Distance and years can soften the edges enough for people to speak honestly about what was going on backstage, so sometimes it takes a few decades for the best stories to surface. Whether it’s a hungry author digging for the truth or an artist who finally wants to get their side of the story out there, these books put you in the minds of the people who were there. If you’ve read something you think belongs on this list, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s impossible not to put at the top of the list. While the Nobel committee probably went too far when they gave him the prize for literature, this book rises above the rock memoir label into the realm of literature. If you haven’t read Bob Dylan’s Chronicles yet do yourself a favor, just remember to savor it because you only get one first time!
There aren’t many settings in rock history more romantic than the Hotel Chelsea in the late 60s. Lucky for us, Patti Smith has given us a window into that world. Not only that, but it includes a front row seat for one of the most tragic and beautiful romances of a generation AND the beginnings of the punk rock movement. Just Kids exists in at the intersection of all kinds of wonderful. Oh, and it got the National Book award, so y’know, the writing probably isn’t bad either…
If you’re a fan of R.E.M., Sonic Youth, Fugazi, The Replacements, or Husker Dü you need to put down whatever you’re reading right this second and pick up this book. If you’re a Nirvana or Pearl Jam fan you need to read this to understand the history that made their success possible. If neither of the previous sentences apply to you, you are the person MOST in need of this book. Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life chronicles a decade in the underground indie scene during the Reagan years. Pick any contemporary band and chances are high that they’ll cite one of the bands mentioned in this book as one of their big influences. It’s hard to overstate how thoroughly this movement shaped contemporary American culture. Be careful though–it may make you want to go find a mosh pit and/or start a band of your own.
Come for the story of how soul music grew out of the post-war gospel choirs, stay for the unimaginable scenes you never knew existed. One such example: during this period in the south, black musicians toured in a single revue that moved through the smaller music venues. (Those venues tended to serve chitlins, hence the tour was dubbed “the chitlin’ circuit). Practically this means, if you were in the south in the 1950s you could have gone to ONE show and seen Sam Cooke, James Brown, Solomon Burke, and Jackie Wilson play one after the other, trying to outdo each other. Peter Guralnick’s Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke is loaded with surprises like that, once you taste of a few of these nuggets you’ll wonder how you ever lived without them. Incidentally, we challenge you to try and read this book without listening to Sam Cooke’s live album One Night Stand more than 20 times.