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Louis Armstrong To Warren Zevon: 13 Music Memoirs You Should Be Reading
Life and art may take turns imitating each other, but a good music memoir successfully imitates both.
Such is the case for this short list of quality books that take you inside the lives, careers, minds and hearts of a variety of music makers, from the iconic (Louis Armstrong and Loretta Lynn) to the explosive (Warren Zevon and Patty Schemel) to the crafty (Geoff Emerick and Annie Leibovitz). There is no shortage of first-hand accounts to tell the story of our rich music history for those willing to read or listen.
In honor of National Reading Month, take a browse through these 13 captivating music memoirs — all books with stories of art and life told by the men and women who lived them.
1. Louis Armstrong, Satchmo: My Life In New Orleans
Long before making his influential recordings with the Hot Five and Hot Seven in the '20s, popularizing jazz as uniquely American music in the '30s and '40s, and becoming a beloved icon in the '50s and 60's with television appearances and the mainstream appeal of "What A Wonderful World," Louis Armstrong just wanted to play. Satchmo… is his frantic recounting of the first two decades of his life, which began in 1900 in New Orleans. In these formative years, Armstrong overcame economic and racial adversity, familial instability, and a city of violence while cutting his teeth at some of the roughest joints in town before heading to Chicago to launch one of the most important careers in all of music history: his own.
2. Pauline Black, Black By Design
Pauline Black had a front-row seat for the 2-Tone phenomenon of the late '70s. Named for English record label 2 Tone Records, the era blended elements of ska and punk and launched acts like the Specials, the Beat, Madness, and Dexys Midnight Runners. As lead singer for the Selector, Black was the lone woman in the movement, sometimes called the Queen of British Ska. But her story goes back much farther, to a childhood during which she was given up for adoption by her Nigerian/Anglo-Jewish parents and raised by a white working-class family in 1950s London. Black By Design tells of Black's journey toward becoming a famous musician while circling back to recount the touching story of her search to find her birth parents.
3. David Byrne, How Music Works
Part memoir, part psychology thesis, part tech journal — David Byrne's 2012 book, How Music Works, should be required reading for anyone interested in the history or future of music. In this collection of essays, Byrne comes at the concept of a music memoir from a different angle (stating in the acknowledgemnts, saying, "the 'aging rocker bio' is a crowded shelf"), aiming his sights at exploring the elements that combine, duplicate and combust in the process of music. From the anatomy of a music scene, with the '70-era CBGB's club as his cadaver set for dissection, to the implications of psychoacoustics and digital culture on our future, Byrne covers a lot of ground without seeming scattered. He also shines a light on the history of Talking Heads, with some especially illuminating sections on how the band's style developed and evolved. With Byrne's ability to express complex ideas in simple terms, it's not impossible to imagine portions of How Music Works being integrated into college courses across many disciplines.
4. Elvis Costello, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink
As angular and eclectic as his catalog, Elvis Costello's 2015 memoir careens through history, bouncing around the singer's spastic and varied career with the same clever phrasing and vivid imagery found in his songs. Much like the way Bob Dylan's gold-standard memoir. Chronicles: Volume One, largely ignores a conventional chronological format, Costello opts for a needle-drop approach to his life, swooping in just long enough to capture brief slices of life. Compared to the economy of a great song, the sprawling format of prose writing — and of life in general — can be daunting, or as he admits, "life takes much longer than the average pop song." In the end, Costello's audiobook performance of the book earned him his 14th career GRAMMY nomination for Best Spoken Word Album for the 59th GRAMMY Awards, making the audio version of Unfaithful Music… (plus Vulture's accompanying playlist) a must for the full experience.
5. Geoff Emerick, Here, There And Everywhere: My Life Recording The Beatles
Producer/engineer Geoff Emerick, who was just 15 years old when he began as an assistant engineer at the world famous Abbey Road Studios, enjoyed unmatched access to the Beatles' recording sessions for most of their career, making his memoir on working with the greatest rock band there ever was a surreal read. Just as Emerick approaches the recording studio with a technical savoir faire and a keen eye toward experimentation, his writing sees the Fab Four and their musical innovations framed in proper respect to the technical innovations that went into their best albums. But Emerick's perspective provides as much insight into the dynamic of tension in the band as it does their recording process, making Here, There and Everywhere… an honest and precious account of some of the most historic recording sessions of all time.
6. Annie Leibovitz, American Music
Dominant in her field, and uncanny in her ability, photographer Annie Leibovitz has spent nearly five decades capturing some of our culture's most iconic images. In her 2003 photo book, American Music, Leibowitz traces the backroads of the Mississippi Delta, the alleys of New Orleans and backstage hallways of venues across the country to find the faces and places that paint the rich landscape of American music. The collection is rounded out by shots from the master's archive of Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Lou Reed, Mary J. Blige, and more, with short essays contributed by Patti Smith, Rosanne Cash, Mos Def, Beck, Ryan Adams and Steve Earle, providing a little light reading to pair with Leibowitz' breathtaking photographs.
7. Loretta Lynn, Coal Miner's Daughter
Much like the song of the same name, Coal Miner's Daughter is an honest telling of Loretta Lynn's remarkable story from humble beginnings to country music superstardom. For a woman who came from real poverty, had little in the way of formal education, was married by age 13, became a grandmother by 29, and "never thought of ever leaving Butcher Holler," her ascension to Nashville royalty status is fascinating. Lynn's voice (with help of writer George Vecsey) sings onto the page, maintaining the same signature rural diction that lends authenticity, candor and power to her songs.
8. RZA, The Tao Of Wu
Fans of the seminal '90s East Coast rap collective Wu-Tang Clan are no doubt familiar with RZA's many talents as a producer, rapper, filmmaker, actor, and yes, author. His 2009 book, The Tao Of Wu, served as a follow-up to his first book, The Wu-Tang Manual, which is more of a farmer's almanac filled with informative details on the group's members, terminology, and influence. The sequel, however, zeroes in on RZA, going deeper into his personal philosophy, spirituality, and story. Examining everything from his signature production techniques to the significance of his 1993 acquittal of an attempted murder charge, The Tao Of Wu is RZA's pursuit of wisdom, which he calls, "the cure for all sickness."
9. Patty Schemel, Hit So Hard: A Memoir
It can be tempting to glamorize the grunge scene and lifestyle in retrospect of early-90's Seattle because of the incredible bands and landmark albums it produced, but the truth is much darker. Patty Schemel's stellar memoir, Hit So Hard, provides a candid first-hand account of the last real movement in rock and roll from a unique vantage point. As the drummer for the band Hole, Schemel lived with the band's frontwoman Courtney Love and late Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. But her story — and her memoir — covers so much more than her experience with the more famous denizens of the stories scene. From a childhood interrupted by her parents' divorce, to her struggle to understand her own sexuality and finding refuge in playing the drums, to witnessing and experiencing addiction on a tragic scale and experiencing the long road to recovery, Schemel emerges as an unlikely — and unsung —hero.
10. Patti Smith, Just Kids
Patti Smith's voice expressed as prose can be every bit as raw and electrifying as the one you hear in her music. Her 2010 memoir documenting her relationship with artist and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe has become almost a companion piece in spirit to the aforementioned Dylan memoir, and every bit as lasting thanks to the story's devoted teller. Smith and Mapplethorpe enjoyed a connection too intrinsic for fantasy, and in Just Kids Smith puts their story of youth and adventure in the perfect frame.
11. Todd Snider, I Never Met A Story I Didn't Like: Mostly True Tall Tales
Written by the man Rolling Stone affectionately called "a lowlife Randy Newman," Todd Snider's I Never Met A Story I Didn't Like: Mostly True Tales is not your conventional music memoir. But then again, Snider is not your conventional musician. Full of wit, soul and his own cocktail of self-deprecating braggadocio, Snider has become the people's mayor of East Nashville, churning out sharp, intellectual country, everyman folk, and carefree rock and roll since his 1994 debut, Songs For The Daily Planet. It's an ethos he keeps alive to this day, both with his latest solo effort — 2016's Eastside Bulldog — and also his jam-rock supergroup Hard Working Americans. Like the wildly entertaining between-song monologues Snider's live shows have become known for, I Never Met A Story … is a collection of hilarious — if not apocryphal — anecdotes from Snider's many years spent in bar bands, beat-up vans, and backstages across the country.
12. Victor Wooten, The Music Lesson
Want to go on a trip? Virtuoso bassist and bandleader Victor Wooten's The Music Lesson takes the reader on a ride too outrageous to be believed, yet too personal and transcendent to be ignored. Even Wooten admits early in book that he didn't quite believe what he learned in this most unconventional lesson, but the story that follows sees an impossibly eccentric stranger-turned-mentor showing Wooten the intangibles of music: those found in the heart and the spirit and the gut. Wooten's book is a delightful read for the absolute beginner and consummate pro alike.
13. Crystal Zevon, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life And Times Of Warren Zevon
Many geniuses are troubled. Warren Zevon's life and death were filled with struggle and hardship punctuated by moments of pure brilliance. I'll Sleep When I'm Dead … was written and compiled by Zevon's former wife Crystal Zevon, and trades heavily in cringe-worthy accounts of the couples tumultuous personal life sprinkled with romantic nostalgia from the '70s L.A. rock scene. The book also contains many of Warren Zevon's personal journal entries, providing a stark image of the man revered by so many of his contemporaries and songwriting peers for the gorgeous and irreverent songs he wrote right up through his struggle with cancer and tragic death in 2003. I'll Sleep When I'm Dead … is a hard read on many fronts, and afterward you may like the man and some of his actions a lot less, but you'll like the music and his spirit a lot more.