Books That Rock : Good Reads
In the world of rock and roll, several themes seem to dominate. Artist / band has big dreams, struggles to make it, either does or does not make it big, faces adversity. But whether they are a big success or never reach stardom, every story is unique. Whether the end result is tragedy, triumph, or somewhere in between, these are our picks for some of the best rock and roll books of recent years.
Please also visit our classic and new vinyl recommendations – records that we think belong in any enthusiasts collection. At the end of the day, what is written about an artist is less important than the work they leave behind, although it is always insightful to try to understand the lives behind the music.
Books We Have Read
Trouble Boys : The True Story of the Replacements
by Bob Mehr
Were the Replacements a great band? That truly depends on how you gauge greatness in a band – did they do something completely different? Not really, although they blended punk, pop and rock in a unique style that was all their own. Did they do something better than anyone else? Well they definitely took rock star excess to a high level, but this shouldn’t define them musically. Did they achieve success and fame? Only in retrospect – in their time, they struggled to fit into a music industry that didn’t know what to do with iconoclasts.
The career of the Replacements could often be seen as a careening roller-coaster filled with highs and lows, self-destruction being a key component of their story. The fact that they were able to hold it together for as long as they did, even through the tragedy of Bob Stinson’s death, was a testament to perseverance despite lack of financial or critical reward.
“We happened to … like all of the funky quirks of the classic rock bands – the Who, the Rolling Stones, the Ramones,” notes Paul Westerberg in the epilogue to the book. “We didn’t have the things that made those bands huge; we had the thing that made them infamous and decadent and, perhaps, great.”
Sad, funny and sometimes heart-breaking, this book is a must-read for those of us who loved this band for what they represented – punk pop rock at it’s sleaziest and most heartfelt.
Acid for the Children : A Memoir
Born into a conservative family in Australia, and raised as a self-described “street rat” in Los Angeles, Michael Peter Balzary, better know by his stage name Flea, has led a roller-coaster life chronicled in this fascinating book. It describes in detail an often confused upbringing that resulted in a contradictory but big-hearted soul who was destined for something greater – although he clearly didn’t have these ambitions early on.
Born in 1962, Flea’s family moved from Australia to New York, where his parent’s split up and he moved in with his mother and musician boyfriend in Los Angeles – the start of his rocky road to rock stardom. His meandering, booze and weed filled life hit a turning point when he met Anthony Kiedis in high school. This partnership led to a lifelong friendship that eventually led to the formation of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The book ends at that point, as this is not a history of the band, but more an exploration of his path to redemption through music.
This is not just for fans of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but is an often moving story of a lost soul finding a path through life through his bond with a kindred spirit and an undying love of music. Inspiring and informative, it offers a deep dive into the backstory of a true artist and fascinating human being.
Get In The Van
by Henry Rollins
Although known mostly now as a spoken word performer and and writer, Henry Rollins has also been a front man (singer?) for the Henry Rollins Band and, more importantly, seminal punk band Black Flag. Although not the first vocalist (he was the fourth) he was definitely the most well known and controversial. While many find him insightful and illuminating, others may just find him whiny and annoying.
However, he has never been boring, and this book contains a lot of well-written documentation of an important period on punk music. Taken from journals and notes from the period 1981 through 1986 during tours with Black Flag, including a lot of “on-the-road” stories and anecdotes; some funny, some historical, and many just ugly.
The first part of the book is more interesting, written in prose form with descriptions of how it all started in the Washington, DC hardcore scene and how he ended up as the front man for Black Flag. The second part is mostly from journal entries, mostly coverage of the touring of the early 80’s from the perspective of a volatile and often depressed Rollins. Not quite a descent into madness, but a tough read anyway. Confrontations abound, whether with police (“pigs”), the audience, or other bands.
Overall, this is a sometimes difficult read, but enlightening. It ain’t easy being in a punk band, but Henry Rollins came out the other side to write about it.
Stevie Ray Vaughan : Day by Day, Night After Night
by Craig Hopkins
Stevie Ray Vaughan’s life was both triumphant and tragic. Widely considered one of the best blue rock guitarists in history, he battled personal demons throughout most of his career, almost succumbing to alcohol and drug addictions. Having pulled through the darkest period of his life, he was riding high personally and artistically when his life was cut short on August 27, 1990 in a helicopter crash after a dynamic concert with Eric Clapton and others.
Almost 30 years after his death, he remains a guitar icon and hero in the blues community. This is the second book in a series, the first being “His Early Years, 1954-1982”. It describes the day by day life of the artist during his most productive years in great detail. Filled with testimonials from those who knew him best and a huge number of gallery of photographs, it is a great read for anyone, fan or not.
The genuine passion and fire of Stevie Ray Vaughan may never be equaled – he gave a rock intensity to the blues that made him fans all over the world. There is no telling how much more he could have accomplished had he survived to now. There is no doubt he would have made more great music for his millions of fans.
Heavier Than Heaven : A Biography of Kurt Cobain
by Charles R. Cross
Millions of words have been written on the musical impact and life of Kurt Cobain. 25 years after his tragic death, his legacy is one of genius cut short. Often a contradictory figure, one minute kind and gentle, the next gruff and unapproachable, he suffered through physical and emotional pain that was exacerbated when he was thrust into the glare of international fame.
This book could be considered a definitive biography due to the hundreds of interviews and quotes and excepts from Cobain himself through diary entries, interviews and even suicide notes. It covers his often traumatic upbringing in the working class area of Aberdeen, Washington. Often grim and depressing, his early days formed his outlook of life that was later reflected in his music.
When Cobain and Krist Novoselic formed what would become the band Nirvana in 1987, he was only 20 years old. After a change of drummer, they released their debut album Bleach in 1989 to little fanfare. But in 1991 they signed with Geffen records and released their masterpiece Nevermind.
The book describes in detail Cobain’s tumultuous relationship with Courtney Love in detail, as well as his difficulty adjusting to the attention received after the release of Nevermind. Credited with propelling the “grunge” (or Seattle) sound into the consciousness of the musical world, he (and others) also had to deal with the inevitable backlash. The weight of all this attention became crushing and debilitating, culminating in his death in 1994.
Cobain’s career only lasted 6 years, but his impact is lasting and deep. There have been some criticisms of this book as too intrusive or colored through the lens of Courtney Love’s inputs – but it can’t be disputed that this is a life worth great detail in the telling, both as a tribute and cautionary tale.
by Slash, Anthony Bozza
Slash, born Saul Hudson in London in 1965, has led an interesting life, to say the least. From his unconventional and rather chaotic upbringing, to his devotion to music and the guitar in particular, his story is often both uplifting and sometimes very dark.
It was not an easy road to rock stardom, but it seems there was never much doubt in young Saul’s mind as to how he would live his life. Starting early on the “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll” path, with some heavy drinking thrown in, the only question is whether it would kill him first.
From the early incarnations of Guns N Roses, to the seemingly inevitable breakup and acrimony, his drive to make the band a force was often the only thing that appeared to hold it together at times. And this despite his own well documented issues with addiction. When they did make it, they made it beyond any of their wildest dreams.
This is an entertaining read – sometimes rambling and shambolic, much like the band itself. Along the way Slash made many friends, enemies and people died. He faced his own mortality after years of drinking and heroin almost led to a fatal heart condition, which he survived and eventually led to his sobriety. He has carried on with successful collaborations in bands like Slash’s Snakepit and Velvet Revolver, along with guest appearances on other recordings.
Slash is definitely a survivor. There are at times in the book where the narrative does seem a little self-serving. Although he does take responsibility for some of the problems and tragedies along the way, he seems to explain away some of his own behavior. However, he does admit that a lot of these issues were the actions of a junkie and alcoholic. Definitely his relationships with women have suffered the effects of these issues.
In the end, it seems Slash would not have changed the life he’s led – and why would he. For all the pain and tough times, he achieved exactly what he wanted in life, to do what he loved. He is a rock guitarist, period.
My Cross To Bear
by Gregg Allman
Written in essentially a conversational tone, this is a rambling but entertaining look into the long and sometimes rocky career of one the originators of what we know as “southern rock”. Allman pulls no punches but keeps the tone mostly positive even in some of the darkest sections of his life and career.
He provides an honest and sometimes in-depth look into the process of becoming a “star” musician – for better and worse. He reveals his surprising insecurities, slides into addiction and regrets (many failed marriages, financial losses); along with his pride and joy in creating the playing the blues / rock that made his bands famous. His love of music shines through at all times, even after devastating losses like losing his brother Duane after just reaching stardom.
In the end, Gregg Allman shows the soul of a true survivor, the healing of his relationships of his children, overcoming addiction (including a liver transplant), and continuing the musical tradition started by he and his “brothers”.
A highly recommended read – this book encompasses a 5 decade-plus career full of success and failure, while leaving a legacy of music that few can match.
One of Rolling Stone Magazine‘s 25 Greatest Rock Memoirs of All Time
Books We Will Read
Although we have not yet managed to read these titles, we want to soon. We have attached other reviews and will compile our own when time permits. We are confident based on the subject matter and the outside reviews that these are also among the best rock and roll books you can dive into. Please leave any comments based on your own feedback of these books.
White Line Fever : The Autobiography
by Lemmy Kilmister, Janis Garza
Medically speaking, Lemmy should be dead.
After years of notorious excess, his blood would kill another human being. This is the story of the heaviest drinking, most oversexed speed freak in the music business.
Ian Fraser Kilmister was born on Christmas Eve, 1945. Learning from an early age that chicks really do appreciate a guy with a guitar, and inspired by the music of Elvis and Buddy Holly, Lemmy quickly outgrew his local bands in Wales, choosing instead to head to Manchester to experience everything he could get his hands on. And he never looked back.
Lemmy tripped through his early career with the Rocking Vicars, backstage touring with Jimi Hendrix, as a member of Opal Butterflies and Hawkwind. In 1975, he went on to create speed metal and form the legendary band Motorhead. The rest is history.
Black Postcards : A Memoir
by Dean Wareham
For years, Dean Wareham has made music of beguiling intimacy that draws you into mysteries, dreams and romances. Now he has written a captivating book that does the same.” — Joe Levy, Executive Editor, “Rolling Stone”
“Dean Wareham has already given the world some of the greatest music of the last many years, and now he offers us this-part blueprint of the creative process, part punk rock field guide, part map of America, part dreamscape of despair, part song.” -Nick Flynn, author of “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City”
“I have always been a fan of Dean Wareham and have worked with him and Luna many times. I love reading the thoughts of frontmen. I think it’s a great read for the fan of adventure.” – Lou Reed .
Ace Frehley : No Regrets
by Ace Frehley, Joe Layden, John Ostrosky
He was just a boy from the Bronx with stars in his eyes. But when he picked up his guitar and painted stars on his face, Ace Frehley transformed into “The Spaceman”—and helped turn KISS into one of the top-selling bands in the world. Now, for the first time, the beloved rock icon reveals his side of the story with no-holds-barred honesty . . . and no regrets.
For KISS fans, Ace offers a rare behind-the-makeup look at the band’s legendary origins, including the lightning-bolt logo he designed and the outfits his mother sewed. He talks about the unspoken division within the band—he and Peter Criss versus Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons—because the other two didn’t “party every day.” Ace also reveals the inside story behind his turbulent breakup with KISS, their triumphant reunion a decade later, and his smash solo career. Along the way, he shares wild stories about dancing at Studio 54 with “The Bionic Woman,” working as a roadie for Jimi Hendrix, and bar-flying all night with John Belushi. In the end, he comes to terms with his highly publicized descent into alcohol, drugs, and self-destruction—ultimately managing to conquer his demons and come out on top.
This is Ace Frehley.
Everybody Loves Our Town : An Oral History of Grunge
by Mark Yarm
“Yarm, a former editor of Blender, interviewed more than 250 musicians, scenesters, and record business types
to deliver a personal, comprehensive history of grunge music…Highly recommended.”
“In an attempt to trace the real roots of grunge, journalist Mark Yarm compiled an exhaustive oral history from the people who lived it. In his book Everybody Loves Our Town, there are interviews with everyone from the early adopters to those that were late to the party, but nevertheless helped extend [grunge’s] shadow of influence by turning it into a look for the world to emulate.”
“This massively readable tome gathers recollections from every grunge band you’ve ever heard of (Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Melvins) and some you haven’t (we hardly knew ye, Skin Yard)…The genre’s first truly comprehensive insider history…It’s gossipy…and fascinating, with so much backstabbing and death it’s like Shakespeare, if Shakespeare had written about heroin addicts with bad hair.”
—Revolver (4 out of 4 stars)
“An impressive display of reportorial industriousness… It’s the feel-bad rock book of the fall.”
“Oral history is an art in itself. It’s why Everybody Loves Our Town will endure as a classic of monumental scale.”
“For hardcore fans or people just curious about what the fuss was all about, Mark Yarm’s excellent new book –Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge” is well worth the read. Yarm has done an admirable job of assembling an engaging, funny and ultimately sad narrative by letting the people who helped create the Jet City sound talk about what happened in their own words.”
“Yarm’s account captures the essential tension that made the era so compelling.”
—Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune
Mark Yarm’s superb book, Everybody Loves Our Town: A History of Grunge details the dramatic rise of the grunge movement and all of its players, including Cobain, Love and Vedder, told through the voices of the people that lived through it.”
“I came away from this book with a big smile on my face. Lots of it is like a gray day in western Washington; you’ve been kicked out of yet another band, and your girlfriend is spending far too much time with the drummer from the Melvins or the Screaming Trees. In the end, though, “Everybody Loves Our Town” made me want to be young, stupid and lucky again. Mainly, it made me want to be young.”
—The Washington Post