Lit Riffs: Writers “Cover” Songs They Love

Edited by Matthew Miele (MTV/Pocket Books) $13.95

In the introduction to Lit Riffs, an anthology of stories inspired by songs, Neil Strauss writes of the betrayal he felt when he learned that there was no overarching narrative to the Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle, an album he had for years assumed was held together by some “feat of conceptual derring-do.” When the band told him that the songs were “just songs,” he struggled, lamenting the loss of the novel in his head, as if the band’s disavowal meant he had to abandon the album entirely as meaningless. But then, he says, he simply decided they were wrong. “As I continued to listen to the songs, I wove them together into a fifty-page musical, a tale of murder and intrigue, heartbreak and betrayal. Zombies be damned.”

Lit Riffs rages against the dying of the light of such wildly idiosyncratic personal association and interpretation. Writing about music has been famously likened to dancing about architecture–a pointless and gratuitous endeavor–but if that’s true, then what are we supposed to make of ekphrasis? Understood as the poetic treatment of the visual arts–in a nutshell, poems inspired by paintings–the term can easily stretch to include program music, movies inspired by novels, and, sure, why not dances inspired by architecture? The ekphrastic impulse is the sort of secondary creative response that lurks at the heart of really good criticism.

If the artists whose music provides the foundation for the book were asked to comment on the results, “That’s not what I meant at all” would probably come up a lot. But does it matter? It’s hard to imagine a higher compliment a listener can pay a musician than giving his work a vigorous dose of imaginative close attention. Rock lyrics are famously vague, but what if that vagueness is actually just the outline and it’s listeners who need to finish the picture? In poetic theory, it’s not uncommon to find writers who believe a poem isn’t complete until the reader does her part fleshing out the suggestions and connecting the dots of allusions, something no two readers can possibly do the same way, nor should. There can actually be some damned good reasons for songwriters to play coy when grilled on what it’s all about, man.

The vast majority of these stories steer clear of literal interpretation, although the Robin Hood-like legend Toure draws from Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” and the grueling, affectionate, slightly fanfictional workout Lester Bangs gives Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” (the only reprint in the collection) come close. Each writer accepts the conceit that the songwriter is his own protagonist, and then stretches the idea almost past its limits.

The stories that are the most off-putting are the ones where the writer seems to be slumming: see Darin Strauss’s priggish endnote to his “Smoking Inside,” a condescending (and more than a little misogynist) rot-at-the-heart-of-the-American-family tale loosely based on the Black Crowes’ “Remedy,” in which he wonders slack-jawed at the “thousands, perhaps millions of sixty-year-olds in America who still listen exclusively to music made for adolescents.” Neal Pollack’s “Death in the Alt-Country” is at least funny, but it’s no closer in spirit to Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” than any part of the scene he condemns to the death of a thousand name-drops (which of course is part of the joke). And I might have been more sympathetically disposed to Judy Budnitz’s “The System,” an unconvincing prison-town yarn, if the lyric that serves as its epigraph were actually from the song she says it is. The quote is credited to Tom Waits’s “Way Down in the Hole,” but it’s really from “Cold Cold Ground.”

The most emotionally affecting stories in the anthology are those that accept a song’s world at face value, move into it, and flesh out realistic characters within it, like the traumatized, Vietnam-obsessed teen that Lisa Tucker installs in a piece jumping off from Pearl Jam’s “Why Go,” or the two lost souls in “Blue Guitar” (from the Cowboy Junkies tune), by the late Amanda Davis, a tale of a small-town dreamer that repeatedly pulls itself back from the edge of cliche. As her pair of strangers sink deeper into an uncomfortable road-trip “adventure” full of forced spontaneity I kept thinking, “Dear God, please don’t let him rape her,” but my concern was more for the story than the characters. If he’d raped her (he doesn’t) the story would have gone from poignant meditation on disillusionment to cheap melodrama.

Ekphrastic writing offers a great opportunity to reflect on the creative process. I loved Ernesto Quinonez’s “Graffiti Monk” (inspired by Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message”), a barrio tale free of penny-dreadful drama in which the young narrator, a scrub who looks up to more gifted graffiti artists, feels betrayed by his hero’s spiritual revelation and withdrawal from the scene. He’s unable to recognize his idol’s meditations as creative in their own right and he settles happily into working-class adulthood without ever quite grasping it, a nice dodge of convenient authorial epiphany. Elissa Schappell’s “Dying on the Vine” (from the John Cale song of the same name) avoids epiphany by a different tack, using the device of a completely obtuse narrator, a writer who tries to shape an ex-lover’s impending death into a form more convenient for her and more neatly dramatic for her self-serving autobiography. Cale’s tune has its share of self-pity, but it’s balanced by self-deprecation. Schappell’s self-absorbed little wankette is an obvious authorial stand-in whose insufferability is a device that allows poor dying Ray to come through as the realest of characters.

Many of the pieces in Lit Riffs–which also includes contributions from Jonathan Lethem, Aimee Bender, and J.T. LeRoy, among others–are downright depressing, salvaging meaning from emotional disaster, as when Tucker’s damaged heroine forges a surprising relationship with a wary vet. But for all the writers’ graceful dancing in the ruins the project is a bit of a guilty pleasure, though I can’t quite figure out why. Why is riffing on a song somehow more suspect than any other jumping-off point, be it a headline or a snatch of memory or a face in the crowd?

My discomfort, I imagine, has something to do with the cult of originality–something that a rock critic grapples with all the time, forever hanging in between reporting on and debunking the buzz of the allegedly young and new. But just as great songs are usually responses to something (even other songs), so are great (and lousy, and mediocre) works of just about any art. Give me any ten fiction writers and I’ll bet you eight of them have written something triggered by a piece of music.

I went through this collection knowing there were a few songs invoked that I wasn’t familiar with; I waited to see if my feelings were different for the stories based on songs I knew. The answer: not necessarily, and an ekphrastic association can be so personal there were more than a few cases where I didn’t see an obvious connection at all. There would be no need for the writer to name the song were it not for the parameters of the anthology. But that I didn’t see the relationship between source and story sure doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. That’s fascinating–a window directly into the singularity of the creative process, and one that gives the lie to the primacy of “originality” in sources.