The rock and roll autobiography. What a notion, in which an artist attempts to make his or her life sing in real words on paper, rather than relay it on snatches of a tattered loose leaf notebook or scraps of hotel stationary. But these books sell, and can even move the needle on a stalled career. Motives, though, are tricky. What did the Wilson sisters hope to gain with the issue of Kicking & Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul and Rock & Roll? (insert joke here) Was Keith Richards bored or was he trying to keep the Stones’ name alive with his book, Life? And then there’s the unpredictable Neil Young – he’s still killing it and he puts out Waging Heavy Peace. Not everyone has the megaphone of fame to pimp a book, but that sure doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of great rock memoir reads under the radar. Consider this the first of a couple installments.
1. Diary of a Rock and Roll Star by Ian Hunter (1972) - The frontman of Mott the Hoople writes about the British band’s first breaks in the coveted U.S. market during a 1972 tour. But rather than groping groupies and cocaine-dusted tv tops, Hunter writes about the weather, the airports, the hotels, cab drivers, the trains and, occasionally, the music. The band spends its down days in pawn shops looking to score rare guitars and assorted gear. No one gets arrested or even detained. Sound boring? It’s not. Hunter is an insightful and wry teller of situations and makes it all worth the read. This book would never find a publisher in these TMZ days that crave “The Dirt.” No matter; a terrific read on the mundane nature of the road.
2. A Multitude of Sins by Hugh Cornwell (2009) I’m still trying to figure out how Cornwell, the singer/guitarist of the Stranglers, and Charlie Watts from the Stones hit it off. And why were Diana Ross and Gene Simmons backstage at a 1981 Strangers show at Bonds in New York? Cornwell’s memoir details such things, along with tales of drug enjoyment and later, addiction; the rise and fall of the Stranglers, and his witty take on his five weeks in jail on a drug charge. Cornwell is a bit of a renaissance man, a traveled, well-read gent who idolized Cliff Richard as a boy and grew up to nail down a couple acting roles and even record a solo album with Captain Beefheart’s drummer, Robert Williams. He includes some digs at his former Strangler mates, which reads as more fun that vituperative.
3. GoTell the Mountain: The Lyrics and Writings of Jeffrey Lee Pierce (1998) All things musical from Jeffrey Lee Pierce are strong, Gun Club, solo, collaboration, but this book is a great compliment, succeeding where, say Richard Hell's Hot and Cold failed.Pierce was rarely together enough to write anything past a few sentences, save for his poorly scribed pieces in Slash magazine, but this is a collection of journals and essays, with some bad fiction mixed in. The insight into Pierce’s creativity and lifestyle is worth getting through that bad fiction, and the collection of lyrics as an appendix serve as autobiographical as well. I’ve got a list of pages for quick referral to passages scribbled in the front cover of my copy; when I check them, most apparent is the poignancy of Pierce’s tellings.
4. Me, Alice by Alice Cooper and Steven Gaines (1976) – Just before the breakout of “I’m Eighteen,” Cooper in this book claims he and his then-girlfriend, Cindy, were selling Christmas trees on Jefferson Avenue in Detroit to help make ends meet. When I asked Alice about this in an interview last year, he made a stupid face and said “no, I don’t know where you heard that.” So Me, Alice may well be full of bullshit, but it’s pretty good bullshit. My first thought as I recently reread this book for the first time since it came out in 1976 was: “He names names,” right down to some of the groupies. No wonder this book has never been republished, despite Facebook pleas and Alice’s continued hold over the state fair/casino crowd. Most of it is the saga of a band on the brink of breaking, and thanks to some solid guidance by his co-author, the book succeeds.
5. Knight Moves by KJ Knight (2011) – The sleeper in the bunch, former Amboy Dukes drummer KJ Knight self-published this breezy reader with little fanfare and few sales. But Knight, a reformed petty thief and drug dealer, delivers a gossipy, name-dropping read with tales of living as Ted Nugent’s roommate, failing miserably an audition with Bob Seger, and the definitive version of the death of former Amboy singer Rusty Day, who was gunned down, along with his 12-year-old son, most likely over a rift between drug dealers. Knight was a player despite his lack of name recognition, the wise guy who got around and was smart enough to use his personality to enter some elite inner sanctums.