The Story of a Life: Rock Star Memoirs
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to go on stage with blinding lights scorching your eyes and an audience of thousands erupting in screams? Do you play air guitar, imagining the show-stopping finger work that will induce fierce envy in competing bands? Or maybe you’re more interested in the backstage trip? The life of a rock star is notorious for the access to good drugs and loose women. Sounds like a wild ride for a twenty-year-old! But what is it really like to be manhandled by wealth and fame?
A couple of years back, Keith Richards of Rolling Stones fame published his memoirs. Simply titled Life, the book begins with Richards and several other musicians (including Ron Wood) travelling through Arkansas in the mid-sixties. The car was stuffed with drugs. Rural Arkansas at that time was exceedingly conservative. As Richards writes, “The Bible Belt was much tighter in those days.” The musicians were hardly inconspicuous. It was only a matter of time before cops were on their tail. Still, there was much hilarity as Richards and his mates holed up in a bathroom getting high and then tried to dispose of all the drugs tucked throughout their possessions. After the legal wrangling, Richards was photographed banging the gavel.
The stream-of-consciousness style of Richards’s memoirs captures the incongruous life of privilege and scrutiny afforded to rock musicians. Richards in particular is known for his dark aura of danger well suited to the Rolling Stones’ bad boy personna. Despite the rollicking high times, such as the ones described above, there were years of drug addiction, marriage failures, and deaths that are just as certainly part of the Rolling Stones legacy. The heart of Richards’s telling, however, is his love affair with music itself. This love is central to most of the memoirs in this post.
Also published in 2012 is Pete Townsend’s Who I Am: A Memoir. Townsend was revolutionary in many ways. He was the first to smash guitars onstage as part of the show, which was later embellished by the use of pyrotechnics. Townsend is credited to be the first to play feedback guitar solos, a technique subsequently used to better effect by guitarists such as Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck. But his most notable achievements are Townsend’s musical compositions. As he relates in his memoir, Townsend found inspiration from surprising and diverse musical styles. For example, the beautifully layered song “The Kids Are Alright” reflects Townsend’s incorporation of baroque-style suspensions. Readers are granted unprecedented access to Townsend’s work on his famous composition, Tommy, the first “rock opera,” later made into both a movie and a successful Broadway musical.
A real tell-all rock memoir is Clapton: The Autobiography by Eric Clapton. Clapton is both a singer and a songwriter, but it’s as a guitarist that he’s achieved legendary status. His memoir includes his bands (Yardbirds, Cream, Derek and the Dominoes), his women, and his battle with heroin addiction. In the late 1960s, Clapton fell in love with Pattie Boyd, the wife of George Harrison. He poured his feelings in the song Layla, which he relates sharing with her. At length, Boyd left Harrison and married Clapton, but the marriage was riddled with Clapton’s alcoholism and infidelities. It’s quite a bit of drama.
If Clapton’s memoir arouses curiosity about the George-Pattie-Eric love triangle, try Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Me, written by Pattie Boyd with Penny Junor. Boyd was with the Beatles in their early days. She has a fine eye for photography, and her intimate portraits of famous musician have been displayed worldwide. As Mrs. George Harrison, she hung out with many musicians and celebrities. Boyd recalls George’s excitement after meeting Bob Dylan, whom Boyd claims turned them on to marijuana. Her perspective on this time period is front and center. There was wealth, fame, and worldwide travel. But these things, accompanied by drugs, groupies, and long separations can batter a marriage or two…
Want some more Bob Dylan anecdotes? Dylan has been writing his autobiography, Chronicles. Volume 1 was a finalist for the National Book Critics Award in Autobiography in 2004. Dylan’s writing is at times bemused and at times intense. His story begins after he rides a freight train to New York, meets Jack Dempsey, and signs a contract with Columbia Records. Although Dylan despised his designation as the “voice of a generation,” his prose is as fearless as his songs. He wastes few words for the years of his highest fame, preferring to write about music. Volume 2 still has no firm publishing date.
Earlier this year, Gregg Allman published his memoir, My Cross to Bear. Allman, with his legendary guitarist brother, Duane, were among the founding brothers of the Allman Brothers Band. Duane Allman’s slide guitar work can be seen on the video recording of Live at Fillmore East, released shortly before Duane’s death. Much of Greg Allman’s memoir is dedicated to his relationship with his older brother, his songwriting process, and to the innovations (two drum players!) of the band. Enigmatic during the years of early stardom, Allman reveals the sorrow that howls through his renditions of songs like Down to the Whipping Post.
Music fans will find many memoirs and biographies of bygone stars, some of which are included in the list below. Readers will discover not just the details of one life, but also the flux of creative ideas that evolve into one musical genre after another. Just as early rock guitarists credit blues musicians with the chords that shaped rock music, later musicians build on innovations from the 60s and 70s.
Rock Memoirs and Bios. (Please add those I’ve missed in the comments section!)
- My Cross to Bear by Gregg Allman (William Morrow, 2012)
- Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing by Ann Angel (Amulet Books, 2010)
- Chuck Berry: The Autobiography by Chuck Berry (Harmony Books, 1989)
- Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Me by Pattie Boyd, with Penny Junor (Harmony Books, 2007)
- Bruce by Peter A. Carlin (Touchstone, 2012)
- Clapton: The Autobiography by Eric Clapton (Broadway, 2007)
- Chronicles, Vol. 1 by Bob Dylan (Simon & Schuster, 2004)
- Jimi Hendrix: A Brother’s Story by Leon Hendrix and Adam Mitchell (Thomas Dunne Books, 2012)
- Bit of a Blur by Alex James (Little, Brown Book Group, 2008)
- Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Heluva Ride with Tommy James & the Shondells by Tommy James (Scribner, 2010)
- Scar Tissue by Anthony Kiedis (Hyperion, 2004)
- A Natural Woman: A Memoir by Carole King (Grand Central Publishing, 2012)
- Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir by Cyndi Lauper and Jancee Dunn (Atria, 2012)
- Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir by Dave Mustaine and Joe Layden (It Books, 2011)
- Mick Jagger by Phillip Norm (Ecco, 2012)
- Life by Keith Richard (Little, Brown and Company, 2010)
- Slash by Slash and Anthony Bozza (It Books, 2008)
- Somebody to Love? A Rock-n-Roll Memoir by Grace Slick (Grand Central Publishing, 1998)
- Just Kids by Patti Smith (Ecco, 2010)
- Rod: The Autobiography by Rod Stewart (Crown Archetype, 2012)
- The Pleasure Groove: Love, Death, and Duran Duran by John Taylor (Dutton Adult, 2012)
- Who I Am: A Memoir by Pete Townsend (Harper, 2012)
- Does the Noise in My Head Bother You?: A Rock’n’Roll Memoir by Steven Tyler (Ecco, 2012)
- Kicking & Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock & Roll by Ann Wilson and Nancy Wilson (It Books, 2012)
- Waging Heavy Peace by Neil Young (Blue Rider Press, 2012)
— Diane Colson, currently reading Ask the Passengers by A.S. King and listening to The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny