Reconstruction Of The Fables: The Dynamic Interplay Of Music And Literature



October 14, 2001

The poster has moved with me now for 15 years. It’s part of a series for America’s public libraries, featuring a very young-looking R.E.M., with Peter Buck, Mike Mills, Michael Stipe and Bill Berry each holding their favorite books. I’d love to know what Stipe is holding, but, like his early lyrics, the title is obscured. Buck holds an Oscar Wilde collection, and that, along with a mention of Wilde in a Smiths song from the same era, “Cemetery Gates,” conspired to send me to the library.

Buck’s a tremendous reader. His Seattle home is filled with almost as many books as records. So we asked Buck to dine last week with his friend Mark Lindquist, whose music-infused novel “Never Mind Nirvana” gets like few others the profound way music can be not only a soundtrack to life but also a road map. We asked them to talk about how artists and musicians are influenced by each other.
– David Daley, Books Editor

Mark Lindquist: The only thing I did to prepare for this was to go through my CD collection, and the three bands that dominate my collection are the Beatles, R.E.M. and the Replacements. I listened to albums by each in progression, and one of the things I noticed – maybe because I was looking for it – is that each of these bands became increasingly interested in narrative, in story, as their career progressed. Do you think that happened with R.E.M.

Peter Buck: Absolutely. When we started out, Michael was trying to find a way of communicating that wasn’t a literal language. He didn’t want to string together sentences that told a story that everyone could agree on. I really respected that, the feeling that the narrative stuff has been done, love songs have been done, and this sort of Rorschach blot of words and emotions are a different way to approach telling a story.

It also opens it up a lot, in that people can listen to these songs and, without knowing exactly what they’re about, put themselves in the song. Michael told me recently: His theory is, name your 10 favorite rock songs of all time. Write them down. Then write next to them what they’re about. Guarantee that you’ll only be able to do that for two of them.

ML: Let’s try that. Name your five favorite rock songs.

PB: “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Fight the Power,” “We Can Work It Out,” “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” and “Gloria” by Patti Smith.

ML: OK, “Like a Rolling Stone.” What’s that about?

PB: Obviously it’s an aggressive song putting someone down, but I don’t know who that person is. Assuming that I know a little about Dylan’s life, it could be about the people who followed him around. It seems to be a portrait of someone who thinks they’re a winner, who’s high in society. Who that is, I don’t know. I could be completely wrong. I don’t know what Napoleon “who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat” means.

ML: But you remember the line about the Siamese cat.

PB: With Dylan, you always get that. “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.” That’s from “Visions of Johanna,” which is one of my favorite songs, but I have no idea what that means.

ML: How about “Fight the Power”?

PB: I would assume, being a white guy from the suburbs, that it’s about being black, but I don’t know. If the Beastie Boys had written it with the same lyrics, I’d have no idea.

ML: “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” is from “Pet Sounds,” which is chock-full of stories, at least in my mind. I may be imposing a narrative, because I listened to this CD when I left for college, and to me that album was about leaving home, going on a new adventure: “I once had a dream, so I packed up and left for the city.” But that may have nothing to do with what Brian Wilson intended.  

PB: When we first started out, I know that Michael felt everything in rock and roll had been done. We didn’t want to write a love song, or anything that could be construed as a love song, for 10 years.

ML: What would you say your first love song was?

PB: Well, it wasn’t a love song. “The One I Love” is an anti-love song, but since “the one I love” is in the title…we used to play it, and I’d look into the audience, and there would be couples kissing. Yet the verse is, “This one goes out to the one I love/A simple prop to occupy my time.” That’s savagely anti-love. But that’s OK. People perceive songs as they are. People told me that was “their song.” That was your song? Why not “Paint it Black” or “Stupid Girl” or “Under My Thumb”?

ML: But that’s pop music – Noel Coward’s line about the amazing “potency of cheap music.”

PB: It doesn’t even matter, the value of the music. I’ve teared up at commercials.

ML: What commercial made you tear up, for God’s sake?

PB: The Pepsi commercial where the woman is depressed and the monkeys bring her a Pepsi. It was because of my life at the time, and not the commercial, but that’s what pop music is, too. It’s not necessarily what’s written or even implied. It’s what you as the listener take out of it. Which is why I tend to think songs that are less specific are more powerful.

I’ve never cried at, say, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” by Bob Dylan, which is a very specific song. I know that there’s a woman named Hattie Carroll, and she was killed. But it was reportage. It never made me tear up, but other songs have. It’s all about what you bring in at that moment, so narrative is not necessarily the most important thing.

ML: Do you think that works in literature? One of the things they tell you in Writing 101 is to make things more specific rather than more general.

PB: I think literature is a chance for someone like me, who’s led a more or less middle-class life, to look into someone else’s heart and mind and be shown a world that I don’t know. When I was a teenager, I read a lot of African American literature – “Soledad Brother” or “Invisible Man” or Richard Wright, and there were things that completely changed my life. The strength of literature is its specificity.

ML: Any other reasons you think R.E.M.’s music has become more specific, more story-driven?

PB: I think Michael was trying to find a way on the early records to tell a story without telling a story. As he got a little older and became more comfortable doing the singing and being a public figure, the idea was still, “I’m not going to tell a story where someone says this is a song about…” Now as a writer Michael likes to take a character he imagines and write from that perspective, tell a story in the first person. But it’s not necessarily his perspective.

ML: When I saw R.E.M. in Seattle in 1999, I think Stipe introduced “The Apologist” by saying, “This is a story about…” And “All the Way to Reno” is a pretty classic narrative. It reminds me of “That’s Not Me” from “Pet Sounds,” not musically or lyrically, but conceptually.

PB: “Reno,” I’m sure that is sung from the perspective of a 17-or 18-year old girl. It has to be. I’ve never asked him.

ML: And “That’s Not Me” is sung from the perspective of a like-minded 17- or 18-year-old boy. Bret Easton Ellis has said as you get older, you become more interested in narrative, in stories with a beginning, middle and an end.

PB: Part of it is definitely an age thing. When I was in my 20s, and my band was in its early years, we were capturing an experience, not necessarily thinking about the chain between the past and the future, which is what a novel is. As you get older, your life is less about capturing the moment and more about understanding what you’re doing.

ML: Has Michael’s progression or change as a lyricist been influenced by literature?

PB: I don’t know. The only way I can say our band was directly influenced by literature was when we did our first big American tour in 1982, before our first EP came out. We were in a van, touring to nobody, playing songs no one has ever heard. I managed to find all three of the Flannery O’Connor short-story collections, and every member of the band read every one of the words in those three collections on that tour. We passed them around, pages falling out, putting pages back in, reading them with a light on at 2 a.m., going from San Antonio to L.A. I felt really strongly that it changed the way we thought about writing. I don’t know why, because she writes about faith and the problems of faith in a world where there is no faith, and Michael wasn’t writing linear dialogues, but when we made our first record, I think we all thought Flannery O’Connor was something we would emulate in some way.

ML: I can be listening to a particular CD or song that evokes a mood or a moment in a way I admire, and I will try to get the same effect into what I’m writing. Has the reverse ever happened to you? You’re reading a novel or short story, and it works for you so well, you think you want to get whatever it is that works for you into your music? Do you take what you read the night before into what you write?

PB: All I can say is I certainly hope so, which is why I try to read good stuff.

ML: OK, other books that have affected you as a songwriter?

PB: Denis Johnson.

ML: Why?

PB: I don’t know why. “Already Dead” changed me when I read it. I can’t say why or how, but I felt like a different person at the end, in the same way that when I was a teenager, Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” completely moved me.

ML: One of the things music can do for writers is that we can take a song, an idea in a song, or even a character in a song, and expand it into a story, or a screenplay, or a novel. Another thing music can do for writers is set a tone for whatever we’re working on that day. Most writers I know listen to rock, but Kerouac talked about how he would do that with jazz.

PB: What do you think Faulkner did?

ML: I think he just drank.

PB: But do you think he put the 78s on? He probably wasn’t a Glenn Miller guy. Was he a Duke Ellington guy? I bet Faulkner played records at his house. I’d be really shocked if he didn’t play gospel stuff from the ’30s and ’40s, if he didn’t listen to blues music.

ML: What about Hemingway?

PB: My feeling is he didn’t get much pleasure in life. Having read his books, I doubt very much that he had an ear for music. I bet he loved music in the hills of Spain, dancing to it, no matter how good or bad it was. But did he go home and put on records? I doubt that very much. Now Fitzgerald, he found joy in life.

ML: And in drinking. It kept him from writing.

PB: He’s another of those people who never really found what he needed to do in his life. I re-read “The Crackup” about a year ago, and there’s a great quote, and I paraphrase, about how when I was young I wanted to be Byron, Don Juan, J.P. Morgan. All that is burned away. I’m a writer now, nothing else. Literature is something written out of deep understanding. Music is written more out of the intuitive. When I read great books, I refuse to think they just made it up as they went along. That’s what happens in rock and roll.

ML: There are passages that come to you as a writer that feel like they wrote themselves. However, you unfortunately have to write the other 500 pages or so yourself.

PB: The good stuff occurs because you work really, really hard, spend your entire life immersed in one thing, and if you’re able to let yourself go completely for that time it takes to do anything great. My superstition, though, is songs that are there that aren’t written. I think every songwriter feels, “I’m really good at my craft,” but the good songs pop up, and you always like to feel they come from somewhere other than inside of you.

The night I wrote “Losing My Religion,” I was drinking wine and watching the Nature Channel with the sound off and learning how to play the mandolin. I had only had it for a couple nights. I had a tape player going, and the tape has me playing some really bad scales, then a little riff, then the riff again, and you can hear my voice say “Stop.” Then I played “Losing My Religion” all the way through, and then played really bad stuff for a while. I woke up in the morning not knowing what I’d written. I had to relearn it by playing the tape. That’s where songs come from for me, someplace where you’re not really thinking about it.

That’s what’s different from literature. You can’t sit down and let “The Great Gatsby” happen. The songs I write are four minutes long. You can disconnect from wherever you are for four minutes and find it. I really doubt you can do that for months with a novel.

ML: There’s something that’s always struck me as a little off about Peter Buck and Michael Stipe. Traditionally, the songwriter is thought of as the more intuitive, and the lyricist as the more lettered. The reality is you’re the more lettered, and Stipe is the more intuitive.

PB: Michael has this amazing ability to absorb things. He doesn’t sit around and read tons of books, but he does read. He probably reads more political literature than I ever have.

ML: It’s funny, I know lots of novelists who wish they were rock stars, but I don’t know any musicians who wish they were novelists.

PB: Hey, I’m raising my hand right here!