by carl wilson

Lit Rock Brain Teasers (Now: With Solutions!)

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As previously advertised, my piece on novelists penning rock lyrics appeared in this weekend's Globe & Mail. Reactions more than welcome:

Lit rock is on a roll

CARL WILSON
From Saturday's Globe and Mail
August 14, 2004 at 12:14 AM EDT

When people sing when alone,
People find them wretched,
People find them disgusting.
This happens in every part of the world.

- Dave Eggers/One Ring Zero, The Ghost of Rita Gonzalo

Surely only a mad, impetuous fool would try to violate all the laws of the universe, meddle with the natural order, and forge such a misbegotten creature - half-music, half-literature.

Consider the tragic history of such experiments, littered with such horrors as the poetry of Jewel, the novels of Jimmy Buffett, and such 1970s "concept albums" as Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman's arpeggio-ridden desecration of Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

And yet Michael Hearst seems like such a reasonable young man.

Hearst is half of New York-based duo One Ring Zero, whose new, fifth album, As Smart As We Are, features lyrics by 17 prominent writers, from Rick Moody, Paul Auster, Jonathan Lethem and A..M. Homes to kids' gothic writer Lemony Snicket (under his grownup alias, Daniel Handler) and even CanLit icon Margaret Atwood.

Hearst and his musical partner Joshua Camp fell into the literary world after leaving their native Virginia in 2001, when they lucked into a gig as house band at the McSweeney's Store. For the next two years, they opened for readings at the Brooklyn curio shop operated by Dave Eggers's cult small press. The contacts they made led to this album-cum-anthology. "Writers all want to be rock stars," says Hearst. "If I had been another writer trying to get a blurb, I'd never have had contact with any of these people."

At 64, however, Atwood bristles at any notion that she might yearn to storm arenas in spandex and spiked collars. "With all due respect to Michael, I think it would be as accurate to say that all rock stars want to be writers," the Booker Prize-winner retorts.

Actually, scores of musicians have signed book contracts lately, too. But Atwood has good reason to be wary. Such side projects usually garner about as much respect as Mariah Carey's movie career. The jibes flew fast and sharp, for instance, when lyrics from Salman Rushdie's 1999 novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet were transformed into a weepy, Indo-Celtic ballad by his friends in U2. "They have been accused of trying to acquire some borrowed intellectual cred, and I of course am supposedly star-struck," Rushdie complained later, although he noted that U2 audiences offered a wider array of supermodels than the average book tour.

Despite any stigma, in recent years such authors as Denis Johnson (Jesus' Son), mystery writer Carl Hiaasen, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson and Canada's Guy Vanderhaeghe have become backstage Cyranos, putting words in the mouths of those with better voices and bigger hair.

Their partners tend to be much more obscure than U2 - indie artists like Jim Roll and David Grubbs - although the late California rocker Warren Zevon (Werewolves of London) crossed pens with several authors.

Last year, satirist Neal Pollack even promoted his mock rock bio, Never Mind the Pollacks, with a CD and tour by his faux-punk band the Neal Pollack Invasion.

For sheer four-eyed bookworminess, though, As Smart As We Are has few rivals.

Like One Ring Zero's previous, mostly instrumental discs, it highlights their rare signature instrument, the claviola - a sort of accordion that you blow into, with trilling reeds that evoke a troupe of Yiddish acrobats on Ritalin. But here the material takes in subjects more often found in the pages of short stories, such as childhood deformities, house plants, Jesus, gossip, cockroaches and SUVs.

"A lot of magazines are referring to us as 'lit rock,'." says Hearst. "Which is great. It's like we've created a genre."

You might be reminded of that curious interval in the 1990s when every new novel seemed obliged to incorporate recipes and double as a cookbook. But this trend stirs up much more anxiety. For a project they had assumed had great crossover appeal, Hearst and Camp were shocked to find that their biggest challenge was to get a distributor. Company after company passed because they were unsure whether to handle it as music or a book. So much for corporate synergy. "Everyone," says Hearst, "was terrified of it."

* * *

In centuries past, it was common for eminent novelists such as Henry Fielding, Ivan Turgenev or André Gide to write words for music, usually as opera librettos. But after opera was eclipsed by pop, writers staged a walkout. Poets and even music critics since then have often turned into songwriters; but serious novelists, almost never.

Novel writing was the 20th century's most upwardly mobile, bourgeois literary pursuit. You could be an author and a composer, such as Paul Bowles, or a fine singer such as James Joyce (whose wife Nora reportedly said late in life that her husband should have stuck to music). But to dally with pop would have seemed too cheap or, for the higher-minded, too commercial.

Not to mention the likely hostile reception. Rock in particular was defiantly unlettered: "Close up your books, get out of your seat/ Down the halls and into the street!" Chuck Berry commanded in School Days in 1957. A decade later, even as literate a singer as Bob Dylan would scoff: "You've been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald's books/ You're very well-read, it's well-knooown." Books were just too linear, too Gutenberg to be a truly cool medium.

In that light, lit rock is more than a novelty. It's a shifting of tectonic plates.

"Writers under 40 grew up going to rock shows - even more than the previous generation," explains Pollack. "We didn't come from an era of stadium rock, but out of the do-it-yourself punk aesthetic. That was very influential to people and still carries a lot of weight."

No wonder so much lit rock action tends to cluster around McSweeney's, a press in the spirit of a postpunk indie label, where amateurism is an asset.

In Philadelphia, Pollack helped McSweeney's start the annual rock'n'read 215 Festival, where on a given night you might catch both Zadie Smith and Patti Smith. Kindred events are now found all over the continent, for example at Broken Pencil magazine's bimonthly launch parties in Toronto with readers and bands.

"I think it's a way of presenting culture that young people respond to," says Pollack, "a way of bringing the 'author-god' down from his or her perch and making a reading more accessible. It's more fun to stand around, drink and hear bands than sit in a bookstore."

As well, many of today's writers are frankly uber-music geeks, typing along with CDs all day. How do you get 50 novelists out of the swimming pool? Tell them there's an argument in the kitchen about Dylan's gospel period.

Rick Moody, one of the more promiscuous literary lyricists, points out the number of anthologies and special journal editions of writing on music published each year. In Pollack's book and Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, the authorial alter egos are not even rock stars, but lowly rock critics. And several of the As Smart As We Are authors also contributed to Lit Riffs, a new collection of stories inspired by songs.

"I often wish they would devote half this enthusiasm to describing why they like certain books," Moody says. "If they did, then perhaps there would be more public debate about serious literature."

Notice, though, that the initiative for most lit-rock projects seems to come from the musical side. "It was a way to get in touch with people whose work I admired," says Boston composer Chris Ewen, who is currently recording The Hidden Variable - As Smart As We Are's evil twin, with lyrics by a dozen "dark fiction" writers.

Normally Ewen composes for indie band the Future Bible Heroes, with lyrics by Stephin Merritt (also of the Magnetic Fields). While they were on hiatus, Ewen was inspired by a 1970s speculative-fiction anthology to "edit" his own album.

He approached friend and horror novelist Peter Straub to help recruit others, such as Poppy Z. Brite. Even though two of his contributors, Neil Gaiman and Handler/Snicket, also wrote for the One Ring Zero album, Ewen found out about the parallel effort only months later. What does he think is going on?

"It's suddenly dawning on people," he mused archly, "that authors are good with words."

* * *

Other people, however, hate it all to pieces.

"Reading lyrics by Rick Moody or Jonathan Lethem or any other self-conscious, overeducated, wealthy white writer is something only felons convicted of the most heinous crimes are forced to do," a poster on the Canadian on-line forum Bookninja snarled.

Lit rock infuriates because it violates the no-teachers, no-books, no-future dogma that has long served as rock's gut-level guarantee. Even Pollack says that lit rock "offers book people a slightly cooler night out, but real rock people are going to look at this stuff and say, 'Oh, come on, give me some Motorhead!' "

But by the Motorhead standard, what rock isn't lit rock now? Today's best rock is mostly made by English-major types, clever kids conversant with seven types of ambiguity. The White Stripes treat rock history as a found text to be cut up, and even the most fast-dumb-loud retro acts (Andrew W..K., the Darkness) sound like rock caught in the act of rereading itself.

It is almost as if rock's long, noisy dumb-show has been a strategy to fight off its latent lit-rock tendencies all along, born as it was in the 1950s, astride the beatniks and an economic updraft that has tugged it ever middle-class-wards, kicking and (of course) screaming.

"Literature and rock have in common that they've both been declared dead many times over," says Vancouver novelist and music critic Kevin Chong.

After all, what most young people really listen to is rap, and what they really read is the Internet. There is conspicuously no such thing as "lit hop," in which Colson Whitehead or Alice Walker supply rhymes for Jay-Z and Missy. So lit rock maybe less a genre than a symptom that fiction and rock are ever-more-specialized interests, whose overlapping audiences at this late date might as well bunk down together.

Some elements, though, remain irreducible. As Atwood says, "In a song, the performers are the primary interpreter. When you are reading a book, you are the primary interpreter." This double consciousness, the solitude of prose and the sociability of song, can make lit-rock lyrics seem sung between quotation marks, just enough out of synch with musical cadence to come off like a badly dubbed film.

On As Smart As We Are, mutants and chimeras - hermaphrodites, Atwood's Frankenstein Monster Song, Myla Goldberg's Golem - creep into song after song, like Freudian mascots for this sense of formal disjunction. Some of the authors exercise poor impulse control, overstuffing their verses with verbiage (Jonathan Ames, says Hearst, actually provided "straight prose, a paragraph. We had to ask if there was some sentence we could repeat as a chorus"). And One Ring Zero sometimes crowds the field with too much sound. Too often, the result is a novelty song.

On the other hand, as cyberpunk writer-rocker John Shirley once said, "Any art form can interpenetrate any other if you can handle the heat of your media." The best example on the album is probably Handler's Radio: His hardwired love lament starts glib, passes through heartbroken and winds up demented and obscene, as the music, too, steps up its intensity.

And some of the other writers take thrilling risks that a more seasoned songwriter might reject. Whatever the shortfalls, the ear can take pleasure in the unique textures these encounters create.

And the story is not over yet. "There are at least two more CDs," says Hearst, "one with Paul Auster's daughter Sophie singing lyrics he wrote or translated, and a spoken-word disc with Rick [Moody]." A..M. Homes also expressed interest in doing a children's book/CD. "We just can't seem to escape the literary world," he says.

Obviously not. The day we talked, Hearst had just sent his own first novel around to agents.

One Ring Zero plays the Gobsmacked! festival at Harbourfront in Toronto on Aug. 28 at 8 p.m. For more information, call 416-973-4000.

* * *
What's your Lit Rock IQ? Match the authors and the musicians who collaborated with them (or appropriated their words for lyrics) from the following lists. There can be multiple matches.

[UPDATE: Annotated answers up now.]

1. Edgar Lee Masters         l. Richard Buckner Buckner's The Hill CD was entirely based on the words from Masters' Spoon River Anthology.

2. Salman Rushdie          u. U2 A gimme if you read the article.

3. Edgar Allen Poe          m. Lou Reed, who did a whole Poe album called (yawn) The Raven which includes the REFRAIN (!), "These are the stories of Edgar Allen Poe/ Not exactly the boy next do'." Whether this is genius or ... the other thing ... is your call. In the 1970s sometime, Ray Davies said, "Lou Reed doesn't need to write novels... I'm sure Ernest Hemingway would love to have written Walk on the Wild Side." Which is a brilliant thing to say. Sadly, a couple decades later Lou Reed is doing lame Classics Illustrated Rock and Ray Davies has published a book of short stories. Advantage Hemingway.

4. James Joyce         a. Syd Barrett, g. Sonic Youth, w. Mike Watt, x. Minus 5, y. Wayne Kramer, z. Califone. A bit tricky: Barrett adapted an early Joyce poem into his song Golden Hair, while the rest are contributing to a collection of rock settings of the same book of poems, Chamber Music, which was supposed to be out by now. News anyone?

5. Mitch Alboim         o. Warren Zevon Yep, the late Mr. Zevon, Werewolves of London guy, with the sportswriter and Tuesdays with Morrie guy. Total novelty song. But Zevon did much better work with writers Paul Muldoon (the excellent song My Ride's Here, which Springsteen covered in concert after Zevon died), 18. Thomas McGuane, 19. Carl Hiaasen, 20. Hunter S. Thompson and others.

6. Neil Gaiman         f. One Ring Zero, i. Chris Ewen (Future Bible Heroes)'s The Hidden Variable. Gaiman's lyrics on the One Ring Zero album are among its finest, a sort of metaphysical construction a la John Donne. We'll see what the Ewen disc is like. It also features Daniel Handler (see below) and 21. Poppy Z. Brite .

7. Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler)         f. One Ring Zero, i. Chris Ewen (Future Bible Heroes) Handler (who also plays accordion with the Magnetic Fields) has my favourite song on the One Ring Zero album, along with ....

8. Denis Johnson         b. Jim Roll, f. One Ring Zero, g. Sonic Youth ... Johnson's Blessing, which benefits by being a country-style break from all that damn accordion (claviola). Johnson also does beautiful work with Jim Roll on Roll's 2002 Inhabiting the Ball disc, also featuring Rick Moody. And Kevin Chong tells me: "There's a song on Daydream Nation where Kim Gordon rips off her first verse from Johnson's 1986 novel, The Stars At Noon: 'To that extent that I wear skirts/ And cheap nylon slips, I've gone native/ I wanted to know the exact dimensions of hell/ Does this sound simple? Fuck you!/ Are you for sale?/ Does "fuck you" sound simple enough?' Part of me thought, hey, that's plagiarism. The other half was impressed that she'd have read Denis Johnson, esp. before Jesus' Son came out."

9. William S. Burroughs        h. Disposable Heroes of Hip-Hoprisy for background sound on Burroughs' Spare Ass Annie along with Hall Willner and Charlie Hunter; b. Nirvana - my mistake, actually just Kurt Cobain, playing guitar to Burroughs' Priest They Called Him; p. Tom Waits, on The Black Rider; t. Laurie Anderson on many occasions around the time of her Home of the Brave: She must have used the Burroughs phrase "Language is a virus from outer space" more than Burroughs ever did. In all these cases, though, I'd argue that Burroughs was appearing less as a writer and more as a special effect: "With Bill Burroughs on death rattle!"

10. Shel Silverstein        q. Johnny Cash: Boy Named Sue of course.

11. Paul Quarrington           c. The Rheostatics Whale Music was the project. Quarrington also has his own blues-rock band the Pork Belly Futures.

12. Guy Vanderhaeghe         k. Barney Bentall Bentall said in 1997 that Vanderhaeghe had great songwriting instincts, understanding (as many Lit Rockers do not) that the music would provide much of the song's "cinematic detail" so the lyrics had to leave room for that. Can anyone testify? I haven't heard the song(s?).

13. Nick Hornby          j. Ben Folds. Oh, and William Shatner. Well, this is about as grim as this discussion gets. However I've been watching the DVDs of Freaks and Geeks lately, and am reminded that a good Shatner imitation has its place, especially a pubescent boy's take on Capt. Kirk making an obscene prank call to a gym teacher.

14. Chuck Kinder          r. The Deliberate Strangers Everything I really need to know I learned on the Interweb... except that I did go skinny dipping with some of the Deliberate Strangers once. They have a theremin. It was not in the pool.

15. Michael Moorcock        e. Blue Oyster Cult. British prog-sci-fi writer Moorcock (ha, that'll get me flamed) wrote three BOC songs and a lot more Hawkwind songs, I think both pre- and post-Lemmy.

16. Tony Earley        s. Paul Burch, sometimes of Lambchop, always of Nashville, spins a good old-timey collection, Last of My Kind, out of Earley's novel Jim the Boy.

17. Rick Moody        b. Jim Roll, f. One Ring Zero; v. David Grubbs; Moody also performs with Grubbs and Hannah Marcus as the Wingdale Community Singers. He confessed to me that he's been writing songs since he was a teenager and that his ambition would be to be a studio musician, "the anonymous sideman," but his piano playing is not good enough. More in that story.

22. Dennis Cooper >       d. Stephen Prina Here's one major Lit Rock exemplar I haven't ever heard, L.A. conceptual artist/Red Krayola member Prina's Push Comes to Love on Drag City, 1999, with lyrics by Cooper, Lynn Tillman and Amy Gerstler. I'm advised the music is more Sea & Cake than Mayo Thompson but the cast promises a particularly adventurous lyrical palette. One I'll seek out.

(Sorry about the shitty alignment. If you were wondering how my HTML skillz are coming along... well.)

Here's another one: Which of the following musicians has not already published a book of fiction or poetry or signed a contract to do so? (Books of lyrics not included.)

Elvis Costello, Jeff Tweedy, Ray Davies, Bjork, Steve Earle, Doug E. Fresh, Alicia Keys, Rosanne Cash, David Byrne, Greg Kihn, Chan Marshall (Cat Power), Joe Pernice, Bill Callahan (Smog), Pete Townshend, Walter Salas-Humara (Silos), Billy Corgan, Nick Cave, Graham Parker, Jean Smith (Mecca Normal), Richard Hell.

Bjork is the only one on this list with nothing in or heading to print. As far as I know.

At the end of the article, by the way, I mention that Michael Hearst of One Ring Zero has written a novel. You can read some of his writing.

See some of you tonight at Trampoline Hall. If you don't have tix yet, be warned: It is very sold out.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Monday, August 16 at 1:09 PM | Linking Posts

 

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Zoilus by Carl Wilson