I recently read Herbie Hancock’s Possibilities, his autobiography. Co-authored by Lisa Dickey, the book is a fun and engaging recounting of an amazing musical career. After reading it, I consulted the reviews. Casual readers, musicians and jazz fans I presume, pretty much give it a standing ovation. More literary audiences – book reviewers – find it well written but not gripping.
What explains the divergence? The fans want a fairly straightforward text. They want stories of a great man doing great things. Given Hancock’s insanely successful career, that is pretty easy to do. He played with almost every major jazz giant of his era, from Miles Davis to Eric Dolphy, but invented the jazz-funk band and even won a Grammy for Rockit, which brought scratching to a wide audience. This book fits the book.
The critics want something different. They want a text that’s interesting, and innovative. That’s very hard to do, especially for Hancock. On one level, it’s a matter of personality. To write something interesting, you have to take a subject and look at it from an interesting perspective. You have to step out of yourself and reflect on things. Hancock has a very “matter of fact” personality. He admits at multiple points that he doesn’t dwell on things and doesn’t let things drag him down. He’s also a technical guy, even studying engineering. That’s a personality type that doesn’t lend itself to highly emotive writing.
There is a deeper reason for the flatness of the book. It has to do with being a successful person, especially a hyper-successful one like Hancock. After a certain point, things happen at you. Once you become prominent, things just start falling in your lap. It doesn’t mean that you work less. You still must struggle and you still have to put in the time. But you are doing a different kind of work – analyzing and assessing the opportunities that present themselves.
In modern social theory, we might say that Hancock has occupied a central position in his social field – music. And when this happens, there is an emotional transformation from struggling person who must create their world to the person who exploits their world. Once Herbie becomes established, he just asks for things – and they show up. Funk musicians? Check. Hip hop DJ? Check. Oscar award? Check. Being at the center of music is what Hancock is about. Explaining what is interesting about the successful Herbie, in comparison to the struggling Herbie is hard.
The real challenge of the successful person writing an autobiography is to get away from just listing off all your gigs. This is why political autobiographies are usually horrible. It is easy for a politician to mechanically go through what happened to them without taking the times to reflect or offer up any real insights. Hancock’s book is not really that bad and it does have a few surprises, such as a chapter about his drug addiction, but still, it still falls into a rut.
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