Lit-Rock from another Blog

More on John Cale to follow

Lit Rock is the phenomenon by which Bands or musicians will base a good deal of their music around themes, situations, and characters found in their favorite books. Today's reigning champion is undisputedly the Decemberists, who have based entire albums on books they've read. The Crane Wife, their fourth album released in 2006 was based on a Japanese fable frontman Colin Meloy found in a children's storybook. He and his other bandmates have at times worked in bookstores and so they understand the importance of the book in music and other arts. Meloy's lyrics read like a reworked Dickens or Orwell novel or possibly some lugubrious Irish play written while famine was at every door. He sings about love lost in tragic storms, giant whales, soldiers, priories, revenge at sea, jolly boats, wanton sailors, women of ill-repute haunting cobble stone streets, and cannibals. Indeed his work is all the more exciting for his picaresque (the name of the bands third album) tales of cowardice, love, and loss and his bandmates are able to spin utterly convincing sonic renderings of these scenes for him.

During concerts to support Picaresque, the band covered Wuthering Heights, a song by Kate Bush whom Meloy routinely described as the mother of 'lit rock' as they know it. Bush certainly was the master of reinterpreting classic novels to timeless pop songs, but she has one predecessor who doesn't regularly get his due. Aside from the countless singers who referenced that classic that never goes out of print, The Bible, there is one singer who routinely name checked his favorite authors in his sublime pop songs. John Cale, one-time bass and viola player for The Velvet Underground, embarked on his solo career in 1970 and two albums in let the world know the joy of reading. Paris 1919, his sophomore record, is filled with layered literary references and splendidly written tributes to the great works that inspired him to put pen to paper. In the grooves of Paris, you'll find an homage to Dylan Thomas' great and ageless poem A Child's Christmas in Wales, a song named for that great spinner of intriguing yarns Graham Greene, and a rocker named for Shakespeare's Danish prince.

Lit Rock today is a slightly different species than it once was. It, for example, now knows no genre. Bands like White Rabbits wear their bookshelves on their sleeves and their music is fittingly sensitive and listenable, yet on the other end of the spectrum lies something equally as pleasing. Metal band Mastodon based their second record Leviathan on Moby Dick at the suggestion of drummer Brann Dailor. It's now not uncommon to find screamo bands with names like Gatsby's American Dream. There are other bands that take a subtler approach, but the literary influence is there - its nearly impossible to picture Tokyo Police Club without the writings of William Burroughs and Philip K. Dick to place it next to; ditto Cold War Kids with Robert Louis Stevenson and Allen Ginsberg. Canadian dream-pop band Stars took their love of the written word to a whole new level when they asked Daniel Handler (alias Lemony Snickett, the writer of Children's fiction) to write a short story to correspond with the lyrical themes of their album In Our Bedroom After The War so that they could include it in the liner notes. In Our Bedroom is itself a cohesive story with arc and recurring themes. And on the converse side of this is the Gothic Archies, a band who composed a soundtrack to be heard along with each of the books Handler wrote under his Snickett moniker.

Books are a gift that will never stop giving and continue to reach audiences well beyond the literary world. The greatest compliment I've ever received with regard to my music came when a singer I'd never met told me that my music struck him like a classic novel. In the words of my friend and fellow song-writer John Howell "always read to your children, because it makes all the difference".

2 comments:

shaba said...

I don't remember John having any children.

But I do recall a vast quantity of your lyrics being rooted in film. Because I stole the words, and sing them when I run out of my own.
So I guess I didn't recall it after all. I just lied to you!

But it's pardonable, as John farce'd everyone in Siren records.

Scout said...

which words did you recall?