"I'm tired of being misunderstood. I will open my heart. I want to tell it like it is." When the 42-year-old R&B star R Kelly announced last week that he was planning to write his memoirs, it made headlines around the world. While it's hardly unusual for a musician to pen an autobiography - or at least, have one penned for them - R Kelly's promises to be juicier than most. The R&B star, who was acquitted last year of 14 charges of child pornography, promised he would be writing at length about the six-year legal ordeal that, his publishers say, almost ruined his life.
As well as detailing his acquittal, the book will also cover the death of his mother, how he wrote famous songs including the Michael Jackson hit You Are Not Alone and his annulled marriage to the R&B star Aaliyah. She was 15 when they wed in 1994. The then 27-year-old Kelly had met her while working on her debut album, Age Ain't Nuthin' But a Number. Kelly's memoir will be published in 2011 by Smiley Books, an imprint owned by the radio talk show host Tavis Smiley, and will be co-written by David Ritz, who has worked on books with Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye.
While no one is doubting Robert Sylvester Kelly's musical credentials - "Even a routine R Kelly track outshines much of the competition," said The New York Times, reviewing his latest CD, Untitled, last month - can he cut it as a memoirist? Will he discuss his arrest after his 1996 brawl outside a health club or the claims against him of false imprisonment by his former employee Henry Vaughan? Will he open up about the repeated rumours concerning his personal life? Will the book be any good?
According to the editor of Q magazine, Paul Rees, the answer is a definite yes. R Kelly's life has all the elements essential to a good rock 'n' roll memoir and in this instance it turns out that rock 'n' roll cliché is the readers' friend. "Rock 'n' roll lives should read like the bawdiest fictions," says Rees, "including a surfeit of generally monstrous behaviour with the odd near-death experience thrown in. More than one trip to rehab and a resultant terrible back slide into old ways also drives momentum. Falling out terribly with former colleagues and using the book to put one over on them, even decades on, can only be an enhancement."
The best rock 'n' roll memoirs, says Rees, include Mötley Crüe's The Dirt ("The truth may be more unpalatable than this fabulously entertaining story," he says), Bob Geldof's Is That It (especially good on his early years in The Boomtown Rats), Take It Like a Man by Boy George ("unblinkingly honest," said The Guardian in its review) and I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, the unsparing portrait of the alcoholic songwriter and performer Warren Zevron by his ex-wife. Rolling Stone called it "one of the most unflinching examinations of the rock 'n' roll life ever".
This has been a vintage year for the rock memoir. Bob Dylan finally published Chronicles, his idiosyncratic recollection on being a spokesman for a generation, and Mackenzie Phillips dropped a bombshell when she revealed in her autobiography, High on Arrival, that she endured a 10-year incestuous affair with her father, John Phillips, of the Mamas and the Papas. In those two instances, the stars penned the titles themselves and, despite its rough edges, the prose is all part of the package. But, says Rees, books such as the Blur bassist Alex James's elegant, self-penned memoir, Bit of a Blur, are very much the rock 'n' roll exception rather than the rule.
"Most pop stars have faltering memories and the attention spans of goldfish," he says. "The chances that they would research anything - including their own life - and spend months putting it into a coherent order are slim indeed." But if they don't write them and can barely recall many of the events within them, why do so many pop stars - everyone from Rick Wakeman to Ray Davies - publish memoirs at all?
"If not for the money, then the king-size egos that allow them to do what they do is usually a clincher," says Rees. "Since many spend most of their time talking about themselves, it's a natural progression." R Kelly has an advantage: there's no shortage of material to work from. But, says Rees, that is not always a guarantee of a thumping good read. The Rolling Stone Bill Wyman's 1991 memoir, Stone Alone, is for Rees the worst rock memoir ever written. "It promised much and delivered little," he says. "He was forever on the outside looking in."
Not a problem for R Kelly, one would imagine.