Writing a memoir seems to have become a compulsory autumn activity for ageing rock stars. And given the rate at which they are dropping off the twig, a good thing too I reckon. Commit those stories to print before deteriorating faculties and disintegrating memories make it impossible to recall the detail that brings such tomes to life. If, indeed, any detailed memories survived the actual experiences.
Now, taking the “rock ’n’ roll” part as a given, what are the most important things we want from a memoir by a middle-aged rock musician? Here is an inventory*.
Top 10 Things A Rock Memoir Should Have
- Lots of sex and drugs
- Some personal anecdotes that reveal the real character of the author/artist
- More 1, including legally dubious activities
- An insider’s insight into the music
- Even more 1, preferably with slightly shocking/revolting detail
- Some stuff we didn’t already know
- Some more 1, dripping with salacious name-dropping
- Prose written sufficiently well that it appears effort has gone into the construction of meaningful, entertaining sentences
- More 1, with minimal boasting, thanks
- An index to look for favourite bits
- More 1.
It had to go up to eleven, didn’t it?
I have just finished reading The Living Years by Mike Rutherford, which the cover proudly trumpets is ‘The First Genesis Memoir’. As it covers the musician’s entire life from before birth to the end of the naughties, it is, in fact, an autobiography. But pedantry aside, what do we learn from The Living Years about one of the founder-members of UK rock and prog institution Genesis? As it turns out, quite a lot about his father.
Although it is an act of familial respect to drop paragraphs from his late father’s unpublished memoir into his own book, Mike Rutherford’s story really has little point of contact with his father’s other than the child’s oft-expressed regret over the distance that characterised their relationship. Suggesting that Rutherford Senior’s peripatetic life as a Naval officer is somehow similar to Junior’s life on the road with a struggling, eventually massively successful rock band is unconvincing. Being in the Senior Service during and after the Second World War is simply not the same context as touring the globe with a pop band. It’s like Mike so, so wants to live up to a fantasy of his Dad’s expectations that he is grasping at any point of contact he can find. But really, it’s a bit like a kid on a carousel straddling a painted pony and shouting to the overalled father who built the ride, ‘Look Dad, I’m just like you!’
This is not to diminish Rutherford Junior’s respect for his dad nor to underplay his own achievements in a very different field. It just that they are separate lives. As for Mike’s own story, it is not a particularly gripping read. Genesis formed at an exclusive UK boy’s school, developed their sound over several years, then recorded and toured. This much is known by anyone who has ever read a rock bio. The trick is to bring the well-worn tune alive (again) for a fan of Genesis (or, less likely, of the pedestrian Mike and the Mechanics) who has probably read at least a few articles about the band. This, Rutherford fails to do. He is friendly without ever being intimate, gently teasing while never sticking the boot in, vague when he could be detailed and overall just a nice bloke jotting down a few stories that will offend no-one.
As for sex and drugs, there is a smattering of hinted-at naughtiness in gentlemanly references to those young women King Crimson aptly named ‘ladies of the road’, but nothing suggesting Zeppelin-esque excess. Surprisingly, Mike is much more open about his fondness for a smoke and there are several mildly amusing herb-related stories. My favourite relates to Rutherford recognising the private jet they are using on yet another US tour is the very same aircraft employed previously on the Invisible Touch tour. He locates the porthole window where he stashed some grass on that earlier jaunt and there it is, five years later, still safely wedged between shade and perspex. Score!
About the only new item of interest I encountered in The Living Years concerned a Genesis commercial initiative that resulted in the production (and lucrative hiring-out) of the VARI*LITE, a versatile and flexible stage light that became standard issue for everyone from the Stones to Pink Floyd. Not a bad little earner at all, even though they scarcely needed an income boost by that stage.
A section of the book I was eagerly looking forward to concerned Rutherford’s first solo album. When I first saw the LP Smallcreep’s Day I’d already been transported by Peter Currell Brown’s novel, in consequence of which I was immediately drawn to an album cover that evoked both the factory setting of the book and the photo-chemical dream-state of the story.
In an industrial Hades constructed by an heir of Heironymous Bosch, Pinquean Smallcreep goes searching for the end product of his decades of metallic drudgery. Lost in a nightmarish mechanical Gormenghast, he travels endless platforms and filthy alleys of a dimly lit factory netherworld, encountering birth, death, and every kind of grotesquery along the way. It’s Dickens on the brown acid. If there is a twisted theme in the dreamlike flurries of gothic imagery it is that of a gargantuan world-straddling machine grinding out finely tooled pieces of utterly unknown application while grinding down the human drones tethered to its unyielding mass, the quest for meaning constantly frustrated by either the intransigent barbarity of the working slaves or the sheer enormity of the plant itself. It is an exercise in futility worthy of Beckett’s most despairingly persistent anti-hero.
I would have loved to have read how this dark, polluted tale of working-class existential despair touched a nice boy from a posh public school, but alas, Mike Rutherford simply observes that it was a story he ‘liked’ and ‘had a plot you could explain in a paragraph’ (p.171).
Indeed, more paragraphs are devoted to tussles with Storm Thorgerson of Hipgnosis around cover design than to the music. Of the latter, Rutherford simply observes that ‘Smallcreep’s Day is quite strong instrumentally’ (p.173). It is, but this is a disappointingly brief summary.
The side devoted to the novel is especially strong, with pleasing instrumental sections evoking a toned-down Wind and Wuthering and a couple of excellent songs. ‘Working in line’ is brief and energetic, while ‘At the end of the day’ soars melodically and musically in a way the recent Genesis hit ‘Follow you follow me’ emphatically does not.
In terms of the sound, Smallcreep’s Day fits neatly between And Then There Were Three and Duke, which is scarcely surprising as it was released between those two Genesis albums, in February 1980. It has more of the classic ‘Genesis sound’ than the former and perhaps less punch and variety than the latter, yet anyone who liked either would find much to enjoy in Mike’s first ‘go it alone’ effort. Certainly it is more interesting and imaginative than his next ‘outside Genesis’ effort, the anodyne Mike and the Mechanics.
And that last adjective brings us back to the autobiography. The Living Years provides almost no insights into the music, so fails fans on the ‘rock and roll’ part of the Rock Memoir Inventory. There are some low-key stories related to illicit substances that do not so much shock as make you think Mike would be a nice bloke to sit around and yarn with over a pint and/or a joint. As for the character of the author/artist, this remains frustratingly sketchy, despite a sense Rutherford has really tried to open up.
Perhaps the answer lies in the spoken introduction to the famous Michael Apted ‘7 Up’ film series; ‘give me a child until seven and I will give you the man’. Referring to his school friend and long-term musical partner Tony Banks (Genesis keyboard/composer), Rutherford observes, ‘Tony and I just weren’t brought up to talk about our feelings. If you’ve been to boarding school at seven, you’ve got to hide your emotions to survive so it becomes inbuilt’ (p. 219). But he also thinks perhaps this is why marriage and his own fatherhood have been ‘so good’.
Outwards or inwards, music or people; it’s all about connection.
PS. There isn’t an Index.
Rutherford, Mike  The Living Years, Constable, London, UK
Brown, Peter Currell  Smallcreep’s Day, Picador/Pan, London, UK
Rutherford, Mike  Smallcreep’s Day, Charisma/Polydor Australia
* Enquiries regarding any and all usage of the Rock Memoir Inventory (RMI) should be directed to Vinyl Connection’s legal advisors, Storey and Co., telephone NorthWales 1537.