Tuesday 16 January 2018

In their own write: Why pop stars make great novelists too

As Morrissey reveals his fiction debut is due this month, we look at the musicians with literary leanings

Morrissey is set to make his fiction debut
Morrissey is set to make his fiction debut
Gloria Estafen
Nick Cave

Siobhan Kane

The cover of Morrissey's forthcoming novel List of the Lost is as evocative as it is mysterious; a black and white image of a relay runner set against an orange background. What does it all mean?

At the end of September, we'll find out. The real surprise is that it has taken this long to surface, since Morrissey has always been synonymous with literate lyrics, and literature in general, from namechecking Brendan Behan in his song 'Mountjoy', to his love of the Brontë sisters, Charles Dickens, James Baldwin, and Oscar Wilde.

But in turning his hand to novel-writing, Morrissey is actually joining a grand tradition of musicians-turned-writers. One of the most critically acclaimed examples is Nick Cave, whose novels And the Ass Saw the Angel, and The Death of Bunny Munro both exist in atmospheres synonymous with his music; eccentric gothic characters and narratives peppered with violence,religion and madness.

Similarly, Richmond Fontaine's Willy Vlautin writes about the marginalized, folding in the ghost of Steinbeck on his debut The Motel Life, which tells the story of two alcoholic brothers living in a motel, when one brother accidentally runs over a boy on his bicycle.

Northline is about an alcoholic waitress in search of a better life, and Lean on Pete sees a homeless teenage boy befriending a racehorse while trying to find a long-lost aunt, recalling some of Bukowksi's work. Cave and Vlautin's novels are not necessarily radical departures, but companions to stories they tell in their music.

However, there can be odd departures; Madonna and her children's books The English Roses, which drew on inspiration from the Kabbalah religion, and Gloria Estefan's The Magically Mysterious Adventures of Noelle the Bulldog, which both appeared commercially-driven, rather than literary.

It has been said that to be a good writer,you must be a good reader, this is evident in The Decemberists' Colin Meloy's Wildwood Chronicles, illustrated by his wife Carson Ellis. They are a joy to behold. Referencing CS Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, the stories are set amid the natural beauty of Portland, Oregon, where two children, Prue and Curtis, go through the Impassable Wilderness to rescue a baby kidnapped by crows. It's a fantastical place, where animals start armies, and everything is topsy-turvy.

Singer Leonard Cohen was a poet before he was a troubadour, but he has also published two novels, Beautiful Losers,and The Favourite Game, with the latter a semi-autobiographical account of a boy growing up in Montreal, bringing to mind Salinger's Catcher in the Rye because of the way it captures the anxiety of youth.

Another semi-autobiographical novel is Gil Scott-Heron's The Vulture, written when he was just 19, narrated by four men who are all connected to a murdered, drug-dealing teenager,it recreates the gritty debauchery of 1960's inner-city New York, and even more impressively, Scott-Heron released the novel in 1970, the same year as his debut album,showing just how tightly bound up both worlds can be.

There are many other examples; Sleeper's Louise Wener, who has written four novels, including the great Goodnight Steve McQueen, she now actually teaches novel-writing, and punk legend Richard Hell, whose novel, Godlike, is a deranged, decadent tale of excess in mid-'70's East Village, reimagining the relationship between 19th century French poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. Ryan Adams's short stories and free verse poetry are collected in Infinity Blues, and Hello Sunshine, and Steve Earle released his collection of short stories Doghouse Roses in 2001.Closer to home,Galway band Toasted Heretic's Julian Gough has published three acclaimed novels, Juno & Juliet, Jude: Level 1, and Jude in London, and his Free Sex Chocolate juxtaposes poetry with earlier lyrics for the band, while Josh Ritter made a brilliant debut with Bright's Passage, where a World War I veteran goes back to his Appalachian roots, accompanied by an angel in the form of a horse.

Stephen King reviewing, wrote that Ritter was like "Ray Bradbury in his prime", which is no small compliment.

There are charming oddities: The Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt wrote a collection of four-line rhyming poems for each of the 101 two-letter words in The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary, and Silence by John Cage, is an interesting collection of lectures, essays, articles and scores, about the way we make, listen and think about music, with much of it laid out like poetry, just as David Byrne's How Music Works is dazzling in its use of non-linear narratives exploring music.

Courtney Love joined forces with DJ Milky (Stu Levy), to create the manga series Princes Ai, Tom Waits wrote a collection of poetry Hard Ground, and Rza from Wu Tang Clan, with his Tao of Wu, encourages us on a philosophical path to enlightenment.

When you think about it, all of this literary output makes perfect sense. Songwriters, like writers, are observers, with one foot in the street, and one in the universe, like Morrissey himself, whose autobiography was released under the Penguin Classic imprint in 2013, and whose lyrics have inspired legions of artists.

With PJ Harvey soon to release her first volume of poetry The Hollow of the Hand, autumn looks set to be an exciting time for readers. As Morrissey himself sings: "There's more to life than books, you know. But not much more."

Irish Independent

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