Neil Young said it best: Writing books is a great thing for a musician to do. It’s a way to make money without having to play and sing all the time. If, like Young, the musician has broken a toe, given up marijuana, had trouble writing songs or otherwise begun needing a change of pace, the rock book answers prayers. Mostly publishers’ prayers. Since sales of Keith Richards’ “Life” went through the roof two years ago, these bios and memoirs have begun turning up everywhere.
That doesn’t make them all worth reading. There’s a lot of fake-sounding, ghostwritten junk cluttering up the genre. But among this year’s most attention worthy, for reasons high and low, have been:
“Waging Heavy Peace” by Neil Young (Blue Rider Press, $30)
Neil Young’s rambling thoughts and memories are as disarmingly candid as his music, whether he’s recalling high times in Laurel Canyon or passionately promoting the technological projects (better sound quality for recorded music, an electric car with the heft of a Lincoln) to which he now devotes himself. His book is a must for anyone who has followed his career, though perhaps a head scratcher for those who haven’t. The great thing about that dichotomy is that he gets it perfectly. You like this book? Fine. Think it’s boring? Just give it to somebody else. The Neil Young whose fans revere him wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’m Your Man: The Life
of Leonard Cohen” by Sylvie Simmons (Ecco, $27.99)
This isn’t a memoir; it’s a terrifically astute portrait of Leonard Cohen by a biographer who deeply understands him. Since Cohen, for all his preternatural eloquence, never writes about himself straightforwardly, Simmons is an uncommonly valuable interpreter of his behavior. She also captures the full span of an extraordinary career, ranging from Leonard Cohen, cheerleader (really) to Leonard Cohen, hedonist, to Leonard Cohen, monk, to Leonard Cohen, septuagenarian smash. Simmons’s book is worthy of her subject, which is really saying a lot.
“Rod: The Autobiography” by Rod Stewart (Crown/Archetype, $27)
Some guys have all the luck. Stewart sings those lyrics and also treats them as the story of his life in this highly entertaining account of his many triumphs. Funny, self-deprecating and a whole lot less boastful than he could be, Stewart offers a string of Grade-A rock ’n’ roll debauchery stories and somehow makes them charming. Stewart explains how he does his hair and also reveals that he — like Young, and also like the Who’s Roger Daltrey — is a hard-core devotee of electric trains. Without the rock memoir boom of ’12, we might never have known that.
The Inside Story of the Classic Fleetwood Mac Album” by Ken Caillat and Steve Stiefel (Wiley, $25.95)
Farther down the food chain this gossipy book describes all the makeups and breakups that figure in one of the most popular and enduring of all rock albums. Caillat, a producer, was there to witness the band members’ other forms of indulgence too. Readers may be surprised and dismayed to find that Caillat thinks his own story is as interesting as, say, those of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks; he provides way too much information about his own role. But he sneaks some irresistible peeks into the way this classic album took shape.
“A Woman Like Me” by Bettye LaVette and David Ritz (Blue Rider Press, $26.95)
It’s rare to find a story that’s both as sordid and as uplifting as this one turns out to be. The writing is flat, but the high drama makes up for that. “A Woman Like Me” begins with the image of LaVette being hung upside-down out a window by a pimp who threatens to drop her. And that’s just for openers. She was an early R&B star from Detroit, recording for Atlantic but close with some of Motown’s biggest names, until she hit the skids, hard. Her high-flying comeback brought her in 2009 to Washington, where she and Jon Bon Jovi sang a stirring Obama pre-inauguration rendition of “A Change is Gonna Come” at the Lincoln Memorial.
“Who I Am” by Pete Townshend (Harper/HarperCollins, $32.50)
This is Pete Townshend’s earnest, soul-searching account of his life. Smashed guitars notwithstanding, this isn’t a book with a rock ’n’ roll heart; it’s a serious memoir with equal emphasis on ambition and emotion. Big names figure in Townshend’s story, and so do big milestones, from the making of “Tommy” to identity crises for the Who and its various members. In another year, this book’s gravitas would bring it much attention. Right now it’s overshadowed by flashier rock reminiscences. Best advice: Put it aside for a rainy day.