Friday, June 17, 2011

3 Great Books by my 3 Favorite Songwriters

Oof. Been doing a fair bit of hard work recently-- reading Foucault's Pendulum (which I am loving) and packing up my tiny apartment for a move this weekend. I'll probably take the next post off because of the latter-- look for your update around Thursday of next week or so. It'll probably be about Faulkner.

So what I am doing is listening to a lot of Leonard Cohen. New Skin For The Old Ceremony is definitely in my top-5-all-time-favorites list of albums. And it's been thunderstorming all day. And I just had a great dinner with a dear friend. So here's kind of a fluff list while I take it easy at the end of the day. Three of my favorite songwriters each happen to have a novel or two to their name. And they're all really fantastic books. I'd definitely advise you to pick them up.

Master of Reality, by John Darnielle
Yes, this is the umpteenth Darnielle shout-out on this blog. Deal with it.
Deal with it.
Master of Reality is a beautiful, beautiful book. It takes the form of the journal of a 16-year-old boy, who is writing said journal because the doctors at the mental institution he is in require it. They've locked him up, they've taken his shoelaces away, but worse-- they've taken his Walkman and all his Black Sabbath cassettes. So for the course of 100 pages, he describes what Sabbath's 3rd album, Master of Reality, means to him, how much it saves him and provides a reassurance of his humanity, in a desperate attempt to give his tapes back.

It's simple and it's powerful and it's true-- up until the release of We Shall All Be Healed, Darnielle worked as a nurse in a mental institution for young men. There's so much love in this book for the main character, so much contempt for the people who don't recognize the healing power of angry, bitter art. The voice of our narrator in particular is real and powerful, and I can't help but tremble sometimes at how much it made me think of the most miserable parts of my teenage experience. Besides the terrible haircut, I mean. It's about being 16 or 17 and getting up close and personal with the demons that are going to be inhabiting you the rest of your life, and about how Tony Iommi's guitar is sometimes the best weapon at hand for beating them into submission.
Pictured: the brightest light in the world.
I reread it recently during the hour of waiting around before my college graduation. It's 100 very small pages but it is still a pretty hard book to read at times.

And the Ass Saw The Angel, by Nick Cave
When I handed this book to my girlfriend and had her read the scene in which the main character, Euchrid Eucrow, is birthed with a dead twin in the back of a rusted-out car and sterilized with moonshine, her comment was "oh my god, it's like all the subject matter of Faulkner and O'Connor but with the  language of Marquez!" And that's why you should read And the Ass Saw the Angel (and why I should marry this girl someday, but that's neither here nor there).
"If you need more incentive, consider that I have a large collection of rocks, and some of 'em are killin' rocks."
If you've listened to any of mid-80's Nick Cave (and if you haven't, go get a copy of Tender Prey immediately and make peace with your God before you listen to it), you know what to expect: blood, God, the Bloodgod, God's Blood, whiskey, madness, whiskey-madness, and fire. The main character is a schizophrenic mute living with two abusive parents (his mother beats him for not speaking, his father catches animals in homemade traps and makes them fight) on the edge of a religious community in the Deep South.

It treads a line between the Southern Gothic and Magical Realism-- think the lush textuality of Chronicle of a Death Foretold, the heat and the language of Absalom, Absalom!, and the shimmering madness of Wise Blood. It's definitely not a perfectly-constructed book (Cave was on a lot of heroin at the time and would usually write until he passed out facedown on the typewriter), but there's a relentless heat and force to it and the savage inevitability of its violence. It's also a beautiful spectacle, watching an Australian junkie living in London write about a South he only knows through Faulkner novels and bizarre stories.
"Wait, Mississippi's a real place?"
Beautiful Losers, by Leonard Coehn
This one's kind of cheating: one, unlike the other two, Cohen was actually a novelist and a poet before he became a musician, and two, it's a much better-known book. Still though, it's a pretty astonishing and emotionally raw novel and it would be unfair to leave it out. Also, I can't have a list with just two points.

I would say that Beautiful Losers is about sex and Judaism, but, c'mon. It's Leonard Cohen. You know it's about sex and Judaism. So it's also about a love triangle between our narrator, his wife (who he fetishized because he was an anthropologist who specialized on her tribe), and their mutual friend and lover F. Its language is and rich and raw as anything else Cohen wrote, and the characters as wry, bitter, and loving as those of his songs.
Not a particularly cheerful guy, as it turns out.
Beautiful Losers is about that wonderful drive towards self-immolation, the human need to burn away all our faults and become that which we love. It's incredibly Cohen-ish, touching on all those moments in his song where the individual strives to destroy itself with sex and G-d and passion-- think of the opening of "The Future" or all of "Who By Fire." If you like those songs (and if you don't then why the hell do you like me?), this is a book that'll hit you like a speeding car.

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