My former colleague Dave DiMartino interviewed Eminem for Yahoo! Music at the height of the artist's Slim Shady superstardom. When asked what his impressions were, DiMartino said Marshall Mathers — because that's who he interviewed — was "a super nice guy. I really liked him. I also felt a little sorry for him. I think he's overwhelmed by it all. I don't think he ever expected to be this huge."
That comment has colored my perception of the artist ever since. And that's one of the strongest points made in the rap superstar's new autobiography, The Way I Am. "I had no idea I was going to be so famous," he claims early on. Later, he argues: "If I had to do it again, I don't know if I would." And there are statements like that throughout the book, demonstrating that — like many of the world's greatest and most recognized artists — Eminem's rise to the top was basically an accident of talent. Even his patented peroxided hair fits into that mold, as he first adopted it during an Ecstasy experience. "I wasn't thinking that the peroxide thing was going to be my look," he writes. "I was just being stupid on drugs ... [Dr.] Dre was dead silent ... and [said], "That's it! We found your image! [Label head] Jimmy Iovine just freaked out. 'This is your identity. This is the identity we've been looking for the whole time!'"
It's been three years since Eminem retreated from the limelight — which is almost a lifetime in today's pop music culture — with rumors of drug addiction and battles with personal demons surrounding him. So, the new book, along with a finished album, Relapse, due out by the end of this year, is an official comeback for the star. And it's a mighty fine one. The book's prose has a choppy, sometimes stream-of-consciousness feel to it but is still highly readable. It's not Dylan's Chronicles, Volume 1 in its perfect "out there"-ness, by any means — but it's much better than many Em detractors anticipated.
Eminem's life up to now hasn't exactly been a closed book, thanks to his lyrics, his interviews and, of course, 8 Mile. So one couldn't call The Way I Am a series of great, earth-shattering revelations, although he does come clean on many touchstones, be it his personal and family relationships, those aforementioned demons and the drug addiction. Interestingly, he writes that he was one of the few in his circle who didn't do drugs as a kid; "The funny thing is, I didn't really start doing drugs until I rapped about them," he claims. "When I was younger, I'd drink a 40 after work or maybe smoke a little weed. I had friends who experimented with mushrooms and shit like that, but I wouldn't do it."
As for those aforementioned family relationships, though, he's very oblique and surface-y about ex-wife Kim — basically stating that, despite their differences in the past, they now get along great and are committed to raising their child the best they can — and especially estranged mother Debbie, who has her own memoir finally getting published in this country next month; he's a little more forthcoming regarding the suicide of his uncle, among other things.
He even points out that that all those gossip column rumors were true — "Supernatural" was written about a romance with Mariah Carey, although, again, the details are oblique or, in this case, hardly there at all; Em writes that one simply needs to "read between the lines" of that song's lyrics "and you'll know what I'm talking about."
What fans will most cherish, however, are the abundant photos — it's a beautiful book, graphically speaking — and mementos, the latter including a lot of handwritten song lyrics. The photos run from his childhood and private life to his Detroit posse to pop cultural artifacts (including his Mad magazine cover — "The way I see it, you know you've made it when you're in Mad magazine" — and the official Eminem Bobblehead) to photos of Elton John (Em explains he wrote a letter to that gent following all the "homophobia" controversy and they became fast friends; "He really knew where I was coming from and he knew I wasn't this straight-up homophobic dude ... Elton and me — we're friends. He got married to another man! He's gay! And we're friends! And who cares?"), Robin Williams, Hugh Hefner and Dustin Hoffman, those latter examples driving home just how massive this dude is (and was) and why he's the biggest thing, culturally speaking, to come out of Detroit in the last decade and a half.
You don't even have to be a particularly big Eminem fan to enjoy this book, especially if you're a Detroiter. There are mentions of Motor City landmarks (and even a few ghosts) scattered throughout the 215-page tome, from tons of mentions of the late Proof (the book opens with Eminem's grief over the death of his best friend and mentor: "I have never felt so much pain in my life") to St. Andrew's Hall to a slew of shots of the old dilapidated Eight Mile Road neighborhood. Like many of the greatest rock stars of the past, one of Eminem's best talents has been his knack for self-invention and then reinvention; I kept thinking while reading the book how wonderful it would have been if Elvis Presley — the artist to whom Eminem was often compared early in his career, thanks to their similar positions and situations, albeit in different musical genres (Leiber & Stoller were once asked about the similarities and they denied it, arguing: "Elvis sold sex through music while Eminem sells music through sex," although I think the classic R&B songwriters may have been wrong about that one in retrospect) — would have taken the opportunity to do something similar to The Way I Am. It certainly must be at least a little cathartic to lay it on the line like this, no matter how close to his chest Eminem plays his cards here.
Perhaps the most interesting element of The Way I Am, however, is that the author mostly comes across as a really likable and conscientious guy — that is (dare I say it?), an adult who understands that both adulthood and, especially, fame come with certain responsibilities. (Yeah, the new single is about a serial killer and pretty graphic at that — but, c'mon, the Slim Shady character is like the early, good Alice Cooper of rap and certainly way better than Marilyn Manson, who's also pictured standing with Marshall in the book ...) He portrays himself as a regular guy, albeit one with a great sense of humor. ("I'm just a normal guy. You can ask my neighbors. I ride a bike. I walk the dog. I mow my lawn. I'm out there every Sunday, talking to myself, buck naked, mowing the lawn with a chainsaw.")
He's always been known to be an excellent dad — but it's actually touching to read passages such as these: "I want them to go to college. I try to instill educational values in them. But it can be tough when you didn't graduate high school and your educational level is 8th Grade. I failed 9th Grade three times, and I'm trying to argue with them about going to college?! ... My biggest accomplishment is being a father and [that's] why I stepped back from the rap game for a minute. You can't just show up once in awhile and call yourself Dad." And because he's probably had as many pot shots taken at him (some by this paper) as anyone in this town or Nashville, for that matter (in his final column for the Detroit Free Press, celebrity columnist John Smyntek wrote that Eminem was probably the most maligned star of any he wrote about over the course of 37 years), it's equally touching when he writes: "I was getting free shit thrown at me: clothes, booze, harder stuff, women. Hamburgers. I'm just a regular dude from Detroit, though. I've maintained that relationship with my hometown for many years because I'm a loyal dude ... I insisted on shooting [8 Mile] in Detroit, which is where I shoot a lot of videos and things like that. If I can help in any way to create jobs there, I'm all for it. Detroit has been in a shitty financial state for far too long."
You'll probably never catch him singing "Sweet Home Alabama" in front of a Confederate flag, either. More power to him.
Bill Holdship is the music editor of Metro Times Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.