Eight Musicians Who've Proved Themselves Damn Fine Authors
Thanks to Frankenstorm, a whole slate of concerts has been wiped out tonight and tomorrow, including this evening's Joshua Radin/A Fine Frenzy gig at Best Buy Theater--it's been rescheduled for Sunday, Nov. 4. As it turns out, Alison Sudol, the brainy beauty behind AFF, is about more than just music, though. Forever literary minded--her songs are steeped in imagery directly inspired by C.S. Lewis, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and others; she also had an online book club going at BuzzFeed for a while--Sudol penned the 119-page e-book The Story of Pines as a companion piece to A Fine Frenzy's new album, Pines (songs from which she would have performed tonight...oh well).
Beautifully illustrated and partially interactive, The Story of Pines spins a simple and sweet tale about a lonely pine tree that uproots itself and goes on a journey of self-discovery. Too precious for your miserable heart? Fine. Thing is, Sudol's hardly the first musician to turn author. And since Frankenstorm probably means no concerts AND no electricity for a couple days, maybe your only entertainment option is to curl up next to the candles with a good book (or e-book). Below are some notable books written by musicians--some decidedly darker than The Story of Pines, some not. We kept it to fictional prose, so no memoirs (sorry, Scott Stapp), no poetry (sorry, Patti Smith), and, though they technically would count, no fucking Jimmy Buffett novels (we're not sorry).
In 2006, Willy Vlautin--frontman of the Portland, Oregon alt-country outfit Richmond Fontaine--released his shattering debut novel, The Motel Life. Channeling the ghosts of Steinbeck and Carver, it's a downcast, affecting tale of a pair of brothers--living in seedy motels, working odd jobs, and drinking themselves into oblivion, they're already existing on the margins--whose lives crumble even further after one of them accidentally runs over a boy on a bicycle. Vlautin's written two more excellent novels since: Northline, about a twentysomething alcoholic waitress searching for a better life than the one she has with her abusive Nazi-skinhead boyfriend, and Lean on Pete, about a homeless teenage boy who befriends a broken down racehorse on his way to find a long-lost aunt. The Motel Life's still our favorite, by a nose. Not exactly a pick-me-up, but well worth picking up.
If Nick Cave's involved, you know there's gonna be sex, violence, sin and salvation, and his darkly hilarious, disturbing, quasi-apocalyptic 2009 novel The Death of Bunny Munro's got all of that in spades. Maybe not much salvation, actually. Bunny Munro's a despicable, misanthropic, sociopathic traveling cosmetics salesman whose over-the-top depravity is easy to hate and love all at once (much like Walter White in last season's Breaking Bad). Bunny drives his depressed wife to suicide by cheating on her with hookers whose "nipples look like the triggers on those mines they floated in the sea to blow up ships in the war." He gleefully cons his customers and happily yanks his nine-year-old son down the road to oblivion. Oh yeah, he's an unrepentant sex addict who, at one point--after listening to a Kylie Minogue song, picturing her in hot pants, passing by a group of "pudgy mall-trawlers with their smirking midriffs and frosted lipstick," and noticing a Wonderbra billboard--pulls the car over "and beats off, a big, happy smile on his face, and dispenses a gout of goo into a cumencrusted sock he keeps under the car seat." Delightful! Added bonus: The novel also features a serial killer with horns who offs his female victims with a pitchfork. Oh Nick, you devil.
Louise Wener, who as frontwoman of Sleeper was one of the most prominent female voices of the '90s U.K. Britpop scene (their cover of Blondie's "Atomic" was a highlight of the Trainspotting soundtrack), published her sparkling debut novel Goodnight Steve McQueen in 2002. Note the little pull quote on the cover above: "If you liked High Fidelity you'll love Goodnight Steve McQueen." There's definitely some Nick Hornbyness to this funny, kinda sentimental, not overly schmaltzy tale of Danny (born Steve) McQueen, a loveable loser-ish video store clerk who still thinks he can make it huge with his band, Dakota. He's also got the requisite girlfriend, Alison, who's fed up with supporting his rock star dreams both emotionally and financially and wants him to give it up, grow up and get a real job so the pair can have a real life. The book's shot through with little details of the hardscrabble life of a struggling musician that only someone like Wener, who's been down that road, can properly convey, and her ear for dialogue is aces. Woulda made a great movie if High Fidelity hadn't come first.
Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy did a fine job on his 33 1/3 book about the Replacements' Let It Be, but he really came into his own last year with his young-adult fantasy yarn Wildwood, packed with compelling illustrations by his wife, artist Carson Ellis. In it, bicycle-and-bird crazy seventh-grader Prue and her classmate Curtis journey into a magical forest--populated by all sorts of creatures and figures both benevolent and malevolent--to rescue Prue's baby brother Mac from a wicked sorceress. There are definitely Lord of the Rings overtones, and Meloy drew generously from the topography and vibe of his hometown Portland, Oregon; so much so that a New York Times review of the book noted that "sometimes things get almost too Portlandy, as though the characters from the brilliant TV satire Portlandia have gotten lost in Narnia." It's still a great read, enhanced by Ellis's terrific artwork, and like the Harry Potter books--and Sudol's The Story of Pines, for that matter--there's almost as much appeal here for adults as kids. It's more than 500 pages long, but should you finish it and want more, Meloy and Ellis just published a sequel--Under Wildwood: The Wildwood Chronicles, Book II.
Punk legend Richard Hell, he of Voidoids, Television, and Heartbreakers fame, might be an even better and more inspiring novelist than his is/was a musician. 2005's brilliant Godlike, like Cave's Bunny Munro, swims in the deep end of sexual obsession; Hell's gritty decadence reads more intimate and vulnerable than Cave's farce-horror, however. Godlike is written as a fictional memoir by poet Paul Vaughn, who, hospitalized in a mental ward in 1997, looks back 25 years to his affair with aspiring poet "T.," a 16-year-old boy who writes Vaughn a fan letter, encounters him at a party, and pretty soon they're going at it in a puddle of vomit in Vaughn's cruddy apartment, driving away Vaughn's pregnant wife. The novel plays out as a re-imagining of the storied relationship between 19th century French poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, merging sex, love, religion, and artistic rivalry against a backdrop of the mid-'70s East Village. Powerful, vivid stuff.
Sometimes you--or your kids--just wanna read a sickeningly sweet story about a awkward, klutzy goddamned bulldog named Noelle who's adopted by a little girl, then feels like she doesn't fit in with the taller, more stately, more graceful animals around her. Sometimes you just want to see your own insecurities and self-doubt and feelings of alienation and isolation articulated in the struggles of a little dog, who ultimately proves her worth with her own unique skill set and is embraced by the little girl who of course loved her unconditionally all along, making for a happy ending that you can cry your fucking eyes out to. Thank you, Gloria Estefan, for providing us that catharsis.
Josh Ritter the songwriter: Mehhh, kinda boring. Josh Ritter the novelist: Holy shit. We never would have considered picking up Bright's Passage if not for the enthusiastic recommendation by a friend whose literary tastes are impeccable, and she was right. This compact, moving, imaginative novel centers around Henry Bright, a World War I veteran who goes back to his Appalachian roots where, joined by an angel in the form of a horse, he welcomes into the world a baby destined to be "The Future King of Heaven," buries his wife after she dies during the labor, sets fire to their home, then takes off with the angel and a goat while his dead wife's cray-cray father, "The Colonel," and her equally fucked-up brothers chase after. It's bizarre, but the prose is fluid, evocative, at times just dazzling. Stephen King enjoyed it, albeit with some reservations, as noted in his New York Times review: "At its best, Bright's Passage shines with a compressed lyricism that recalls Ray Bradbury in his prime...given such tasty language, it might be mean-spirited to wish for a little more texture and depth, villains a little more villainous and many fewer adverbs, which are the beginning writer's plaintive way of asking, Am I getting through to you?" Fair enough. Bright's Passage definitely has us looking forward to Ritter's next novel more than his next album.
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