It seems like every musician in the last decade has published a memoir or tell-all, or hired a biographer to write their story. Many of them are very good, especially if you’re a fan, and some of them even get turned into award-winning movies.
Here are four autobiographies I’ve enjoyed. None are likely to become movies, but they’re all enjoyable reads and turn over a few rocks in the music world that I hadn’t known about before.
A — What’s Welsh For Zen: The Autobiography of John Cale, by Victor Bockris and John Cale
In all honesty, I picked this up for the beautiful illustrations and design by the legendary artist Dave McKean. It’s just a beautiful book. But I do love the work of John Cale — a founding member of the Velvet Underground — and it’s deconstructed by the man himself here, in ways that are both illuminating and frustrating. Cale makes no bones about telling you how great and unappreciated he is, and he can certainly back most of it up, but he also details what a train wreck he can be, in brutally honest moments about drug abuse and failed relationships. You get his take on it all here: everything from the formation of the Velvet Underground, to his combative relationship with Lou Reed, to producing the debut albums by Patti Smith and The Stooges (among many others).
B — What Does This Button Do?: An Autobiography, by Bruce Dickinson
The lead singer of Iron Maiden is a certified polymath, which means that he is an expert in multiple subjects. Outside of his operatic vocal prowess, Dickinson is an Olympic-caliber fencer and a commercial pilot. He’s written novels, had a successful career as a solo artist, and worked with a brewery to create the recipe for Iron Maiden beers. And on and on. For such an accomplished human, Dickinson comes off as remarkably humble, and his curiosity about the world and how it works is infectious.
C — Girl In A Band, by Kim Gordon
Primarily known as the bassist/guitarist/singer of Sonic Youth, Kim Gordon has also had a successful solo career in music, along with being an accomplished artist and fashion maven. In her memoir, Gordon tells her story with an easy voice, and never misses an opportunity to namedrop. She goes relatively easy on her ex-husband, Thurston Moore, who concealed an affair from her that eventually blew up into a very public divorce, but is less magnanimous toward another former bandmate, Lee Ranaldo. It’s a fascinating read from the perspective of one of the first women of indie rock, who struggled with acceptance and eventually found her place as a single mother in a world not accustomed to such things.
Super producer and futurist thinker Brian Eno kept a diary for a year, and then published it, with over a hundred pages of other writings he did throughout that year (magazine and newspaper articles, and other contributions). It’s sort of like getting to hang out with Eno for a year, which turns out to be a lot like you’d expect. Eno works constantly, throws himself into music and art at every turn, and is constantly frustrated with himself. His friends list is daunting; he abbreviates people like David Bowie to just “DB,” he shows up so much, while getting invitations from Bono and his wife to spend New Year’s Eve together in Sarajevo. Eno makes no bones about living like a rock star, but he just may be the most thoughtful of them all.