As an avid music fan, there’s nothing better to me than standing in a concert hall for a live show. But in the gaps between shows, I like to read the stories behind the music. I feel like it leaves me with a more nuanced appreciation than merely lifting the lighter app on my iPhone and yelling “Yeah!” can express.
Musicians don’t generally get book deals until they’re already big stars, so it’s tempting to think that they sprung fully formed onto a stage with an amp and a record deal. Reading any of these music memoirs will remind you: it’s a long way to the top — if you want to rock and roll.
1. Just Kids
by Patti Smith
I start with this book because it’s not just a beautifully written music memoir; it’s a beautifully written memoir, period. Patti Smith chronicles her long, complex and loving relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe from their youngest days to his untimely death, revealing with each page her own evolution as an artist.
2. Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove
by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
Don’t bother signing up for a History of Rap/Hip-Hop class; read this and get schooled in the best possible way. The Roots’ Questlove brings both an insider’s view and a fan’s appreciation of the genre. It’s just a cherry on top that his writing has humor, energy and clarity. I pretty much died of the cute when I read that as a little tyke, he used to play record store in his room.
3. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A Memoir
by Carrie Brownstein
When Greil Marcus declared Sleater-Kinney the best rock band in America in 2001, too many people said, “Who?” The three-woman punk band comprising Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss came out of the ‘90s music scene in the city that Brownstein would later memorialize in Portlandia. The anachronistic lack of rock-star attitude — when the band broke up, Brownstein volunteered at an animal shelter for a year, and her account of the sex/drugs/rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle takes up about two paragraphs — is only one of many reasons to grab this book. Don’t forget to grab Sleater-Kinney’s 2015 album No Cities to Love.
4. Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division
by Peter Hook
Fans of Joy Division and New Order knew Peter Hook as the taciturn bassist anchoring the beat of the synth-and-guitar tinged dance music that filled clubs in the ‘80s. As the band wound down, Hook’s gloves came off, and his ongoing grudge against his former bandmates reaches full flower in this book. That’s not a criticism; he’s definitely got a POV to share and does so with great humor and lots of juicy detail. I imagine the truth lies somewhere between this and lead singer Barney Sumner’s 2015 book Chapter and Verse, but Hook’s is definitely the more rollicking read.
5. Girl in a Band: A Memoir
by Kim Gordon
When Kim Gordon and her husband Thurston Moore broke up in 2011 after 27 years of marriage, a generation of rock fans gasped. For Gen X fans of Sonic Youth, it felt like having your parents break up. Gordon’s 2015 memoir tells her side of the story, but doesn’t get bogged down with it, preferring to examine instead the internal forces that propelled her onstage as one of the most innovative musicians of her era. In other words, she does the kind of self-searching that makes for good memoir.
6. Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink
by Elvis Costello
One of the hottest books released last year, Elvis Costello’s reflections on his long career in music and his many collaboration partners, from Paul McCartney to Burt Bacharach and George Jones, make this a must read for fans of the man born Declan McManus.
7. Record Collecting for Girls: Unleashing Your Inner Music Nerd, One Album at a Time
by Courtney E. Smith
This one is an outlier because it’s written by a fan, not a musician, but for any woman who has had a dude mansplain to her why she should or shouldn’t like a particular musician, Record Collecting for Girls will remind you that you’re not alone. Courtney Smith’s not the average fan, of course — she spent eight years at MTV as a music programmer and manager of label relations, and apparently is to blame for Fall Out Boy. Raise a glass to female music nerds everywhere.
8. In the Pleasure Groove: Love, Death, and Duran Duran
by John Taylor
Yes, ladies of a certain age, John Taylor — the Taylor who was the tall member of Duran Duran, with the cheekbones — wrote a book, and it’s one that belongs on the bookshelf of even the most casual DD fan. I admit that I had low expectations for this one and bought it mainly for the prodigious picture sections. But I was surprisingly moved by the way Taylor writes about his relationship with his family — reduced to tears at one point while I read this at my kids’ gym class. Brains plus talent plus beauty? Now that’s just good reading.
9. Rock On: An Office Power Ballad
by Dan Kennedy
Another memoir that falls outside the lines because it’s written by someone who’s a behind-the-scenes member of the music industry. In this case, Kennedy worked in the marketing department of a major record label in the early 2000s. You remember that time, right? Just as the whole industry started to implode? This book pulls back the curtain as everyone started to panic, and remains one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. The scene where Kennedy meets Duran Duran cracks me up, no matter how many times I’ve reread it.
10. I’ll Never Write My Memoirs
by Grace Jones
OK, I admit it: I haven’t read this yet. But it’s on my shortlist for the next few months because it got great reviews when it came out last year and when has Grace Jones ever done anything that wasn’t fascinating?
This final recommendation comes with a caution: I found it to be an excruciating slog. Yet, if you love Steven Patrick Morrissey, you may love this. Fans of The Smiths’ front man know that he will lecture you about eating meat, conflate his genius out of all bounds and tease you with confusing details about his love life. There will be pages of nonsense too, like when he basically reproduces the 1950s-era TV guide for British television. But, it’s exactly that ego, humor and eccentric genius that make him the musician he is.