The boys in the bands

The author of "Let It Blurt" picks five great sleazy rock 'n' roll biographies.

By Jim DeRogatis

Published June 19, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Prompted by the recent publication of Bill Flanagan's execrable "A&R," I wanted to select the five all-time great rock 'n' roll novels. Trouble is, with the possible exceptions of Nick Hornby's "High Fidelity" and Tom Carson's "Twisted Kicks," there haven't been any. Yet.

On to the backup plan: five great rock 'n' roll biographies, a genre I've had some occasion to contemplate. Don't yawn -- there isn't a snooze-inducer among the five, promise, and there certainly isn't a story arc as hoary or a narrative voice as hackneyed as those served up nightly by VH1's Cliffs Notes-inspired Behind the Music, which is as corrupting a force as has ever descended upon the devil's music.

Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga by Stephen Davis
Speaking of Satan's soundtrack, Davis' account of the career of those hard-rocking, runes-lovin', Aleister Crowley-emulating Brits is perhaps a bit heavy on the marauding Viking and "selling your soul at the crossroads" imagery. But it's a wonderfully trashy summertime page turner that's justified in its more or less complete lack of subtlety by the like-minded approach of its subjects. (These were, after all, the men who urged us to squeeze their lemons till the juice ran down their legs.) Decades before Marilyn Manson's Neil Strauss-penned autohagiography, Zep forever secured the mantle for wretched rock 'n' roll excess with a little stunt involving a groupie, a sand shark and the overactive imagination of roadie Richard Cole, the book's primary Deep Throat (but by no means its only one).

Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story by Nick Tosches
A rare combination of absurdly diligent researcher and distinctive, fluid, some would say florid stylist, Tosches has actually given us two great rock biographies; I chose "Hellfire" over "Dino" because I prefer the Killer's music to Dean Martin's, though the latter is also essential for illuminating the Italian crooner's contributions to rock and the way the entire record business was changed by the advent of folks like Jerry Lee. The tale of Lewis' hard-drinking, cousin-marrying, piano-busting career reads like a powerful novel -- Faulkner on speed decked out in leather, as filtered through Tosches' native Newark, N.J. That voice is why everything he writes reads like rock 'n' roll, even when the subject isn't music; his latest is a wailin' bio of boxer Sonny Liston.

The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones by Stanley Booth
Another fastidiously reported life story that reads like literature, and the only Stones book you'll ever really need. Deftly intertwining the sad tale of band founder Brian Jones with the even sadder (and more violent) story of Altamont, Booth produces no less than an autopsy report of the Utopian '60s dream. The Memphis native had an all-access pass from the world's only rock 'n' roll band at the moment the music was seduced, deflowered and turned out to trick by the pimps of big business. From there it was only a matter of time before $150 concert tickets, Volkswagen commercials and pathetic pandering to the hollow gods of celebrity and nostalgia followed, as Booth makes abundantly clear in a new afterword tacked onto the recent edition from A Cappella Books.

The Lives of John Lennon by Albert Goldman
Don't give me that sanctimonious bullshit -- you know you read it, and its 700-plus pages sucked you right in. And if you didn't, you oughta. The way I see it, the harsh, clear spotlight of the much-reviled Goldman doesn't even begin to balance the unending fellatio accorded all things Fab Four-related in every other corner of the media universe, Lennon especially, he being the "murdered martyr" and all. Puh-leese. As Lester Bangs wrote in a memorable obit, Lennon was just a guy, and as Goldman shows (in breathless detail, page after page after page), he was a really screwed-up one at that. You want musicological analysis and philosophical examinations of the lyrics? Go somewhere else. You want big stinking heaps of prime Beatle dung, this is the place.

The Family by Ed Sanders
Another end-of-the-'60s epic. What can I say -- as a Gen X-er who missed the party, I love dancing on Woodstock's grave. Not really a rock bio per se, "The Family" was written by a legendary rocker (founder of proto-punks the Fugs!), and the music certainly provides the soundtrack to this book about Charles Manson and the Sharon Tate murders. Less sensationalistic, more sympathetic/analytical in the sociological sense and infinitely better written than prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi's "Helter Skelter," "The Family" will keep you up at night not because you fear being creepy-crawled by a gang of grungy, sex-crazed hippies, but because you'll realize what a fine line separates superficial suburban sanity and the twisted vision of someone like ol' Chuck. I opened it again after Columbine, and it never seemed more relevant.

Jim DeRogatis

Jim DeRogatis is the pop music critic at the Chicago Sun-Times. He is the co-host of the radio show "Sound Opinions" and the author of "Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic." His Web site is

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