Music Features

Best Rock Biographies

Don't put your faith in rock 'n' roll stars. They may dazzle you as peace campaigners or figureheads for noble causes, but they're not immune to self-delusion. Even the most saintly amongst them would become monumental pricks given the right amount of pharmaceuticals or flattery. And those are the "nice" ones. Fame (or its pursuit) can be devastating to the human spirit, turning Bible scholars into soulless screw-ups and working-class kids into dysfunctional freaks who'd snort the ashes of their loved ones. Then you have the fragile souls who don't make it through: the 27-year-old drug casualties, or the mental cases whose careers are derailed by stints in the funny farm. None of this is worth your dreams and aspirations, nothing to emulate unless you want to waste your precious time on earth. If you look up to to these people for inspiration, you'll actually find it in their love of music. This alone has given new purpose to humdrum lives and it's powerful enough to transform society from its fringes.

A musician finds himself through music, but capturing that on paper is no easy task. The challenge for a biographer is not to lose track of his subject in the sweep of chronological events. Therefore, there must be a point of view giving coherence to his narrative. There's no better example of this guideline than Nick Tosches' Hellfire, which remains the gold standard for rock bios since its publication in 1982. His account of Jerry Lee Lewis' trials and tribulations reads like a novel, finding in his subject a tormented man racked with guilt over his wild ways and sinful music, unable to rein them in. You've probably heard of Lewis' bigamous marriage to his 13-yeard-old cousin, his scrapes with the law and his addictions, but Tosches has a great deal more here than sordid tales. He devotes an equal amount of ink to his formation as a performer, which began as a young teen. Even then, both sides of his spirit were fighting for possession. At that point in time, Lewis would pray every day at his home-made altar then sneak into juke joints, where "he would hear the voices of men who had sold their souls to the devil, and he would watch the effect those voices had upon the men who drank and listened".

There's a glut of shallow biographies in the market. The ones that stand out have a considerable amount of research backing each page, which demands a detective's fact-finding zeal to sort out tons of documents and interviews. We find such passion in Peter Guralnick, who's written the definitive biographies of Elvis Presley and Sam Phillips. My main pick, however, is Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke (2005), considering the thorough research that went into Cooke's early years as a member of the Soul Stirrers, his struggles as a black artist and businessman, the consequences of his womanizing, and the events that led to his untimely death. Comparable in scope is Peter Ames Carlin's Catch A Wave: The Rise, Fall & Redemption of The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson (2006). The movie Love and Mercy only scratches the surface of Wilson's story. Carlin's biography digs deeper, providing an engaging read on the creation of Wilson's masterworks. Moreover, his account of Wilson's struggles to regain his mental health is profoundly moving. On his fraught relationship with his father, Carlin goes straight to the root of the problem, observing that Wilson "knew that music was the best, most reliable way to win his father's love, or at least a respite from his rage".

Biographers don't need to have a personal connection with their subjects, but it's certainly helpful in filling puzzling gaps and portraying the true person outside the limits of PR copy. Holly George-Warren, author of A Man Called Destruction (2014), met Alex Chilton at a low point in his life when he had abandoned music altogether and was making ends meet working as a dishwasher. Two years later, she sought out Chilton to produce her group's recordings, marking the beginning of their friendship. George-Warren tells Chilton's story with depth and empathy, not shying away from the dirty laundry but finding a vital key to his troubles in his dysfunctional family. Warren also analyzes Chilton's work from a musician's perspective, getting at the complexities of the man and the factual connections between his life and his songs.

There's no need to demystify the Replacements; they've taken care of it since their first days as a rowdy Minneapolis band. Bob Mehr's authoritative Trouble Boys (2016) provides the context behind it, stating that "they got as far as they did only because they hungered: for attention, for love, for sanction, for volume, for chaos". But Mehr doesn't stop there, throwing new light on the band's music, which was loose yet strongly tethered to the sophisticated playing of the Stinson brothers and the emotional nakedness of Paul Westerberg's songwriting. There's also a great deal of heart in Mehr's book, which begins with Bob Stinson's funeral. Stinson's childhood was a long nightmare of physical and sexual abuse, leaving him with emotional scars that never quite healed. Though tensions often mounted within the group, there was also a sense of brotherhood between the members and a loyalty that transcended Stinson's firing.

All these biographies are compelling because they broaden our perceptions about the musicians and the times they lived in. Even if they've been underappreciated of late, their influence on our musical culture can't be denied. What sets these artists apart from the current batch of pop whores is that they've known failure. Through hardships and tragedy, these people remained true to themselves and their music. Their shortcomings and thick-headed mistakes are in the realm of the human experience, yet there's something mysterious about the spark of inspiration that gave form to the songs. It connects us with the divine, and that's something worth writing about.