By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
LETHEM: What a beautiful post, Rick. I’m going to jump in and free-associate from the last thing you said, since you’ve laid the ground so elegantly. If an attraction to music reveals the fundamentally vocal nature of the writing act in my own experience, it also nourishes the fundamentally irresponsible nature of that act. It seems to me that writing finds itself surrounded on all sides by, well, cops. Responsibility censors. Fiction writers are meant to be dreamers, yet we’re called on to pontificate on the tradition of our medium and on our fellow practitioners, to honor our elders with introductions to their books, to teach the next generation as though what we do is innately teachable. These are all potentially lovely or at least redeemable activities, but they drag us into the costume of rationality and responsibility. We publish in magazines mostly as a minority element amidst chunks of rhetoric, criticism, analysis, all of which, if you blur your eyes, might appear to be exactly the same as our pages. But imagine if music took place as an occasional interlude between long sequences of city-council meetings and corporate strategy sessions.
Now, I’m suspicious that rock & roll (and music generally) seems to be the special province for freedom, irresponsible creativity and Dionysian impulses inside a puritan culture. But the fact is that in my actual life and experience it is that province — a place where the methods of the irrational, sporadic, impulsive, incoherent self-contradicting creator are more rewarded and exalted than not. The literary realm seems prone to the reverse — we keep a few token outlaws on a leash around here, but they’re pets, not the owners of the house.
DARNIELLE: Jonathan makes a fantastic point about “rock-as-Dionysiac-domain,” though it’s absurd from the standpoint of the craft itself. There’s nothing wild and free and libidinous about Mick Jagger’s 33rd consecutive attempt to get just the right quantity of sneer into “I’m no schoolboy but I know what I like” in “Brown Sugar,” but the Rolling Stones are notorious studio perfectionists, and 33 is probably a conservative estimate.
I wish the music world would just embrace its entirely literary nature. Nobody’s worse with the “you gotta feel it!” junk than rock people. The problem is music from rock forward is construed as being “about sex,” which is at least partly correct. But there’s also this complicating notion that sex is “about youth,” or at least for youth. This problem does not exist in the literary world. Not to say that sex appeal doesn’t help sell books: It does, of course it does; but the whole culture of literature, across the magazine spectrum from NYROB to Granta to The Bafflerto McSweeney’s, is less heavily reliant on this particular region of smoke and mirrors. I also wish the pop world shared the literary world’s open lust for verbiage. Once a year you’ll read an essay somewhere about how analyzing a song will kill it. Yaaaarrrrgghhhhhh. Hulk smash.
Contentwise, I don’t really draw any distinction between pop songs and literature, so they can’t really learn from each other in that sense, as they are more or less the same person.
The Bards of the Roundtable
Novelist Jonathan Lethem is known for celebrating “junk” culture from comic books on down. Or up, depending on how much you value Jack Kirby. He has shown a special dedication to music. In 2002, he edited Da Capo’s Best Music Writing anthology, and the protagonists of his 2003 novel, Fortress of Solitude, are named Dylan (he’s a music critic) and Mingus (he’s the son of a faded soul singer). In the fall of 2005, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded Lethem a MacArthur Fellowship, commonly referred to as the “genius grant.” His most recent book is The Disappointment Artist, a collection of essays.
Novelist Rick Moody has frequently made music his muse — be it with the Wingdale Community Singers, a band he has started with respected musicians David Grubbs and Hannah Marcus, or his debut novel, Garden State, which featured a small-time New Jersey punk group. (Some assert they were based on the Feelies. Moody really likes the Feelies.) His last novel, The Diviners, published last September, is a sprawling satiric book about, among other things, the hype-mongering that fuels Hollywood’s entertainment-industrial complex.
The lyrics of John Darnielle, a.k.a. the Mountain Goats, have been celebrated as a great contribution to literary songwriting. If Bob Dylan is the poet of pop, and Lou Reed its first novelist, Darnielle’s music toys with geography, history and perspective in a way that can be aligned with postmodern fiction. Like many novelists, he is also a perceptive critic. On his Web site, Last Plane to Jakarta (www.lastplanetojakarta.com), he publishes funny, intelligent screeds about Thai pop, heavy metal, semi-mainstream hip-hop and anything else that strikes his fancy. He is a native of SoCal’s Inland Empire, and will release the follow-up to his 2005 effort, The Sunset Tree, later this year.
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