Mar 082011

There’s been a lot of talk about oversaturation in the rock bio market so let’s just cut right to the chase here. Once and for all…what is the Greatest Rock Biography? It can be based on any criteria you wish (insight into the artist’s psyche or creative process, the arc of the rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-redemption story, snorting a line of ants or the “Mud Shark Incident”) but no matter what your basis is, please show your work.


  49 Responses to “Once and For All: The Greatest Rock Biography”

  1. Vol. 2 of Guralnick’s Elvis bio actually choked me up a few times. Phillip Norman’s classic Beatles bio is also one that made a big impression, but I was young and impressionable when I read that. I don’t know what I’d think about it today. I’m saying Vol. 2 of Guralnick’s Elvis bio – and pince nez me, if you must on the spelling of the author’s name.

  2. BigSteve

    Stanley Booth’s The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones is the best rock book I’ve ever read. It’s mainly about a period of time he spent with the Stones in (I think) 69-70, but if memory serves he does fill in their past history too.

  3. I wanna just serve up three of my personal faves, all of which I read in my teen years and wowed me at that time. I’m going to go ahead and cast my vote for Hammer of the Gods because even if Zeppelin and co. claim some of it is bullshit, it’s grand bullshit and the kind of stuff rock and roll legends should really be about.

    I also dug I’m With the Band by Pamela DesBarres if for nothing else her recounting of her days with Beefheart and him asking her is she “wanted to feel something warm.” AWESOME! Her idolization and adoration of every rock dude she slept with or wanted to verges on insanity with a huge dollop of starry-eyed mania that I read that damn tome pretty fast as I recall.

    Lastly, Nicholas Schaffner’s The Beatles Forever was, until The Beatles Recording Sessions arrived, my absolute favorite Beatles bio as a young lad. I found a beat up copy in a Book Warehouse and scored it with a coupon for one free book. When it was all said and done many years later, the binding was ruined, pages were falling out all over the place, but I still loved it. It covered everything someone would want to know about the band and the solo years covered up to that point (it was published in the mid-to-late ’70s).

  4. Crazy From The Heat by David Lee Roth (ok, it’s an autobiography). Because the story of Van Halen is the “greatest story ever told” (my quote) and because Roth tells the story better than anyone else ever has. You feel like Dave has stopped in for a visit and is telling you his story in person.

    Bonus: picture on the back cover of Dave in black leather chaps with a bottle of Jack Daniels and two midget bodyguards.

  5. I still need to tackle the Guarlnick Elvis books. Perhaps this year or next. It feels like a huge undertaking.

    I had Beatles Forever too. It was great. I was always bummed he never updated it.

    My votes:
    Bob Dylan, Chronicles Vol.1 (or are memoirs discounted?)
    Robert Gordon’s It Came From Memphis
    Andy Miller’s The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society
    Jimmy McDonough’s Shakey: Neil Young’ Biography

    We should have an RTH book club. We all read the same rock bio and talk about it for a month. Doesn’t have to be a regular thing. Once a year, maybe.

  6. Man, I was thinking about the RTH Book Club just the other day! It might work once or twice a year. Don’t forget this idea. Maybe we can keep our eyes out for an upcoming book to target. The other thing I was thinking we could do is find a batch of remaindered books and buy them up.

  7. misterioso

    I would have to support the first choices, Stanley Booth’s Stones book is outstanding and Guralnick’s Elvis bios are even better, probably as good as it gets; and I agree with Mod that vol. 2 is uncommonly powerful and the closest thing to Shakespearean tragedy in the genre of rock bios.

    Again, I don’t know if memoirs count, but I, too, think that Dylan’s Chronicles is tremendous. No bio of Dylan is entirely satisfactory, to my eyes, though Heylin’s Behind the Shades is pretty good when his own annoying persona does not intrude and much of Shelton’s No Direction Home is superb–it’s just that one gets the impression that maybe Dylan actually died in 1966.

    This is not a bio, but one of the greatest rock books I have read is Fred Goodman’s Mansion on the Hill: Young, Geffen, Springsteen, and the Head-on Collision of Rock and Commerce. I was thinking of this book recently when the question was asked about what lp is the Jaws of rock. If you haven’t read it, you should.

  8. cdm can rule on autobiographies and memoirs. Personally, I left them out of my selection, otherwise Chronicles, Vol. 1 and Don Felder’s book would have merited consideration. I also disregarded more general rock history books, those covering a scene or genre, like many of Guralnick’s other books or Heylin’s From the Velvets to the Voidoids. It would be harder for me to select a Greatest Rock History Book…Once and For All!

  9. Guralnick’s books spoiled me. After I read those, it was like the bar was set for everything else. And nothing matched them.

    His book on Sam Cooke is pretty good, too.

    Guralnick’s Elvis is the best Elvis. He doesn’t tear him down, but he also doesn’t make him into some sort of angel. He is portrayed as very human.


  10. This thread is may include biographies, autobiographies and memoirs.

    Books of a more broadly historical nature, such as Hit Men, Mansion on the Hill, Velvets to the Voidoids are excluded, as is Please Kill Me (my selection for Greatest Rock History Book…Once and For All!).

    I’m not certain yet what my choice is going to be but I’m considering Crosby’s book. Whether you like his music or not, he was in two hugely influential bands and had a spectacular fall from grace.

    I have to read that Elvis book. In fact, I’m coming up with quite a reading list here.

  11. bostonhistorian

    Even more bonus points: Henry Rollins helped him write it.

  12. bostonhistorian

    Obscure trivia: “The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society” opens with a quote from an interview my wife’s aunt did with Ray Davies in 1967. It’s a really great little book.

  13. bostonhistorian

    I’m a big fan of Peter Guralnick’s “Sweet Soul Music” and “Feel Like Going Home”, which are compilations of essays on various underappreciated artists who probably don’t justify full biographical treatment.

  14. misterioso

    Is that the 33 1/3 volume? As I recall, it was pretty good. That series is a real mixed bag, some excellent and some pretty weak.

  15. “Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Blues” by Robert Palmer. The story of the blues through Muddy Waters.

    or “No One Here Gets Out Alive!”

  16. ladymisskirroyale

    Duly noted. I have to admit I’ve yet to find a rock biography that really does it for me. I’ve been irritated by the poor writing or have been turned off by my lack of interest in the subject. Mr. Royale really enjoyed the Keef memoir, but I’ve been disappointed in bios I’ve read of Fleetwood Mac and the Go-Betweens. I have loved Simon Reynolds writing, so his books on music styles (like “Rip It Up”) have been high on my list of rock reads. Maybe it’s a female thing, but I’ve preferred novels that have used fictional musicians or fabricated info about the artists. Mr. Moderator and I have both read “Juliet, Naked” which I enjoyed and will one day write a posting about. “A Visit From the Goon Squad” was one of my favorite books recently and really brought me back to the 80’s, but it’s not a bio.

    I’m thumbs up on the RTH Book Club idea.

  17. ladymisskirroyale

    That all said, Kristin Hersh’s “Rat Girl” was pretty good and I got a better sense of where she got some of her/Throwing Muses lyrics from.

  18. 2000 Man

    I liked True Adventures of the Rolling Stones a lot. I liked Chet Flippo’s It’s Only Rock N Roll better, but mostly because Chet got tossed off the tour and writes from different perspectives. I’ve heard some people complain that not enough “happens” in his book, but I think he did the least bullshitting and isn’t impressed just because someone is a rich guitar player or singer. Bill Wyman’s books are good, but he apparently has all the personality of a three minute egg.

    I liked Reelin’ in the Years by Brian Sweet a lot. I just really found it interesting, and they talked about how things were recorded and all the guys that played with them and I found it really interesting. No one had any mud shark stories, but I don’t like to read bullshit. That’s what TV is for.

    That being said, I’ll never read anything by Steven Davis or Nick Kent. They make shit up and perpetuate lies and I just can’t stand it.

  19. Awesome trivia note, bostonhistorian. That opening quote is fantastic. And, yes, misterioso, it’s a 33 1/3. The best one I’ve read, even if I’m biased, as VGPS is my favorite album.

  20. BigSteve

    Guralnick is responsible for my obsession with Charlie Rich, for which I am forever grateful.

  21. BigSteve

    What’s the Go-Betweens book? Was it bad or just disappointing like other bios? I know so little about their scene that it might be interesting. The books I read about Pet Shop Boys and Blur were interesting for the same reason.

  22. BigSteve

    Speaking of Stephen Davis, I thought his Bob Marley book (Conquering Lion of Reggae) was real good, and his book Jajouka Rolling Stone: A Fable of Gods and Heroes was *real* good. They’re sort of that kind of New Journalism thing — between reportage and fiction.

  23. ladymisskirroyale

    “The Go-Betweens” by David Nichols. I found it a bit Robert-centric and dissing of Grant. But it was historically interesting.

  24. I’m going to stick with single entity biographies, rather than band histories. Tony Fletcher’s Keith Moon biography, titled, “Dear Boy” in the UK, and simply, “Moon” in the US, is my favorite rock biography, though Guralnick’s Elvis books are an incredibly close second. Both stories are exhaustively told, and are ultimately tragic…which, I guess, I’m drawn to.

    On the other hand, I really like Charles White’s “Little Richard” bio, and Nick Tosches’ Jerry Lee Lewis bio, “Hellfire” (I’m also a big fan of Tosches’ “Unsung Heroes of Rock & Roll”). Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack’s “Under A Hoodoo Moon” is a sleazy hoot and a half, too.

  25. trigmogigmo

    I haven’t read too many bios, so I appreciate the lists here and will check some of those out. Not that these are nominees for the greatest, but in the last couple of years I have read:

    Andy Summers’ autobiography “One Train Later”. I found it very interesting, with a tremendous amount of background on his pre-Police career and life, including being grade school chums with Robert Fripp, and in college studying guitar at Cal State. I enjoyed it, but I am a big Andy Summers fan.

    The Warren Zevon biography, “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” written by his ex-wife Crystal Zevon. It’s an unflinching look at his whole life, not shy about showing how messed up he was. Lots of interviews with people he worked with, diary excerpts. Really good reading.

  26. Yeah, I’d add that Zevon bio, too. Even if one never followed the man’s music, his life was really interesting (his gambler, mob-affiliated father – Warren’s early tutelage by Igor Stravinsky – his residency at a bar in Spain run by an ex-mercenary – his time as musical director for the Everly Brothers)…and very strange (his extreme OCD, various addictions, and numerous sexual, uh, “indiscretions”). It was a hard one to put down.

  27. Add me to the list of those who can’t stand Davis. His Stones book (“Old Gods Almost Dead”) was pretty awful, but his Jim Morrison bio was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. Never again.

  28. pudman13

    I thought the best bio I read was the Clash book, LAST GANG IN TOWN, because it was written as investigative journalism, with every effort to get all of the facts right and not to buy into any of the myths or misinformation the band spread about themselves.

  29. Someone made mention of looking forward to reading a Sammy Hagar book. I had no idea such a thing existed until a few minutes ago, when I saw an excerpt of it in Rolling Stone. I guess it focuses on his time in Van Hagar. Would this be the sort of classy, new rock book we’d want to read to kick off the RTH Book Club? If not, let me know if there are other brand-new or coming books to consider. It would be fun to start with something no one’s yet read.

  30. bostonhistorian

    The New York Review of Books recently reviewed Keith Richards’ autobiography and really liked it:

  31. Heroes and Villains: The True Story of The Beach Boys by Stephen Gaines is my choice. I learned that hard working drummer Dennis Wilson was like Wilt Chamberlain when it came to the bedroom.

  32. I’d vote for Black Postcards, the Dean Wareham autobiography. Um, except I already read it. Still, though.

  33. I second Fletcher’s Moon bio.

  34. I did more rock bio reading when I was younger, so a lot of them kind of blend together in my head. Reading citizens submissions has me trying to remember if I read some of those titles or not.

    One that hasn’t been mentioned, but I remember enjoying a lot was The Man Who Gave the Beatles Away. I can never get enough of those Hamburg antic stories.

  35. saturnismine

    I read the Stanley Booth book about the Stones awhile ago…devoured it. The only problem I had with it was Stanley’s desire to make himself out to be as cool as the subjects of his book. There’s just a little too much of Stanley in there…it’s a comment here and a comment there, but by the middle of the book I’m thinking “okay, we get it Stanley, you, too are a badass.”

    I feel similarly about Jimmy McDonough’s treatment of Neil Young in the “Shakey” biography. At a certain point, he intervenes. The book becomes too focused on Jimmy’s relation to Neil’s circle. And the more spurned he feels, the more critical he becomes of Neil. Meanwhile, the criticisms I agree with are mostly coming from Briggs first (e.g. that Neil pissed away the myth by sitting for too many interviews in the 90s), something we often find out belatedly.

    Mind you, they’re both easy to read and filled with great stories.

    I like Levon’s “This Wheel’s on Fire,” and the criticisms of Robbie mesh with my personal suspicions about that band. However, after awhile, it just feels like Levon has an axe to grind.

    I know this isn’t a rock topic, but Colin Escott’s book on Hank Williams is a classic of the biography genre. He presents a wide array of facts from a number of points of view and has a light touch.

    There were some great books about the Who that came out after the ’82 tour. I dont’ see them on my shelf and I don’t know why. Hmmmm…..

    Has anyone written a good bio of the Sex Pistols yet? The Julien Temple bio was tantalizing in its suggestion that there’s lots more to say…

  36. saturnismine

    Oh right, and the book about Hendrix called “‘scuse me while I kiss the sky” ain’t bad either.

  37. Saturn, I have a copy of Dave Marsh’s early-’80s Who bio, Hope I Die Before I Get Old. I’ve only flipped through it, reading different excerpts and not in a while. I remember it being pretty good, but, as often is the case with him, Marsh has such ridiculous high standards for the band (though I’ll give you a lot of that was inspired by Townshend’s rhetoric) that he seems to fault them for being human beings with flaws and foibles. At least that’s how I remember it.

    Anyway, next time you’re in Philly, I can lend it to you.

  38. Here are some ideas for the RTH book club. I’m just looking through my to-read list on for these.

    Petal Pusher: A Rock and Roll Cinderella Story by Laurie Lindeen
    Everybody Wants Some: The Van Halen Sage by Ian Christie (wouldn’t this be something for RTH to tackle!)
    The Greatest Music Never Sold: Secrets of Legendary Lost Albums by David Bowie, Seal, Beastie Boys, Chicago, Mick Jagger, and More! by Dan Leroy
    Never the Same Again: A Rock ‘N’ Roll Gothic by Jesse Sublett
    Meet on the Ledge (Fairport bio) by Patrick Humphries
    This is Uncool: The 500 Greatest Singles Since Punk and Disco by Garry Mulholand
    Hotel California: Singer-songwriters and Cocaine Cowboys in the L.A. Canyons 1967-1976 by Barney Hoskyns

  39. Now that I re-read your posting, I realize you probably already read this, just can’t find it at the moment. Anyway, the offer still stands.

  40. alexmagic

    Everybody Wants Some: The Van Halen Sage by Ian Christie (wouldn’t this be something for RTH to tackle!)


    The Greatest Music Never Sold: Secrets of Legendary Lost Albums by David Bowie, Seal, Beastie Boys, Chicago, Mick Jagger, and More! by Dan Leroy

    I’m not gonna lie, I am intrigued at the possibilites of a Great Lost Seal Album and a Great Lost Chicago Album, while acknowledging that it would probably be great if all Chicago albums had been lost. Did Cetera go through some Lizard King phase?

  41. misterioso

    Very interesting, indeed! And a “great lost Mick Jagger album”? There’s a 5-star review by Jan Wenner waiting to be written!

  42. I think it does not focus on his VH time, I think Rolling Stone is focusing on that time to sell more magazines. Makes Sammy look like an ass (not the actual events, just bringing them up now and putting it in RS)

  43. It’s good to know that there will be a lot of meaty chapters on his time with Montrose;)

  44. I’m with Steve on thinking the Booth book is great, but I haven’t read enough rock bios to have a good basis for calling which is best.

  45. alexmagic

    Every other chapter is an in-depth look at the distillation, bottling, delivery and drinking processes for tequila.

    Hagar cites Melville as a huge influence on his style.

  46. I wish the lost albums book didn’t involve so many artists whose delivered albums I care nothing about, such as 50 Cent.

    The Cocaine Cowboys one would have a satisfying high-asshole content. If we’re gonna go VH, though, I want to hear it right from Hagar’s mouth. Plus we’ll get some needed insights into the inner workings of Montrose!

    Here’s a new Bowie book on his early years that looks REALLY nerdy! I would read this:

    And this one on Tommy James and his Mob connections, which came out about a year ago, was something I totally wanted to read but never got around to:

    Once we decide on a book I’ll set up a link so we can place our orders!

  47. This could be fun, too, covering an “overlooked gem,” in many rock nerds’ ears, that I’ve never been convinced is any good:

  48. saturnismine

    both of your links are for the same book!

  49. saturnismine

    thanks, Oats! No worries, though. I have read them. and if i ever really need to read the Marsh book again, I can probably get it for really cheap.

    Along these lines, RTH’ers, many of these books can be had for super cheap at

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