By JAMES PARKER  |  May 26, 2009

The witch in the ditch
But let’s stop going on about Albert Goldman. On the tangled field of unauthorized rock biography, have there been no triumphs outside his? There have, of course. Scott Robinson’s Yes Tales: An Unauthorized Biography of Rock’s Most Cosmic Band, in Limerick Form performs exactly as advertised. Thus a paragraph describing the entry into the band of guitarist Steve Howe, “a fierce performer with an almost feral energy,” is succinctly recapped as follows:

Late of Bodast, Tomorrow, In-Crowd,
Axe-man Howe arrived, entered, and bowed
He could solo for days
And avoid all clichés
And in spite of this, wasn’t as loud.

Craig Bromberg’s The Wicked Ways of Malcolm McLaren (1989) is a success of a different order — a forensic, undeceived account of a master bullshitter. McLaren — libertine, impresario, red-herring merchant, and one-man culture virus — masterminded the Sex Pistols, Bow Wow Wow, and the late-stage New York Dolls. He gave Adam Ant the Apache stripe across his nose. He’s a trickster, and would doubtless love his biography to be full of obnoxious fictions. But Bromberg brings down his quarry with the snares of truth, tapping nearly 200 sources to get things straight; he even does a bit of shoe-leather reporting, very rare for the genre, tracking down McLaren’s estranged mother in a London suburb and attempting to give her a bunch of flowers. “Go away,” she says. “Just go away. I have nothing to say about him.”

We’ll end, though, with an image from Fred Vermorel’s The Secret History of Kate Bush (And the Strange Art of Pop), from 1983: a work of mystical genealogy in which the spoor of Kate’s inspiration is hunted back through time, through the mist, into her witchy pre-Christian origins. (“Kate Bush is our goddess Frig,” he writes. “And like the Saxons we both revere and fear her. Shroud her in the mystery of her power and the power of her mystery.”) Vermorel, an art-school pal and occasional co-conspirator of McLaren, conducted no interviews at all for this book. Instead, he went clambering up the trunk of the Bush family tree, to wobble in speculation among its most etiolated boughs: Aluric Busch (11th century), Henry del Busk (13th century), Roland atte Bush (14th century), and John Bush, “Kate’s first certain ancestor,” born in 1769. John begat Henry, a boozy laborer in a bowler hat who staggered homeward on the night of December 2, 1872, missed his path, and drowned in a ditch. “I found that ditch,” declares Vermorel. “And one December evening in 1981 I recreated the incident.”

Vermorel stresses that he was not drunk (“I never mix alcohol with work”), but something emboldened him, warmed his spirit, some wild unauthorized urge. He threw himself headfirst through the antagonistic brambles, and he “felt Henry’s panic 109 years before flooding my body and I clawed in the black winter ditch and sucked for air to feel the shock of cold water in my mouth.”

Can you dig it, rock biographers? The commitment, the risk, the immersion? The dark ditch beckons. Leave your facts behind in the daylight, and take the plunge.

James Parker once wrote an unauthorized biography of Henry Rollins. (Seriously.) He can be reached at jparker@phx.com.

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