One of the most fascinating things to me about the memoirs of musicians (besides the sex, drugs, and rock and roll, of course) is the amount of people who read them who normally wouldn’t crack a book. A guy who had recently read Keith Richards’s 2011 memoir Life cornered me at a Christmas party last year. He had discovered I was a writer, which I guess made me the perfect candidate for him to talk to (or maybe at would be more precise) about the book. After a good half hour of listening (the conversation was painfully one-sided as I hadn’t read it yet), I asked him about other books he’d recently read. Nothing. Besides Life, he hadn’t read a book since college. Probably something you shouldn’t admit to a writer, but at the same time, it’s a testament to the power of music. This guy may not normally curl up with a good book on a rainy Sunday or spend hours in a used bookstore taking in the scent of well-worn pages, but his passion for a great musician inspired his curiosity. There are few other literary genres that have that power. To honor that — and maybe inspire bibliophobes to pick up another book — I have compiled a list of my five favorite musician memoirs:
Life by Keith Richards with James Fox
There’s a reason someone will corner you to discuss this book. It’s that good. I opened it excited to read about the scandals, the drugs, the rivalry with Jagger — all those things that make the Stones, the Stones. What I got was that plus an honest, reflective, and at times, even witty, story of the evolution of a musician.
Favorite line: “There’s a certain moment when you realize that you’ve actually left the planet for a minute and that nobody can touch you. You’re elevated because you’re with a bunch of guys that want the same thing you do.”
Cash by Johnny Cash with Patrick Carr
Everyone I know who has read this book agrees on one thing — it feels like you’re sitting down with a great elderly man as he looks back on his life. Cash’s stories of his struggles, his beliefs, his family, and his music, will stay with you long after you close the book.
Favorite line: “Inside me my boyhood feels so close, but when I look around, it seems to belong to a vanished world.”
Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan
Dylan’s legendary place in music history is reason enough to read his memoir. Though perhaps more importantly than that, he captures a revolutionary place and time for music — Greenwich Village, in the early 1960s.
Favorite line: “My name has become a password.”
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Part memoir, part love story, Patti Smith’s tale of her romance and, later, friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (who eventually realized he was gay) is tender and poetic. Any artist, musician, or writer will find inspiration in Smith and Mapplethorpe’s belief in both their art and each other.
Favorite line: “I thought to myself that he contained a whole universe that I had yet to know.”
Loretta Lynn: Coal Miner’s Daughter by Loretta Lynn with George Vecsey
One cannot speak of memoirs without speaking of Loretta Lynn’s Coal Miner’s Daughter. Who doesn’t love a story of a woman’s climb out of poverty into a legendary music career?
Favorite line: “But I could survive if we got poor again. In some ways, that was the best part of my life, learning how to survive.”