Brittany Allen | Longreads | August 2019 | 10 minutes (2,730 words)
In 1974 Walter Thompson, a Berklee-trained bandleader, moved to Woodstock and made up a language. A fan of improv, Thompson initially designed forty signs for structuring a live composition. With one gesture, he could single out a group in his orchestra (like “Woodwinds”). With another, he could instruct said group to hold a long note (“Long Tone”), match one another’s phrasing (“Synchronize”), or tell players to dit dit dit out a series of staccato bursts (“Pointillism”). Wham, Blam, thank you ma’am: a new song, on the spot.
Forty years later, directors working with all kinds of performers — actors, dancers, and musicians — still employ Thompson’s conducting shorthand to devise material. The language has a name now: soundpainting, a term I find almost unbearably lovely. At my (blessedly experimental) college I studied soundpainting, stage pictures, lyric essays, many radiant paradoxes that suggested trespass between one mode of making and another. But soundpainting, this word lingers. What a pure reminder that our creative borders are porous by definition. That some of our metaphors ought to be mixed.
Either Martin Mull or Frank Zappa or Elvis Costello or someone else entirely once may have said, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” and meant this as a cut. But like Thompson, I chafe against the arbitrary border. In this reader’s opinion, there are some excellent books about music. But on the synesthetic end of the exercise, there are also miraculous books suffused with music, there are rhythmic books that dit dit dit a forever impression on your skull. A man in Woodstock believes you can paint with sound. Well, I know for a fact you can dance to pages.
I am sixteen and a coiled ball of lust when my best friend Courtney lends me Pamela des Barres’ I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie, then all but instructs I read it with a candle burning, just like Zooey Deschanel tells Patrick Fugit to do with The Who’s “Tommy” in Almost Famous. And natch, Des Barres was the model for Penny Lane. Her tell-all memoir is a fascinating chronicle of her coming-of-age on the Sunset Strip, surrounded by the likes of Robert Plant and Waylon Jennings. At sixteen I was in lust with rock n’ roll, every problematic piece of it, and in adulating tones here came Ms. Pamela, to certify that one was not crazy for conflating the sybaritic with the spiritual:
“I loved music and the men who made it. The twang of an electric guitar and the sexy thump of the deep dark bass opened me up and wreaked sensual havoc with my teenage hormones.”
Des Barres regales readers with stories starring Keith Moon, Jimi Hendrix, and the hotel rooms everybody destroyed. They are excellent stories, and as suits them, every page of this memoir is peppered with a giddy, breathless prose. I loved this book. Oh, I loved this book! I cried with jealousy the first time I finished it, late at night in my basement bedroom, styling myself trapped in the dull and rock-less suburbs. But it’s hard to say now what nabbed me first: the stories, or Des Barres’ earnest, lusty voice, which reminded me so purely of my own.
Patti Smith’s Just Kids is another ode to both an historic moment in music history, and the inimitable first love. Smith’s elegant prose carries us easily from the spare Coney Island of 1969 to the rooms of the Chelsea Hotel, where she loved Robert Mapplethorpe more and better than most of us love anything (or so it feels). “There were days, rainy gray days,” Smith writes, “when the streets of Brooklyn were worthy of a photograph, every window the lens of a Leica, the view grainy and immobile. We gathered our colored pencils and sheets of paper and drew like wild, feral children into the night, until, exhausted we fell into bed. We lay in each other’s arms, still awkward but happy, exchanging breathless kisses into sleep.” Like I’m With the Band, Just Kids manages to pulse most authentically with that particular yearning, teenage rhythm — yet there is poetry in her longing. Lyrics, if you like.
Seventeen, nineteen, twenty two: I find indie rock and feminism. Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl offered a counterpoint to the wild passion in Des Barres’ memoir, but is less precious (rightly so) than Just Kids. Most important, this book showed me that a woman could become the love of her own wild heart, the hero in the ballad she wrote herself. Describing an early Sleater-Kinney show in Australia, Brownstein says: “Despite my lack of sophistication or maturity, I was headstrong. My sense of possibility and certainty made me focused… The best word to describe it is ‘scrappy.’” By my mid-twenties I had already spent so much of my musical energy buoying or believing in the egos of emotional men. Here, at last, was the quickening kick-drum of a riot grrrl’s pulse.
In Courtney’s basement, we got high in just that order: “Houses of the Holy,” then “Horses,” finally the grunge gods. We burned CDs like there was no tomorrow, scheduled whole summers around festival attendance, plastered our lockers with the front man’s face. Before we understood so many things — like the fact that proximity to perceived genius did not denote genius in us, or the fact that we’d never love any music the way we loved the music we met in the salad days — we understood the noisy throb that could make a girl abdicate all good sense. Should you feel like returning to a basement, just remember: read these with a candle burning.
For many of us, falling in love with music precedes falling in love with musical trivia. Memorizing facts about bands became a way to braid my reptilian teen response to The Sound with a burgeoning urge to intellectualize, to make a story from the score. If you’ve also a proclivity for the deep dive and have ever wondered why Mission to Burma didn’t get more radio play, Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life is a tome to know. Profiling thirteen groups at the arguable height of the “American indie underground,” this bible is detail-rich. And after nearly five hundred pages with the Beat Happening, The Replacements, and ilk, a larger picture emerges: Azerrad is out to chronicle not just bands, but a whole generation’s grumpies.
As a matter of course, we basement wonks also had to seize on all music criticism that transcended dismissal or bland flattery. No easy feat. There was the analytical Ellen Willis — her posthumously published Out of the Vinyl Deeps is a smart, snappy collection. As the first female rock critic for The Village Voice in the 1970s, Willis is thrilling and incisive on Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground, but has a somewhat glaring r&b blindspot. (Courtney lent me her copy.)
Then there were the New Journalists: Hunter S. Thompson, Robert Christgau, and Joan Didion, occasional-to-often music writers about whom much has already been said. My drug of choice in this set was Lester Bangs. Bangs’ Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, a posthumously published collection of the critic’s writings in Creem magazine, is a hectic, joyful book of essays that incidentally review albums. Like Azerrad would later, Bangs wrote about music with an eye to making a larger cultural diagnosis. In his famous review of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, for instance, Bangs said: “Maybe what it boiled down to is one moment’s knowledge of the miracle of life, with its inevitable concomitant, a vertiginous glimpse of the capacity to be hurt, and the capacity to inflict that hurt.” How I guzzled this headiness, which seemed to suit its mystic subject so very well.
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More recently, I fell in love with Jessica Hopper’s haltingly titled The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic. In these pages, the fleet-footed critic deconstructs everyone from Tyler the Creator to Hole. But it’s not just the panoramic, modern attention that makes reading this book feel like you’re spending time with an especially hip but down-to-earth older sister’s best friend. Once again it’s the voice, ardent and familiar on the page. Here’s how Hopper opens her collection:
“I have a strange relationship with music. It is strange by virtue of what I need from it. Some days, it’s the simple things: distraction, entertainment, the sticky joy garnered only from Timbaland beats. Then, sometimes… I am painfully aware of every single thing that I need from music, embarrassed by what I ask of it.”
Reading books that treated music like it was a subject worth serious study began to suggest to me something marvelous: perhaps all my love for music was serious, too, and worth taking seriously. These collections shaped my readerly sensibility, they followed me into other nooks of the library. I’ve since resolved to make friends with any author who can put my yearning on a page.
Beyond the basement, there are deft storytellers who’ve managed to deploy music as a texture in an imagined world. Marie Helene Bertino’s 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas is a page-turning novel that mines jazz and rock for mise en scene. The story follows four players over a single Christmas eve in Philadelphia. Our instigator is the irrepressible Madeleine Altimari, who’s just “two days away from being ten.” Foulmouthed, fiercely independent, and mourning a late mother whose voice could “redirect the mood of a room,” Altimari wears a clothespin on her “unignorable” nose and is deadly serious about her own jazz singer ambitions. Though her holiday begins with her expulsion from fifth grade, Madeleine suspects she’s destined for greatness. If only Fishtown could hear her belt.
Featuring a jaded clubowner, a wanderlusty terrier, and the most beautiful Snakehead you’ve never played (won in a battle from Steve Earle, natch), Bertino’s love letter to the local musician is populated with references to recognizable sirens. (“The voice of Nina Simone drifts in from her father’s bedroom, remorseless as cigarette smoke.”) But sound doesn’t just live lightly on these pages. Bertino’s playful sense of simile lends her Philadelphia a supersonic aura; teapots don’t just hiss, their whistle “barges in from another room.” Folks “can hear rhythms tapped out on Neptune” and screaming “hits enviable notes.”
The playwright Laura Eason’s whip-smart drama, The Undeniable Sound of Right Now, likewise makes use of the fan’s predilection for nostalgia, but it does so to tell a story about the vice-grip of familial love. The play, set in 1992 Chicago, concerns a grimy dive called Hank’s Bar. Hank, eponymous bar-owner and father to the trendy Lena, feels his way of life is threatened when a proto-hipster moves in down the block to court his daughter and preach about a “new sound” that would see Marvin Berry quaking in his boots. This play gets at something essential about how families can rely on a cultural shorthand to speak about more painful subjects, like the day we leave the nest. Hank’s not ready for change (i.e., electronica), but it’s coming, regardless. Ready or not, songs end.
Hanif Abdurraqib’s Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest is hard to pin down. One part elegy, one part autobiography, one part history, and one part epistle, this book circles A Tribe Called Quest, those feather-ruffling emcees out of Queens who — Abdurraqib argues — planted the East Coast flag for rap. Like I’m With the Band, this book is suffused with an almost intimidating love for its subjects. The author’s letters to Q-Tip and the late Phife Dawg pose questions about fame and artistry in a voice that encapsulates that odd paradox: the fan who feels they know the artist, despite all physical evidence to the contrary. But beyond the glorious trivia to be found in these pages — great fun for all people instinctively traveling — Abdurraqib invites a more general readership. Particularly when he explores why we love the sounds we love. In an especially poignant passage, the author talks to the late Phife Dawg’s poet mother, Arina:
“I love most how you milked the ending of each syllable and let it sing in the air a bit longer. There is a way to read a poem, and then there is a way to allow the poem to exit the body and be read by everyone in the room. The way you, with impeccable rhythm, hung each bit of language from the lights in that room and let me see them, even with my eyes closed.”
Abdurraqib’s investigative odyssey pairs well with Elena Passarello’s Let Me Clear my Throat, an essay collection that centers around the uses of the voice. Passarello’s curiosity is both vivacious and precise. In these pages she navigates an aural landscape containing everything from the infamous Howard Dean Scream (“Communication Breakdown”) to the Golden Record currently traversing our cosmos (“Space Oddity”). No aspect of the human tongue is too small for Passarello’s gaze, and her writing is engaging whether her subject is the epiglottis, the 64th key of the pianoforte, or a metal band’s first show at CBGB’s. These are two tomes that will teach you how to pay attention. How to tune in and listen, close close close.
Jazz is on its face a most obvious choice, but if you know Ms. Morrison, whose recent loss weighs heavily on us, you know it’s all musical — from Sula’s frantic foxtrot to Sethe’s swansong. In Jazz, an unnamed but omnipotent ‘I’ narrates the misadventures of a doomed love triangle. What’s fascinating about this novel is the connections the author makes — structurally, literally, and stylistically — between her chosen subject and her chosen style guide. In an intro to the 2016 Vintage reissue of the book, the author explains the connection she parses between romantic love in 1920s Halem and jazz, insisting:
“I didn’t want simply a musical background, or decorative references to it. I wanted the work to be a manifestation of the music’s intellect, sensuality, anarchy; its history, its range, and its modernity.”
The experiment works. In Jazz, long riffs carry us from character to character. Narrative in this book — such as it is — is handled kaleidoscopically; one minute we’re getting the bruised Violet Trace’s origin story, in another, we’re with young Dorcas, who fell between the marriage of Violet and Joe. Reading this book feels just like being in a soundpainting orchestra. To get Jazz, you’ve gotta jam.
Morgan Parker’s 2017 poetry collection, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, shares some DNA with Morrison’s project in that Parker uses pop songs as both subject matter and stylistic inspiration. Many poem in this collection explore the mythology around Her Highness Beyoncé, who Parker uses as a vessel to perturb ideas of black American femininity as its idealized, sexualized, and brutalized in our culture. In these pages, Beyoncé prepares a will. She celebrates Black History Month. In a favorite poem, she holds a truth back from her shrink, on a couch:
what if I said I’m tired
and they heard wrong
said sing it
The long shadows cast by the hitmaker hold us spellbound.
Of course there is music in many books, even in the books that are not expressly about or interested in pop or jazz or rhythm and blues. We love to dwell on the “voices” of our favorite authors, and natch — there is certainly something of Nashville’s heyday in Mary Karr’s spitfire. In essays, James Baldwin bounces from thought to thought like Miles Davis circa Bitches Brew. Kiese Laymon’s sentences cast a trance. And perhaps Nabokov is rapping, and Wharton is hitting a high C, and so on and so forth, from the phonograph on.
But I think the very best books about or concerning sound — or its painting — are particular miracles because they capture the things we too often assume are ineffable on the page: longing, passion, rhythm, movement, ecstasy. I’m just so glad when a writer makes an attempt to put these things on pages. I’ve always wanted to ask Frank Zappa (or Martin Mull or Elvis Costello or whoever it was) why they wouldn’t want to see a dance about architecture, anyway.
I mean, wouldn’t it be nice just to see somebody try?
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Brittany Allen is a New York based prose writer, playwright and actor. Her essays and fiction have been published in Catapult, The Toast, Green Mountains Review, and elsewhere.
Editor: Dana Snitzky