Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Book review: The Rise The Fall and The Rise

Book cover.
I like reading memoirs by musicians – especially by women musicians, because those stories are only just starting to be told. But Brix Smith Start’s book, The Rise The Fall and The Rise, isn’t really a rock’n’roll memoir: it’s a very long autobiography with a bit of rock’n’roll in it.

It’s over 450 pages long, and you’re 100 pages into the book before you get to “Becoming Brixton”, the first reinvention in the story. Rich kid Laura changes her name to Brix because she’s mad on British punk rock.

Before that, there’s a lot of stuff about Brix’s early life and it’s all a bit “poor little rich girl”. Private school in LA, grandparents who were friends with Walt Disney, broken home... I wouldn’t belittle anyone’s pain (there are shrinks, eating disorders, sexual assault, depression), but this is proof that, generally, other people’s inner lives aren’t really that interesting.

This is quite a materialistic book. I was struck by how many descriptions of houses it includes. Big houses: the grandparents’ house in Beverly Hills, the pink mansion Brix lived in with her mother, her father’s California canyon dream home... Then there’s Nigel Kennedy’s place in Kensington, and finally, with her new husband Philip Start, selling a house in Notting Hill to buy a penthouse in Shoreditch. Not something most of us will experience.

This makes it even funnier when you get to the description of the house she shared with The Fall frontman Mark E Smith in Manchester. Which had “only one bathroom”.

Having lived in the north west I was a bit offended by her description of Manchester as “grim”. This part of the story is all a bit of a culture shock, though. “I didn’t expect Mark to be so poor,” she recalls.

It’s a great love story at first: a whirlwind romance, running away to England, joining The Fall, a successful musical partnership.  It’s a bit surprising if you know Mark E Smith’s public image, but actually he looks very young and normal in the wedding photos.

The Fall have mainstream pop success, Brix starts her own band, time moves on, the marriage breaks up. And then there’s a lot of stuff about Mark E Smith which sounds exactly like the public image: the drink, the drugs, the autocracy, the “drama and chaos”.

Mark E Smith reinvents The Fall all the time. Brix reinvents herself all the time.

After her marriage breaks up, she moves to London, falls in love with Nigel Kennedy, hangs out with lots of famous people, and loses her record deal. Then she moves back to LA and decides to take up acting. That doesn’t work out, so she goes to London again where she meets Philip Start (now her husband) and decides to reinvent herself as a TV presenter and fashion guru. The rest of the book is a success story. “I had” she concludes, “made my own dreams come true.”

I’ve always said that you shouldn’t judge people on class, because no-one is responsible for where they were born.  But it’s irritating to keep hearing that “you can be anything you want in life”, as if it was easy. It’s OK for Brix to decide to be a musician, then an actor, a TV presenter or a fashion designer. When your family and friends are as well-heeled as hers (her husband is rich, too), you’re always going to have something to fall back on if it doesn’t work out. And now she has reinvented herself as an author.

But maybe it’s not just about money. There’s a lot of “leap and the net will appear”, “guided by the force of the universe” stuff. Whatever Brix got from punk, it wasn’t “Never trust a hippy”.

I wanted to like Brix but, as you can tell, I didn’t. But if we’re going to demand a women’s history of pop (which I am), that’s going to mean voices you don’t always like and stories you don’t always want to hear.

A lot of the time, there will be stories where the women wait for permission from men before they start making music. Some of the time there will be stories where the women are overshadowed by the men they marry. Sometimes there will be stories where women are abused or betrayed by men. But if, in there, there is still a celebration of women’s creativity and survival then it’s still a story worth telling.

All those things are true of this story, so I’m glad Brix got to tell it. I just wish it had been a bit shorter.

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