We recently learned that Carrie Brownstein — of Portlandia, but more importantly, Sleater-Kinney/Wild Flag fame — has signed a deal with Riverhead Books and is working on a memoir. We’re psyched, of course, and ready for a hilarious take on the ’90s riot grrrl scene and its transition into alt rock and indie punk. But the news also got us thinking about some of our favorite existing music memoirs, written by everyone from Throwing Muses frontwoman Kristin Hersh to folk superhuman Woody Guthrie (but we’re leaving out Just Kids, because we’ve talked about it so much here that we assume you’ve already read it). We can only hope Brownstein’s turns out to be as good as some of these, but knowing her, it probably will. Click through to check out our ten favorite memoirs by musicians, and let us know if we’ve missed any of your own favorites in the comments!
Rat Girl, Kristin Hersh
As the now-cult Throwing Muses were getting their start in dive bars and tiny clubs, lead singer Kristin Hersh found herself in another whirlwind entirely: she was diagnosed as bipolar and, as the band was recording its first album, found herself pregnant. In Rat Girl, she holds nothing back, whether about herself or the world she immersed herself in, and her prose is as fidgety and ecstatic, filled with surreal description and bright and black colors all smashed together.
Life , Keith Richards
In his much-acclaimed recent memoir, Keith Richards talks about the late nights, the drug binges, the fights with Jagger — all the sexy stuff. And we much admire his ability to slide seamlessly between heartfelt, earnest storytelling, and wicked, piercing commentary. But what makes the book great is the fact that his story gets bigger as the memoir goes on, until it’s about him, then the band, then the state of music, then the state of living.
Decoded , Jay-Z
Jay-Z’s Decoded started out as a tell-all autobiography called The Black Book, but he eventually scrapped the idea, feeling the revelations were much too personal. Instead, we got something more of a hybrid, which is part of why it’s so good — it’s an account of how Shawn Carter became Jay-Z, yes, but it’s more importantly about the nature of hip-hop, an ode to the form, a deconstruction from one of the men who knows it best.
Mötley Crüe: The Dirt , Tommy Lee, Vince Neil, Mick Mars, Nikki Sixx, Neil Strauss
If you’re looking for debauchery and insane antics, look no further than this group memoir by Mötley Crüe — which holds the dubious honor of being ranked number one on Spinner’s list of the “Raunchiest Rock Memoirs.” Still, a little raunch is sometimes a good thing, especially when it’s as hilarious as here, and the humanity that shines through all the stickiness and broken glass makes the book quite a bit more than just a bar read.
Beneath the Underdog , Charles Mingus
Famously edited down from the thousands and thousands of extra words Mingus submitted to his publishers, this is no ordinary musician’s memoir. In fact, it can only be tenuously called a memoir at all — it’s more like the lyrical ramblings of an unreliable narrator who knows everything you want to know, but will decide how — and if — to tell you. But Mingus’s wild storytelling makes for one of the more compelling jazz memoirs out there, and maybe all his crazy literary antics are just a reflection of the heat and intricacy of the music itself.
I Need More , Iggy Pop
Enduring, ever-changing rock icon Iggy Pop’s 1997 autobiography is really a collection of true stories about everything from his quiet childhood in Ann Arbor, Michigan to forming what would be one of the most important punk bands of all time to rolling on stage in glass and stabbing himself with drumsticks. Though it only covers up until the very early ’80s, Iggy Pop’s voice shines manically through, lyrical and ragged and fascinating.
Cash , Johnny Cash
This memoir tells the story of the star, to be sure — and it’s a story we all love — but more compelling are Cash’s quiet, almost painfully honest reflections on fatherhood, spirituality, and drug addiction, written in a refreshingly matter-of-fact way. There are no gimmicks here, just the story of an American hero.
Things the Grandchildren Should Know , Mark Oliver Everett
Unlike some of the other authors on this list, Everett, songwriter and lead singer of the Eels, isn’t really a rock star — or at least, he’s not a stop-him-on-the-street-screaming kind of rock star. But his memoir, a conversational and heartfelt but truly funny look at his family’s tragedies, Everett’s sullen maturation, and the utter weirdness of the music business, deserves to get some groupies of its own.
Bound for Glory , Woody Guthrie
In his 1943 memoir, Woody Guthrie tells the story of an original cowboy’s son who hit the road, guitar slung over one shoulder, to ramble on towards greatness. In 1960, a kid named Bob Dylan got his hands on the book and became obsessed with it, copying Guthrie’s speech patterns and telling his friends, “I been travellin’ around the country, followin’ in Woody Guthrie’s footsteps.” Even more than On the Road, this is the original American wanderer book — hey, if Dylan says it, it must be so.
Chronicles: Volume One , Bob Dylan
Speaking of Dylan, he penned his own fantastic memoir in 2004, as we’re sure you’ve probably heard. The book, like Just Kids (though of course it predated it), is the story of a young Dylan hustling to get his art out there in New York, but fittingly for the man ever behind the dark sunglasses, it’s more an exploration into Dylan’s thoughts than his feelings — or even much from his personal life. But his thoughts are fascinating, and we could probably read about ten more volumes of them.