Rock stars have been writing autobiographies for years — Ian Hunter published his classic, Diary of a Rock n Roll Star, way back in 1974, at Mott the Hoople’s height — but ever since 2010, when Keith Richards’s Life turned into an unexpected blockbuster and Patti Smith’s Just Kids took home the National Book Award, a steady stream of pop memoirs has turned into a deluge practically every season. This fall saw the release of a weighty homage to influence from Elvis Costello, a precise volume from Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein, a meditative sequel to Smith’s award-winner, and tell-alls from John Fogerty, Chrissie Hynde, and Grace Jones. Apart from Smith, who chronicles her life more recently, each of these authors offers some version of an origin story alongside bold, headline-grabbing tales (Hynde and Jones lead the pack there) and anecdotes that, while not as shocking, should be of interest to fans. We spent the season so far binge-reading these six, highlighting the most fascinating tidbits along the way.
Grace Jones: I’ll Never Write My Memoirs
The Book: An elegantly assembled “as told to” memoir — the writer in question is Paul Morley — I’ll Never Write My Memoirs unmistakably feels like Grace Jones: told with bold flair and little concern for smaller details. It’s not so much that Jones values style over substance but finds substance within style, and that’s the case with her autobiography. She trades in gossip and confrontation instead of confession, so this is a beach read for all seasons, one fueled by boasts and dish.
Surprises: Considering Jones’s penchant for gossip, I’ll Never Write My Memoirs is littered with revelations both major and minor. She’ll toss aside a sensation story (“I lived as a nudist for one month in Philly — 1967 or ‘68 or ‘69, whenever it was — and it was a good summer to sit naked,” she recounts apropos of nothing) and recall missed opportunities. Long before fame came, she flailed at an early singing audition for Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, not knowing the producers were the masterminds behind the powerhouse soul label Philadelphia International. Once her profile started to rise, Jones lost the part of the Acid Queen in Ken Russell’s adaptation of Tommy to Tina Turner, but she chose not to star in Blade Runner because friend and collaborator Jean-Paul Goude advised against it, partially due to bad blood between him and the film’s director, Ridley Scott. This animosity is nothing compared to Grace Jones’s retort to modeling impresario Johnny Casablancas, who told her, “Well, to be honest, selling a black model in Paris is like trying to sell them an old car nobody wants to buy,” to which she responded, “I’m going to make you EAT THOSE WORDS! AND I HOPE YOU DIE OF CIRRHOSIS OF THE LIVER!!!”
Later, Jones was on the receiving end of a rant when she attempted to wake up Keith Richards, the husband of her old modeling friend Patti Hansen. Passed out in his home in Jamaica, Keith comes to and realizes who is in front of him, shouting, “Grace Jones! You should not be here! Get out of here! You had your day! Your time was up a long time ago!” Keith may have been attempting to exorcise the ghost of disco, but those glory days provide the snappiest section of the book, culminating in a chapter devoted to her friend Andy Warhol, who not only adored Grace’s steely charisma — he thought it was most effective when she played the villain May Day in Bond flick A View to a Kill — but would grill her about the particulars of her love life. “Andy would ring up wanting to know how big Dolph [Lundgren]’s dick was,” and, tellingly, Jones never reveals to either Warhol or the readers. Some secrets are best left untold.
Carrie Brownstein: Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl
The Book: At just over 250 pages, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is short, but a better way to view this memoir from the Sleater-Kinney guitarist is that it’s concentrated: It deals with her childhood, immersion in the Northwest punk scene of the ‘90s, and subsequent fame via Sleater-Kinney. Though it moves along at a quick clip, Hunger paints a vivid portrait not only of Brownstein’s life but of the intertwined punk houses, safe spaces, and radical politics of Olympia and Portland, where Brownstein discovered herself.
Surprises: Brownstein’s origin story contains its share of pain, particularly concerning her mother’s anorexia and her father’s coming out, but she tells some of her earliest memories with a wry sense of humor. There’s no small self-awareness when she remembers how she wanted to wear her mom’s wedding dress to Madonna’s Seattle stop on the Like a Virgin Tour; she was told by both parents that it was “inappropriate.” Like any child of the ‘80s, she couldn’t resist the clarion call of hair metal: She entered her “elementary school talent show as a dancer accompanying a band of sixth-graders playing Ratt’s ‘Round and Round.”’ Once she got into high school, Brownstein often threw role-playing murder-mystery parties; her passion for costumes can’t help but foreshadow Portlandia, which is largely absent from this memoir.
Instead of devoting space for the star-making sketch-comedy, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl focuses almost entirely on Sleater-Kinney. Although there was plenty of press during the band’s heyday, there are small, telling details here that were not covered at the time. One of these involves the personal blowback from a 1997 Spin feature that outed both Brownstein and Corin Tucker, revealing their romance at a time when neither guitarist’s family knew of their relationship. Carrie also found it difficult to navigate her punk ideals with the band’s increasing profile. After Call the Doctor, Sleater-Kinnney came close to signing with Matador, but Brownstein may have sabotaged the deal by showing up 45 minutes late to the crucial meeting — she needed the time to eat a bread bowl of soup. Once she was there, she sulked through the remainder of the meeting. There were some behind-the-scenes tensions — Roger Moutenot, who produced The Hot Rock, treated Tucker like the star of S-K, something that rankled Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss — which escalated on the supporting tour for 2005’s The Woods.
While Brownstein takes full credit for instigating the band’s breakup, she also finds space for funnier anecdotes, one of the best coming from the 2000 tour where the White Stripes were support. After a gig at Oberlin, Carrie, Janet, Jack, and Meg all rode out to a party on campus, but far from being treated like conquering rock gods, they were greeted by two guys who refused to let the stars into the party — evidence that life on the road is rarely as glamorous as it seems.
Elvis Costello: Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink
The Book: If there ever was a rocker whose autobiography was inevitable, it was Elvis Costello. He etched out his story before in two different sets of CD liner notes, which turn out to be a dry run for Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, a 688-page tome that tops Keith’s doorstop by 110 pages. Elvis does recycle portions of these liners in Unfaithful Music, stitching lyrics, unpublished short stories, and anecdotes together in a nonlinear pattern to create a tapestry of common threads rather than a dogged march through his own history. Ultimately, Elvis’s focus is on family. His father Ross MacManus died in 2011 after a long battle with Parkinson’s, so he devotes a considerable amount of his memoir tracing the history of his dad, noting Ross’s musical omnivorousness, showmanship, and penchant for stage names — all things the man born Declan MacManus inherited.
Surprises: One of the chief pleasures of Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink is Costello’s penchant to drop names either as historical context or as humblebrags, telling quick stories that would provide an anchor in another author’s book. These date back to his childhood, when his father played the same Royal Command Performance as the Beatles in 1963, an event where John Lennon notoriously told the audience to “rattle their jewelry.” He brought his son an autograph of all four Fabs and the young Elvis carefully cut each signature out so it’d fit in his scrapbook, thereby ruining whatever value the paper possessed. Costello would compensate for this disrespect years later by collaborating with Paul McCartney, when — despite his lifelong love of the man — Elvis remained unintimidated after the Beatle encouraged him to incorporate “some strange, synthetic sound from a recent Human League record.”
This sly passing reference to the Human League illustrates the depths of Costello’s pop knowledge. While he throws an occasional curveball — like citing Cheap Trick as “the missing piece in our private hit parade” — it comes as only a minor surprise that his love of music is so all-consuming that he missed his son’s birth so he could attend a Little Feat concert. His fire did not wane after he became a star himself: During the mid-’80s, he lived in the same neighborhood as Van Morrison, often conspiring to time his morning walk to coincide with Van’s. In a book bursting with fan passion, it’s fitting that Costello wound up on the receiving end of a fan’s derision. Staying in a Holiday Inn in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1983 — just after “Everyday I Write the Book” gave him his biggest hit to date in the U.S. — Costello is mistaken for Billy Joel by a local who takes umbrage to “Allentown.” “You see, we don’t like Billy Joel around here because of that song he wrote, and you look like Billy Joel to me.” Elvis Costello getting beat up because someone thought he was Billy Joel: Now, that would be a story worthy of the tell-all Unfaithful Music is not.
Chrissie Hynde: Reckless Life
The Book: Halfway through Reckless Life, Chrissie Hynde begs off the notion that she was ever a rock journalist, claiming that her bylines at NME were just one of many hustles as she tried to survive as she attempted to form a band. Hynde nevertheless has verbal facility that she marshals into a striking style when the occasion moves her, which gives Reckless Life flavor even as it leisurely dispenses anecdotes of Hynde’s time as a wannabe rock star. One of Hynde’s great skills is revitalizing old rock clichés, and so it is here, at least to an extent. She can’t resist old, hoary rock clichés, but since she still gets a kick out of them, it can be infectious until it suddenly turns embarrassing.
Surprises: Often Reckless Life plays like the story of classic rock as seen through the prism of Chrissie Hynde. She loved the music so much, she had to get as close to it as possible — an impulse that later led her to pick up a guitar, but first it led her to tons of shows. As a teenager, Chrissie Hynde and her friend Cindy blagged their way into a backstage soirée with Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood, then playing with the Jeff Beck Group. Rod and Ronnie happily indulged in the dope offered to them, but they knew they were playing with fire, so they kept their distance from their young fans. Jeff Beck, however, took advantage. While Rod and Ronnie partied with Chrissie and Cindy, Beck snagged the keys to Cindy’s Corvette, “tearing up the expressways of northeastern Ohio.” Like any good rust-belter, cars and rockers were a big deal for Hynde. Several years later, when she was a little bit older and wiser, she attended a David Bowie show and wound up entertaining him after the gig. Hungry, Bowie implores his fan to take him to some food, so she winds up chauffeuring Ziggy Stardust around Cleveland in search of dinner. As she reveals in the book, the only time Hynde actually slept with a rock star was when she was a rock star herself. Just as the Pretenders’$2 1980 debut started to rise, Hynde consummated her love of Iggy Pop with a night of debauchery. Waking up the morning after, she pieces together their night, remembering most distinctly that it culminated in a drunken version of “Louie Louie.”
Once Hynde settled in London, she wound up within the nascent punk scene, always operating on the edges but never finding the right band. She played in an early version of the Damned, gave the Clash’s Mick Jones a signature Keith Richards haircut, was friends with Sid Vicious, and made a lifelong confidant in Lemmy — but she never had a record out, partially due to her stubborn decision to be in a band, not a solo star. Eventually, she stumbled upon guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, and things quickly fell into place. With two deaths in the band, the Pretenders’ original lineup ended in tears, but Hynde spends more time on the pranks: James Honeyman-Scott loudly cut a fart the second prior to photo on the cover of The Pretenders was shot, so if you’re curious where that punk attitude came from, well, it’s an unexpected source.
John Fogerty: Fortunate Son
The Book: Written with assistance by Jimmy McDonough — the author of Shakey, the unofficial Neil Young biography — Fortunate Son is a fairly conventional as-told-to memoir. Thanks to its faux conversational tone, the book never seems written — but it also never seems like an interview. Rather, it’s your neighbor John telling his tale, never shying away away from painful events — of which Fogerty had more than his fair share, beginning with a distant mother and running through never-ending battles with his Creedence Clearwater Revival Band bandmates. He ties it all together with a jovial bow because, at its core, this a redemption story — one so overly saccharine, it can’t help but remind our narrator of a Disney film.
Surprises: Coming from someone known for his crankiness, that fondness for fairy tales is something of a shock. Fogerty often compares his romance with his wife Julie to Cinderella, a story so meaningful to him, he cries not only at the animated original but immediately sobs at the recent live-action remake. Julie often makes John shed his roots-rocker flannel: The first night they met, he was so smitten, he drunkenly boogied to Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.”
Most of the book traces his long-standing animosity with both his Creedence bandmates and Saul Zaentz, the head of CCR’s record label, Fantasy. Given that Zaentz famously sued Fogerty for plagiarizing himself — John alleges it was on the instigation of bassist Stu Cook — such bad blood is perhaps understandable, but the depth and persistence are remarkable. Early on, Fogerty erased all CCR outtakes so Fantasy couldn’t issue them without his permission. The CCR leader also appears to think he was justified in not only shaving seconds off of a Doug Clifford rhythm track, but in dumping the remnants at the drummer’s doorstep, boasting, “Here’s your drum track!” No wonder Fogerty thinks the version of said song, “Someday Never Comes,” he cut with Dawes on recent collabs collections Wrote a Song for Everyone actually surpasses the Creedence original — he actually enjoyed playing with that band.
Patti Smith: M Train
The Book: A sequel of sorts to Just Kids, a book that chronicled the author as a young artist, M Train concentrates on a recent spell in Patti Smith’s life, one where she spent days at a local café drinking coffee, writing, and reflecting. Most of M Train revolves around the pleasure of a local café, a public place to be private, and that sentiment is at the heart of this book: She’s revealing not gossip but rather her internal thought process, a decision that feels more intimate than the open airing of past grievances.
Surprises: Smith so cherishes her local café that when the owner decides to relocate to Rockaway Beach early in the 2010s, she she ponies up cash so he can set up shop there and subsequently falls in love with the location, choosing to purchase a fixer-upper there herself. The café was eventually blown away in Hurricane Sandy, but its loss is mitigated, however slightly, by the survival of Smith’s ramshackle house, a property purchased in a flush of passion that proves to be something of an anchor in a sweetly aimless period of Smith’s life.
Occasionally, Smith dips back into her relationship with Fred “Sonic” Smith, remembering the moments when the pair took advantage of everything Michigan had to offer, from dive bars in Detroit to beaches on the upper edge of the lower peninsula. Brief as they may be, these snapshot reflections of mundane activities — painting a bedroom, restoring a boat, learning how to love baseball — feel delicately revealing.
But perhaps the biggest surprise of M Train is Smith’s deep, personal connection with detective shows. She voraciously binges on high-quality mysteries — there’s an offhand reference to Law & Order: Criminal Intent’s Goren and Eames, she’s thrilled when she shares the same hotel with Robbie Coltrane of Cracker — but nothing moves her as much as the desolate procedural The Killing. Where some TV critics dismissed the show after the first seasons, Smith responds to the program, particularly the plight of Sarah Linden in the third season, when she’s forced to confront the unpleasant fact that her love is a murderer. Smith’s depiction of this moral heartbreak doesn’t merely recount the facts, it evokes the show’s despair and thereby unintentionally illustrates how shallow episode-by-episode recaps can be (not ours, of course).