Category Archives: Essays

1-2-3-4…And then there were none. Remembering The Ramones

As covers go, The Ramones first album was no Sargent Pepper, just four surly dudes in black leather jackets, ripped jeans and too-small t-shirts, slouched against an alley wall, screw-you looks on their faces and page-boy haircuts (Wha-what?). As I placed the needle on the record—God, I miss that scratchless moment when needle hits virgin vinyl—knowing that I wasn’t going to hear self-conscious art-rock ala King Crimson, or sad introspective singer-songwriter balladeering, or arena-theatrical crocodile rocking, or god-forbid shake-shake-shake your booty-disco dreck. No, The Ramones were the antidote to all that, but I wasn’t quite sure what that would sound like. And then:

Hey Ho, Let’s Go! Hey Ho, let’s go!
They’re forming in straight line
They’re going through a tight wind
The Blitzkrieg Bop

The kids are losing their minds

The Ramones first album cover

The Ramones first album cover

And followed by

Beat on the Brat
Beat on the Brat
Beat on the Brat with a Baseball bat
Oh yeah!

What the hell, what the hell, what the hell! Fourteen songs, each about two-minutes-long delivered slam-bam in your face. God, I just laughed at the audacity and I probably shook my head and wanted to pound something.
I was 26, a young teacher in Snohomish, but I knew I was already too old for punk, and yet I was probably the only person listening to the Ramones. When I tried to play the Ramones for my middle-school students they screamed at me to “turn it off, play Peter Frampton, Bates!” They were the ones who should be growing Mohawks, throwing themselves into the crowds of rowdy, spitting, screaming teenagers, but it was their teacher who longed to dye his hair and spit in the face of authority.

Joey Ramone on the Morton Downey, Jr. show in the mid-’80s

And thus was born Punk (although I would point to The Sonics, early Who, Kinks and Stooges—heck even Blue Cheer—for its true origins). And I loved the Clash, Patti Smith, Television, Talking Heads, The Modern Lovers, X, angry young Brits, Elvis Costello and Graham Parker, and in the ‘80s, The Minutemen, Meat Puppets and Husker Du. Passion and power chords trumped slick glitz and pompous self-importance in my book.
For a number of years it seemed that the Ramones were the Peter Pans of Punk, never growing up, still doing more in a few minutes, armed with a few chords and a daft sensibility, than most rockers could in entire careers. 22 years, over 2,000 shows, alcohol and drug abuse, mental illness, even ideological disputes made for a tumultuous run and the group paid for it. By 2004 all but one of the original Ramones was dead, and last week Tommy Ramone went gaba-gaba goodbye.
With the exception of Joey, that 6-8 beanpole who really rocked that pageboy, I would have been hard-pressed to identify Marky, Joey, Dee Dee, Tommy or any other adopted Ramone boys. There were no studly solos, no pyrotechnics, just scorching, stripped-down two-minute masterpieces that exalted the joys of taking the music to “11,” and yes, sometimes about sniffing glue. R.I.P. Ramones.

A Live Show in London

Against Me seems to be a logical extension of the Ramones

And a nod to the granddads of Punk, The Sonics, here playing in Toronto in 2009

This past week has been tough on music makers: famed conductor, Lorin Maazel; jazz bassist Charlie Haden (he will get his own post later), and then this morning, Johnny Winter.

Lucky 2013 is over Long Live the New Year!

The Grouchy Uncle of Punk

The Grouchy Uncle of Punk

There have been times when I thought of 2013 as one unending string of Friday the 13ths—too much drama, loss:our 17-year-old goldfish (of course, she was named Goldie (Goldie II to be exact, but that’s a whole other story); our miracle cat Sophie; and my cell phone. But there were also moments of great joy: standing on top of Slate Peak, with my 91-year-old father, my brothers, sister-in-law and dear friends, the sky washed clean by rain and all around us the hikes and climbs of our past; an absolutely wonderful Christmas with my two beautiful daughters and wife, two new cats (Maggie and Arthur, who make us equal parts happy and crazy), and books, and movies and music. So here is my alphabetic appreciation for 2013: discoveries, losses, reacquainting with old friends, surprises, but no disappointments (that’s a whole other list).
I have supplied links to many of the artists, rather than trying to create a play list or weigh down the post with YouTube videos.

A.
Andy and David’s Wedding

Maybe the best wedding I ever attended, other than my own, were the April nuptials (I’ve always wanted to use that word) between my brother and David, his partner of over 35 years). A true celebration of love, love that lasts and love that can be joined at the altar.

Ashley Monroe

Ashley Monroe

Ashley Monroe
2013 was a breakout year for great Country Western women. Serious and sad, but never self-pitying and in-your-face funny, the next-generation Loretta Lynns. Ashley Monroe is a member of the Pistol Annies, which includes Miranda Lambert, and I just loved her solo album. Stripped down country, the way it should always be played, few of the romantic notions that sometimes make CW too too sweet

http://ashleymonroe.com/.
B.
Breaking Bad
walter white


 They call the 1950s the Golden Age of TV drama. I’ll give them that, but the last 20 years have been the Golden Age of Cable TV drama, and Breaking Bad is right there at the top. Bryan Cranston was already a favorite of mine as Hapless Hal, Malcolm’s goofy dad. And I was expecting a variation on that role when I first watched Breaking Bad. When I was presented with the dark Walter White, I actually quit after two episodes and it would be a year before I would return and end up mainlining the series into my soul. Bryan Cranston can do anything.

The Blow
This Portland duo won my heart several years ago. Goofy off-the-wall lyrics and frisky beats, minimalist music that is so damned catchy and surprising. Khaela Maricich is the guiding genius behind The Blow, although her new Blow partner Melissa Dyne plays a mean computer.   http://www.theblow.org/
C.
Chance the Rapper
chance the rapper When it comes to rap, I am of two minds: I find even pedestrian rap to be lyrically inventive and at its best breathtaking—I can’t imagine rolling that much alliteration, near-rhyme, simile, allusion, et al, off my tongue and make any sense whatsoever. And when the rhythms are as inventive as the lyrics, watch out!; On the other hand—and hear I fear I will sound fuddy-duddy—while I appreciate the rawness of rap, and am not afraid of profanity—Shit, I embrace it!—I still have a hard time rapping my head around the racial epithets, the misogyny, and homophobia. Sometimes it is difficult to discern irony in those lyrics. I still wrestle with that about Rap.

That being said, Chance the Rapper is just about the best thing since sliced bread. His latest album, Acid Rain, is so lyrical and melodically rich, a feast of figurative language.
And he is disgustingly young. Damn youth!   http://chanceraps.com/

I miss my diagonal grilled cheeses
And back when Mike Jackson was still Jesus
Before, I believed in not believing in
Yeah, I inhaled, who believed in me not breathing in
Cigarette stained smile all covered in sin
My big homie died young, just turned older than him
I seen it happen, I seen it happen, I see it always
He still be screaming, I see his demons in empty hallways
I trip to make the fall shorter

Robert Christgau
I was introduced to Robert Christgau in the pages of Esquire, the big bulky version, in the summer of 1967, when he wrote about the Monterrey Pop Festival. Here was someone taking my music serious, an adult. I continued to follow him in Rolling Stone and Creem. His Consumer Guide contained monthly mini-reviews, sometimes so dense, no amount of rereading could unlock what the hell he was talking about. But he introduced me to more great music. And there was a Consumer Guide for the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s (Where is the new millennium?). With Creem’s demise, I turned to the Village Voice, and when they dumped Christgau (the outrage!), I followed him at MSN, where he renamed the column Expert Witness, and this past year they dumped him and I suppose he is still doing work for NPR, but I miss him. He is the best.  http://www.robertchristgau.com/
D.
Robert DeLong

One of my five favorite albums of the year, Just Move is dance music for existentialists. Here is a sample from “Global Concepts,” which may have even become a bit of a hit somewhere. As you read, imagine dancing like a maniac, because I do (just don’t try to imagine that, please).

I think it burns my sense of truth
To hear me shouting at my youth
I need a way to sort it out.

After I die, I’ll re-awake,
Redefine what was at stake
From the hindsight of a god.

I’ll see the people that I use,
See the substance I abuse,
The ugly places that I lived.

Did I make money? Was I proud?
Did I play my songs too loud?
Did I leave my life to chance
Or did I make you fucking dance?

http://www.robertdelong.com/ And I just found out he’s from Bothell, go figure!

E.
Earl Sweatshirt

Another rapper I enjoyed this past year, for the name alone.

Eastbound and Down
Danny McBride is an acting force of nature, his characters so self-centered, tin-eared, foul-mouthed, and thick-as-a-brick. Yet underlying all that is yearning to be loved, a vulnerability that makes you forgive almost every excess. And McBride is so damn funny. Carol and I fell in love with Eastbound and Down. That I loved it was no surprise. I am a connoisseur of juvenile humor, but Carol? As gross as the McBride character was, she found him lovable and we were sorry to say goodbye to Kenny Powers.
bill fayF. Bill Fay
Okay, so Fay’s albums were re-released in 2012. I didn’t discover him until last July. And, hell, his albums were released in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. So what’s one year. He’s this year’s Rodriguez, that musical gem, whose legend grows with every year, at least among a few people. Moody, a bit mystical, and for my third “M” melodic. I’m trying to compare his voice, a bit John Martynish, or Michael Chapman. His instrument is the piano. Check him out. http://www.billfay.co.uk/

G.
George Saunders

I came to Saunders’ work on a whim at Half-Price Books. I liked the blurbs and I was not disappointed. He creates cracked characters who seem to live normal lives but can’t pull it off. Tenth of December,´ his latest collection of short stories is nothing short of brilliant and funny/sad. I also came across his commencement speech to the students at Syracuse University last year:  http://6thfloor.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/31/george-saunderss-advice-to-graduates/?_r=0  You can also find it on YouTube.

H.
The Handsome Family

I have loved the Handsome Family, Brett Sparks is one of the finest lyricists going and his subjects meld the natural world with the metaphysical world, but as I listened to their latest album, Wilderness, I was nodding off to the soporific rhythms, and thinking, pick up the pace Handsome family, and suddenly in the middle of Octopus, they did. In retrospect, it was a subtle change, but at the time, I almost got up and danced. http://www.handsomefamily.com/

No friend of golden hand
Oiled with rose and smelly then
As your blood burned poppy red
Across your velvet coat
Your deep blue velvet coat

It’s there in Montana prairie grass
The suits shot Custer down
His red spot tired, his black boots shine
How beautiful you look to the flies
The happy kingdom of flies

Dear Custer there’s a Wal-Mart now
Where once the grizzlies roamed
Mountains of hair spray and cowboys shirts
And everyone has a gun
Everyone still has a gun

But high in the rafters above the lights
Red finches, they hide their nest
And when our cars drive out of sight
They sing symphonies across the night
In that forest of heating pipes

And out past the parking lot along the curb
In the wilds of weed and trash
Prayed on his love, the smallest ants
Fight battles for the glory of the queen
Such a tiny, glorious queen

But even the empress of the ants
For whom ten thousand fall
Makes not a sound beneath the blades
Of our great empire of lords
How quiet is the empire of lords

Richie Havens
When KOL opened the FM airwaves to psychedelic/alternative music in 1967, with Lan Roberts at the helm, Richie Havens was on heavy rotations along with the likes of Ultimate Spinach, Clear Light and Fever Tree (Blecch, Blecch, Blecch), and while Havens was a folkie he was such a passionate, unique voice. His music aged well, even if he didn’t’ and died last year, only in his early 70s. http://www.richiehavens.com/official_site/home.html

I.
Jason Isbel

Isbel shook off some might powerful demons and they loom large in this powerful album. He has a beautiful, plaintive voice, and, yes, there are a lot of those on the airwaves, but he also has heart and you can’t fake that. As deep down as he goes, this is a hopeful set of music. He did an engrossing interview with Terri Gross (Jayzus, I just realized what I did there: sorry) on Fresh Air. It was rerun a couple of weeks ago. http://www.npr.org/rss/podcast/podcast_detail.php?siteId=7060034

J.
Valerie June

How to describe Valerie June? She could front the Carolina Chocolate Drops. She has a reedy, soulful voice. Is there such a thing as Appalachian Soul? Totally original. Look at the cover photo on her album and you might think “Soul Diva” but her music is firmly rooted in, well, roots. You will love this album for all sorts of reasons. A couple of other folkie/soul/roots singers worth a listen: Willis Earl Beal and Martha Redbone. http://valeriejune.com/valeri june

George Jones
When it came to the classic Country voices, I always leaned to Merle Haggard, but George Jones was right up there. He lived his songs, which is not necessarily a good thing if you want to live a long, healthy life. I think he did forlorn heartbreak better than either Willie or Merle. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1R2F9f2Cl6Y

K.
Kacey Musgraves

So many great, and I mean great, women Country singers, the anti-polished poppy schlock that seems to cross-over and get called country: Laura Cantrell, Brandy Clark, and Elizabeth Cook needs to release a new album. I chose Kacey over Brandy because I needed a “K.” It’s a flip of the coin. http://www.kaceymusgraves.com/splash

L.
Lou Reed

Lou Reed was a giant, pure and simple. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t a nice man, but neither was George Jones. And genius brings with it its own particular ugliness. (I mean, would a nice person release Metal Machine Music?)I remember sitting around listening to the Velvet Underground and trying to make sense of it, freaking out to “Heroin” being enchanted with Nico. But it was Lou Reed who kick-started punk, years before the Pistols or Ramones. And He proved that punk could grow old without getting warm and fuzzy. And it is so sad, and yet so perfect, that his last album was the disastrous collaboration with Metallica, “Lulu.” http://www.loureed.com/inmemoriam/

WLS-Larry-Lujack-KJR-Lan-Roberts1Larry Lujack
In the early days of Beatle Madness, when I began to listen to KJR, there were two names, Pat O’Day and Larry Lujack. And I think I liked Lujack better than O’Day (My favorite jock, though, was Tom Murphy and just now I googled him and found he is still working, in Portland, mind-blowing). When he went to Chicago I was sad, but I remember on car trips back to the Midwest, we would occasionally pick up WGN and there would be Lujack and I would be proud. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bl_Q9dMHxjY

M.
Marjorie Manwaring

Over the decades I have probably seen almost 7,000 students walk in and out of my various classrooms, and I wonder where they will go, what they will achieve whether there’s will be lives of unrelieved heartbreak and loss or moments of joy and satisfaction. Will any of them be famous? Will they remember me? In this past year, I have rediscovered a couple of students who have followed their passions and made music, one with her words and another with his voice.
Marjorie was in my 8th grade journalism class many years ago, late ‘70s, a bright girl, earnest and creative. And then last year I rediscovered her as a poet who had published her first collection, Search for a Velvet-lined Cape. My oh my, what a treat. A playful voice speaking of magic, hope, longing, mysterious nature, the common every-day, the tabloid, Zelda Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. And I must add, she has a wicked good sense of humor. I had the chance to attend a reading, and I can’t wait to attend another. Here is a sample of her poetry:

ManwaringWEBFRONT_NEW-225x300TREASURE

Somewhere there’s a key, lost
in the rubble of a cobwebbed garage

or wedged in the corner of a moss-covered shed.
Who will find it, hold it in her hand,

rub away the rust and muck?
What you hope for—not treasure in a padlocked box

but another unlocking:
rush of strawberry air, hint of hay

that years ago kept you awake;
climbing down the fire ladder, over the gate,

meeting your best friend in moonlit pasture
to ride your father’s horses bareback—remember

how you’d turn toward home when you heard the horn
of the morning’s first ferry crossing the bay?

Hey Marseilles, Matt Bishop in the middle

Hey Marseilles, Matt Bishop in the middle

Matt Bishop (Hey Marseille)
Matt Bishop was the happiest, most congenial, kindest 8th grade boys ever! He was a student in my Desktop Publishing class (I have worn many hats in the classroom). He laughed at my jokes, and, like Marjorie, did creative work. And then last year, a high school teacher mentions this group “Hey Marseilles” and that Matt was a member. Member, hell, he is the lead singer and I defy you to find a purer voice. The group manages to walk the tightrope between sweet melody and cloying. I hope to catch them in concert this year. http://heymarseilles.com/

N.
Nebraska

nebraska
I put Nebraska on this list even before I saw it, so sure I was going to love it, the way I had loved the Descendants and Sideways. And I was right. This black and white movie lets the Great Plains talk as much as the lead character, Woody Grant, played magnificently by Bruce Dern. Grant says very little, is crusty, but by the end of the movie, we understand this man, his life and desires and it is beautiful. The movie is also an elegy for the disappearing small towns of the plains. And June Squibb, who plays Dern’s wife, is hilariously grouchy, touching and real.

North Mississippi All-stars
The sons of Jim Dickinson—okay, you probably don’t know him, but he was a member of the Dixie Flyers who backed almost every band and artist who passed through the South, played piano on the Stones “Wild Horses,” that alone qualifies him for Rock and Roll heaven. He produced Big Star and the Replacements, okay back to the NMAS—these guys are as earthy and dirty as bluesy rock and blues get. And I love them. The fact that they have been around since 1996 and I am just now enjoying them, well no excuses. http://www.nmallstars.com/about/

Night Beds
Just another pretty voice, I guess, if you are a cynical bastard, but Night Beds play perfect music for rainy days when you feeling particularly nostalgic, which for me is about half the time. http://www.nightbeds.org/

O.
Peter O’Toole

Just about my favorite actor ever. I guess my pantheon includes SpencerTracy, Jimmy Stewart, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Gene Hackman and Zac Efron (Okay, I was going to leave this last name alone, figuring everyone would assume I was joking. I WAS JOKING!). I have never seen Lawrence of Arabia or Becket or Lion in Winter or Lord Jim, O’Toole’s dashing leading man/Shakespearean hotshot era movies. I came to him in the second half of his career, The Stuntman, My Favorite Year, where he played off his larger-than-life persona. Looking at his IMBD filmography, he starred in a lot of shit, but the gems were unforgettable. Now, I am going to go back and catch the early O’Toole. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eTbLkYmWZJo

P.
Bernadette Peters

This is the Facebook post I wrote after seeing Bernadette Peters play with the Seattle Symphony. Pure Joy!

While on our honeymoon, Carol and I saw Bernadette Peters on Broadway in “Sunday in the Park” and we never quite got her out of our head. She is the quintessential Broadway voices–arguably the greatest interpreter of Sondheim ever. When we found out she would be singing with the Seattle Symphony, we had to get tickets. Unfortunately, Carol was in Atlanta last night. Fortunately for niece Sara, she was around and the two of settled in our row two seats. And when she glided onto the stage, she was less than ten freakin’ feet away. I started to hyperventilate, but hung in there. Her first song was No One Alone. And she was wearing the dress that she wore in London (see video, and you must). Oh My Goodness. She breathed life in to a song I couldn’t bear to hear anymore (Send in the Clowns), didn’t try to out Elaine Stritch in The Ladies Who Lunch, waltzed out into the crowd for There is Nothing Like a Dame, stretched out on the piano to sing a blistering Fever. After that she did two Sondheim songs and tears starting running down her face, and her nose got red and I wondered what the hell had triggered that. Afterwards, I asked Sarah, “Real or acting.” She said, “acting” and I said, “damn, she had me from tear one.” She only did one from Sunday in the Park but that was okay because there isn’t a song that she can’t sing (I suspect she could do a dandy “Beat on the Brat”). For her encore she sang a lullaby she wrote for a children’s book she also wrote. She sings it to her dog. She stepped into the audience and at one point she stopped in front of me, looked me in the eyes and sang just to me, and I got the goofiest, stupidest, ridiculousest, gooniest look on my face and I just stared moonstruck, and then she moved down the row behind us and as she passed she gently touched my back with her hand. Oh Christ, be still my beating heart…Needless to say, an all-timer. And that dress, ooh-la-la!

Q.
See Z

R.
Seth Rogan/James Franco Bound Video

So, I want to love Kanye West with all my musical heart—he is a genius—but he just does shit…Kim Kardashian is one of those things and the video “Bound” which he premiered on “Ellen,” and the Bates/Roorbachs just love “Ellen,” left me completely flummoxed. As stupid a piece of musical film-making as I have ever seen. Even Ellen looked stunned. If you haven’t watched it, check it out here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BBAtAM7vtgc Then check out the parody that James Franco and Seth Rogan did days afterwards: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nRckgn36lzY
Pure effin’ genius!

Rhye
The most soulful woman’s voice you will hear this year is a man’s. Rhye, two guys, but it is difficult to know by going to their official website. I think they enjoy the androgynous musical mystery. But whatever, easy on the ears. Sort of Sade-like.
http://www.rhyemusic.com/tagged/official

S.
Sophie the Cat

P1010636
2013 we lost our goldfish of 17 years—the best dime I ever spent—who grew to mammoth size and watch TV with us for years and years. She is buried underneath the Japanese Cherry in our front lawn. And then in the late Fall we said goodbye to Sophie, the most lovely cat in the world, who brightened our every day. The cat who put up with so much loving abuse from my daughters, who loved her to death, and always wanted to know about her first, whenever we talked on the phone when they went off to college. Who broke our hearts when she disappeared for almost two days, and then by chance we found her locked in our neighbor Becky’s garage. She was our north star when we lost our way. And we miss her dearly. She is buried beneath the big picture window in Isabella’s room where she spent so many hours watching the world go by.

T.
The Mariners

Okay, this is the year, yes it is. I’ve been wrong for 37 years, but this is the year. You can take it to the bank!

U.
Upset

Join the drummer from Vivian Girls and Best Coast along with the drummer from Hole and you have a perfect melding of the three. Powerpeppypunky, yeah that’s the ticket. This is a fun group. https://www.facebook.com/weareUPSET

V.
Vampire Weekend

vampire weekend
Robert Christgau gave “Modern Vampires of the City” an A+ and compared it to “Sergeant Pepper.” Well, I had to take notice. And I get it. This is probably my favorite album of the year, certainly the one I have returned to more than any other. It has a sense of bigness to it without being bloated, without seeming to try too hard. Each cut is a treat, something different, and yet it holds together as a piece. Remarkable, I say! http://www.vampireweekend.com/

W.
Jonathan Winters

When I was in my early teens, I got hooked on the Jack Paar Show, 10 p.m. on NBC every Friday. Paar was unlike any other talk show host I had ever seen (Okay, I hadn’t seen all that many, but we’re talking Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas) and he had the most interesting guests, from Groucho Marx, Oscar Levant and most importantly, Jonathan Winters. Winters was a crazy funny genius and you just let him go and create. Give him a stick and he would create ten different hilarious scenarios in ten seconds. Paar was the perfect venue for him. Movies and TV were too constricting. Given the room that Robin Williams and Jim Carey were given, I wonder what Winters might have done. I was so sad when he died. I have linked to a 60 Minutes segment on Winters and includes Robin Williams. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iDJjq0Pd0RM And here he is on the Jack Paar Show in 1964 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUTlGLnN8pI jonathan winters

Jess Walter
Jess Walter is this generation’s Raymond Carver, although he seems to laugh more than Carver. I loved his short story collection, We Live In Water. I love everything he writes, well not everything, but at the very least like a lot. I also enjoyed John Banville’s Long Lankin, a short story collection he wrote when he was a lad in 1970. I can spend an hour appreciating one page for the sheer genius of the writing. I must get back to his novel The Sea. I bogged down on that one. And I just found out he wrote the screenplay for Albert Nobbs.

X.
See Z

Y.
Young Adult Fiction

As I was writing this, one of our new cats raced in crawled up my back and dug his/her claws into my back. WTF? I am not a scratching post. And, now I’m bleeding. I will be back…I’m back. Oh yeah, Young Adult Fiction: I think kids today have so much more to choose from. Lots of great authors like Francine Prose, Joyce Carol Oates, Sherman Alexie, Roddy Doyle, Nick Hornby, Reynolds Price, Carl Hiasson, Salman Rushdie, are writing for young adults. And so many writers I had never heard of: Kimberly Willis Holt, David Almond, Tom McNeal, Kathy Appelt, Sally Gardner, Janet Taylor Lisle, Patricia MacLachlan…
Here is a short list of great young adult fiction I have read this past year:

Black Duck & The Art of Keeping Cool by Janet Taylor Lisle
I Coriander & The Red Necklace by Sally Gardner
The Far Far Away by Tom McNeal
The Real Boy by Anne Ursu
The Underneath by Kathy Appelt
My Name is Mina & Jackdaw Summer by David Almond
A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
Luka and Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Grandfather’s Dance by Patricia MacLachlan
When Zachary Beaver Came to Town by Kimberly Willis Holt
The Dreamer by Pam Munoz Ryan
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
The Storm Catchers by Tim Bowler

Z.
Her directed by Spike JonZe and starring JoaQuin PhoeniX is the most improbable love story but one of the best. That Joaquin Phoenix convinces us that he has fallen in love with an operating system is nothing short of miraculous. He has become one of the most interesting actors of the new millennium. Spike Jonze’s movies are so oddly lovable: Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Where the Wild Things Are, and so totally original.

Sonic Literacy: Re: The Sound and the Fury

When Mac brought up the idea of writing a blog post in homage of literary ties to music we like, I knew I was at an immediate disadvantage. Mac is a well read individual if ever there was one. My wife and I spend at least 50% of our reading time consuming texts recommended by Mac. I had a feeling I could look through my music library for days and miss about 75% of the allusions in titles not directly related to my distinctly pigeonholed taste in literature. (More on that later.) So I started to break down my understanding of literature the way one might structure a middle school language arts class, and try and identify artists who embody the best representation I know of various elements that work together to constitute good literature. For the creation of interesting, dynamic characters in under four minutes, Buck 65’s ‘Centaur’ stands out above the rest. The use of simile goes to The Blow for ‘Sky Opened Wide Like the Tide,’ as does a nod for a poetic rhyme scheme. ‘Monster’ by Kanye West effectively constructs metaphor, and makes for a fucking scary music video. For a fully structured plot, ‘Dancing with the Devil’ by Immortal Technique carries a story arc from start to finish in under five minutes. In terms of creatively interpreting the all important rules concerning grammar, ‘LigHt Years AHead’ by Schoolboy Q and ‘Dollaz & Sense’ by Blakroc make for ideal mini lessons, aside from the actual words in the songs. But they do embody a willingness to experiment with the English language, as does ‘Wordplay’ by Wale, along with almost everyone else mentioned in this list. I even tried to account for exposure to various literary genres, be it an (alleged) biography of Anne Frank done by Neutral Milk Hotel as In the Aeroplane Over the Sea or a full on character driven novel (or musical equivalent thereof), in Separation Sunday by The Hold Steady. Below I’ve compiled a playlist spanning all the songs mentioned and/or my favorite track off the album.

While the songs above bore some abstract connection to the concept of a literary connection, the list left me feeling as if I hadn’t done a proper job of exploring the connection between music and literature, at least as it relates to my consumption of the two. So I started writing down a hand full of titles spanning some of the favorite books I’ve read in the last ten years of my life, an admittedly typecast list. I started by going back to Freshman year of college, where the first book I read all the way through (not ever, just that year) was A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean. This book set the stage for the textual pattern that was to emerge, but at the time I was struck by the power the book had to read like it was the most important document in the history of humankind while remaining perfectly simple and relatively brief. The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway followed shortly thereafter, also in the tradition of finding strength in honest simplicity. And this is where my list begins, comparing The Sun Also Rises to my favorite Avett Brothers album, The Robbinsville Sessions.

Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and The Avett Brothers’ The Robinsville Sessions The Avett Brothers start Robbinsville with the song ‘Talk on Indolence,’ the most memorable verse in the chorus being something about remembering at time I got raging drunk with you. Hemingway also got raging drunk for most of The Sun Also Rises. Beyond the literal, booze soaked connection though, both the Avetts and Hemingway have produced some of the truest prose ever written, using a plaintive, earnest voice to record what’s right in front of them. Put side to side, a pretty girl from an airport ends up just as affecting as a bullfight, and arguably equally sentimental.

William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch and Buck 65’s This Right Here is Buck 65One of Buck 65’s early albums is titled Language Arts. While it’s always been hard for me to go back and listen to the much less raspy rhymes of his early work, there has been a constant thread of avant garde linguistic progress through the entire Buck 65 catalog, This Right Here the quintessential example of his particular flow. When I read Naked Lunch I was often confused, occasionally completely lost, regularly disturbed and consistently hypnotized by the power of language. The exact same could be said for This Right Here.

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Ghostface Killah’s FishscaleWhen Mac first pitched the idea of a literary themed write up, Ghostface was the second artist to come to mind after Colin Meloy. On most Ghostface albums, Fishscale in particular, verbal styling for the sake of linguistic vanity come second to the stories, each one a compelling yarn about life in the underbelly of America in the tradition set of chronicling the counter culture, at least in part, by Jack Kerouac. If Kerouac were around today, documenting his brand of oppo-conformist behavior, college freshman would relate to, but often outdo his style of debauchery. Ghostface’s stories run about ten times more devious than anything Kerouac could have imagined doing, but pay homage to his cadence, respect for the words and dubious moral standards. Unintentionally I’d imagine.

Tom Robbins’ Still Life With Woodpecker and Animal Collective’s Strawberry JamLayers of sound compounded in a surreal mode of infinite playfulness, ultimately constructing text relevant enough to weather generations. That goes for both of them, in case anyone was wondering. Given the change in the pace of information between the debut of Still Life with Woodpecker in 1980 and Animal Collective’s Strawberry Jam in 2007, it’s a testament to Animal Collective’s staying power they are still on the upshot of their career five years later. And it’s a testament to Robbins in 1980 that Still Life With Woodpecker is basically required reading for any modern college kid who’d like to be taken seriously by their peers.

Hunter S. Thompson’s Kingdom of Fear and Street Sweeper Social Club’s The Ghetto Blaster EPIn the lyrics to ‘Everythang,’ Boots Riley, front man for Street Sweeper, preaches, “Every cop is a corrupt one / If you ain’t got no cash up in a trust fund…Every slave story present tense / Every uprise a consequence / Every time it be something sweet / Every banker is a fucking thief…” This is about as true as the line in Kingdom of Fear when Hunter Thompson describes the complaisant American populace as “..not just Whores for power and oil, but killer whores with hate and fear in our hearts. We are human scum, and that is how history will judge us. No redeeming social value. Just whores. Get out of our way, or we’ll kill you. Who does vote for these dishonest shitheads? Who among us can be happy and proud of having all this innocent blood on our hands? Who are these swine? These flag-sucking half-wits who get fleeced and fooled by stupid little rich kids like George W. Bush.” I think Thompson, had he stuck around long enough to see the occupy movement remind the collective American psyche of our potential to wipe the shit out of our eyes and take a stand against the bastards working tirelessly to send us back into the dark ages, would have reveled in seeing Boots Riley center stage at protest rallies in Oakland.

Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room and Wu Lyf’s Go Tell Fire to the MountainThe common factor between both texts is the idea they are transcendent of the boundaries typically applied to the genre they originated in. In Mawer’s case, a premise of affluent Jews living in central Europe during the Nazi regime ends up being a story much less about political persecution, never mind the Holocaust, than an exploration the boundaries between lust, marriage, love and friendship. For Wu Lyf, the premise of a pseudo death growl, organ chords nothing short of ominous, a double kick pedal and the word ‘heavy’ in their album title end up sounding like something well within the boundaries of pop. Which is why it’s probably the other word in the title of one of the album’s songs.

Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love and Tennis’ Cape DoryBoth are undeniably sweet, undeniably reliant upon a preexisting pathos, and don’t waste one line being anything less than honest and reliably profound.

Charlie Huston’s Caught Stealing and Tyler, the Creator’s GoblinHuston and Tyler alike spend most of their time wallowing in–and adding new theoretical acts to–the worst of what humanity is capable of. Despite the lurid appeal of the content, both end up coming off as infinitely easy to consume as a whole and undeniable in their mass appeal.

Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted FantasyWhen I think Kesey, despite his relatively small body of heavily circulated literary work, ‘massive’ is still the first word to come to mind, thanks largely to Sometimes a Great Notion, and more than likely Wolfe’s Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. Identifying the musical equivalent of Sometimes a Great Notion alone is a daunting task, as it stands out to me as one of the most challenging (through the complexity of construction alone) and important books I’ve ever read. For me, Kanye West’s body of work, and his manufactured (but probably actual) personality, are the closest an artist gets to Sometimes a Great Notion. Never mind direct comparisons between the two as individual humans–which is likely sparse–the work they create both defies convention and embodies ambition. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Sometimes a Great Notion, through artistic conception alone, toed a treacherous ridge above similar attempts met with hamartic failure (think most movies Kevin Costner has been responsible for.) Kesey and Kanye, however, succeeded in creating text that is, if not larger than life, larger than 99% of what anyone else would dare attempt, and ultimately nothing short of genius.