Rock N Roll memoirs are some of my favorite books to read. They’re personal, fun, full of drama and they contain lots of interesting recent history. They can make you laugh, make you cry, and make you think, meanwhile inspiring a craving for an adventure and an appreciation of home. Best of all, you get to learn more about your favorite music and bring a deeper understanding to your listening.
Here’s a list of Rock N Roll memoirs I loved.
Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out – Bill Graham and Robert Greenfield
The definitive Rock N Roll book. Starting with his remarkable escape from Nazi Germany and ending with his tragic death in a helicopter accident, this book tells the story of the man who created the modern concert industry. Told through a series of interviews, with the Bill Graham himself and with well known musicians, Bill Graham Presents is both intimate and informative. A complex man who engendered conflicting feelings from those he worked with, Bill Graham was and always will be one of the pivotal figures of Rock N Roll. Required reading for any music lover.
This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band – Levon Helm with Stephen Davis
I absolutely loved this book. Written with a flair for storytelling and a joy for life that transcends struggle, Levon Helm’s story of the Band is a ton of fun to read.The Band is one of the most notable bands in Rock N Roll history, and Levon’s book tells the story of the 10 years they toiled in obscurity before backing Bob Dylan when he went electric as well as the fame and tragedies that followed in a rollicking style that makes you feel like he’s talking to you in person. One of my all time favorite concerts was Levon Helm’s 70th birthday celebration at Mountain Jam where he was joined on stage by Warren Haynes, Alison Kraus, Sam Bush, Donald Fagen, Steve Earle, Jackie Greene, Ray LaMontagne and his daughter Amy Helm, among others. It was a cold night on Hunter Mountain, but the warmth on stage radiated, the musicians and the audience equally transfixed by the music.
Chronicles Volume I – Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan was one of my first loves, so much so that I wrote a history report on him for my 10th grade American Studies class. I read this book long enough ago that I don’t remember much about it other than the fact that I was enchanted by it. I will likely read it again, probably when he announces Volume II. Plenty has already been said about how good this book is, and you’ll find it at the top of every list like this one.
Garcia: An American Life – Blair Jackson
If you want to know just about everything there is to know about Jerry Garcia, this is the book for you. It’s more than that though. It’s written from the perspective of both a journalist and a Deadhead, offering insights on the events that shaped one of the most significant guitarists of all time. Garcia’s life was ultimately a tragic story, and Jackson approaches it sensitively and thoroughly.
Pirate Looks at 50 – Jimmy Buffett
Not everyone is going to agree with me on this one, but if you can get past the Parrothead cheese, you’ll probably agree that Jimmy B is a hell of a story teller. I grew up on the water and around boats, so Jimmy Buffett’s music has always been a part of my world. That and the fact that he’s done so many things I would like to do made this a really fun read. I enjoyed hearing his perspective on turning 50, and although I read it sometime around when I turned 30, I still found it relatable. Milestone birthdays mean different things for everybody, but without question they always mean something. Buffett offers personal stories about what was important to him at that stage of his life, and how he got there. It’s been a while since I read it, so I don’t recall a ton of details, but I’ll always remember reading his story of surviving crashing his sea plane. Though I probably won’t take up sea plane flying any time soon, I would absolutely spend my 50th birthday sailing the Caribbean with the people who matter most to me should I be so lucky as to have that opportunity.
Searching for the Sound – Phil Lesh
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. I read it when it first came out, and a lot of people around me were talking about it. I’ve never exactly been “in the Phil Zone,” so I was skeptical, but in fact it’s a great story. I particularly appreciated his willingness to talk about his relationship to his father, and the experience of his father’s death in response to which he wrote Box of Rain. His credit to his wife for rescuing him from himself is touching, and I finished this book with a better understanding of a band member I’d previously failed to appreciate.
Just Kids – Patti Smith
This one is everyone’s favorite. If you’re like me and you grew up reading the Beats and discovered your sense of self through doing so, you’ll love hearing Patti talk about all the books and music who influenced her. Her tales of struggling through self discovery as a young artist in 1970’s NYC are vivid and real, and her sensitivity to the many dimensions of her relationship to her dear friend, Robert Mapplethorpe, are touching.
Boys in the Trees – Carly Simon
I just read this one last month, and I really appreciated hearing a woman’s perspective from such a pivotal era in Rock N Roll . It can be summarized as the following three parts: her childhood and early adulthood which were characterized by some family traumas and a stutter she overcame by singing; her rise to fame and a few years of dating every it man in town; and lastly, her relationship with James Taylor. The bravery it took for her to write this story is apparent on every page, and though I could have lived with about 20 less pages on James Taylor, I understand why she couldn’t. Before JT captured her attention, she racked up an ex list that makes John Mayer’s ex list look like mashed potatoes, dating the likes of Cat Stevens, Kris Kristofferson, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beaty, and Mick Jagger. Without being gossipy, she lets us in on the fun of knowing all those men meanwhile vulnerably sharing the anxieties she experienced as a performer.
Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead – Dennis McNally
This is easily the most thorough book about the Dead. It is a dense tome full of information and good stories. Though technically not a memoir, it was written by the band’s publicist who was along for much of the ride, which makes it feel a lot like one. I read this book over the course of the few months surrounding Fare Thee Well. It provided a great context for the art I was working on at the time for the shows, and it helped me to process the experience afterwards.
Jim Henson: The Biography – Brian Jay Jones
Though technically not a rock biography, Jim Henson is a rockstar to me. Starting with the first Muppets, Sam & Friends, in 1955 until his untimely and sudden death in 1990, Jim Henson’s career paralleled the development of television and popular music. A highly innovative and creative man whose values and goals resonate deeply with me, Henson’s story is one of resolute determination. It took him twenty years of pitching, rejection, and proving his concept before he finally found the right people to back and believe in The Muppet Show which, once on the air, quickly became one of the most widely viewed shows worldwide ever. As someone who has already put in fourteen years of commitment to my own visions, this book for me is as relatable as it is motivating and inspiring.
These are the next on my list to read
- Born to Run – Bruce Springsteen
- Life – Keith Richards
- Syd Barrett: Crazy Diamond: The Dawn of Pink Floyd – Mike Watkinson and Pete Anderson
- Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye -David Ritz
- Bound for Glory: The Hard-Driving, Truth-Telling, Autobiography of America’s Great Poet-Folk Singer – Woody Guthrie
- Cash: The Autobiography – Johnny Cash
These all came highly recommended by multiple friends
- Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography– Jimmy McDonough
- My Cross to Bear – Gregg Allman
- Scar Tissue – Anthony Keidis and Larry Sloman
- No One Here Gets Out Alive: Biography of Jim Morrison – Danny Sugarman and Jerry Hopkins
- Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga – Stephen Davis
- The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band – Motley Crue
And here is a list of lesser known books that I’ve been told are very good
- Phish: The Biography – Parke Puterbaugh
- I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon – Crystal Zevon
- Testimony – Robbie Robertson
- Broken Music: A Memoir – Sting
- Rod: The Autobiography – Rod Stewart
- Miles – Miles Davis
- Playing the Bass with Three Left Hands – Will Caruthers
- Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life – Graham Nash
- Who I Am: A Memoir – Pete Townsend
- The Very Best of Elvis Costello – by Elvis Costello
- Clapton: The Autobiography – Eric Clapton
Have fun reading!
P.S. A note about David Byrne- As much as I love his music and his contribution to music history, I’ve left his books off this list because he intentionally wrote them to not be memoirs. They may find themselves on another list of mine some day, but they don’t fit this one.