Bodies by Ian Winwood review – rock and a hard place | Books

In 2000, Ian Winwood, longtime writer for hard rock magazine Kerrang! – was sent to interview an up-and-coming rock band. He immediately liked them, recognized their potential, and befriended them. He watched, delighted, in varying degrees of closeness, as they grew in popularity – sold-out shows, platinum albums, a very real chance to break America up – then watched in dismay as things started to unravel. turned bad. The lead singer became a selfish handicap, developing a drug problem that made him unreliable, alienated him from his bandmates and knocked out his teeth. The size of the halls they played began to shrink, America turned its attention elsewhere, relations between the singer and the rest of the group deteriorated into violent backstage altercations. Their time in the sun was coming to an end: some members began discussing splitting up, then maybe coming back to catch a wave of nostalgia, playing off their old hits as a “retirement plan.”

It should have been that, but it wasn’t. The band was Lostprophets, vocalist Ian Watkins. Before the group had a chance to split up, they were charged and ultimately convicted of conspiracy to engage in sexual activity with minors and possession of indecent images of children and animal pornography” extreme”.

Ian Watkins’ saga is by far the most shocking of Bodies, a book full of shocking stories. The details look exceptionally gruesome, even by grim standards of rock star depravity. But for Winwood, it’s also a telling story: Watkins’ bandmates and management knew he was in trouble and tried to help him, but had no idea how serious things were, as the problems they thought Watkins had were so common in music. the industry, where substance abuse and “gruesome and infuriating behavior” are normalized. “The reason the Lostprophets failed to identify the presence of anything uniquely despicable in their ranks,” he wrote, “was because Ian Watkins could take his pick of routine ruins behind which he could so easily hide.

This is the central thesis of Bodies. The music industry has long allowed abnormal behavior to become normalized, even celebrated. From Keith Richards to Kurt Cobain, fans tend to buy into a mythology of addiction and disease, either enamored with “the outlaw musician image” or a vague notion that “the capable art should be guaranteed by human suffering”. Behind this absurdly romantic and transgressive imagery lies personal horror and tragedy, which Winwood recounts bluntly, but with genuine empathy: the story of his own alcohol and drug-fueled breakdown, which results in several stays in mental hospitals, is woven through the book. . There’s the bassist who severs a femoral artery by injecting drugs in his groin and watches his toes blacken and fall off (his leg is later amputated); the dark fates that befell the frontmen of literally every major Seattle grunge band except Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder; the frail and oddly melancholy figure of Motörhead’s ostensibly provocative frontman Lemmy in his later years, with his obvious regrets and his voice marked by “the rattle of a spray can of someone thirsty for air”.

It’s a situation compounded by a noticeable lack of due diligence on the part of executives and record companies. Bodies recounts a number of incidents where an artist is pushed or feels compelled to work despite obvious discomfort, sometimes with dire consequences. With the distribution of streaming royalties simultaneously filling record label coffers while decimating musicians’ ability to earn records – labels earned £1billion from streaming last year, as one artist need 7,343,157 streams a month just to generate UK minimum wage – the only way to make money is to spin tirelessly. This means longer periods of living in an unreal environment where drink and drugs are rampant, bad behavior is tolerated and where, at the bottom of the scale, working conditions are healthy enough for even the most balanced plans to make himself numb. . Bodies’ description of life on the Vans Warped Tour—a coast-to-coast roving punk rock festival that Winwood calls “a working model of hell on earth”—is genuinely jaw-dropping, a brutal corrective to the idea that life in a band is infinitely less taxing than a “decent job” and that everyone involved should stop whining and count their blessings. Finally rocked, the drummer of a British group tries to stab his guitarist during an argument over a spilled beer. “It wasn’t out of the ordinary,” commented another band member. “That was normal behavior… crap like that was happening all over the site.”

It should be heartbreaking reading, and it often is: the fact that it doesn’t entirely despair you is down to Winwood’s skill as a prose stylist. It makes a compelling argument and overturns some long-held notions of “rock and roll excess” by deftly pulling together a wealth of information – from first-hand accounts to interviews with psychologists – and generously pairing it with a black humor and self-mockery. . It’s clearly a book with limitations: Winwood stays true to the world he knows best – heavy metal, hard rock and punk predominate – meaning the vast majority of interviewees are male and almost all are white. But what he’s saying seems universally applicable: There’s no way to tell directly from Bodies if things are different in, say, the world of hip-hop, but the death rate among young rappers suggests strongly that this is not the case.

It ends relatively well, with its author sober, stable and married, and with some faint glimmers of hope on the horizon for the music world. The conversation about mental health has become more public in recent years, though Winwood notes sharply that the music industry’s willingness to have this conversation seems “conditioned on it not interfering with how people work.” ‘an unfair business model’. It’s telling that the most proactive organization described by Bodies is a charity funded in part by the musicians themselves, which plans to set up centers in venues and provide some kind of mental health MOT to members. audience and performers. Whether it works remains to be seen, but at least someone is doing something.

Bodies: Life and Death in Music by Ian Winwood is published by Faber & Faber (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

About Marcia G. Hussain

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