24 September 2015
With the publication of the debut novel of formerly-celebrated songwriter Morrissey, the Writing Magazine team has selected a few books by musicians you really shouldn't miss.
With the publication of the debut novel of formerly-celebrated songwriter Morrissey – earning mixed, at best, reviews – the Writing Magazine team has put together our essential books by musicians, and a few you can probably live without. We've tried to pick books that stand in their own right, so don't feel you need to be a fan to dive in. And of course, we'd love to read your suggestions in the comments
And the Ass Saw the Angel - Nick Cave (Penguin)
The obvious choice and an absolute shoo-in on this list, And the Ass Saw the Angel is truly masterful, a novel by a novelist who happens to have written some songs more than a novel by a musician. That said, fans of the Southern Gothic crooner will find themselves in familiar territory here, dealing with Biblical imagery, damnation, retribution and bad blood in a Faulkner-esque narrative about mute outcast Euchrid Eucrow. It's also one of the rare examples where using dialect for a narratorial character is more involving than intrusive.
Not to be confused with The Death of Bunny Munro, see below.
In His Own Write/A Spaniard in the Works - John Lennon (Vintage Classics)
Originally published as two books in 1964 and 1965, John Lennon's skits, sketches and wordplay are a joy to read, regardless of how you feel about his music. Owing much to Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Spike Milligan and Stanley Unwin, these whimsical jottings and inky doodles would surely have been an unlikely choice for publication had their author not been, y'know, one of the most famous musicians in the world, but the mix of satire and nonsense, childish playfulness and adult themes, makes for surprisingly enduring reading. One you'll dip into again and again.
Paradoxical Undressing - Kristen Hersh (Atlantic), published in the US as the slightly more manageable Rat Girl, and with a much nicer cover
Not a novel, but this memoir by Throwing Muses songwriter Kristin Hersh – an augmented version of extracts from her nineteen-year-old self's diary – reads like one, a warm and witty bildungsroman of snapshots and memories from a smart young woman who seems to have been both endearingly childlike and old well before her time. Fans of Hersh's music will relish the little details that shed light on her often mercurial early lyrics (and the snippets of said lyrics interspersed with the text) but this deserves to reach a wider audience. There's just as much would interest casual readers: her offbeat family background, friendship with 1950s Hollywood star Betty Hutton (seriously!) and insightful account of the experience of manic depression, initially misdiagnosed as schizophrenia, and how she learnt to live with it.
The Motel Life and Northline - Willy Vlautin (Faber and Faber)
The first two of Richmond Fontaine singer’s forays into novel-writing demonstrated a wordsmith’s gift for stripped-down dirty realism perfectly in tune with his band’s alt-country sensibility. His compassionate, low-key accounts of the fragile hopes and bitter losses of his downbeat characters saw Vlautin hailed as an important new American literary realist. Gritty tales of low-rent Americana that tug at the heartstrings, The Motel Life and Northline do what the best country music is capable of - and they’re totally devoid of the overblown glitz and maudlin sentimentality of the genre’s worst.
Bad Wisdom - Bill Drummond and Mark Manning (Penguin)
A wholly bizarre game of two halves, Bad Wisdom is a quasi-fictional account by two untrustworthy narrators of an epic journey undertaken by KLF situationist Bill Drummond and sleaze-rock cartoon figure Mark Manning, aka Zodiac Mindwarp, to the North Pole, where they intended to sacrifice an icon of Elvis Presley. Comprising two wildly different narratives, it contrasts Drummond’s dry, comparatively sane account with the unspeakably florid imaginings of Mr Manning. Depending on the reader, it might equally be either an underground classic or filthy abomination, but it is certainly a feat of the imagination and a reminder that the characters in rock’n’roll were once allowed to exist uncensored and unsanitised. Bill Drummond has since written acclaimed non-fiction books which we also heartily recommend, including The 17 (about music) and 45 (about himself). Mark Manning also continued an authorial career, penning obscene pulp fiction and an equally scurrilous autobiography.
Just Kids - Patti Smith (Gallimard)
Patti Smith was a downtown beat poet before she metamorphosed into an intellectual punk goddess as much in love with art and words as rock’n'roll. In 2011 she published Just Kids, her autobiographical account of her time in New York before she because a name, and in particular her pre-fame romance with Robert Mapplethorpe – the photographer whose photo of her on the sleeve of Horses made her androgynous image part of the iconography of punk. Just Kids is a a tender, elegiac coming of age story written with consummate artistry. Smith’s righteous fire may have mellowed into a slow burn but there is raw, honest beauty in this tender retrospective of the young life she shared with another extraordinary artist.
Beautiful Losers - Leonard Cohen (Blue Door)
Famously a well-respected poet long before he made the jump to well-respected songwriter, Canadian national treasure Cohen dabbled in novels in the mid-60s with The Favourite Game and Beautiful Losers, the former a thinly-veiled roman à clef which drew attention for a couple of sexually-charged passages and hasn't stood the test of time as well as the latter, an experimental novel steeped in love, sex, spirituality, death, and other themes he's spent the next five decades revisiting in song. It concerns an unlikely three-way love story between the academic narrator, his wife and their mentor, and the story of the 17th century Mohawk virgin saint the academic is researching. Not warmly received on its initial publication, Beautiful Losers has passed into the canon as an early classic of post-modern Canadian literature, and rightly so – like his music, Cohen's prose style takes some getting used to, but it has a rich depth that rewards the patient.
So there you go. Some you hopefully agree with, some you might not, and possibly some you're unaware of. I'm sure you have better suggestions, so do let us know in the comments! And while we're here, just a cautionary note about a couple of titles we'd suggest you skip right past
One Three One - Julian Cope (Faber & Faber)
The former Teadrop Explodes frontman wrote one of our favourite muso memoirs in the form of Head On, a very funny account of his early-80s misadventures with the band (and his guides to British and European standing stones The Modern Antiquarian and The Megalithic European, are unsurpassed), but he's always had a hit and miss approach to self-editing, so it's no surprise that his debut novel One Three One, subtitled A Time-Shifting Gnostic Hooligan Road Novel, is actually more of a car crash. Flitting between an alternative-reality neolithic pagan culture and the travels of a burnt out rock star attempting to unravel precisely what happened on some wild weekend in Italy in the 1990s, it's ambitious (we'd expect nothing less, Copey!) and occasionally humorous, but so buried in self-referential in-jokes, scatology and character-indulging philosophy that you're unlikely to reach the funny bits and even less likely to figure out what that ambition actually was. And I say all of this as a lifelong Cope fan.
The Adventures of Lord Iffy Boatrace - Bruce Dickinson (Pan)
Apparently a Tom Sharpe fan, Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson displayed a hitherto unexplored fascination with aristocratic eccentricity in this ill-advised farce – like Viv Stanshall's Sir Henry Rawlinson filtered through a fug of 80s metal's basest foibles. Now, not so surprisingly, out of print, The Adventures of Lord Iffy Boatrace concerns the down-on-his-luck, "semi-transvestite", 25th Laird of Findidnann, who arranges a fake grouse shoot to inject some funds into his estate. It romps along at a fair pace, with bawdy humour, paper-thin characters and ludicrously improbable happenstances, so literary scholars who aren't also Iron Maiden fans are unlikely to be scouring Ebay.
The Death of Bunny Munro - Nick Cave (Canongate)
Fans waited twenty years after the release of And the Ass Saw the Angel for Nick Cave to release his second novel, so The Death of Bunny Munro was hotly anticipated when it finally came, but was something of a letdown for anyone expecting more of the same, or even a similar standard. Dark, certainly, but lacking the narrative flare of its predecessor, Bunny Munro portrays the perpetual mid-life-crisis, drug abuse, womanising, bad parenting and general all-round nastiness of its titular salesman – including, somewhat bizarrely, a number of unappealing fantasies about the Australian author's friend and sometime collaborator Kylie Minogue.