The Bookworms of NYC's Music Scene Talk Literature That Rocks

Halimah Marcus of Electric Literature
Halimah Marcus of Electric Literature
Courtesy of Halimah Marcus

For most lovers of music, that passion goes hand in hand with a love of books. From lit-obsessed bands like the Smiths to novels like High Fidelity, the worlds of both creative forms continue to collide. For Electric Literature editorial director and Recommended Reading editor-in-chief Halimah Marcus, Saddle Creek’s Conor Oberst was one of the many artists who led her to the written word. “I was listening to Bright Eyes when I was in high school and it was something that everyone knew about me, even my teachers,” Marcus explains. “My writing teacher read in a magazine that Oberst really liked The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, so they told me to read it, and Carson McCullers has become one of my favorite authors.... I’ve read almost everything that she's written.”

In addition to McCullers’s prose, Marcus’s love for music has led her to memorable reads like Carrie Brownstein’s forthcoming memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, out October 27; Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad, which Marcus considers to be a “classic survey of indie bands”; and Jennifer Egan's widely celebrated A Visit From the Goon Squad. “It’s about the music industry, but it’s largely set in New York, and it has a certain musicality to it because of the way Egan puts constraints on herself for certain chapters,” Marcus explains. “There’s this one chapter that’s called 'The Greatest Pauses in Rock and Roll,' and it's done in a PowerPoint presentation. Its really powerful and moving.”

Much like Marcus’s discovery of McCullers via an indie-rock wunderkind, the love rock critic and scholar Laina Dawes (author of What Are You Doing Here: A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal) has for Hubert Selby Jr.’s work began with Henry Rollins. “When [Rollins] first left Black Flag, he put out at least two or three albums, very independent, very underground, that were really bluesy and heavy,” says Dawes. “When he put out The End of Silence...he talked a lot about his depression and emotional pain, but he also talked about what he did to get over it. Because of that, I started collecting all of his books. He turned me on to one of my favorite authors, Hubert Selby Jr. It just spoke to me and really made me think about how [Selby] inspired Rollins. Writing was cathartic for him, it’s what saved his life.”

For Dawes, as a music journalist, cultural criticism is just as vital as narratives that have sparked inspiration or catharsis. Books like Daphne Carr’s addition to the 33 1/3 series exploring Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine, along with Kandia Crazy Horse’s Rip It Up: The Black Experience in Rock 'n' Roll and Lisa Jones’s Bulletproof Diva, are not only noteworthy, but vital to her own writing and experience as a connoisseur.

“[They] made me feel more confident about writing about black women in rock and then black women in metal," she says of these volumes. "When [Jones] writes about music she’s passionate about it, and she was really passionate about the New York underground rock scene in the Nineties.”

Similarly, for Jessica Numsuwankijkul of Heliotropes, seminal texts are not merely formative, they’re essential. “Being someone who reads all of the time and one who writes music, there’s this common thread of lyricism,” Numsuwankijkul says. For the Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter, Elias Lönnrot’s Kalevala: An Epic Poem of Finland is a constant favorite. “I’ve kept mining over the years for lyrical inspiration,” she explains. “It’s a super-lyrical translation and everything is in couplets.”

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (Berman at center)EXPAND
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (Berman at center)
Courtesy of the Pains of Being Pure at Heart; Retouched by Shervin Lainez

So it goes, too, with Elena Ferrante’s influence over the Pains of Being Pure at Heart. “The title of our last album, [2013's] Days of Abandon, was taken from a Ferrante novel, The Days of Abandonment,” frontman Kip Berman explains. “In that regard it was a direct inspiration for that album, which dealt with loss and separation — [but] not as brutally forward or as unrelentingly as the novel did. That’s why we [used] the title Days of Abandon and not Days of Abandonment. I wanted to capture a sense of loss but also a sense of opportunity and hope. I think that the novel focuses more on the loss without any kind of redemptive narrative as a result.”

Following in the footsteps of bands like the Libertines and Belle and Sebastian, whom Berman cites as purveyors of the literary, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s back catalog is filled with thematic and emotive references to written narratives. “The Libertines and even Belle and Sebastian have so many literary and cultural references in their music, references to older bands and older films and books and the idea of literariness as something desirable,” says Berman. “They wrote about a world of independent film and literature and ideas, and when I first heard them, it had a pretty transformative role in my identity. It made the kind of things that I was already interested in seem like they were things that I could be proud of and share with other people.”

The intersection between intellectualism and pop culture is a point of interest for those immersed in the world of books. That's a familiar experience for BuzzFeed Books editor and co-author of Pen and Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them Isaac Fitzgerald. “For me it's all art, right? That’s absolutely why I love it. It's an expression of self,” says Fitzgerald, who cites Patti Smith’s Just Kids and John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van as favorites. “In Just Kids, Smith is writing about her adventures in New York City and running into incredible musicians of the time, which really gives soul and personality to musicians who I would then seek out,” he explains. When it comes to Darnielle’s prose, Fitzgerald is a diehard fan.

“As a musician he is just so smart, and his writing and his lyrics are so poetic. It was no surprise when I found out that he’s just a giant fan of poetry. That shows in his lyrics, and to read a book by him that also just had this dark wonderful story and the truly great writing that he has in his lyrics definitely came across. It's not often that someone is blessed at being good at more than just one art, right? It's just such an incredible book.” Alongside Smith and Darnielle, Fitzgerald’s love for John Berryman’s prosody and Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation keeps the tie between the musical and the literary alive.

“The thing that I love — whether it’s a song or a book — is storytelling, and that’s when I’m inspired to just go into something deeper. It's always fun to find out what books have influenced [artists], their thinking and [what] they create,” Fitzgerald says. “It's an incredibly fun way to pick up this object and read it and knowing that this same object has gone into helping them make their art.” Whether it's music or writing, it's the allure of art, of creativity and expression, that captivates.

Brooklyn's Darcey Steinke, the author of 2014’s Sister Golden Hair who interviewed Kurt Cobain at the height of Nirvana's fame in 1993, shares such an affinity. Fond of rock bios like Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band: A Memoir and Richard Hell’s extensive collection of written work, Steinke also finds value in less celebrated narratives.

“Some of the older transgressive fiction books that [aren’t] so popular at the moment are also good; they are to literature what punk was to music...writers like Kathy Acker and Chris Kraus,” says Steinke. “I love stories and I love music. All arts are connected. You might read some amazing Joy Williams stories and then listen to Radiohead on your iPod and they make a soft but lovely confluence.”

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