So much great music has come out of the Los Angeles area, created by geniuses, cartoon characters and everything in between, that it's no surprise there are just as many great books chronicling that music's history.
Whether it be Laurel Canyon in the 1960s, Sunset Strip through the decades, or straight biographies and memoirs from important figures in the scene, a multitude of words have been written about the many and varied musical happenings in this region by many talented writers. Here are 10 of the best, alphabetized by title.
Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson by Peter Ames Carlin
The thing about John C. Reilly’s portrayal of the fictional rocker Dewey Cox in the film Walk Hard is that, when Cox went through his Brian Wilson stage, “an army of didgeridoos” and all, it was only mildly exaggerated. Wilson's abuse from his father, his descent into depression, his swan-dive into drugs, the turmoil he caused within The Beach Boys as he tried to make his increasingly ambitious and eccentric visions into reality — it all happened, and Ames Carlin details it wonderfully here, with the colorful L.A. of the 1960s (and later) serving as a glorious backdrop.
The Dirt: Confessions of the World's Most Notorious Rock Band by Mötley Crüe and Neil Strauss
The textbook for debauchery, decadence and general bad behavior, The Dirt succeeds because, while it does revel in every gory detail of the craziness that surrounded the Crüe, particularly in the 1980s, it also doesn’t pull any punches. Anybody claiming that The Dirt glorifies drug abuse, the objectification of women or any of the other numerous examples of bad behavior contained within didn’t read it properly. It’s an often bleak experience, and the sections about Vince Neil’s jail time and Nikki Sixx being declared dead as a result of an overdose make for heavy reading. Yes, there’s fun to be had, too. The glory days of the Crüe were not without their magical if maniacal moments, but those anecdotes are expected. It’s the intensity of feelings the boys can mine that makes the book so special. (Sixx’s The Heroin Diaries is an excellent follow-up. Tommy Lee’s Tommyland should be avoided at all costs.)
The Ice Opinion by Ice-T and Heidi Siegmund
Ice-T: the man who went from incurring the wrath of the nation’s parents and politicians thanks to a song about killing cops, to winning the same people over by playing a cop on TV. The man has lived a life that nobody could call dull — and that, plus his razor-sharp wit and way with words (alongside co-author Heidi Siegmund), make The Ice Opinion a great read. His exploration of rap, gang culture and how the two have been intertwined in L.A. over the years is fascinating, as are his rants on freedom of speech and the record industry in general.
Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll's Legendary Neighborhood by Michael Walker
From the mid-1960s through the early ’70s, the Laurel Canyon section of the Hollywood Hills became rock’s answer to jazz-age Paris, attracting legendary singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Jackson Browne, John Phillips of The Mamas & the Papas, and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Walker was living there and saw it all, a scene that was taking the rock music of the day in a mellower, more introspective direction before The Eagles swooped in and added a layer of commercial gloss to it. Regardless, while chaos was being encouraged on the Strip below, something more delicate but equally lasting was going on in Laurel Canyon, and Walker describes it beautifully.
Living Like a Runaway: A Memoir by Lita Ford
While The Runaways were together, much of the focus was on Cherie Currie and Joan Jett. But by the time the hair-metal scene of the 1980s was in full effect, everyone knew who Lita Ford was. Hits like “Kiss Me Deadly” and her Ozzy Osbourne duet, “Close My Eyes Forever,” helped crown her the Queen of Metal, able to shred as hard as all the boys. Then she went away to focus on her marriage, one that we now know was abusive. Thankfully, she’s dusted herself off and is back, this book and an album with the same name proving she’s still a force to be reckoned with. Her teen years with The Runaways, the ’80s metal days, the lost years — all are detailed here.
No One Here Gets Out Alive by Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugerman
Jim Morrison — charismatic, super-sexy frontman and consummate rock star, or complete prick? If No One Here Gets Out Alive is to be believed, then the truth is that he was both in equal measure. For every story of Morrison charming someone with a longing gaze, or influencing a future star from the stage, there’s another about attempting to force Janis Joplin into oral sex, creepily touching a schoolgirl on a bus or screaming the “N” bomb in the street just to get a reaction. At the end of this book, the reader will be glad that they didn’t have to hang out with Morrison, and they can just enjoy his music. Surrounding us in the L.A. of the era, the authors offer an unflinching look at a flawed legend.
Riot on Sunset Strip: Rock 'n' Roll's Last Stand in Hollywood by Domenic Priore
L.A. native Domenic Priore clearly loves his hometown. That much is evident in work like Smile: The Story of Brian Wilson’s Lost Masterpiece, and the AMC documentary Hollywood Rocks the Movies: The 1970s (on which he worked as writer, producer and creative consultant). Riot on Sunset Strip is part love letter, part academic study of the Hollywood music scene in the mid-1960s and, while the author clearly revels in recalling those glory days, he puts his rose-tinted glasses to one side. Anyone who was there should read this for the nostalgia value. Anyone who wasn’t should read it so they can get a glimpse of what it was like to be surrounded by bands like The Byrds, The Doors and Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention.
Scar Tissue by Anthony Kiedis and Larry Sloman
While there are parallels to be drawn between Scar Tissue and The Dirt, Kiedis’ book, also a relentless page-turner, dials down the party antics that the Chili Peppers undeniably wallowed in, particularly during the late 1980s and early ’90s, in favor of a trek through the subject’s damaged psyche. It’s still a fascinating journey, but the laughs are far fewer. If the book has a fault, it’s that it gets caught somewhere between “cautionary tale” and a desire to be heroin beat prose. Regardless, whether you’re a Chilis fan or not, Scar Tissue offers a unique glimpse at some of the unsavory sides of the punk and rock scenes of that era.
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Straight Whisky: A Living History of Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll on the Sunset Strip by Erik Quisling and Austin Williams
If the Whisky a Go-Go was a sentient being capable of speech, then that speech would surely be slurred to the point of being unintelligible. The place might not be the hottest spot in town today, but for a long time and though numerous scenes, it and the Rainbow next door were the go-to joints for bands looking to party. Naturally, this book is packed with fun anecdotes. Whisky manager Mario Maglieri, who also managed The Doors, provides much of the focus, and if even half of the wild tales about him in here are true, he’s packed more into his lifetime than most would in 10. The late 1960s rock & roll scene that included The Doors and Janis Joplin, plus out-of-towners like Hendrix and Zeppelin, is explored in microscopic detail. Naturally, the hair-metal scene of the 1980s gets plenty of attention, too, as does the punk scene with its Germs-driven riots.
Waiting for the Sun: A Rock & Roll History of Los Angeles by Barney Hoskyns
British writer Barney Hoskyns starts in the 1940s and traces the history of popular music in Los Angeles in impeccable detail, taking in jazz and blues, leading into rock & roll, then punk and hip-hop. It’s not a light read, but Hoskyns’ academic approach and thorough analysis leads down some oddly readable paths. Everything from early ultra-clean Beach Boys to the filthy saga of Charles Manson gets a gaze from Hoskyns’ keen eye, as do larger-than-life characters like Kim Fowley, Henry Rollins, Ice Cube and Axl Rose.