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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.


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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