A Genesis in my Bed, Steve Hackett, Wymer Publishing, 208 pages, £13.99
CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD enjoys the modest memoirs of a guitarist who has little to be modest about
While the likes of the capital’s O2 Arena brace themselves for the invasion of the Phil Collins version of Genesis next spring, or whenever it is we’re finally released from our collective house arrest, the band’s former guitarist Steve Hackett offers something that’s mercifully not as sugary. Residual 1960s peace and love might be at the core of Hackett’s long-awaited memoir A Genesis in my Bed – the title is taken from an excited American groupie’s exclamation on finding herself closeted with the author one night in his Midwestern hotel room – but there’s also a becoming modesty and a refreshing calm to this account of the unprepossessing kid with the goggly NHS specs who graduated from the bombed-out austerity of postwar London, where joy was in as short supply as fresh food, to flying the Atlantic on Concorde and packing them in at Madison Square Garden.
Odd as it might seem to the rest of us, Hackett makes it all sound like a perfectly logical progression in life, and it’s part of his book’s considerable charm that he treats the lows and highs (and more lows) with the same stoic good cheer, keeping a lid on any unseemly emotion. Steady on, you can almost hear Hackett say in these pages, we’re British – and you remember that the author grew up at a time when the country was more drilled and regimented than in any other era of its history, where ubiquitous gravy made everything taste alike and kids like young Hackett sat belted and shivering at night in their identical, redbrick houses furnished just like their granny’s. “Who has not felt,” wrote the social historian James Morris in 1962,
…the deadweight of that worn-out, disillusioned, smug, astigmatic, half-educated generation, weighing lumpishly upon the nation’s shoulders?
It was against this England that the Beatles and the Stones, with the likes of Genesis a half-step behind them, were in glamorous revolt. The latter made an only tentative start. Their debut single, a Bee Gees pastiche called “The Silent Sun”, conspicuously avoided any sales, and after recording their first album – entitled From Genesis to Revelation, and marketed in the ‘Religious’ section of most British record shops – the young band members all drifted off to university, convinced that their career was over.
They later gave it a second shot, and things finally took off when lead singer Peter Gabriel wandered on the stage of a boxing stadium in Dublin one night in 1972 while attired in his wife’s red cocktail dress and a fox’s head. Fleet Street ran a front-page photo of the event and the band’s fee doubled overnight as a result. Soon Genesis went on to cut their masterpiece Selling England by the Pound, and John Lennon was calling them one of his favourite bands, which was about as close to a papal blessing as you could get in their line of work.
Meanwhile, the 20-year-old Hackett had joined the lineup after placing an advertisement in the “For Hire” columns of Melody Maker, instantly bringing an astutely varied guitar sound – covering the waterfront from heavy-rock riffing to an exhilarating but plangent touch of acoustic – to the mix. His solo piece Horizons on the Foxtrot LP had a lightness of melody with which Bach might not have been disappointed. Genesis were fabulously lucky to have him, and between about 1970-75 the band invented a look and a sound that was plainly modern, eclectic, virtuosic, emotionally thoughtful and lyrically witty, with a larding of dystopianism and a refreshing aversion to the demands of playlist-pleasing, box-ticking blandness. It was their fusion of rock-band swagger with some of the technical prowess of a string quintet that informed dozens of lesser groups coming up behind them. Whether Mars Volta and the rest recognise it or not, an awful lot of what they do is streaming Genesis.
Of course that isn’t to say it was all plain sailing at the time. Hackett’s tenure in Genesis from 1970-77 may have marked the band’s creative peak, but it was matched by a relentless, budget-conscious tour schedule and at best only break-even material rewards. Beyoncé might live in a house made of Cartier jewellery and swim in a pool filled with Cristal champagne and pink ice cubes, but down at the other end of the scale, for working performers life can be tough. Not the least of this book’s charms is the author’s enjoyably deadpan account of some of the Spinal Tap-like indignities of keeping the show on the road. At one early gig at Cheltenham Ladies College, he recalls, the well-heeled young audience members sat staring open-mouthed at the shaggy musicians playing before them, as though they had just crash-landed from Mars. At least they bothered to turn up on that occasion.
On other nights the five-piece band was almost larger than the paying crowd. Hackett writes of one show at a football stadium in Italy,
where the few stragglers who showed up were completely outnumbered by the heavily sedated inmates of a psychiatric hospital bordering the pitch. Trapped behind a high metal fence, the poor souls just stared glassy-eyed at our show. We felt about as welcome as a condom at the Vatican
Even after going on to play to 15,000 ecstatic fans at the Empire Pool, Wembley, Hackett simply packed up his guitar and got a lift back to his parents’ small flat in Pimlico where he was still living. That same general air of modesty pervades the book as a whole. Hackett is too honourable to really spill the beans either on his fellow band members or any of the various perks of life as a working musician. Unlike, say, the Motley Crue story, the book doesn’t aspire to a joyful cascade of indiscretions, although at one point the author admits:
I had some pretty strange encounters [with women], from the burlesque dancer and the female wrestling champion to the girl whose fantasy was a brutal night with Vincent Price
Hackett left Genesis essentially to pursue his own career, and true to his word he’s gone on to release an astonishing 25 or so solo albums as well as collaborating with everyone from the American folk singer Richie Havens to the Hungarian jazz-rock group Djabe. There are musicians whose last record is very like their first. Having learned their trade, mastered it for once and all, they practice it with little variation to the very end. Steve Hackett is very different. He will be remembered for being fearless in his single-minded pursuit of what he thought his evolving craft required. This is a quiet, wry, unvarnished, always compellingly fluent account of 50 years of assorted ups and downs in the entertainment world, with the supremely satisfying ending of a happily married man at the peak of his creative game. You should treat yourself to a copy immediately.
CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD’s Polanski: A Biography (Random House) is available from all the usual sources