The death of Michael Jackson in June prompted a frenzy of publishing activity, and bookshops were buried under piles of at least half-a-dozen new titles long before his family actually got around to burying the erstwhile king of pop. Top of the heap was Michael Jackson 1958-2009 — Life of a Legend (Headline) by Michael Heatley, which spent four weeks at No 1 in the Nielsen BookScan chart and has sold 35,000 copies in the UK and 150,000 copies worldwide, to date.
Heatley, an author who has somehow found time to write more than 100 biographies on subjects ranging from the British radio DJ John Peel to Rolf Harris, is not given to agonizing over matters of nuance, let alone literary style. His book provides a functional, sympathetic resume of Jackson’s life, and reads rather like an extended obituary designed to resonate with fans of the singer. The story of Jackson’s astonishing career is celebrated as much through hundreds of pictures and their accompanying captions as by the text itself, while the murkier side of his private life is afforded a cursory mention only where unavoidable.
Of the other books commemorating the singer’s demise, Michael Jackson — The King of Pop 1958-2009 by Chris Roberts (Carlton) merits a mention for its fractionally more trenchant tone and mildly enquiring approach. However, in terms of genuine insight and vitality, none of them compares to Jackson’s own, often overlooked account of his life, Moonwalk (William Heinemann). Written in 1988, Moonwalk was republished in October with an added foreword by the founder of Motown, Berry Gordy, and an intriguing postscript by Shaye Areheart, one of the book’s original editors. Having been cajoled and assisted by a team of dedicated professionals over four years, Jacko produced a surprisingly lucid and occasionally revealing account of what it was actually like to be him.
Another deceased superstar was put under the biographical microscope in Bob Marley — The Untold Story (Harper Collins) by Chris Salewicz. While Jackson is considered to be a tarnished idol by all but his most ardent supporters, Marley’s premature demise at the age of 36 has conferred a saintly status on the reggae star, which Salewicz is happy to indulge. “Some will come out and say it directly: that Bob Marley is the reincarnation of Jesus Christ,” he declares, before flagging up various conspiracy theories to explain the sudden onset of the cancer that was to claim his life, thereby turning the story into “a modern version of the crucifixion”.
Salewicz’s boundless respect for his subject is a plus when it comes to his knowledge and understanding of Marley’s Jamaican heritage and a detailed appreciation of his musical accomplishments, but is a bit disconcerting when it comes to matters of Marley’s all-too-human failings. The author reports without comment an occasion when Marley “beat his wife [Rita] around the hotel suite” resulting in a very large bill “for repairs to assorted fixtures and fittings,” and notes that, while married to her, the musician fathered 13 children by eight different women. “Who knows what emotional and psychological complications . . . were involved?” Salewicz ponders, referring to Bob of course, not Rita.
Emotional and psychological complications are the engine that drives Bad Vibes — Britpop and My Part in Its Downfall (Windmill), the outrageously indiscreet memoirs of the singer and songwriter Luke Haines. Aggressive, vainglorious, insecure and forever teetering on the brink of another meltdown, Haines strides (or hobbles) through a highly personalized account of the great Britpop wars of the 1990s, insulting virtually everyone involved. While Oasis, Blur and Suede rule the charts, Haines hangs around on the fringes in his own groups the Auteurs and, later, the Baader Meinhof Gang, too cool or too wasted to embrace success even when offered to him on a plate. Bad Vibes turns casual misanthropy into an art form, and makes a brilliant read in the process.