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Top ten music memoirs

Bound & Flogged: With Grace Jones on the biog bandwagon, we count down our top tell-alls

It’s hard to believe there was a time when the memoir market was reserved for people to whom something interesting had happened. But before the ebook, the MFA program and the idea that "everyone is special" spiraled into out-of-control popularity, it’s true: first-person nonfiction used to be a lot more about sex, drugs and…you know the rest.

Even so, the musician’s memoir is not a genre particularly rich with page-turners. Maybe it’s because the tell-alls tend to come awhile after everyone has stopped caring; maybe it’s because even the obviously ghostwritten shit stinks of sweeping generalizations and trying-too-hard. There’s more to a good story than groupies.

Still, we hold out hope. This month both Grace Jones and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon have announced autobiographies in the works, and the intrigue surrounding Morrissey’s – first he was, then he wasn’t, and now he is again, maybe – has made us, if not excited, at least mildly curious. Besides, these ten artists managed it. 

Things the Grandchildren Should Know by Mark Oliver Everett

If you know The Eels, you know what to expect: depression, divorce and death, death, death. Where many more boring writers might argue that the downright tragic events of Everett’s life underline the importance of ‘staying positive’, the lead singer, songwriter, guitarist, etc. is resolutely angsty – almost comfortingly so.

Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove by Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson

‘What do you do when just listening to the music you love isn’t enough?’ asks the drummer for the Roots (and inimitable Twitter personality) in his memoir of life so far, out this year. Questlove’s insightful POV is either a cause or effect of the period in which it developed – the mid/late 90s were crucial in paving the way for responsible hip hop. Regardless, the playlists – and photo inserts – are gold.

A Year With Swollen Appendices: Brian Eno’s Diary by Brian Eno

Chronicling Eno’s 1995, A Year With Swollen Appendices runs the gamut from Bowie to the Balkans with the incisive details and deep insight tampered by the borderline-curmudgeonly attitude one knows and loves in an artist. Although he admits at the start, ‘I have a wonderful life’, you don’t resent him for it.

Drugs Are Nice: A Post-Punk Memoir by Lisa Crystal Carver

Chronicling years of teenage prostitution, peeing in litter boxes onstage as a shock-performance artist, and a tryst with the abusive alcoholic neo-Nazi Boyd Rice that left her the single mother of a genetically disabled child, Lisa Crystal Carver—also known as Lisa Suckdog—uses her experience publishing the proto-riot grrl fanzine, Rollerderby, to chart the rise and crash of a post-punk darling. 

Just Kids by Patti Smith

The phrase ‘New York in the 1970s’ inspires so much sigh-inducing protonostalgia that to speak (or write) about it almost always results in the rolling of eyes. Unless, of course, you are New York in the 1970s. Smith’s poetic, imaginative account of that particular branch of the bohemian family tree with was an instant bestseller when it was published in 2010. 

Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division by Peter Hook

No number of piss-related anecdotes can distract from the guilt and unanswerable questions at the heart of this book, which chronicles Joy Division’s life cut short by lead singer Ian Curtis’s suicide. The bassist almost called it ‘He Said He Was All Right So We Carried On’.

Get in the Van: On the Road With Black Flag by Henry Rollins

Angry, irrational and often violent, Rollins' diary entries from touring with Black Flag offer an in-depth look both into the height of the hardcore punk scene in the 80s and into the mind of its patron saint. More compelling than the screaming, the drugs or the relentlessness of tour, though, is Rollins, who refuses to let either himself or the reader off easy. 

The Disco Files 1973-78: New York's Underground Week by Week by Vince Aletti

While not technically a musician’s memoir, Aletti’s first-person compilation is a definitive record of Disco from emerging underground movement (literally) to massive international phenomenon, consisting of charts, reviews, Aletti’s famous column in Record World magazine, DJ commentary and so many photos. 

The Tao of Wu by RZA

‘In a way, when TV went digital, we lost a foothold in reality. Now, we'll never truly know if what we're watching is real or has been altered and transmitted to us. Digital culture brought a step away from truth.’ Apologies.

Black Postcards: A Rock & Roll Romance by Dean Wareham

A key figure in the indie music scene that spanned our favorite decade, the frontman for both Luna and Galaxie 500 doesn’t fall prey to the typical autobiographer’s trap of making himself out to be a victim, a martyr or someone whose interactions with prostitutes arose from some inexplicable divine accident. Which, paradoxically, results in him coming off really good.