Rockstar Life: 6 Music Memoirs for Big Fans and Curious Observers

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Memoirs have been a staple of rock music books for decades, but after the best-selling success of Patti Smith’s Just Kids and Keith Richards’s Life in 2010, the trickle’s become a deluge. This fall sees several tell-alls from superstars, cult icons, ex-wives and virtual unknowns. Their tales span surf music, psychedelia, punk, glam, indie and more, often within the same volume. No matter what your taste, the choice is wide, with enough spilled beans to satisfy both nerdy collectors and celebrity gossip hounds.

'I am Brian Wilson: A Memoir' by Brian Wilson
'I am Brian Wilson: A Memoir' by Brian Wilson

I Am Brian Wilson: A Memoir

by Brian Wilson with Ben Greenman
320 pages, Publication date: Oct. 11

Instead of sequencing his story chronologically, the driving force behind the Beach Boys jumps back and forth between different episodes from birth to the present. It’s a bit like reading a lengthy blog, giving about as much weight to his 2010 album of Gershwin covers as the 1966 classic Pet Sounds. Fortunately it does cover most of his and the Beach Boys’ albums, most of their famous songs (and many of their un-famous/infamous ones), and many of his major problems with his father, family, manipulative psychiatrist-of-sorts Eugene Landy, and mental illness. It’s highly readable and, at least for those who haven’t scoured other sources of details about the Beach Boys’ career, very informative. Such was the detached tone, however, that I sometimes felt like Wilson was an observer of, rather than a participant, in his own life.

'Good Vibrations: My Life As A Beach Boy' by Mike Love
'Good Vibrations: My Life As A Beach Boy' by Mike Love

Good Vibrations: My Life As a Beach Boy

by Mike Love with James S. Hirsch
446 pages, Publication date: Sept. 13

The Beach Boys’ lead singer has been accused by some fans and critics of hindering the band’s artistic evolution, and specifically of sinking Brian Wilson’s unreleased-at-the-time Pet Sounds follow-up Smile by objecting to its avant-gardism. At times his book reads like a defensive rebuttal to those charges, but more often it’s a straightforward, unexpectedly humble account of the band’s oft-thrilling journey from garage surf music to classic orchestrated pop-rock and, in Love’s case, immersion in transcendental meditation. The volatile conflicts within the band (especially between Love and drummer Dennis Wilson) are not ignored, and considerable space is devoted to his struggles to win songwriting credits for many 1960s Beach Boys songs he recalls helping compose (in great detail). No matter what side you favor in such disputes, this is above-average for a rock star memoir that, to my surprise, I’d recommend above Brian Wilson’s for an overall look at the group’s history.

'Surf City: The Jan & Dean Story' By Dean Torrence
'Surf City: The Jan & Dean Story'
By Dean Torrence

Surf City: The Jan & Dean Story

by Dean Torrence
228 pages, Publication date: Sept. 13

If you want a surf saga less contentious than the Beach Boys’ melodrama, Torrence’s tale is a likable, breezy ride through the career of Jan & Dean, the ‘60s’ second-most-popular surf’n’hot rod act. It’s a throwback to a more innocent time when two West L.A. teenagers could, by pluck and luck (specifically when Brian Wilson gave them a half-completed smash hit called “Surf City”), insert themselves into the city’s infant rock industry and become rock stars. It wasn’t as innocent as it seemed — Dean’s partner Jan Berry helped push their first single onto the chart by shoplifting copies from a store vital to industry surveys. Alas, the good times ended with a literal crash when Berry suffered brain damage in a horrific 1966 car accident. Although Torrence landed on his feet as a Grammy-winning graphic artist, his struggles to keep Jan in line on their reunion tours end the autobiography on a down note.

'Perfect Day: An Intimate Portrait of Life with Lou Reed' By Bettye Kronstad
'Perfect Day: An Intimate Portrait of Life with Lou Reed' By Bettye Kronstad

Perfect Day: An Intimate Portrait of Life with Lou Reed

by Bettye Kronstad
288 pages, Publication date: Nov. 8

Life was unexpectedly perfect, or at least good, with Reed in the early 1970s, according to Kronstad, his girlfriend of the era (and, briefly, first wife). Getting seriously involved with the notorious singer-songwriter just after the Velvet Underground split, she found not a crazed wildman, but a sensitive poet who was getting back on his feet by moving back in with his parents in the suburbs of Long Island. The good times didn’t last, as Lou went back to abusing drugs and, unfortunately, psychologically attacking Kronstad, who left after one outburst too many in the middle of a 1973 European tour. Her detailed memories of her years by Reed’s side can make for sad, and at times, enervating reading as Lou’s attacks erode her self-worth. But a (mostly) good day with him in Central Park did serve as the inspiration for his song “Perfect Day.” Her recollections of that experience — along, less flatteringly, with how Lou used some of Kronstad’s stormy family history as the basis for his 1973 album Berlin — in themselves make this worth perusing for Reed fanatics.

'The Rise, The Fall, and The Rise' by Brix Smith Start
'The Rise, The Fall, and The Rise' by Brix Smith Start

The Rise, The Fall, and The Rise

By Brix Smith Start
480 pages, Publication date: July 12

As guitarist in long-lived British punk band the Fall, Brix Smith got to see manic Fall mainman Mark E. Smith up close and personal, especially as she was married to him for about half the 1980s during her first stint in the group. It’s another tale of near-idyllic romance — a whirlwind that saw Brix moving into his Manchester flat within weeks after she saw the Fall for the first time in Chicago — that quickly soured amidst Mark’s drugs, infidelity and mental cruelty. The book isn’t just for Fall fans, however, as it also documents Brix’s stranger-than-fiction path from a privileged L.A. childhood to the heart of the British underground rock scene, as well as a lengthy subsequent relationship with top classical violinist Nigel Kennedy. Smith writes with penetrating-if-occasionally-rambling insight, never more so when stating, “It seemed to me that the deterioration of our relationship was reflected in my dwindling songwriting credits.”

'Swim Through the Darkness: My Search for Craig Smith and the Mystery of Maitreya Kali' by Mike Stax
'Swim Through the Darkness: My Search for Craig Smith and the Mystery of Maitreya Kali'
by Mike Stax

Swim Through the Darkness: My Search for Craig Smith and the Mystery of Maitreya Kali

by Mike Stax
240 pages, Publication date: Sept. 20

Not technically a memoir, but as close as we’re going to get after the death of the subject. This is a stupendously thorough examination of an All-American guy who seemed to have it all, only to have it all go down the tubes. Talented ‘60s folk-rock singer-songwriter Craig Smith made the unlikely transition from wholesome Andy Williams backup musician to Mike Nesmith-produced band the Penny Arkade, leaving for the "hippie trail" when the group failed to find a deal. When he returned from Asia at the end of the 1960s, he’d descended into mental illness and began recording eccentric-but-beguiling solo folk-rock LPs before serving time for assaulting his mother and enduring several decades of homelessness. Mike Stax unearthed a startling (and oft-disturbing) wealth of info considering Smith’s records were largely unreleased or unheard, though Craig crossed paths with everyone from the Monkees to Manson (and Brian Wilson and Mike Love, for that matter). It’s the dark side of the California dream that vaulted the likes of the Beach Boys and Monkees to worldwide fame, but left nearly-as-talented musicians like Smith (who died in his sleeping bag in North Hollywood Park in 2012) in the literal gutter.

Other major fall memoirs of note will include Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run (Simon & Schuster, Sept. 27), whose 528 pages have already attracted press for detailing decades of struggle with depression'; and Robbie Robertson’s almost equally lengthy Testimony (Crown Archetype, Nov. 15), much of which will tell the story of the Band from the guitarist-songwriter’s perspective.

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