Music lives in our body. It infiltrates us to our cores, informing us, shaping us, pushing us. Reading the books written by those that created this music feels like we’re part of the club.
Okay. So before everyone gets up in arms and writes all of the books I didn’t include in this article in the comments, here’s how I did this:
Over the course of my life, I’ve read these and another fifteen or so music biographies. I did most of that stoned, and listening to whatever I was reading, during. There are a bunch I will admit I haven’t read, like Springsteen’s and Stevie Nicks’, so if you’re wondering why you don’t find those or any others on this list, that is why. The fact that I have been using cannabis my whole life may or may not have affected my decision making process here as well. Is Johnny Cash more stoner-friendly than Jewel? I don’t know, probably. So, of all the books that I’ve read about music, here are the top 10.
10. TALKIN’ BOUT A REVOLUTION, DICK WEISSMAN
While not about a specific musician, this is must-read for all music enthusiasts. Music reflects and spurns the times it is created in, and this book explains this in colourful detail. From the folk artists protesting war, to punk rock bands fighting the system, and grunge capturing the ennui of the 90’s, Weissman details the effect the world had on music, and vice versa. Tales of Woody Guthrie weaving tales of post-war America; James Brown melting everyone’s brains with songs like “Sing it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud); Bob Marley shedding light on Jamaica’s class clashes. Included are Native American artists, Latino artists, and women who changed the landscape of music forever with their songwriting. A little more textbook than storytelling, this book is as relevant as ever in our era of Beyonce’s “Formation” and Eminem’s Trump rap.
9. CASH, JOHNNY CASH
Don’t yell at me about the placement of this book on the list. I know the last years of Cash’s life inspired a whole other generation to fall in love with the man in black. His music, his voice, his tortuous addictions, and undying love for June made him as relevant now as ever. And yes, his cover of “Hurt” is the junkie’s “Hallelujah”.
And the book is delightful. You can really hear him speaking through the lines, fulfilling what I consider the most important part of a bio: the voice of the artist coming through in all the stories we’ve probably heard before. You are a voyeur, peeking over his shoulder to catch a glimpse of Elvis. In stark contrast to, say, Dylan’s lyrical tongue twisting, Cash puts it all out there, simple and straight forward. In the end, he transforms into a distant uncle, returning from travels a little worse for wear, but with some crazy ass trinket from some faraway land and a tale to match it. Having said all that, there’s nothing really revelatory in this read, so I will anger my exes and keep it low on the list.
8. I’M WITH THE BAND, PAMELA DES BARRES
Not technically a rock bio? Yeah, too fucking bad.
Des Barres is, as you probably know, famous for sleeping with rock stars. Penny Lane from Almost Famous is based on her. Thing is, as a result she came into direct contact with every major talent in rock ‘n’ roll, spanning two decades. Who else can say that (that is still alive to tell us about it?) She was Frank Zappa’s nanny, Jimmy Page’s teenaged lover, and one of Mick Jagger’s muses. She tells her stories with humour, and with a little bit of the starry-eyed teenage nostalgia we all feel when it comes to our heroes. She talks of kissing Jim Morrison the exact way I imagined it as a 16 year old on LSD. And guys: she hooked up with a Golden God (Robert Plant, lead singer of Led Zeppelin, which I should not have to explain. Also, yes, another Almost Famous Easter egg). She was, and is, a fan, and that comes through with every word. Put on footage from Altamont and Woodstock, find some deep Zappa cuts, light some incense, and get ready to giggle.
7. CLAPTON, ERIC CLAPTON
GUYS. THEY CALLED HIM GOD.
If you like classic rock at all, there are a few things you (should) know: Clapton stole Pattie Boyd, George Harrison’s lady, right up from under him. The two rock stars were friends at the time, actually. Harrison wrote Something for her. Clapton wrote Layla with Derek and the Dominoes about her. (One of so many supergroups he played in, which is likely only mentionable because of the song.)
Point is, he was and is rock royalty. He saw Hendrix play in England and realized he had to step up his game. He did so with such great effect that he has shared a stage with every single rock superstar on the planet, pretty much ever. And they bow to him. (Except Prince. ‘Cause, well…Prince didn’t bow for no one, amiright?) This book captures the depths of his heroin overdose (a commonality among this particular genre), the peaks of his success, the reality of sobriety. A little drier than some of our options out there, it still manages to paint a picture of the times, the pressures of “making it” and the ramifications of being given everything you’ve ever wanted.
Honourable and inevitable mention: Wonderful Tonight, Pattie Boyd. Want the inside scoop from rock’s Helen of Troy? Look no further. Bonus: it’s really, really good.
6. LIFE, KEITH RICHARDS
If you’ve ever been curious as to how exactly “Keef” is still kicking, this could give you insight. Post-war England is captured beautifully by Richards, who spends some time there, eager to give background. He describes his childhood with minute detail that frankly, I don’t really understand how he remembers. Doubt aside, the image of a scrawny, scrappy, sour 14-year-old Keith running around, causing trouble where ever he went is pretty delightful. The Stones are still making music, which has aided in dropping the veil of mystery: when they die at 27, they are always that sexy and smouldering and successful. However, Richards weaves around the obvious ups and downs of the band. He spins his yarns around the events we all already know about, giving us insight into the world of the quieter member of one of rock’s famous duos. You find yourself rooting for him, even as you shake your head as he goes back to booze and heroin yet another time. You curse Mick when he pisses Keith off, want Anita to just relax, and you want the summer in France (birthplace of Exile) to last forever, even though you’re worried they’re all going to kill themselves.
5. HAMMER OF THE GODS, STEPHEN DAVIS
Led Zeppelin is the quintessential rock group and this, the quintessential rock book. EVERYTHING is in here. Drugs! Girls! Hotels! Magic! Adultery! Neither confirming or denying a fish being stuck up a groupie! (For the record, the most believable account I’ve ever heard describes the roadies, not the band, spanking a woman with a swordfish. Still not convinced any of it happened.) The Stones may still be making music and touring, but Led Zeppelin are the most sampled, most quoted, most revered, most hated band in history. From guitarist Jimmy Page’s Aldous Huxley-inspired black magic to drummer John Bonham’s tragic thirst for booze, they swung and rocked and wailed their way through the 60’s and 70’s. They INVENTED stadium rock (for better or worse) and spearheaded the tales from the road that bands like GnR would later revel in. If you’re still rolling your eyes, put on How Many More Times, light a spliff, and just go with it.
4. JUST KIDS, PATTI SMITH
Patti Smith IS a revolution. She oozes it from every pore, every lyric an anthem in waiting. She whips you up into a frenzy and then cushions your fall. She reminds you what it’s like to be human and makes you wonder if she even is. She is so in love with art, in all of its forms, that she allows you to be an artist just by reading her words. Smith gives us more than a snapshot, she takes you along with her as she recounts her life. Eternally an outcast, while being oh-so-loved by generations of people. You find yourself hanging on every word, downloading songs you didn’t know existed, and rooting for this person who is one of the guys and yet, such a goddamned WOMAN at the same time.
3. SLASH, SLASH
Full disclosure: I am in love with Saul Hudson. I have loved him since I was far too young, ogling his bare chest with my child eyes, marvelling at whatever it was he seemed to do to his guitar, cigarette in mouth. Growing up in Los Angeles in the 80’s and 90’s, Guns N’ Roses were KINGS. But Slash was my prince. His memoir traces his steps from his birth in England to interracial parents; his father a painter, his mother cutting her teeth designing costumes for the likes of Ringo Starr. As you read, it becomes obvious that there was little chance of a normal life for little Saul.
Most of us know something of what came next. Fame. Heroin. Axl. The top hat. But somehow, even while describing some of the most salacious and scandalous stories ever told, there’s something sweet in Slash’s delivery. You get the feeling he really meant well when he was draining the last sip of Jack Daniels. Get over yourself, pour yourself a few inches of something brown, and dig in.
2. CHRONICLES, BOB DYLAN
An intimate self portrait written by one of music’s most elusive stars. You feel like you’re reading Dylan’s journal, or sitting across from him as he chain-smokes and tells you his stories. His handle on the English language makes for dizzyingly poetic imagery. You’re right beside him as he watches folk singers in Greenwich Village; you sing along when he goes electric and is booed by the very folkies that made him famous.
Part of Dylan’s mystique is his inaccessibility. He rarely gives interviews, snarls in between songs on stage and condescends to us all whenever he does speak. Here, we get a glimpse into what it might be like to have dinner with him. Cue up Blonde on Blonde, shut the blinds, and curl up with your mother’s first crush.
1. THIS WHEEL’S ON FIRE, LEVON HELM
Oh, if I believed in God, I would thank him for Levon. Unless your mom played it, or you’re a real rock buff, you probably don’t know much about The Band. You probably know The Weight and maybe even The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. Maybe one night you watched The Last Waltz at a friend of a friend’s house, high on mushrooms. The thing about The Band is, they shaped the music we listen to today immeasurably. And despite what Robbie Robertson thinks, that is all because of Levon Helm. His autobiography reads like a novel. Every couple pages you have to pause and remind yourself that this was someone’s life, someone who grew up to be an influence on music for decades to come.
The way he manipulates language to suddenly make all his readers speak in his tone. The picture he paints of the cotton fields in Arkansas and the cold streets of Toronto. The humour, bitterness, love, and regret all shine plainly through the text. He isn’t hiding anything from us.
A memoir, when it’s really good, befriends you. It pulls you in close and whispers in your ear, so that you nearly forget that millions of people get to hear the same words. Levon is at the top because he does this exact thing so brilliantly, so effortlessly, that I am still not totally convinced I never met him.
Whether or not you agree with me here, these are some great books. What I love about music biographies is that they also capture the time and place that the artist inhabited. They were, and are part of the culture: you get a feel for what it might have been like to be at a Vietnam protest rally, to be one of the first kids to look behind them and see tens of thousands of other fans all scream-singing to the same song.
Music lives in our body. There’s a reason we can still sing every word to the song we haven’t listened to since we were 11. It infiltrates you to your core, informing you, shaping you, pushing you. Reading the books written by those that created this music feels like you’re part of a club.