The music memoir market used to be a reliable parade of salacious narratives, led by a cast of swaggering archetypes. Then came books by Viv Albertine, Tracey Thorn and Chrissie Hynde in recent years, neatly picking apart music industry cliches and dismantling egos. Next to them, this biography feels desperately passe, from its subheading onwards.
Until his death in 2002, John Entwistle was the bassist of the Who, a band whose approach to rock music was committed and spirited, and continues to be. He was a brilliant musician who learned piano, trumpet and french horn as a child, before finding the instrument that would define his career in the late 1950s (he designed his first bass and got it made in a local timber yard). Not long before his death (of a heart attack in a Las Vegas hotel, after a night of sex, drink and cocaine – only a small amount, it’s made clear – at 57), he started writing snatches of autobiography. His prologue lays out the character we’re dealing with: “We were arrogant, anarchistic arseholes and we loved it!… we changed the face of rock and everybody else took the credit.”
Under the guidance of Entwistle’s first wife, Alison, and his son, Christopher, former Q editor Paul Rees has been tasked with fashioning his sketches into a book. No one expects a woke counter-narrative running alongside every scene, but Rees’s choice of material, without proper interrogation of its context and impact, often makes this a deeply uncomfortable read.
After touring in America, he doesn’t have sex with his wife for two weeks, ‘in case he’d picked something up’
It’s a shame when some of Entwistle’s early writings – when he’s not talking about himself – are full of colourful details on what Britain was like after the war. Houses were painted “camouflage green or brown, Spitfire cream or battleship grey”, and the grandparents who helped bring him up are fantastically realised characters. His parents separated when he was a toddler, his trumpeter father upping sticks with his new family in Newport when Entwistle was 14. What fertile ground for mining the musician’s mind. It remains untouched.
Entwistle was already playing trad jazz with Pete Townshend at this point. They joined an older boy at school, Roger Daltrey, in 1960, as the Detours, and became the Who in 1964, shortly after Keith Moon rolled in – a wild-eyed bull in a china shop next to Entwistle’s Ox (a name he got thanks to his youthful constitution for alcohol and drugs).
This book doesn’t quite convey how thrilling the Who’s music, and Entwistle’s urgent, virtuosic bass-playing, could be. The closest we get is Rees’s description of 1965 single My Generation: “[it was] snot-nosed, scuff-kneed and the work of a band more likely to pick a fight than pick up a sitar”. Entwistle does a better job of summing up their giddier moments. He’s especially waspish about his bandmates: “Pete [Townshend], as usual, was surrounded by journalists. He’d worn a jacket woven with hundreds of little fairy lights in case they hadn’t noticed him.” The Who’s music then takes a backseat as Entwistle’s other “greatest rock star” attributes take over, namely being oafish, buying crazy things for his mansion and enjoying the company of women who aren’t his wife.
This is where the book really sours. An early holiday photo of Alison by him is captioned “grazing cow”. He bans her from returning to work after they marry; he mocks her crying on the doorstep when he leaves in a letter to his mother. When she gets pregnant, he opens the car door for her (“I was special that day,” Alison says), and after touring in America, he doesn’t have sex with her for two weeks, “in case he’d picked something up”. Entwistle’s last partner, Lisa, is also given a horrible savaging, to which she can’t answer, because she’s dead. You pity her family.
These details stack up without comment, presented alongside remarks from people such as the Who’s former tour manager John “Wiggy” Wolff saying Entwistle was “very moral, very upstanding”. If we are meant to read more between the lines, it isn’t clear: in 2020, it just reads as depressing and obsolete.
So too is what ends the story: not a new, revealing detail about Entwistle the man, or his connections with his band or their fans, but a lyric for a lost song of Entwistle’s called She Ain’t My Kind of Girl (Big Girls Always Make Me Cry). It’s introduced by Rees as if it will be hugely important. The lyrics go: “Too big to get my arms around/Not too pleasing on my eyes/ My head’s too small for that big fat thumb to push me down in size.”
If Entwistle was the last of the great rock stars, then good riddance. Let’s hope music memoirs of this nature go the same way.
• The Ox: The Last of the Great Rock Stars by Paul Rees is published by Constable (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15