Category Archives: music

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Remembering Pete (the author)

As I’m sure you’ve seen by now, the great folksinger Pete Seeger passed away Monday night at the ripe old age of 94. Like a lot of kids with liberal-minded parents, I grew up with Pete’s music,  and I still vaguely remember him dancing across the stage at Symphony Space at one of his children’s concerts. Later on in college, I got to know more about his achievements, especially his work with the Clearwater Sloop and their annual festival in the Hudson Valley.

But then, I also had the privilege and pleasure of working with Pete as his editor on several of his picture books. And while the appreciations and obituaries today have rightly focused on his music and his activism, I just wanted to point out that Pete had quite a prolific career as a writer, too–his bibliography lists over 30 titles, from picture books to autobiographies to instruction manuals. And several of them, like Abiyoyo and How to Play the Five-String Banjo are classics in their own right.

And what was so fascinating about working with Pete was that Pete the Author was often at odds with Pete the Folksinger. In other words, while Pete clearly loved books and the written word, he struggled to reconcile the idea of a book as a finite project with the ever-evolving folk process. In other words, he couldn’t stop tinkering!

Thinking about it now, it’s a shame that the e-book revolution came just a little too late for Pete–I think he would have loved the idea that he could publish a piece of writing but continue to update it. Or better yet, to get other writers involved in a story through Wattpad or other crowd-sourcing websites. Ironic that the folk process could be furthered by this strain of technology…

Anyway, musings aside, I hope that if you’re thinking about Pete that in addition to listening to his music, you’ll look up some of his books as well–and if you don’t, Abiyoyo might come down from the hills and getcha!

1

Beginning to see the light

It’s been over a week now, but for me Lou Reed’s death has been lingering on like a pair of pale blue eyes. You know, man, when I was a young man in high school, I was a HUGE Lou Reed fan—not just the Velvet Underground, but the solo records, too. Even the bad ones–who remembers Mistrial? In fact, I first got the news about his death from a couple of high school friends, for whom my Lou fixation evidently made a bigger impression than I ever realized.

Anyway, I figured Lou would be a good subject for a blog post, since so much of his output had to do with books and writers. The literary connection got more explicit in his later years, culminating with The Raven and Lulu, both of which were based on other writers’ work. But from his earliest interviews, Lou talked about books and writers, claiming that he wanted to take what writers like William S. Burroughs, Hubert Selby, and Delmore Schwartz were doing in print and translate that to rock and roll. I know a lot of readers found their way to these authors through other rock stars, but I never would have dug Last Exit to Brooklyn without Lou.

And the more I think about it, Lou’s celebration of writers had as much to do with my getting into publishing as any actual writers or books, too. It basically boiled down to a syllogism: Lou is cool, Lou likes books, therefore books must be cool—and so when my dreams of a rock star faded in college due to a serious lack of faith in my talent (or, more likely, a serious lack of talent), something about publishing spoke to my rock n’ roll heart. In particular, kids’ books, which at the time had a serious us-vs.-them relationship with adult books. It got even better once I started at S&S and discovered how many uptight parents, teachers and librarians were banning Judy Blume and other kids’ book authors who wrote about real life like a certain rock musician…

So, any Lou Reed fans out there in blogland? Anyone see his influence in their writing? I’d love to hear your stories–hey, maybe we can get a New York conversation going (and have a real good time together)…

0

I don’t know a book from countdown

People who know me well know that I’m a bit taken with David Bowie. The obsession began sometime in college, and hasn’t really let up. I’ve seen him live more times than any other act, and I was over the (serious) moon when I got to see the David Bowie Is exhibit at the V&A Museum in London earlier this year (thank you, Molly Ker Hawn!). And since my clients and co-workers know me so well, several of you forwarded me this piece about David Bowie’s Top 100 Must-Read Books. The list contains some pretty obvious choices for anyone familiar with the man and his work: Orwell makes three appearances (Diamond Dogs!), A Clockwork Orange is there, and The InfernoLolita, and On the Road. But I was especially tickled that the list also includes a few of my favorite books, including The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels, The Great GatsbyThe Iliad and A People’s History of the United States. Though none of those books should be particularly surprising, considering his oeuvre, it’s always a pleasure to see what inspires one of your greatest artists.
I also now have my work cut out for me, as I haven’t even read half this list. If only I had the time to drop everything and get to reading!
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Goosebumps

Not long ago, I was reading a piece in the New Yorker that gave me chills—Hisham Matar’s account of returning to Libya after many years of exile. His father, a prominent member of the opposition to Muammar Gaddafi, had been arrested and imprisoned in 1990.  Matar never saw his father again, and aside from two letters (smuggled out of the prison six years after his capture), had no word from him either.

The piece was harrowing, beautiful and moving. Since I was wearing short sleeves, I could watch the goose bumps rise in waves across my arms.  I paused for a moment, reflecting not only on the power of good writing—which both thrills and reassures me in an existential sort of way—but also on the absolute weirdness of this physiological response. Why do we have physical reactions to the awe-inspiring? Fear I understand—the autonomic nervous system kicks in, preparing us to fight or flee—but as an aesthetic reaction the function is not entirely clear.  Probably because I spend a good deal of time reading, it’s usually a written passage that sets my scalp tingling, but I get a similar reaction to music (the Goldberg Variations), to poetry (T.S. Eliot’s the Hollow Men or Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach), even the color of blue on some clear evenings just after twilight but before night has properly fallen.

What about you? What’s the last thing (besides a cold snap) that gave you shivers?

74

Lyric Literature

My first exposure to the Avett Brothers was Colleen Hoover’s Slammed.  Over dinner a few months after she became a client, we talked about the band and she recommended one of their live albums.  Since I’m almost as crazy about music as I am about books, I went off and started listening…and promptly fell in love (“I and Love and You” is on constant rotation in my brain).

But, this isn’t the first time I’ve been led to an artist that I became infatuated with through a reference in a book.  The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love led me to explore the golden age of Cuban music (pre-Castro, pre-exodus), for instance.  And, novels like  A Visit from the Goon Squad  are veritable treasure troves of musical references while memoirs like Patti Smith’s, Keith Richards’ and Neil Young’s can keep you looking up song titles on iTunes for weeks.  Since I believe great songwriting is poetry and poetry is storytelling that rhymes (or doesn’t), I love the marriage of literature and music.

On this Valentine’s eve, what devastating, unforgettable songs have you come across in books?

11

In a Not-So-Silent Way

Having been out far too late on a Monday night at the Jens Lekman show (if you don’t know Jens, DEFINITELY worth checking out), I’ve had music on the brain all morning today. So, I was pleased to find this article from the New York Times “Draft” blog by Aaron Gilbreath on how Miles Davis influenced his writing style. Gilbreath draws an extremely effective analogy between Davis’ concision of phrasing and his own attempts at creating a stripped-down style.

But while it’s a very insightful piece of analysis, I had to wonder—was Gilbreath actually listening to Miles Davis while he was writing? In other words, did the music influence him while he was in the act of creating, or did he recognize the correlation between Miles and his writing later on?

I’m not posing these questions as criticism, but out of interest, because for years and years—going back to high school, even—I always wrote everything with the stereo on. And by and large, I never gave much thought as to whether what I was listening to was affecting my prose. It seemed like I managed to get words on paper with just about anything on in the background. Okay, I’ll admit I shied away from the loud stuff and the free jazz when I really had to concentrate, but not because I thought it might come out in my writing—forgive me, Music Gods, but sometimes Husker Du and Ornette Coleman just give me a headache…

Anyway, all of this is to ask: Do you write with music on in the background? If so, do you find the type of music dictates your style? Or, do you look to music (or other art forms) when you’re NOT writing as an influence on your style?

 

7

Literary playlists

Books and music always seem to go together—they’re sold in the same stores, have similar cult followings (and the traditionalists have similar aversions to new technologies), and require a certain amount of alone time to enjoy properly, while still benefiting greatly from being shared with others. Why, then, are they not more frequently paired up in the same entity?

The other day, I came across this post from Picador USA. Picador has made up Spotify playlists for some favorite books, putting together soundtracks that seem appropriate for each. This particular one is for Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, which I haven’t read, but desperately want to (Brenna, you did say you’d let me borrow yours…). I can’t confirm, then, if these are the perfect tunes for this book or not, but the idea is still one that I adore.

Immediately, I started thinking of all of the books I’ve read, which was a bit of a problem, because that’s a lot of thinking to do. Unable to pick the perfect book to come up with a soundtrack for, I considered the venture hopeless. I realized, though, that the book doesn’t have to be perfect, nor does it have to be venerable or complex. So, I settled on the first book I ever remember loving, which I’m told is the first book I read all on my own. I give you, Cookie Monster and the Cookie Tree, by David Korr and published by Golden Books in 1977.

In case you are unfamiliar with the plot of this seminal work of literature, let me break it down for you. It’s about a very selfish, not very bright witch, who is also the proud owner of a cookie tree—yes, a tree that bears cookies. Of course, Cookie Monster himself is also pretty selfish—when it comes to cookies, that is. When the little witch sees him trundling down the path towards her, she knows that if she doesn’t do something fast, he’ll eat all of her precious cookies. So, she casts a spell on the tree so that it will refuse to give a cookie to anyone who will not share it with someone else. Cookie Monster pleads and pleads with all of his friends on Sesame Street, but no one believes that he would ever actually share a cookie. Back at the tree, the witch is having similar problems—it seems her spell has backfired and the tree won’t give her any cookies either! Disastrous! Cookie and Witch agree to share the cookies with each other, which is the sensible solution—though nothing can stop Cookie Monster’s voracious frenzy when it comes to cookie eating!

Looking back over the pages of these book, it wasn’t hard at all to come up with some choice songs to accompany (some are based solely on title, others are the sentiment of the song, but they are all songs that I love):

Another Sunny Day – Belle & Sebastian

I Put A Spell On You – Nina Simone

All the Wine – The National

Fist City – Loretta Lynn

Go Your Own Way – Fleetwood Mac

Monster Ballads – Josh Ritter

Troubbble – Stephen Malkmus

No One Will Ever Love You – The Magnetic Fields

Rebellion (Lies) – Arcade Fire

1, 2, 3, 4 – Feist

I’m Gonna Make It Better – She & Him

Tables & Chairs – Andrew Bird

Folding Chair – Regina Spektor

Still Rock & Roll to Me – Billy Joel

I promise, it works! What are some of your favorite or first books? Could you come up with a playlist or a band to do the soundtrack for any of them?

5

Multi-talented.

A shell-shocked World War I vet coming home to West Virginia trying to piece his life back together after the sudden death of his young wife, guided by an angel who speaks to him through the mouth of an old horse. By description only, this sounds like a novel I could possibly be interested in and would thumb through in a book store, but would also stand the chance of being passed over for something more salacious came along.

In actuality, this is the plot for a novel, Bright’s Passage, and is a book I bought the first week it was released. Why the enthusiasm? Because of its author. One of my favorite musicians, Josh Ritter, wrote his first novel, which is incidentally just out now in paperback, and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. To be honest, it really wouldn’t have mattered if it was about aliens getting married on horseback in Antarctica while running away from polar bears—I would have bought and read it anyway.

Granted, singer-songwriters might have a better chance at actually being able to write a cohesive and coherent novel than say, reality TV stars, but the questions still remains. How likely are you to pick up or look forward to a book penned by someone who is well known (or at least well enough known) for something entirely other than their writing career, simply because you are a fan otherwise? I don’t mean, of course, a business book written by a successful CEO or a cookbook written by a revered chef, but something entirely outside the milieu of their public persona.

As luck would have it, Bright’s Passage is a lovely little book—well-written, at times both humorous and heartbreaking, and completely enjoyable, and I would wholly recommend it to anyone who’s interested. I picked it up with the hopes of it being good, but I really would have bought it regardless, simply because I love Ritter’s music and performance so much. He’s done the author-tour thing, just as other first-time writers would, but with a solid fan base to promote the book, he surely had an easier time filling seats than most.

I’m interested, though. Have any of your idols, musical or otherwise, written a book? Have you read it? Would you, if they haven’t, regardless of content?

5

Ritual

Earlier today, Rachel and I were talking music.  I’ve recently discovered that Rachel has pretty much my exact taste in music, but is also aware of a much larger list of musicians than I am.  She’s the workplace music soulmate I’ve been missing ever since Chasya left us for grad school.  She pointed me to a list of bands she loves that I should check out, which I decided to make my weekend reading background music playlist.

Toward the end of the week, when I have a big reading weekend planned (i.e. when life isn’t planning to intrude on my desire to curl up with a bunch of books and manuscripts), I start to get excited about the ritual of it.  If I’ll be reading at home, there’s preparation that needs doing.  For one, I need to know the order in which I’ll be reading things (so that I can disregard it later, oftentimes).  My Kindle and any books that will take part in our day together need to be stacked upon the coffee table in my living room.  Coffee, of course, must be brewed.  I will have to take the French press with me into the living room, even though pouring another cup will mean going to the kitchen to get milk anyway.  I’ll begin my reading with coffee in the morning, but transition to tea by early afternoon.  Perhaps at lunchtime, there’ll be a stroll about the neighborhood or quick bike ride, just to avoid losing my mind, or an errand to run.  Then, sufficiently wired from caffeine, in the late afternoon or early evening, it shall be time to break out the red wine.  If I can patiently make it through the day from breakfast through dinner—the reading compelling enough, the body not so fidgety, the soccer games of my favorite teams not beckoning me to distraction—then it’s probably time, before bed, to settle down with the thing I’ve most wanted to read, the one that I’ve been promising myself if I am good about reading the others without calling up a friend to make plans or watching TV or going for a bike ride.  And along with that dessert of a book, it’s probably time for a stiff drink of some kind (varying with weather and book).  Then, drained mentally and sleepy from the booze, it’ll be bedtime, eventually.

The reading will be done on the couch, because I lack an awesome reading chair like Michael’s, with liberal use of ottoman (of which I now own two—one bench-like, the other smallish and square).  There will be music, of course, as I mentioned—this weekend, Rachel’s favorite bands, but always something that I like enough to not feel the need to constantly DJ but don’t know well enough to know the words.  I read best with minor distraction from background noise, because total silence makes me look for something with which to distract myself, oddly.  Probably, given the weather, the windows will be wide open, with a cozy blanket close by for later in the evening, when it would be smart to close the windows but the chill is helping to keep me alert.  And of course, the clothes, they shall be comfy.

What about you?  Do you have reading rituals?  When you prepare yourself to really hunker down for a good spell with the written word, do you do things differently than you would to read on the morning commute or before bed or when just picking up the paper casually?  What helps you really immerse yourself in the worlds others present to you?

31

Music on the brain

I go through phases of working with music on in the background. I’m currently in a music-all-the-time phase, rotating through Holy Ghost!, Foster the People, The Sounds, and some Hall & Oates (their greatest hits was on sale!). I find that depending on my mood, having music on can keep me extremely focused, blocking out the background noise and honing my attention. (The only issue is that I obviously turn the music off for calls, and I find myself forgetting to press play when the call is over!) Other times, I find it terribly distracting, and I will work for weeks without any music at all.

I know that authors all work in different ways, and I’m curious to know if you all write with music going. Do you listen to music when you write? If so, what do you listen to? And are you headphone or speakers people? (And anyone I should be listening to?)