BIOGRAPHIES | Rock ’n’ roll legends

Rock legends tell their stories in slew of new biographies

Updated: 2012-10-26T21:13:16Z


The Kansas City Star

Keith Richards threw down the gauntlet. His raw, compelling 2011 best-seller “Life” lifted the curtain on the ultimate rock ’n’ roll survivor. Now a deluge of rock biographies are telling stories of making it through the 1970s alive while redefining fame.

‘Who I Am’ | Pete Townshend

This just-released autobiography from the Who’s often-airborne guitarist follows Townshend along his journey to spark a spiritual discovery among his listeners. Townshend’s engaging prose puts you in his mind during such trying times as his traumatic stay with an unstable grandmother and the emotionally wrenching “Tommy” recording sessions. (544 pages; HarperCollins; $32.50)

•  Tell-all factor: Townshend is matter-of-fact about the flaws in his past, not shrinking away from his infidelities, his struggles with bisexuality or his tax shelters.

•  This one time: Townshend was slouching backstage, boozy and disheveled, when a bored groupie coldly assessed him and declared, “You — you look like an undertaker.”

• It’s like listening to: “Who’s Next,” a revelation for both loyal fans and the uninitiated.

‘Mick Jagger’ | Philip Norman

Mick Jagger will probably never publish an autobiography. The Stones singer tried once, but it was so dull his editor called it “The Diary of Nobody.” Jagger has a notoriously bad memory: His latest biographer details a meeting with Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry at Chess studios, but Mick says, “It’s just like something I read about in books.”

Norman’s mountains of research illuminate Jagger from various angles during the Stones’ heyday as he learned the business on the fly. After studying James Brown’s dance moves at the Apollo, Jagger sneaked backstage and took notice of Brown’s authoritative demeanor. (640 pages; HarperCollins; $35.)

•  Tell-all factor: Norman gathered enough inside sources to make “Mick Jagger” more of a salacious tale than we’ve seen before about Jagger, who can also seem cold and arrogant. Longtime girlfriend Chrissie Shrimpton, the inspiration for “Under My Thumb,” has a lot to say, and she’s just one of many mistreated women in his wake.

•  This one time: Jagger watched from the edge of a 1968 antiwar rally in London’s Trafalgar Square as it descended into a violent confrontation with mounted police. He went home and wrote “Street Fighting Man,” putting lyrics about “revolution” on the air well ahead of John Lennon.

• It’s like listening to: “Beggars Banquet,” full of great songs, gritty realism, lust and occasional whimsy.

‘Rod: The Autobiography’ | Rod Stewart

Each chapter of “Rod” leads off with a “David Copperfield”-esque passage: “In which are exposed the workings and motives of the Sex Police, circa 1976-78.” Stewart has put together a guilty-pleasure beach read. Its bawdy first-person writing transports the stories back to those all-nighters with Keith Moon and a traveling pile of cocaine.

Amid these chapters are digressions on bidding against Andrew Lloyd Webber for pre-Raphaelite art and other tangents. His hair gets its own chapter. (400 pages; Crown; $27)

•  Tell-all factor: Stewart is gleefully salacious as he recounts the models, actresses and groupies he bedded. The stories about the hotel-room exploits he shared with Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood are just … ewww.

•  This one time: Stewart went on an African safari with Elton John in 1985. The two hunted rhino and leopard early in the morning, then dressed in black tie for dinner around the fire at night.

• It’s like listening to: “Maggie May” on the radio and remembering that you like it.

‘Bruce’ | Peter Ames Carlin

Totally authorized and definitive in its scope and detail, “Bruce” should make Springsteen fans happy. A love letter to his creative process, his lyrics and his image, “Bruce” gets rolling with the simultaneous “Born to Run” covers of Time and Newsweek and wraps up with this year’s stirring talk at the South by Southwest music festival. (512 pages; Touchstone; $28)

•  Tell-all factor: Carlin comes off as a cheerleader and apologist at times, repeating praise and challenging critics, such as one New York Times writer who called Springsteen a hypocritical, exploitative “limousine liberal,” “pleasing the Central Park West audience, instead of the Asbury Park one.” Springsteen’s bad behavior, like the time he manhandled an ex in a public rage, are mentioned but not dwelled on.

•  This one time: Drummer Max Weinberg brought conservative writer George Will backstage. A profound misunderstanding of “Born in the USA” led to a hilarious Will column praising Springsteen’s obvious patriotism and his role as a “wholesome cultural portent.”

• It’s like listening to: “The River,” a double album that would have been improved by cutting out the self-indulgent bits.

‘Waging Heavy Peace’ | Neil Young

In the Canadian rocker’s halting, minimalist style, backgrounds and people shift constantly as Young, in a deeply sentimental mood, lets his memories tumble over one another. The juxtaposition of certain stories is more telling than the frequent bursts of self-analysis. “Peace” focuses on the passage of time, and it’s hard to reconcile the activist musician from 1970 (who got “Ohio” on the airwaves within a week of the deadly Kent State shootings) with today’s version, who goes on for pages about his awe during his first trip to Costco. (512 pages; Penguin; $30)

•  Tell-all factor: Young owns up to his excesses when they’re part of anecdotes, but this book has time for little else than his thoughts on making music with old friends.

•  This one time: During a visit with the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson, Young saw a stranger pick up his guitar and play. Impressed with the songs he heard, Young tried to help secure a record contract for Charlie Manson, who was “quite good.”

• It’s like listening to: The concept album “Greendale,” good to sample before enjoying “Live Rust” again.

‘Light & Shade: Conversations With Jimmy Page’ | Brad Tolinski

Each “conversation” in this oral autobiography of the groundbreaking Led Zeppelin guitarist begins with a question like “How did you get that drum sound on ‘When the Levee Breaks’?” Also heard from are John Paul Jones, Jack White and others. Between all the chitchat are nuggets of analysis from a musicologist, a fashion designer and an astrologer, along with an inventory of Page’s guitars and amps. Not for casual Zeppelin fans. (320 pages; Crown; $26)

•  Tell-all factor: Page would rather pontificate on his belief in “magick” and how doing the “Death Wish II” soundtrack helped him grieve after the loss of John Bonham. He refers obliquely to the band’s hedonism, but “Light & Shade” glosses over the more gruesome groupie stories — there are no kidnappings, bondage or small sharks in sight.

•  This one time: Page had given a favorite Fender Telecaster a spectacular custom paint job. A friend, mistakenly assuming he was doing Page a favor, painted over the psychedelic patterns, ruining the instrument’s wiring. Only the neck was salvaged.

• It’s like listening to: “No Quarter,” unique but a little too heavy on the dark mysticism.

To reach Sara Smith, send email to

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