June 4, 2013
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Gregory Spatz exposes the essences of relationships with equal doses of clarity and compassion in his impressive short story collection Half as Happy.
The Nervous Breakdown wrote of the book:
"These are vibrant, richly described, indelible stories. Gregory Spatz is a masterful writer, working at the top of his game."
Because I did a playlist for Largehearted Boy so recently for the release of my novel, Inukshuk (BLP, 2012), I decided to do something a little different this time around: a conversation with my friend, publisher, editor extraordinaire (and now Ruler Supreme of the publishing world!) Michael Pietsch. The background is as follows.
I've been playing music and writing fiction for as long as I can remember. I don't want to say that music is a side-line to writing; it's just another thing that I do. Through my twenties, and much of thirties, before I'd published well enough to land a university teaching gig, I supported myself entirely by gigging and teaching violin lessons, and still, to this day, I keep a pretty full calendar, touring and recording. My main project is as the fiddle player with the internationally acclaimed, twice Juno-nominated, bluegrass band John Reischman and The Jaybirds. I also play bouzouki with an eclectic, acoustic world-music quartet, Mighty Squirrel.
Here's a little video clip from the Jaybirds, to give you an idea of what that band is about—an old-time inflected instrumental written by John called "Salt Spring" which has found fans all around the world and makes its way into jam sessions everywhere. One of my all-time favorites.
Some years back, Michael Pietsch and I became friends after meeting at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Until then I'd known of Michael only as an editor and publisher, and had no idea that he is an also avid audiophile with deep, genuine and wide-ranging love for all good music. I didn't know either that he plays, sings and writes songs.
Our connection right away, and in the years that followed, was sparked by a shared love of music and books, sending songs and words to each other over the internet and the US mail. Most recently, my band Mighty Squirrel, had the pleasure of arranging and recording his Bob Wills-inspired original, "Dancing With My Beer" for its infectious fun and goofiness.
Out of this grew the idea for the email-conversation, below, all about our different takes on the many intersections between music and writing.
GS: People reading this will probably be most familiar with you as an editor and publisher and may not realize that you have this other lifelong passion for music. So what is your background there? You've done so much for musicians and for writers/biographers of musicians over the years, where does this interest have its roots for you?
MP: Who knows where loving music comes from? My father's mother was a piano teacher but we didn't grow up in a house with musical instruments. I just remember seizing hard on songs that came through the radio when I was a kid—"Counting Flowers on the Wall," "Allentown Jail," "It's Only Make Believe." Then the Beatles, Kinks, Stones, Creedence, Hendrix, James Brown, Led Zeppelin—by the time I turned 13 it felt like music had invented a new world just for me.
When I came into book publishing in 1978 the conventional wisdom that "those kids don't buy books" was being overturned by bestsellers about Bruce, the Beatles and such, and my lifetime of attention turned out to be useful. I remember reading Nick Tosches's amazing Jerry Lee Lewis bio Hellfire and Peter Guralnick's Lost Highway with love and awe, and the thrill of seeing what great writing emerged from the contemplation of music and musicians.
And around this time I learned that Chuck Berry wanted to write an autobiography. Man did I jump on that. It took several years for the deal and then the book to be done. Working with Chuck remains one of the most mind-blowing, eye-opening experiences of my life. He was a true, purely American genius, driven and methodical.
Now one for you. In a conversation with a novelist friend of mine I once posited that writing is music. He laughed and rejected the notion out of hand. To what extent do you think the music you create and the books you write come from the same source?
GS: I think they absolutely partake of the same source. How, though, is a little mysterious. I know that when I was very young and first started paying attention both to stories and music, I made zero distinction between the two things. Whatever I heard—The Beatles, Zappa, Mendelsohn, Boccherini, Vivaldi, The Clancy Brothers, Fairport Convention, my parents singing and playing (those were my favorites)—it became instantly and totally meshed with whatever story I was lost in. It was something of a rude awakening later to learn that this private realm of intertwined meaning I was always getting out of reading and listening was all my own invention.
Practically speaking, though, like in terms of process, I do approach both things, music and writing, kind of the same way. I listen. I try to hear what's happening in a song harmonically and rhythmically in order to know what my role there should be. And the same for fiction: line by line I'm listening for some kind of meaning or underlying harmonic logic; for tension, rhythm and pacing scene-to-scene. By choosing only the right words and details I'm trying to be sure that the characters featured in any scene are given the kind of invisible but rock-solid support a great band provides a soloist. For me, it's all about hearing and listening, as I'm writing—and not just to the words on the page. Whatever songs I've been working on are also constantly playing in the back of my head at a low volume—like they're the emotional subtext, invisible soundscape or dreamscape, for the words on the page. Likewise, when I'm playing I'm often off in my head visiting with scenes, characters and feelings in the thing I'm writing.
Many of the stories in Half as Happy are wrapped up in this way with songs from the Jaybirds' most recent CD, Vintage and Unique, which was in final stages of production at the same time I was finishing work on the book. Certain songs there I can't hear or play without feeling an intense pull back into the stories I was writing at the time.
MP: I love hearing this! You're talking about the music of writing in so many ways at once—the rhythm of the story's unfolding, details of observation, as well as assonance and pace within a passage. I find that the writers I love are musical in many ways. The short-form music of the opening passage of David Wallace's The Pale King, in which he makes a litany of plants in a fallow field almost heartbreakingly beautiful, or the symphonic splendor of some of the modern classics. How aware are you of different kinds of music as you write?
GS: In the drafting stages I think the music-writing connection has to be mostly subconscious, so I can't be fully aware or selective. I'll want to have some music playing in my head which opens me up emotionally and makes me feel. So generally, pretty melancholy stuff and nothing too repetitive or intrusive. With any luck, the words on the page catch an echo or stain from the music, but who knows…
Later in the process, I'll begin thinking more analytically. Music, of course, tells its own stories in the way it repeats themes, refrains and motifs, visits with relative keys and modes and builds toward some essential dissonance which needs resolution. A good song or piece of music has to have this logical harmonic structure that moves you in a mathematically determined way from point A to point B, like a narrative. So in the final stages of working on a story I'll try to tap into that kind of awareness of music—as structure rather than backdrop for the final form. I'll sometimes go as far as writing out these nutty "harmonic analyses" of stories or novels in order to figure out how it moves and where it can be cut or re-shaped. It's all pretty abstract and subjective in the extreme. With Fiddler's Dream I left some of that analysis intact, in a much reduced form, using chord symbols as chapter headings. Made a lot of sense to me at the time, and seemed fun and appropriate to the book's subject…but mostly I suspect it left readers scratching their heads.
What's the most interesting place your love of music has taken you? Backstage with Keith Richards ... trading mix-tapes with Rick Moody ... having your song recorded by Mighty Squirrel... or...?
MP: Again: Chuck Berry's house, Berry Park, in Wentzville, Missouri. The original guitar-shaped swimming pool was empty, cracked, overgrown with weeds, and beside it a modern, normal, rectangular pool had been dug. Chuck was one of the first writers I knew to use a word processor. His experience of bootlegging in the music business left him mistrustful of letting drafts out of his hands, so I flew out to work with him. He painstakingly input each edit on the keyboard, gazed at the screen as he considered it, then rewrote to his satisfaction. His voice was purely his own, his method his own, and being with him in real time as he searched for and found the perfect word was inspiring.
Getting to toast Keith Richards in front of a group of booksellers—and being mocked by him for my amateur mic technique—was pretty cool too. As were a champagne lunch with Marianne Faithfull to celebrate her delivering her memoir, working with Pete Townshend on his memoir, seeing Phil Lesh greet legions of fans, talking with Carlos Santana and John Fogerty about their forthcoming memoirs, hearing Peter Wolf (a true savant of American music) describe J. Geils' stadium tours in the ‘70s, Brian Eno talking about how his ambient music was born in a hospital bed, meeting Michael Stipe, meeting Smokey Robinson…
And since you mentioned Rick Moody's mix tapes, I'll just say here that Rick joins you in the small company of superb writers who are also serious musicians. Check out his Wingdale Community Singers recordings—beautiful, doggedly simple and infernally memorable songs.
Did you learn about any of the music that you love from writers?
GS: Interesting. I don't think so.
In some ways, much as music and writing partake of the same root source, I've had to work to keep them pretty separate in my day-to-day life—especially when it comes to talking with other writers and musicians. In fact, when I was first making my way, paying the bills by gigging and teaching music lessons, writing every other hour of the day, I pretty much made it a secret from my musician friends that I wrote, and from writing friends that I played. Too confusing, too much potential for misunderstanding and bad advice. I literally wrote in the closet of the room where I'd teach fiddle lessons. And I had so much music going all the time, the last thing I wanted, in my quiet time, was to read about more music.
This is less true now, but still I have to maintain a certain separation between the noisy, social, non-verbal world music allows me to inhabit, and the solitary silence of being engaged with words on the page. I'm still a bit split in this regard, and it was a long time before I could consider joining the two things in any way—a long time before I could start figuring out how to put any of my love for music into stories and novels.
One day in particular comes to mind, possibly the first time I tried sharing anything I'd written with one of my music friends—driving to a gig with my band mate and later roommate, Rob Ickes. Rob is a guy who's since gone on to become the most legendary player of his generation on his instrument, which happens to be dobro. He's played with everyone you can think of—Merle, Tony Rice, Earl Scruggs (when he was alive), to name just a few. It was a full car, Rob was riding in back, and there was a copy of The New England Review out on the ledge behind the seat—the issue which happened to include my first published story.
Getting into the car, Rob asked about it. I told him what it was and all the way to the gig he read without looking up. It was a long story, like 50 pages, and a long drive. I'm always a little self-conscious, watching someone read my stuff, and that time especially so because of the first-time collision of my music and writing lives. I kept looking back at him in the rearview mirror. At the end, he tossed the journal up on the ledge behind him and said something about how, Goddam that was as good as anything he'd read in English class, and started singing Dolly Parton's, "Jolene, Jolene, Jolene…" (the name of the female lead in my story).
Rob, as it turns out is, a pretty avid reader, still to this day. His Grammy Award winning band, Blue Highway, actually got its name from his reading of William Least Heat-Moon's book Blue Highways, and later he'd be a great source for me (though he probably doesn't know) writing about Nashville in Fiddler's Dream.
What about you? Does your reading inform your listening? Do you think music is a better subject for writers than other arts?
MP: Writers have pointed the path to much of the music I love. Peter Guralnick's Lost Highway and Feel Like Going Home and Nick Tosches's Unsung Heroes of Rock 'N' Roll lit up worlds of American music that wasn't coming through my radio, and gave me a framework for thinking about the confluence of art and commerce that brings music to us. (NT: "Nothing can better bring together a black man and a white, a young man and an old, a country man and a city man, than a dollar placed between them.") Peter's Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke biographies are the greatest portraits of musical artists and music in our times that I've ever read. Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces introduced me to Wire, the Fall, New Order, and the whole extravagant landscape of English post-punk music. Lester Bangs got me to dig out all the Lou Reed LPs I'd never listened to closely and hear something I'd missed. Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life revealed inspired music made across the US in the ‘80s. These aren't just music reviews, but writers with highly developed voices and views showing how music emerges and evolves and works in the world—that everyday ecstasy. I've never found writing about movies, or art, or other writers, that is as lively or as useful.
All that, of course is nonfiction, not fiction. There have been excellent novels about musicians' lives, and the dynamics of performing and keeping a band and a family together—your own Fiddler's Dream among them. But I see your point about how hard it is to write about music coming into being.
GS: Ah, this is hitting me on one of my weak points! I'm sorely, sadly under-educated and under-read on my music history. Maybe because I grew up in a house full of folk musicians through the late sixties and seventies—both of my parents were, and still are, musicians; in fact, my mom was supposed to be Joan Baez, but that's another story—so I was soaked in a lot of first-hand folkie history from the start, hearing the songs of Woody Guthrie, Dylan, traditional Irish, Scottish and English ballads, or maybe because my preferred approach to playing and learning anything musical has always been a by-ear method, I have to hear stuff first in order to love it and want to know more about it. I loved Colin Escott's Hank Williams biography and learned a ton from that…and the Carter Family book, Will You Miss Me. And when I discovered Tuvan throat singing, I had to find out more about that…likewise the crazy madrigals of Carlo Gesualdo which are easily as haunting and bizarre as his tortured, demented and murderous life story. But that was always after hearing the music.
How about flipping the question around: in your experience, do the musicians you've known take a lot of inspiration for their playing or songwriting from books they've read?
MP: Now you've hit my weak point: I don't know many musicians well. A few I've met or worked with were book lovers—Pete Townshend had his own imprint for Faber in the UK. He published an intriguing story collection, Horse's Neck, and wrote a lovely memoir, Who Am I. Bruce Springsteen (moving beyond ones I've met) has talked about how the memoir Born on the Fourth of July by Ron Kovic and Joe Klein's biography Woody Guthrie influenced his songwriting. It's not surprising that there is a deep connection between lyric writing and poetry. Bob Dylan has written songs about how poetry has inspired him, and wrote his own collection of poems and writings Tarantula long ago. I treasure John Lennon's A Spaniard In the Works. And quite a few songwriters plunge fearlessly into fiction writing. John Wesley Harding, Nick Cave, Kinky Friedman, Graham Parker, Sister Souljah, and Richard Hell are all accomplished novelists.
Another wonderful aspect of music in fiction is the way some writers use it as a touchstone for character. George Pelecanos is a master of this: throughout his novels characters talk about the music they love—what songs they choose on a jukebox in a bar, what CDs they play off their iPhone for a night of lovemaking. It's a wonderful way for a reader to understand a character's history and self-image and aspirations. Rick Moody, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, and Nick Hornby have all written excellent music-steeped novels.
Perhaps the reason music works well within fiction is that, of all the art forms, a song is the one that most truly becomes a part of the person who takes it in. I love the T. S. Eliot line "You are the music while the music lasts." A beloved song exists whole within a person's mind, not just while you're listening to it, but forever, in a way no movie or painting or novel can. It's something we all have within us, and therefore sharable, something a novelist can use in many ways.
GS: Fantastic. I love that. I've always been fascinated by how music transforms the passage of time, beat-by-beat—how it makes time into to this other, metered experience, transforming us in the process and lifting us out of the day-to-day. Maybe that's partly why musicians in general can be so obsessive about time in their playing. Solid timing, a coherent groove that moves and swings and locks, is the essential thing to all good music. Without that…as Bill Monroe would say, it's "No part of nothing."
So what's playing on your stereo at home these days? What are you listening to?
MP: The past few years Wilco and Drive-By Truckers are never far from the stereo. Among the household gods are Duke Ellington, Bob Wills, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Curtis Mayfield, Bob Dylan, and Keith Richards, and they all come back on regularly, along with more recent heroes: Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams, Graham Parsons, Robin Hitchcock, Bob Mould, Paul Westerberg,. Bruce Springsteen. I love me a singer/songwriter. But how can you ever boil down to a list of a few songs? If I could only have one today it would be a recording of you and Caridwen performing a duet of "La Vie En Rose"—I've never been more moved by a live performance.
GS: You're too kind! That's the first song Caridwen sang for me, after our wedding ceremony, and later, when we started working it up to play together, it was the first song we really scrapped over. I have no recollection now of what the issue was. I'd guess you're hearing all that when we play it together—all that feeling and history. But that's what music can do. It can embody an entire emotional history like that…then it's gone.
Gregory Spatz and Half as Happy links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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