This week’s question comes from Matthew Wake:
What deceased artist do you wish had written a memoir you could’ve read?
It’s a shame that the famously articulate and well-read David Bowie never got around to writing a memoir, given how often he drew on his own storied past and discarded personas for his art, and how many of his finest songs dealt with those themes of regret that we closely associate with memory. The David Bowie Is exhibit, which opened in 2013 and is still touring the world, is probably the closest we’ll get to a personal recollection (emphasis on collection) from the late Thin White Duke, unless someone publishes his letters and emails. Do I really want to know more about Bowie’s personal life? Probably not. But I’d love to read him writing about it.
Shortly before his death, Prince announced that he was working on a memoir that was due to be published in fall 2017. In fact, he had reportedly already turned in the first 50 pages of the book. “We’re starting from the beginning from my first memory and hopefully we can go all the way up to the Super Bowl,” he said in March 2016. In other words, he was apparently going to divulge exactly the kinds of insights fans wanted to know: his perspective on being Prince. Because his life was so shrouded in contradiction and mystery, I was very much looking forward for some clarity on what made him such an artistic genius. Nine months after his death, however, it remains unclear what form (if any) this memoir might take. Hopefully some of his thoughts and musings can be salvaged, as learning more about what made Prince tick would b 2 funky, if not enthralling.
Because I’m both a nerd and a cold-hearted, dead-eyed bastard, the last celebrity death that really hit me where I live came in 2015, when Discworld author Terry Pratchett died from Alzheimer’s disease. Pratchett was a rare talent: endlessly clever, deeply humane, and possessed of the skill of world-building that belied any caveats about being a “funny” fantasy author. Every quote I’ve ever read from Sir Terry has emphasized both his warmth and his wit, which is why I would have loved to read a book in which he talked about his life—and that of the world flying on the back of a turtle though his imagination—in fuller detail. (On the other hand, in researching this answer, I came across this two-part BBC documentary about Pratchett’s life with Alzheimer’s, told in his own words, which seems like a pretty decent substitute.)
I’ve mentioned in this feature before that I will read any memoir type of book written by a former SNL cast member, no matter how clunky or David Spade-esque it is. This also applies loosely to biographies of SNL stars; obviously there will be no memoir from Chris Farley, so the oral history The Chris Farley Show will have to do. Similarly, I read You Might Remember Me last year as a substitute for a proper memoir from the late and much-missed Phil Hartman. It’s a fascinating and sometimes heartbreaking biography, and its characterization of Hartman as someone hard to really know only makes me more interested in how he would have written about himself and his work. Also, for whatever reason that late-’80s period of SNL resurgence hasn’t had many attendant cast books (there are way more starting with the show’s re-flailing period of the mid-’90s), and while I absolutely would read a Dana Carvey or Dennis Miller memoir—and concede that the Victoria Jackson book is still out there unread by me—Hartman would be my first choice by far.
Charlotte Brontë died at 38, less than a year after her wedding, leaving behind 20 pages of a new novel. It’s obvious that her masterpiece Jane Eyre has autobiographical elements, both in the psychology of Jane Eyre and in her circumstances. Like Jane, Brontë suffered at a Dickensian school, entered into a complicated relationship with a married man, and served for a time as teacher and governess. According to The Brontë Myth, Lucasta Miller’s deep tread through the many biographies and criticisms of the Brontë sisters, Brontë “believed that personal experience was the most valid basis for art there could be.” But how gratifying would it be for the author herself to describe her life, instead of the veiled accounts we glimpse in her novels, and the letters that only tell pieces of her larger story? Brontë wrote passionately and elegantly about the female experience through her protagonists in Villette and Jane Eyre, but those characters are ultimately shadow-Brontës, teasing us with the real woman behind them.
My answer skirts by on a technicality. Because while David Rakoff never wrote a proper memoir, he liberally sprinkled autobiographical stories into his essays. But I want one all the same, if for no other reason than I want there to be more work by Rakoff for me to consume. There is a certain modicum of peace found in how many of the artists who died this last year left a lifetime’s worth of wildly successful art. While Rakoff published three essay collections and one novel, he was only 47 when he died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2012, and his loss is compounded by the certainty that he still had much more to contribute. Rakoff wrote in ambitious sentences as elongated and precarious as Jenga towers, so lacy and indulgent that they constantly verged on collapse. I’d love one more opportunity to get lost in their intricacies.
Adding to the collection of musicians who died before they got the chance to write their own stories, I regret that we’ll never get the grudging, cantankerous, wryly dismissive memoir that Lou Reed might have delivered, probably under duress. Reed’s relationship with the press was famously combative (he once called journalists “the lowest form of life”), and his open contempt for their attempts to pin him down, both in interviews and unauthorized biographies like Howard Sounes’ Notes From The Velvet Underground: The Life Of Lou Reed, surely would have made for a snarky, raucous, setting-the-record-straight screed, something like the rants on Take No Prisoners made book-length. It also would have been great to get Reed’s version of his oft-repeated mythology—his battles with mental illness and drug addiction, his time among Andy Warhol’s Factory and working with David Bowie, his many love affairs, and of course, his hand in creating some of the most enduring music of the 20th century. Hell, I’d buy it knowing full well that the final two chapters would be about tai chi.
Being as young as it is, the game industry hasn’t suffered many big losses, but there’s one lesser-known figure who I’d love to have been able to hear more from: Danielle Bunten Berry. She died in 1998 at the age of 49, 20 years into a career designing quietly influential computer games. In that time, she helped pioneer multiplayer gaming, online gaming, strategy games (if things had gone a little differently, Sid Meier’s Civilization would’ve been Dani Berry’s Civilization), and the notion that there is value in aiming for accessibility without sacrificing depth. She’s also one of the first publicly transgender figures in the medium’s history. What writing we do have from Dani—about her work, about the nature of play, and about her identity—is uniformly great, and given the prescience of her philosophies and creations, a memoir about where she’s been and where the industry is going would have been fascinating.
I’m rarely as fascinated by an artist’s life story as I am by the too-short existence of Maya Deren. She’s famed for her work as one of the most audacious and innovative avant-garde filmmakers of the ’40s and ’50s, but it’s all the other things she did in addition to that orbit of artistic creation that makes her such a compelling figure. She was a dancer, choreographer, academic, poet, film theorist, and photographer, whose death in 1961 at the age of 44 cut off a flourishing creative temperament still in its peak. She was a true independent, screening her short films on her living-room wall, and traveling the country holding screenings and lectures on cinema at a time when—especially as a woman—such things weren’t really done. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship and traveled to Haiti to research voodoo rituals, where she was initiated as a Voudoun priestess, and recorded two albums of music. In short, her life was a marvel, and the fact that I’ll never get to hear her recount it in her own elliptical, poetic words is a tragedy.
Generally speaking, I try to only dedicate reading memoirs by artists I actually enjoy. That said, I’d make an exception for G.G. Allin. While I’ve never enjoyed his music, message, or antics, I find myself incredibly fascinated by the man himself. It’s doubtful that Allin would have turned in a coherent book, but so much of his life was documented in ways that posited him as a sideshow attraction—which is accurate—that I’d love to read a firsthand account of how he went from being the singer of a mediocre punk band to a deranged cult of personality. Beyond that, I’d love to know more about Allin’s early life, as legend of his father’s erratic behavior, which included naming his son Jesus Christ Allin and digging graves in a cellar for his family, would only offer a more complete picture of what made Allin the person he was. While it’s unlikely he’d have delivered anything so honest and forthright as a warts-and-all memoir, like all his work it would require staring madness in the face and trying to see what—if anything—lies beneath the façade.