book reviews, music

A review of On and Off: An autobiography by Stephen Bishop…

Some time ago, I started following singer-songwriter Stephen Bishop on Facebook. I think I did so because I am a child of the 70s and 80s, and he’s written and sung some songs that have endured very well over the years. I love his original song, “On and On”, and as someone who saw Tootsie when it was in the movie theaters, I love his version of “It Might Be You”. I also love “Separate Lives”, which was used in the 1985 film White Nights. The famous version of that song was done as a duet by Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin, but Stephen Bishop wrote it as a solo.

No, Phil Collins didn’t write this song. It was composed by Stephen Bishop. I like both versions, but I think I prefer Stephen’s solo.

I remember a few years ago, I did a karaoke version of Stephen’s solo version of “Separate Lives”, and some mansplaining guy on SingSnap left me a congratulatory comment, then “informed” me that it was originally a Phil Collins song. I was annoyed by that comment and wrote, “No, it’s actually a composition by Stephen Bishop. It’s HIS song. Phil Collins just made it famous.” Yeah, maybe a little bitchy on my part, but if you’re gonna try to school me on something, especially when it’s about music, at least be RIGHT! Just a little pet peeve of mine… but I write about it to establish that I like Stephen Bishop’s music and have for a long time. I am, on the whole, a Bishop booster.

One of my favorite songs by Stephen Bishop.

So, when I learned that Stephen Bishop had written and self published his autobiography, I was interested. I like to read non-fiction, and especially enjoy autobiographies and biographies. However, having followed Stephen Bishop on Facebook and noticed some of his postings, I hesitated to pull the trigger. I’m going to be very honest. Stephen Bishop mostly comes across as very nice, and likely does his own social media, which I think is mostly a good thing. However, sometimes he also seems a little fawning and obsequious to me. I noticed that he was strongly urging people to read his book, which I guess is understandable. But there’s something to be said for letting a work stand for itself. If the subject is compelling, people will come to it. Some of his efforts to sell the book seemed a little too enthusiastic. On the other hand, having followed him on Facebook, I can believe that this book was authentically written by Stephen Bishop, in his own voice– for better or worse.

Anyway, I downloaded the book in late July and just finished reading it yesterday. I’m left with a mixed mind about On and Off. Overall, I’m not sorry I read the book. I learned a lot of things I didn’t know about Stephen Bishop. For instance, before I read his book, I didn’t realize that Bishop was raised in the Christian Science faith. His mother, who was from Key West, Florida, was a devoted adherent to the religion, and she dragged her son to church every week. However, in spite of his mother’s fervor for Christian Science, it’s quite clear to me that Bishop is no longer a follower. He includes a couple of anecdotes about the religion, which to many people will probably seem exotic.

Stephen Bishop didn’t grow up with his father, who was himself a musician, but made a living selling insurance. However, his father was in his life, even if Bishop’s “creepy” stepfather Kim was the more constant figure. Bishop makes it plain that he didn’t really like his stepfather, but he includes a number of stories about him, as well as a few photos. Although his mother was southern, Bishop was born and raised in San Diego, California. He makes it sound like there were some people in his community who were like surrogate parents to him. I can relate to that. I had a few of those “surrogate parents” myself, when I was growing up.

Some of Bishop’s stories are pretty funny. Some are just bizarre. A lot of his stories are genuinely entertaining and interesting, even if I was left scratching my head a few times. Bishop, to his credit, fully acknowledges that he’s been involved in a number of “weird” situations, which I can relate to, as someone who has also been in some truly odd predicaments myself. But I think some of the weird stories could have been replaced by more in depth writing about his life in the music business, as well as his upbringing.

Livingston Taylor does a nice job covering Stephen Bishop’s song, “On and On”. I notice that Stephen Bishop left him an appreciative comment. I’m a big Livingston Taylor fan, too. Especially when he’s in concert.

Prospective readers should know that a large portion of Bishop’s book consists of anecdotes, many of which are unrelated to each other. I guess it makes sense, as Bishop has made a name for himself writing songs, and most songs are short. Songwriting is not the same kind of writing as authoring a book is. I guess I was just a bit frustrated that the book was kind of mishmashed– with numbered anecdotes in some places, and portions that were more of a connected story in others. I also strongly believe that this book could have used an editor. There are some typos, and Bishop is frequently redundant, writing as if he’s speaking to his readers.

You know how sometimes, when you’re telling a story to someone, you might make a statement, go slightly off on a tangent, then come back to the original topic? That’s kind of what Stephen Bishop does. A little of that is okay, but it happens pretty frequently in this book. An editor would have streamlined the redundancies and perhaps connected Bishop’s life experiences in a more straightforward manner. I guess if I had to use musical terms, I would describe Bishop’s book as staccato, rather than legato. Maybe I just prefer legato writing to staccato, but that’s just me. I’m sure others like the short snippets that aren’t connected.

Stephen Bishop performs at the 1983 Academy Awards wearing a bespoke suit that he says he still owns. “It Might Be You” is one of the few Bishop hits that he didn’t write. I love this song.

One thing I did notice and appreciate about On and Off is that it’s a quick and easy read, and some of Bishop’s stories about other celebrities he’s met are interesting. However, I also noticed an implication that maybe he didn’t feel like he was a big enough star. He writes about how he was once good friends with the movie director John Landis, and Landis had both used his music and given him bit parts in his films. Bishop was famously cast in Animal House, and he includes the funny story about how he ended up singing “I Gave My Love a Cherry” in that film and two guitars were sacrificed for the sake of comedy.

Landis, who directed Michael Jackson’s video, “Thriller”, even used Bishop in that video. But Bishop writes that one day, he called Landis at home and found that his phone had been disconnected. Landis later told him to only call him at the office, but when Bishop did that, he would end up leaving messages for his old friend with a secretary, and Landis wouldn’t return his calls. Then he concludes that Landis had “cleaned house” and stopped talking to people who weren’t “big enough”.

I’m not a celebrity myself, so I don’t know what that world is like. Maybe there’s some truth to Bishop’s conclusions about Landis. However, having watched him post oily platitudes on other celebrities’ pages on social media, I kind of wonder if maybe Bishop doesn’t realize how he might come across to some people. Obviously, the man is a talented musician, singer-songwriter, and actor. He’s won Grammy and Oscar nominations for his work. I don’t think there’s a question that he’s got star quality. However, he does sometimes seem to be a bit socially awkward and unaware. Case in point, below is an excerpt about an interaction Bishop had with the late John Belushi:

[Belushi] knew that I was friends with Eric Clapton, and that really impressed him. John asked me when I was going to see Eric again. I happened to be going to England the next month and told Belushi that I would say hello to Eric for him. As luck would have it, I hung out with Eric a lot on that trip. I mentioned to Eric that there was this talented actor named John Belushi on a television show called Saturday Night Live in the United States. Eric immediately knew who I was talking about and shrugged a little bit and said, “He’s the guy who does the imitation of Joe Cocker right? I’m not so sure about that guy…” After I returned from England, I remember having a conversation on the phone with Belushi in a phone booth. John sounded so eager and like a little kid saying, “Did you mention me? Did you say that I’m his biggest fan?” I said, “Gee, John, I feel really bad, but Eric doesn’t like that Joe Cocker bit that you do.”

“Oh, really?” John said, very disappointed. “Oh, okay…”

Bishop, Stephen. On and Off: An autobiography by Stephen Bishop (pp. 193-194). Stephen Bishop Music/Windsong Entertainment . Kindle Edition.

Bishop continues that he found out that Belushi was on LSD at the time and had a “bad trip” after what he told him about Clapton’s negative response regarding Belushi being a fan of his. Then he writes, “I felt really bad about that.” First off, the idea that Belushi’s “bad trip” had anything to do with Bishop telling him that Eric Clapton wasn’t a fan of his is kind of egotistical in and of itself. And secondly, it seems to me that there was no reason to tell Belushi that Clapton “wasn’t so sure about him”. He could have simply told Belushi that Clapton had seen him on Saturday Night Live and left it at that. I didn’t think that what Clapton allegedly said sounded that bad, anyway. It’s not like he called Belushi an asshole or anything. He just said he wasn’t so sure about him. But it seems to me that telling Belushi that Clapton didn’t like him was kind of an unnecessary and tone deaf move in the first place.

Eric Clapton is another subject in and of itself. Bishop very frequently mentions his friendship with Eric Clapton, and writes more than once that Clapton is a fan of his. He also writes that Aretha Franklin once asked him for his autograph, following with a comment that seems kind of like “humble bragging”, when he writes that he “worshiped her”. There are a number of name dropping, “false humility”, “humble bragging” moments in this book. A good editor could have toned down this tendency so that it was less annoying and off-putting, and more entertaining and informative.

My guess is that Stephen Bishop sees himself as a great writer. And, you know what? He IS a great writer… of pop songs. Writing a book is different, and I think he should have had some help writing his story. That’s just my opinion as a “nobody” out here in blogger land. But, on the positive side, I mostly did enjoy Bishop’s book. He’s lived an interesting life. I will also continue to enjoy Stephen Bishop’s music, but with a new understanding that I didn’t have before I read his autobiography.

Bottom line– I do think On and Off is worth reading if you’re a fan of Stephen Bishop’s music. However, I’m also reminded of the old saying… “You should never meet your heroes.”

As an Amazon Associate, I earn a small commission from Amazon on sales made through my site.

Standard

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.