Funny thing about rock memoirs: They tend to have the same plot. Our heroes always begin with big dreams about making it as rock stars. There’s the sleazy bars, the cheap motels, the shady managers. Then they get a taste of the big time: hit records, limos, drug orgies, groupies, diseases, the works. What could go wrong? Craaaash! But hey, Elizabethan revenge tragedies all have the same plot too, and nobody complains when the royal family gets butchered in the final scene. Great rock memoirs don’t always come from great artists: sometimes it takes one-hit wonders, losers, hacks, junkies, crooks. Every rock & roll character has a story to tell. Here are 25 of our favorites.
If you can find a single coherent sentence in this book, write and tell the publisher, so they can correct this error in future editions. But happy hunting, because Steven Tyler’s brain is located, as he puts it, “in the way-out-a-sphere.” From Aerosmith to American Idol, Tyler has been “61 Highwayed and I did it my wayed; Little-Willie-Johned and been-here-and-goned; million-dollar riffed and Jimmy Cliffed; cotton-picked and Stevie Nick‘d.”
This one gets the “truth in packaging” award – Nikki Sixx does so much heroin in this book it should have come in an aluminum-foil dust jacket. It’s more personal than The Dirt, but just as juicy. It might be cheating to mention The Heroin Diaries on a list like this, since there’s barely any mention of his music, but anyone even vaguely interested in Motley Crue is going to be fine with that.
How many times have you heard Rick Springfield’s Eighties rock classic “Don’t Talk To Strangers” on the radio and thought, “Wow, the singers sound really cheerful! Is it because they’re expressing a heartfelt celebration of true love?” Ah, no. It’s because they recorded the vocal tracks while a couple of ladies were going down on each other on the studio floor. Now you know!
Dean Wareham led the New York guitar band Luna through the 1990s, after the breakup of his indie outfit Galaxie 500. He shares the dirty details of how tedious it can be to plug away in a semi-famous, halfway-to-the-big-time rock band: the airports, the motels, the bickering band politics, the broken relationships, the constant asking around to see who’s got the drugs. Nobody in this story gets rich, or even seems to break even — all anyone gets out of the experience is a couple dozen excellent songs. And that ends up being enough.
The story of a natural-born poseur. Boy George grows up as the “pink sheep” of his working-class Irish Catholic family, getting his start on the London club scene as a coat-check boy with a face full of cosmetics and a reputation for picking the customers’ pockets. He becomes an international pop sensation with Culture Club, while having a torrid affair with the drummer. The Boy doesn’t worry about making himself seem likable — quite the opposite. He bitches himself out along with everybody else, which is why his catty recollections make this book addictive.
A Southern Gothic rock epic. The Allman Brother sings “Whipping Post,” he snorts himself senseless, he rats on his drug roadie. And of course, he marries Cher. On their first date, he even manages to stay off heroin until right after dinner. “I went to her house in a limousine, and when she came out, she said, ‘Fuck that funeral car,’ and handed me the keys to her blue Ferrari….She didn’t have shit to say to me, and I didn’t have shit to say to her. What’s the topic of conversation? It certainly ain’t singing.” The second date goes a little better: “We made some serious love.”
Damn, it was fun being a rock star in the Nineties. Blur‘s Alex James might have the least neurotic story on this list: no tragedy, no trauma. He had a blast being London’s prettiest rock prince for a few years, chasing models and guzzling champagne and writing brilliant songs and savoring the Soho nightlife. And when it was over, he got on with his life and settled down on a cheese farm. By the end of the book he’s happily married and milking goats. So what if he estimates he flushed a million pounds’ worth of booze and blow down his nostril-toilets? Blessed are the cheesemakers!
The Red Hot Chili Pepper tells a quintessential made-in-L.A. rise-and-fall-and-rise story, complete with all the californicatory details. Kiedis muses about his childhood, his band and his many, many, many ex-girlfriends, most of whom inspire him to share a kind word, a nude photo or both. Scar Tissue might have the best final sentence of any book on this list, starring Kiedis’ lovable pooch Buster: “And when I do think, ‘Man, a fucking motel room with a couple of thousand dollars’ worth of narcotics would do me right,’ I just look over at my dog and remember that Buster’s never seen me high.” Let’s hope Buster gets his own book someday.
Did Jack Kerouac ever write a book this great? In a word, no. This is the real on-the-road American adventure: a band of antisocial maniacs who hate each other crammed in a van, bumming from town to town, sleeping on floors when they’re lucky, getting clubbed by the cops when they’re not, doing it all for those few minutes of glorious noise. Black Flag were a great hardcore band – their records sound even mightier now than they did at the time — and Rollins’ tour diaries are the essence of that pain-is-my-girlfriend punk spirit.
Nick Kent was England’s most notorious rock critic — he could do drugs with Keith Richards, get murder threats from John Bonham, do drugs with Iggy, date Chrissie Hynde, do drugs with Lemmy, get chain-whipped to a bloody pulp by Sid Vicious, do a lot more drugs. You might believe about half the stories here, at best; Kent likes to brag about how many famous songs were written about him. But that just adds to his charm as a self-promoting bullshit artist. And make no mistake – without self-promoting bullshit artists, there would be no rock & roll at all.
The New York doll of the Ronettes had one of rock & roll’s biggest voices. She also had one of rock & roll’s most famously nightmarish marriages, as she was practically kept captive by Phil Spector for years. But if you’re looking for self-pity, you’ll be disappointed, because her book, like her voice, is full of cocky, smart, self-aware humor. And yes, in case you were wondering, it totally sucked to be married to Phil Spector.
The former Johnny Rotten has all the dirt about how the Sex Pistols pissed off the world. But he’s also got poignant details about his hardscrabble youth in London’s Irish-immigrant squalor, raised by a mother even more badass than he was. He also shares his deep hatred for religion, the Queen, the other Sex Pistols, hippies, rich people, racists, sexists, the English political system, Malcolm McLaren and of course, Pink Floyd. “A lot of people feel the Sex Pistols were just negative,” he says. “I agree, and what the fuck is wrong with that? Sometimes the absolute most positive thing you can be in a boring society is completely negative.”
You know what’s crazy? How underrated this book is. It really deserves to be read wherever generally insane ramblings by generally insane men are read. But it never got its due recognition, because it came out in the late Nineties, when public interest in Roth and the Van Halen brothers was at an all-time low. Diamond Dave fills every page of this masterpiece with stark raving lunatic rock & roll Zen wisdom.
The Goodfellas of rock & roll literature. Everybody knows the Tommy James oldies – “Mony Mony,” “Hanky Panky,” “Crimson and Clover,” etc. But according to Tommy, these songs got on the radio because he had some influential mobbed-up friends pulling the strings. (And of course, pocketing the loot.) The whole topic of criminal connections in the music business is still taboo — see Fredric Dannen’s 1990 classic Hit Men for the full picture. But Tommy James is the first star to tell the story from the inside: How the Mafia gave the world “I Think We’re Alone Now.”
The “Johnny B. Goode” man who invented rock & roll tells a few stories about what he saw along the way. As a Fifties black pop star, scoring hit records in a land full of violent racism, his story seems to touch on all the contradictions and injustices of American culture. In the early Sixties, while bands like the Beatles, the Stones and the Beach Boys were hero-worshipping him, Berry himself was rotting in jail, railroaded in a blatantly racist trial. That’s where he wrote the deeply ironic “Promised Land” — a classic celebration of American dreams, written in a prison cell.
It’s a massive coffee-table art book, with lavish images of Bowie in the Seventies from photographer Mick Rock. But the main attraction of Moonage Daydream is the text by the man himself. He’s funny whether he’s shopping for shoes with Cyrinda Foxe (who teaches him to wear “palm-tree’d fuck-me pumps”) or sipping tea with Elton John (“We didn’t exactly become pals, not really having that much in common, especially musically”) or partying it up with Mick Jagger (“I have absolutely no recollections of this party at all”). The closest we’ll ever get to a straight-up Bowie autobiography – but who’d ever want anything straight-up from Bowie?
If you’re curious about what it’s really like to be Shawn Carter, you’ll learn more about his hard knock life from his albums, which have always gone heavy on the In My Lifetime narrative. But what he’s really trying to do here is write the whole story of hip-hop, merely using himself as a prime example, as he rises from criminal-minded fan to aspiring rapper to industry mogul. Most surprising moment: Hov defends “Beach Chair” as “one of the hidden jewels of my catalog.”
Even if you know nothing about Hersh’s band — the 1980s Rhode Island art-punks Throwing Muses – her story is an essential first-hand account of the indie rock uprising. Her narrative voice is warm, friendly and surprisingly funny. When Hersh gets pregnant and decides to have the kid, without giving up her band, she shrugs, “I’ll cross the living-in-a-van-is-probably-child-abuse bridge when I come to it.” Deep down it’s a story about messed-up kids finding one other, starting a band, and accidentally scrounging up an audience of similarly messed-up kids. It belongs on the shelf next to Michael Azerrad’s classic Our Band Could Be Your Life.
Officially this is an “authorized biography,” by longtime Beatle hagiographer Barry Miles. But that’s just a front, because the book really exists as a vehicle for McCartney to tell his story in his own words. Some fans were understandably put off by the way he squabbles over credits, even breaking down songwriting credits by percentages. (To pick one controversial example, he calculates “Norwegian Wood” as 40 percent his and 60 percent John‘s.) But on the page, as well as in song, his voice overflows with wit and affection. And he did less to fuck up his good luck than any rock star who ever existed, which might be why his memories make such marvelous company.
The “sex, drugs and disco” revolution of the Seventies, as seen by the Chic guitarist who permanently changed the way music sounds and feels and moves. This is a cerebral and unabashed celebration of disco; as Rodgers puts it, “We shared Afrobromantic dreams of what it would be like to have real artistic freedom.” He also reveals that when he and Bernard Edwards wrote the classic “Upside Down” for Diana Ross, everybody at Motown hated it. “We played it for Gene Simmons of Kiss, who was recording next door, and he told us it was great. We respected Gene, but he was dating Diana Ross at the time, so what else would he say?”
How do you choose between the RZA’s two excellent memoirs? (Choose the sword and you join me. Choose the ball and you join your mother. You don’t understand my words, but you must choose!) The first installment, The Wu-Tang Manual, is more of a beginners-guide handbook to the Shaolin mythology. But The Tao of Wu digs deeper, as the RZA broods on hip-hop and spirituality. He combines esoteric Buddhism, true mathematics, kung fu flicks, chess tactics, and comic books into his own unique theosophical ruckus.
There’s no shortage of Sunset Strip metal-sleaze gossip books out there, including other GNR memoirs — see Steven Adler’s My Appetite for Destruction or Duff McKagan’s It’s So Easy (And Other Lies). But Slash’s book is one of a kind, surprisingly reflective and wise yet hilariously blasé about all his decadence. Low point: Slash collapses during a hotel drug binge and gets rushed to the hospital, where the doctors restart his heart. He complains, “I had no remorse whatsoever about my overdose — but I was pissed off at myself for having died. The whole hospital excursion really ate into my day off.”
Like a lot of books on this list – only more so – Life makes you marvel that the guy who lived through all this chaos could end up remembering any of it. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how a guy who lived the rock & roll myth as hard as Keith Richards could still talk his way through a transaction at the drive-through window, let alone a book this great. Despite all the bitching about Mick, this book exceeded any reasonable expectation for literary Keefness.
An incredibly romantic portrait of two young hustlers in the big city: Patti Smith and her best friend, artist Robert Mapplethorpe, have to keep telling each other how great they are, because nobody else will believe it. The most amazing thing about this book is the warmth, the lack of bitterness – what Patti Smith seems to remember most about New York bohemia in the 1960s is all the moments of awkward kindness. Best scene: Allen Ginsberg buys Patti a cheese-and-lettuce sandwich at the Automat, because he thinks she’s a pretty boy. When she breaks the news that she’s a girl, she asks, “Well, does this mean I return the sandwich?” Ginsberg just keeps talking to her about Jack Kerouac while she eats – a gentleman as well as a poet.
Everybody knew this guy had a way with words. But it’s safe to say that nobody expected his autobiography to be this intense. He rambles from one fragment of his life to another, with crazed characters and weird scenes in every chapter. It all hangs together, from his Minnesota boyhood (who knew Dylan started out as such a big wrestling fan?) to the “deserted orchards and dead grass” of his Eighties bottoming-out phase. He evokes his early folk-rogue days in New York, even though he hated being perceived as the voice of a generation: “I was more a cowpuncher than a Pied Piper.” So where’s that Nobel Prize already?