From Bruce Springsteen to Patti Smith: Why rock memoirs rule
Musicians are fast eclipsing Hollywood stars as the safe bets for best-selling autobiographies. Here's why these soul-baring songwriters are succeeding on such a major scale.
When Bruce Springsteen released his long-awaited autobiography, Born to Run, on Sept. 27, it debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list, and it has hung out there ever since. It joins a spate of other books by musicians—Keith Richards’ Life, Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume 1, Patti Smith’s Just Kids, Grace Jones’ I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, and Carly Simon’s Boys in the Trees—that have triumphed with both fans and critics in an age when too many celebrity tell-alls (see: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ellen DeGeneres) have tanked.
So why do memoirs by rock stars flourish? For one thing, there’s the honesty factor. “The concept of the celebrity book is so abused that readers are skeptical,” says Riverhead Books president and publisher Geoffrey Kloske, pointing out that such ventures are often little more than branding vehicles. So people notice when a well-known author offers up fresh and revealing insights, as Springsteen has by writing candidly about his battle with depression.
Hachette Book Group CEO Michael Pietsch—who’s edited a remarkable roster of recording-industry legends, including Chuck Berry and Keith Richards—thinks rock memoirs feel more genuine because truth-telling is already part of their art: “Musicians’ careers are about expressing themselves—looking within and bringing forth [what they see]. I think there’s something very different about an actor’s memoir, because an actor is becoming a different person each time [he or she performs] and working with a different crew.”
Another reason these books hit more consistently, says David Rosenthal, president and publisher of Blue Rider Press (and Dylan’s editor), is that rockers are already writers. “They have proven that for years,” he says. “They’re comfortable with storytelling, so they tend to do a good job of it [in other mediums].” Sometimes they do an exceptional job: Smith nabbed a National Book Award for her memoir, and Dylan was just awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Rosenthal adds that performers who have had long careers also tend to boast extremely loyal fans with disposable incomes. “Keith Richards’ book appealed to a prime hardcover-book-buying audience that [developed] after being exposed to his work for more than 30 years,” he says.
Rosenthal also points to emotional connection as a major selling point. “People feel very close to musicians because they’ve had their music playing in their heads and their houses, sometimes for decades,” he says.
Pietsch agrees that the bond between artist and listener shouldn’t be underestimated. “I can’t think of any other art form that gets inside you in the same way,” he says. “If there’s a song you love, it’s part of the way that you experience and understand your life.” For him, and clearly for many readers, great musicians are “the Shelleys and Keatses and even Shakespeares of our time. We buy their books so we can understand them—and ourselves.”
This story originally appeared in the Nov. 4, 2016 issue of Entertainment Weekly. Pick it up on stands now or subscribe online at ew.com/allaccess.