In Their Own Words: Music Autobiographies

By Gabriel Assouline

When well written, autobiographies feel like a conversation. That rare and revealing conversation we’ve all had with a relative or  travel acquaintance. The talks that last through the night and get us pumped up about life, strike a chord and leave their mark on us, sometimes forever.

This is a list of my favorite music autobiographies. These books have taught me so much – about the people behind the music, about history, about what it takes to make it and of course about that rock & roll life.

If you don’t pick up any of these books at least take this post as a reminder to sit down with family members who’s life you don’t know much about and soak up as much knowledge as you can.

Here are 5 of my favorite music autobiographies (so far & in no order).

Let me know of any great ones I may have omitted and share your favorites.

G.

BOB DYLAN – CHRONICLES  VOLUME 1

dylanbook

Autobiographies serve as an education – by reading about your favorite musicians you learn about THEIR favorite musicians and suddenly your musical landscape is multiplied. The Chronicles Volume One is Dylan in his own words – his beginnings in Minnesota, his immersion into folk music and his mid-career struggles. It also serves as a history of America, american music and literature. The always evasive Dylan also shares insights about his motives and his art and describes his journey in great detail. I read this one a few years ago but remember not being able to put it down. Its a great book by possibly the greatest most influential songwriter of all time. We’re still waiting on Volume II.

Song : Bob Dylan – Isis

Notable Passage on songwriting:

Excerpt on Songwriting from Bob Dylan's Chronicles Volume 1

 

THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF QUINCY JONES

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Quincy Jones is a living legend, if there ever was one.  He has won 27 Grammys, has been married 3 times, has 7 children (including Rashida Jones) and has survived 2 brain aneurysms. As his wikipedia page states, he is a record producer, conductor, arranger, composer, television producer, film producer,instrumentalist, magazine founder, record company executive, humanitarian, and jazz trumpeter. No big deal.

His is a story of old school sophistication, class, determination and talent.  Of growing up dirt poor on Chicago’s South Side to becoming Frank Sinatra’s musical conductor by the age of 20. Oh and he’s also produced Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall, Thriller and BAD albums. That by itself is enough to want to know more about the man.

The last of a dying bread, Quincy Jones’ story embodies the American dream with a splash of style and soul. His book is full of insights, anecdotes and pearls of wisdom. He is the definition of cool and reading his life story in his own words makes the reader that much cooler.

Song: Quincy Jones – Summer in the City

Here is a notable passage on Frank Sinatra:

Excerpt from Quincy Jones about Frank Sinatra

 

NILE RODGERS  – LE FREAK

nile rodgers

Full disclosure: prior to Get Lucky by Daft Punk, which Nile Rodgers plays guitar on, I did not know much about his life. I did know about CHIC, his band, from all of the times their disco songs were sampled by rappers or played at Bar Mitzvahs (ahh freak out!). I bought the book after seeing Nile Rodgers in this promo video for Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories album. I figured if Daft Punk knows about him so should I. Good thinking.

Nile Rodgers embodies New York City. The New York City that no longer exists, the edgy, gritty, sexual yet naive New York City where Disco music emerged and Madonna flourished. Nile’s life is interwoven with the evolution of music, culture and  life in the city from the 50s to the late 80s. It is fascinating to say the least. His tough yet momentous childhood paved the way to a unique life full of struggles and conquests. Musically, Nile is considered a genius. He’s produced  almost every pop hit song from the 70s and 80s and is a virtuoso guitarist and composer. Le Freak is one hell of a story that reads like a motion picture. A must read and an evolving story!

Song: CHIC – I Want Your Love

Here’s a notable passage on how he learnt guitar.

nile rodgers autobiography

page from book on how nile rodgers learnt guitar

 

KEITH RICHARDS – LIFE

keith richards live cover

 

 

 

 

 

To be in a band where the lead vocalist is Mick Jagger and still steal the spotlight just by your look and swagger. To be loved and considered the heart of the band when you’re  barely understood when you speak. That is Keith Richards. A larger than life, cooler than cool bonafied rock star who’s been emulated by many but matched by none. Keith Richards, surprisingly remembers most of his life and writes in great detail displaying soul, candor and nostalgia. Life teaches us what it takes to make a good thing last and exposes, with no shame, the bad behind the good. It takes us behind the glamour and walks us through every fuck up, betrayal, triumph and guitar lick. If you want to live the rock star life vicariously, this is the only book you need to read. You’ll come out of it loving Keith Richards and seeing him as more than a one dimensional substance abuser. You will understand that success is earned and that there is a method behind the madness. Of course timing and luck don’t hurt.

Song: The Rolling Stones – You Got the Silver

Here’s a notable passage on coming to America and the reception the Rolling Stones received:

Keith richards - life quote

 

 

CAETANO VELOSO – TROPICAL TRUTH

caetano tropical truth

 

 

 

 

 

Brazil is a country made up of people from the four corners of the earth. It’s also an extremely big country – the fourth largest in the world. The confluence of African, European and Asian people has produced among other things: great athletes, stunning supermodels and an amazing array of music styles. Sound Familiar? Yes Brazil has a musical culture at least as rich as the United States. Caetano Veloso is Brazilian Pop’s David Bowie. Androgynous in his youth with political and psychedelic leanings and unique singing voice. He’s also aged gracefully and continues to write and perform.

For fans of world music, this book is a must read. Its the history of Brasil written through the lens of an existentialist musician. While complex in its form at times, the book is fascinating and a great introduction to the history of Brasil and the importance of music as a central pillar of society. Sound heavy? Play a bit of Bossa Nova while reading to smooth it out.

Song: Caetano Veloso – Tropicalia

Here is a passage on Caetano’s initial disdain for 1950s America and its biggest stars:

caetano veloso on Elvis & Marylin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Mike Benhaim

    Nice. I’ve read 2 of these and I’ve no doubt the rest are equally enlightening. I counter-recommed Howling at the Moon by Walter Yetnikoff, who was Tommy Mottola’s predecessor at Sony/Columbia. A college mate of Clive Davis, Yetnikoff tells how he oversaw all of the huge acts in the 80s, inclundign MJ’s Off the Wall and Thriller, Springsteen’s Born in the USA, and even tells of the last days of Marvin Gaye. Hard to find, but extremely insightful.

    • gabrieou

      Thanks for the feedback, will definitely look into Yetnikoff!