Over the past twenty years, the tank-treads of biography have churned the magical realm of literature down into the mud. Now, if you’re a temporarily relevant TV or sports personality, you’ll automatically be signed up for a ghost-written (and soon-to-be-remaindered) account of your uninteresting life.
Similarly, if you’re a career criminal with a fair record of disregard for the well-being of others, then a book deal awaits you! Or, if you’re not in the public eye, but can point to a sufficiently horrendous degree of suffering, then the publishers will love you even if fate did not. The same trend has played out across the cultural realm: reality TV; the ever increasing success of documentaries; ‘based on a true story’ pasted across film advertising and title credits; social media converting everyone’s daily life into other’s entertainment; the way politics is inescapable now nothing can be detached from self-curation.
Like any complex globe-spanning phenomenon, this is neither wholly negative, nor a universal positive. On the positive side of the equation, the emptying out of celebrity and significance has created a space where the quirky, unique, and endlessly enthralling voice of a character like James Kennedy can be heard. His autobiography, Noise Damage: My Life As a Rock’N’ Roll Underdog, is a wonderful volume that does unique things with so many familiar genre tropes: tales of the toilet circuit, Rock ‘n’ Roll excess, industry shenanigans, challenges both mental and physical, more than a fair share of poverty, some keenly stated high-level analysis, and a lot of humour too.
One of the books finest qualities is the interweaving of his struggles in the world of music alongside the universal inevitabilities of human existence — his father’s battle with cancer, moving in with the girlfriend — the stuff more or less every person goes through, usually between fairly predictable years of one’s life. I was also impressed by the eloquent way in which Kennedy articulates the stuttering mess that is human thought, the way one’s own brain is constantly trying to kill you by filling in blank space with dark murmuring, or the creation of short films questioning whether you did the right thing (ever). Kennedy succinctly captures the ‘filling in’ done by the human mind, the way it wreathes virtually any significant moment in self-generated counterfactuals, what-ifs, and unknowables.
School days pass at speed. Kennedy is a concise writer and his nonchalant style means even the heftiest incidents never descend into a pity party. He also has crises of such heft that, unlike a lot of autobiographies, he doesn’t have to resort to overwriting banal moments of self-discovery just to fill space or make a grab for empathy. There’s something genuinely awesome in Kennedy discovering at age ten that tumours were eating away at his ability to hear; enduring what sounds like significant and delicate surgical interventions; going through two years of treatment and recovery; still only being left with somewhere under fifty percent of his hearing as well as permanent tinnitus; then refusing to give up on his dream to pursue a life utterly devoted to music. Amazing.
Reading Kennedy’s tales of subsequent schoolyard delinquency and clowning, it does ring true when he says “it’s only later in life…I’ve realised just how much my hearing struggles have shaped me.” Though he glosses over at speed and with minimal reflection, there’s a sense of an intelligent soul forced to compensate for a disability by creating a persona. This strong front acts as armour to ward off kids ready to pounce on the slightest sign of weakness or difference, and teachers ill-equipped or unwilling to adapt to a child in need of a different approach. Thought handled lightly, Kennedy’s keen portrayal is honest, sad, and true for far too many. It hit home for me because a best friend was diagnosed with dyslexia later in life. She describes a teenhood crushed by teachers and budding sociopaths, only to learn 20 years too late that very basic support would have unleashed the capable soul she is. Neither she nor Kennedy dwell on what they lost but the price paid is obvious.
From that point on we’re thrown into a wild thresh of events: going to music conservatoire, switching to a college, quitting altogether, starting work in a studio, developing his own music, putting together a well-received and entirely self-made demo, record label attention, forming a band and the ecstasy of getting out on stage. Often the virtue of books is that background noise is muted, clutter swept away, and a single element is blown up and can be contemplated in isolation. Kennedy’s approach feels far more like reality, a constant churn in which we are being tossed about and shaken. Within a few pages he might be moving back in with his parents, recording an album, reviewing his own album, contemplating the virtues of a live drummer, getting someone to master the album given his hearing, being brought to a crashing halt by financial worries, then describing the joys of part-time cover teaching. It’s relentless, it’s high energy, it’s enthralling.
Occasionally, and inevitably, this hyperactive approach does lead to surprised double-takes and ‘what the…?!’ moments where a story deserves more than it receives. The most glaring is an incident where a deranged ‘fan’ goes from devoted chatting to suicide, Kennedy endures a misguided campaign of blame and vilification, only — upon getting the police involved — to discover one of the most stunning and deranged secrets I’ve heard in years. I don’t want to spoil it but if you get your hands on a copy flick to pages 266-267. It’s an amazing story but the idea that it’s over and done inside two pages is ridiculous. It makes the point, however, that the real focus here is not on any particular point in time, that Kennedy’s focus is always on the full breadth of ‘the dream’ and on keeping it all rattling down the road by any means necessary.
Toward the end there’s a meditation on failure which is striking in both its honesty — that failure “wasn’t just a little bit gutting; it was fucking soul-crushing” — and its exhortation that devoting oneself to something you believe in has virtue regardless of outcome: “it doesn’t matter what it is, or how important it is, but those little routines and commitments give us a sense of control and meaning.” If the only thing that matters to a person is the end-result, then they’ll either never reach it, or — if they do — then after a brief celebration they either rest on their laurels and become one of those boring people boasting repeatedly of some long-ago and clapped-out moment when they once did something, or they face the question of ‘what next?’ While ultimate victory is great, it’s the time spent living inside something that will occupy the majority of our days so best to enjoy it. I ended the book feeling I’d read of a life worth living, been encouraged to live my own, and wanting to wish Kennedy all the luck in the world: anyone who lives this hard, works this hard, and writes this well, deserves it.
James Kennedy “Noise Damage: My Life As a Rock’N’ Roll Underdog” (Lightning Books, 2020). £9.99. Released 18th October
Nick Soulsby is the author of several books on Nirvana, Sonic Youth and Swans.