Telling the Musical Life
Music memoirs fall generally into three categories. Some, like Gregg Allman’s My Cross to Bear (William Morrow), tiresomely catalog an artist’s immersion in sex, drugs, and rock and roll, providing very little insight into the artist’s music or the value of music in the artist’s life.
Some musicians use their memoirs to settle scores, either with bandmates or with the music industry; John Fogerty’s Fortunate Son (Little, Brown) is a recent example of such a memoir. Memoirs in this second category tend to focus on the music, though, and are often written vibrantly enough to hold a reader’s interest without losing the reader in the details of the scores being settled.
Finally, the best kind of music memoir focuses on the music and its deep value for the artist, and the artist holds the reader’s attention with powerful and amusing storytelling. The best recent example of this is Rita Coolidge’s Delta Lady. Coolidge draws in her readers as if they were sitting around the fireplace in her living room — her prose is that inviting — and she regales them with stories of her rock and roll life and the lessons she learned through the many disappointments and joys of her life in music. It’s one of the best music memoirs of the decade because it’s elegantly written and provides readers with a sense of how music shaped an artist’s life even amid a good deal of personal loss.
As a new season of music memoirs careens around the corner, it’s time to take a moment to reflect on some of the best memoirs of the past few years. These titles are arranged in no particular order.
Pete Townshend, Who I Am: A Memoir (HarperCollins)
Most rock memoirs simply pull back the curtains on a pre-staged set, revealing only the titillating gossip and glittering personae that rockers think their fans will embrace. Not Townshend; with all the energy he brought to his manic windmilling and to smashing guitars on stage in his career with the Who — with the brilliance of a poet wandering through a teenage wasteland — Townshend descends deeply into his life, mind, and work as he ponders the question in the book’s title.
Linda Ronstadt, Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir (Atria)
Ronstadt’s memoir came out just before she revealed her retirement from singing because of the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, so she doesn’t clutter it with references to her physical condition. Ronstadt is generous and gracious in her backward glances, extolling the virtues of the artists with whom she’s worked and taking us deeply into her heart as she tells, gracefully, about the power of music in her life.
Carole King, A Natural Woman: A Memoir (Grand Central)
Weaving a tapestry of rich and royal hue, King’s affecting memoir eases readers through her life — from her girlhood in Brooklyn, where she was already jotting down lyrics, to her teenage years that culminated musically with the hit “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”, to her songwriting years with Gerry Goffin, and up to her present social activism. King’s passionate engagement with all kinds of music and her musical genius floods these reflections.
Rita Coolidge, Delta Lady: A Memoir (Harper)
Coolidge is a consummate storyteller. She draws her readers into her life story with her first words and leaves them transfixed. While she reminds us that she and Jim Gordon wrote the music that became the coda to “Layla,” Coolidge is not interested in settling scores. With raw emotion, she tells her stories as a way of openly wearing her heart on her sleeve, thereby imbuing the physical with the spiritual.
Carlos Santana, The Universal Tone: Bringing My Story to Light (Little, Brown)
For the first time, the elusive guitarist tells his often compelling story in prose that is, by turns, ragged and sparkling. Santana hits the high notes crisply when he’s discussing the transformative power of music, lifting his often-turbulent story off the page. For Santana, it all comes back to the music: “It’s the fastest way of getting away from the darkness of ego. … It’s a blessing to be able to play from your soul and to reach many people.”
Rodney Crowell, Chinaberry Sidewalks (Knopf)
Graham Nash, Wild Tales (Viking)
In the evocative and haunting style of his best songs (“Carrie Anne,” “Teach Your Children,” “Our House,” “Chicago”), Nash delivers a no-holds-barred, pull-no-punches, fiercely honest chronicle of the glories, excesses, disappointments, and joys of the rock and roll life. After all these years, Nash’s love of songwriting is undiminished, and lyrics and music continue to flow through his pen. (Nash just released a new album this year, This Path Tonight.) His tour-de-force tale reveals a soul who is “a complete slave to the muse of music.”
Kristin Hersh, Rat Girl: A Memoir (Penguin)
Hersh’s memoir is like a gaping wound that you can’t close because you’re fascinated with what’s pouring out of it. This is her memoir of a year of falling apart, trying to find herself, trying to make a life in music with her band, discovering that she’s pregnant and figuring out what to do, and living with bipolar disorder. Because it’s so viscerally honest, Hersh’s memoir engages us in ways that very few others do.
Carrie Brownstein, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A Memoir (Riverhead)
Brownstein’s strikingly expressive memoir gambols over the sometimes steep hills of the quest to find a self identity. Struggling though a chaotic family life, she finds herself through music, eventually co-founding the group Sleater-Kinney with her friend and then-lover, Corin Tucker. In the beginning, music mimics the turbulence in her life, as the band searches for places to practice, to write songs, to cohere as a group, to get along with one another, and to establish themselves in the Seattle music scene, as well as outside the US. During the band’s 2015 reunion tour, Brownstein stands in her usual spot on the stage and discovers how much music has defined her and that she is home: “I was in my body,” she writes, “joyous and unafraid; I was home.”
Rosanne Cash, Composed: A Memoir (Viking)
It’s clear from reading this memoir that Cash pays as much attention to telling the stories of her family with vibrant grace as she does to telling the stories of the characters in her songs. Cash provides elegant clarity into what is sometimes the messiness of her family — her father’s drug use and his frequent absences — but she unspools that redemptive thread of deep love and the power that comes from family and place in one of the best music memoirs of any year.
These are 10 music memoirs that richly repay re-readings — and not all music memoirs are worth reading, even the first time around. Everyone has a favorite memoir, and this list includes only very recent ones, so I hope you’ll take a moment to share with us your own favorite music memoirs.