A good musical autobiography is a sweet deal for pretty much all parties involved. When musicians write about their lives and times, fans get answers to the questions they swore they’d ask if they ever had the chance to meet their hero. Publishers get a decent shot at earning a best seller, and the authors get to do the one thing all true artists love most, next to their craft — they get to talk about themselves.
Most musicians’ autobiographies follow similar arcs: first they were broke, then they worked hard, then they hit it big, and got rich. But the best, most interesting autobiographies buck that tradition, and travel through more than just the artist’s own timeline. These five music autobiographies afford the reader context for the music, and thoughtful stories reflective of the worlds they were written in.
5. Take It Like a Man by Boy George
Take It Like a Man is fascinating; the prose in which it’s written in completely defies what readers have come to expect from an autobiography. There’s really no hero story here. There’s no redeemable or even all that likable protagonist to root for — and that’s what makes this book so enthralling. While exploring themes of masculinity, drug addiction, and unabashed deviance, this book tells the sordid tale of a man more concerned with being honest than being liked — a rare quality for autobiographies.
4. The Autobiography by Chuck Berry
The Autobiography of Chuck Berry reads like a definitive account of American history. As early as the sixties, Chuck Berry — a black man — was considered a “musician’s musician,” during a time in which African-Americans were yet to be afforded civil rights, let alone respect and reverence. As a result of these circumstances, despite his brilliance, Berry found himself in a jail cell, but with a spirit so unbound he penned the famously ironic song, “Promise Land” — a joyful and spirited ode to the wonders of America.
3. Journals by Kurt Cobain
Perhaps the most unconventional autobiography on the list, Journals is a posthumously constructed exhibit of Kurt Cobain’s life, told through a collection of the rock icon’s personal writings and drawings. As described by Seattle Weekly upon its release, this book reads like “an exploded diagram of a tormented soul.” Kurt Cobain’s account of his life has to be the rawest autobiography ever written, considering it was never meant to be one.
2. Moonage Daydream: The Life and Times of Ziggy Stardust by David Bowie
Maybe aside from our top pick (be patient), Moonage Daydream is definitely the best looking book on this list. If you’re not that interested in the life of David Bowie (well, you’re weird) this autobiography serves just as well as a coffee-table book. Filled with rich and vibrant images, all captured by photographer Mick Rock, this book brings Bowie’s witty and humorous blurbs of text to life — it’s basically a hard copy of a Tumblr page, had Bowie ever made one.
1. Decoded by Jay Z
Much like Berry’s, Jay Z’s autobiography feels essential to American history. Using annotated verses from his music, telling stories of his own and of others, Decoded thoroughly depicts the socio-economic conditions under which Hip-Hop was created. It’s a case study of rap music, conducted by one of the world’s greatest rappers. While it’s a wonderful read for any rap fan, this book’s greatest feat is that it serves as an educational text for those who aren’t fans of the genre. Between the beautifully curated images and the powerfully written passages, the contents of this book perfectly capture (and decode) the world’s most complex artform.
The Beautiful Ones by Prince
Image courtesy of US Weekly
Although much has been written about Prince, fans rejoiced in March of 2016 when the famously enigmatic rock legend announced he’d been working on a memoir entitled The Beautiful Ones. While we never got to read it, one could only assume that Prince’s autobiography would contain the wisdom of Chuck Berry’s, along with the visual brilliance of Moonage Dream, the irreverence of Take it like a Man, the encyclopedic knowledge of Decoded, and the sentimental value of Journals — and so much more.
Featured image courtesy of Electric Literature.