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All the Rock That’s Fit to Print

Keith Richards

 

Books about our rock heroes, written by those heroes, always have a special kick because we get to hear about their highs and lows from the most personal insider perspective possible. The best of the best lay bare their lives, struggles, and creative processes — somehow humanizing the superhuman during the process of getting down their official version of the legend for posterity. Here are some of the best music memoirs from the past couple of decades that make for solid, poignant, and often delicious prurient reading. As you might have known, rockers are good at the down-and-dirty details.

1. Phil Collins, Not Dead Yet (2016)
From his drumming for Genesis through his lengthy solo career as singer-songwriter, Phil Collins has plenty to share in this extraordinarily engaging memoir. One of the rare blokes to sell over 100 million records, his self-effacement here is disarmingly endearing even as he recounts interactions with nearly every musical legend of the past half century. He also bravely details his romantic heartbreaks and middle-aged struggle with alcohol with thoroughness and admirable accountability. Those who write him off as an outmoded 1980s artifact will find his book enlightening. Fans will adore it.

2. Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run (2016)
Given The Boss’ legendary lyricism, it comes as no surprise that he’s a sterling storyteller, too. This wide-ranging memoir is a long read and a revelation. We meet the brooding child in a loving, troubled family on the margins of Freehold, NJ and the young struggling musician with an extraordinary gift and crazy devotion to his craft. His love for The E Street Band is explored in touching detail yet for all his honest introspection, he’s still discreet about his romances. He is downright rhapsodic about his beloved wife Patti Scialfa and his children. All told, this well-honed rock memoir is a masterpiece — 7 years in the making, eternal in its appeals.

3. Ann and Nancy Wilson, Kicking and Dreaming (2013)
Known for their musical chops, sexy stage presence, and estrogen-filled bad-assery at a time when women generally did not rock as hard, Ann and Nancy take alternate chapters here as they detail their path from folk-music broads to the glam metal goddesses of Heart. Their shared story is a fairly detailed kiss-and-tell that also delves into the pain of being viewed as objectified women more than true-blue musicians. Overall, Kicking and Dreaming is chatty and funny, a fine chronicle of women in interesting musical times.

4. Belinda Carlisle, Lips Unsealed (2010)
The one-time lead singer of the The Go-Go’s spins a searingly raw account of her debauched youth and slow road to recovery then stability with her family. Belinda tells it all without apologies, rationalizations, or censorship. She was not always the nicest person in her heyday (which included a noteworthy solo career) but there is a grace in her ‘fessing up to her wrongdoings and now doing her best after the worst has already been done. Best of all, you’ll likely be calling up her infectious tunes as she alludes to them throughout this most enjoyable book.

5. Keith Richards, Life (2011)
The legendary Rolling Stones songwriter-guitarist educates and riffs for 564 pages. There’s not a dull moment to be found, not in his Dickensian childhood, certainly not in his lifelong journey with The Stones. In truth, his story is almost too big to be contained within the bulging covers. His enormous musical gifts, dissolute ways, heroin addiction, romantic entanglements, and fatherly failings could make for a miniseries. Not to mention his complex relationship with Jagger, whom he eviscerates in places while still professing love. Ageless depravity and undeniable cool? Sure. And a hell of a lot more.

6. Eric Clapton, The Autobiography (2008)
“Clapton is God” is one of the most enduring statements to be spray-painted on a London wall in the mid-1960s. But what a troubled deity! The guitar maestro’s decades-long addiction to drugs and alcohol, romantic collisions, occasionally abominable behavior in the 1970s, and agonizing loss of his son (during which he remained miraculously sober) are detailed here along with his hard-won stability and admirable work with fellow addicts today. This is an elegantly heartbreaking and ultimately life-affirming read.
7. Grace Slick, Somebody to Love? (1998)
Grace Slick comes out blasting in her wacky, unrepentant life story. Lead singer for the seminal band Jefferson Airplane then later Jefferson Starship, Slick was best known for her haunting voice, magnetic persona and outlandish behavior on and off the stage. She wittily tells on herself about her sexual rapaciousness, drug abuse, and excessive boozing, as well as her fierce unconditional love for her daughter. Her writing voice is conversational and quirky; her tale, one of the proverbial Phoenix rising from the ashes.

8. Chuck Berry, The Autobiography (1988)
Hail, hail rock ‘n roll! And Chuck Berry, one of its founders! This book from almost 30 years ago recounts a life riddled with salacious, occasionally criminal acts. The prose is polished and wryly understated, especially considering Berry’s wild-man image, which isn’t to say he’s not forthcoming about his own poor decision-making and odd sexual compulsions. Berry, who recently passed at 90, was married to the same woman since 1948. That he survived so much racism without bitterness is a miracle. A final chapter in which he lists his likes and dislikes with gusto is utterly charming.

Ellen Fagan

PS. If memoirs is your thing, check out our round up of television actors’ autobiographies.


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28 comments on “All the Rock That’s Fit to Print

  1. Avatar
    Steve Hill

    I finished Berry’s bio and realized that I didn’t really know much more about him than when I started reading it. I also found Stones’ bassist Bill Wyman’s book “Stone Alone,” to be superior to Keith’s. While not as colorful a personality, at least I felt that Wyman wasn’t too high to remember things accurately, plus he showed a meticulousness ( like a bass player should) that I felt was questionable in Keith’s book.

  2. Avatar
    Ron Hooser

    How could you forget “Harry Nilsson, The Life Of A Singer And Songwriter” or “Me,The Mob And The Music” by Tommy James?

  3. Avatar

    Best of all is Patti Smith’s “Just Kids”, as close as this sort of writing ever gets to literature.

  4. Avatar

    Also check out Dan Hick’s recently released biography, “I Scare Myself” – a worthwhile read from one of the earliest performers on the S.F. Rock scene.

  5. Avatar

    You forgot Elvis Costello’s rambling “Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink”. Well worth the read as well.

  6. Avatar

    I’d nominate Joe Jackson’s A Cure For Gravity. An exceptionally well written and insightful autobiography of his life and career right up to the moment Look Sharp was released.

  7. Avatar
    mike mullican

    Howard Kaylan’s (Turtles/ Zappa) Shell Shocked is a good read.

  8. Avatar

    Marianne Faithful was my favorite autobiography. Just a regular junkie gal with some famous friends and an important ending. If you read Bill Wyman’s you will find out how he wasn’t invited to the party.

    Mick Fleetwood’s was pretty good too

    • Avatar
      Ellen Fagan

      I have that one & loved it as well. Her recall of arcane things was amazing!

  9. Avatar

    “That he (Chuck Berry) survived so much racism without bitterness is a miracle.”

    I’m guessing you’ve never talked to anyone who had to deal with Chuck over the last 40 years or so. In all fairness, his first trial and jail term were a complete travesty, and he should never have served a second sentence for tax evasion, so he had very good reasons to be bitter. I’ve heard stories from multiple promoters and musicians about how difficult Chuck could be to deal with. Heck, just watch ‘Hail, Hail Rock and Roll’ and watch how he messes with Keith Richards.

    A new musical autobiography worth checking out is Michael Nesmith’s ‘Infinite Tuesday’. He spends as much time discussing his friendships with Douglas Adams and nuclear scientists at Los Alamos as he does talking about the Monkees. A very honest and thoughtful book.

  10. Avatar

    Read Bobby Whitlock (from Derek and the Dominoes, Bonnie and Delaney). Now that’s a memoir!

  11. Avatar
    Steve Dixon

    One shouldn’t forget the recent Memoirs by Graham Nash and Neil Young.

  12. Avatar

    Ellen, I rarely leave comments, but I seldomly find well-written articles online (or in print for that matter) and felt it was necessary to give kudos.
    Thank you. Thank you for sharing some of your favorite autobiographies.
    More importantly, thank you for proving quality writing still exists.

    • Avatar
      Ellen Fagan

      I am touched & delighted to read your comment, Joe. Many, many thanks!

  13. Avatar
    Stan Caldwell

    Not a rock-star bio per se, but Living With the Dead, the memoir by Rock Scully about his 20 years as manager for the Grateful Dead is some hilarious reading. His take on what really happened at Altamont is, um, thought-provoking.

  14. Avatar
    Bud Smith

    Don Felder wrote a good book about his time with The Eagles.

  15. Avatar
    Steve Stroh

    Bob Dylan’s “Chronicles” should be included. Dylan has a gift for the written wordbin song and in print, and it is on display here.

  16. Avatar
    Allan Phillips

    Best one I’ve ever read is “All The Best” by the late great Ian McLagan of the Faces. Mac was in the thick of things in the late 60’s and all through the 70’s with the Small Faces, the Faces, The Who, the Stones, then as a master studio player. He married Keith Moon’s ex-wife. I chatted with him in person several times. He was a really down to earth, personable guy who made you feel like you were lifelong friends when you just met. And that’s how his book reads.

  17. Avatar
    David Arnson

    All the abovementioned are great ! Also noteworthy are Gregg Allman’s (contains more bad decisions than you can shake a stick at!),Alice Cooper’s bassist Dennis Dunaway’s, and Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten’s autobiographies.

  18. Avatar

    Gregg Allman, John Fogerty and Willie Nelson and Buddy Guy all excellent…especially enjoyable as audio books when author is reader…

  19. Avatar

    Don’t forget X Ray, an “unauthorized autobiography ” by Ray Davies. Enjoyable approach by the story teller.

  20. Avatar
    Robert Challen

    Mick Jagger’s unvarnished take on Keith Richards is a great read if you can find it. Intended to be put in the vault, Jagger sent it to the wrong person for filing away, and it was made public for a while. Truly vitriolic.

  21. Avatar
    Dave Hector

    Try Robbie Robertson’s Testimony… excellent read

  22. Avatar

    A very good read about The Who, ‘Before I Get Old’ also has a lot of history about the British Invasion and what was going on in the rock ‘n’roll world in the 60s and 70s.

  23. Avatar
    Allan Phillips

    I’ve read a ton of these, and one of the best was Ian McLagan’s, called ” All The Rage.” Despite being rock royalty from the Small Faces, Faces, Stones, Dylan & countless studio contributions, his biography is personable, down to earth and fun, just like the man. I met him & chatted with him a few times, and he was one of those people you felt like you were old friends with when you just met him. That’s how the book is.

  24. Avatar
    Randy Filling

    Nice list.
    I am still awaiting the definitive van Morrison bio.
    I would also add to the list-
    Warren zevons bio- I can sleep when I’m dead
    Rod Stewart’s book
    Chuck Levell- pianist for Alman brothers and the Stones.

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