The best music memoirs usually have something in common: they share a unique insight into the music industry at the same time they offer an uncompromising and honest tale about an artist’s life. Here is a list of essential music biographies that will delight not only fans but avid memoir readers.
The real lives of celebrities have always been a gold mine for the book industry. Firstly, they satisfy the curiosity of the fanbase. But beyond the gossip, many of them offer a passionate and raw tale about someone who may also happen to be our favorite musician. Sometimes, the best music books aren’t those written by or about the greatest artists. There are lesser-known musicians whose insights can offer a memorable depiction of the darkest and seediest aspects of the music industry.
We have curated a selection of the best music biographies published, and we promise you this list of titles will satisfy the super-fans as well as those who simply love discovering great stories.
Just a piece of advice before diving into the topic: the best ones have something in common – they are passionate, highly personal, and don’t avoid the grey areas.
Chronicles, Volume One by Bob Dylan
This account of Dylan’s early artistic years in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, including flashbacks to his childhood in Minnesota, is commonplace in all music book lists. There are thousands of books written about Bob Dylan, but the most essential one is this autobiography – written by a Literature Nobel Prize winner! Dylan explores critical junctures in his life and his artistic influences in a very intimate and intensely personal way. The book was published on October 5, 2004, by Simon & Schuster, and it’s intended to be the first one of a set of three volumes.
Life by Keith Richards
Written in collaboration with journalist James Fox, Life gives an unparalleled insight into the intense – and quite chaotic – experiences of Rolling Stone’s guitarist Keith Richards. Besides its enjoyable prose, the authors don’t avoid the shadier aspects of the rock star’s life, such as Richards’ addiction problems, his relationship with Mick Jagger, and many other excesses of this veteran music icon. The book addresses Richards’ life from his childhood in London, the early years and the rise of The Rolling Stones, and his family life. After reading it, many have wondered how he has been able to survive and retain so many memories. Life was published in 2010 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (UK), and Little, Brown, and Company (US).
Just Kids by Patti Smith
An avid reader and a book collector herself, Patti Smith has narrated passages of her life in several books such as Year of the Monkey and M Train, but Just Kids is undoubtedly among her greatest literary projects. It won the prestigious National Book Award in 2010 and was a finalist in other prestigious awards. In this work, she remembers her first years in New York, and especially her intense relationship with her beloved friend photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. She had already addressed this relationship and the grief after Mapplethorpe’s death in 1989 in another work, The Coral Sea. Find signed copies of Patti Smith’s Just Kids on Biblio. The book was originally published in 2010 by Ecco.
Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen
Published by Simon & Schuster in 2017, this work was a total surprise for fans of The Boss because almost no one knew he was gearing up for this memoir. He was secretly devoted to its writing for seven years. In this honest and well-narrated book, Springsteen tells about his struggle with depression, his turbulent relationship with his father, and his spiritual ins and outs. His sense of humor is constantly present throughout the pages. Due to the lyricism of the prose, some wondered if there was a ghostwriter involved, but Simon & Schuster strongly denied it.
Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys by Viv Albertine
Her name may be not as well-known as the ones mentioned before, but Viv Albertine’s memoir is one of those indispensable books to help you understand not only a cultural period but also what happens when you quit the music industry. This book offers a first-hand look at London’s punk scene. Albertine was the guitarist of The Slits and her memoir was chosen as one of the best books of 2014 by The Guardian and NME, among others. Besides dealing with music, she narrates her motherhood experience, her divorce after a long-lasting marriage, and also how she dealt with sickness after a cancer diagnosis. An utterly enjoyable and cathartic text.
Heavier than Heaven: A Life of Kurt Cobain by Charles R. Cross
Heavier than Heaven is considered one of the most complete and detailed biographies about Nirvana’s frontman Kurt Cobain. Veteran music journalist Charles R. Cross covers Cobain’s childhood, his different artistic abilities, and the story of Nirvana. The author interviewed more than 400 people and had access to the musician’s private diaries. Cobain’s widow Courtney Love was heavily involved in the project, although neither Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl nor Cobain’s mother contributed to it. Heavier than Heaven was published in 2001 by Hyperion.
Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon
Kim Gordon, the singer and bassist of Sonic Youth, is possibly one of the most iconic female players in alternative music. She starts her memoir with the last concert Sonic Youth gave at Rio de Janeiro, after finding out about the secret affair her husband (Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore) was having. The relationship breakdown prompted the dissolution of the band. Girl in a Band also covers her childhood in Los Angeles, her life in 1980s New York, and her connections with the artistic community of the city at that time. It was published in 2015 by Dey Street Books.
I Am Brian Wilson by Brian Wilson and Ben Greenman
Fans of the Beach Boys know that the band’s story has been told many times, but this memoir written in collaboration with journalist Ben Greenman is among the most outstanding. Published by Da Capo Press on October 2016, this second autobiographical memoir of the musician explores the sources of his creativity, his inspiration, and his struggles caused by mental illness and drug abuse. Wilson’s story illuminates the man behind many groundbreaking and timeless pop songs.
Face It by Debbie Harry
Singer, actress, and part of Blondie, Debbie Harry is one of the most outstanding artists of the 1970s. Provocative and honest, Face it is a vivid depiction of her career, and she talks not only about music (and her surprising passion for jazz), but also about sex, drugs, and rock and roll – everything anyone would expect from a rock memoir. Especially interesting is her recreation of New York’s downtown scene of the 1970s, where Blondie played alongside the Ramones, Television, Talking Heads, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie. She has also authored Making Tracks, her 1982 photobook with Chris Stein and Victor Bockris. Face It was published by HarperCollins in 2019.
Miles: The Autobiography by Miles Davis
Since Miles Davis is considered one of the most enigmatic musicians, this autobiography is usually mentioned when discussing the topic of music memoirs. Released only two years before Davis passed away, his autobiography is a captivating tale of his first years in the Bebop scene of the 1940s and his struggles with fame, race, drugs, and family. In this raw and quite disturbing portrait of one of the greatest jazzmen of all time, Davis reflects on his failures – he even admits to pimping to maintain his drug addictions – and his persistence in never looking back.
Cash by Johnny Cash
The appearance of this book in 2000 provided a new and refreshing approach to the life and career of the singer-songwriter Johnny Cash. From his early days at Sun Records to his rise as a country music star, this book tells his story as never before. Cash discusses his highs and lows over the years, and recognizes the people who helped him in his triumphs. Cash co-wrote this book with Patrick Carr. It was first published in 1997 by Harper San Francisco, and it was one of the main sources for the 2005 biopic Walk the Line.
Sing Backwards and Weep by Mark Lanegan
Usually, when artists reveal their drug abuse, they are in recovery by the end of the tale, but this is not the case with Mark Lanegan. Described as gritty, gripping, and unflinchingly raw, Lanegan wrote this book – celebrated by Nick Cave, Irvine Welsh, and Bobby Gillespie – shortly before passing away. He goes from his years as frontman of the Screaming Trees, his rise to fame, his decadence as a low-level crack dealer, and finally a homeless heroin addict. It shows the turbulent but passionate life of one of the most personal artists of popular music. Find signed copies of Mark Lanegan’s memoir on Biblio. Sing Backwards and Weep was published in 2020 by Hachette Books.
Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick
This two-volume biography is not only extensive but deep, so deep that it has been hailed as the definitive biography of Elvis Presley. Ten years of research and hundreds of interviews allowed Guralnick to create a vivid, complex, and emotional portrait of the greatest myth of American culture. The grace and humor of the prose make this title an enjoyable read for everyone, not only for curious fans.
The author addresses Elvis’s musical passions, the cultural influences that shaped him, his affliction for his family, and how he related to mentors, band members, and friends. This work proves that no matter how much has been written about a star, there’s always a chance to give a refreshing approach. Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley was published in 1994 by Little, Brown & Company, and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley was published in 1999 by the same publisher.