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The 50 Greatest Rock Memoirs of All Time

Awesome rock & roll reads, from Keith Richards and Patti Smith to Slash and Nikki Sixx

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Funny thing about rock & roll memoirs: They tend to have the same plot. Our heroes 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 50 of our favorites.


Brian Wilson: ‘I Am Brian Wilson’ (2016)

The Beach Boys’ tale has been told many times: Tortured teen genius Brian Wilson trapped in a surf band with his brothers and cousin, creating a Southern California myth out of his yearning tunes. Brian tells his story in an endearingly erratic style, jumping all over the timeline and trying real hard to find nice things to say about Mike Love. (If you’re looking for those, Mike’s Good Vibrations has 436 pages’ worth.) Even into old age, he still remains the shy, scared boy who wrote “In My Room.” “Songs are out there all the time, but they can’t be made without people,” he says. “You have to do your job and help songs come into existence.”

Robbie Robertson: ‘Testimony’ (2016)

As the guitarist and songwriter for the Band, Robbie Robertson chronicled ancient American myths, even while he was living out new ones. Testimony covers his early days: He’s just 14 when he gets a personal guitar lesson from his idol Buddy Holly. The Mohawk-Jewish Canadian hotshot hooks up with the Band, tears up juke joints with rockabilly legend Ronnie Hawkins, ducks the cops, raids Europe with Bob Dylan, trysts with Edie Sedgwick in the Chelsea Hotel. Testimony ends on an elegiac note: The Band’s Thanksgiving 1976 farewell concert, immortalized in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz.

Lemmy: ‘White Line Fever’ (2002)

“Laughing exercises all the facial muscles and keeps you from getting old. Looking stern gives you terrible wrinkles.” That’s right — Lemmy is here to offer you advice on holding on to your youthful looks. Among a few other topics: “Smoking pot helps the sense of humour no end, but after a while you lose it altogether and all you can do is talk about the cosmos and shit, which is really boring.” Boring is one word that never applies to the Motorhead madman. White Line Fever captures his lust for life — he tops any book here for most exclamation points per page — and his no-remorse metal spirit. For as long as this book lasts, Lemmy lives.

Neil Young: ‘Special Deluxe’ (2014)

Neil Young originally planned to call this Cars and Dogs, until he started to have doubts about his skills as a dog whisperer — but as he says, “I have had a love affair with cars my whole life.” Each chapter of Special Deluxe is a love song to one of the vehicles Neil’s driven down the human highway with his paintings: the 1948 Packard Woodie, the 1951 Willys Jeepster, the 1957 Corvette, the 1948 Buick Roadmaster Hearse. Every car inspires stories about the memories that go with it — his music, family, friends, drugs, guitars, bands — so Special Deluxe is far more revealing (and more fun) than his supposed memoir Waging Heavy Peace. A typical Neil twist: His book about cars gets more personal than his book about himself. Long may he run.

Henry Rollins: ‘Get in the Van: On the Road With Black Flag’ (1994)

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 hardcore pioneers who paved the road other bands have traveled ever since, and Rollins’ tour diaries are the essence of that pain-is-my-girlfriend punk spirit.

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Kim Gordon: ‘Girl in a Band’ (2015)

The NYC art-punk legend brings all her fearsome charisma to the page. Gordon grows up in the sad hippie twilight of Boogie Nights-era SoCal, escapes to the Big Apple, hooks up with guitar boy Thurston Moore and starts Sonic Youth. Eventually, she sees the collapse of her band along with her marriage. But Girl in a Band captures the thrill of being young in a new city, on fire with creative energy, as she and Moore walk the Soho streets by night to put up their gig posters. She also produces Courtney Love’s first album with Hole: “Courtney told me she thought Kurt Cobain was hot, which made me cringe inside and hope the two of them would never meet. We all said to ourselves, ‘Uh-oh, train wreck coming.’”

Jay-Z: ‘Decoded’ (2010)

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 in Decoded is write the whole story of hip-hop, merely using himself as a prime example, as he rises from criminal-minded fan to industry kingpin. Like he says, “Rap is built to handle contradictions.” Most surprising moment: Hov defends the Coldplay duet “Beach Chair” as “one of the hidden jewels of my catalog.”

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Tommy James: ‘Me, the Mob and the Music’ (2010)

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.”

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David Lee Roth: ‘Crazy From the Heat’ (1998)

You know what’s crazy? How underrated this book is. Diamond Dave’s book of pensees really deserves to be read wherever generally insane ramblings by generally insane dudes are read. Crazy From the Heat barely got noticed because it came out in the late Nineties, when public interest in Van Halen was at an all-time low. But every page abounds with his stark-raving lunatic eat-‘em-and-smile rock & roll Zen wisdom. Preach, Dave: “I’m not real good with baby steps. My specialty is ass-kicking. Does that sound unreasonable? It may well be, but I guarantee you, you will find no reasonable man on top of big mountains.”

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Kristin Hersh: ‘Rat Girl’ (2010)

Even if you don’t know Kristin Hersh’s band Throwing Muses, Rat Girl is a crucial first-hand account of the Eighties 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.

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Morrissey: ‘Autobiography’ (2013)

One of the all-time great poison wits airs every last grievance he’s nursed for decades, giving the world the bitchiest music memoir ever, as well as one of the funniest. Morrissey hates perilously close to everyone he’s ever met — especially the other Smiths. No detail of his career is too tiny to inspire some petty bile: “I vomit profusely when I discover that the album has been pressed in Japan with Sandie Shaw’s version of ‘Hand in Glove’ included. I am so disgusted by this that I beg people to kill me. Many rush forward.” (See Johnny Marr’s Set the Boy Free for the Smiths story from the perspective of a thoughtful and charming adult.) Best moment: Moz has breakfast with his hero David Bowie. “David quietly tells me, ‘You know, I’ve had so much sex and drugs I can’t believe I’m still alive,’ and I loudly tell him, ‘You know, I’ve had so LITTLE sex and drugs I can’t believe I’m still alive.’”

Richard Hell: ‘I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp’ (2013)

So many CBGB-era punk memoirs out there, but Richard Hell’s is unique — poetic yet never pompous, bemused without corny punch lines. As a 17-year-old Kentucky kid, he runs off to NYC to be a poet, but ends up a rock & roller. “‘Sacred monster’ is definitely the job description,” Hell writes. “Being a pop star, a front person, takes indestructible certainty of one’s own irresistibility. That’s the monster part.” He depicts his music comrades — Tom Verlaine, Robert Quine, Patti Smith, Lester Bangs — and all the girls he’s loved before. (Hell was the punk Leonard Cohen in that department.) He quips about his popularity with critics, “because they were predisposed to favor noise, intellect, and failure.” In the final scene, he runs into his old nemesis Verlaine for the first time in years — flipping through the dollar bins outside the Strand Bookstore — and walks away in tears, musing, “We were like two monsters confiding.”

Chuck Berry: ‘The Autobiography’ (1987)

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.

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David Bowie: ‘Moonage Daydream: The Life and Times of Ziggy Stardust’ (2002)

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 in top form, 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 this world will ever get to a straight-up Bowie autobiography — but who’d ever want anything straight-up from Bowie?

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Rod Stewart: ‘Rod’ (2012)

A typical scene from this flawless masterpiece: Rod, Elton, and Freddie Mercury spend a drug-crazed evening in Bel Air plotting to form a supergroup. “The name we had in mind was Nose, Teeth, & Hair, a tribute to each of our most-remarked-upon physical attributes.” Rod reports, “Somehow this project never came to anything, which is contemporary music’s deep and abiding loss.” It’s funnier than anything in the Freddie or Elton biopics — films where Rod isn’t even mentioned. Nobody’s turned this book into a movie, but maybe that’s because Rod has no use for crash-flop-comeback arcs. He’s just spent 50 years being Rod Stewart, and nobody’s ever loved anything as much as he loves being Rod Stewart. The best line comes when he’s accused of ass-wiggling in the “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” era: “We’re talking about a difference in fashion here, and the cut of the clothes, rather than a wholesale change in my approach to buttock work.”

Anthony Kiedis: ‘Scar Tissue’ (2004)

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, his face time with the Dalai Lama, and his many, many, many ex-girlfriends, most of whom inspire him to share a kind word, a nude photo, or both. (Ione Skye was “an au naturel, soft, soulful forest nymph.”) Scar Tissue has the best final sentence of any book on this list, starring Keidis’ 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 Kiedis writes a whole book about Buster some day.

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Ronnie Spector: ‘Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness’ (1989)

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.

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John Taylor: ‘In the Pleasure Groove’ (2012)

Duran Duran’s bass rake John Taylor was the glammiest of New Romantic rockers, a swirl of hair and lipstick and cheekbones. But he ended up one of the wisest. JT started young — at 14, he met lifelong friend Nick Rhodes, who shared his taste for music and fashion. “Nick and I both wore chiffon without needing much encouragement,” he writes. “We found ourselves mixing it up with ladies’ blouses.” When he and Nick start Duran Duran, they get into more ladies’ blouses. One minute his parents are asking, “You’re not going out dressed like that?” The next, he’s on MTV pouting in “Girls on Film.” In the Pleasure Groove is a wildly funny tour of the pop hustle, but it’s also full of poignant introspection and gentlemanly warmth. It’s touching when JT recalls how the band changed with success. “Nick was getting married? I thought we were married!”

Paul McCartney: ‘Many Years From Now’ (1997)

Officially this is an “authorized biography,” by longtime Macca friend Barry Miles. But that’s just a front, because the book really exists as a vehicle for Paul to tell his story in his own words. Every page has killer lines, like when he reveals “Can’t Buy Me Love” was recorded after a nine-day orgy with Miami Beach’s finest hookers: “It should been ‘Can Buy Me Love,’ actually.” Some fans were put off by the way he squabbles over credits, even breaking down songwriting by percentages. (To pick one controversial example, he calculates that “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 has ever existed, which might be why his memories make such marvelous company.

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Nile Rodgers: ‘Le Freak’ (2011)

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 Nile 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. The song would have been axed forever, if not for the one listener who recognized its brilliance. “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?”

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Carrie Brownstein: ‘Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl’ (2015)

The Sleater-Kinney guitar hero (and Portlandia comedian) finds her voice as one-third of the greatest American punk band. She grows up in Seattle, with a closeted dad and an anorexic mom, desperate to get into a group and make her own noise. She joins in the Nineties riot-grrrl explosion, seizing the excitement she feels seeing a band play live: “I needed to press myself up against small stages, risking crushed toes, bruised sides, and the unpredictable undulation of the pit, just so I could get a glimpse of who I wanted to be.”

The RZA: ‘The Tao of Wu’ (2009)

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.

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Slash: ‘Slash’ (2007)

There’s no shortage of Sunset Strip metal-sleaze gossip books out there, including other excellent GN’R 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 surprisingly reflective, 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.”

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Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz: ‘Beastie Boys Book’ (2018)

By now, any Beastie Boys fan would figure we’d heard all the stories already. Not even close. Years after losing their best friend Adam Yauch to cancer at 47, the surviving Beasties cook a 600-page bouillabaisse of the adventures they shared, from the South Bronx’s Disco Fever to Dolly Parton’s birthday party, from the hip-hop explosion to taking Lee “Scratch” Perry to Greenwich Village’s Halloween parade. It’s a Paul’s Boutique-size treasure trove. When they lament how they sold out original drummer Kate Schellenbach and kicked her out of the band, they pass her the mic to write her own chapter about it. Horovitz recounts a ridiculously complicated trick Yauch played on him — planting some old jewelry in his bag — requiring so many years of planning, so much “prank stamina,” all he can do is bow. It’s a tribute to all the ways music helps friends elevate each other, and ultimately mourn each other.

Viv Albertine: ‘Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys’ (2014)

“Anyone who writes an autobiography is either a twat or broke. I’m a bit of both.” Viv Albertine helped shape London punk as the wild-child guitarist of the Slits, striking her warrior pose on their album cover. Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys is her tale of fighting her way into rock & roll as a rebel girl — starting a band with Sid Vicious, dating the Clash’s Mick Jones, idolizing Patti Smith and Yoko Ono, inspiring future generations of feminist punk. But by the early Eighties, it’s all over — Viv’s an anonymous aerobics teacher, wondering what the hell happened. She rolls through motherhood, cancer, and divorce, only to realize she needs to get back to her guitar. Her abrasive humor is exhilarating — more Fleabag than Please Kill Me. The only man who never lets her down: John Lennon, her lifelong muse. “He wrote and talked about his mother, Yoko, even his aunt, all the time, acknowledging how important women were in his life — so I assumed all boys were like this — and to my huge disappointment, almost none of them were or are.”

Keith Richards: ‘Life’ (2010)

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 cranky bitching about Mick, this book exceeded any reasonable expectation for literary Keefness.

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Questlove: ‘Mo Meta Blues’ (2013)

One of the most emotionally honest books ever written about going through life not just in love with music, but practically crippled by how much you love it. For Questlove, born into a Philly family of touring musicians, being a fan is his sacred vocation as much as his night job as America’s favorite drummer. Sure, his memoir has encounters with Prince, KISS, and Erykah Badu, but the show-stopper is when he and his sister hear “Rapper’s Delight” for the first time: “The two of us stared at the radio the entire time it was happening; it was our equivalent of the old radio drama The War of the Worlds. All the black kids in Philadelphia who were listening to the radio that day have the same story.” Or the time he hears Prince’s “Housequake” in the laundromat and runs all the way home to tape it off the radio. A one-of-a-kind book, from a one-of-a-kind mind.

Bruce Springsteen: ‘Born to Run’ (2016)

Springsteen dropped this book as a total surprise, with no warning he was gearing up for his one-man Broadway show. The shock of Born to Run is how loose and friendly it is, with the all-caps jokes of a dad who loves to text. He goes deep into his spiritual badlands, from his alcoholic dad’s “six-pack seances” to his struggle with depression. But he skips some of his most famous stories to get to ones you haven’t head, like when he and Little Steven get kicked out of Disneyland for violating the dress code, or when he ends up at Frank Sinatra’s 80th-birthday dinner singing jazz standards at the piano with the odd trio of Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gorme, and Bob Dylan. Born to Run is a guy telling his stories out loud, trying to figure out his toughest mysteries.

Patti Smith: ‘Just Kids’ (2010)

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 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.

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Bob Dylan: ‘Chronicles, Volume One’ (2004)

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?

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