Sunday 4 December 2016

Novel idea: singers brought to book

Published 04/10/2015 | 02:30

Read it and weep: Morrissey's new book 'List of the Lost' has been slated by critics.
Read it and weep: Morrissey's new book 'List of the Lost' has been slated by critics.

Feast your eyes on the following sentence: "Preciously kneeling on the upper-crust carpeting, the boys were inexpressive and almost beloved." Not pretty, is it?

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He may have been one of the most lauded lyricists of the 1980s, and no slouch as a wordsmith in subsequent decades, but Morrissey's debut as a novelist shows the transition from adored musician to respected author is not nearly as straightforward as one might imagine.

The Daily Telegraph, in its one-star review of List Of The Lost, wondered if "there has ever been a less sexy moment in literature than Morrissey describing 'the pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation' as it 'smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza's body except for the otherwise central zone'? (I happen to think the sex scenes Tom Wolfe wrote in I Am Charlotte Simmons runs it close, but I digress.)

The Guardian, meanwhile, called it "an unpolished turd of a book, the stale excrement of Morrissey's imagination" and went on to say "all you need to know is not to buy it".

Two years ago, Morrissey was getting mixed reviews for his memoir, Autobiography, but the knives are out from the critics, both professional and of the social media variety, for his fiction debut. It may be just 118 pages long - a veritable novella - but it does take a long time to plough through one clunkily written sentence after another. I gave up after about 50 pages. By contrast, I'd devoured his gloriously bitchy 457-page memoir, even though I was disappointed that he didn't truly lift the lid on the creative process in The Smiths.

Rock history is strewn with music giants who have turned in ghastly fiction. Bob Dylan's 1971 effort Tarantula (his only novel to date) cost me £4 in a second-hand bookshop 20 years ago, but that felt like daylight robbery for a 'prose-poetry' tome so far up its own counter-cultural behind that it's a wonder Dylan ever found his way back out again. Fast-forward 30 years and he was delivering one of the finest music memoirs ever in Chronicles - if you haven't read this free-wheelin' look-back at an extraordinary life, please, please do. (Incidentally, 11 years on from publication, there's still no sign of the second instalment of what he promised would be a three-volume collection.)

A young John Lennon didn't leave behind a literary masterpiece either when he published a collection of poetry, fragmentary stories and doodles at the height of Beatlemania in 1964. While one can excuse his efforts on the grounds of age, nothing in this book, In His Own Write, compares to his extraordinary songwriting union with Paul McCartney or, indeed, his solo work post-1970. Don't take my word for it: most of the book can be freely perused online.

Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson may not be in the same league as Dylan, Lennon or Morrissey, but he's an intriguing renaissance man who's turned his hand successfully to far more than fronting one of the best-selling metal bands of all time. Unfortunately for him, efforts to be an early 1990s answer to PG Wodehouse fell flat on their face, and his book about an aristocratic rake, The Adventures Of Lord Iffy Boatrace, was widely panned on publication.

Musicians tend to fare better - or at least get an easier ride from critics and readers - when they turn their hands to children's fiction. Paul McCartney was roundly praised for his 2005 kid's adventure yarn, High In The Clouds, although some critics couldn't help but point out that this thinly-veiled attack on capitalism was written by one of the wealthiest musicians in history.

And Madonna's foray into young people's literature was not the unmitigated disaster that her most trenchant critics might have been hoping for: The English Roses was a collection of five books about a quintet of girl friends in London and seemed to strike a chord with young female readers. Like Macca, these books also had a message - this time about the virtues of Kabbalah, the spiritual movement derived from Judaism that the Material Girl seemed to talk about so much a decade ago.

Bono also turned his hand to children's books, this time as an illustrator. He certainly didn't disgrace himself with his drawings for Peter And The Wolf, which was adapted by his old mates Gavin Friday and Maurice Seezer from the Sergei Prokofiev composition.

While there's no shortage of big-name musicians who've failed abysmally when it comes to fiction - and I haven't even mentioned the efforts of people like Jewel and Gloria Estefan - it's more challenging to find those who've excelled at both.

The obvious candidate is Leonard Cohen, but his most acclaimed novel, Beautiful Losers, was published in 1966, two years before he released his debut album. Set in 17th century Quebec, it is an explicit, postmodern novel that's now considered to an important part of the Canadian literary canon. Cohen's poetry is also highly regarded, but then that's not the greatest of leaps for a songwriter who has long been considered one of the finest lyricists of his generation.

Finding a contemporary figure who's published a novel that has not drawn howls of derision is more difficult, but Nick Cave is certainly in the mix thanks to his darkly humorous second book, The Death of Bunny Munro.

But for someone who enjoys critical adoration for both his music and novels, you have to cross the Atlantic. Take a bow, Willy Vlautin. The frontman of Portland's much-loved alt-country mavericks Richmond Fontaine, Vlautin has delivered several superb novels, not least his gritty debut The Motel Life, centred on a pair of down and out brothers, which drew comparisons with his literary hero, John Steinbeck.

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