News that bohemian godmother Patti Smith won this year's National Book Award for non-fiction got me thinking about all the books I have read by or about musicians, and what they have meant to me.
While I haven't got around to reading "Just Kids," Smith's book about her early days in New York with her then boyfriend the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, I have definitely read an inordinate amount of books about popular music.
Musicians' outsized personalities, creative genius, cultural relevance and the fact they have the only job that lends itself to sustainable drug abuse and criminal activity make most music books a pretty safe bet when looking for an entertaining read.
Here are a list of my five favorite and if you have some favorites let me know about them.
"Miles: The Autobiography" by Miles Davis: This is probably my favorite book ever written by a musician. Miles Davis' curse-laden vernacular weaves tales of a man obsessed with his art. Everyone writes about women, but Davis book is the rare music autobiography that pays equal attention to the music and what went into making it. Also worth reading for the sheer abundance of f-bombs and all their creative uses.
"I Lived to Tell it All" by George Jones: The first half of this volatile country crooner's book has enough sex, drugs and rock n' roll to make your head spin... and then he discovers cocaine! From destroying Waylon Jennings house in a drunken rage, getting kidnapped by his small town police department at behest of his drug dealer and performing an entire set in the voice of a duck in a fit of cocaine psychosis Jones book proves that both kinds of white lightning are bad news.
"Please Kill Me" by Legs McNeil: This book got me in trouble in high school when my band started using it as a bible for how to live. This oral history of punk is filled with amazing stories from the bands that watched it all happen, but the one that sticks out is the time Lou Reed asked a groupie to eat his feces. Not my idea of a perfect day.
"Cash: The Autobiography" by Johnny Cash: I read this on a cross country flight once. It's a quick and easy read but also really revealing. Cash is this really thoughtful introspective dude and I think I got more out of him talking about his spiritual journey and his growth as a man than I did about all the musical stuff. His recollection of a suicide attempt by cave is the kind of thing that makes his sorrowful tunes ring all the more true.
"Lobotomy: Surviving the Ramones" by Dee Dee Ramone: At times this book reads like its writer had actually undergone a lobotomy, but his undeniable eccentricity makes Dee Dee's life a worthwhile tale. Whether writing about his ill-fated rap career, getting a gun pulled on him by Phil Spector or cooking cats over an open fire in his New York junky crash pad, Ramone proves good reading doesn't always depend on good writing.