Spider-Man Before Spider-Man Was Born – On Comics-Related Carelessness In Steven Tyler’s “Does The Noise In My Head Bother You?”

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1.

Writing in Rolling Stone about Steven Tyler’s 2012 autobiography Does The Noise In My Head Bother You, Rob Sheffield suggested that ‘If you can find a single coherent sentence in this book, write and tell the publisher, so they can correct this error in future editions’. It’s in no way a snarkish comment. Tyler, after the manner of a promising but entirely idle sixth form student, writes as if it’s the reader’s job to make any kind of precise sense of his sprawling, fuzzy, narcissistic prose. Whether you can stomach almost 400 pages of such depends, I would expect, upon the degree of fascination you have for Tyler. For me, it proved far too much effort for far too little return. Yet, despite his reservations, Sheffield appears to find Does The Noise In My Head Bother You a thoroughly worthwhile read, including it as he does in his list of 25 Greatest Rock Memoirs. Quite why, I can’t imagine, unless it’s to illustrate the unpalatable degree of self-regard that appears to characterise so many rock-biz celebrities. What should have been an absolutely fascinating life-history – I especially wanted to read about Aerosmith’s formative years along with their improbable Eighties rebirth – is sadly anything but.

2.

It’s hardly a typical way of coming to grips with Tyler’s memoir, but approaching the book as a comics fan swiftly reveals several of its least appetising aspects. One of the first signs that Tyler’s prose is as trustworthy as it’s transparent comes with this memory of his early childhood;

‘We lived (in the Bronx) till I was 9 – on the top floor, and the view was spectacular. I would sneak out the window onto the fire escape on hot summer nights and pretend I was Spider-Man.’

It’s an undeniably charming image, with the sole if inescapable problem being that the adventures of Spider-Man didn’t emerge in print until the summer of 1962, by which time Tyler, who was born in 1948, had turned 14 and was long gone from The Bronx.  Whatever costumed vigilante it was that the 9 year old Tyler imagined himself being in 1957, it certainly wasn’t Spider-Man. Perhaps imagining himself as Peter Parker’s alter ego actually occurred during one of Tyler’s occasional later return visits to The Bronx. Perhaps it didn’t. Whatever, the impression given is that Tyler’s prose simply isn’t to be trusted.

3.

Should we care when the purported facts of an autobiography have escaped the attention of either its author or an able fact-checker or two? What does it matter if there are a few mistakes, or even a great many more than that? Shouldn’t we just be amazed that Tyler, after his decades of depressingly prodigious substance abuse, can remember anything at all? Do we need to be in any way serious about what he’s written? Should we instead regard the book with playfulness as a post-truth pantomime, in which Tyler records something of how his memory scrambles the truth of things? After all, don’t all our memories, to one degree or another, do the same? Do we welcome Tyler’s lapses in accuracy as the evidence of aspects of his true personality, whatever that may be thought to mean, as the unintended evidence of a character who’s careless with the truth while besotted with his own supposed importance? This is, after all, a man who covers his and Joe Perry’s career-reigniting 1986 collaboration with RUN-DMC & Rick Rubin in a brief three line paragraph, in which Tyler insists Way This Way could’ve been a hit without anyone else’s help while praising his own drumming skills and settling scores with Aerosmith’s Joey Krammer. Of the record itself or its effect upon his career, let alone its broader cultural importance, nothing at all is said. The point seems clear. The reader of Does The Noise In My Head Bother You isn’t expected to want to learn much about Tyler’s life at all. Instead, it appears that it’s the reader’s job to bask admiringly in the sense-scrambling, perspective-flattening blowtorch of Tyler’s ego.

4.

But flagrantly obvious mistakes prevent the reader from immersing themselves in a memoirist’s reminiscences. It isn’t so much that a memoir ought to be unimpeachably factual – is such a thing even possible? – but it certainly ought to appear convincing. So much of an autobiography’s magic lies in the way in which it beguilingly evokes the past with apparently intimate and accurate details. But once carelessness breaks the spell, a fatal degree of doubt emerges. Instead of surrendering to the tale’s logic, we begin to question the very same. If Tyler is telling us that he played at being Spider-Man long before Spider-Man was created, then where else are his recollections faulty? The cracks appear first in the detail, but the fault-lines immediately spread far beyond their point of origin. So how can we be sure that the young Tyler, playing in his father’s band, truly did long to break into versions of Wipeout or Louie Louie, instead of ‘a waltz’? Was it really a ‘Lakota Indian with bow and arrow’ that Tyler played at being?

And if we can’t trust the detail, then how to come to terms with weightier matters? Is there anything that Tyler has to say, beyond I want you to believe this, that can be in any way relied upon?

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5.

Yet Tyler’s own words show that he recognises the importance of at the very least appearing to be accurate. In the same chapter as his faulty recollections about Spider-Man, he declares, with an untypical and conspicuous burst of accuracy, that ‘The Wonderful World Of Disney  … premiered (on TV) on October 27, 1954’. Quite why this uncharacteristic and lonesome fact was lobbed in, quite out of the blue, escapes me. Perhaps Tyler indulged in a brief bout of fact-checking and wanted to celebrate his efforts. Perhaps a fact-checker or two were actually on hand, despite all appearances to the contrary, and Tyler opted to embrace this particular atom of their endeavours. Perhaps everything but the comicbook references were checked. It would hardly be the first time that comics were regarded as unworthy of the same respect as other aspects of pop culture, as a string of articles in the British broadsheets over recent years might prove.

But the problem is, I do know a little about comics. And when I chance upon a lack of respect for the facts in a field that I’ve some measure of familiarity with, I immediately start to distrust the information that I’m being fed about other matters.

6.

It can be understandably hard for those who aren’t immersed in comics to make sense of them. In the hardback of Joe Hagan’s compelling biography of Jann Wenner, for example, he passingly refers to a panel in which, he declares, Daredevil can be seen ‘flying’. When I mentioned the problem that Daredevil can’t fly on Twiter, Hagan chanced upon my Tweet and, with commendable restraint and generosity, explained that the relevant Gene Colan artwork had seemed to him to suggest exactly that. It was a point well and fairly made. That Hagan then said he’d repair the admittedly minor error in his book’s softback edition only underscores his professionalism and goodwill. (I hasten to add that I hadn’t in any way sought to draw Hagan’s attention to my Tweet.) It’s all-too-easy to forget how baffling the world of, say, superhero comics can be, in both form and content, to those who haven’t internalised both storytelling methods and genre canon. But simply checking facts such as the first appearance of a superhero in print shouldn’t pose any such a challenge. All too often, it frequently seems, comics aren’t seen as worthy of being taken seriously. Sadly, not everyone shares Joe Hagan’s fealty to facts when it comes to the purportedly credible aspects of comics culture such as monthly pamphlets and costumed crimefighters.

7.

Elsewhere in the opening pages of Does The Noise In My Head Bother You, Tyler refers to comicbook matters with his defining disregard for precision or clarity. And so, he writes that his family’s home in The Bronx was ‘around the corner from where the comic book characters Archie and Veronica supposedly lived’. In itself, it’s a baffling comment to all but students of Archie Comics, who would know that the earliest 1940s Archie stories were set in the Riverdale neighbourhood of the Bronx . (After that, the town became, shall we say, more geographically mobile.) But even there, what does Tyler mean when he says that ‘Archie and Veronica’ lived in the same building? It seems an unlikely proposition, given the fact that Veronica is the daughter of the obscenely wealthy Hiram and Herione Lodge. Perhaps at some time in Archie Comics history, such was so, but, one way or another, even a mildly knowledgable comics fan might struggle to grasp whatever it is that Tyler’s attempting to say. For the lay reader, there’s surely no hope at all.

That same lack of precision reoccurs when Tyler likens his earliest remembered exposure to music to being in ‘Superman’s North Pole crystal palace (as) the crystals resonated with Mother Earth’s birthing cries’. On the one hand, and with my pedant’s hat on, it’s ‘Superman’s Fortress Of Solitude’ that Tyler’s referring to. (It appears to be the version of the Fortress that appeared in 1978’s Superman The Movie that he’s describing, which of course appeared several decades and more after the childhood events that Tyler’s attempting to evoke.) On the other hand, it’s a passage that hints at some measure of poetic meaning without providing the keys to grasping Tyler’s meaning. In what way was the experience of listening to his father’s piano playing like being in a superhero’s crystal cave? For that matter, what are ‘Mother’s Earth’s birthing cries’ and what do they have to do with Superman’s secret Arctic home?

We might have the vaguest sense that Tyler’s trying to speak to us of artistic enchantment, transcendently unfamiliar wonders and primal creative inspirations. But that’s just the limit of what can be deduced from his prose, and even there, who really knows?

8.

There may be other mentions of comicbooks in Does The Noise In My Head Bother You, but I fear that I couldn’t raise the will to persevere after its first 50 or so pages. If Tyler’s own version of his life and times couldn’t keep me going in itself, then the hope of a crumb or two of comics references most certainly couldn’t. It takes alot for me to put aside even a terrible book, and that’s especially true when it comes to tomes about the music business, but this is a spectacularly awful read. Skimming ahead in the hope of chancing upon interesting nuggets proved a futile business. The full and relentless glare of celeb-egomania is a thoroughly unpleasant thing to experience, and no amount of exposure to its empathy-shrivelling light can increase the mind’s resistance to it.Quite the opposite always proves to be true.

Yes, Tyler’s references to comics are the very least of his book’s sins, but even so, they tell a truth, and a distinctly unflattering one, about the memoir as a whole.

 

4 thoughts on “Spider-Man Before Spider-Man Was Born – On Comics-Related Carelessness In Steven Tyler’s “Does The Noise In My Head Bother You?”

  1. This sort of thing is fascinating to me. I was recently watching an episode of I Spy and was struck to see Robert Culp reading a comic book in one scene. It was an issue of Konga, which I had never heard of and had to research. The comic wasn’t important to the show. No one mentioned or even acknowledged it. It was just a throwaway moment with a prop–Culp reclining on a hotel bed flipping through a comic. And yet, I spent more time thinking about that comic and how it got into the episode than I did the rather humdrum particulars of that episode’s plot.

    Based on what you say about Tyler’s book, what I find most fascinating is that even though he’s sloppy about it, he’s choosing to punctuate his life story with comics. He may be misremembering things, but when he crafts a version of his nine-year-old self, he wants that self to be a kid who played Spider-Man. When he credits his father for bestowing the gift of music on him, he wants to see his father as Jor-El, bestowing a cultural legacy on his son (with the added, enigmatic reference to the absent mother and the birth pains). Same is true for growing up in Archie country.

    As an autobiographer, he’s creating a “self” for us (and perhaps for himself). And how strange is it to have the poster child of the hip, sex, drugs, rock & roll set wanting to see himself as Lee and Ditko’s nerdy, neurotic Spider-Man? Does the rock star envy the geek community? And does he subconsciously see his rock star persona as some sort of superhero alter ego? A false identity? What aspect of comic book culture is he trying to connect with? And why? And what connection between comics culture and rock culture is implied?

    It sounds like a terrible book, but now you’ve made me want to read it. 🙂

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    1. Hi Greg! Thank you for leaving a comment. I absolutely share with you that fascination for the signs of pop culture wherever they appear in material from the past. I recall watching the 70s Brit movie That’ll Be The Day, set in the early 60s, in which Ringo Starr is shown reading a copy of Marvelman and knowing that I’d just have to check out whether the comic was anachronistic or not. (It was entirely in keeping with the era!)

      I wonder why we do this. Some of it for me is the way in which pop culture was excluded from both fiction and non-fiction in the past. Mass culture was typically something to ignore, and yet, that’s exactly the aspect of society that most fascinate me. When I note evidence of the likes of pulp novels, old comics, 78s and 45s and movie posters, I find myself buying into what I’m being shown to a far greater degree. There’s something airless and unconvincing about any portrayal of the past which doesn’t reflect the popular culture of the age. In the HUGHLY unlikely case that the hologram that’s the universe allows me to time-travel, I won’t be searching out the great events of the age. I’ll be digging around in the piled-high record shops, the music halls, the railway newsagents with their mass of printed material, and so on. That’s what I’m interested in.

      Also like you, I’m fascinated by the self that folks create for themselves in memoirs. If you do get around to reading Tyler’s memoirs, and I believe you would indeed find them interesting if not, er, exactly interesting, you’ll surely note how relatively sparse the text is when it comes to cultural reference points. It’s as if Tyler doesn’t actually have a great store of material by which to explain himself, beyond the filter of STEVEN TYLER THE STAR WHO’S DONE SO MUCH AND NEEDS EVERYBODY TO KNOW IT. And that’s perhaps the least interesting aspect of this dull book. I wanted to hear far more about the things that you mention, the things that Tyler loved and the way in which he believed they shaped him. In the first few chapters, we do get the few mentions of comics and even a single reference to Lord Of The Rings. As you say, wouldn’t it be fascinating to learn how these odd strands of the nascent counter-culture sat together with him and his fellows? (We know how that worked with, say, Ken Kesey, but that’s a very different ball game to the young Tyler and his peers.) But Tyler doesn’t seem to think that his interior life is particularly interesting, beyond the most obvious strokes of ambition and achievement and indulgence, which is a shame, because,yes, I’d love to learn how Tolkein sat with mid-60s punk 45s in his head. Even when he discusses the songs that his first bands played, he lists them without truly going any further, beyond mentions of a track being ‘trippy’ etc. That in itself is supposed to be deeply meaningful to us. Yes, there’s exceptions, but the rule holds over hundreds of pages. It’s all immensely frustrating. The appearance given is of a man who’s only interested in the way in which the universe revolves around him.

      I wish that you could’ve asked him the questions you posed in your comment. In themselves, they would have promised more interesting information than we get in the whole of this book. It’s all very odd. Even in Tyler’s cultural neck of the woods, there’s been a great deal of interesting life-histories. From The Dirt to the story of Anvil to Chris Heath’s books about Robbie Williams, the competition is already pretty high. Did Tyler not look around himself and think, there’s a successful tradition here that I need to recognise and work with?

      I wonder. In truth, I doubt it.

      ATB.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Have you read Springsteen’s book? It’s marvelous. Gets less interesting in the final 25% or so, but all the formative stuff is so richly detailed.

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    1. I’ve been putting off reading the Springsteen memoir, although not because I lack interest. It’s just that I went through a serious Boss period a few years ago & I’ve been visiting less familiar places, as it were, since. But given your recommendation, which very intrigues me, I shall be heading Asbury Park way post-haste. Thank you 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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