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.
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 many drugs in this book it should 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 Mötley Crüe is going to be fine with that.
A Chicana punk coming-of-age story from East L.A., where a barrio kid named Alicia Armendariz starts a hardcore band called the Bags, battles her way to the stage, then finds she has to keep on battling. Raised on the Mexican ranchera records of her immigrant parents, baptized in 1970s glam rock, Alice Bag thrives on her confrontational dust-ups with the slam-dancing mosh pit crew, in her pink dress and high heels. For her, it’s all about “the giddy adrenaline rush of the fight.”
Billy Idol seems to show up at least once in every Eighties-Nineties memoir, usually when some sort of pharmaceutical dessert is consumed. So it’s only fitting he wrote his own. Hell, Billy’s index has more drama than most books: “Idol, Billy, cocaine use of,” “GHB overdose of,” “hair of,” “police anti-crack sting,” “violin lessons of.” From “White Wedding” to “Cradle of Love,” his purple prose is a thing of beauty, as when an early punk romance breaks up because the drugs “dashed my hopes on the rocks of desire as the sea poured into our kingdom.” No matter where he is, Billy never idles.
The Blondie grande dame has told her story before — most notably in Making Tracks, her great 1982 photo-history with Chris Stein and Victor Bockris. But Face It has the complete saga: how Debbie Harry came out of nowhere to seduce the world, from CBGB to The Muppet Show, then lost it all, yet refused to give up and quit. Her whole book has the glorious sneer of a tough old punk queen who knows how cool she is and does not care if you agree. “My Blondie character was an inflatable doll, but with a dark, provocative, aggressive side. I was playing it up, yet I was very serious.”
Fame — it’s a hell of a drug. Rick James begins his chronicle in Folsom Prison after flaming out on crack, in the hard times between his “Super Freak” peak and his Chappelle’s Show comeback, which explains why it’s not titled I’m Rick James, Bitch. In the Sixties, he plays in a hippie band with a not-yet-famous Neil Young, stays up all night with Joni Mitchell grooving to Sketches of Spain, cruises the Whiskey a Go Go with David Crosby, gets turned on to acid by Jim Morrison. Then he sees KISS and gets a lesson in showmanship. Rick becomes the King of Punk Funk, hitting Studio 54 (“Tanya Tucker was my best friend”?) and beefing with Prince. And along the way, he meets some very, very kinky girls.
When Elton published his long-threatened memoir in late 2019, the world learned why the biopic Rocketman was such a humorless drag — it turned out Captain Fantastic was saving all the juiciest dish for his own superb book. Me has the right mix of salty gossip and even saltier self-mockery. A shy English schoolboy named Reginald Dwight decides to become a glitter-rock starlet, dubs himself Elton, peacocks through the Seventies, only to end up a respectable elder statesman. Hello, yellow brick road.
Dean Wareham led the great New York guitar band Luna through the 1990s, after the breakup of the Boston indie pioneers 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 few dozen excellent songs. And that ends up being enough.
In the summer of 1997, Neil Peart’s teenage daughter Selena dies in a car crash. Less than a year later, his wife Jackie dies of cancer. So he gets on his motorcycle and hits the road, from Quebec to the Yukon, then down south to Mexico and Belize. He rides thousands of solitary miles, brooding over his grief, with no home to go back to, while his brothers in Rush give him the time he needs to fire up the willing engine. Ghost Rider is different from anything Peart wrote for Rush — an unusually personal statement from such a shy and private writer. But the Professor brings all his analytical rigor to these road journals — and leans on the healing power of mechanical music.
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.”
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.”
The confessions 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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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 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?
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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 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.”
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.
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.
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?