Rock Bios

Self-Portrait, DIA Chelsea, 2018

The Beautiful Ones by Prince 

Autobiography Music and Musicians 21st Century Cultural History

One part personal scrapbook, one part cultural history, The Beautiful Ones is Prince’s final “letter to the world.” Filled with handwritten notes, lyrics, and journal entries, Prince’s singular vision springs from the pages like a flight of doves. The Beautiful Ones begins with Dan Pipenbring’s moving introduction and then winds its way through Prince’s early life as the child of two musicians, his beginnings on the stages of Minneapolis, and his inevitable mega-stardom.  Every inch of this book is pure Prince: witty, naughty, melodic, and brilliantly, blisteringly cool. Even his handwriting, looping and elegant, is a sparkling work of art. 

Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge by Mark Yarm

BiographyMusic and Musicians – 20th Century Cultural History

Fans of Please Kill Me might like to fast forward twenty or so years to the start of the nineties when a sound that is often considered the wayward stepchild of punk began raging out from the basements and garages of the gloomy Northwest. Mark Yarm employs the model set forth by McNeil and McCain in their landmark oral history to tell the story of grunge. Comprised of almost 250 interviews conducted over twenty years that cover all the glory, gore, and greed that accompanied the movement. Everybody Loves Our Town is compulsively readable and deeply nostalgic.  

Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin by Alice Echols

BiographyMusic and Musicians 20th Century Cultural History

Alice Echols uses the life of Janis Joplin to illuminate the seismic cultural shift that took place between the late 1950s and early 1970s. Beginning with her conventional but lonely upbringing in Port Arthur, Texas, Scars of Sweet Paradise traces Joplin’s journey from a misunderstood school girl to a raucous genius of rock and blues all the way to her tragic end in a lonely hotel room and the legendary status she has maintained ever since. Echols gives us a vibrant and honest portrait of this one-of-a-kind artist. 

Non-Traditional Biographies

Mary Conlon and James McCusker

These Fevered Days by Martha Ackerman

When I first heard about Martha Ackerman’s new Dickinson biography, These Fevered Days, I was immediately intrigued by her specific view of how the poet’s life was shaped. Unlike other recent biographies of Dickinson that cover her entire life in relatively broad strokes, Ackerman focuses her lens on what she believes are the ten key moments that defined Dickinson as a poet. She makes convincing arguments for each of these ten life events and finds evidence in the poems to support her ideas.  I will not outline each of the ten moments here, but I will say that even if you have read all of the Dickinson biographies you could get your hands on, I feel confident that you will come away from These Fevered Days with a deeper understanding of Emily’s craft and her world. Ackerman writes in a style that is equal measure academic and poetic, which, as a scholar of English Literature, I admire, and wish was more commonly found in biographies.

David Bowie, A Life  by Dylan Jones

Dylan Jones (no relation to David) crafted his biography of David Bowie from the almost two hundred interviews he conducted with colleagues, friends, lovers, and artists who were intimately associated with the Thin White Duke. This oral history takes us from the childhood Bowie spent in the London suburb of Bromely all the way through to the final years of his life. The accounts shared by those interviewed are funny, tawdry, heartbreaking, and, at times, artistically inspiring. I found the sections on the making of Young Americans and Station to Station particularly fascinating regarding Bowie’s studio work ethic and collaborative spirit. In short, David Bowie, A Life paints a vivid portrait of a singular artist who lit up the world with some of rock and roll’s most breathtaking and transformative moments. 

Please Kill Me, Twentieth Anniversary Edition by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain

How does one corral a movement as unwieldy and nonconformist as punk into a definitive narrative? Well, one (or two, in this case) conducts a variety of candid interviews with nearly all the major players of the era and compiles them into an oral history so vibrant and raw, you can almost smell the smoke, sweat, and leather drifting off the pages. McNeil and McCain don’t hesitate to include all the gory details as interviewees describe Iggy Pop’s frequent mid-gig vomiting, Lou Reed’s colossal ego, and how Patti Smith convinced Bebe Buell to pose for Playboy. The narrative winds its way through the dregs of lower Manhattan to the clubs of Manchester and London to the basements of Ann Arbor, charting the course of punk’s wave as the ’70s seeped into the ’80s. The twentieth-anniversary edition contains a clever afterword by McNeil and McCain that outlines their definition of oral history. Please Kill Me, is at once an irresistibly filthy gossip rag and an important cultural document that makes for an exhilarating read.