I was around 18 when I first read that famous quote that’s often attributed to Elvis Costello—”Writing about music is like dancing about architecture; it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.” I was likely hanging ten in my childhood bedroom, head buried in a Rolling Stone, naive to the fact that a bespectacled genius had just annihilated my future calling. Hormonal, bored, and highly absorbent, I likely burped and turned the page to the rabbit hole that was the Columbia House ad (“10 CDs for a penny”).
Looking back, though, that quote went a long way toward discouraging me from attempting rock journalism and especially fiction inspired by popular music. The older I got, the more concerts I attended and sensed the futility of trying to capture the super-in-the-momentness of being riveted by song and performance. Rock ‘n’ roll shows are about being here now, to paraphrase John Lennon, and anyone I witnessed trying to pin it down like a rare insect looked damn foolish, myself included. (I’d link here to a bad college-era newspaper review of Calvin Johnson’s Dub Narcotic Sound System if I could find it.)
This theory gained even more weight during my early publishing days in New York (1998–2002). I read voraciously because I didn’t have many friends or much money. At work, I quickly established myself as the resident dorky punk kid who could tackle a biography of Throbbing Gristle or Bob Dylan with equal enthusiasm and speed. After that got old, I graduated to fiction that had little or a lot to do with the rock ‘n’ roll monstah: Bill Flanagan’s A&R (2000), Debra K. Marquart’s The Hunger Bone: Rock & Roll Stories (2001), Neal Pollack’s Never Mind the Pollacks (2003). All three were rooted in real-world music “experience,” but none delivered me from my drafty, doorless coffin of a bedroom in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to those hot minutes in the crush of a crowd when anything seems possible.
Luckily, there was Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, devoured over one Thanksgiving weekend in those Dinty Moore years. It didn’t inject me with adrenaline either, but it demonstrated an important trait—a successful music novel could (and maybe should) refrain from creating a band from the ether and depicting it LIVE! Hornby wisely focused on human relationships, in this case, several failed ones and why they’d gone wrong. Another plus was his then-untrodden choice of a record store setting and the simple but sturdy construction around those top-five lists. I held on tightly to its legacy throughout grad school, taking other things I liked from Balzac and Proust.
And, yet, when I finally mustered the ovaries to acknowledge I was writing my own “punk” novel around 2003, I was lodging the same complaints I’d used on Flanagan & Company. On one hand, I liked my tack of developing a dysfunctional sister-brother dynamic, a hero-worshipping scenario that goes awry, aka The Goddamn Story. On the other, it wasn’t offering the release of a Clash song coming out of a Marshall stack—and wasn’t that my aim? In his recent post “The Great Rock Novel,” novelist Richard Melo argues that “[f]iction…cannot re-create a rock music experience…English doesn’t have the language to capture what the music does to a fan.”
I wanted to agree with him last night because it would’ve ended this post sooner, and I was on the brink of crashing, head into screen. Truth be told, I’ve often lectured myself with his theory, just put another way—don’t ask novels to do the work of rock music, fiend! But then I remembered the transportive effects of Lester Bangs’s nonfiction (read his profile of The Clash in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung), even the highs I get from reading Edith Wharton contract and suppress passion in The Age of Innocence, and another quote came to mind, Elvis “Articulate Boots” Costello be damned:
Nothing makes us more vulnerable than love; even love for a band.—Ned Potter, librarian, Studio 54 lover, and REAL Wiki Man
The son of a musician, Ned was commenting on my post “Strummer und Drang.” No one has validated my position as a writer so eloquently before or since, and I can’t thank him enough. Despite the daunting technical complexities involved, I should and will attempt to re-create forever in prose the life-altering force that is music because it makes me obscenely human, the grist of fiction. Glory be to Lester Bangs! God save Peter Doherty! Good night—and good morning, wherever you are.
(Thank you to the Twitterverse—@RonHogan, @misconstrue, @wsstephens, @ColleenLindsay—for nominating your favorite music-themed novels. I promise to put them on a page someday, but for now check my stream on Oct. 13 and 14, 2010.)
- The Spinning Top by Graham Coxon
- Up the Bracket by The Libertines
*Ack, I’m just being provocative, really