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The 46 essential rock reads

essential rock reads

Do rock and books go together? That's a question we asked in August, and after a month's worth of posts on books and music, we think, well, duh. Here's our list of 46 essential rock reads, in alpha order by author. They'll rock your books off:

Michael Azerrad -- "Our Band Could Be Your Life"
Lester Bangs -- "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung"
Stanley Booth -- "The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones"
Cecil Brown -- "Stagolee Shot Billy"
Jim Carroll -- "The Basketball Diaries"
Rich Cohen -- "Machers and Rockers"
Nik Cohn and Guy Peellaert -- "Rock Dreams"
Stephen Davis -- "Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga"
Don Delillo -- "Great Jones Street"
Pamela Des Barres -- "I'm With the Band"
Bob Dylan -- "Tarantula"
Richard Farina -- "Been Down so Long It Looks Like up to Me"
Steven Gaines -- "Heroes and Villains: The True Story of the Beach Boys"
Albert Goldman -- "Elvis"
Marcus Gray -- "Return of the Last Gang in Town"
Johnny Green and Garry Barker -- "A Riot of Our Own"
Peter Guralnick -- "Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley"
David Hadju -- "Positively Fourth Street"
Billie Holiday -- "Lady Sings the Blues"
Nick Hornby -- "High Fidelity"
Denis Johnson -- "Jesus' Son"
Camden Joy -- "The Last Rock Star Book"
Chuck Klosterman -- "Fargo Rock City"
Zachary Lazar -- "Sway"
John Lennon and Jann Wenner -- "Lennon Remembers"
Lydia Lunch and Exene Cervenka -- "Adulterers Anonymous"
Johnny Lydon -- "Rotten"
Madonna -- "Sex"
Greil Marcus -- "Lipstick Traces"
William McKeen (ed.) -- "Rock N Roll Is Here to Stay"
Dennis McNally -- "A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead"
Legs McNeil -- "Please Kill Me"
Richard Meltzer -- "The Aesthetics of Rock"
Philip Norman -- "Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation"
Joe Pernice -- "Meat Is Murder"
Frank Portman -- "King Dork"
Simon Reynolds -- "Generation Ecstasy"
Henry Rollins -- "Get in the Van"
Jon Savage -- "England's Dreaming"
Rob Sheffield -- "Love Is a Mix Tape"
Patti Smith -- "Babel"
Norman Spinrad -- "Little Heroes"
Mark Spitz and Brendan Mullen -- "We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of LA Punk"
Neil Strauss and Motley Crüe -- "The Dirt: Confessions of the World's Most Notorious Rock Band"
Ellen Willis -- "Beginning to See the Light"
Crystal Zevon -- "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead"

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Bob Dylan. Credit: Sony BMG Music Entertainment

Comments () | Archives (34)

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Of course these lists are a matter of opinion, but how on earth you could possibly exclude Peter Guralnick's magisterial two volume biography of Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love, is beyond me. It is not only the best music biographies that I've ever read, but one of the best biographies of any kind.

I realize putting together lists like this are a near-impossible and thankless task, however... no "Mystery Train" by Greil Marcus?

That is simply an egregious omission.

Nice idea, nice collection, so thank you! But...

Any such list that includes "Tarantula" instead of "Chronicles" by Dylan has got to be just kidding.

Dylan's autobiography is so good they almost woke up and gave him a nobel prize after it was published... & as I recall the nytimes' critic, Janet Maslin, called it "ASTONISHING! "

And Ray Davies! WhyTF is Ray, "the poet laureate of England" (according to the WHO'S Peter T ) and author of the unauthorized autobiography of Ray Davies, not on the list????

R U deaf and dumb?

So finding two of the best authors of all time in RnR that you missed took twenty seconds; now imagine how many I could come up with in a day! Do we need to outsource this job to China, Carolyn?

i would include Bob Greene's WHEN WE GET TO SURF CITY.

albert goldman?? yeah, right. come on!! .....a hack writer with nothing, nothing but mean spirit; a total hatchet job!!!......what, you forgot to include the book he wrote on john lennon? that's great, too, right?

how about "mystery train" by g marcus? forgot that, huh.......or two books by charles r. cross- "roomful of mirrors" (jimi) or "heavier than heaven" (kurt) ..........they are wonderful. should have been included.

ditto about "chronicles".....when's bobby d. gonna get his nobel prize for lit?

Why 46? I suspect that's how many the writer could think of off the top of her head/bookshelf....

The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen, and the Head-on Collision of Rock and Commerce by Fred Goodman is an excellent mid-1990s look at how the business of rock was invented....

Dave Marsh's Before I Get Old: The Story of The Who is an essential Pete-centric look at the band's creative process...

...and as for Tarantula, that's for hardcore Dylan-ites only, too obscure for anyone else, even hardcore Dylan-ites

Wow, any true rock or pop culture aficionado has gotta appreciate the very notion of a list such as this! But you have missed the boat in overlooking so many titles. I'm also skeptical about several of your picks.

Please ADD to the list:

Miles: The Autobiography. Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe.

Woody Guthrie: Bound for Glory

Mystery Train: Greil Marcus

Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life, by Laurence Bergreen

But Beautiful, a book about Jazz-Geoff Dyer

Hit Men- Frederic Dannen

rhythm Oil-By Stanley Booth

The Dark Stuff-Nick Kent

Chuck Berry: The Autobiography

The Land Where the Blues Began--by Alan Lomax

Going to Chicago: A Year on the Chicago Blues Scene: Photos by Stephen Green

The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music-By Victor Wooten.


Albert Goldman? Heck yes! Kudos to sticking your neck out there for that one.

But please have some love for LET IT BLURT, Jim DeRogotis' biography of Lester Bangs, which is as good a chronicle of the late 70's punk scene as PLEASE KILL ME, with an added moral dimension -the story of a passionate man who loved music to the point of self-immolation.

Madonna -- "Sex"?


If "Please Kill Me" by Legs McNeil hadn't been included, I would have dismissed the whole list. "Love Is a Mixtape" is also a winner. Guralnick"s "Last Train to Memphis" is essential.

While Billie Holiday is an immortal, including "Lady Sings the Blues" is a stretch and a mistake.

How about "Searching For The Sound" by Phil Lesh?

Iggy rules.

"Reading about rock is like dancing about architecture" - ripped off from Pete

Alma Coogan by Gordon Burn

While not entirely surprised...I still question the absence of Ben Watson's "Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play." As many of the 40-original posted books, as I understand them, relate more to the social, as opposed to the musical, side within the "Rock Book" genre, the dedication of Watson's 700-page tome to solely the music of Frank Zappa is different. Admittedly, the book is not an easy read, either in the length or the breadth of his focus. However, like any well tended-to task, the enjoyment of its full-course cycle makes it worth the read. Highly recommended, but a fairly good appreciation or experience with Zappa's music helps.

X-Ray by Ray Davies would top my list. Where's No One Here Gets Out Alive?

Andy Summers: One Train Later

You have to add "Diary of a Rock'n'Roll Star" by Ian Hunter (Mott the Hoople), "Rock from the Beginning" by Nik Cohn, "The Beatles" by Hunter Davies", "The Beatles" by Bob Spitz and "Lobotomy" by Dee Dee Ramone.

No Nick Tosches?!!
"Country"... "Hellfire"... "Where Dead Voices Gather."

"Please Kill Me" should be credited to Gillian McCain as well. Nice list, I'd throw in "A Dysfunctional Success" by Eric Goulden.

I would have to add "Grit, Noise, and Revolution: The Birth of Detroit Rock n' Roll" by David A. Carson to that list.

There are about five Guralnick titles I'd put in this list before I included Goldman's hatchet job on John Lennon. And also Barney Hoskyns' and Levon Helm's Band books. And Star Making Machinery by Geoffrey Stokes. I think I'd put blank paper in before I put in Goldman's book.

"Shakey", (biography of Neil Young) by Jimmy McDonough

Where to begin? There are some real whoppers and incredible oversights here.

"Lipstick Traces" instead of "Mystery Train?" Please, stop. And no "Careless Love?" C'mon. (You might just want to add everything Peter Guralnick's ever written.)

As far as oversights:

Jonathan Gould, "Can't Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America"
Thomas Edward Shaw & Anita Klemke, "Black Monk Time"
Nick Tosches, "Hellfire" and "Country"
Ian Macdonald, "Revolution in the Head"
Robert Gordon, "It Came From Memphis"
Barney Hoskyns, "Waiting For the Sun"
Nik Cohn, "Rock From the Beginning"
Bob Dylan, "Chronicles Volume 1"
Michael Gray, "The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia"
Clinton Heylin, "From the Velvets to the Voidoids"
Ray Charles & David Ritz, "Brother Ray"

The list goes on...

the late ian macdonald's "revolution in the head"... almost as good as greil marcus' "mystery train"..

Chris Salewicz - Redemption Song The Ballad Of Joe Strummer

It's not always a pretty book but it's amazingly insightful and well written.

I think American Hardcore: A Tribal History by Stephen Blush was overlooked.

Also - Slash's autobiography was a pretty good read.

also: Dylan's "Chronicles, Vol. 1", Robert Greenfield's bio of Jerry Garcia "Dark

How about Levon Helm's "This Wheel's on Fire"? Contains the history of the Band, covers the rise of rock and roll from the 50's to the 70's, and, most importantly, is a fun read. And, while other readers have touched on this, all of Peter Guralnick's books are excellent.

In addition to the Nick Tosches and Fred Dannen omissions mentioned above, you ought not to overlook "I hate rock n roll" (the Generation of Vipers of rock) by Tony Tyler, and 1988 by Caroline Coon, absolutely the most essential book on UK punk, because it was written as it happened.

If you're going to include Billie Holliday as a rock book (love it, but WTF?) you cannot omit essential R&B tomes like Gerri Hirshey's Nowhere To Run, Robert Gordon's It Came From Memphis, James Brown's autobiography, Guralnick's Sweet Soul Music and probably others...

Oh, and just because Jim Carroll had a band once doesn't make Basketball Diaries a rock book. If it does, where's Richard Farina's "Been Down So Long?"

While I'm not surprised by your omission of By the Time We Got to Woodstock: The Great Rock Revolution of 1969 by Bruce Pollock (since it doesn't come out until 9/15), I am delighted to be among the prestigious company of the un-included.

Bruce Pollock

I cannot imagine why you excluded Albert Goldman's fascinating and well Researched book on John Lennon, entitled The Lives Of John Lennon. Its far superior to his book on Elvis.

-White Bicycles - Making Music in the 1960s -the memoir of music producer Joe Boyd.

-Waking up in Iceland- Paul Sullivan

-Girls Like Us:Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon--and the Journey of a Generation. Sheila Weller

-Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock And Out
by Bill Graham, Robert Greenfield

What about the "bible" of all of the Hendrix books: "Jimi Hendrix: Electric Gypsy"; By: Caesar Glebbeek -&- Henry Shapiro ?

Al Kooper - Backstagepasses & backstabbing basterds


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