From David Bowie to Patti Smith: The 10 greatest rock ‘n’ roll memoirs of all time
The great rock ‘n’ roll memoir is a tricky thing to get right. More often than not, the act of writing about the excruciating highs and terrifying lows of being in a rock band can feel like an ugly batch of self-aggrandising tripe.
Sometimes though, the words and thoughts of your favourite artist can not only shed some light on their lives and creative careers but also reveal the humanity that connects us all, fans, artists and otherwise. Sometimes they are just fantastic books. Below we’ve got 10 of the greatest rock memoirs ever written.
There are countless rock autobiographies out there and all of them offer something for the diehard fan. That said, some books have a way of reaching a hand over any generational barriers or genre borders to provide a deeper understanding of the author and the world they see and live in.
In the books listed below, we can see the very best of this perfect crossover. The perfect mix of vulnerability, honesty and rock ‘n’ roll debauchery is often too heady a mix to ignore, so why not dive right into these classic rock memoirs. Naturally, they’re not quite what you were expecting.
10 greatest rock ‘n’ roll memoirs of all time
10. Face It – Debbie Harry
Memoirs tend to mature with time, as the stories, many as they are in Debbie Harry’s new-classic Face It, begin to fully unfold. However, as soon as Face It landed in 2019 it grabbed attention and became an instant classic.
Harry not only deliciously plays with her perception on the title of her book, no doubt a keen reference to the continued focus on her looks rather than her talent, but also delivers a razor-sharp recollection of being one of rock music’s ultimate icons. From the pits of CBGB to the top of the hill and back again, Harry has always fought for her crown and she’s tough as nails here too.
“My Blondie character was an inflatable doll, but with a dark, provocative, aggressive side. I was playing it up, yet I was very serious.” In the book, Harry describes her journey and we’re all happy to be along for the ride with her as our bodyguard.
9. Moonage Day Dream – David Bowie
Of course, David Bowie was never going to write a straightforward memoir. The singer put so much of his evolving life in his music that to reveal anything more would feel a little over the top.
The singer, perhaps fittingly, used his famed persona Ziggy Stardust to help tell his story in 2002 with Moonage Daydream: The Life and Times of Ziggy Stardust—an extensive arthouse coffee table book full of images from Mick Rock. While the images are as striking and captivating as ever, it is the revelatory words from the Starman that really hit home.
The book has all the tidbits but with the added extra of his incredible posing. Really, what more could you want from David Bowie?
8. Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness – Ronnie Spector
Arguably one of the most potent voices of rock ‘n’ roll’s early moments, Ronnie Spector was the lynchpin of The Ronettes and the ultimate 1960s powerhouse performer. As well as being a bright light of Motown, Spector was also trapped in one of the darkest marriages in music.
Famously married to the infamous Phil Spector, Ronnie was virtually held captive by the crazed producer for years. However, in this memoir, Ronnie is neither pitiful or ashamed, she is strong, bolshy and sharp as a tack.
Released in 1989, it’s one of the more personal revealing memoirs on the list and shows off the shocking reality of being in an abusive relationship.
7. Le Freak – Nile Rodgers
If you ever wanted to chart the roots of modern pop music then you should count Nile Rodgers’ autobiography Le Freak on your essential reading list. One of the most influential musicians of his generation, Rodgers shares his account of the “sex, drugs and disco” of the seventies.
In the book, Rodgers takes a deep dive into the world of disco, unashamedly celebrating it at every turn, “We shared Afrobromantic dreams of what it would be like to have real artistic freedom,” he writes.
It’s one of the most descriptive and desirable visions of disco we’ve ever read.
6. Slash – Slash
If you wanted to a whiskey-soaked retelling of one of the quickest rises to worldwide fame you’ve ever heard of, then Slash’s autobiography is about as good as it gets. The pages are dripping with Sunset Strip sleaze but that doesn’t stop the guitarist from offering some rather more reflective moments too.
The book features some of the wrenching lows that accompanied Slash’s countless musical highs, like the time he nearly overdosed and was rushed to hospital with doctors having to restart his heart. What’s quite refreshing in this book is how open and lighthearted Slash is about his decadence.
“I had no remorse whatsoever about my overdose — but I was pissed off at myself for having died. The whole hospital excursion really ate into my day off.”
5. Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys – Viv Albertine
“Anyone who writes an autobiography is either a twat or broke. I’m a bit of both.”
If anybody ever has a line similar to this in their book then you can be guaranteed a good read. The fact that the book came from Viv Albertine, one of the most heinously overlooked and wonderfully influential figures of music, means it is going to be bloody fantastic. In Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys, Albertine tells her tale of rock ‘n’ roll revelry in a man’s world.
It sees Albertine’s as a member of the Slits, her influential passage in the history of punk and her ultimate downfall to normality. While there, working as an aerobics instructor, Albertine experience motherhood, battles cancer, goes through a divorce and eventually circles back round to her trusted friend; her guitar.
It’s visceral and voracious writing, enacted with the utmost care, creativity and, ultimately, good humour.
4. Born to Run – Bruce Springsteen
When The Boss, Bruce Springsteen delivered a previously-unannounced memoir in 2016 his fans flocked to book shops to grab a copy as soon as they could. What they got when they started reading was a warm and friendly conversation between two friends, you and Bruce.
Springsteen not only uses humour throughout his book but often relies on it to illuminate the darker moments. The singer also manages to avoid the classic stories you’ve already heard time and again in favour of the little known facts that drive fans nuts.
There are versions of his tales involving Disneyland, Frank Sinatra and Bob Dylan (not all at the same time) and they all ring out like a proud man spilling his guts at the bar. Jovial and joyous, it’s The Boss on a break and shooting the breeze.
3. Life – Keith Richards
Keith Richards, when considering anything in the rock ‘n’ roll world, usually does it bigger and better. Whether it is riffs or rails of cocaine, the chances are good old Keef has done it way before you. In Life, Richards broke the seal and opened up a treasure trove of incredible stories from his time on the road.
The book is full of revelations that would give certain stars an entire career, while for Richards they act as funny tidbits. Like the time he and John Lennon took an LSD road trip to Lyme Regis or when he once became the live-in nanny of a young child while on tour in Australia. It really is all in here.
Richards does offer a little on the bands and artists that inspired him, as well as how he met Mick Jagger for the first time. But aside from that, the personal revelations are a little thing on the ground. What it lacks in vulnerability it makes up for in head over heels debaucherous tales from the glory days of rock.
2. Chronicles, Vol. 1 – Bob Dylan
When you think of Bob Dylan, probably the first thing that comes to mind are words. The singer-songwriter was more famed for his lyrics than his singing voice when he came on to the scene in the sixties and not much has really changed since. Yet nobody could have predicted such an impressive book from the freewheelin’ troubadour.
The rambling man does his best to keep on track but often recollections of his career jump from fragment to fragment, offering visions of his Minnesota boyhood to his dark moments in the eighties, we’re happy to jump around with Mr Dylan.
Perhaps the most integral moments in the book are the remembered moments of his early forays into music. Taking on the folk scene of New York was no mean feat and he did so with aplomb going on to get his unwanted moniker of “the voice of his generation,” about which he says: “I was more a cowpuncher than a Pied Piper.”
1. Just Kids – Patti Smith
It just so happens that the greatest rock ‘n’ roll memoir of all time is one of the more unusual you’ll ever read. Not because the author, the punk poet Patti Smith, leaves anything out but because she focuses in on one relationship. The love she shared with the late photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe.
Through her relationship with Mapplethorpe, we are treated to everything a good rock memoir should have; the origin of their creativity, the way they discovered their expression, the struggles to be heard and the satisfaction of achieving your dream. The real victory for the reader though is how none of these really matter without the love and understanding of one another.
In the book, Smith offers up the purity of finding your soul mate and that despite their very similar interest in men, she and Mapplethorpe negotiate their dreams always thinking of each other and hoping that their love will remain. Smith is warm, friendly, open, honest and ultimately thankful for her time with Mapplethorpe.
It not only works as a fantastic memoir but as a fantastic book full stop. If you love Keith Richards then Life is a dream, if you love The Boos then Born To Run will be everything you ever wanted. But you need to have zero love for Patti Smith or Robert Mapplethorpe to think this may be one of the greatest rock memoirs ever written.