An interesting, engaging memoir of a highly-driven young rock star
Before he was the charismatic singer of Black Veil Brides and an accomplished solo artist under the Andy Black moniker, he was Andrew Dennis Biersack, an imaginative and creative kid in Cincinnati, Ohio, struggling with anxiety, fear, loneliness, and the impossible task of fitting in. With his trademark charm, clever wit, and insightful analysis, Biersack tells the story of his childhood and adolescence.
The discovery of the artistic passions that would shape his life, and his decision to move to Hollywood after his 18th birthday to make his dreams come true, even when it meant living in his car to make it all a reality. It’s the origin story of one of modern rock’s most exciting young superheroes, from building miniature concerts with KISS action figures in his bedroom to making the RIAA gold-certified single “In the End” and connecting with passionate fans worldwide.
I’ve been a fan of Black Veil Brides since their second album, Set the World on Fire. This was during a time when I wasn’t reading as much music journalism as used to. As a result, I didn’t know much about the band, and when I learned that Biersack had written a memoir, I was keen to read it and find out more about his and the band’s history. They Don’t Need to Understand is an engaging memoir. I enjoyed it.
Biersack’s book covers a lot of typical ground for music memoirs: childhood, formative bands, early musical experiences and interest in performing, a sense of isolation or distance from his peers. He dismisses early on the notion that this is a memoir — “I’m too young for that” — although, given the contents, it’s hard to think of it as anything else.
The story of his early years and artistic endeavours (he tried his hand at acting as a teenager), the book was most interesting for me was when he turned his attention to Black Veil Brides and music. He takes us through the band’s formation and early iteration(s), their first single “Knives and Pens”, and how the success of its video on YouTube helped launch the band’s career. It was interesting to read about the power of social media in helping raise awareness for young musicians — first via MySpace, then YouTube.
I cofounded Black Veil Brides in my hometown and told everyone I would move to California when I turned eighteen. When the day arrived, nobody in the band came with me.
I’ll be honest: when I first heard “Knives and Pens”, I wasn’t particularly impressed. They sounded very much of the time: a screamo-type band that had a lot of way still to go. (I have very strong opinions about music.) There was, however, something about them that caught my attention, and they ultimately blossomed into a far more interesting band with a sound and style of their own. This year, the band released Re-Stitch These Wounds, a full re-recording of their debut, more in keeping with their current sound and vastly superior to the original.
When Set the World on Fire was released, coupled with a radically different look (very Mötley Crüe), the band had taken a more rock ‘n’ roll approach, something more fun. It was clear they didn’t take themselves too seriously — if for no other reason than the get up they wore, something Andy discusses in the book.
The band has since released three more albums, and frontman Andy Biersack has also released excellent two solo albums. While Set the World On Fire put the band on my radar, it wasn’t until 2013’s Wretched and Divine that they ended up among my favourite bands.
Over the course of They Don’t Need to Understand, the author covers the full history of the band and his own musical career to date.
Overall, it’s a pretty well-written memoir. Biersack tells us of his love for performing from a very young age, as well as his “relentless drive and intense self-belief”. He writes with obvious fondness and love for his parents, who seem to have been incredibly supportive of his dreams, sacrificing quite a lot in order to give him the chance to pursue his artistic goals. He’s refreshingly self-aware, and takes the edge off any potentially cocky or arrogant moments with well-placed self-deprecation…
There’s a certain measure of being insufferable that’s necessary for a story like mine. I’m an only child. I’d make my parents turn on the camcorder and read interview questions I’d prepared for myself. “Why, yes, Mom,” I’d say as a precocious six-year-old. “I am the biggest rock star in the world right now, thank you so much for asking me about that.”
… and also honest accounts of when he was at his worst.
I remember times I was rude or inconsiderate because I thought it made me seem more “interesting” or “badass.” It takes time to find our way. It was a journey to become the person I’d started out dreaming I’d become. I never aspired to become a twenty-year-old jerk still shaking off the hangover from the night before, but as the influences around me grew stronger, that’s where I quickly ended up. A character replaced my true self.
As I was reading They Don’t Need to Understand, I realized it was the first memoir I’ve read by a musician or performer younger than I am. (I think Andre Iguodala‘s is the only other memoir by someone younger than me that I’ve read, and he’s only a year younger than me.) Being used to reading memoirs and biographies of musicians older than me — the artists whose work I listened to as a kid and teenager, such as Guns ‘n’ Roses, Bruce Springsteen, Aerosmith, and so forth — it was a little strange to read Biersack’s explanation of certain well-known rock facts, events, and milestones. For example, his short section on Metallica’s “Black” album. Rather than creating a distance between me and the subject matter, it’s a good reminder to confront any gatekeeping tendencies. “How could they not know about the Black album?!” Right. They weren’t born yet. Also, unlike when we were growing up, there are now far more sources of information than a handful of rock magazines like Kerrang!, Metal Edge (RIP), and Metal Hammer. This is something that pretty much all fandoms need to check themselves on: there’s no one way to be a fan, nor is there only a short window of time in which one can be a “true fan”. In rock and metal, in particular, I feel like the fanbase as a whole needs to be far more accepting of younger generations of fans.
Another big difference, due to Biersack’s age: the presence and importance of social media as a tool for success. He talks about his evolving relationship with his bandmates, the industry, and also the songs and albums. For example, the fact that he has “little personal connection” to some of Set the World on Fire,
… as the lyrics were more of a reflection of what I thought someone in my position would say than who I was or how I felt… I mean, I wanted to be cool, I wanted to be interesting, I wanted to have a mystique about me.
Reading the memoir, it seems like Biersack went through quite an accelerated “rock star story” — the “character” he mentions in the pull-quote earlier in this piece. Sometimes the timeline is a little muddled, but there are so many moments that remind readers just how young he was when many of these events happened. The concept of what a “rock star” is supposed to be permeates so much of popular and music culture. At the same time, there are plenty of cautionary tales out there — Mötley Crüe’s The Dirt and Duff McKagan It’s So Easy, jump to mind (the latter is one of the best music memoirs, in my humble opinion). It’s clear from Biersack’s account, though, that the industry is still comfortable with romanticizing the debauched side of the rock ‘n’ roll “lifestyle”.
Keeping this in mind, I couldn’t help but think that many of the professional adults around Andy and his band really should have been better about looking out for him — especially as a human being, but even cynically they should have been concerned for their business investment. Sure, he accepts responsibility for his actions, but as a young singer, maybe all of the “adults” shouldn’t have been encouraging him to sing drunk because he apparently sounded better? When he does address substance abuse and so forth — for example, the events that led him to finally become sober — he manages avoid sounds like a PSA.
The whole idea of cocaine is hilarious to me. For starters, it tastes terrible. The headaches, sore throat, and diarrhea aren’t my idea of glamorous. Coke makes a person feel like they have to say everything they are thinking and at a pace that makes it nearly incomprehensible.
Ultimately, They Don’t Need to Understand is a must read for fans of Black Veil Brides and Andy Black’s solo music. It’s an interesting and often endearing story of an incredible driven musician, hungry for success and creative freedom. He writes fondly of his creative influences, people who have entered his life and helped shape its trajectory. Sure, at times the self-deprecation comes across as protesting-too-much (come on: he’s confident and pretty sure of himself in many ways), but the book does a good job of reining these moments in.
It’s a very modern music/rock memoir, one that offers lessons and words of caution about the traps and pitfalls that still exist for young artists. If you’re a long-time fan of rock memoirs, then you’ll be interested to see how some things don’t change, but how others have altered the music, industry, and fan landscape considerably. A good read.
Andy Biersack’s They Don’t Need to Understand is due to be published by Rare Bird Books in North America and in the UK, on December 8th, 2020.
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Review copy received via Edelweiss