Saturday, December 01, 2012

100 reviews #6 Shirl


I seem to be barely able to keep pace with Jeff Apter, the Barbara Cartland of rock bios. Apter’s Shirl has popped out so soon after his contentious (to me) book about Marc Hunter that one would assume he had a secret, except reading the books show it’s no secret: he bashes this shit out, and that’s all.

I wish I was Apter’s friend, or perhaps his mentor. I would love to have had the conversation, having read Shirl in manuscript form, along the lines of:

Jeff: So, mate, waddya think? I reckon I really nailed this one, this, er, ‘Shirl’.
Me: Yeah, Jeff, I read it over the course of a day.
Jeff: Amazing, ‘cos I wrote it over the course of… never mind. Any comments, but?
Me: Jeff, I had a few things I thought you could develop.
Jeff: Aw geez, ‘develop’, ‘things’… that’s all I ever hear from you!
Me: Well, like Louisa Wisselling. That’s an interesting angle.
Jeff: (sigh). Why. Who is that.
Me: I didn’t know she was the first co-host of Shirl’s Neighbourhood. You should have tried to track her down.
Jeff: Look, I put a whole week into the research. What do you want?
Me: She was the Judith Durham replacement in the mid-70s Seekers, they were huge. In a way, she might have had an even bigger music career than Shirl – some sources say that ‘The Sparrow Song’ was their biggest hit, and that group sold 50 million records or more.
Jeff: (looking out the window) Uh
Me: You could have asked her whether she ever talked with Shirl about their respective careers.
Jeff: (looking at his fingers) Uh
Me: You could at very least have mentioned she had a huge music career in the mid-70s, like Shirl. I mean, Shirl had ‘cred’ somehow, at least some of the time, but let’s face it, they were both hacks in their way.
Jeff: Gawd. Alright, I’ll put me Keith Lamb bio on hold for two more days.

What gets me about Apter – as I probably mentioned in my review of his Hunter book – is his lack of curiosity, his ‘straight-down-the-line-ness’. He is a clever horse who puts on the blinkers to get to his destination faster. He doesn’t bother to seek out Louisa Wisselling or even mention her background (or, apparently, even type her name into a search engine). He is very focused on the notion that Shirl gave up rock and roll in the late 70s, to the degree that when he mentions Shirl’s early 80s work with the Party Boys (as a touring lead singer) it’s as an afterthought. It doesn’t fit with the narrative, and so there’s no point in talking to any of the other Party Boys from that tour, and nor is there any point in talking about the actual record they made. I remember Kurt Vonnegut once writing about the plotting of a novel – was it Slaughterhouse 5? Breakfast of Champions? Was it actually part of the narrative of one of those novels, or did he write about it elsewhere? Anyway, his method was to draw different coloured lines, characters’ lives, parallel to each other across a large piece of paper. This is pretty much Apter’s approach. Do not deviate, do not pontificate. Fremantle to Midland, stopping some stations.

It was probably a little painful for Apter to work on Shirl who was – if not a hack – a moneyminded showman (ok, a hack), whereas I suspect he enjoys artists who at least bother to muster a sense of artistic vision. This is not a putdown of Shirl. I like Shirl, I liked him when I was 10 and I like him now, long-dead. I think his honesty about his showbusiness career was refreshing, and on this I think Apter and I agree.

The fact of the matter is the best book on Skyhooks was written by Jenny Brown in 1975, at the height of their infamy (and, as it transpired, just months after the height of their success, unless you count as Shirl might the height of their success as being their lucrative reformation tours of the 1980s). Brown’s is a book that satisfies every requirement a Skyhooks/Shirl afficianado might have except that of historical perspective – it’s of the moment – and detail about Shirl’s working relationship with Louisa Wisseling, because that had not yet happened. There was another Skyhooks book, Jeff Jenkins’, which similarly has good points, though Jenkins like Apter is another ‘rock historian’ who is all rock, no historian.

One of the things Apter can do, for which we should be grateful, is (as was also the case with Hunter) get to the dead man’s relatives, and assure them that while this will be no hagiography… nah, it will be hagiography, pure and simple. So for what it’s worth, the parents and so on will talk to him, and for all I know he lets them approve the MS in draft form (and look, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that – your informants can validly demand a say in how they, and in this case their loved one, is presented).

To go one step further: Apter basically just doesn’t write the kinds of books that satisfy me. Today I heard on the radio of a Simple Minds – the Church? – Models? I can’t remember, old ‘heritage acts’ event, that’s on next week or something, a completely gross event that makes me want to laugh except it might turn to vomiting. Also today listening to The Now Show on BBC radio 4 there was mention of some racist political party’s website which glamourises the old days of Britain (pre-immigration or something – only there aren’t actually that many people alive now who’d remember that period) as a golden age. It was pointed out that the 'golden age' is just whenever the beholder was young - whenever that was, 20 years ago or 40 years ago. This is why Apter et al bug me. If you believe in the golden age, you have just given up. To my mind, the task of the historian is to put the present into perspective, or as we periodically joke about in my workplace, to ‘show relevance’. It’s not to wrap everything up neatly and take a stroll through it to confirm how great our childhoods were (which – sorry to break this to you – they were not).

So in summary:

  1. This book has a lot of interesting material in it. Frustratingly undeveloped interesting material.
  2. The lack of development is either for a secret reason of the author’s or because he can’t be bothered
  3. It is for people who remember the 70s/80s and think they were great times.
As I so often say – ‘But then, I read it from cover to cover’. That is, I found it compelling. But it’s only half the book it could have been. That possibly says more about the publishing (and nostalgia) industry than it does about Jeff Apter, the cog. 

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