Twitter Facebook Tumblr Pinterest Instagram

« older | Main Largehearted Boy Page | newer »

July 28, 2011

Edie Meidav Interviews Kevin Salem

In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).

Edie Meidav is an author, her latest book is the novel Lola, California.

Kevin Salem is a singer-songwriter who composed a soundtrack to Edie Meidav's novel Lola, California.

Author Edie Meidav interviews musician Kevin Salem:

Dear Kevin,

Don't suddenly feel self-conscious now that this sort of conversation goes on air. Don't think of elephants. Don't think of all the bad Eighties and Nineties music one might have suffered through. Or those few songs that might have pierced your consciousness. Well, actually, can we start with a more serious interview question from me? To wit, can you pinpoint the moment YOU first heard a song and had that duckling-imprinting moment: I want to do this. I know at least this one autobiographical factoid about you: you have not had a day without playing the guitar since you were what, seven and working in a bank? Did I mess up the chronology on that? Please rectify.

Your correspondent

On Wed, Jul 6, 2011 at 11:52 PM, Kevin Salem wrote:

Dear correspondent,

Re: bad Eighties and Nineties music. Some of it was mine, unless you're referring to the non-flannel-clad variety. I try not to identify decades by their bad music. After all, the Sixties gave us, in addition to The Kinks, Stones, blah blah—Zager & Evans. The Seventies? Gilbert O'Sullivan, Paper Lace, and the Captain and Tennille, who, despite their intense suckitude, made some serious bank for the great Willis Alan Ramsey. Ultimately, I'm less offended by all the sucking of decades past (and present) than I am by the fact that a disproportionately high percentage of the purveyors of suck seem to maintain miraculously full heads of hair forever.

As for duckling-imprinting moments, there have been so many, each affecting a different part of me. My dad was a jazz singer, so "Fly Me to the Moon" was the first song I loved to sing. I may not have heard the Sinatra recording of that more than five times in my life, but the melody and lyric are happily burned into the father/music slot. I grew up with a gaggle of teenage girls in the house, and they caught me singing "My Boyfriend's Back" at the top of my lungs. I opened my bedroom door after my air guitar performance, and there they were, laughing, not mockingly, but amusedly/adoringly. That moment—that song—informs every bit of terror/reluctance I have about being a singer. But, to get to the heart of your question, there was one very clear moment centered around a song where I was possessed by the deep and utter knowledge that I would commit myself to playing music, even if it meant I had to give up the joys of uninformed listening and baseball. When I was five, my mother, sisters, brother and I took up residence with my uncle and his three daughters in Johnstown, PA. He had forsaken his über-lucrative work in finance to become a priest. The Syrian Orthodox Church he and my mother belonged to held a huge picnic every summer, and they let one of the teens in the parish and his band—The Grapes of Wrath—play on a rickety old wooden balcony. You must understand that my anti-socialism—let me re-phrase, as I have no particular problem with socialism—my anti-social tendencies were already in full bloom by that point, and I was wandering around alone when I came upon the glorious sight/sound of the GOW performing "Little Bit o' Soul." I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen, and, before the end of the first chorus, my life was changed. truthfully, I feel like a cheat, as there are very few questions I can answer as clearly as the one you asked. the trail of imprints is so unquestionable for me, as concrete as the history of addresses of a kid whose parents moved a lot, some stored in my brain, like "Exile on Main Street," which I don't have to physically hear in order to listen to, some in my hands, like the first time I heard Tom Verlaine, some in my genes and taste buds, like oum kalthoum, some sensual, like playing at the old Knitting Factory with Yo la Tengo, some on my iPod or in boxes and hard drives in my studio. In any event, the bank job came later, but without it, we would never have met.

How is life as a public object of adoration and criticism going? Does it make you uncomfortable to be talked about so openly? Has anyone said anything about Lola that you were particularly surprised by? At least the bulk of the commentary is in <140 character snippets. That must help.

It's 11:48 pm and I hear a lawnmower. That's fucked up.

From the country,

On 7/7/11 8:04 a.m., "Edie Meidav" wrote:

Dear musician,

Did you know that most fiction writers secretly wanted to become musicians? (For documentary proof of this, look no further than Kundera's The Art of the Novel or, if one needs an even more contemporary venue, The Rumpus). Some of them effect career changes once they find the music of language insufficient: language is such a debased currency (e.g., "want a schmear with that bagel?") while music remains, forever, some dream of pure expression. And here, revealed, is the secret writer of your music. Your letter branches in so many fascinating directions it becomes an exercise in chance for me to take any one. But perhaps first, as a means of speaking to some of the themes you raise here, let me address the movie into which I walked, maybe twenty minutes into the thing, last night. Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life.

While I usually want to see a movie alpha to omega, I had the fairly blissful experience of entering a cultural product about which I had heard nothing, given that I've been in kind of a wind tunnel of late. Only knowing how much I had loved Days of Heaven, a movie I think I saw more than once in my teenagehood. I remember the thrill, as a teenager, of occasionally going to some foreign or repertory film alone and feeling that life had opened up widely; Days of Heaven had this effect on me as did (another discussion) Agnes Varda's Vagabond. So about last night: in I walked to find actual dinosaurs onscreen in some primeval archetype-setting of vulnerability, aggression and the life force. Some stirring open-fifth soundtrack played behind an eerie voice-over addressed to what seemed, at first, to be the kind of floating ‘you' of so much contemporary lyric, both good and bad, offering simultaneously the pleasures of the epistolary, singular 'you' (as in all those Leonard Cohen or Dylan songs) and the wider-based archetypal 'you,' the one who could possibly find truth in being addressed.

I don't want to spoil the movie for you or anyone; suffice it to say that this is a huge and ambitious work, strange in the sense that the literary critic Harold Bloom used to say all great work should aspire to strangeness. It instructs you in how it wants you to apprehend its form, conducts you in your apprehension like the stern father within the film pushing his son to perceive the world's quirks in his own metaphysically iconoclastic manner. Does all great art do this? Do forms which take place over time have a more self-conscious relation to how they wish you to perceive them? In other words, do film and music, which demand a certain time signature from their audience, act as a more over-active host than, say, painting, poetry, or even the novel? Music + film = the kind of host who grabs your lapels, seats you, presses a drink into your hand, and forces you into a social interaction or at least the viewing of a slideshow?
But let's leave aside, for this second, the manipulations exacted by various art forms and go back to your autobiographical prelude in your letter. You burst from the room to find that gaggle of teenage girls having overheard your "My Boyfriend's Back": not to be too grandiose, but what's to stop me here in this email—in that is probably the perfect emblem of rock music history in the twentieth century. Again, the voyeurism, the pop sensibility underwriting, the orientation toward a kind of gendered listening, the location of yourself in that odd transvestism of all catchy songs.

When I used to listen to all those songs in my childhood and teenagehood, I thought voices were whispering to me a kind of superior social contract, a path toward some kind of bruised, post-romantic, fallen Olympian god-ideal. This was what Malick's latest film is about, even if it is blissfully free of corporate-mediated social noise: the confusion of voices in one's head as one grows from the child's pure apprehension of the beauties of nature and some kind of greater force and toward what Buddhists would call the samsara, the busy chattiness and imprisonment of the human world of illusion.

I was warning a friend of mine who became a Buddhist teacher away from buying the Lola book, saying that it goes into Samsara pretty darn heavily before there are peeks of any kind of salvation, to which she made the pithy observation that, if one has intention to help others, it can be useful to describe Samsara accurately. She sold me on the idea. So do all the troubled songs of our youth help us believe suffering is shared? Creating an imagined community?

One of the attributes I like in the songs you wrote for Lola is the way trouble and salvation modulate, as in the strangeness of Malick's movie, as in life.

Ending in ringing tones, therefore, not daring to reread or edit this screed before I self-censor, I send you my morning fish-wrap,
Agon, or, Edie

On Fri, Jul 8, 2011 at 1:45 AM, Kevin Salem wrote:

Writer friend,

It is my theory that the engine of evolution has shifted thanks to Google and 'smart' devices, and that natural selection now favors iPhone dexterity and cellular radiation resistance over a developed cerebral cortex. Perhaps in one thousand years, we will have the skin of cockroaches, very long thumbs and pinheads. (Is pinhead a politically incorrect term?) In any event, Google has failed me. I wanted to share this quote with you, and I wanted to give it proper attribution: "art gives back in two hours what the world takes away in two weeks"— for the sake of denying "anonymous" one more asset, I am going with Keats, Yates, Blake, or my old therapist. Anyhow, I hope "the tree of life" replenished you. It has been too long a time since I wandered into a theater purely to satisfy my need for nourishment. I even had to bail on Mr. Popper's Penguins last week when my youngling threw up in line . . . in my hands. (I love that about being a parent, truly.) Indeed, I am longing to be bullied by music/picture into setting aside the mundane, and nothing does it quite so well, except, perhaps, the novel. Music, though, has its special way. It's the vagabond of the arts, the little tramp, and the vulgar and colloquial fix we crave. I played guitar for so long before I wrote songs, and it was complete expression for me. I never felt anything lacking because I had no words or face. The compulsion to become a songwriter had more to do with the fact that writing is steeped in romanticism. It's a "discipline," adding an additional level of spiritual practice to instrumentalism. Anyhow, I struggled. I spent my early youth feigning illness so that I could stay home from school and write short stories on my mother's typewriter, sometimes submitting them for publication to editors who wrote me thoughtful rejection letters in return. By the time I was 12, I became distracted, but I never stopped devouring books. I wrote more in college, had a couple short stories published in my twenties in a journal of fiction by musicians. The point is, all these words, and yet, when it came time to write verse-chorus-verse and make rhymes . . . nothing. When I moved to New York from Boston, I maintained a relationship with a woman there who introduced me to a painter whose name escapes me. He had made paintings on matchboxes that she kept on her mantle, and they were simple and astonishing. I wanted to meet him, and we had drinks a couple times. I loved the largeness of his personality, his unapologetic maleness, his benign recklessness with drugs and alcohol and his dedication to art of any form. One very drunken evening, I was speaking to him about my inability to make the transition to writing lyrics. He started ranting about Dante's canzones, of which I knew nothing, and how they were considered too pedestrian and undignified at the time of their creation. "Find simple language," he said. Honestly, I was so fucked up that I would never have remembered this fascinating ramble of his, delivered in the basement of Casablanca in Harvard Square if he had not sent a postcard to my Brooklyn address that bore only the word "canzone." that is my very long-winded way of saying that musicians are mostly bound to the dirt. I should also mention that the nameless painter also told me about fluxus boxes, hence "box of words."

I would apologize for rambling, but I'm too relieved that I'm writing anything. I've always enjoyed our correspondence, but feel that lately, from my own wind tunnel, I have resorted to un-punctuated express lane emails that barely even qualify as a response. The minimum, conservation of energy.

Somehow, I knew you'd zero in on "My Boyfriend's Back." As I was telling you that story, I felt like I was handing you a twitterature-sized version of "The Rocking Horse Winner" meets "Ziggy Stardust." I'm glad the encapsulation wasn't lost on you, and I do look okay in drag, thank you, though I wish I had a pretty voice.

To the present: today, I spent the day with Lola, my guitar, another musician friend, Brian Kelly, and a tape machine. I love holding the hardcover in my hand, love having it in my studio on the console. It is a strange exercise, this. I have done it, sort of, before with Dos Passos, Nathaniel West and William Burroughs books, but that was just keeping them close as cultural markers and finding phrases, the vibe of language. Despite the lingering sense of what you call "samsara," I find, in Lola, California, optimism in the form of invitation to walk back into the lives we think we've forsaken, our own and others'. This afternoon, under the spell of your story, I found myself writing in a way I never have, abandoning the formulaic part of pop music colloquialism (canzone!) that I usually cling to, and instead using the kind of frank, literary approach to words that I normally reject. As my friend and I discussed the sound of guitars ringing and the book, a story started to form of a man whose arms carry him to the top of a tree and then become wings. He dives from the sky into the sea; afraid of choking, discovering he is able to breathe the water. Finally back on solid ground, he finds his feet and returns to his home, free of the fear of time and limits. I'll send it to you and put it on your music player this weekend.

I'm also captivated by the California-ness of Lola. I've really just started to accept California as the "other" place I work. I have a little bungalow in Laurel Canyon where I stay just around the corner from the country store. I think when we first met; I gave you a book about the canyon's musical history. Not sure. I wanted to write your readers a song that is an urging for forgiveness and the embrace of an optimistic fatalism, and my indulgence is to marry it to those beautiful records from the late ‘60's, despite the fact that I have the totally wrong sideburns for the job. That, too, is on its way. For now though, and on the subject of Cali, I was there in October in my flat in the hills, where I wrote and recorded the attached with my friend Chelsea Williams.

Finally, an answer: yes, the "troubled songs of our youth" help us to know that suffering is the universal language. But to qualify your follow-up, the community is real. The imagined community we create has a big blue logo with a white "f" in the middle and harvests your personal data for marketeers.

It's late. I'm going to read the day's news, disappear into political despair and wake up semi-happy. If it rains tomorrow, I could take my daughter to whatever kid movie is at the mall: art that gives back, in two hours, half of what the popcorn vendor takes away in two seconds.


On 7/9/11 2:16 a.m., "Edie Meidav" wrote:

Dear Kevin,

Thank you for all that. You did give me that book, Hotel California, about musicians in Topanga Canyon, which I appreciated hugely, right after the birth of my second girl, because it reminded me of a space beyond the warm two inches between her and me; and Topanga I know a little bit, believing it to be the best of Los Angeles; and I don't just say that because my force-of-electricity writer-friend Rachel Resnick lives there. Creative people seem to like lurking in that canyon, while the main lyrical eidetic residue I have about it is the knowledge that Joni Mitchell once sang, in "Ladies of the Canyon," some line like "all are fat/none are thin," a line which was quoted to me by someone railing against her loss of integrity as she moved into a heightened solipsism and jazz (which would seem to be either fighting betta-fish concepts or, from a different angle, one and the same).

To use jazz as a segue, then, it is always interesting to me how the vulgar or colloquial is what lures one, somehow, ultimately, into the precincts of art, whether high or low. Going back to your crucial ur-"My Boyfriend's Back" scene, it probably shows how short my cultural memory is that I was thinking more Hedwig and the Angry Inch than Ziggy Stardust, the progenitor of all that flexibility.

I do think one of the pleasures of writing fiction has to do with some similar transvestism and flexibility: you, mortal, have this one short life to live, one precoded, predetermined sensibility, and then fiction-writing allows you to live many lives simultaneously.

Meanwhile, yesterday I asked you if you didn't mind sending a prefab playlist of California songs that played in my head as I wrote Lola so I could respond to them for the same large-spirited blog that is hosting this discussion, and really appreciated hearing the bulk of them as a playlist, but was also struck with my omission: there was no Stevie Wonder "Superstition" or Wild Cherry "Funky Music" or even Neneh Cherry "Buffalo Stance," all the funk-driven stuff of my growing up, older and newer songs that seemed to lay down truth with their spitting, knowing bass lines. Secretly I'm probably always hoping to hear that opening of "Superstition" when I hear a song; what song would be your correlate? In a parallel life I would probably be, in addition to being a Bollywood director and choreographer, in some kind of Stevie Wonder cover band (none of the smoother stuff could be played). It is all about the salt of his songs: inimitable.

My final note here: interesting about Fluxus and that beautiful song "Box of Words" that you wrote; for what this is worth, I heard it and was visualizing Joseph Cornell boxes. And glad you're going into new artistic territory. It's crucial. The technology of the novel offers the possibility of exploring the oddity of being human; maybe the technology of songwriting offers something equivalent or greater. As in the swaths of cloth hanging about in Renaissance painting, meant to signify the metaphysical, a chord in the right place can trigger huge shifts, yes?

To your good future,
a descendent of salt miners

On Sat, Jul 9, 2011 at 10:19 AM, Kevin Salem wrote:


Once again, you've posed a question I can actually answer without hesitation. I think the opening riff to "Rocks Off" encapsulates, in four measures, the totality of rebellion, sexuality, anger and elation that makes rock and roll equal to life, and hence, what I want to hear always. I anticipate it. Easy.

I was at a pool party with my shy daughter last Saturday when "Superstition" came on the giant speakers. Uncharacteristically, she commented on the drumming, which led to a conversation about Stevie Wonder (by the way, and among other things, my favorite drummer). He was basically our children's age when he had his first hit. It hardly seems possible that our two little e's could address their culture so boldly at such a tender age, in a time when most parents are hesitant to let their little ones cross country lanes on their own at nine years. I'm writing this and thinking two or three things at the same time. Digression. I'll be right back...

I'm here. I had to go to the iTunes store and listen to "The Rapper." for some reason, as I collected Lola songs for you the other day, I was tempted to put "Funky Music" into the playlist (a word we wouldn't have used ten years ago). Had we talked about that song? I don't think so. Growing up near Pittsburgh, Wild Cherry were ubiquitous, but their singer, a guy called Donnie Iris, had a band called the Jaggerz at the end of the Sixties. I was utterly addicted to their big hit, the song I escaped to the market to listen to moments ago. A few years ago, I produced a record by another Pittsburgher, Bill Deasy, and Donnie Iris sang on the song I've attached here. As it turned out, Bill was a pretty fair writer and has had a couple of novels published.

Digression #2. Music is playing as I write. Good music. But I'm thinking about a conversation we had on a tennis court last summer. You were talking about what I perceived as a grand impressionistic process of writing. I asked if you knew how the then-untitled Lola would end when you started writing. You drew a canvas in the air with your hands and told me how you would begin filling it with ideas, that different elements of the picture would draw you to the story, that certain images would dominate and others recede, until the hidden intention became clear and the path from the first page to the last was, if not inevitable, a definitive result of choices. so, this music is playing now, and on this early Saturday morning, I am struck by the rigidity of songwriting, the mathematical adherence to rhyme and scan that characterizes ninety per cent of everything we hear. As a singer and songwriter, I've always felt happily acquiescent to that, perhaps because it limits choice when inspiration is lacking and gives a force to rebel against when ideas are running wild. listening now, though, I'm bothered by this conventionality. In any event, I don't think Coltrane was so constrained. Mass confusion setting in.

Back on course . . . our children, not crossing streets, our adaptation as parents to the perceived risks "out there" and the resultant tightening of the reins. Do you think our children will get to experience what you so beautifully referred to as the "criminal joy" of adolescent freedom that rose and Lana (and we) did, or will they be subtly tethered to compliance by their culture's fears? Does that mean their writing will be wilder as they struggle to break our fear, or does it mean that rock and roll will become. . . boring. It may mean that I need breakfast. Yes, I think that's it. Then. I'm sending my daughter to the store—on her own. Maybe I'll tail her, just in case.


On 7/11/11 10:58 a.m., "Edie Meidav" wrote:


Right now at the cafe I'm sitting in the song playing has that line: "the killer in me is the killer in you," which probably sums up the ethos of all my creative work. You probably know the song. And yet it has that slightly overproduced feeling, so seamless it is hard to enter the song, to feel the medium being discovered.

One of the aspects of any performer (but substitute for that writer/parent/person) which I seek is a certain degree of presence and interactivity with his or her environment. I remember once seeing Dylan in Paris, years ago in some outside festival, and could not tell if he was in some kind of bluesy shamanic trance or had lost his porosity, and this seemed somehow a crucial distinction.

And the collaboration on Lola (with you, with Rebecca Dreyfus the filmmaker, with Amii Legendre the dancer) has given me the sense of a work continuing to live as an interaction, both with readers and in its life out in the world.

Who would Dickens or Melville be in our era of social media? I know Flaubert would lock himself away, prefiguring all our latter-day Salingers and Pynchons. A writer from a half-generation older than mine once said to me: In our era we can't afford to be Salinger and Pynchon. And since in one of your early emails you asked how I'm handling this experience of a work floating out into the world, here I will finally answer that on some days my inner Dickens is more active and on other days Flaubert. The latter once wrote to George Sand that after a party he had to secret himself away for three weeks just to recover some sense of interiority.

Is that a good place to end? But you, musician, should get the last word, both verbal and musical. Want to attach your new Hallelujah to this correspondence? Is there a way to do that?

With respect,

On 7/12/2011 at 8:29 AM Kevin Salem wrote:


How fitting that I opened my eyes this morning and thought, "where the fuck am I?" I know where I was. I know where I usually am upon waking. It's not that I necessarily had much to drink, but I did spend the night sacrificing my interiority while celebrating my porosity. Thank you for those word . . . interiority complex.

I worked in New York yesterday, finished early, perfectly happy to just go back to Woodstock and watch pre-teen TV with my little one, but a friend was having a rooftop party. There were other friends in town, intersecting on different tours, and degrees of separation were completely useless by two a.m. None of which absolves me of my fatherly or musicianly duties today, hence the iPhone reveille.

Interiority returning. Slowly. Or, maybe that's just sinuses clearing and some slight sense of self, induced by the urgency of unmet responsibilities.

I am not sure there could be a Flaubert or Dickens in an era that demands mastery of social media forms as a requisite skill for authors. I do, however, remember a show called "Fishing with John Lurie," and an episode where Tom Waits got seasick on a rowboat, fishing for trout. As I write, I am resisting the temptation to Google this all to make sure I'm not making it up. If I could make that kind of stuff up, I'd do what you do for a living, so I will trust that I am at least partially accurate in what's left of my memory of that scintillating half-hour of television, and wholly accurate in saying that Melville's publicist would have suffered many rude awakenings, one for each insistence that Herman open a twitter account:

@mobymelville catch me on daily show with jon stewart thursday to discuss my story of sperm-whale fishery #mobydick
@littledickens it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. find out why at #mybookslongerthanyours
@thecatcherintherye no. #no

Did you know, by the way, that they changed the title of Moby Dick to The Whale in its initial publication so as not to offend the public sensibility. Dicks. I'd laugh about it if I weren't 100% positive that the same would happen today.

As I told you in a previous email, the work of writing songs with Lola has taken me happily out of my usual comfort zone, much in the same way our performances with Amii have. I am humbled in the company of Rebecca, you and Amii, always in awe of your innocent insistence on connecting people. so, if the last thought is mine, it is simply: thank you, on we go, and, attached for your morning pleasure, hallelujah.

Your friend with guitar,

Kevin Salem links:

Kevin Salem's website

Edie Meidav links and free & legal mp3s:

Edie Meidav's website
Lola, California blog
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by Edie Meidav for Lola, California

also at Largehearted Boy:

other musician/author interviews

Antiheroines (Jami Attenberg interviews comics artists)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
guest book reviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (directors and composers discuss their film's soundtracks)

submit to reddit