Alice Hatcher talks smoking KOOLs, tone-deaf rock stars, and dealing with rejection.
Recently, while taking a break from writing about two bereaved women in France during the First World War, I wandered into Antigone, a wonderful feminist bookstore in Tucson. I was sliding Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior from a shelf when he caught my eye. He was wearing a leather jacket and flannel shirt, tight jeans, and scuffed motorcycle boots. With his tousled hair and dark brown eyes, he looked like someone gracing the cover of a romance novel. My heart skipped a beat and Flight Behavior vanished from my mind. Before I knew it, I was holding the memoir Born to Run and swooning over a cover photo of Bruce Springsteen leaning against the hood of a classic car. A moment later, beside a counter display of books by Alice Walker and Gloria Steinem, feeling a bit like someone buying a plastic-wrapped porn magazine at her local Seedy Mart, I swiped my credit card, and Born to Run took its place in my collection of rock-and-roll biographies.
Doing research for my novel, The Wonder That Was Ours, a story about racial violence and civil breakdown on a Caribbean island, I read countless sociological and historical monographs about mass tourism and monoculture, uneven economic development, and environmental degradation. Many of my shelves are bowed beneath the weight of theoretical exegeses on anomie, hegemony, and late-stage capitalism. Those books provided an invaluable intellectual foundation for my novel, but they sometimes became, well, a bit overwhelming. At those times, I self-medicated with sweet palliatives — little pieces of hard rock candy that have, as a side effect, some psychic variant of restless leg syndrome.
Rock biographies have been part of my diet since I was an adolescent living in the Chicago sprawl. On a street dominated by teenaged guys sporting AC / DC shirts and wallets affixed to belt loops with chains, I grew up reading tattered issues of Creem and Circus cast off by someone’s older brother, gawking at pictures of Jimmy Page in crushed velvet and Eddie Van Halen beaming over the frets of his Stratocaster. When we turned 14, my girlfriends and I started frequenting Blue Skies, a suburban head shop and cloud chamber of patchouli smoke. We trailed our fingers over smudged display cases filled with glass pipes and sandalwood incense burners, pooled our change to buy issues of Rolling Stone or used rock biographies, and then hung out in someone’s basement, smoking KOOLs and immersing ourselves in stories of Janis Joplin’s whiskey benders, John Lennon’s last days in New York, and Metallica’s Ride the Lightning sessions. Our most treasured book was No One Here Gets Out Alive, Jerry Hopkins’ and Danny Sugerman’s biography of Jim Morrison. We spent hours drooling over Morrison’s cheekbones and noting every reference to Morrison’s favorite poets and novelists. To a bunch of rock-and-roll geeks, Jim Morrison seemed an ideal man; he was a voracious reader. My adult feminist self now shudders a bit, but the fact remains: my 14-year-old self struggled through everything from Arthur Rimbaud to Aldous Huxley, if only to commune with the leather-clad Lizard King.
Decades later, my rabbit-eared copy of No One Here Gets Out Alive still has a place on my bookshelves, in the company of other rock biographies — many of a recent vintage — such as Keith Richards’ Life, Kurt Cobain’s Journals, Legs McNeil’s Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, and Patti Smith’s Just Kids. Occasionally, one of my husband’s academic colleagues or one of my writer acquaintances will peruse my bookshelves and openly admire the spines of Faulkner novels, collections of Baldwin essays, and door-stopping works of cultural theory. Then, invariably, they come across No One Here Gets Out Alive and the other rock biographies shelved beneath Virginia Woolf, pause for a moment, and turn to me with the expression of someone who just stumbled upon a friend’s collection of fetish porn.
I never know exactly what to say in the awkward moments of when a new acquaintance gains unexpected insight into my reading proclivities and, perhaps without realizing it, into my distant past. My parents didn’t read, and beyond a set of World Book Encyclopedias, shelves in my childhood house were simply places for dusty knick-knacks. In Chicago’s culturally conservative and spiritually stultifying suburbs, Hopkins’ hagiography of Morrison provided a rare blueprint for an intellectual life, one that made sense to nerds and freaks, and even to geeky girls seeking an alternative to Ted Nugent. Books like No One Here Gets Out Alive presented a powerful argument that my friends and I didn’t need to emulate our parents. It suggested that our cultural and intellectual horizon didn’t need to be the line where Chicago’s monotonous sprawl met the cornfields of Illinois. It held out the promise that, one day, we might even go to Paris and write poetry.
Granted, I never made it to Paris. I became a frustrated, chalk-dusted academic historian living in the far-flung suburbs of New York City and fantasizing about writing fiction. I led a double life. During a colleague’s lectures about Russian serfs, I dreamt of Dostoevsky. During faculty meetings, I sketched outlines of short stories. A restless malcontent, I at least had company. One afternoon, in the History Department copy room, a chronically downcast colleague initiated a strained conversation about books she had been reading for recreation. At some point, she lowered her voice, looked over her shoulder and confided that she had just finished The Dirt, a hefty book co-authored by the worse-for-wear members of Mötley Crüe. “It’s ridiculous, I know. I mean, it’s Mötley Crüe, but I swear, it was actually entertaining.” I nodded hopefully, giving her the equivalent of a secret handshake and gaining entry into a quasi-secret society of young professors seeking safe forms of escapism. “Yeah, I think I’ve heard about it,” I said. “I’d love to check it out. I mean, it’s probably hilarious.”
The next day, an unmarked manila envelope containing The Dirt appeared in my departmental mailbox. That night, I read The Dirt from cover to cover, savoring each sordid detail about the band’s drug-fueled exploits and momentarily forgetting the Department Chair’s latest missive about missing staplers and copy machine protocol. I found myself admiring the determination — and ignoring the decidedly repellant qualities — of Mötley Crüe’s members living in roach-infested apartments and playing their first gigs in West Hollywood. I started California dreaming once again. Hell, I’ll just say it: The Dirt stirred a long-suppressed longing to embrace my 14-year-old self and to pledge myself to an artistic life.
The next morning, I saw my colleague in the copy room and blurted out that I had loved The Dirt. “Excellent,” she said. “Three other people are waiting for it.” Over the next few months, annotated rock biographies made their way around the department, passed from one sweaty, grasping hand to the next, much as a highlighted copy of Judy Blume’s Forever had been passed around by the girls in my sixth-grade class. All my junior colleagues were members of the History Department’s unofficial Rock Biography of the Month Club. Near the water cooler, a professor specializing in queer theory shared his review of the Kurt Cobain biography, Heavier Than Heaven. “That guy had guts,” he said. “To fight his way out of a shit situation,” I added, looking at a gray cinderblock wall. The die was cast. I stopped reading academic articles and turned my attention to rock biographies and fiction. Two years and dozens of rock biographies later, I resigned from my academic job and moved to Tucson, Arizona, to write fiction. Inside all of us is a tone-deaf rock star who can’t sing or play an instrument. Crazily enough, I listened to her.
Writing this, I can hear Tom Petty snarling “So, you want to be a rock-and-roll star?” Truth be told, I didn’t follow his advice and buy myself a guitar. I slipped into a ratty bathrobe and sat down at a rickety desk. I quickly realized there wasn’t much rock and roll in writing a novel. As an academic, I had been boring in the company of others. As a writer living in a new town, I suffered from isolation and loneliness, a diet of caffeine and cigarettes, and the slog of stringing sentences together for hours and days at a time. Someone once said, you can’t dance to a novel, and how true. I experienced a sickening sense of vertigo during manic bursts of writing and the fear that, even in more frenzied moments, I was permanently glued to a chair.
A year into the slog, I started dabbling again with rock biographies, maybe to live vicariously through the escapades of strangers. I started with Duff McKagan’s It’s So Easy. At first, McKagan’s accounts of camaraderie and partying among the members of Guns & Roses cast my solitude into stark relief and even made me question my literary aspirations. I feared I was flirting with insanity by spending so much time alone and considered burning my coffee-stained bathrobe. That is, until McKagan recounted his difficulties working with Axl Rose, the wear and tear on his body and mind as addictions consumed the band, and the nervous strain of life on the road with an ever-expanding entourage. I suddenly realized how desperately I needed balance in my life. Just as McKagan eventually achieved sobriety and longevity as a musician within the context of a stable marriage and set routines, I started completing chapters by embracing self-discipline and punching the clock at the same time every morning. Writing became a real job.
Once I got serious and got some sleep, I began to recognize my limitations as a writer. I often sat at my desk, staring with a haunted expression at my copies of As I Lay Dying, Tender Is the Night, and The Bluest Eye. I worried I had gotten a start too late in life to learn the rudiments of writing fiction. Once again, I found salvation in a rock memoir: this time, guitarist Andy Summers’ One Train Later. As an adolescent, I loved The Police, but only reading One Train Later did I realize that Andy Summers was nearly 10 years older than his smoldering singer, Sting. He had put in serious time in clubs and recording studios before becoming a member of the prettiest boy band in rock and roll. I realized, too, that I needed to put in time learning my craft, wrinkles and ticking clocks be damned. In a related sense, I learned a powerful lesson in diligence and humility from Summers’ account of an impromptu jam session with Jimi Hendrix. It’s difficult to imagine the humiliation any guitarist would have felt trying to keep up with Hendrix. Summers, though, swallowed his pride, soldiered through the session, and felt flush with gratitude for the wonder of playing with a genius. He didn’t succumb to self-recrimination and toss his guitar in a dumpster. One Train Later enabled me to read Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Toni Morrison without despairing and dragging my desk to the curb. I could be grateful for inspiration rather than governed by fear.
Once I committed to studying craft, I started taking writing classes. I found joy in community but struggled in conversations focused on publishing rather than technique. In ways that seemed to counter creativity, many of my classmates seemed wedded to hard and fast rules for writing “successful” fiction, obsessed with market trends, and committed to reading any book, however dismally written, with media buzz. I felt like I was back in Catholic school, chafing in a plaid uniform skirt. Then I read the memoir Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, in which the Sex Pistols’ John Lydon dismisses those who insisted, in the 70s, that “real” punks wore Mohawks — who tried to impose conformity in a movement animated by the spirit of defying convention. Writing a novel narrated by cockroaches, I desperately needed Lydon’s reminder that experimentation and risk are necessary for sustaining creativity. I began reading novels like Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish and devouring Mojo articles about David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, Kate Bush in a purple leotard, singing with wrenching emotion about yo-yos, and Peter Gabriel onstage, dressed as a daisy. I finally let loose and had fun.
The most important lesson I learned from rock biographies came from Pearl, Ellis Amburn’s biography of Janis Joplin. I still feel sick recalling Amburn’s account of Joplin, craving recognition and respect from her conservative Texas hometown, braving her high-school reunion, only to find her former classmates dismissive of her talents. If anything, her classmates snubbed her as punishment for showing up at the reunion in beads and a feather boa. Joplin was crushed by the experience. I’m not going to offer some glib statement that the creative process should be its own reward. I don’t know a single writer who doesn’t long for recognition. Rejection is awful, and writers deal with it on a nearly daily basis. But I have been rejected, now, by so many agents and editors that I know my sense of well-being and worth can’t come from strangers. Maybe I’m going back to Duff McKagan’s It’s So Easy, but stable relationships with real friends and loving partners go a long way toward sustaining artists’ sanity and creativity. Bon Scott of AC / DC was right when he sang “it’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll.”