Monday, July 28, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Keith Moon: The Life and Death of a Rock Legend


Perhaps no one epitomizes the lunacy of legendary rock and roll excess from years past than one of the greatest drummers who ever lived, Keith Moon. During the fourteen years that the Who's career spanned, Keith was not only one of the best and most revolutionary drummers the world had ever known, but he was a one-of-a-kind character. However, contrary to the popular perception of Moon the Loon as a perpetual jester, he was also a very complicated and troubled man who guarded his emotions fiercely and almost never allowed anyone inside to see the real Keith.


Tony Fletcher is well known as a music writer and I've had the pleasure of reading and reviewing other books of his, including his excellent biographies on R.E.M. and the Smiths. However, his Keith Moon book was the first one of his I read...I vividly remember purchasing this in 1999 the week it was released, having read about it in one of the numerous music magazines I was devouring on a regular basis at the time. After reading all 600+ pages of this hefty tome, I thought it to be one of the best musician biographies I'd ever read; it was perhaps confusing, then, that I recently realized that my initial reading some fifteen years ago was also the last time I'd read the book. In order to rectify that, I've given it a fresh re-reading for the purposes of this review.

Central to Fletcher's approach to writing about Moon is the concept of myth in rock lore. More specifically, how the various myths and legends about certain figures in rock music originated and persisted such that the line between fact and fiction is blurred to such an extent that untruths become accepted as fact many years later. Right from the beginning of the book, this is pointed out by Moon shaving a year off of his age so that, until the publication of this book, it was generally accepted he was born in 1947 when in reality, Fletcher shows he was born in 1946 (corroborated by Moon's birth certificate).  From here, we get a very detailed and in depth account of Keith's rather unremarkable and shockingly (for him) normal upbringing: he was raised by two loving parents whose calm and reserved demeanor gave no indication of the wildness that was about to come into their lives. Moon grew up in the London suburb of Wembley and was an energetic and extroverted child almost from birth. He was intelligent enough but didn't apply himself and found himself finished with school at the age of fifteen. Despite holding a series of menial jobs for a few years after leaving school, the only thing he ever wanted to do was play the drums. Via a series of friends and acquaintances, he began playing, purchased his own kit, and after a brief stint in the Escorts, landed in the Beachcombers, a popular cover band he would stay with for almost two years before he joined the Who in early 1964. In these early years, one thing all of his friends recounted to Fletcher is that Keith never drank or took pills; he simply got high on adrenaline and life. His wicked and warped sense of humor was on display even in those early years, but never with any malice, and he was as generous and kind a person as any of them had known. He also had a revolutionary drum style that was so unique, so busy, and so loud that no one could make sense of it, and he made a name for himself not only for his unorthodox drumming but for because he was so good so young.

Upon joining the Who, it was clear that he was just what they were looking for, and vice versa. From here, Fletcher does a great job telling the story of both Keith's life and the Who's career, but not in a way that makes the book ever seem like a straight-up Who biography. When the story of the Who is discussed in detail, it's from the perspective of Keith's impact on it and its impact on Keith. From the moment he joined, musically the band was complete, although adding his already volatile personality to those of the other three equally headstrong members meant that the early years of the Who's career were fraught with drama and violence, despite their almost immediate success.  Much of the tension came from the fact that Keith readily joined in on popping uppers and downers with Pete and John, while Roger (with whom Keith was never particularly close) didn't. After sacking Roger for two weeks in mid-1965, he was reinstated, band relations improved, and the Who continued to release a string of successful singles and albums before a downturn in their fortunes in 1968. However, the release of the album Tommy in 1969 turned them into international megastars overnight and from that moment until the day Keith died, they would remain one of the top rock bands in the world. I don't intend to describe the Who's entire career, as I've already written a post on it and there are numerous books and websites any interested readers can check out for more information. However, what is noticeable is that even though Keith started ingesting a lot of pills and drinking more and more, his antics and his personality were still enjoyed by his bandmates, friends, and the press. It was really with the onset of global success and the flood of wealth that began pouring in with Tommy and subsequent Who albums and tours that Keith began his spiral out of control.



Running concurrently with the Who's rise to stardom in the 1960s was Keith's relationship with his wife Kim, who spoke extensively with Fletcher for this book. She first met Keith in 1965 when he was nineteen and she fifteen, and while they fell in love rather quickly, he exhibited twin streaks of jealousy and insecurity. While his mental issues, which we would now readily (and correctly) diagnosis as a combination of ADHD and BPD, reared their ugly heads on innumerable occasions, Keith's true personality shone through enough that Kim stayed with him; the decision was made final for her when she became pregnant within a year of dating. Since their marriage was a central part of Keith's life, and their divorce in 1973 would come to affect him perhaps more than any other event in his adult life, it's described in great detail throughout the book; to Fletcher's credit, it's never done in a sensationalized manner and while he is as objective as possible, the truth doesn't paint Keith in too flattering a light. He was jealous, self-centered, and abusive to his wife, both verbally and physically. His mental state also deteriorated as his appetite for all manner of pills escalated and he exploded into a full-blown alcoholic. Even after separating for a year, Kim returned to him, hoping that he had finally changed, but the insane lifestyle Keith kept up at their house, which has to be read to be believed (and even then, just barely) became too much. Kim and Mandy finally left for good in 1973 and it was a devastation Keith would never recover from. However, while most people would use an event like this as the impetus to clean up their act, for Keith it instead drove him further into oblivion. 

Concurrent with all of this was the fact that when the Who were busy recording and touring, Keith, while not on what would termed "best behavior" by anyone elses metric, was at his happiest, most focused, and tolerable. However, from 1972 onward, when the Who finally took some time off after years of constant motion, Keith needed something to fill his time (especially after his divorce) and besides his rampaging substance abuse, he threw himself into a variety of projects to varying degrees of success, including cameos in a couple of movies, a lead role in the Tommy movie, and a disastrous solo album. While his drumming on 1973's Who masterpiece Quadrophenia and 1975's The Who By Numbers was still excellent, it was around this time that he began experiencing frequent collapses due to overdoses, both onstage (San Francisco 1973 and Boston 1976 immediately spring to mind) as well as during parties at his house. But still the pace continued, until by the mid-1970s Keith was living in Los Angeles and getting up to even more insanity with fellow stars John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Harry Nilsson, and others. Even a new love in his life, Annette Walter-Lax, couldn't get him to slow down and take control. There were even stints in psychiatric wards after some mental breakdowns brought on by his despair at losing Kim and his drinking. His alcohol and drug abuse was now not only affecting his health (he put on a significant amount of weight at this time due to infrequent gigging) but sadly, his drumming. One only has to listen to the final Who album, Who Are You from 1978, to hear that while the drumming is still unmistakeably Keith Moon, he was now only a shadow of his former self.  It was around this time, depressed by the deterioration of his drumming and threats from the rest of the Who to clean up his act or else, that he finally decided to get some help.  By the summer of 1978, he seemed to be trying to get his life in order, staying sober and solidifying his relationship with Annette. He was terrified to go into rehab or under psychiatric evaluation, however, and instead self medicated with Heminevrin, a drug used for treating acute withdrawal from alcohol. However, he took too many on his final night and sadly died on September 7, 1978 at the age of thirty-two.

Keith Moon at dinner with Annette (far left), Linda and Paul McCartney on September 6, 1978. He died the following morning.





Annette and Keith (with Wings shirt!) at the dinner the McCartney's held, September 6, 1978

 Keith's last interview, August 1978

Fletcher does an excellent job diving into what it was that made Keith tick, as well as his demons and where they may have come from. Much of this is an impossible task, as there's little if anything in Moon's family background to indicate that he would have had any musical talent, let alone the mental and personality issues he had. What's clear from everything, though, is that he was at his core a kind and generous soul who was also lost, lonely, and terribly immature throughout his adult life. Perhaps it was the sudden success, upon joining the Who, when he was only eighteen (although plenty of others of the same era were as young, or younger, and survived just fine), but Keith was so eager to please and make everyone laugh that he eventually became the character Moon the Loon that he was portrayed as in the media. It got to the point where he wasn't sure who he really was: was he Keith Moon, drumming boy wonder from Wembley? Or was he Moon the Loon, insane and lovable rock star, destroyer of hotel rooms and madcap joker, where every gag and antic he pulled had to outdo the last? Add in the fact that this all of this was happeing during the heady golden age of rock music, when not only the art form but society and the entire world was undergoing cataclysmic changes, and it's no surprise Keith ended up the way he did. Fletcher's discussions with Kim, as well as their daughter Mandy, John Entwistle, Roger Daltrey (Pete Townshend declined to be interviewed for this book), Chris Stamp (former Who co-manager), and numerous friends of Keith's throughout his life all reveal a man who many loved, but no one really knew. Behind the jokes and crazy antics was a young man with real and diagnosable mental issues; however, these issues weren't as well understood back then, so instead of treatment, they were exacerbated by his drug and alcohol abuse, and encouraged by fans and friends who lived vicariously through Keith's mad life. He was also unable to outrun or outlast his demons; whether it was the wife and child he drove away, the friend and chauffeur (Neil Boland) he accidentally killed in early 1970...whatever else haunted him, it ultimately caught up with him just as he was finally trying to improve his life. Therein lies the real tragedy at the heart of Keith Moon's story.

As a hardcore Who fan, I commend Tony Fletcher's attention to detail in this book...I didn't come across any errors and he did a thorough and excellent job with all of the facts, as well as how he presented them.  The fact that he was able to research Keith's life in such detail that he could say with confidence which myths were true (Keith stranding his hovercraft on busy train tracks) and which are are not (he never drove a car into a swimming pool) is deserving of endless credit. While it's clear that the author is a big fan of the Who and of Keith, he does the job right and presents the life and death of this one-of-a-kind man, who revolutionized rock drumming and sent up the idea of what it meant to be famous, perfectly. It's a tale that's alternately funny, tragic, amazing, and shocking, and the book is still deserving of the praise it received upon its release as one of the best rock biographies of all time.  The passage of time since it burst on the scene has done nothing to change that fact, much the same way it has done nothing to dim the legend of Keith Moon.

MY RATING: 10/10


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