10 Essential Drummer Autobiographies
The most popular musician autobiographies tend to come from famous singers and guitar heroes. But drummers can tell a tale as well as anyone else. Here’s a ten-pack of proof.
by Patrick Berkery
Tony Allen An Autobiography of theMaster Drummer of Afrobeat (2013)
Every musician has obstacles, but it’s a pretty small group that can relate to what Tony Allen endured. Allen takes a very conversational tone in his memoir as he details a complex relationship with Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti and the constant struggles to get his own musical career happening amidst political corruption and civil war in his native Nigeria. Even after relocating to France in the ’80s, Allen describes being held back by a heroin addiction and subpar solo records. Redemption comes later in life as the drummer is embraced by musicians like Flea and Blur’s Damon Albarn.
Ginger Baker Hellraiser: The Autobiography of the World’s Greatest Drummer (2009)
Hellraiser rolls and tumbles like Ginger Baker slashing his way through “Toad.” That Baker is still here to share these tales of musical and personal adventure and misadventure is amazing, given his onetime lust for chemicals. A passion for musical exploration, and later polo, kept him going. Baker takes great pains to set the record straight on the course he charted, from his jazz beginnings to Cream and Blind Faith to Ginger Baker’s Airforce to Fela, P.i.L., and beyond.
Peter Criss Makeup to Breakup: My Life in and out of Kiss (2012)
With its depiction of rock-star highs (coauthoring and singing “Beth”), has-been lows (contemplating suicide in 1994), and a stare-down with mortality (male breast cancer), Peter Criss’s autobiography is a gripping account of a kid from Brooklyn’s rise, fall, slight return, and graceful segue into the autumn of his life. Either in or out of Kiss, Criss has been a major player in the soap opera. But this book shows that there’s another side to the “Catman” once the grease paint is off.
Mick Fleetwood Play On: Now, Then & Fleetwood Mac (2014)
This second autobiography from Fleetwood Mac’s founder doesn’t skimp on the cocaine-fueled dirt. But it’s far more interesting to learn about Fleetwood’s trials in the London rock scene in the ’60s, as an aspiring pro admittedly short on technique but long on ambition. He meets his rhythmic soul mate in bassist John McVie, they form the first incarnation of Fleetwood Mac with blues-guitar visionary Peter Green, and off Fleetwood goes on another slog until Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks walk into his life. Fleetwood’s palpable passion for his musical pursuits is inspiring.
Levon Helm This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band (1993)
Levon Helm stoked the swampy sound that helped Dylan go electric and enabled the Band to become one of rock’s most influential units. Helm’s tale is a pretty amazing one, considering he came from the cotton fields of Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, and he spins it in the disarmingly folksy style he was known for. It’s as though he’s sitting at the kitchen table up in Woodstock telling you about hearing Sonny Boy Williamson for the first time or just what in fact he’s doing in the verses on “I Shall Be Released.” (Spoiler alert: He’s running his fingers across the wires of an overturned snare drum.)
Joey Kramer Hit Hard: A Story of Hitting Rock Bottom at the Top (2009)
In the 1997 book Walk This Way: The Autobiography of Aerosmith, the topic of the depression that sidelined bedrock drummer Joey Kramer during the Nine Lives sessions was danced around carefully, described as a “blue funk” after the passing of his abusive father. No such fancy footwork here. With great detail, Kramer addresses the nervous breakdown he suffered, the hard work he put in to get healthy, and the sense of abandonment he felt from his bandmates and his then wife.
Tommy Lee Tommyland (2004)
As his Mötley Crüe bandmate Vince Neil once sang in “Home Sweet Home,” Tommy Lee’s life has been like an open book for the whole world to read, what with the high-profile marriages, arrests, and the like. His autobiography touches on all the tabloid exploits but also serves as a reminder that none of that stuff would matter if Lee weren’t an accomplished drummer. For Crüe fans, the book’s a no-brainer—Lee pulls back the curtain on all the chaos and creativity, with his dude-speak flow.
Marky Ramone Punk Rock Blitzkrieg: My Life as a Ramone (2015)
It’s fitting that Marky Ramone is the last Ramone standing, because as his autobiography shows, he’s a survivor. We learn how years before he manned the kit for the iconic punks, he’d headlined Cobo Hall in Detroit with his proto-metal band Dust, only to find himself back in Brooklyn as a working stiff shortly thereafter. By the mid-’80s he was an ex-Ramone who narrowly avoided prison after a drunk-driving accident. Putting down the sticks and working as a bike messenger helped him get sober for good, which ultimately led him back to the Ramones. He grouses about the group never tasting the success enjoyed by many of the acts it inspired, but he does acknowledge that the fact that he’s still walking among us is its own reward.
Jacob Slichter So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star: How I Machine-Gunned a Roomful of Record Executives and Other True Tales From a Drummer’s Life (2005)
Semisonic’s drummer doesn’t present his life story so much as he gives the uninitiated a glimpse into once-prevalent and successful major-label machinations—and the soul-draining fallout when those strategies stopped working. With musical tastes that leaned toward funk and soul, Slichter wasn’t really aiming to be the drummer in a big alternative rock band. He discusses how he acquired on the fly the chops necessary to hold it down for Semisonic, absorbing suggestions like, “Hit the hi-hat more insistently, more like the Replacements than the Spinners,” from band members and (gulp) A&R men alike.
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove (2013)
Long before Questlove was a hip-hop revolutionary, he was a music-obsessed nerd sticking out like a sore thumb in his hardened West Philadelphia neighborhood. The drums were his way out, and Mo’ Meta Blues chronicles all the points along his head-spinning journey. Quest ties his formative years to specific albums, explaining with a musicologist’s detail the impact that records like the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique had on him. Footnotes provide anecdotes behind the anecdotes and add context to his musings. This reads like a Questlove groove: steady on the 1 with lots of funky breaks.