Nonfiction Books about Punk Rock

My day-to-day life at the library can be pretty structured, but I also love chaos. I love things that are messy, unstructured, defiant and loud. This love for disorder is apparent in my musical preferences, both what I listen to and what I play myself. I also like reading books and learning about everything that interests me, which is why I wrote this post dedicated to works about punk rock music. The titles in this post are compiled in this list, along with a few extra films and books not included in this post.

Much of the history of punk is recorded in oral histories. Among the most famous are probably Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s “Please Kill Me,” which candidly describes the birth of the American punk scene in the seedy streets of New York and Detroit, and the Michael Azerrad’s “Our Band Could Be Your Life,” which chronicles the sometimes inspiring, sometimes tragic, always groundbreaking 1980s indie and hardcore scenes. Others worth checking out are “Under the Big Black Sun” edited by John Doe of the band X and Tom DeSavia, which collects the personal stories from the survivors of the 1970s LA scene, and “This Searing Light, the Sun and Everything Else” by Jon Savage, the tragic story of Manchester’s post-punk legends, Joy Division.

If you are more interested in individual’s stories, there are a number of great punk rock memoirs. One of the more recent ones is Against Me! front-woman and transgender activist Laura Jane Grace’s “Tranny,” where she talks not only about her musical career, but her struggle with coming to terms with her gender. You may also try Patti Smith’s “Just Kids,” where she recounts her early days struggling to make ends meet with photographer Robert Maplethorpe before breaking through with her poetry and music. Another figure from New York’s first wave, Richard Hell, tells his candid story of self sabotage and drug addiction in “I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp.” Carrie Brownstein of Sleator-Kinney writes about her unhappy childhood, facing sexism in the music industry and punk scene, her ultimate success, and rescuing animals in “Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl.”

Of course, you can always get your history from journalism and criticism. Lester Bangs was one of the early critics who embraced punk, and you can read a range of his writing, from early gonzo articles to later more self-reflective works in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung.” Critical theory publisher Zero Books released “Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night,” a collection by several writers that traces the origins and evolution of the genre. Finally, journalist Simon Reynolds conducted a series of interviews with some of punk and post-punk’s most influential musicians, and wrote a series of essays about the history of the different factions of underground music in “Totally Wired.”

Punk rock has meant a lot to me over the years. The best way to understand it is to listen to it and see it performed live, but these books are great if you want to learn why it matters and what makes it special.

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