Everyone has a story to tell.
For those famous enough to get a publishing deal, writing one’s memoirs seems to be more popular than ever. In the world of popular music, especially rock music of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, writing an autobiography, it seems, has become the latest rite of passage.
Readers who know me well are aware that, when it comes to books about rock music, I inhale them. Reference books about the Billboard charts, in-depth examinations of specific genres or regions, biographies (authorized and unauthorized) of famous artists and producers — I love ’em all, soaking up interesting factoids and arcane album information for use in some future party conversation (or this blog).
But why the spike in rock ‘n roll memoirs from survivors of rock’s earlier decades? Call me cynical, but I’m guessing many of these aging performing artists figure they better commit their tales to paper ASAP before their memories fail them or they keel over (God knows that’s been happening way too often lately).
These memoirs typically include at least one “tell-all” bombshell that will help sell copies, but the best ones offer truly insightful information and thoughtful opinions from some of the major (and minor) players in the rock music kingdom. And if the reader is really lucky, the book might actually be well written.
Sadly, the bookshelves are littered with recent examples of what amount to “Dear Diary” ramblings — self-indulgent, immature, lamely crafted and in dire need of major editing or a total rewrite. But the good news is they’re outnumbered by a few dozen really captivating memoirs written in intelligent prose, with a healthy mix of humor, humility, pathos, perspective and (you can’t avoid it in this business) ego.
Let’s face it, if you’re a popular music artist, let alone a rock and roll star, it’s assumed you likely have an outsized ego, an ego big enough to tell you your life is interesting enough, and important enough, that people are going to want to read all about it, from childhood through early struggles to fame and fortune, to maybe scandal, setbacks and rehab. How literately you tell your story, it should be noted, makes all the difference between respect and ridicule in the end.
No one can say for sure if some of these “autobiographies” were helped along by seasoned journalists serving as ghost writers, but I’m going to give the stars the benefit of the doubt and trust them if they said they wrote them themselves. All I know is, if it’s an entertaining read, and I learn things I didn’t know before, and I’d recommend it to others, then it was worth my time and money.
Here are 20 recently published memoirs I found to be worthy of your attention. Full confession: I didn’t read ALL of EVERY book listed here. In some cases, I only skimmed them in preparation for this blog, and read a summary of reviews. But I WILL read them all someday, because it’s my passion. But meantime:
“Born to Run,” Bruce Springsteen, 2016
As a lyricist, Springsteen has written pungent, heartfelt lyrics both concise and wordy, capturing moments or emotions better than almost anyone. To no one’s surprise, The Boss writes lucidly and with great precision in his memoirs about his long, slow journey from the dead-end Jersey Shore to the peaks of superstardom. This one’s a no-brainer.
“My Cross to Bear,” Gregg Allman, 2012
I’m not sure I should have expected anything else, but Allman’s book revealed him to be an incredibly selfish asshole for most of his life, and he admits as much. There’s no denying his brilliance as a blues singer and keyboardist, but holy smokes, he was horrible to every woman in his life, and self-destructive as hell. Still, he writes about all this in candid, compelling fashion.
“Boys in the Trees,” Carly Simon, 2016
Largely at arm’s length from the self-destructive lifestyle that damaged many of her contemporaries, Simon survived to tell a decidedly different story from most ’70s singer-songwriters. She writes from a calm epicenter as a mother/daughter rather than a Grammy-winning artist, and it’s not at all boring but, in fact, invigorating.
“Not Dead Yet,” Phil Collins, 2016
What a treat! The fact that Collins tells his long and winding story with such self-deprecating charm and humor lays waste to his unfair reputation as an egotistical jackass. He even uses his book’s title to debunk the “Phil is dead” rumor that plagued him in the mid-2000s. This might be the most entertaining book on this list.
“Life,” Keith Richards, 2011
Given Keef’s notoriety as rock’s drug poster boy over the years, NO ONE expected this to be even remotely as great as it turned out to be. How could he remember much of anything, given all he’s ingested? But recall he did, with considerable flair, and the result is the most praised autobiography of the past decade.
“Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words,” as told to Malka Marom, 2014
In a different twist on autobiographical literature, Mitchell teamed up with long-time confidante/journalist Malka Marom on three occasions (1973, 1979, 2012) to do lengthy, detailed taped interviews, which have been transcribed in Q&A format, giving readers a great deal of insight into Mitchell’s creative songwriting process and her development as a consummate musician. If you love Joni, or songwriting, this one is a must.
“Play On: Now, Then and Fleetwood Mac,” Mick Fleetwood, 2014
The drummer, founder and mainstay of Fleetwood Mac throughout its multi-colored history wrote an earlier memoir in 1991, and much of it is regurgitated here, but with substantial new sections covering the years since then. If you missed the first round, by all means, check out this one. There are plenty of great stories about rock music’s most soap-opera-ish band ever.
“Wild Tales,” Graham Nash, 2013
Always the most level-headed of the raging egos in CSN&Y, Nash writes thoughtfully and with panache, and a candor that’s almost eyebrow-raising at times. As a guy who broke into the business with The Hollies back in 1963 and still active 54 years later, he has great anecdotes, and sad stories, to share. Check it out.
“Rod: The Autobiography,” Rod Stewart, 2012
I am no fan of Stewart, but he has played a huge role in rock music over his four-decade ride through rock’s headiest years, from obscure vocalist with the Jeff Beck Group in 1968 to interpreter of the Great American Songbook in the 2010s. Rod’s memoirs openly admit he was a lucky SOB, but the book also spends an inordinate amount of time on the tabloid-ish blonde-women-he-took-to-bed stuff instead of his musical contributions. Is it because the former outweighs the latter?
“Reckless: My Life as a Pretender,” Chrissie Hynde, 2015
This is one badass woman, surviving as a lady rocker at a time when it was exclusively men’s terrain. Her memoirs tell a sometimes harrowing story about growing up in hardscrabble Akron, Ohio, fleeing to London during the birth of punk and emerging as a victorious pioneer of New Wave in the early ’80s. This woman has moxie.
“Delta Lady,” Rita Coolidge, 2016
My wife met Coolidge at an industry gathering recently and was captivated by her spirit, her guile and her still-impressive artistry. Many rock fans have no clue how connected she was, professionally and personally, to so many pivotal people in the ’70s and ’80s, and consequently, her memoir makes for revealing reading.
“Who I Am,” Pete Townshend, 2012
The leader of The Who tends to take himself quite seriously, perhaps too much so, and that makes his autobiography kind of exhausting to absorb. We’ve always known Townshend is a great writer, having contributed numerous cogent commentaries to Rolling Stone over the years, so the high quality of the narrative here comes as no surprise, as he tells us all we’ll ever need to know about his life in and out of the band.
“My Life With Earth Wind and Fire,” Maurice White, 2016
White, as EW&F’s founder, guiding light and chief songwriter, had everything to do with the group’s success in the 1974-1983 period, and his autobiography, published in September of last year following his death in February, pays glorious tribute to the whole band and all its contributors. White was a very spiritual guy who seemed to be without ego, happy to give credit to everyone else. What a breath of fresh air!
“Clapton: The Autobiography,” Eric Clapton, 2007
A rock idol and guitarist extraordinaire, Clapton led a life full of difficulties, many of them self-inflicted, and his memoir spells it all out in wrenching detail, simultaneously exposing himself as a man mostly incapable of maintaining anything close to a healthy personal relationship with anyone. Too bad such a fine singer/songwriter and master interpreter of blues music suffered so much in his personal life…but they say that’s what makes the blues so authentic…
“Kicking and Screaming: A Story of Heart, Soul and Rock ‘n Roll,” Ann & Nancy Wilson, 2013
More so than Chrissie Hynde or any other female rocker, Ann Wilson and her sister Nancy had to cope with a ridiculous amount of sexism trying to be rock stars in a world totally dominated by men. This duet/memoir, which offers the views of both sisters, sheds a lot of light on what it was like to cope with life in rock music, in the 1975-1990 era especially.
“It’s a Long Story: My Life,” Willie Nelson, 2015
His first memoirs were published in 1988, and since then his persona has only grown in stature and notoriety. Consider the title of his 2012 book, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings From the Road,” which pays perhaps too much attention to his pro-weed stance at the expense of his sizable impact on country (and pop) music over the last 40+ years. This one is well worth your time, trust me.
“Sweet Judy Blue Eyes,” by Judy Collins, 2011
Folk chanteuse Judy Collins took us all off guard when she used her memoir, “Sweet Judy Blue Eyes,” to confess a lifelong battle with alcoholism that tormented her personal relationships as well as her recording career. Her message: “You don’t have to be a rock and roller to have substance problems.” Hers is a fascinating story of a journey through the early folk years into the mid-’70s period of hedonistic pursuits that ultimately took their toll on her.
“I Me Mine,” George Harrison, 1979, 2017
The “quiet Beatle” turned out to be among the first rock stars to publish memoirs, back in 1979, and that voluminous tome has been updated by his widow and children in a 2017 edition now in stores. It’s a bit ponderous as he explores his passion for Eastern philosophies and musical stylings, but still well worth diving into.
“Journals,” Kurt Cobain, 2002
This one is an exception to the rule. It’s pretty clear Cobain never thought, nor did he intend, that his all-over-the-map journal writings would ever see the light of day, but in light of his violent, self-inflected demise in 1994, we can gain valuable insight into his fragile psyche by reviewing the things he had to say in his private moments. It can be agonizing reading, but also amusing and thought-provoking.
“Chronicles, Volume One,” Bob Dylan, 2004
Always the mystery man, Dylan chose to jump all over the place in this memoir, skipping huge chunks of time as he focused exasperatingly on certain years while ignoring others. As recently as 2012, he said he is still working on Volume Two, but there’s no way to guess what he’ll concentrate on in that book, if it’s ever published…
A bonus selection:
“Making It: Music, Sex & Drugs in the Golden Age of Rock,” Ted Myers, 2017
Myers, as it turns out, lives on my block in Santa Monica, and he recently completed his own memoirs about almost making it big as a member of Lost, a regionally popular band in New England in 1964-1967. Myers played a role, almost Forrest Gump-like, in the lives of numerous rock legends over the years before and since. His sex tales are a bit on the “too much information” side, if you know what I mean, but the drugs and rock ‘n roll stories are compelling indeed.
Going back a few more years:
“Secrets of a Sparrow,” Diana Ross, 1993
“Cash,” Johnny Cash, 1997
“Long Time Gone: The Autobiography of David Crosby,” David Crosby, 1988
Other autobiographies you may want to explore:
“Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir,” Linda Ronstadt, 2013
“Me, the Mob, and the Music,” Tommy James with Martin Fitzptrick, 2010
“Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff,” Mike Nesmith, 2017
“Between a Heart and a Rock Place,” Pat Benatar, 2010
“Dancing With Myself,” Billy Idol, 2014
…Today we have young artists writing their memoirs who haven’t even turned 30 yet. I mean, Justin Bieber? Adele? It’s laughable. Best wait until you’ve had a life long enough to write about.
…I can’t conclude this essay without bashing a few titles that I found pretty much unreadable. Aerosmith vocalist Steven Tyler appropriately titled his excruciating memoirs “Does the Noise in My Head Bother You?” (Answer: Damn right it does, Steve, when it consists of incoherent babblings, brash boasts and non sequiturs.) David Lee Roth of Van Halen evidently vomited his mindless ramblings into a tape recorder, had it transcribed, and slapped a title on it: “Crazy From the Heat.” (You’ve got that right, Dave…)