Required Reading: Songwriters Turned Authors

by WFUV Staff
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Fotopedia.com

Many singer-songwriters have been flexing their literary muscles by writing novels and memoirs. We've collected some of the more successful efforts to add to your bookshelf or e-reader.

Rosanne Cash - Composed

Rosanne Cash shares the story of her rich and full life in Composed. It's filled with personal tales of growing up, getting started in the music business, travel, marriage, parenting, health scares, songwriting and the legacy of a famous family. Imagine being Johnny Cash's daughter. We learn, in the end, that he was a Dad like any other. Despite some setbacks and heartbreak, it's a beautiful and positive story, unfolding the chapters of her life with grace, dignity and ultimately some wisdom we can all benefit from. (Rita Houston)

Rodney Crowell - Chinaberry Sidewalks

After reading this memoir of Rodney Crowell's dirt-poor childhood in Texas, I'm amazed how well-adjusted he seems now. His mismatched mother and father were an embattled, dysfunctional couple prone to violence. From his hard-drinking father Rodney inherited a love of music, from his religious mother a love of storytelling. With the tone of a Texas tall-tale, it's both colorful and grim, with vivid detail. There are musical memories (such as the smells and sounds of a Hank Williams concert his father took him to at the age of two) as well as typical boyhood pranks and coming-of-age sexual misadventures. In the end he feels his parents redeemed themselves, and he describes their very different deaths with humor and love. (John Platt)

Mike Doughty - Book of Drugs

Mike Doughty's Book of Drugs is a brutally honest memoir from the former leader of Soul Coughing, full of references to New York City and its characters. With never a hint of self-aggrandizement, he describes himself as envious, sneering, and bitter; he is crippled by self-doubt, manic, and immature...and his former band-mates are even worse! Sketching a ride that began by forming a band with older musicians while a doorman at The Knitting Factory, Doughty intersperses wry observations about the music business and interpersonal relationships with the frustration and futility of drug abuse. Disbanding Soul Coughing and getting clean are triumphs, but Doughty had a lot of darkness to get off his chest. (Eric Holland)

Bob Dylan - Chronicles, Volume One

Dylan was nominated for a 2004 National Book Award for these memoirs. Despite his inscrutable reputation, he writes with clear, flowing prose, using poetic, but never surrealistic, imagery. Not that he's predictable. There are several chapters about his early days in NYC (playing Greenwich Village clubs, immersing himself in books at a friend's apartment, crossing a swamp in Brooklyn to go to Woody Guthrie's house), but nothing about "Blowing in the Wind" or Newport in '65. Then a whole chapter about working with Daniel Lanois on "Oh Mercy" in New Orleans. There are great stories and insights into his creative process, but it leaves you hungry for more. Let's hope Volumes Two and Three aren't far off. (John Platt)

Steve Earle - You'll Never Get Out of This World Alive

The sound of Steve Earle's voice is as recognizable as they come, but on the page, it quickly gives way to a cast of surprisingly likable characters who don't so much live as survive on the wrong side (of the wrong side) of town. Music has a role, but mainly through the ghost of Hank Williams, who haunts his pal - the main character, Doc Ebersole - as much as heroin. Somehow mysticism and Jackie Kennedy also find their places on the 1960's San Antonio strip, but amid the invention, Earle adds what is likely pure, personal truth in the descriptions of an addict's life and the climb to become something else. (Sarah Wardrop)

Keith Richards - Life

This account is full of illuminating and entertaining details - from Ry Cooder teaching the open G tuning that fueled his greatest riffs to learning piano from Gram Parsons. Despite tales about John Lennon and Muddy Waters, what he says about his band mates will resonate most with Rolling Stones fans. He faults Billy Wyman for counting his conquests and says more good things about heroin than Brian Jones. 'Keef' was hurt more by Mick Jagger secretly piggybacking a solo record deal on a Stones' contract than he was by him sleeping with his girlfriend. Keith's literary style is assured and rings true, resulting in the rare essential rock autobiography. (Eric Holland)

Josh Ritter - Bright's Passage

This debut novel is the story of Henry Bright, a World War I veteran, who returns home to West Virginia, marries, and loses first his wife in childbirth, then his home in a fire. Picking up his newborn son, he sets out for safety, accompanied by a horse offering him advice along the way. (Not exactly Mr. Ed, but there's a lot of humor in the exchanges between the horse and Henry.) It's a parable about survival, using magical realism and some imagery that's familiar from Josh's songs. He's always been one of our smartest young songwriters, and this first effort, while not perfect, shows he has promise as a novelist. (John Platt)

Suzzy Roche - Wayward Saints

Suzzy Roche, who's created a memorable onstage persona as a member of The Roches, creates some compelling characters in her first novel. One is Mary Saint, a once-famous rebellious young rock star, and another Jean Saint, her sweet but estranged mother. Both are excited, yet anxious about Mary's return to her small upstate New York hometown for a concert. While Suzzy draws on her experience as a mother and musician for evocative descriptions, she sees this as a fable of faith (ah, yes, saints). With a voice as writer almost as distinctive as her singing voice, she's making a successful leap into the literary world. (John Platt)

Patti Smith - Just Kids

Patti Smith's Just Kids tells the story of a fabled time for music and art in New York City, from the late 60's through the 70's. The often romanticized journey of an artist is brought into candid view with Patti's recollections of her longtime relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe and her own evolution as a writer, poet, artist and musician. As a long time Patti Smith fan I learned a lot about her from this book - her commitment to creating and learning, the struggle to survive back then, and what it means to be a New Yorker - and I have a whole new appreciation for the albums of hers I've loved for years. (Rita Houston)

Wesley Stace - Misfortune

Many critics have decried the misuse of the memoir, but I for one remain a fan. Still, re-creating one's past life - even as entertainingly as Patti Smith and Keith Richards (to name just two) have done- doesn't come close in my (er) book to creating an entire world out of one's imagination - and, in the case of Wesley Stace (a.k.a. John Wesley Harding), a TON of historical research. The L.A. Times praised his latest novel, Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, but for my money, his first novel, Misfortune, is his enduring page-turner. The Guardian called it a "rationalist, secular study of sexual politics, of the glory and the grief of enforced transvestism." Now if that doesn't get (and hold) your attention, I don't know what will. (Claudia Marshall)

Dave Van Ronk - The Mayor of MacDougal Street

Dave Van Ronk is prominently mentioned as an influence in Dylan's Chronicles, but Van Ronk's memoirs, posthumously published a year later, couldn't be more different from Dylan's. Where Dylan is impressionistic, Van Ronk is straightforward, chronological, and historical, though infused with his sardonic wit. He bears witness to the Village folk scene of the early 60's, with portraits (and analysis) of great bluesmen like Reverend Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt, as well as folkies like Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Eric Andersen. His larger than life personality - with his appetite for food, books, politics, and music - shines through and makes us lament his untimely death at 65 in 2002. (John Platt)

And a few more...

Other well-received memoirs include: Society's Child by Janis Ian, who describes the challenges she faced as a 15 year old with a controversial hit song and as the target of an I.R.S. investigation; Cold Pizza for Breakfast by Christine Lavin, who recounts her childhood in upstate New York and her role in the Greenwich Village folk community; A Voice to Sing With by Joan Baez, who was idolized as the "Folk Madonna," then vilified as an opponent of the Vietnam War; and Sweet Judy Blue Eyes, the latest by Judy Collins, focusing on the heady '60s, when she was a champion of Leonard Cohen and a lover of Stephen Stills. Cohen, of course, was known as a poet and novelist before he became a songwriter. Finally, Bill Morrissey published one novel Edson, drawing on his experiences in small-town New England, and had completed another, Imaginary Runner, before his death in 2011.