[A couple of months ago, I met with Murray Browne of the Atlanta-Decatur blog, The Book Shopper for coffee at Dancing Goats to commiserate about the self-imposed, (self-loathing?), and somehow never-ending toil of blogging. We agreed to help each other out once in awhile by exchanging entries – doing a kind of a crossover posting (though without the need to buy mutiple floppy editions or waiting for the trade paperback). What follows is the first of what we hope will be many such collaborations. - Rube]
Whenever I think of writers whose works are influenced by music, I think of Jonathan Lethem, a critically acclaimed novelist who seamlessly mixes music and popular culture into his fiction. His most celebrated book is The Fortress of Solitude, a racially charged story of a white kid who grows up in a predominantly black section of Brooklyn in the 1970s. In the words of Nick Hornby, “anyone who has grown up listening to black music or even white music derived from black music will have some point of connection to this book.”
In Fortress, the white kid, Dylan Edbus, becomes friends with the black Mingus Rude, but the friendship, while long-lasting is never easy. One of their connections is music, especially through Mingus’s father, a former lead singer of a moderately successful soul group. This connection to Mingus and his father lays the groundwork for Dylan’s career as a rock critic. There are plenty of references to R&B music of the late 60s and early 70s sprinkled throughout the book including one chapter (written as liner notes) about the father’s soul group, the Distinctions.
Lethem’s latest novel, Chronic City, also mixes music into the fiction, but not to the degree that it was in Fortress. Chronic City is set in present day Manhattan, which Lethem has turned into a bleak surreal metropolis inhabited with glittery socialites, politicians, and the two main characters—former child television star Chase Insteadmen, who drifts into the orbit of down-and out-music and culture critic Perkus Tooth.
Late in the novel, Perkus is evicted and seeks refuge in an apartment house for stray dogs (the legacy of a socialite with a twisted sense of charity). Lethem’s description of Perkus’ transformed life are hilarious (especially the companionship between Perkus and the three-legged dog Ava). One of the impoverished Perkus’s most prized possessions is an old phonograph player and a copy of the initial release of the album Some Girls by the Rolling Stones, which included hits “Miss You” and “Shattered” and the controversial cover art of the Stones in drag mixed in with the faces of several female celebrities. Says Perkus of Some Girls, “You can tell it’s the first pressing, because right afterward they had to withdraw this jacket—the Garland and Monroe Estates sued. It’s incredible how much this music is steeped in the ambiance of the New York City of 1978. It’s as much a New York record as White Light / White Heat or Blonde On Blonde.”
After reading Lethem, I always find myself dropping some of his lines into my everyday vernacular in an effort to sound hip and relevant for those times when I have coffee with those music bloggers.