Jim Cullen, Review of Steven Tyler's "Does the Noise in My Head Bother You? A Rock 'n' Roll Memoir "(HarperCollins, 2011)
[Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. He is the author of The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation (Oxford, 2003), among other books. He is also the author of the recently published Kindle Single e-book President Hanks. Cullen blogs at American History Now.]
Like a meal at McDonald's, reading autobiographies of pop culture artists always seems like a better idea before I begin than after I'm finished. I start out wondering how particular works of art I've always loved got made, but by the time I'm done reading I find myself amazed that the person I've read about was actually capable of such achievements. Their tics, stories, and laments seem to demystify them to the point that putting down the book feels as if I'm finally parting after spending too long on vacation with someone I thought I liked. If familiarity doesn't breed contempt, it does engender impatience.
I've long been a fan of the rock band Aerosmith, and I've long liked its lead singer Steven Tyler, no time more so than recent stories about the graceful way he handled a wheelchair-bound woman as one of the talent judges of American Idol. Though long regarded as Rolling Stones knockoffs -- Tyler's autobiography arrives in the wake of Keith Richards' widely acclaimed Life -- Aerosmith was responsible for some of the memorable songs of the 1970s: "Dream On," "Sweet Emotion," and, of course, "Walk this Way," which received a new lease on life when it became a hip-hop hit for Run DMC in 1985. After struggling with drug and alcohol addictions, Tyler and his bandmates enjoyed a renaissance with a string of pop hits in beginning in the late 1980s, greatly aided by some classic MTV videos (like "Crazy," starring Liv Tyler, a daughter from one of his three marriages), and had a #1 hit in 1998 with "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing." In recent years, the term "rock star" has become a metaphorical term for someone who's celebrated in his field. But back in the day when rock was king, Tyler was a bona fide rock star, and a title he's riding into a celebrity retirement.
For a while, the noise in Tyler's head didn't bother me at all. You understand going into a book like this that you can't expect a carefully sequenced story line, much less self-aware appraisals, though it's a bit disappointing that Rolling Stone veteran and co-writer David Dalton couldn't impose more order on the material. I was charmed by Tyler's recollections of his summers in New Hampshire and his teen years in Yonkers, New York, though it would have been nice if he had explained his father was a music teacher a chapter or two before he did, for example. I particularly liked Tyler's description of his day-to-day life on tour, which gives readers a glimpse of the intriguing rhythm of a performing career and how different it is from most workaday routines. Tyler mentions blowing through a million dollars on hotel bills on a typical tour, and the millions of dollars that went up his nose. Knowing more about his relationship to the business as he experienced it would have been interesting, as would more details on songwriting and fewer excerpts from his largely forgettable lyrics.
But after a while the pleasures wear thin. Particularly because they're crowded in with a whole lot of narcissism: Tyler's laments about how his bandmates don't understand his constructive advice, how his wives don't understand his need for additional female companionship, how his managers and therapists don't understand his addictions, and so on. His children seem to wander in and out of the narrative like groupies. And the accounts of his various physical ailments and operations make you long for the good old days of youthful self-indulgent excess.
Actually, I thought the most arresting material in the Does the Noise in My Head Bother You? was ancillary, notably its many photos. I bought the "enhanced edition" Kindle edition of the book, which came with a series of supplemental audio and video files. They include a clip of Tyler talking with Dalton, which gives one a pretty good idea about how the book took shape. They also include a series of brief videos with Tyler talking about aspects of his life and work. These were quite compelling; hearing his actual voice and watching his gestures was more vivid than words on a page (his words, anyway). I suspect that the autobiography makes for a pretty good audio book. I also suspect this package points the way toward the future of e-books as a medium, at least when intellectual property issues don't stand in the way of illustrative excerpts and clips as part of a written narrative.
In any case, print is not Tyler's medium. It cheers one to see him and hear him, not read him. Keep your day -- make that night -- job, Mr. Tyler. Rock on.
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