“To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.” - Truman Capote
The world of music is filled with vibrant characters and surreal situations that are nothing less than a pulp writer’s wet dream: drug overdoses, plane crashes, fist fights, drunken misbehavior, public failure, tainted ledgers, trashed hotel rooms, overbearing managers, underage groupies, and endless anecdotes about all of it.
However, the reality of rock journalism isn’t quite so simple. Like wild Himalayan Yaks, musicians undergo a fundamental change when they are observed in their natural environment. Therefore, capturing the essence of their experience often comes down to persistence, patience, and a keen critical eye. This might explain why so few rock books really get it right. So how do you find the gems among all those titles crowded into the music section of your local bookstore? Simply read on…
Jon Savage * England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond
Savage thoroughly dissects the rise and ultimate fall of the Sex Pistols, as well as the spread of Punk through England. Unlike other chroniclers of Punk ephemera, Savage treats his subject matter like a sociological and culturally significant event rather than a car wreck to be gawked at. This 500+ page tome is comprehensively researched and its story is exceedingly well presented. When universities decide to start teaching Punk 101, this will undoubtedly be the textbook.
Jeff Chang * Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History Of The Hip Hop Generation
Can’t Stop Won’t Stop charts the birth of hip hop culture – from its tough gang roots through Kool DJ Herc’s block party spinning, to the inventiveness of Grandmaster Flash and beyond. Chang meticulously reconstructs the seventies NY gang scene (and truce) that ultimately enabled hip-hop’s birth. It’s both a necessary introduction to the roots of the genre and a thrilling recounting of a time and place where anything was possible. An essential and engaging read about the little genre that could.
Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung: A Lester Bangs Reader (edited by Greil Marcus)
Lester Bangs is the most inspired and passionate music critic to ever put pen, porcupine quill, or IBM Selectric to paper. His manic, over the top voice, and love of everything hard and fast (ie Iggy et al) make him a predecessor to shock jocks everywhere. But Bangs had the brains and humor to match his bile, as his articles on and interviews with Lou Reed (highlights of this anthology) brilliantly attest. Bangs OD’ed in 1982 at age 33, and he remains the only critic to have a biography published on his life. With good reason – the guy was a rock star in his own right.
Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain * Please Kill Me
This “uncensored oral history of Punk” is told through a series of first-person quotes from the people who were there when the US version of the genre got its kick-start. The cast of characters includes Iggy Pop, Richard Hell, Joey Ramone, Patti Smith, and countless others. Everyone has their say, and the memories they share are usually priceless, brimming with the energy and conviction that were hallmarks of the genre. If you think you don’t like Punk music, this book just might change your mind.
Motley Crue with Neil Strauss * The Dirt: Confessions Of The World’s Most Notorious Rock Band
Either Neil Strauss is the most brilliant rewrite man in the history of biography, or the fellas in Motley Crue are a whole lot smarter than anyone ever thought possible. Vince Neil, Nicky Sixx, Mick Mars, and Tommy Lee come across as intelligent, self-aware, hard-working young men who happened to front one of the biggest bands of the 80’s. Of course, they were drug and female abusing, out of control train wrecks, but that’s what makes the story so much fun. This is one of the few groups who found more trouble – from Neil’s vehicular manslaughter to Mars’ debilitating health problems to Lee’s failed marriage to Pamela Anderson – as they matured. From start to finish, The Dirt is a debaucherous tale well told.
Nick Kent * The Dark Stuff
Longtime New Music Express columnist Kent collects some of his finest pieces about rock’s darker side. The two stories on the Rolling Stones anthologized here contain the most harrowing imagery committed to print of the brutal side of that group and their hangers-on. Kent also pries the lids off Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Syd Barrett, and many others to expose their ‘isms, issues, habits, and ghosts, and takes you down an autobahn filled with the human wreckage of rock dreams. A masterful expose of the human frailty at the core of every superstar.
Greil Marcus * Mystery Train
Professor Fancy Pants is (along with Robert Christgau) one of the few rock journalists that can make his topic seem as boring as trigonometry. But with Mystery Train, Greil Marcus rises to the topics of Sly Stone vs. Stagger Lee, the importance of The Band, and the continuing mystique of Elvis Presley. A critical tour de force, and – at 176 pages – fully digestible.
Woody Guthrie * Bound For Glory
The most refreshing thing about Guthrie’s autobiographical Bound For Glory is how little is has to do with his career as a musical performer. Sure, there are a few pages early on that describe him riding the rails and playing his guitar for the hobos, but by and large this is a book about Guthrie’s childhood, and the games and pranks that made it so memorable for him also make for a spirited and enjoyable read.
Tony Fletcher * Moon: The Life And Death Of A Rock Legend
Like Don Quixote before him, Keith Moon had a mad genius for entering a scene of relative peace and calm and quickly leaving it strewn with carnage, bodies, and damage in all directions. Fletcher does a fine job of not letting the anecdotes outstrip the story, and even deflates a few myths along the way (ie, Moon never drove his Rolls into a swimming pool). In the end though, this is the sad – and terribly, terribly funny – story of another rock star caught up in, and undone by, a hell-raising reputation.
John Lydon * Rotten: No Irish – No Blacks – No Dogs
Rotten’s cantankerous, hilarious, and brilliant autobiography is some of the finest writing to be found on Punk generally and the Sex Pistols specifically. Of course, he’s got plenty of venom for former manager Malcolm McLaren, but even when he’s not taking the piss, Rotten’s stories and ideas are engaging and thought-provoking. A must read for even non-Punk fans.
Michael Azzerad * Our Band Could Be Your Life
Both uplifting and depressing, Our Band charts the history of 13 bands, as well as the birth of indie rock. The sheer joy of just playing music comes through in the stories of Minor Threat, Minutemen, and Butthole Surfers. However, this infectious thrill is more than offset by the walk through the industry minefield slash burnout on the road slash failed jump to a major label that seems to be each of these bands’ fate (Sonic Youth excepted). The chapter on Dinosaur Jr should be required reading for anyone foolhardy enough to think about starting a band.
Bob Dylan * Chronicles Volume 1
Chronicles Volume 1 is everything one could hope for in an autobiography by someone of Dylan’s stature: it’s highly entertaining, well-written (and clearly self-penned), and truly enlightening about the man himself. The passages that describe Dylan’s self-doubt and hard work during the 80’s is an inspiring look inside the mind of a musician who will never be satisfied with his own work and is destined to always walk the knife’s edge of his art.
Papa John * John Phillips with Jim Jerome
‘Papa’ John Phillips was the de facto leader of the Mamas & Papas, and one of the organizers of the Monterey Pop Festival. But his life entered a dark spiral during the 1970’s as he slowly lost his fame, quickly gained a heroin addiction, and began misbehaving in ways that would nearly land him in federal prison. Papa John is his unflinching look at his life and where it all went wrong. A surreal look at the dark side of the ‘California Dreamin’ promise of the 60’s.
33 1/3 Series * Continuum Publishers
With nearly 50 titles (and counting) the 33 1/3 series is a brilliantly written collection of pocket takes (100 or so pages each) on some of the greatest albums of all-time. The series follows no strict format, so each book is up to the whim of its author. There are many highlights (Music From Big Pink, Forever Changes, and Piper At The Gates Of Dawn are particularly great), few duds (Led Zep IV and Village Green Preservation Society) and one big question: Abba Gold is one of the all-time greats?
Michael Thelwell * The Harder They Come
This is one of the very few times in popular culture that a book based on a movie takes its subject into new and unexpected places and actually bids to outdo the original. Thelwell builds on the 1972 movie of the same name, and takes a much deeper look at Ivan Martin (played by Jimmy Cliff) and the relationship between music and the ghettos of Jamaica. Thelwell also extends the narrative in the other direction, giving historical weight to Martin’s character and making it clear that this is a role that has been enacted so many times in the history of the island (poor farm boy goes to city to become music star) as to have become almost stereotypical. An enriching read that will help you appreciate the film – and reggae music – in a whole new way.
Harry Shapiro & Caesar Glebbeek * Jimi Hendrix: Electric Gypsy
The bible for hardcore Hendrix fans, Electric Gypsy traces the life of Jimi, day by day, week by week, year by year. It includes rare photos, timelines of his life and performances, and a second-to-none discography that meticulously numbers and lists all of his recordings, including a messy tangle of bootleg titles. Authors Shapiro and Glebbeek avoid hyperbole and focus on the substance of Jimi’s life, and that’s more than enough to make a great story. If you were to only sit through one Hendrix bio, make it this one.
Jerry Hopkins & Daniel Sugarman * No One Here Gets Out Alive
Constantly bordering on (and wandering into) hagiography, this is still the best read out there on Jim Morrison. The self-styled Lizard King led a life well worth chronicling, and Sugarman seemed fated to be his biographer. He founded and ran the Doors’ fan club and ended up working his way into the group’s organization, which gave him first-hand insight into the workings of the band, as well as membership in Morrison’s inner circle of friends. Yet Sugarman’s perspective is both enhanced and narrowed by this ground floor view. A terrific – yet essentially flawed -portrait of one of the great icons of the Sixties.
The Mojo Collection: The Ultimate Music Companion * Edited by Jim Irvin & Colin McLear
Compiled by the editors and staff of Mojo magazine, this comprehensive guide takes a year-by-year look at some of their favorite albums. Each album gets a one page write-up, and all genres are represented. This is definitely not your standard ‘greatest albums of all-time’ book, and includes lots of quirky choices like Essra Mohawk and Honeybus. But the editors make a solid case for every selection, and share a lot of great stories along the way. It’s a book that is sure to expand your record collection in plenty of interesting directions.
Nick Hornby * High Fidelity
How does an obsessive music fan interact with the rest of the world? Nick Hornby’s debut novel sets out to answer this question. Main character ‘Rob’ and the music store he runs ‘Championship Vinyl’ are fictitious in name only – anyone who’s been around (or been) a music geek will instantly recognize the list-making, name-dropping, crate-digging cast featured here. An uproariously good time, but beware: its conclusion will leave you re-evaluating your attachment to your record collection.
Stephen Davis * Hammer Of The Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga
This saga is pretty much overrated, but in terms of Zep bios, it’s the best we’ve got. On the scale of pure debauchery, it rates a 3.5 out of 10, and doesn’t hold a candle to books like Motley Crue: The Dirt – even Papa John Phillips runs circles around these guys in the dirt department. That said, John Bonham was an out-of-control party monster, Jimmy Page a wanna-be dark lord of the guitar, Robert Plant a star-crossed troubador, and John Paul Jones was technically proficient and along for the ride. Hammer Of The Gods is a good book, but it doesn’t quite live up to the perceived excellence of its brand name.
Clinton Heylin * Bootleg: The Secret History Of The Other Recording Industry
A fascinating look at the history of the blackest of markets, Bootleg follows the hustlers, con men, and genuine music fans who identified a niche in the market and came together to create an underground industry to rival the mainstream music business. Heylin wrote this book right before the advent of MP3s and file-sharing, but this often whimsical – and always interesting – tale of bootleggers is a sympathetic portrait of a bunch of music fans who can’t always get what they want.
David Kamp & Steven Daly * The Rock Snob*s Dictionary
Subtitled “An Essential Lexicon Of Rockological Knowledge”, this truly essential reference material illuminates the meanings of such oft-used music terms as “plangent” “skronk” and “jangle” and little known totems like Fred Neil, Gene Clark, and Alex Chilton. The book defines rock snobs as “individuals, usually young men of argumentative tendencies, who have lorded their encyclopedic musical knowledge over others” and sets out to enable non-Snobs to hold their own in such company. One of my good friends found a better use for it: he claims it helped him and his wife hold a conversation.
Henry Rollins * Get In The Van: On The Road With Black Flag
Rollins’ diaries of his early days with Black Flag are harrowing tales of a man, a van, a band, and a plan. Rollins is intense like the Great Wall Of China is imposing – he’s a mass of nihilistic conflict and Neitzchian philosophy, topped off with a wickedly self-critical eye. Throughout this book, his utter belief in the power of Punk is constantly put to the test by aggressive fans and abusive police, but Henry is, was, and always will be drinking the Kool Aid. The title of this book isn’t a request, it’s an order…
Dori Hadar * Mingering Mike: The Amazing Career Of An Imaginary Soul Superstar
‘Mingering’ Mike Stevens was one of the most prolific and gifted soul artists of the early seventies. Not bad for a guy who never released an actual album. Instead, he hand-painted the covers for more than 50 imaginary LPs, 45’s, and 8-tracks that were the bedrock of his “career” in music. Flash forward 30 years, when a couple of collectors stumbled across some of his pieces at a Washington DC flea market. The story of how they came about this discovery – and tracked down Mingering Mike himself – is compelling drama. But the art work represented here is breathtaking – the very essence of music fandom. Make no mistake, he may have never released a single song, but Mingering Mike is one of the biggest superstars the music industry has known.
Chuck Klosterman * Fargo Rock City
Chuck Klosterman loves heavy metal and has some funny ideas about it. He thinks that Motley Crue’s Shout At The Devil is the greatest concept album of all-time. He thinks Metal is misunderstood and has been misappropriated by a bunch of louts. It’s hard to tell whether he’s serious about any of this, but he backs his arguments passionately and professionally. Fargo Rock City may not change your mind about the merits of hard rock, but it will leave you in stiches.
25 More Worth Putting Your Nose In…
Bill Flanagan * A&R
Simon Reynolds * Rip It Up & Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984
Marc Spitz & Brendan Mullen * We Got The Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story Of L.A. Punk
Barney Hoskyns * Waiting For The Sun: Strange Days, Weird Scenes, and The Sound Of Los Angeles
Nick Hornby * Songbook
Clinton Heylin * Babylon’s Burning: From Punk To Grunge
Myra Freidman * Buried Alive: The Biography Of Janis Joplin
Egotrip’s Book Of Rap Lists
The Beatles Anthology
Kurt Cobain * Journals
Nicholas Schaffner * Saucerful Of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyssey
Mikal Gilmore * Night Beat: A Shadow History Of Rock & Roll
Nik Cohn * Triksta: Life And Death And New Orleans Rap
Danny Sugarman * Wonderland Avenue: Tales Of Glamour And Excess
Rolling Stone: The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time
Jim DeRogatis * Let It Blurt: The Life & Times Of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic
The Sound And The Fury: 40 Years Of Classic Rock Journalism (edited by Barney Hoskyns)
Bob Dylan * Lyrics: 1962-1985
Victor Bockris * Keith Richards: The Biography
Reading Jazz (edited by Robert Gottlieb)
Neal Pollack * Never Mind The Pollacks
Johnny Green & Garry Barker * A Riot Of Our Own: Night And Day With The Clash
Clinton Heylin * From The Velvets To The Voidoids: The Birth Of American Punk Rock
Ben Fong Torres * Not Fade Away: A Backstage Pass To 20 Years Of Rock & Roll
Yes Yes Y’all: The Experience Music Project Oral History Of Hip Hop’s First Decade (edited by Jim Fricke & Charlie Ahearn)
Rolling Stone: The Complete Covers
The Art Of The Fillmore: The Poster Series 1966-1971
Annie Liebowitz * American Music
The Art Of Rock/The Art Of Modern Rock
Guy Pealleart & Nik Cohn * Rock Dreams
Blue Note: The Album Cover Art
Hatch Show Print
The Bob Dylan Scrapbook
Storm Thorgerson & Aubrey Powell * 100 Best Album Covers
Michael Ochs * 1000 Record Covers
15 Non-Music Books That (nonetheless) Rock…
Jack Kerouac * On The Road
Hunter S. Thompson * Hell’s Angels
Tom Wolfe * The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test
George P. Pelecanos * King Suckerman
Bill Buford * Among The Thugs
Iceberg Slim * Pimp
Ron Kovic * Born On The 4th Of July
Edward Abbey * The Monkey Wrench Gang
Armitage Trail * Scarface
Russell Banks * Rule Of The Bone
Charles Bukowski * Ham On Rye
Raymond Chandler * The Big Sleep
Thom Jones * The Pugilist At Rest
Tom Shales & J.A. Miller * Live From New York: An Uncensored History Of Saturday Night Live
Alex Haley * The Autobiography Of Malcolm X