Best Music Memoirs: 30 Essential Reads For Music Lovers
Passionate and highly personal accounts of extraordinary lives, the best music memoirs offer everything from creative insights to rock’n’roll excess.
Many musicians have a great story to tell about their action-packed lives – and the best music memoirs are always passionate and highly personal. Some focus on creative journeys and a search for artistic fulfillment; some offer accounts of wild parties and other rock’n’roll excesses. Some classics, such as Woody Guthrie’s Bound For Glory and Miles Davis’ Miles: The Autobiography, were written decades ago, but there have been some great modern additions to the canon, by greats such as Elton John, Patti Smith, Keith Richards, and Debbie Harry.
Here are our 30 best music memoirs of all time. Think we’ve missed one of yours? Let us know in the comments section, below.
30: Woody Guthrie: Bound For Glory (EP Dutton, 1943)
The autobiography of Woody Guthrie, written with the help of his first wife, Marjorie, detailed the folk singer’s travels across America and his experiences as a fruit-picker living in a hobo camp. Bound For Glory has its own charm as it explains the background behind one of the 20th-century’s most important musicians. Guthrie’s boyhood gang, who features in the memoir, provided the inspiration for the name of Bob Geldof’s band The Boomtown Rats.
29: George Melly: Owning Up (Penguin, 1965)
Owning Up was singer George Melly’s first-hand account of the professional jazz world of the 50s. After giving up work in an art gallery, Melly was drawn into the jazz revival. In Owning Up, the first of a series of memoirs by the Liverpudlian, Melly humorously describes an endless round of pubs, clubs, seedy guest-houses and transport cafés, and the weird array of musicians, drunks, and eccentrics that were part of that vanished music scene.
28: Booker T Jones: Time Is Right: My Life Note By Note (Omnibus, 2019)
Booker T Jones, the leader of the acclaimed Stax Records house band Booker T And The MGs, is integral to the history of 60s soul music. His self-penned memoir is full of great stories about musicians such as Otis Redding and Dr John – and offers an interesting account of his own musical education, including his love of Blue Note pianist Horace Silver. He is also modest about his own talent, writing in praise of Ray Charles, for example, that he could not match his way of playing ‘I Got A Woman’. “Ray played with such precision and did not miss a note or beat, every note exactly in place, singing at the same time! I couldn’t even play it in time.” This, by the way, comes from the man who helped create the instrumental masterpiece ‘Green Onions’, a song Barack Obama invited him to perform at The White House.
27: Chuck Berry: The Autobiography (Harmony Books, 1987)
Chuck Berry was keen to let everyone know that he had not paid for a ghostwriter. “The book is entirely written, phrase by phrase, by yours truly, Chuck Berry,” he wrote in the introduction to his 1987 autobiography. It’s no surprise that the man who wrote classics such as ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ and ‘Johnny B Goode’ has a clever way with words as he offers a compelling view of being subject to the injustices of racism while also charting his place in the founding of rock’n’roll.
26: Nile Rodgers: Le Freak (Little, Brown, 2011)
Nile Rodgers, the child of jazz-obsessed junkies, had an action-packed life. He jammed with Jimi Hendrix, toured with Big Bird on Sesame Street’s roadshow, and played in the legendary Apollo Theatre house band. He was also a key part of the “sex, drugs and disco” revolution of the 70s as the co-founder and guitarist for Chic. His memoir is an exhilarating, blunt tale of an amazing musical journey.
25: Iggy Pop: I Need More (Karz-Cohl Publishing, 1997)
Iggy Pop, who was born James Osterberg, was considered one of the grand old men of punk rock when he wrote what he described as “a kind of autobiography in fragments” in the late 90s. The book ranges from his childhood in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to the evolution of his seminal rock band, The Stooges. Pop details his reckless adventures and troubles in his own frank and indomitable manner.
24: Boy George: Take It Like A Man (HarperCollins, 1995)
Boy George, the star of Culture Club, was characteristically provocative in an autobiography that showed off his droll wit. He deals with his childhood as the self-dubbed “pink sheep” of a large working-class family, and talks about coming out and his teenage fascination with David Bowie and Marc Bolan. His is funny about his jet-setting life as a pop celebrity and open about his heroin addiction. He also deals with his bizarre spat with author Anthony Burgess, who had criticized his abilities as a musician.
23: James Brown: The Godfather Of Soul (Da Capo Press, 1986)
James Brown opens up about his dirt-poor childhood in an Augusta brothel and how he went on to overcome huge obstacles to find wealth and fame. There are good anecdotes about Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Tina Turner, and Otis Redding, but the most vivid parts of the book are about Brown’s time in a juvenile center. He also discusses the brave stand he took following the assassination of his friend Martin Luther King.
22: Quincy Jones: Q: The Autobiography Of Quincy Jones (Hodder & Stoughton, 2001)
Quincy Jones is one of the most significant producer/arranger/composers of the modern era and Q is an acutely personal book. Jones gives a no-holds-barred account of his life, from his mother’s mental illness to working with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Michael Jackson. He also discusses his own nervous breakdown after the triumph of Thriller, and his failed marriages.
21: Loretta Lynn: Coal Miner’s Daughter (Knopf Doubleday, 2010)
Loretta Lynn has lived a remarkable life and her memoir tells the story of her impoverished childhood in Kentucky, her marriage at 13, her six children, and how she battled to become one of the most influential songwriters and singers in country music. Her powerful story is told in a feisty, open style, detailing how she bucked against a life where “there was always a man telling me what to do”. The audio version was brilliantly narrated by actress Sissy Spacek.
20: Gil Scott-Heron: The Last Holiday (Grove Press, 2012)
Songwriter, poet, and activist Gil Scott-Heron died at 62 in May 2011. His posthumously published memoir, The Last Holiday, is an elegiac finale to his musical and literary career. He offers a perceptive, funny, and compassionate account of his life, its tribulations, and the inspirations for his brilliant, socially-conscious music.
19: James Fearnley: Here Comes Everybody: The Story Of The Pogues (Faber, 2012)
The Pogues first formed in 1982 as Pogue Mahone (Gaelic for “kiss my arse”) and were one of the groundbreaking bands of the era. James Fearnley, The Pogues’ accordion player, brings to life the youthful friendships, the bust-ups, the grim gigs and the drunkenness of his times with a band fronted by the alcoholic Shane McGowan.
18: Willie Nelson: It’s A Long Story: My Life (Little, Brown, 2015)
There have been numerous books about Willie Nelson – including his own 1988 publication, Willie: An Autobiography – but the most unvarnished is 2015’s It’s A Long Story: My Life. This book captures Nelson’s humor and spirit and goes off at interesting tangents. The country music singer, an avid reader, talks about the influence of the TS Eliot poem ‘East Coker’ on his own song ‘Still Is Still Moving To Me’. Nelson is a true one-off and that shines through in this tale.
17 Jay-Z: Decoded (Random House, 2010)
From drug dealer to multimillionaire rapper, Jay-Z’s story, as told in Decoded, is gripping. Part art book, part lyrical compilation, and part personal narrative, Decoded is also a defense of rap music. “Rap took the remnants of a dying society and created something new,” says the man born Shawn Carter in New York in 1969.
16: Johnny Marr: Set The Boy Free (Penguin, 2017)
Johnny Marr’s autobiography, Set The Boy Free, was, unsurprisingly, less grandiose than Morrissey’s memoir. The Smiths had a huge influence on music in the 80s and Marr was one of the most influential guitarists of his generation. His memoir, which deals with the break-up of the band and his subsequent career, is witty and moving. Some of the most affecting parts are his memories of growing up in Ardwick Green, Manchester.
15: Roger Daltrey: Roger Daltrey, My Story: Thanks A Lot Mr. Kibblewhite (Blink Publishing, 2018)
The Who members have a rich story to tell. After Pete Townshend’s Who Am I, published in 2013, there came Roger Daltrey’s punchy memoir, which told the story of his journey to rock stardom. It’s a funny and open account. (The title, incidentally, refers to the headmaster who expelled Daltrey from Acton County Grammar School when he was 15. Daltrey’s generation could certainly hold a grudge.)
14: Mötley Crüe: The Dirt: Confessions Of The World’s Most Notorious Rock Band (HarperCollins, 2001)
Mötley Crüe’s off-stage antics were as wild as their music, and the 2001 memoir The Dirt was a collective autobiography written by Tommy Lee, Mick Mars, Vince Neil, and Nikki Sixx. A genuinely entertaining, shocking book, it became a bestseller in 2001. In March 2019 a film adaptation was given its Netflix debut.
13: Johnny Cash: Cash (HarperCollins, 2000)
There have been several biographies about country music legend Johnny Cash, but in 2000 he gave his own revealing account of his life. He covered the early days at Sun Records – with Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis – to his rise as a country superstar. Cash offers interesting details about his own complex character and opens up about his recurring addiction to amphetamines and his shortcomings as a father. This follow-up to 1986’s The Man In Black memoir is also full of wonderful oddities, such as the time he was nearly disemboweled by an ostrich.
12: Marianne Faithfull: Memories, Dreams And Reflections (HarperCollins, 2007)
Many of the stories about Marianne Faithfull and Mick Jagger almost belong to folklore, but she proves herself to be a witty, eccentric storyteller in Memories, Dreams And Reflections. Her background is fascinating, too. Her father was an ex-MI6 spy who had interrogated Himmler. As well as stories about fellow musicians, the singer, who had a hit with ‘As Tears Go By’, reflects on poet Allen Ginsberg. She also recalls how, high on smack, she walked away from the part of Lady Macbeth given to her by Roman Polanski. The book is a quirky treat.
11: Debbie Harry: Face It (HarperCollins, 2019)
As part of Blondie, singer and actress Debbie Harry was one of the most original and successful female singers of the 70s. Her tales of stardom are vivid, and her account of growing up is self-deprecating and amusing; there are stories galore of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll in this entertaining memoir. She also offers surprises, as with her recollections about her passion for jazz musicians such as Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, and Ornette Coleman.
10: Elvis Costello: Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink (Penguin, 2016)
For Elvis Costello fans, the 2016 memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink was rich in details about his own writing process and the experiences and emotions that inspired classic songs such as ‘Alison’ and ‘Oliver’s Army’. Costello offers wry details about his background – his father, Ross MacManus, was a dance-hall performer – and the stories about his collaborations with giants such as Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach, and Allen Toussaint are riveting.
9: Bruce Springsteen: Born To Run (Simon & Schuster, 2016)
The man known as “The Boss” has been one of the most dominant figures in rock music for more than 40 years. His forthright memoir sheds light on his long-standing battle with depression, his troubled relationship with his father, and his own searing ambitions. This is an enjoyable, candid self-portrait by a fine songwriter and complicated man.
8: Chrissie Hynde: Reckless: My Life As A Pretender (Ebury, 2015)
Singer-songwriter Chrissie Hynde admits in the prologue to her memoir that she waited to publish her autobiography until her straitlaced parents had died: “I would have had to leave out the bad language and tell a lot of lies about what I’d been doing all that time I was gone.” The result is a compelling, candid account of the music business, one filled with memorable anecdotes and harrowing revelations.
7: Eric Clapton: The Autobiography (Cornerstone, 2007)
Eric Clapton’s account of his life is stark and painfully honest. He deals with his strange background, his addiction problems, and his “ruthless” pursuit of musical excellence. The guitarist, who gained fame with The Yardbirds and Cream, also covers the love triangle that involved Clapton, Pattie Boyd, and George Harrison. Clapton’s autobiography is notably devoid of the defensiveness and evasions normally found in celebrity memoirs.
6: Kim Gordan: Girl In A Band (Faber, 2015)
Kim Gordon was the charismatic frontwoman in Sonic Youth – alongside husband Thurston Moore. In this fascinating memoir, she recalls their shambolic early days, her feud with Courtney Love, and the cut-throat music business of the early 80s. “Women aren’t allowed to be kick-ass. I refused to play the game,” says Gordon. Her descriptions of New York in the 80s, when Sonic Youth formed, are especially fine sections.
5: Elton John: Me (Pan Macmillan, 2019)
Elton John says he has lived “an extraordinary life” and his autobiography, Me, is a hilarious, candid window into that life. John recalls the life-changing lucky stroke of teaming up with songwriter Bernie Taupin and offers an honest appraisal of how his life fell apart as a superstar, when he became hooked on drugs. There are also lots of funny stories about fellow musicians such as Freddie Mercury and Rod Stewart.
4: Miles Davis: Miles: The Autobiography (Simon & Schuster, 1989)
The memoir from one of the greatest jazz men of all time is rich in stories, self-analysis, and reflections on music. There are some lovely passages in which he recalls his excitement at hearing Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in a St Louis nightclub in 1944. It was his first live exposure to bebop. The constant use of profanity in the book caused controversy, as did his candid reflections on his own failings, including his problems with drug addiction. His behavior is sometimes repulsive – he admits to pimping to support his habit – but Miles remains an eminently readable autobiography.
3: Bob Dylan: Chronicles: Volume One (Simon & Schuster, 2004)
This modest, plain-spoken, and thoughtful opening installment of Bob Dylan’s memoirs deals with his life as folk troubadour in Greenwich Village in the early 60s. The way he talks about musical mentors such as Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash is touching. As you would expect from someone who has won The Nobel Prize In Literature, he is also well-read, and expresses his admiration for Balzac and Chekhov, among others. The tone of the book becomes more cutting when he is dealing with his own growing fame. This offbeat, ruminative book is a must-read for Dylan fans.
2: Patti Smith: Just Kids (Ecco, 2010)
Patti Smith gives a heartfelt account of her artistic education and love affair with her friend Robert Mapplethorpe in the evocative memoir Just Kids. Her account of working in a factory and living in a succession of squalid New York apartments is intense and edgy, as she worked her way towards becoming an influential component of the New York City punk rock movement with her 1975 debut album, Horses. Just Kids won the prestigious 2010 National Book Award For Nonfiction.
1: Keith Richards: Life (Orion, 2011)
Keith Richards’ life story pulsates with outlandish tales. His accounts of growing up in wartime Dartford are fascinating and, from the moment he signs to Decca Records with The Rolling Stones, he is at the center of the British music scene. Richards holds little back about his wild, drug-filled days in music, but he also conveys his rapturous delight at the music he loved, especially from blues stars such as Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, and Muddy Waters.
Looking for more? Discover the best illustrated music books of all time.
January 29, 2020 at 10:41 pm
Another excellent read is ‘Is That It?’ by Bob Geldof, a straightforward, tell it like it is autobiography.
May 11, 2020 at 2:32 pm
A great list there! I also loved Jake Shears’s memoir ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, Tracey Thorn’s ‘Bedsit Disco Queen’ and Viv Albertine’s ‘Clothes, Music. Boys.’ Anyone interested in music fan memoirs could check out the one I recently wrote and released, from a pop superfan’s perspective – ‘Freak Like Me: Confessions of a 90s pop groupie’. It’s a pretty lighthearted book, full of 90s and early 2000s pop nostalgia, a collection of my memories as a teenage pop hanger-on, attending Top of the Pops week in, week out, and watching the changing chart music landscape, all whilst finding my place in the world. Check it out if it sounds up anyone’s street!
June 5, 2021 at 2:38 pm
Raise Up Off Me: A Portrait of Hampton Hawes