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To put it another way: The musicians who are interested in collaborating with writers are musicians who are readers. And what, finally, is more exiguous in the politics of the moment than reading? Virtually nothing in America supports reading as a way of life. Try reading in an airport. Likewise, the writers who want to be in the orbit of musicians are people who are really engaged with what’s happening in the most artful and speculative wing of contemporary music. David Gates is out there learning Old Time music, Paul Auster is writing for One Ring Zero, Dave Eggers is composing for Cheap Trick 20 years after their last hit, Myla Goldberg is providing fodder for the Decembrists, Denis Johnson is turning up in a Sonic Youth song, etc. I don’t see any novelists volunteering to write lyrics for the Top 40. In my view, this interest is not at all because these writers want to be “rock stars” but because music is a warm, open, responsive language and is therefore lovable.
I figure the forms are already married to one another. One of my complaints about contemporary fiction is that a lot of it is secretly obsessed with a potential movie sale, and the way you can tell is that the work is more preoccupied with appearances, with the way a director might look at a scene, and this to the detriment of the sound of the prose. When Ezra Pound said that poetry was language cut in time, what he meant was that our art is made out of words, and when the words become merely vehicular, the means to an end, then the work becomes transparent and calculating. On the other hand, if the prose is made to be heard, whether this is aloud or in the still, secret auditory nerve of a private reading experience, then it’s only natural that it would want to interact with music, because song is the most perfect use of language. When a voice raises up the words in song, it’s a really splendid thing, a moving thing, arguably the most beautiful thing you can do with language. Who wouldn’t want to try to do that?
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 Baffler to 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.