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Rock of Pages: Andrew Donaldson Reviews Musicians’ Biographies

By Andrew Donaldson for the Sunday Times

Andrew Donaldson reviews the best books on the musical greats who have provided the soundtracks to our lives

You can blame Keith Richards. The success of his acclaimed 2010 memoir, Life – which in turn had followed fellow Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood’s equally scandal-steeped autobiography, Ronnie – ushered in a purple patch in lengthy books by and about the golden rock gods of the ’60s and ’70s.

Both Life and Ronnie were wildly entertaining, crammed with anecdotes of bad behaviour that bordered on libel and shored up louche reputations. And they revitalised album sales, too; like the best music writing, they sent younger readers not only back to a time when rock still held the promise of changing lives, but to the songs themselves.

True, a clutter of ghost-written, self-aggrandising piffle has come with the boom.

But thankfully a number of new rock titles do pass muster and any self-respecting music fan would want them stuffing his stocking come Christmas morning.

Neil Young’s kaleidoscopic, disarmingly ramshackle memoir, Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream (Viking, R231), is at turns mordantly hilarious and touchingly poignant. The rock’s all there, the drugs and downers and bummers, but it’s Young’s personal philosophy, his musings on creativity and his family life, particularly the troubled health of his children, that make this such a moving and honest book.

Somewhat in stark contrast to his on-stage guitar-wrecking style, Pete Townshend’s Who I Am (HarperCollins, R231) is a measured, if uncomfortable treatise on the folly of ambition and the rock dream soured. Fearlessly critical of his own failings, The Who guitarist describes juggling a marriage with his compulsion to auto-destruct. There’s some painfully personal stuff, too, on a wretched childhood.

A few books on Mick Jagger appeared in the wake of Life – some of them attempting to address the numerous slurs which Richards directed at the Stones frontman – but the one to watch out for is Philip Norman’s doorstopper, Mick Jagger (HarperCollins, R398). Richly detailed and authoritative, it’s a hugely readable account of a complex, if sometimes unlikeable, rock star.

Sylvie Simmons’s I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (Jonathan Cape, R257) is an astute and accomplished portrait of the poet and songwriter. It was a brave undertaking, and in a lesser writer’s hands the results would have been dire. Simmons, however, not only has a deep understanding of Cohen, but, as the New York Times put it, she is “an uncommonly valuable interpreter of his music”. It is the biography that Cohen deserves.

Thanks to its subject’s cooperation and contributions, Peter Ames Carlin’s Bruce Springsteen biography, Bruce (Simon & Schuster, R241) is a dense, richly detailed account. Thankfully, it does not shy from the shabbier, less appealing aspects of this enduring American idol’s life, and this is a roots-to-riches journey bumpier than most.

Talking of life’s ups and downs, Bettye LaVette’s gripping A Woman Like Me (Blue Rider Press, R354), co-written with David Ritz, packs a dramatic, sex- and drug-fuelled punch. She began her career as a Detroit R&B singer 50 years ago, but hit the skids hard. (The book opens with her being dangled out a window by a pimp threatening to drop her.) She had a remarkable comeback in recent years, and her book is as raw and uplifting as the blues itself.

RJ Smith’s important and illuminating The One: The Life and Music of James Brown (Gotham) is another terrific, unflinching portrait of a complicated figure. Nothing came easy for Brown. He was born dirt poor in a deeply divided, racist society and wound up in juvenile correction before he began to sing and go on to become a star and a pivotal figure in the civil rights movement. With the hard-earned success, though, came failed marriages, drug abuse, prison time, emotional abuse of band members and an extraordinary appetite for recklessness.

This year’s must-have critical analysis on Dylan – and there are batches and batches of them each year – is Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan, by Ian Bell (Mainstream Publishing, R338), which sets its subject in his entire context – musical, historical, political, literary and personal. It’s extremely highbrow and sophisticated in its assumptions of Dylan’s influence on the culture of the 1960s. It only covers the singer’s output up to age 34 but a second volume is promised.

Barney Hoskyns’s highly readable Trampled Under Foot: The Power and Excess of Led Zeppelin (Faber and Faber, R215) is a fresh retelling, warts and all, with scores of unheard voices in a thoroughly compiled oral history of an extraordinary group.

Tony Fletcher does more or less the same thing with A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of The Smiths (William Heinemann, R215). It’s quite extraordinary that the legacy of a group that was only around for five years in the 1980s could be celebrated – rightly so – with a book of such ambition and length (700-odd pages). It takes in everything about the group and their influences, moving from 19th-century Manchester to the present.

Another Manchester group is celebrated in Peter Hook’s Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division (Andrews McMeel). Hook was their bassist, and his mission here is to relate what it was like before the band’s two albums and the suicide of singer Ian Curtis catapulted Joy Division into the stuff of mythology. It’s an honest, bittersweet and unaffected account.

Into coffee table territory, then. Marking the half-centenary, The Rolling Stones 50, by Jagger, Richards, Charlie Watts and Wood (Thames & Hudson, R489) is mostly devoted to the first half of the band’s career – and what a half that was, too, particularly the first 10 years – before settling down to the corporate-era Stones.

Miles Davis: The Complete Illustrated History (Voyageur Press) may not be as definitive as earlier biographies, or as entertaining as the trumpeter’s autobiography, but damn, it looks good, crammed with rare photographs and contemporary illustrations. It’s a class act.

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