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May 13, 2011

Book Notes - Bill Peschel ("Writers Gone Wild")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

In Writers Gone Wild: The Feuds, Frolics, and Follies of Literature's Great Adventurers, Drunkards, Lovers, Iconoclasts, and Misanthropes, Bill Peschel shares over 200 short anecdotes of authors behaving badly. By turns funny, humanizing, and always interesting, these stories offer rare insights into famous writers' lives.

Caroline Leavitt wrote of the book:

"Trust me, you are going to want to devour this book. Writers Gone Wild: The Feuds, Frolics, and Follies of Literature's Great Adventurers, Drunkards, Lovers, Iconoclasts, and Misanthropes by Bill Peschel is a hilarious and witty compendium of writers acting badly. (What? We act badly?) It's a collection of over 200 different stories of bad behavior and it is absolutely and totally wonderful."

In his own words, here is Bill Peschel's Book Notes music playlist for his book, Writers Gone Wild: The Feuds, Frolics, and Follies of Literature's Great Adventurers, Drunkards, Lovers, Iconoclasts, and Misanthropes:

There were two soundtracks behind Writers Gone Wild, one for the hack and the other for the artist.

The hack had to get the job done, writing 200 stories and anecdotes about the dark, funny, sad and sexy side of famous writers. That required focus and concentration. That required a playlist of mostly instrumentals. No lyrics. Words get in the head and onto the page, and I didn't want Norman Mailer saying, "Shine on, you crazy diamond." At least not in this book.

So at the desk, with earphones on, I listened to Brian Eno, Hans Zimmer's movie soundtracks, Murray Perahia's Bach Partitas, Tito Puente, Dethklok (which has lyrics but they're so garbled that they sound like phlegmatic rumblings from the Devil's throat), Olafur Arnalds (spooky music from Iceland), Powerglove, Philip Glass and some pop songs from the '80s to shake up the floaters in my snowglobe of a brain.

When I needed an iron hand to grab me by the frontal lobe and make me pay attention, I went to my Futurama playlist. Twenty-two tracks. Variations on the show's theme song, including one mashup with Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," a few of the parody songs, one garage band's cover and the inspiration track Christopher Tyng used, "Psyche Rock" by Pierre Henry. When I'm plugged in, I don't get tired of hearing this over and over. Keeps the head gremlins at bay.

To satisfy the artist in me, I went looking for songs about writing, creativity and writers. I discarded the ones that just namechecked them. I wanted more. Songwriters who wrote lyrics like they had read the books, or with some understanding of the writer's life. There's not as many of them as you'd think.

1. "John Allyn Smith Sails" (Okkervil River)

Imagine a "Schoolhouse Rock" song about the confessional poet John Berryman, who finished his life of writing, teaching, drinking and mental illness by taking a header off the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis one snowy day in 1972. Okkervil River packed this song about with tons of details about the man and some beautiful lines like "so I flew into the brightest winter sun / of this frozen town I'm stripped down to move on / my friends I'm gone" before segueing into a variation on the Beach Boys' hit "The Sloop John B" to add that soupcon of existential despair that will make you laugh and mourn at the same time.

2. "Lorca's Novena" (The Pogues)

The Spanish poet has hung around my consciousness ever since The Clash sang on "Spanish Bombs" that "Federico Lorca is dead and gone." So when I was posting episodes from the first draft of Writers Gone Wild on the website, I found that Leonard Cohen had translated Lorca's poem "Pequeño vals vienés" and set it to music. The result, "Take This Waltz," went to No. 1 in Spain. Cohen admired Lorca so much he named his daughter Lorca Cohen. It's a beautiful, surreal song, matching a serene backing chorus with Cohen's rumbling singing voice.

"Lorca's Novena," however, is a grim cemetery trudge. Shane MacGowan of The Pogues steals from Jesus to create a counterpoint between the terror of Lorca's execution during the Spanish Civil War ("And Lorca the faggot poet they left till last / Blew his brains out with a pistol up his arse") and his resurrection ("But Lorca's corpse, as he had prophesied, just walked away / And the only sound was the women in the chapel praying").

3. "Hunter S. Thompson (Rocketship)" (Casey Donahew Band)

When the Gonzo writer shot himself in the head in 2005, his wishes for his ashes to be launched from a cannon was fulfilled by his friends. That his exit would inspire the rollicking country music song with lyrics like "I wanna get high when I die / like a rocket ship, man, I wanna fly" would have probably had him reaching for one of his many beloved guns, which makes the joke all the funnier.

4. "Hemingway's Whiskey" (Kenny Chesney)

If the secret of success is showing up, then Ernest Hemingway took the prize, early 20th century division. He was wounded in World War I, covered the Spanish Civil War and World War II and wrote vividly about them. He made you care about bullfighting, hunting and fishing, which he wrote with the passion of an aficionado. And if that wasn't enough, he left behind enough personal stories about his four marriages, drinking bouts, fights with critics and writers ─ including one Key West dust-up with the poet Wallace Stevens ─ to inspire biographies, memoirs and even mystery novels featuring him as a detective.

This Kenny Chesney number came out about the same time as the book, so I snapped up his cover of Guy Clark's song. The song's polished production drains some of the despair from lines like "there's more to life than whiskey, there's more to words than rhyme / Sometimes nothing works, sometimes nothing shines" and rounding it out with the summation "live hard, die hard, this one's for him" sounds like an outtake from a beer commercial. But Chesney's not Sinatra, and beggars can't be choosers.

5. "The Cult of Ray" (Frank Black)

Frank Black devoted his third record to celebrating the work of Ray Bradbury and succeeded in marrying punk-influenced L.A. rock with Bradbury's, um, not punk-influenced writing. The lyrics such as "fear the boy as tyrant" and "melting rock into metal" probably mean something to regular readers of his works. Me, I grooved on the song because IT'S ABOUT FREAKIN' RAY BRADBURY, MAN. That's me: scratch a pseudo-intellectual and you'll find a raving fanboy.

6. "Death of an Unpopular Poet" (Jimmy Buffett)

An early effort from the founder of Margaritaville, this story probably represents the fear of every writer: ignored throughout his life, only to become famous and popular after you're too dead to enjoy any of it. Only the family ─ or in Jimmy's case, the poet's dog ─ gets to enjoy any of the rewards from the writer's hard work and sweat.

7. "Hey Jack Kerouac" (10,000 Maniacs)

He's been cast as a hipster, but he really was as Republican as Nixon and hated hippies nearly as much, and the story of spontaneously writing On the Road on the 120-foot roll of paper contains just enough truth to keep it from a complete lie. But he left behind some great works and that matters the most. Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs paid tribute to him on their 2007 album In My Tribe. "Hey, Jack Kerouac" meditates on Jack's life with references to his close relationship with his mother and, as Natalie sings, "the hip-flask slinging madmen" that inspired his work.

8. "Guitar and Pen" (The Who)

Not a song about any particular writer, which means it can apply to all. "Guitar and Pen," off The Who's "Who Are You" album, encapsulates the difficulties and pleasures of crafting the perfect line, and the dreams of the writer who "knows in some unexplainable way / that you really have something biting / hiding away / important to say."

9. "The Cask of Amontillado" (Alan Parsons Project)

Why did the narrator of Edgar Allen Poe's creepy short story hate Fortunado so much that he'd wall the guy up alive? Poe never explains, instead, he shows us the terrible act in progress and so does Alan Parsons, a record producer who released an albums of songs inspired by Poe's works. The listening pleasure was enhanced back in the day, when vinyl roamed the earth, by the album's artwork by the legendary art studio Hipgnosis. Sitting back in my beanbag chair (denim, of course) with the headphones on, adrift in Parsons' creepy soundscapes was one of the few high points of my teen years in the '70s.

Bill Peschel and Writers Gone Wild links:

the author's website
the author's Tumblr
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Authors & Appetizers review
Bookgasm review
Curled Up with a Good Book review
A Curnmudgeon's Diary review
Harrisburg Patriot-News review
Lancaster News review
PopMatters review
Susan Rand's Blog review

ABC Radio interview with the author
American Copy Editors Society interview with the author
ArtsBeat essay by the author
The Book Tree guest post by the author
CarolineLeavittville interview with the author
Charlotte Observer profile of the author
Indiana Public Media profile of the author
LitChat profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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