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My degeneration

James Marcus is the author of "Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut" and proprietor of the blog House of Mirth (housemirth.blogspot.com).

When did the ‘60s end? Joan Didion, one of the great anatomists of that Aquarian decade, felt it grind to a halt on Aug. 9, 1969 -- when the news of Sharon Tate’s murder first spread through the lotus-eating entertainment community. Others point to the violent fiasco at the Altamont music festival later that year, when one audience member was stabbed to death during a Rolling Stones concert, or to the Kent State shootings just a few months later.

For a certain segment of the population, however, the ‘60s may never have ended at all. I’m talking about classic rock stars: those woolly mammoths who continue to roam the Earth, practically flaunting their pickled livers and capped teeth. For them, the gaudy decade has gone on and on, like a kind of prolonged childhood.

By now, of course, most of these golden codgers are rounding the bend into old age. If they have any intention of delivering a damage report, this is the time. Paul McCartney surpassed the proverbial age of 64 earlier this year. Pete Townshend is 62, while Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane is a village elder at 68. Now as it happens, four rock ‘n’ roll icons have recently obliged the public with the latest batch of autobiographical musings: Eric Clapton, Pattie Boyd, Ron Wood and Marianne Faithfull. And their books, admittedly the product of many a fried synapse, make for a sobering read.

Of the four, Clapton is the only major artist (despite some excellent recordings by singer/actress Faithfull and Wood’s career as an amiable second banana in the Faces and the Rolling Stones). Surely we might expect something special from him: not only gossip, but illumination. Well, Clapton’s life seems to have been one long wrestling match with his demons, and the sad fact is that the demons just kept winning. His life story is essentially a narrative of recovery. The drug of choice varied -- heroin, cocaine, alcohol -- but Clapton always found something to dim the voltage in his brain. Despite a good many artistic triumphs, the image that lingers is that of the strung-out guitarist hiding in his rural manse, drawing endless, Escher-like doodles with a Rapidograph.

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Not that Clapton had a monopoly on substance abuse. For Faithfull, “doing lots of heroin and coke and alcohol” is a fairly typical scene-setter. As for Wood, he recalls a delighted John Lennon turning to Rolling Stone Keith Richard and asking, “What’s the drug of the day?” To give him his due, Wood was more of a traditional boozer, joining his mates in putting away “fifteen pints of Guinness a minute for over 10 hours” on a particularly jolly New Year’s Eve.

And let’s not forget the sex. Model-turned-muse Boyd was initially married to George Harrison, then left him for Clapton, whose addictive behavior finally put the kibosh on that marriage as well. Wood slept with Boyd as her first marriage was collapsing, and thoughtfully allowed Harrison to sleep with Wood’s wife, Krissie -- right around the time Harrison was bedding down with Ringo Starr’s wife, Maureen. Where Faithfull fits into this rumba line I’m not sure, because she’s fairly discreet. Given her ancestry -- her great-great-uncle was Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the author of “Venus in Furs” and the man for whom masochism was named -- she may well have been the friskiest of the bunch. In any case, their intermingled lives do suggest a bedroom farce, with the cast of characters popping in and out of the boudoir.

Here’s the strange thing. As a music fan and a diligent student of the ‘60s, I was looking forward to reading these books. They taught me a number of important facts: how Clapton finally recognized his vocation (during an acid trip with Delaney Bramlett), what happened when Harrison met Frank Sinatra (during the recording session for “My Way”), and who truly wrote the spooky Rolling Stones song “Sister Morphine” (Faithfull). If you strip away the surface glitter of celebrity, you do recognize these people as screwed-up, often resilient human beings, coping with the same generational havoc that ruined you and all your friends. Boyd’s childhood in particular struck me with its peripatetic pathos: She was abandoned over and over, in Scotland, Kenya, England, like a waif out of “A Series of Unfortunate Events.”

Yet pondering these lives also makes me feel like a shriveled moralist -- it brings out my inner Republican. The initial reaction is envy. These people had more fun on a typical weekend than I’ve had since my bar mitzvah. But the drugging and screwing and self-indulgence soon grow tiresome, then increasingly sad. Nobody is trading away the perfection of art for the perfection of life, or vice versa. They’re just snorting everything that can fit into their nasal cavities or picking drunken fights or crashing expensive cars (the men, anyway). The sense of waste is colossal.

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I’m not suggesting that a life of rigorous sobriety would have made Ron Wood into a star. And Pattie Boyd was a muse -- a formidable one, having inspired “Something,” “Layla” and “Wonderful Tonight” -- rather than a creative participant in the great ‘60s pageant. But Clapton is a real artist who seldom treated his gift with the respect it deserved. His account of his life is decent and unflinching but also oddly impermeable, as if reality (with one very great, glaring exception) kept glancing off him. Only Faithfull seems to have profited from her devil’s bargain. In exchange for her extravagant flameout in the early ‘70s, she got a new career, a new voice (darkened by drugs and dissipation) and the sort of self-consciousness that her peers never seem to have developed. Recalling the late British writer Caroline Blackwood, she writes: “The absurdity, and even -- or especially -- the monstrosity of ordinary life were mother’s milk to her.”

The absurdity or monstrosity of ordinary life will be familiar phenomena to any thinking person who has survived beyond the age of 30. Yet they figure very little in the recollections of these aging rock stars because time really did stand still for the authors -- the joss sticks they lighted in late 1968 are still, somehow, burning. I wish them all a happy autumnal era. I respect them too, for keeping their mouths shut until they could recollect their glory days in tranquillity. (Nowadays they would have dashed off their memoirs after that first rehab trip to Hazelden, then promoted them like mad on “Oprah.”) But I’m afraid that the holy trinity of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll has lost some of its retrospective luster. Only the music is still worth listening to.


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