Photo: Keith Richards
By Jessica Wheeler, Music Columnist
By now, the musical memoir is just another box to check off on the career list of any self-respecting musician—it’s something you have to do. They’re also newsworthy, as recent memoirs by the likes of Chrissie Hynde and Kim Gordon made headlines even before their release. This year looks to be no different, with upcoming memoirs by the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Bobby Brown ready to take over the bestseller lists.
But not all memoirs are created equal: some read more like press releases, covering the high notes of a career while skipping over the low points. The best musical memoirs are those that take a long, honest look at the author’s life, holding nothing back. Here are six musical memoirs that do exactly that.
- Life by Keith Richards
The ultimate rock-and-roll survivor story, Life is full of anecdotes both amusing (Richards sometimes refers to Mick Jagger as “Brenda”) and harrowing (we get the dirt on Altamont). Whether discussing his heroin addiction, the mysterious death of original Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones, or his long-time love affair with Anita Pallenberg, his signature elegantly wasted voice shines through—it feels as though he’s sitting in the room with you, telling his stories.
- Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness by Ronnie Spector
As the lead singer of the Ronettes and the wife of famously erratic producer Phil Spector, Ronnie Spector definitely has some stories to tell. In her memoir, she shares her memories of being held prisoner by Phil Spector in their Bel-Air mansion, before she escaped with just the clothes on her back. It’s the story of a promising career cut short by a jealous, insane husband, and the numerous comebacks and setbacks that followed.
- Cash by Johnny Cash
What makes this memoir so honest is not necessarily the dirt shared inside—although Cash certainly spills some dirt. It’s the way the book completely captures the voice of beloved star Johnny Cash, with all its wisdom, humor, and humility that truly sets it apart. From his love affair with wife June Carter Cash, to his struggles with addiction, Cash covers all the topics with grace.
- Brother Ray by Ray Charles
Hailed by critics as the father of rhythm and blues, Ray Charles went blind at age 7, endured poverty and the loss of his parents, and overcame it all to become one of music’s biggest stars. In Brother Ray, he tells his story straight, with no attempt to prettify some of the ugly details. It’s a book that might make you uncomfortable, but stands as one of the first (it was published in 1978) and best musical memoirs.
- Kicking and Dreaming by Ann and Nancy Wilson
Sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson from the band Heart tag-team the telling of their story in this memoir. As pioneers of women in hard rock, and an inspiration to all of the Pacific Northwest grunge bands that followed in the decades after their debut, the sisters had to deal with their share of sexism and heartbreak. Ann discusses the devastation she felt when fans and critics condemned her fluctuating weight, while Nancy reflects on her marriage to Cameron Crowe, but the heart of the book is the relationship between the two sisters who held each other together when their band was coming apart.
- Satan is Real by Charlie Louvin
As one half of the harmony-singing country music duo the Louvin Brothers, Charlie Louvin and his brother Ira rode high on the charts for much of the 1950s and 60s. While Charlie was a devout Christian, his brother struggled with addiction, anger, and pride, until his 1965 death in a car crash. It’s a Steinbeckian story of darkness and light, and the complicated relationship between brothers who just can’t let each other go. Told in Charlie’s unforgettable voice, Satan is Real details how a gypsy fortune teller correctly foretold their path to success, their spats with other stars at the Grand Ole Opry, and the time Ira threatened Elvis Presley.
Jessica Wheeler is the Music Columnist for Alive Tampa Bay.