The 10 Best Memoirs Written By Musicians

music books

The 10 Best Memoirs Written By Musicians

When musicians decides to write their memoirs they are often uneven (this is a kind statement). They often struggle to give words the life that do in their songs, this “new” format may not come naturally to them. That said, many of these men and women have great stories to tell and often provide compulsive reading. They do stumble in their wording and structure from time to time, but the stories are compelling and they succeed in capturing the spirit of their cultural moment with astonishing insight.

These twelve ten books are great examples of how it can be done if the authors manage to adjust to the new form. They are good period, not because they are written by famous artists, but because they reflect all the creativity, movement and human drama you’d expect from people driven by art. We kept it to memoirs, so no fictional prose (sorry, Nick Cave), no poetry (sorry, Patti Smith and Leonard Cohen), there are some of the books that touches different genres but all these books are mainly memoirs.

They are not necessarily the best biographies about artists written (although sometimes they are) but they are the best books written/narrated by the musicians themselves!

1. Chronicles vol.1 – Bob Dylan:

chronicles

Massively entertaining and clever as hell. This is a riddle within a riddle.

Eschewing chronology and skipping over most of the “highlights” that his many biographers have assigned him, Dylan drifts and rambles through his tale, amplifying a series of major and minor epiphanies. If you’re interested in a behind-the-scenes look at his encounters with the Beatles, look elsewhere. Dylan describes the sensation of hearing the group’s “Do You Want to Know a Secret” on the radio, but devotes far more ink to a Louisiana shopkeeper named Sun Pie, who tells him, “I think all the good in the world might already been done” and sells him a World’s Greatest Grandpa bumper sticker. Dylan certainly sticks to his own agenda–a newspaper article about journeymen heavyweights Jerry Quarry and Jimmy Ellis and soul singer Joe Tex’s appearance on The Tonight Show inspire heartfelt musings, and yet the 1963 assassination of John Kennedy prompts nary a word from the era’s greatest protest singer.

For all the small revelations (it turns out he’s been a big fan of Barry Goldwater, Mickey Rourke, and Ice-T), there are eye-opening disclosures, including his confession that a large portion of his recorded output was designed to alienate his audience and free him from the burden of being a “the voice of a generation.”

Off the beaten path as it is, Chronicles is nevertheless an astonishing achievement. As revelatory in its own way as Blonde on Blonde or Highway 61 Revisited, it provides ephemeral insights into the mind one of the most significant artistic voices of the 20th century while creating a completely new set of mysteries.
– Steven Stolder (Amazon)

“The masterstroke in Chronicles: Volume One is that Dylan incorporated an initially invisible second book beneath its surface. There are jokes and nods, tip-offs to when he is blowing smoke, and commentaries on artifice and illusion. Occasionally he reveals secrets that he might otherwise keep to himself. He opens up about his influences and his methods. His singular, identifiable American voice is actually an amalgam of the voices of so many others.

There is no need to wait for Chronicles: Volume Two: It lurks inside Chronicles: Volume One.”
– Scott Warmuth

2. Just Kids – Patti Smith:

Just_Kids_(Patti_Smith_memoir)_cover_art

Touching tale of friendship and artists in the making. Patti Smith is full of passion and it is contagious, the book makes me wish to be more passionate and, well, friendlier.

Along the way, we get fleeting glimpes into fated encounters with the likes of Andy Warhol, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix. I am sure it wasn’t as rose-colored as Patti Smith tells, but I love to think that it was.

“In 1967, 21-year-old singer–song writer Smith, determined to make art her life and dissatisfied with the lack of opportunities in Philadelphia to live this life, left her family behind for a new life in Brooklyn. When she discovered that the friends with whom she was to have lived had moved, she soon found herself homeless, jobless, and hungry. Through a series of events, she met a young man named Robert Mapplethorpe who changed her life—and in her typically lyrical and poignant manner Smith describes the start of a romance and lifelong friendship with this man: It was the summer Coltrane died. Flower children raised their arms… and Jimi Hendrix set his guitar in flames in Monterey. It was the summer of Elvira Madigan, and the summer of love…. This beautifully crafted love letter to her friend (who died in 1989) functions as a memento mori of a relationship fueled by a passion for art and writing.”
– Publishers Weekly

3. Many Years From Now by Paul McCartney & Barry Miles:

many years

Very confessional and essential in balancing the roles of the members of Beatles. This book includes Paul’s recollection of the genesis of every song that he wrote with John Lennon and the fascinating details about their remarkable collaboration.

“Some fans were understandably put off by the way he squabbles over credits, even breaking down songwriting credits by percentages. (To pick one controversial example, he calculates “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 ever existed, which might be why his memories make such marvelous company.”
– Rolling Stone Magazine

4. Cash by Johnny Cash:

cash

When I saw the film, I Walked the line (based on this book), I was terribly disappointed. The book is so much better! I’ve mellowed a bit now, and I do enjoy the movie for what it is, a fractured glimpse into the life of Johnny Cash. Read the book and you’ll get a more complete and much more engaging story. It is not chronological, and it doesn’t fit into a logical order. But, somehow the stories all connect to one another and give the book a perfect flow.

5. The Replacements – Let it Be (33 ⅓) by Colin Meloy

meloy

This book is about a musician writing about another group of musicians and their impact on his life. It is not a Replacements memoir, it’s a Colin Meloy memoir and it is wonderful. It hit me hard, made me remember how important some tapes/bands were when you started really listening to music. For Meloy it was The Replacements for me it was Clash. I’ve read that many fans of the album are unhappy with the way it is represented, not me, the book “gets” what being a fan of an album means. Not just the listening experience but the life changing process. Some albums can do that!

He also write about the record, he singles out songs and explain their significance, his own memoir and the memoir of the album inter-twines.

6. Life – Keith Richards (with James Fox)

life

Many people thought this book would be an incomprehensible ramble, much like Keith Richards himself comes across from time to time, but it is far from it. He has a great conversational style,  a sharp memory and he is witty as hell. It is a fun read, kind of like sitting and hear him tell about his life.  He has an absolute love of music! People looking for the wild Keith  will not be disappointed either.

“It was 1975, a time of brutality and confrontation. Open season had been declared since our last tour, the tour of ’72, known as the STP. The State Department had noted riots (true), civil disobedience (also true), illicit sex (whatever that is), and violence across the United States. All the fault of us, mere minstrels. We had been inciting the youth to rebellion, we were corrupting America, and they had ruled never to let us travel in the United States again. It had become, in the time of Nixon, a serious political matter. He had personally deployed his dogs and dirty tricks against John Lennon, who he thought might cost him an election. We, in turn, they told our lawyer officially, were the most dangerous rock-and-roll band in the world.”
– Keith Richards (opening quote!)

7. Coal Miner’s Daughter by Loretta Lynn (with George Vecsey)

coal miners daughter

Like many I saw the film before I read the book, the film is very good but the book is great. It’s written the way she talks, and I can hear her voice narrating it in my head. It’s a short read about an eventful life, married by age 14, babies immediately, and a grandmother at age 29. …and then there is the country-music rise to stardom!

Well, I was borned a coal miner’s daughter,
In a cabin on a hill in Butcher Holler,
We were poor but we had love. . . .
—”Coal Miner’s Daughter,”
by Loretta Lynn

“Most people know that much about me, because those are the first words of my biggest song. I open my show with it because I know people are gonna request it until I sing it. I wrote it myself, nine verses, and it broke my heart when I had to cut three verses out because it was too long. I could have written a thousand more verses, I’ve got so many memories of Butcher Holler.”
– Loretta Lynn

8. Bound for Glory – Woody Guthrie

bound

First published in 1943, this autobiography is also a superb portrait of America’s Depression years, by the folk singer, activist, and man who saw it all. When I heard about Dylan’s love of Bound For Glory, I had to read the book for myself. Again, the film is very good, but the book is magnificent. This man had his way with words! It reminds me of Steinbeck and Twain, it’s adventurous, unpretentious and dramatic.

9. My Cross To Bear – Gregg Allman (with Alan Light)

allman

This is a book for lovers of Southern Rock in general and Allman Brothers specially. It’s an utterly compelling rags to riches story. As with Keith Richard’s book, it’s a very straight forward conversational read. He doesn’t shield himself and it is sometimes heartbreakingly honest.

“In his memoir, the rambling and rambunctious Gregg Allman lays bare his soul… In the end, Allman, writing with music journalist Light, has produced a fiercely honest memoir.”
– Publishers Weekly

10. Waylon: An Autobiography by Waylon Jennings (with Lenny Kaye)

waylon

This book is the definitive depiction of the 70s Outlaw-Country scene.

“It chronicles all the chapters of Jennings’s incredible life, including his beginnings as a dirt-poor son of a farm laborer; his role as Buddy Holly’s protégé; his influential friendships with such luminaries as Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and George Jones; the stunning success ushered in by his platinum 1976 anthology album, Wanted: The Outlaws; the drug habit that nearly destroyed him; and his three failed marriages and the journey that lead him to Jessi Colter, the woman who would become his wife for 25 years. With anecdotes, portraits, and little-known facts about Jennings’s fellow country music stars, this book overflows with the honesty, true humor, and down-home charisma of an authentic honky-tonk hero.”
– Amazon

– Hallgeir

7 thoughts on “The 10 Best Memoirs Written By Musicians”

    1. I like it…, but it is a little bitter and maybe too biased. That said, I enjoyed the book and I love Levon Helm.

      Thanks for the comment.

  1. Of course, it’s your list, your placement of Woody Guthrie’s book at no.8 – instead of no.1 as it is in mine. Dylan would then come at no. 2. Both are Zeitgeist books, Woody being much more kosher, that’s all.

  2. A couple of editing notes. In the copy you refer to “these twelve books”. And it’s “I Walk the Line”.

    1. Will be corrected asap (I had twelve but took two out), the reference to I Walk the line (film) is correct, it is based on Cash (the book) at least it means to be

      Tanks for the feedback!

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