Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Reading Matters: Diary of a Rock'n'Roll Star, by Ian Hunter

I’ve been meaning to read Ian Hunter’s Diary of a Rock’n’Roll Star for years, but a lot of the time it’s been out of print.  Recently though, I collared a copy of the most recent 2018 edition, which comes in a very stylish trade paperback format.
“May well be the best rock book ever,” says a quote from Q magazine on the front cover.  Well, I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it’s certainly an interesting read.
For the uninitiated, Hunter’s diary covers a month-long US tour in November-December 1972, when his band Mott the Hoople were looking for an American breakthrough on the back of ‘All The Young Dudes’ reaching #37 in the Billboard chart that summer.  Hunter makes one or two references to the tour having been booked in a hurry, and maybe that accounts for one of the things that struck me – the expedition feels a bit ramshackle.
Ian Hunter back in the day - that guitar looks flash, but . . .
Pic by Brian Hunter

After kicking off on the West Coast the band spend much of the next month zig-zagging around the East Coast, Mid-West, and South, often needing two flights to get from A to B.  Inevitably, given that winter is descending, they find themselves competing with the weather, sometimes facing long delays and diversions.  Oh yeah, and guitarist Mick Ralphs is constantly faced with his phobia about flying.
When they get wherever they’re going, some of the shows they’re booked on are less than seamlessly organised.  At the mercy of local promoters, for several shows they’re sharing the bill with two or even three other bands of wildly differing styles (supporting John McLaughlin being one spectacular mismatch), fighting for soundchecks and embroiled in arguments about the running order.  So bad are some of these situations that they point to their contract and blow the gig out – getting paid expenses, but still out of pocket and losing the exposure the tour was intended to bring.
The book is not, by any standards, a litany of sex and drugs and rock’n’roll.  Groupies are always hanging around, but the band aren’t interested.  More than once, in a manner symptomatic of the pre-PC argot of the times, Hunter refers to them as “slags”.  Been there, done that in the past, it seems – and now acutely aware of the diseases these “chicks” might be carrying.
The arc of the diary also reveals the fatigue brought on by touring.  Hunter starts off commenting chirpily enough about flights and hotels; flying is still a relatively novel experience back in 1972, and he finds the standards of American hotels way better than the gloom and poor service in Britain.  But as time goes on tiredness and tetchiness set in.  Flights and security can be a pain, officious cabin crew feel the rough end of his tongue, and some hotels are less pleasing.  When serious drinking does break out, it seems as likely to be in response to boredom as any kind of party vibe – and the hangovers are real.
It’s this insight Hunter provides about the workmanlike nature of the “rock’n’roll star” life that
"Author!  Author!"
marks the book out.  Mott the Hoople, with one big hit single under their belt and not long disentangled from onerous contracts and debts, are by no means rolling in money.  So it gradually dawns that their determined investigation of pawn shops wherever they go is less to do with unearthing some classic guitar to be treasured forever, than with making some spare cash.  The hard currency of these expeditions is highlighted by a Mick Ralphs’ purchase of a Gibson Les Paul Junior in Detroit.  He pays $83.50, which Hunter observes equates to £33 (the past is another country, the exchange rates were different then), plus 50% customs duty to bring it back to Britain.  So, a £200 guitar is acquired for £50, and is eminently saleable in London’s Denmark Street to put some ready cash in a skint rock’n’roller’s pocket.
What you don’t get are regular blow-by-blow accounts of the shows.  Hunter is often more preoccupied with what can go wrong, and maybe when he’s onstage he’s too in the zone to bring many reflections off it – unless something out of the ordinary has happened, which is not necessarily a good thing.  Happily though, the final show in Memphis is a highlight which makes clear the buzz of performance, and sends him on his journey back home on a high.
The book contains a heap of photographs, including a very good glossy section, and in this edition the bonus of a brief diary from Hunter of a 2015 trip to Japan, which comes over as an altogether more relaxed experience.
It’s a measure of Ian Hunter the songwriter that some of the 1972 experiences evidently became the seeds of Mott’s 1973 hit ‘All The Way From Memphis’, condensed and transformed into a mythical rock’n’roll tale that’s now a golden oldie.  Just like Ian Hunter himself, who is 81 years old now, and still a rock’n’roll star.
Diary of a Rock’n’Roll Star is published by Omnibus Press.   

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