Musicians’ memoirs make for an uneven genre. Their authors often struggle to enliven the music business refrains of success, excess and addiction within a format that may not come naturally to them. When a performer tells a story well, however, the result can provide vicarious thrills and vital historical insight while providing compulsive reading.
The following 20 autobiographies reflect all the creativity, movement and human drama you’d expect from lives driven by music—the most visceral of art forms. If these narratives occasionally run aground on road-worn clichés, they are redeemed by the care their authors have taken to share something true about themselves and their work. Whether written in the 1940s or just last year—saturated in rock, hip hop, jazz, blues or country—each of these varied accounts captures the spirit of its cultural moment with singular clarity.
1. Just Kids by Patti Smith
Lyrical and moving, Just Kids is the account of Smith’s formative friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who died in 1989. Smith maintains a narrow focus that strengthens her narrative, giving us an indelible portrait of two young artists working to divine their futures while surviving in 1970s Manhattan. Lush with a romanticism tempered slightly by time and grief, Smith’s memoir makes a fervent tribute to her old friend and to an iteration of New York that’s fading ever-faster into myth.
2. Chronicles by Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan’s Chronicles is by turns as eloquent, inspiring, nostalgic, angry, unreliable, evasive, sweet, maddening and profound as its author. The bulk of the memoir deals with his time circulating in the Greenwich Village folk scene, when his antennae were up and every stranger’s utterance or dog-eared book carried a revelation to be used in the service of great songwriting. By no means the complete story of his career (a promised second volume seems less likely every year), Chronicles probes mostly neglected aspects of Dylan’s life to achieve a patchwork collection of non-linear vignettes, revealing an artist still closely in touch with the vagaries of his genius while remaining deeply ambivalent about his responsibility to it and to us.
3. Cash by Johnny Cash
A classic of the genre, Cash looks back on a long career with humility and gratitude, its author writing frankly about his addictions, failures and disappointments along the way. There are the expected stories of Elvis and Sun Records, Waylon, June and his Tennessee farm, but what sticks around after the final page is the heartening impression that although the Man in Black was a one-of-a-kind legend, he never thought of himself as larger than life.
4. Yes I Can by Sammy Davis, Jr.
A fascinating ride through one of the most storied careers in showbiz history, Yes I Can covers a lot of ground, from Davis’s vaudeville childhood to his unlikely film career, to the Rat Pack, all while weathering relentless racism and nursing the ailment common to so many entertainers—a rapacious need to be loved. The book is a memorable ode to resilience.
5. Life by Keith Richards
An interesting life is not guaranteed to yield an interesting memoir. Fortunately, with Life, Keith Richards provides as lucid and entertaining an account of his remarkable ride with the Rolling Stones as anyone could hope for. The guy’s done everything and it’s all here: the songwriting, the trappings of fame, the hard drugs and the legal problems they created, the premature deaths of friends like Brian Jones and Gram Parsons, his bumpy relationship with Mick, his fondness for his family and the Caribbean. He may have seen it all, but Richards is never cavalier about the music that brought him on his inimitable journey.
6. Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans by Louis Armstrong
In Satchmo, Louis Armstrong provides an exuberant first-hand account of New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century, before he and others like him brought jazz a worldwide audience. Armstrong is no slouch as a storyteller; his disposition charms as he savors recollections of his chaotic and confident youth, when it seemed everyone—from the hustlers to the preachers—was intoxicated by a city in the midst of a cultural explosion.
7. Many Years From Now by Paul McCartney & Barry Miles
Many Years From Now is an odd hybrid of a book; it bills it self as a biography, but writer Barry Miles spends most of his paragraphs setting up Paul’s fascinating anecdotes, lengthy quotes of which appear on almost every page, making up a significant portion of the book. Many Years From Now therefore functions as the closest thing we are likely to get in the way of a thorough autobiography by one of The Beatles. And it’s worth reading. McCartney and Miles take us on an unforgettable ride through the social and artistic development of the band, detailing the composition of the Lennon/McCartney team’s greatest songs and providing plenty of riveting details about life in the Fab Four during the storm that was the 1960s.
8. Bound For Glory by Woody Guthrie
Bound for Glory, first published in 1943, is not like other books. It’s big and baggy, full of cartoons, written in novelistic prose that recalls The Adventures of Tom Sawyer while anticipating On the Road. Guthrie, a legendary American songwriter if ever there was one, is not afraid to bend the truth in service of his legend, which manages to enhance, rather than diminish, the book’s significance as a window into his experience of the Great Depression. Don’t expect much insight into songwriting; Bound for Glory is Guthrie’s depiction of his country as he saw it, populated by simple people facing down calamities from dust bowls to union-busters.
9. Miles by Miles Davis
was as uncompromising a memoirist as he was a musician. His autobiography provides an indispensible glimpse into the jazz world of the mid-20th century, portraying the creation of masterpieces like Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew in a language someone with a knack for understatement might describe as “colorful.” Miles depicts his relationships with artists like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane in terms that are sympathetic but unflinching, providing us with up-close encounters with some of the greatest musicians of all time. Davis’s behavior was not always admirable, but his candor is worthwhile and Miles makes for a fascinating read.
10. Slash by Slash
When it comes to providing a vivid portrayal of the L.A. hard rock scene in the late ‘80s, Motley Crue’s The Dirt deserves an honorable mention, but Slash’s autobiography reigns supreme. Surprisingly thoughtful and candid, the guitarist tells the full story of his life and loves, his battles with addiction, the rise and fall of Gun N’ Roses, and—of course—his tumultuous relationship with Axl Rose. The Dirt tantalizes with its excess; Slash takes us to similar extremes while reminding us why we cared about these people in the first place.