King about his life of Sargeson. He said writing biography is like trigonometry: where the differing viewpoints intersect, that’s where the facts should be. The biographer needs to be more than a historian, and become an amalgam of a detective, psychiatrist, public-bar listening post and priest. The collected bus tickets become the evidence, the self-analysis the motivation, the yarns the drama and some tales can’t leave the confessional.