Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Patti Smith, and six other musicians with literary chops

Posted By on Tue, Nov 30, 2010 at 9:22 AM

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe
  • Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe

Illuminating post-punk figure Patti Smith recently won the National Book Award for her non-fiction account of her relationship with famed photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. But "Just Kids" is only the latest installment of Smith's fruitful writing career; she's published ten previous books of poetry and lyrics. Here are five other artists who have earned their fair share of literary merits.

1. Dave Berman

Like many other artists on this list, the Silver Jews' frontman's work as a songwriter nudges closely to poetry itself. Consider these lines from "People" off of Silver Jew's classic American Water:

I love to see a rainbow from a garden hose /

lit up like the blood of a centerfold /

I love the city and the city rain /

suburban kids with biblical names.

Berman's command of imagery is astounding in his songs, but his poetry collection, Actual Air, proves that Berman has the chops of a late twentieth century pop-poetry master. Actual Air is a dazzling little book that contains verse and poem cycles that fit in with the silly, surreal (yet sentimental) poetry of Dean Young and Billy Collins. Collins coincidentally provides a great blurb on the back of Actual Air, proclaiming that "this is the voice I have been waiting so long to hear."

2. Yoko Ono

Sure, Ono's Grapefruit is disgustingly pretentious. After all, the book is composed of "event scores," which are conceptual recipes for challenging perception. Yet, despite her clinical approach of using these devices, these pieces aren't just conceptual art; they're emotionally sensitive scenarios that, in their diminutive size, are fully-formed narratives. Removed from their conceit as practical instructions, these hypothetical formulas not only convey Ono's delight and whimsy with the world -- they tell stories. For example "Pieces for Orchestra":





No. 3

Take off.

1962 summer

Withholding time and situation, the event being scored in this piece is vague, yet direct. Imagine the slow removal of clothing. Peel a little bit off, peek at your  -- or your partner's -- naked bits, and then take it all off. The beauty of these pieces is that they are vague and direct enough to make the reader imagine the situation for him or herself.

3. Leonard Cohen

Badass songwriter Leonard Cohen was already a published author before his first album, The Songs of Leonard Cohen, came out in 1967. He had published collections of poetry and two novels before beginning his career as a singer-songwriter. His experimental second novel, Beautiful Losers, is held in high regard in his native Canada.

4. Bill Callahan

The short epistolary Letters To Emma Bowlcut deeply resembles the master songwriter's lyrics. As a musician, Callahan rattles off show-stopping lines with the fine tuned grace of a man who's been to the void and back. As a writer, Callahan accomplishes much the same, imbuing his words with a similar wry, distanced irony.

5. Nick Cave

He may be the man with the dirtiest mind alive; but, Nick Cave's extracurricular projects not only include novels, but screenplays as well. His second novel, The Death of Bunny Munro, was met with a great deal of acclaim, and the film of his script for the gruesome outback Western, The Proposition, was hailed by many as a modern Australian classic. Cave's literary and film projects stretch back into early on his career; his first novel, the awesomely-titled And the Ass Saw the Angel, came out in 1989 and his first script was developed into a film in 1988. During his tenure with the Bad Seeds and Grinderman, Cave has been called to develop other film projects, including a wildly speculative sequel to Gladiator, commissioned by its star and fellow Aussie Russell Crowe.

6. The Walkmen

The Walkmen's exquisite corpse novel, John Journey, may sound like a collective novel you started with your friends while getting high and passing around the laptop. According the band's singer, Hamilton Leithhauser, "When we used to tour a lot in 2004, you just get so bored in the van, you just can't believe it. There was this idea of writing an 800-page novel. Then we actually really worked on it for like 2 years." It's not clear if the book will ever become a legitimate enterprise, short of its status as a running joke between the band that has spilled out into their fanbase. (Based on the "excerpts" released online, we can expect the final work to be an absurd, shaggy-dogged tale.) John's Journey probably won't have much literary merit after all; but it will give a glimpse into the life of a band on the road, killing time and trying to make each laugh.

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