Autobiographies by musicians are usually filled with partying, conquests and namedropping. I’ve read a ton of them and most I’ve forgotten before turning the final page. They are usually quick reads on a weekend, cotton candy for the brain. Even though most are mediocre, that does not stop me from reading them.
Here are five exceptions to the above assessment. These are terrific books. Thoughtful, intelligent and deeply moving. Each is different in style, reflecting the attitudes and life focus of the person. None of these are typical memoirs and each surprised me.
Don Felder, Heaven and Hell: My Life in the Eagles – Felder was the lead guitarist for the Eagles from 1974-2001, when he was fired from the band. He and Glenn Frey became enemies, and that meant Henley was also against him. The uneasy relationship with with Frey fractured into near violence, so Felder was voted out. He had joined during the One of These Nights recording sessions to add muscle to the band’s sound. This book is quite the read of a free-spirited band becoming a corporation with high-priced lawyers and boardroom cutthroat politics.
Robby Krieger, Set the Night on Fire – The guitar player from the Doors. Big deal, right. A band that dissolved 50 years ago. Haven’t there been other books about the Doors? There have been, but not as shining as this one. You learn a lot about Krieger and the Doors, and the trappings of rock stardom. Krieger is very thoughtful in his writing, a humbleness and a man who has found the fulcrum, where the different journeys of his life meet. I felt like I began to know, and maybe understand, the man behind the public image. For all the valleys in his life, most by his own doing, Krieger is a man of solid internal values, owning up to responsibilities and using his talent to give back to others. The book is also organized in a way that blends his earlier story with scenes from the present. This was a book that was literally difficult to set aside.
Steve Van Zandt, Unrequited Infatuations – This book surprised me the most. A recent read, I almost bypassed this book. I knew of Van Zandt from his membership in the E Street Band and his solo career as Little Steven. Those roles, important as they are, only scratch the surface of who he is, and what he has accomplished. His range is quite broad, writing and producing music for other people, his acting career in The Sopranos, his series Stockholm, and other acting gigs. Here is a guy who seems to have not spare time, he is constantly in motion, developing syndicated radio programs, making deals in Hollywood, and giving his time for charitable causes. His book is funny, sincere and flies with the speed of his life.
Elvis Costello, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink – If you think that Declan MacManus is a spikey haired punk rocker, you’ve missed out on his past four decades. His book is more than just the facts of his life, it is the story of an artist with enormous talent, who will redefine the boundaries of music with his career. I remember thinking his book is not what I expected. Elvis is the Bob Dylan of his generation, part poet, part philosopher, part interpreter and stylist, part observer, and part tortured artist. Elvis is constantly writing and collaborating with other artists. His range of musical styles is an example of ongoing journey of growth and reaching other audiences. Elvis is also a smart guy and it is evident in how his career has unfolded. The book is massive one, almost 700 pages, and the structure jumps around. If you read it, schedule some time to do it.
Born to Run: Bruce Springsteen – I guess I should have expected this. Springsteen the visionary, the philosopher, the storyteller. He talked about his life in cinematic tones, his life unfolded in what seemed like a Swedish film, symbolism and things that do not make sense on the surface; and a John Ford trek through Monument Valley at the Magic Hour, earthy images illuminated by hypnotic American Dream. Springsteen’s mind travels faster than the classic sports car he leans against. He comes from humble roots, working class, a boy with dreams and ambition, and a winding road to figure it out. Springsteen is still an enigma, not in the Bob Dylan sense, but in peeling away the layers of life to understand it. The miles he has travelled, only reveal the rest of the journey.
And a group of very good memoirs that deserve consideration.
Honorable Mention: Carole King: A Natural Woman; Keith Richards: Life; Geoff Emerick: Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles; Bill Bruford: The Autobiography. Yes, King Crimson, Earthworks and More; Jimmy Webb: The Cake and the Rain; Gregg Allman: My Cross to Bear; Glyn Johns: Sound Man; Ian McLaglan, All the Rage: A Riotous Romp Through Rock & Roll History.