Following in the footsteps of the late great Lester Bangs -- the most revered and irreverent of rock 'n' roll critics -- twenty-four celebrated writers have penned stories inspired by great songs. Just as Bangs cast new light on a Rod Stewart classic with his story "Maggie May," about a wholly unexpected connection between an impressionable young man and an aging, alcoholic hooker, the diverse, electrifying stories here use songs as a springboard for a form dubbed the lit riff.
Alongside Bangs's classic work, you'll find stories by J.T. LeRoy, who puts a recovering teenage drug abuser in a dentist's chair with nothing but the Foo Fighters's "Everlong" -- blaring through the P.A. -- to fight the pain; Jonathan Lethem, whose narrator looks back on his lost innocence just as an extramarital affair careens to an end -- this to the tune "Speeding Motorcycle" as recorded by Yo La Tengo; and Jennifer Belle, who envisions a prequel to Paul Simon's "Graceland" -- one that takes place at a children's birthday party replete with a real live kangaroo.
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June 14, 2004
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Excerpt from Lit Riffs by Lester Bangs
There is a beautiful album from the '60s called Odessey and Oracle. Recorded by the Zombies, it is one of the most meticulously arranged and stunningly executed albums of the rock era. It unfolds like a paper rose, each song twisted together by themes of memory, loss, love, and the changing of the seasons.
For years, I wondered what wondrous tale held all the songs together, what feat of conceptual derring-do lay behind the music. And then, one day, my chance to unravel the mysteries of the album came: I would be interviewing the Zombies for The New York Times. And so I asked the question: "What ties all these songs together?" The band's answer: nothing. They are just songs, the members said, unrelated in any way.
I was stunned. I grappled with their answer for days afterward, until I came to a conclusion: They were wrong. Sure, they may have written and recorded the songs. But I had listened to them. I had the pictures in my head. They were mine now. And so, as I continued to listen to the songs, I wove them together into a fifty-page musical, a tale of murder and intrigue, heartbreak and betrayal. Zombies be damned.
There are some songwriters who don't like to discuss the meanings of their lyrics or the intention behind them. They don't want to interfere with the interpretations their fans have imposed on the music, they say. When I heard this answer in interviews, I used to think that it was a cop-out. But the beauty of music is that it is, as Marshall McLuhan would say, a hot medium. It occupies only the ears, leaving the imagination free to wander (unlike films or the Internet). The closest equivalent is literature, which occupies only the eyes. The intent may belong to the artist, but the significance is the property of the beholder.
Lit Riffs then are the synesthetic experience that occurs when the senses cross, when sound becomes text. The converse experience is far from a rarity: books have led to countless classic songs and albums. Some of the best work of David Bowie and Pink Floyd was inspired by George Orwell; Bruce Springsteen based a song on Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me; U2 brought Salman Rushdie to musical life with "The Ground Beneath Her Feet"; the Cure made Albert Camus a goth icon with "Killing a Stranger"; Metallica brought "One" into focus with Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun. Cribbing from everything from the Bible to Yeats is a time-honored tradition among songwriters, as much a staple of the art as coffee and cigarettes.
Though there are exceptions (from Haruki Murakami to James Joyce), far fewer writers look to music as the jumping-off point for a story or novel. Yet the simple act of listening to most songs, even nonnarrative ones, triggers a narrative or imaginary video in the mind. For example, many can't help but imagine a fist connecting with Britney Spears when she sings "Hit Me Baby One More Time," even though that's not even what the song's about. It's simply their personal interpretation (or perhaps, for some, it's wish fulfillment).
Thus, twenty-four writers -- from leading novelists to top music critics -- were asked to riff on a piece of music. The authors included here were instructed only to choose a song, write a story inspired by it, and provide an explanation of their choice. They were free to choose whatever music they wanted -- even if, as in the case of Darin Strauss's Black Crowes-derived be-careful-what-you-wish-for tale, it wasn't a song they necessarily loved. And they were free to interpret in any way they saw fit, even if, as in the case of Victor Lavalle's story, a droning, lyric-less song by the White Stripes reminded him of Iceland, which made him think of ice cubes, leading to a haunting fable of death and decomposition that is far from simple White Stripes homage.
Some stories here, like the Lester Bangs piece that begins (and in fact inspired) this collection, and Neal Pollack's dissection of alt-country posers, are music criticism disguised as narrative. Others, like Toure's Biblical Bob Marley parable, take the lyrics literally and tell the story of a song in prose form. Many, like Elissa Shappell's John Cale tale, riff on the metaphor, mood, and message of a song. Tom Perrotta mixes both the Tom Petty original and the Johnny Cash cover of "I Won't Back Down" into a vignette capturing the strange, mixed-up feelings that arise in grade school when social and parental pressures collide.