‘Love is a mixtape’: 5 musical memoirs on love, life, and friendship

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The storied lives of musicians and the lives they lead offstage are more than just gossip fodder — when written well, they can affect, inspire, and make for compelling literature.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — With the seemingly constant surveillance provided by reality television and near-impulsive online broadcasting, we have collectively gazed into the lifestyles of the rich and the famous, being granted a glimpse or two at the life of excess in varying degrees. We have learned about pregnancies, scandals, and the cost of celebrity hubris, but these “news” clips and gossip columns rarely provide intimate portraits of people that we, in many ways, look up to.

Music memoirs, especially if they’re written well, provide a beguiling snapshot of the days in which these people have been inspired to create, and remain reflections of the world’s political unrest, the state of things then, and the personal tragedies that each one of them have had to go through to get to where they are and what they make. Here are five titles that are worth the read.

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“Chronicles: Volume I” by Bob Dylan

The world has known Bob Dylan to be a superb songwriter, heavy with far-reaching references, influences, and social commentary, but “Chronicles: Volume One,” published in 2004, was proof that he could write — and well — in another form. The first part of a planned three-part memoir, “Chronicles: Volume One” opened the possibility of Dylan winning a Nobel Prize for Literature, and although he was eventually awarded one for the breadth of his songwriting this year, it would do well for one to remember how good of a storyteller Dylan has proven to be.

Hailed as a rich document that is part-biography, part-mythology, this work has also been criticized as, essentially, a collage of text collected and reappropriated by Dylan, as well some fabrications of his biographical anecdotes. Factual soundness aside, “Chronicles: Volume One” is a work of pure art, a generous preview into the oft-obscured parts of the life of one of modern history’s greatest artists.

“Girl in a Band” by Kim Gordon

In “Girl in a Band,” Kim Gordon sheds light on what it’s like to be one, specifically in Sonic Youth, a noise rock band she co-founded with her ex-husband Thurston Moore. Titled after a line in one of Sonic Youth’s songs, “Sacred Trickster,” “Girl in a Band” is the place in which Gordon dissects the seemingly incongruent aspects of her own life, going beyond her experiences in Sonic Youth, and looking back to everything else that surrounded it.

Although Gordon’s art writing and criticism can be a little serious and a bit stiff, “Girl in a Band” provides an intimate look into her early life and childhood, her relationship with, interest in, and involvement in art, stories about some of her early side projects, and the resulting tension and dissonance introduced by motherhood, marriage, and divorce.

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“Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl” by Carrie Brownstein

In “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl,” Carrie Brownstein brings us to the underground music scene of the Pacific Northwest, the birthing ground of her punk-indie all-girl band, Sleater-Kinney. Brownstein delves into her childhood and the early abandonment of her mother, and then into her history living with her own anxieties. She writes about how growing up with music, as a fan, gave her solace and charted her path.

“Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl” provides a closer look at Brownstein — some intimations almost seen as closely as though peered at through a microscope — rather than at Sleater-Kinney. However, her total devotion to music, both as a creator and a listener, makes you look back at those things beloved by you in your youth and how enthralled you had been, reminding you of which parts of yourself these objects of love now make up.

“Just Kids” by Patti Smith

Awarded the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2010, “Just Kids” is a stunning and raw confessional penned by Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Patti Smith, heavily revolving around her relationship and friendship with the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Smith writes beautifully and honestly about her own coming of age, as a mousy country girl from Chicago launched (through her own devices) into the emerging art scene of bohemian New York, which coincided with her inimitable, enduring, and special friendship with Mapplethorpe.

At turns painful and beautiful, “Just Kids” feels like looking into a carefully-assembled Joseph Cornell box, a true work of art that holds our gaze and compels us to pay attention.

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“Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time” by Rob Sheffield

Written by music critic and author, Rob Sheffield, “Love is a Mix Tape” is less about the rock and roll life, and more about the two great loves of Sheffield’s life: rock music and his late wife, a fellow music journalist, Renée Crist. Married a short five years in their youth, Crist passed away unexpectedly from a pulmonary embolism. They had a shared love for music and mix tapes, and as per Sheffield’s assertion that mix tapes do “a better job of storing up memories than actual brain tissue can do,” he tells their story — from beginning to inevitable end, and then beyond it — through 15 mix tapes.

“There are all kinds of mix tapes,” Sheffield writes. “There is always a reason to make one.” Much like other memoirs written by the similarly bereaved (e.g. Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Roland Barthes’ “Mourning Diary,” and C.S. Lewis’ “A Grief Observed”), “Love is a Mix Tape” is both tender and heartbreaking, a way to get through one’s grief and honor the memory of the beloved, though this time, through stories told through songs.