Rock of Ages – the marvellous memoirs of Elton John and Debbie Harry

The memoirs of two of the music world's biggest stars are as enduring and entertaining as their respective careers, says Paul Whitelaw

Elton John, by his own cheerful admission, is an anorak, a pop culture magpie. Early on in his hellzapoppin’ memoir, he waxes lyrical about two formative piano-playing influences: outrageous Little Richard and genial Winifred Atwell, who delighted Fifties audiences with her light classical and pub singalong stylings. His paradoxical persona in a nutshell.

Written with Guardian music critic Alexis Petridis, Me is packed with such details. It’s the brutally frank story of a shy, funny music nerd who became a megastar and who, at his lowest ebb, was a cocaine-addicted alcoholic sitting at home alone for days, masturbating, clad only in a vomit-caked dressing gown.

Unlike so many celebrity memoirs, it isn’t remotely self-serving. He’s always quick to admonish himself for bad behaviour and career blunders. The book’s riveting mid-section, which covers his 16 years of substance abuse, is basically an appalled mea culpa.

Absurd anecdotes come thick and fast

Despite the often grave subject matter, Me is hugely entertaining. Elton’s self-deprecating humour and Petridis’ droll turn of phrase make sure of that.

Absurd anecdotes come thick and fast. Elton driving an Aston Martin with Martha and the Vandellas crammed in the back. Elton playing charades with Simon and Garfunkel and Bob Dylan (they were terrible at it). Elton making the disastrous mistake of surprising an acid-fried Iggy Pop on stage while dressed as a gorilla. Elton telling Tina Turner, a bigger diva than even he, to cram her duet sideways.

As for song-writing, you won’t find any deep insight into the composition of Tiny Dancer or Rocket Man, because Elton can’t give you any. They just poured out of him.

At one point, our tantrum-prone hero admits that he’s perfectly aware of how ridiculous his life is. That’s what makes him, and Me, so likeable.

“Even as a little girl,” writes Debbie Harry, matter-of-factly, “I always attracted sexual attention.” Harry, as evinced by her fine memoir, is a matter-of-fact maestro.

Her eventful life has been scarred by trauma. She was once raped at knifepoint and had a close call with serial killer Ted Bundy. She recalls these horrific events in vivid detail, but doesn’t dwell. Her mantra appears to be: this happened, it was bad, let’s move on, life is hard.

Debbie Harry is good company – wise, hip, romantic, funny and honest

That’s not to imply that Face It is superficial. It’s a clear-eyed account of a talented, trailblazing woman and subversive sex symbol who always did things on her own terms. It’s sometimes very touching too; one is left with the impression that Blondie bandmate and ex-partner Chris Stein is still the love of her life.

She’s good company: wise, hip, romantic, funny and honest. The book’s fluid, conversational style is a credit to co-writer Sylvie Simmons, an estimable music journalist. It’s like listening to Harry recount her story over coffee in a Manhattan diner.

She’s at her best when rhapsodising about her years spent living the punk bohemian life in the scummy Lower East Side. She says it was her happiest time in Blondie by far, before fame got in the way.

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Heavily illustrated with her cherished collection of fan art and proudly dedicated to ‘the girls of the underworld’, Face It is partly Harry’s way of saying thank you to the kids who made it happen.

“I have had one f*ck of an interesting life,” she writes, “and I plan to go on having one.” Hell yeah.

Me by Elton John (Pan Macmillan, £25)

Face It by Debbie Harry (HarperCollins, £20)

Illustration: Jason Lyon