Saturday, October 8, 2022


Musician? Yeah, I know, but the problem with this theme is a need to have read the books in question, and the reading of a book requires a hell more of an investment than does engaging with the, give or take, 40 minutes of an album. Which sounds as if I don’t (can’t?!) read, which isn’t true, but the books by rockstars I have read are either autobiographical or ghost written, often both, neither of which I necessarily equate with the spirit of this assignment. (For the record, there are two I rate, each written by the writer, these being Footnote, by Chumbawamba’s Boff Whalley and Things the Grandchildren Should Know, by Mark Oliver Everett, but they are not fictional, or shouldn’t be. An honourable mention also for Mark Lanegan’s Sing Backwards and Weep.)

So, Stephen King, then, the uber prolific writer of lengthy horror yarns, usually set in New England and perennials for holiday reading. In the 1980’s I could rely on his putting out a fat doorstep that would see me through each fortnight in the sun, as the family set off to warmer continental climes for r&r. I confess it all slightly fizzled out as I became a little weary of his run on writers with mental block, and the ill begat upon them, preferring the bigger and fatter phantastic tales, each clearly written as he was going along, where, frankly, the somewhat rushed and weak endings were immaterial to the enjoyment of the jaunt along the way. The Stand was probably my favourite, with If a close second. Of course, the other constant with King was the rule that the films, Carrie the honourable exception, were invariably shoddy and shite.

But, hey, I sort of like the guy, and respect his right to have carried on pumping out his pulp fiction long after I deemed necessary. His massive worldwide market and sales certainly, as does his accountant, beg to differ. 

I guess I was aware he was a music fan fairly early on, and so, as I strayed across Ghost Brothers of Darkland County. On a big John Mellencamp bender of completism at the time, it looked interesting. A play, written by Mellencamp and King, together wirth the usually reliable T Bone Burnett, it seemingly premiered in 2012, with a subsequent short run in the Deep South. Southern gothic, they called it and, ever the sucker, I fell for the lavishly made soundtrack, featuring, alongside the three writers, Neko Case, Roseanne Cash and Elvis Costello, together with other then big name draws. Any good? Um, not really. Maybe I need to give it another go, to see if the intervening decade has gifted it any gravitas.

He didn’t play on Darkland County, with all the songs, nominally, Mellencamp originals. But he did play guitar with the fabled collective band, Rock Bottom Remainders, each member a published author and not otherwise known for any musical chops. Live was more their thing, but there is one album, a somewhat extraordinarily hotch  potch  of styles and  influences. King spears on several of the tracks, confirming the old adage about not giving up the day job.

He has also dabbled with a number of artists and the making of videos. Michael Jackson’s Ghosts, a 40 minute collaborative video made with King, came out in 1996. Thriller it wasn’t. 

Over the years he has often professed his love of guitar rock, but, when he appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, he was able to display a (slightly) broader range of taste. Here is quite a decent article that bring both that, and other favoured choices to bear.

I am uncertain whether I have given him sufficient space to allow credibility as a true renaissance author and musician. I suspect I haven’t, but, hey, I can’t write book or play guitar, so he is at least one up on me!

Happy reading!!!

Thursday, October 6, 2022

Musician Authors: Dead Authors (Grateful, that is)

Robert Hunter

Stories about the Grateful Dead, as with any number of other bands, often relate events that are wild, outrageous and salacious - of the "cannot believe they did this" variety.

 And while some of that is certainly true of the actual history of the Grateful Dead, my research indicates that the various members of the band were particularly prolific as authors themselves.

None of this to be confused with a book entitled The Grateful Dead: The History of a Folk Tale, available for free legal download from the gutenberg project.

On one hand, we can claim that any songwriter is, by definition, an author. However, the blog-task as I interpret it, would have us looking for musicians who have gone outside their lyric-writing realm to put pen to paper in an endeavor separate from their musical one.

Among the 157 books listed in a Google search for Grateful Dead books, we have Bill Kreutzman's Deal, Phil Lesh's Searching for the Sound, Garcia's Harrington Street, Garcia's A Signpost To New Space; Mickey Hart's Songcatchers and his Planet Drum, Drumming at the Edge of Magic, Spirit Into Sound.

A Box of Rain, credited to lyricist Robert Hunter may not count (it appears to be the published collection of his lyrics), but his novel Dog Moon does. Bob Weir's extracurricular authorship - as best I can discern-  seems to be limited to writing forwards for the books of various other authors.

Left over from my aborted attempt to post about The Road, we have A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead; Living with the Dead: Twenty Years on the Bus with Garcia and the Grateful Dead; Home Before Daylight: My Life on the Road with the Grateful Dead; So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead; Grateful Dead: the Illustrated Trip; No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead; Goin' Down the Road: A Grateful Dead Travelling Companion and more. These book titles in addition to no small number of Grateful Dead song titles are clear evidence of the importance of the road for the Dead. For any search for meaning in the trip through life, for that matter.

Because it is a song about writing a song, we'll go with Ripple.

If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine

And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung

Would you hear my voice come through the music?

Would you hold it near as it were your own?

It's a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken

Perhaps they're better left unsung

I don't know, don't really care

Let there be songs to fill the air

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Musician Authors: Josh Ritter

Josh Ritter: Southern Pacifica

Not every great songwriter is a great writer, and not every great writer is a great songwriter. But some folks can pull off both, and those are the people that we are going to focus on for the next couple of weeks. 

Josh Ritter is, in my opinion, a great songwriter. He’s a gifted storyteller, writes interesting lyrics and wonderful music. I’ve seen him a few times—as a solo act at the Clearwater Festival (boy, do I miss that event), with his band a few years ago at the Beacon, touring on the album he worked on with Jason Isbell (and with Amanda Shires as the opener), and most recently, in May, again as a solo act, at the Tarrytown Music Hall. I described that show on Facebook as a “Fun, dark, surprisingly intimate solo acoustic show.” If I recall, Ritter was, like so many artists these days, just getting back to serious touring, and was a bit contemplative. 

Ritter has written two novels, the first of which, Bright’s Passage, I read when it came out in 2011. Which is a long time ago, so I really don’t remember all the details of the plot. So here’s the synopsis from Wikipedia

The novel follows a young, widowed veteran of the First World War, Henry Bright, as he and his infant son, along with an unlikely guardian angel flee from a forest fire and Bright's cruel in-laws. Shifting between their strange journey through West Virginia's hickory-canopied foothills, Bright's plausible memories of the trenches of France, and recollections from his childhood, the novel is at times suspenseful and kinetic, quiet and eerie, and at times humorous. 

I do remember it being both suspenseful and odd, and at times humorous, but also mystical and spiritual. I also remember thinking that it was an excellent first novel, but not necessarily a great novel. In researching this, I read the review in The New York Times (by Stephen King, no less), which agreed: 

This is the work of a gifted novelist, but the size of that gift has yet to be determined. One thing that is sure: Ritter has not, as yet, fully unwrapped it.

Ritter’s second novel, The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All, was published in September, 2021, and I have not read it. It seems to have gotten good reviews, although the Times doesn’t appear to have reviewed it (although they did publish an interview with Ritter about the book). 

As you can guess, a lot of Ritter’s songs tell stories, and rather than overthink this by trying to pick the perfect song to match the theme, I’m going to go with one that works as a story, if not spelled out in as much detail as in a novel, and happens to be one of my favorites, “Southern Pacifica,” from his 2010 album, So Runs The World Away (which is a quote from a pretty fair writer, Shakespeare).  Ritter described the song in an interview as: 

It's a song about being on a train and not knowing where you're gonna go, but knowing you're gonna meet your destiny out there. It's an intense song - it's about rolling past the predators in the night. Where I grew up, trains would go through towns at all hours. I'd get to see them roll right by the grade school where I went to school. The (school) field ended at the train tracks and the trains would go all over the place - New Orleans, Albuquerque, all these incredible places I wanted to see.