by Leni Leanne Phillips
Imagine being in your twenties and accomplishing something so phenomenal you don’t think you can ever top it. In January 1976, at the age of twenty-five, Peter Frampton released a double live album called Frampton Comes Alive! It quickly became the number one selling live album in the world, and today, nearly forty-five years later, it is still the world’s fourth bestselling live album. Peter Frampton’s memoir, Do You Feel Like I Do?, is the story of a life spent pursuing perfection and recognition as a guitarist. If you’re looking for a juicy tell-all, this isn’t that. Frampton’s memoir is focused primarily on his career as a musician, and in that sense, it is supremely satisfying and engaging. Frampton rose to fame during a singular time and place in rock and roll history. The milestones, twists, and turns in Frampton’s career make up the narrative spine of this memoir which is, in many ways, a love song dedicated to the one constant in Frampton’s life—playing the guitar. Frampton teamed up with Rolling Stone editor Alan Light to write the memoir.
The memoir opens with Frampton’s band fleeing South America in 1980, amidst death threats, after the cargo plane carrying his band’s equipment crashed, making it impossible for them to play a scheduled concert in Panama City. He lost his beloved 1954 Gibson Les Paul in the crash, the guitar he’s playing on the cover of Frampton Comes Alive! It’s no secret Frampton was reunited with the guitar thirty years later, but he effectively weaves the tale of how that came to be throughout the timeline of his life and career. From the outset, this is the story of a boy and his guitars.
One of the delights of the memoir is the way it captures the extraordinary era during which Frampton came up in the music world. Frampton grew up in South East London in the 1950s and 1960s. Frampton’s parents gave him his first guitar for Christmas when he was eight years old, and he was immediately hooked. He formed his first band by the age of eleven or twelve and started taking music lessons at the age of twelve or thirteen, about a year before the Beatles broke. The way Frampton’s career unfolded is something that couldn’t happen in exactly the same way today. He was born at the right time and grew up in the right place, and one of the most charming things about his memoir is Frampton’s awareness of this. Frampton describes an exceptional time in history when a teenaged guitar enthusiast could meet a young David Bowie on the schoolhouse steps; be taken under the wing of Rolling Stones guitarist Bill Wyman; and hang out with Harry Nilsson and a couple of Beatles at a local recording studio.
Frampton’s telling of these stories is uniquely appealing. The stories about Bowie are heartwarming because Bowie wasn’t yet famous when they met—he was a dear family friend who helped keep Frampton, the son of Bowie’s favorite art teacher, on the straight and narrow throughout his career. The other stories are captivating in that, although Frampton calls people like Ringo Starr his friends, he never stops being a little bit star struck and amazed by his good fortune at meeting and working with these incredible artists. In these moments, he’s one of us. Frampton turned seventy this year, but he has never lost his sense of the wonder of it all: “Being with [Ringo Starr and George Harrison] together in a room was daunting. You get used to it, because they’re just normal people, but that feeling never really goes away. Even to this day when I’m with Ringo, he’s still a fucking Beatle.”
Any artist will take pleasure in Frampton’s description of immersing himself in and absorbing the music around him:
I didn’t necessarily want to be a jazz guitar player; I just wanted my own style. I wanted to be one of those guys where you play one note and they know who you are. And I got there, but I had to do a lot of work. I was compiling, I was taking notes—it was a thesis on a guitar style, if you like. Listen to everybody, learn everybody, and then Humble Pie comes along and, all of a sudden, I’m able to put it all together because there’s room. … I didn’t want to play like anybody else; I want to play like me. I woke up one morning, went to a rehearsal, played a gig with Humble Pie, and came off and said to myself, ‘Wow, that’s me now. I can feel it; I’ve invented me, by listening to the world.’
Musicians will connect on a higher level: Frampton is open and sharing about what it took to become successful: writing songs under immense pressure, building a live show, relentless touring, learning stage presence, managing the come down after a concert—“You try and stay as high as you were on stage”—and taking risks. He left Humble Pie on the cusp of their rise to fame: “I was giving up the certainty—as certain as one could have been at that particular moment—of success with Humble Pie, and that wasn’t necessarily an attractive thing to me. … I just wanted to be in charge of my own destiny.”
In many ways, Frampton’s early career became an example of “be careful what you wish for”—along with the success of Frampton Comes Alive! came tremendous pressure:
I didn’t want to deal with the fact that I didn’t know what was going to happen next. Or maybe more like I did know what was going to happen. I kind of anesthetized myself. So ’76 to ’80 was berserk, a time of just trying to blot it all out. … But one thing I never resented, even if it became my signature at this time, was the talk box, because I love it. … [T]here’s nothing like when the guitar starts talking to you.
There are enough tidbits of behind-the-scenes dirt sprinkled throughout the memoir to keep things interesting for voyeurs, but overall, this is not what Frampton is about, and his memoir reflects that. He owns his ambition and his fortuity, and he lets readers see him in some of his less attractive moments, writing that he “just kept being given these things,” but also acknowledging that his good looks were a means to an end and that he didn’t turn down opportunities: “I wasn’t going to say no.”
When it comes to personal matters, like his romantic relationships and his bouts with drug and alcohol abuse, Frampton treads lightly. But in the rare moments when he does open up, he is frank, self-effacing, raw, and supremely human. Talking about life after Frampton Comes Alive!, he admits, “it’s almost like I’ve paved over the feelings I had back then, because it was so hurtful when everything crashed.” That he has “paved over” some of the difficult parts of his past and isn’t ready or willing to talk about them is evident throughout the memoir. But he is revealing of his emotions when talking about his children, his first grandchild, Ella, who he hasn’t yet been able to see or to hold because of COVID-19, and his recent diagnosis with inclusion body myositis, a progressive muscle disease that will eventually make it impossible for him to do the one thing he loves most: play the guitar.
Overall, Frampton’s memoir reveals him to be optimistic, funny, and relatable. Artists will find in him a kindred spirit. Frampton is humble about his talent, writing, “We’re all the same; we just do different things for a living, you know?” Frampton loves a guitar the way I love a typewriter; he absorbs the music of others the way I absorb the writing of others; when he says, “I was starting to feel like I was creating ‘me,’” I can relate that to the quest to find my voice as a writer. I went into reading Peter Frampton’s memoir expecting something different, expecting what I find all too often in memoirs, and especially in celebrity memoirs, I suppose: someone cutting open a vein and bleeding onto the page. I didn’t find that. What I found was something infinitely more satisfying—the story of an artist and a human being who built an incredible life doing the thing he loves.
Leni Leanne Phillips is a writer based in San Luis Obispo, California. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, The Coachella Review, and elsewhere. You can find her at lenileanne.com.