The Mammoth Book of Sex, Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll
Jim Driver, ed.
London: Constable / Robinson, 2001.
£7.99, 628 pages, ISBN 1841191450.

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen

The Mammoth Book of Sex, Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll is a huge collection of rock ‘n’ roll bits and pieces (628 pages!). As such, it was bound to be uneven. Something for everyone, I suppose. The editor, Jim Driver, has come up with a few texts of his own at the end of the book, divided into seven tongue-in-cheek sensationalist categories: Doomed rock ‘n’ roll marriages, Sudden death, Death by their own hands, Planes, trains, and automobiles, Death by drink and drugs, Death by drowning, Brushes with the law and antisocial behaviour. Some of those texts are crisp and enlightening, like “Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley” or “Nancy Spungen”, others utilitarian (or should I say merely informative?) and not so inspired, like “Hugh Cornwell”, “Marvin Gaye” or “Otis Redding”. I felt sorry when I read “Marilyn Manson” and found no more than a couple of middle-of-the-road biographical facts and a handful of not even very juicy gossip items. Jim Driver is, however, an impeccable editor as far as selecting texts is concerned. Of course, most readers will be interested in some parts of the book, and skip others. But that is not due to the intrinsic value of the pieces, only to the subject matter. If you dislike Gong, you might not wish to read an autobiographical account of their 1999 tour, no matter how funny or illuminating. As for the Residents, you’ve never even heard of them. Mind you, if that’s the case, you probably only listen to classical music anyway, so what are you doing reading this book? Oops, maybe I should refrain from such jocular remarks, or else people will think that they shouldn’t read the book either if they have little to no sex, or if they’ve never done drugs, considering the title. Actually this is the kind of book that is so rich that you’ll have your money’s worth even if you only read a third.

I particularly enjoyed “Hello, I’m Marc Bolan, I’m a Superstar, you’d better believe it”, written by Charles Shaar Murray, initially published in the legendary magazine Cream in May 1972. Murray does not hesitate to propose a definition of the term “superstar”, very debatable but interesting: “A star is someone who we know about, but a superstar is someone everybody knows about—your parents, the milkman, your bank manager, everybody.” Murray also criticizes the “cultural elitist division of the rock audience” and “heavy rock sociology”. He addresses fandom, wondering about real and not so real fans, and spotting “fifty-seven varieties of total hysteria around [him]” at a T-Rex concert! This is his tremendous definition of Bolan’s songs:

In Bolan’s head, Tolkien and Berry are collaborating on songs, which are taken to Sam Phillips’s Sun Studios in Memphis with Phil Spector at the board, Eddie Cochran playing rhythm guitar, Jimi Hendrix lead, Buddy Holly up front to sing and The Ronettes somewhere at the back and Brian Wilson, David Bowie and Syd Barrett all hanging around offering advice…

Murray was not happy with the way “trendy” youngsters rejected singles back in the early seventies; of course, those were the years of long “concept albums”, all those vinyl LPs that now accumulate dust in people’s attics… They seemed indispensable back then, especially when helped by copious quantities of weed, but they sound slightly boring today. This was his answer, to which I totally subscribe: “The art of making singles as opposed to albums is no more odious than that of the short-story writer as opposed to the novelist.” Of course, the (nostalgic) pleasure I derived from the text probably has something to do with my being an old fan of the late Marc Bolan. Remember when T-Rex came up with The Slider and you bought a top hat and seriously considered getting a perm to emulate your favourite singer? You didn’t? Oh, of course, you thought Bolan was small fry, didn’t you? Couldn’t have come anywhere close to the sheer genius of Bowie if his life had depended on it. Well, if you wish you were back in 1973 with your ginger Aladdin Sane hair, there are texts for you in this book, like “David and Angela Bowie”.

In case you’re still wondering about the origins of rock ‘n’ roll, or even the origins of the phrase, I recommend Wayne “Dang” Dooley’s contribution, “It’s only rock ‘n’ roll”. Yes, you are meant to immediately think of the Rolling Stones when you come upon this title, and to supply the next line: “but I like it”. Dooley does not mince his words:

If anyone ever tells you that the term “rock ‘n’ roll” was coined by American DJ Alan Freed, tell them to take a hike. “Go spin, buddy”, as George Martin might say. The Boswell Sisters recorded a song called “Rock and Roll” in 1934 and rocking and rolling had been Afro-American slang for fucking since long before Freed first set foot on God’s good pasture.

There is a splendid piece written by Simon Garfield for Time Out back in 1986, entitled “Hell on wheels: The Cramps” which begins with these reminiscences: “Pink fur bra straps, gold lamé trousers, no undies, leopard-skin gloves, black glasses, lots and lots of sequins and pearls, and that’s just Colin the driver.” Later, Garfield confesses that if he were given the opportunity to live his whole life again, he would change only one thing: he wouldn’t travel with The Cramps again. The rest really lives up to the title, and you do not even need to like The Cramps to find it amusing.

Driver’s introduction features seven interesting quotes, including one I’m particularly partial to, I wonder why: “Let’s face it, if I weren’t as talented as I’m ambitious, I’d be a gross monstrosity”. Wait, think, for half a minute, can you guess who said that? Yes, it’s Madonna, of course.

Issue # 3 of Cercles was entitled “British and American popular music: subversion and/or entertainment?”, and some of the pieces in The Mammoth Book of Sex, Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll would not have been out of place in it, although not academic. See for instance “Gene Vincent: the genesis of the dark side”, “In the aftermath of Altamont”, or “Phallus of fallacy”, about the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Even Allen Ginsberg is put to good use.

This book will especially delight all the readers in their thirties and forties who as children spent hours in front of their mirror, aping their favourite rock star’s poses or guitar hero’s movements. They were determined to become rock stars in their turn, when they grew up, and they ended up doing some ordinary job, like teaching or something.

What I find totally unforgivable, though, is the absence of index. Maybe it’s because I’m an academic, and we academics cannot live without indexes, it’s like Manson without make-up, or Led Zeppelin without a guitar.