Category Archives: music

4

Good music

With apologies to Miriam for shamelessly ripping off her recent blogmy life has revolved around two things recently: work and music. As some of you might know, I used to sing and play guitar in a few bands back in the day, and I spent a couple of summers as a camp music counselor as well. Even majored in music in college, though I think that says more about my school’s lax curriculum than my musical abilities…

Anyway, my musical endeavors these days consist of screwing around on Garageband and playing for two boys who occasionally tolerate Daddy singing weird songs about bowling skinheads and some guy named Alex Chilton. But back in in December, a choice guest spot backing up the Manhattan School for Children’s winter hootenanny rekindled the performance itch, and so tomorrow I’ve got my first real gig in years–I’m playing 4 songs for my oldest’s kindergarten class. Needles to say, I’m terrified!

Okay, what does any of this have to do with books? Well, as I’ve written before, I do love rock bios and other books about music, and I’ve had the good fortune to place a few music-related titles as well. But it’s a tough market, especially for anything not written by or about an aging 60′s rock star. Yes, books about punk, jazz, classical, even hip-hop occasionally end up on the Big Six’s lists, but it’s hard to think of many that have broken out in recent years the way Keith Richard’s LIFE did–the numbers for PLEASE KILL ME, OUR BAND COULD BE YOUR LIFE or THE BIG PAYBACK pale in comparison.

So, like non-baseball sports books, is this a case of publishers not knowing or reaching their audience, or are 60s fans the only ones who buy books en masse? Of course the 60s inspire a lot of writers, but to the exclusion of other eras? Does gender play a role? Or is it simply that the music book category is so small that it takes a major celebrity to sell a book in serious numbers?

Well, I’d love to hear thoughts, because I do want to sign more music books across the board. What kinds of music books do you read and why? Are there any subjects, genres, or people you want to read about? What are your all-time favorites?

And if anyone wants to send good vibes my way tomorrow around 8:30 a.m., I’ll take them! I hear these kids today can be a pretty tough crowd…

2

A whole new genre…

Crossing genres is always fun, and so when I saw this Buzzfeed listing titled “If Pop Songs Were Works of Classic Literature,” there was no way I wasn’t clicking to see. The results are wonderful, overly writerly passages based on silly pop ditties and I loved every one of them. Here’s my shot at one:

  SK8rBoi

“One could hardly blame her for her prejudices. She was, after all a blue-blooded, white-collared, silver-spoon fed debutante who had never known anything beyond the ivy-clad walls in which she’d spent her formative years.

“It was hardly Penelope’s fault, then, that it took four years of skipping home from Madame Delphine’s Dance Académie surrounded by the trills and chatter of the very best of her friends, ballet shoes slung over their shoulders, for her to even notice him, the boy in artful tatters and skinned knees whose eyes followed her with a longing that could only be matched by the fervor with which he practiced his art over and over again.

“It seemed unlikely, this, the ballet princess and the gutter punk, and perhaps, maybe it was. But the best stories are the unlikely ones, are they not?”

I wrote that sample off the cuff with no edits, and that’s half the fun. Writing with the purpose of being groan-inducing and completely purple is kind of one of my favorite sorts of writing exercises. It’s really freeing when you intentionally remove not only the self-imposed need to self-edit, but make the whole point of the exercise a chance to poke fun at your most frustrating tendencies (mine are, obviously, dreamy imagery, extra-long and confusing sentences).

So have at it. Do your worst (really) and let me know what you come up with! I promise, it’s fun, and writing for writing’s sake is the best practice there is.

0

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!
0

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?