Music is a tough subject for writers of fiction. Because unless an author has actually lived the life of a musician or someone in the music business, writing with anything approaching legitimacy is nearly impossible. Even people who know the subject inside and out face myriad problems, the first of which is that a huge segment of the world’s population is so passionate about the music they like that they deliberately tie their identities to a particular genre. Punks, goths, rockers, ravers: Each generally despises the other genres but are just as willing to slug it out about what bands fall into their chosen musical genus — which are good, which are posers. This trait makes writing about a specific kind of music difficult, because no matter what the author writes, some segment of the genre’s fan base will disagree.
Another problem is timing. Authors who attempt to tune into a contemporary musical movement are doomed to fail, because trends come and go far more quickly than you can pen a novel. The music-consuming public is beyond fickle and almost unbelievably enslaved by the narrow parameters of what’s in style. Though they’ll deny their weakness for fashion as emphatically as they’d defend themselves in a court of law, most people are generally embarrassed by whatever music they were listening to just a few years ago. So writing about what’s cool now is bound to result in en masse eye-rolling by the time the book hits shelves.
This leaves only a couple of worthwhile subjects, the most obvious being historical accounts of bygone eras. To say this area has been explored in both fiction and nonfiction is an understatement of epic proportions. The wild, psychedelic ’60s, the groovy ’70s, the coke-fueled ’80s: Is there anything more cliché and boring? The only safe territory are the many tiny scenes that seem to lie on the periphery of the music world but actually make up the bulk of its culture. Regular people don’t hang out in the back rooms of venues or see most of their friends once a year when their bands come through on tour; for the majority of the music-consuming population, radio, iTunes, record stores and television make up their connection to the music community.
This list is populated with titles written by authors who clearly realize that almost no one can relate to the life of a real celebrity musician. It’s the everyday, humdrum realities of life that people connect with — and that makes for fertile literary ground.
1) High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby
There’s a reason that High Fidelity was made into a hilarious movie: it’s a hilarious book with characters who are just begging to be brought to life on screen. The story follows Rob Gordon, an aging rock fan who fell into a post-breakup, grief- and alcohol-induced spiral, only to awaken to realize he’s the owner of a record store. He mostly hates it all: the store, his employees, the customers and himself. Eventually he gets used to this life, but he gets stuck in a rut. When his girlfriend splits out of the blue, Gordon embarks on a journey of discovery through the top five breakups of his past. He's accompanied on his journey by a slew of rock-obsessed friends and co-workers, culminating in the realization that owning a record store and starting his own label has been his dream job all along.
Anyone who frequented record stores in the ‘90s will also enjoy the portrayal of the various kinds of record-store employees: the quiet, nerdy snob; the overweight asshole snob; the “everything I haven’t heard sucks” snob. They’re all here.
2) Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon
Not everyone can get through a Michael Chabon novel. It’s not that he’s not good. He is. He’s very, very good. But the man is a descriptive machine, and no detail is too small to be examined, broken down, torn about, reexamined and so on. His books are dense. Plenty of smart, well-read people have started The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. A handful of them finished it. Chabon even took a crack at writing for kids with Summerland, a book that would be a tough read for most of the people you see changing lanes, back and forth, during bumper-to-bumper rush-hour traffic. The intended audience for Telegraph Avenue is unclear. Like High Fidelity’s Gordon, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe own a record store, Brokeland Records, which has never done very well and is now on the verge of failing altogether. A large, well-funded chain store, Dogpile Thang, threatens to push Brokeland completely out, and the two friends fight to stay in business and stay friends through the tumult.
In true Chabon style, there are also two other plots to the book: one about Nat’s wife and her midwifery business, the other centering around Luther Stallings, Archy’s father and onetime Blaxploitation icon, who has run afoul of some gangsters due to his involvement with the Black Panthers many years ago. It’s insanely confusing but manages to get around to the point that things change, time marches on, and music plays a big part in anchoring us to our past and giving us hope for the future. That’s probably what all the pregnancy and babies are all about.
3) Do Not Sell at Any Price, by Amanda Petrusich
Have you ever had a collection? Did you ever think, “I’m never going to find that last collectible Smurf’s drinking glass” as you drunkenly scrolled through page after page of eBay listings? Well, go ahead and smash the whole set and throw it into the recycling bin, where it belongs, because your commitment to your collection is a joke! Just ask one of the psychos from Amanda Petrusich’s unblinking look into the world of 78 collecting. For those born after 1985, record players used to have a bunch of different speed settings: 16, 33 1/3, 45 and 78 rpm. For a bunch of reasons, only the 33 1/3 rpm setting is commonly used these days, even though audiophiles prefer the faster 45 rpm setting. The records designed to be played on the fastest setting haven’t been produced for decades and were last made before the modern, more malleable vinyl mix we use today was perfected. 78s were brittle, easily scratched and more or less treated as disposable back in the 1890s-1920s. For that reason, not a lot remain, and the ones that do are, for the most part, scratched so badly they can’t be played. Petrusich delves deep into the world of 78 collecting, following record-obsessed nerds to record fairs, the basements of old Southern homes, flea markets and tiny apartments where library-like personal collections fill every usable inch of living space.
These collectors are obsessed, to be sure, but there’s a historical element to the 78 life as well. Some of the records these guys (and they are almost all men) covet are the only existing recordings of various blues and country musicians. In fact, there are songs available on iTunes that wouldn’t be available for download if it weren’t for the efforts of 78 collectors who allowed their prized possessions to be reproduced for the world to hear. At worst, Do Not Sell at Any Price will make you question why you collect what you collect, and if there isn’t perhaps a better way to spend your time. At best it will make you look a little differently at the kind of person who would throw so much of his life away to preserve the music he loves.
4) Juliet, Naked, by Nick Hornby
Juliet isn’t a woman, it’s an album. To Duncan, it’s just about the only album that matters, and when he receives a CD of acoustic demos titled Juliet, Naked, he goes bananas and runs squealing like a little girl to the message board he moderates to post a glowing, track-by-track review. His wife, Annie, however, found the package first, opened it, and didn’t like what she heard. Duncan, of course, is pissed at her for opening his mail, but also for being so ignorant as to not recognize the genius that is Tucker Crowe, the musician behind the music. Annie doesn’t like being scolded or told she doesn’t understand Crowe’s music, which she finds half-assed and predictable. She posts her own review of the album, which Duncan and his message-board friends find appalling and ignorant. But Crowe reads it and starts corresponding with Annie, who he finds refreshingly honest and insightful even though she’s not a devotee. Annie becomes one in a long chain of Crowe’s lovers, and things get both ugly and adorable from there.
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There are some who have said Juliet, Naked is Hornby’s attempt at reworking elements of High Fidelity to fit his matured writing style, but there’s not much to the theory. Aside from the broad themes of music, romance and betrayal, there isn’t much similarity between the two.
5) The Enchanters vs. Sprawlburg Springs, by Brian Costello
If you haven’t heard of Brian Costello, please don’t throw yourself out a window. Nobody’s heard of him. Well, that’s not entirely fair. He played drums in Functional Blackouts and Outer Minds and has since written another book about rock music called Losing in Gainesville, but outside of Chicago, where he is an important part of the music community, he’s not super-famous.
His first book, The Enchanters Vs. Sprawlburg Springs, however, is great. It features drummer Shaquille Callahan of the band The Enchanters. And guess what? They live in Sprawlburg Springs. Callahan loves the band and really loves its singer, Renee. The pair lead the band to become impossibly huge in their home town, inspiring kids to start their own bands and do all sorts of creative things before the weight of the hype surrounding The Enchanters starts to tear everything to pieces. It’s a silly story in some ways, but so is being a teenager in a band. There’s a near-nirvana that engulfs a person the first time they get even the tiniest taste of rock fame. It’s glorious but also somewhat unreal, and it never looks the same with the perspective that time forces on us all. Costello captures all that, the good and the bad, in this simple, goofy, heartwarming book.