Good rock memoirs take you on tour and convey the band’s operatic highs and the Spinal Tap lows. It’s too bad that even the good ones written by men can neglect or demean the women in their lives. These women in and around the music business have written fascinating memoirs about making art and controversy in a sphere often monopolized by male voices. Look for famous cameo appearances in all of them.
Grace Jones’s career kind of defies categorization. But for those who only remember her as the out-there supermodel Strangé from the Eddie Murphy vehicle Boomerang, her memoir is a testament to living the big life and to the ways her transgressive personality made its mark on the art world, the music world, and the film world. Jones’s writing is as commanding as her on-screen persona, and readers may tire of her nonstop hauteur. But it’s a memoir that takes readers to what feels like an alternate universe of glamour and grit, one that can only be inhabited by the pioneer Grace Jones.
Girl in a Band (2015) by Kim Gordon
Gordon begins her book with “The End”, a recollection of her band Sonic Youth’s last show at a festival in Brazil: in front of a crowd of thousands, performing with men she had known for decades, Gordon describes feeling alone. The end of her biggest work and the end of her marriage, live on stage. Her ex-husband looking like “a seventeen year old who didn’t want to be seen in the company of his mother”. Gordon’s detailed descriptions are infused with emotional honesty as she addresses her own fears and anxieties. But Gordon also talks about making records as Sonic Youth, which is a wonderful look into the collaborative musical process.
Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (2015) by Carrie Brownstein
Brownstein’s book is probably the most recently-anticipated book on this list. The Portlandia star is surprisingly relatable for an artist with an arms-length stage persona. She describes her first concerts (Madonna, George Michael) as awakenings to the entwinement of performance and desire, and from there recounts her evolution from a consumer of music to a creator of it in the influential band Sleater-Kinney. Brownstein goes through album by album, including collections of clips from music magazines struggling to make sense of women in music. Brownstein’s deep sadness at the band’s dissolution permeates the final chapters.
How to be a Woman (2012) and Moranthology (2012) by Caitlin Moran
When Caitlin Moran began writing for the English music magazine Melody Maker in 1991, she was sixteen years old and desperate to show she could dish it out alongside her older male colleagues. As she describes in her introduction to Moranthology, she writes her own initiation into the world of music reviewing as a human sacrifice - by telling the lead singer of the hapless alt band Ned’s Atomic Dustbin to leave the planet. In How To Be a Woman, Moran goes into her first experiences with work life in the early 1990s, when women musicians were “regarded as freakish anomalies rather than the first outriders on a forthcoming storm”.
Just Kids (2010) by Patti Smith
Millions of words have already been written about this National Book Award winner’s greatness, to the point where the praise has overshadowed the content. You know what, though? It really is an incredible read. Smith’s real yet romantic version of anonymous-to-acclaimed art life in ‘70s and ‘80s New York depicts a place and time that seems impossible today. The most charming cameo is Allen Ginsberg’s: he buys her a cheese sandwich in an automat, mistakes her for a young man, and launches their lifelong friendship.
Be My Baby (1990) by Ronnie Spector
Ronnie Spector’s account of 1960s music from the perspective of one of the best “girl group” singers is Number 15 on Rolling Stone’s list of “25 Greatest Memoirs of All Time”. Cher and Billy Joel’s introductions pay homage to Spector’s singular voice, and as the book unfolds, readers can hear that voice narrating this fascinating personal history of a revolutionary time in the recording industry. Cameos by twentieth-century greats add extra star wattage to the story, which is told with warmth and candor. Spector’s recollections of isolation and alcoholism in her nightmare marriage to producer Phil Spector can be tough to read; in contrast, the book ends with her finding lasting happiness with her second husband and family. A terrific in-the-trenches book.