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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Decoded is not a strict autobiography; it’s a mosaic of personal essay, musicological study, place history and hip-hop encyclopedia. Jay Z dissects some of his best-known lyrics and shares insights into how successful songs work. While offering up the requisite celebrity encounters, childhood ruminations and rags-to-riches satisfactions, Decoded shines most in its thoughtful attempts to situate its author’s oeuvre within the larger context of rap’s continuing evolution.
Timing can be crucial in the writing of a memoir, and in the case of My Cross to Bear, the reader is the beneficiary of Greg Allman’s accrued hindsight. Memories of his late brother Duane are all the more affecting for their undiminished vividness—despite the intervening decades. Allman’s road-life, with the usual ups and downs of a hard-living rock star, is narrated in a voice that is unsparingly blunt. And his over-it descriptions of music business manipulations are as fascinating as his singing advice to his ex-wife, Cher.
Van Ronk, friend and mentor to Bob Dylan and a fixture of the Greenwich Village folk world of the late ‘50s and ‘60s, is one of those figures who embodies a scene so completely that his renown never truly escapes its confines. By turns blustery and erudite, The Mayor of MacDougal Street provides what is perhaps the definitive first-hand account of the New York folk scene from the inside. Van Ronk describes a politically charged milieu that incubated the conscience of the counterculture as it fostered the creation of great music.
Married at the age of 13, with four kids by 18, Loretta Lynn climbed to stardom from the most unlikely circumstances. Her resultant memoir is not for the faint of heart, but it’s earned its place as a classic, both for its portrait of a rural isolation most of us can hardly fathom and for its insight into the mind and heart of one of country music’s most groundbreaking songwriters.
A funny and lacerating account of the world through the eyes of a broke young punk, Rat Girl is based on Hersh’s diary and depicts a year after the inception of her band, Throwing Muses. At its best, Rat Girl writhes its way into a mangled metaphor for the chaos of late-adolescence, enlivened and humanized by the specter of mental illness and unexpected motherhood.
Ambitiously “meta,” with litanies of song references that befit a true music obsessive, Mo’ Meta Blues radiates its author’s introspective charisma and the creative restlessness that drives him. From his childhood in Philly to his current gig on Fallon, it’s clear music has always been Thompson’s true compass. Though not always sanguine about hip hop’s current trajectory, he never loses faith in the life-altering power of a great record.
Engagingly written and hard to put down, Buddy Guy’s When I Left Home is at its best depicting the influential blues guitarist’s struggle to carve out a livelihood for himself after moving from Louisiana to Chicago in 1957. While not always comprehensive or introspective, it remains one of the more vivid depictions of desperation nudging an artist to previously unimagined heights.
The autobiography of Waylon Jennings is the best first-hand account we have of the outlaw country movement of the ‘70s. Jennings, the Texas-born best friend of Buddy Holly and the fourth member of The Highwaymen, famously took on the Nashville establishment and remains an inescapable influence to todays alt-country and Americana artists. His memoir relates the story of his uncompromising life with the requisite dosage of irreverence.
B.B. King was born in Mississippi in 1925, began his career in Memphis in the late ‘40s and has been situated at the very center of the American musical tradition ever since. Blues All Around Me is largely a road memoir, eschewing a tell-all approach in favor of a clear presentation of the musician’s life—the performances, the close-calls, the distance from his family and his bouts with loneliness. King admits his tendency to guardedness, a trait that inclined and habituated him to a life on the road.
At times candid to a fault, Chuck Berry’s autobiography takes us to the genesis of rock ’n’ roll, from a St. Louis reformatory for juveniles to Chess Records and “Johnny B. Goode.” The narration could use more introspection to balance its wealth of amorous details, but Berry contains detailed histories of its author’s classic compositions as well some great fish-out-of-water moments, like the time he infuriated Dick Clark by botching a lip-sync on American Bandstand.