Songs That Are Books That Like Books To Be Songs: More Thoughts on the Rock ‘n’ Roll Novel

Posted on December 17, 2010


Back in October, I wrote a post titled “Your Band Will Never Be My Life, So I Write Fiction, Assface*” about the incredible difficulty of capturing the transportive qualities of rock music in a novel. It sparked a super-fan-kid conversation in the Comments with my librarian Toby Greenwalt, who wondered, “[A]re there any pieces of music that feel like novels to you?” I’d never once considered the novelistic album (!), so I asked him to hold forth, and he delivered the lovely treatise below.—H-Dude

The long-gone Geraldine Fibbers, authors of one monster of a novelistic album

“[Songs] don’t commit to linear time —they whiz around all your memories, collecting them into a goofy pile that somehow seems less goofy because it’s set to music. Songs’re weird: they tell the future and they tell the past, but they can’t seem to tell the difference.”—Kristin Hersh, Rat Girl

It’s been a while since Heather’s post on the book-slinging world’s ongoing attempts to capture the essence of the rock experience through literature. In the weeks hence, the matter of whether prose and notes can effectively overlap has staked a significant claim in my wandering thoughts. This matter isn’t at all helped by my longstanding obsessions with both, and my refusal to settle on any one style for any length of time.

The simple question is this: Can these two great tastes taste great together? Maybe we can get to the heart of the rock ‘n’ roll novel by flipping the script, and examine its inverse—the album with literary qualities.

I’ve attempted to list a few criteria for this not-even-a-subgenre here, along with my suggestions for albums that demonstrate these qualities. Hopefully, the gaps and interstices between the two can help us better identify writing that rocks and rock that reads.

Assuming you’re in to that sort of thing. Here goes.

Consider the Songster

One of the points I was trying to make in the comments to Heather’s post dealt with the question of the authorial voice. Novels may possess many voices, but they’re all filtered through the prism of the person writing all of them. Other people—editors, test readers, and the like—may have some influence over the process, but one person has to take final responsibility for putting the words on the page.

The process of creating music is often a far more fragmented experience, for better or worse. Unless you’re Brian Wilson, every band member is bringing a different voice to the song. A book may parcel out multiple voices in the course of its unfolding. Songs are far more content to let each voice tell its story simultaneously: words on top of guitar on top of bass on top of drums. Lather/rinse/repeat and leave it up to the listener to decide which voice to take as gospel.

Check out Lost in Revelry by the Mendoza Line if you want to see where I’m going with this. The failed relationships and interpersonal struggles captured in each song are often illustrated with dueling harmonies that don’t quite agree with one another, lyrically or tonally. The result is a glorious train wreck that we can’t tear our ears away from, as beautiful as a time-lapse film of a melting candle whose mess we later have to clean ourselves.

Talk About the Passion

Heather, you called it perfectly: rock ‘n’ roll novels often lack that elemental passion, that ability to deliver us from our “drafty, doorless coffin[s] in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to those hot minutes when the crush of a crowd when everything seems possible.” There’s an immediacy present in the rock experience that’s far harder to come by in prose. Can a book call us to direct action in the way the Velvets or the Ramones compelled us to start bands of our own? Unless you’re Mark David Chapman or John Hinckley, that question may take some time to answer.

Once again, we need to flip the script and look at the passion books do inspire. That lack of immediacy is a feature, not a bug. No other medium forces its audience to pay close attention more than the novel. Novels take time to get through. They require us to shut out all other distractions and literally stare at them for hours on end. But when a novel is successful, we’re often left feeling like we’ve just had the most important conversation with a best friend we didn’t realize we knew. And boy, howdy, did they just tell us what we needed to know!

Here the parallel works far more to our advantage; it’s the same reason those sweaty, anxious crowds fill the clubs and basements night after night. Bands may be putting on a show for an audience, but they’re performing for each and every one of us. At least that’s what we tell ourselves.

So give it up for the self-titled Modern Lovers record. My passion for books and rock have only been matched by my failure to choose between one or the other. Sometimes it’s just easier to tune out altogether. Ol’ Jonny Richman has never failed to remind me why it’s okay to ride this liminal space, following the muse as it falls in out of love with worlds both old and modern.

Is a Novel, Is Not a Novel

As I was attempting to make my own list of rock ‘n’ roll novels, it occurred to me that every single one of them dealt with music directly. Whether it’s about a band, a record shop, or the industry itself, these books often fall prey to one of the biggest no-nos in the biz: they’re telling, not showing. You can surround your book with the trappings of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. But if your story sucks (and yes, I’m looking at you, Jonathan Lethem and Neal Pollack), it’s just going to get called out on both fronts.

"Read this album, dudes"

You shouldn’t need to be told an album could be a novel. So I’m picking the Geraldine Fibbers’s Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home as my “If You Disagree With Me, Write Your Own Damn Guest Post” selection.

There’s nothing that screams “novel” on this record. There’s no overarching narrative. Instead, it’s more of a collection of variations on a theme. There’s a tension between the rawness of frontwoman Carla Bozulich’s voice and the softer edges of the twang and bowed strings. It’s a group effort, but centered by what’s clearly Bozulich’s personal vision. Maybe it could have been a piece of writing in some parallel universe. Regardless, it exists here. Read this album, dudes. It’s been 15 years, and I’ve still discovered new things with every listen. (See the video for “Dragon Lady” below.)

We tend to think of each type of fruit, vegetable, animal, or fungus as being completely unique, but DNA is DNA… We’re all working from the same pool of materials… The same essence is found in Yirgacheffe coffee, Darjeeling tea, and Chanel No. 5. It’s not a metaphor; it’s the deep structure of life.—Rowan Jacobsen, American Terroir

Potter Stewart was right. I don’t know what makes a novelistic album. But I know one when I see it. I’m sure you do as well. I’d love to hear your literary spins in the comments.