A lot of musicians’ autobiographies start with a cliché: the Big Moment. Sometimes it’s the author on stage in an arena full of shrieking fans, thinking, “This is what I always dreamed of. How did I get here?” Or it’s the author waking up in a hospital or a rehab clinic after one bender too many, thinking, “I have everything I ever dreamed of. How did I get here?”
Will Sergeant is having none of that. His autobiography, Bunnyman, starts out with a blunt, straightforward statement: “I am William Alfred Sergeant aka Will Sergeant aka Sgt Fuzz. This is my story from the beginning.” Fans of Sergeant’s transcendent guitar work with Echo and the Bunnymen might be frustrated that Sergeant doesn’t even get around to his first band until about two-thirds of the way through. But the life that led up to that event is essential in understanding Sergeant and his music.
Sergeant’s story is as much a depiction of childhood in post-World War II Britain as it is a chronicle of his musical growth. He spares no detail in portraying his grim surroundings in a small town outside Liverpool, a city still scarred from German aerial bombings, and the experience of growing up among people who were damaged mentally and physically from living through the war. As Sergeant points out, he was born in 1958, a scant 13 years after the war ended, and its effects were still being felt, as shown by the difficult circumstances in Sergeant’s troubled home.
Britain’s rigid class structure further contributed to the sense of despair in Sergeant’s part of the world. He and others, perceived as educational no-hopers, were funnelled into vocational schools with mostly indifferent teachers. But it gradually becomes apparent through Sergeant’s story how music brought him joy, creativity, and a glimpse of different worlds. Eventually, music offered him a different path. “Devoid of ambition or any skills, a dead-end job was all most in our classroom could hope for,” he says of his last year in school. “I now know, after all the experiences I have had over the years, I am not as thick as I was deemed to be by my school.”
Each of Bunnyman’s chapters starts with the title of a song and artist that typifies the era for Sergeant. He watched music shows on television and listened to the radio, and through buying his own records and trading with friends, was able to experience the work of all kinds of artists, even if only to discover what he did and didn’t like. When he was old enough to start going to live shows, he became even more of a music fan. But still, he remained an acne-plagued, somewhat shy teenager; he wryly mentions, in describing his and his friends’ adventures with Ouija boards, that “it was always male spirits we contacted. It seems we were not attractive enough to interest even dead females.”
After getting a job in the kitchen of a posh Liverpool department store, Sergeant had the opportunity and the spare money to start exploring the city’s music scene. But the point at which things really changed for him was when he plucked up the courage to venture into Eric’s, the city’s legendary punk music venue.
Eric’s became important to Sergeant as a place to hear live music, but, more significantly, to connect with like-minded souls. Sergeant characterizes his “gloomy existence in the late 1970s” as “no interest in me from any girls, hardly any cash, and my face looking like the surface of the moon. The nights at Eric’s were just about the only thing to keep me from going into that hell of deep depression.” Being a regular at Eric’s introduced him to new friends, and to friends of new friends, which eventually resulted in a casual invitation to join an amateur band. The limitations of Sergeant’s and his friends’ musical experience – and their tight budgets – turned out to be advantages, in that they led the nascent band to develop a distinctively minimalist style.
After a few personnel changes, things moved quickly. Just one year after Echo and the Bunnymen’s very first one-song gig at Eric’s – which Sergeant describes in wonderfully evocative detail – the band had released a critically acclaimed single, played several successful gigs (and a few not so successful), and performed on radio and television. Major international record companies were starting to sniff around, and that’s where the book ends, just as the band has ditched its not-so-trusty Mini Pops Junior drum machine for an actual drummer. I don’t know if Sergeant is planning to continue his story in another book, but I for one would be very interested in reading a sequel.
Bunnyman is not a light read by any means, as there are some piercing moments. However, Sergeant’s dry wit and thoughtfulness make it a provocative and compelling experience. Those who expect a standard musical autobiography might be dissatisfied, but Bunnyman escapes the sometimes too rigid confines of that genre, and, like its author, finds its own path.