I have always enjoyed biographies and autobiographies, reading about the famous, the infamous and historical figures. But not all biographical stories live up to the hype, and not every life is as fascinating as the famous person thinks it is. These three autobiographies, however, exceed expectations.
Stories I Only Tell My Friends by Rob Lowe
I have always admired Lowe’s acting ability, but given his vacuous pretty-boy image, I wasn’t expecting polished writing, just a juicy tell-all memoir. I was astonished to discover a very readable and fascinating autobiography, made even more surprising by the fact that he didn’t have a ghostwriter. Through vignettes of his life growing up in the Dayton, Ohio, suburbs, the son of a lawyer father and a typical ’60s housewife mother, Rob Lowe expertly tells the tale of his childhood, rise to fame and the difficult years of fast living, scandal, and the struggle for redemption. Through the trauma of his parents’ divorce, which affected him deeply, and his first introduction to acting in a local production of the Wizard of Oz at the Dayton Community Theater, Lowe weaves the fascinating story of the journey which took him to Hollywood and later fame. Lowe recounts his sometimes rocky road to stardom, attending numerous auditions all over Dayton (regularly enduring long bus rides alone), the family’s move to Malibu, California, where he meets Chris Penn and brother Sean in a grocery store parking lot “shooting” their own amateur movie with Emilio Estevez.
In California Lowe begins to pursue acting in earnest, even acquiring an agent, and auditioning for parts as an extra or for commercials. He gets a glimpse of the white hot comet that is instant stardom when he meets a young LeVar Burton just a few days before Roots bursts into TV legend. Lowe finally gets what he thinks is his big break when he lands a role in a TV series, only to have the show fail and cast him back into obscurity. On the verge of giving up, he gets the call he’s been waiting for, an audition for a role in The Outsiders, directed by Francis Ford Coppola. He is competing for a plum role with the likes of Tom Cruise, Emilio Estevez, Dennis Quaid, Scott Baio, Mickey Rourke, Matt Dillon, and Ralph Macchio. When he wins a major part in the movie, the trajectory of Lowe’s career finally begins to propel him to stardom and he experiences his own ride on the fame comet at the age of 17. Class, Oxford Blues, Hotel New Hampshire, St. Elmo’s Fire, and the rest, as they say is history.
Lowe’s writing is excellent; he evokes all the pain and angst of his parents’ divorce and the subsequent uprooting of his life in Dayton, which he describes as the nexus of his subconscious resolve to avoid emotional pain at all costs, a mindset he says began a “life of avoidance” which would later “cost him dearly.” But the young determined boy pursued his dream, believing with dogged persistence that he would achieve stardom. He never deviated from that vision and has recreated his career more than once in devotion to that dream (most notably, years later in TV’s The West Wing). Lowe has a story to tell and he does it well.
Scar Tissue by Anthony Kiedis and Larry Sloman
Anthony Kiedis, provocative vocalist and lyricist of the band Red Hot Chili Peppers, has written a shockingly honest memoir of his high times and misdemeanors as the poster boy for excess and debauchery. A New York Times bestseller, this autobiography, co-written by Larry Sloman (notable for his collaboration with Howard Stern on Stern’s best-selling books Private Parts and Miss America), pulls no punches. Kiedis candidly cops to years of injecting cocaine, speed, Black Tar heroin, Persian heroin, and LSD, a virtually unbreakable habit which earns him a nasty case of Hepatitis C.
Born of Midwestern parents who were polar opposites, Anthony Kiedis, took after his father, a confirmed bad boy who eventually took off for California and the hippie drug culture, and a sweet, young free-spirited mother. His parents’ chaotic relationship resulted in Anthony’s birth on November 1, 1962, a date Kiedis finds auspicious because “In numerology, the number one is such a potent number that to have three ones all in a row is a pretty good place to start your life”. (Apparently, Kiedis was a flower child from an early age.) Eventually, his father settled in California and his mother stayed in Michigan, leading to a tumultuous existence of bouncing back and forth between the two states. Seduced by his father’s rootless lifestyle, Kiedis lobbied to move to California to live with his father at the age of 12.
Upon his arrival he was immediately introduced to pot and a life of no rules or responsibilities. During the daytime Kiedis tried to balance his relatively normal 7th grade life; by night he got high with his father and accompanied him to nightclubs, where they hobnobbed with famous rock stars. Kiedis began to get into drinking, breaking into homes, and petty theft, as well as using harder drugs; his home life had virtually no structure. Along the way, he got some small acting jobs and met some of the original players in the Red Hot Chili Peppers while attending Fairfax High School. After a year at UCLA, an introduction to heroin, and some experience introducing bands at local dance clubs, Kiedis and his friends were finally asked to play as a band. Kiedis wrote a couple of songs which they performed, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers was born. Signing a record deal and a life dominated by hard-core drug use ensued.
Though he seems to revel in the wantonness of his self-indulgence, Kiedis tells his story with truth and sincerity. His style is engaging and even though you feel sorry for the little boy who lives a directionless life, you want to see him overcome his circumstances and make something of himself. There is a perception of sensitivity underneath all the hard living and drugging. And eventually, despite the fame and dissipation, the broken relationships, and the relapses, he does finds clarity and even a sense of spirituality.
I Am Ozzy by Ozzy Osbourne
Born in 1948 to Jack and Lillian Osbourne in the hardscrabble town of Aston, Birmingham, in the West Midlands of England, John Michael “Ozzy” Osbourne was the fourth of six children living in a row house with no indoor plumbing. In an era before there was a proper understanding of dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, young John exhibited both and developed a talent for entertaining in class in lieu of participating. The result was, of course, that he absorbed very little education and was almost illiterate.
Nicknamed “Ozzy” by his school mates, he made friends by playing the clown, even cavorting for the biggest kid in school to recruit him as a protector against the local bullies. The details of Ozzy’s life of poverty as a child will break your heart, from not having proper shoes or underwear to tales of hiding from the “knock-knock man” who came to collect credit payments. He also experienced his share of bullying in school, by other students, and in one case by a particularly sadistic teacher.
Leaving school at 15, Ozzy proceeded to work several industrial jobs: one in a car parts factory (where he became addicted to sniffing the chemicals in the degreasing machine), and another testing car horns (in which he saw nothing in his future but looming deafness). Then he discovered The Beatles, and began to dream of being in the music business; he grew his hair long and got a tattoo, but no music job materialized. Facing the fact that he would have to earn a living elsewhere, he secured employment in a slaughterhouse, first becoming a “puke remover” (removing the contents of animal stomachs), then a “cow-killer” (firing a pressurized spike into the animal’s brain), among other jobs. Oddly enough, he claims to have been pretty good at it (which didn’t endear him to me at all), but mercifully, he only lasted there 18 months.
After a brief stint as a burglar, followed by a few weeks in Winston Green prison in the Young Offenders wing, he posted an ad in the window of a music store (“Ozzy Zig Needs Gig” – even he admits to being clueless as to why he added “Zig” to his name). He finally launched his music career by claiming to be an experienced singer and promising to bring his own PA system. After running through different players and band names, Ozzy wound up in Earth, which eventually changed its name to Black Sabbath and, for all intents and purposes, is credited with starting the heavy metal genre.
Through marriages, children, epic drinking and drugging, Ozzy has persevered. He was even thrown out of his own band, but reincarnated himself with a new band and original material and became even more famous. Through horrible accidents and the death of band members, Ozzy has remained Ozzy; he has been up, down, near death and narrowly escaped becoming a fatality more times than can be counted (most often as a result of his balancing act with alcohol and drugs). The fame of “The Ozbournes” TV show revived him yet again, and even though he came across as a dysfunctional wreck, he still fascinated people. He is just too interesting not to stop and watch. And through it all, you still can’t help liking the guy. His story is a riveting read (co-written by Chris Ayres) and who knows how he’ll recreate himself tomorrow?
Kiedis, Anthony and Sloman, Larry, Scar Tissue, Hyperion, 2004
Lowe, Rob, Stories I Only Tell My Friends: An Autobiography, Henry Holt & Co., 2011
Osbourne, Ozzy, and Ayres, Chris, I Am Ozzy, Grand Central Publishing, 2010