August 2, 2018

A literary playlist for the music-loving bookworm

A literary playlist for the music-loving bookworm

The Low-fi team


Looking for some summer-read suggestions? Look no further, the Backstage team has put their heads, and hearts, together to bring you this eclectic smorgasbord of musical literature. Each writer has liberally interpreted the task at hand but, as you will see, what the entries do have in common is an earnest and passionate appreciation for both books and music.

Ebba - “The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test” by Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe’s “The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test” is a rollicking and rambunctious, candy-coloured road-trip through the ideas, people, and experiments that sparked the 1960s counterculture revolution. Wolfe gives an electrifying first-hand account of his experience in the company of writer Ken Kesey and his band of “merry pranksters” as they riproar across America in a kaleidoscope school bus, tripping on acid, talking about life, and producing a variety of experimental art projects. Wolfe, a journalist whose alternative style garnered attention for its sensorial and subjective quality, uses language in a very rebellious and playful way that provides a phenomenally sonic experience; It’s a loud book, chock-full of music references, song lyrics and singing, elaborate noise descriptions and detailed sound experiments. His chaotic but intuitive writing style rips you along the page like a slip n slide with ski-jumps, the :::: strange grammar and punctuation ! creating a LOOOOOUD and visceral soundscape of ringing tambourines, thunderous motorcycles and uproarious musical cacophony.

In one hilarious chapter the gang all deck out in Day-Glo and rock up wasted on acid to a Beatles concert with plans to invite the band back for an after-party. Upon arrival, however, they’re horrified to be met with a monstrous hellscape of shrieking, clambering Beatles fans. The flailing arms of the crowd become a sea of fleshy tentacles as the mass of pink limbs slowly morphs into one giant monstrous creature, “John and George and Ringo and uh the other one” acting as the head. The group - whose jam-session to the song Help! on their way to the concert now feels deeply ironic - decide to bail out early, Kesey no less than “plunging back in for survivors” as they escape the feverish, writhing mass of Beatlemania.

Miruna - “The Rotters Club” by Jonathan Coe

Jonathan Coe tells the story of a group of teenage friends growing up in 1970s Birmingham, Britain and how their lives change as they get involved in the worlds of political strikes, progressive and punk rock, and girls.  

Although the book uses the school as a metaphor for societal issues and touches on some heavy political themes, the funny-but-honest vibes and dry wit, as a relief after a tense scene, really keep the book entertaining. I didn’t pick up on all the political undertones back then because I was definitely more focused on the adolescents and their fascinating world in the 70s—a decade I’ve over-romanticized and had been weirdly nostalgic about during my adolescence.

Even Coe himself says that the book “became this comic novel about an adolescent boy who is so wrapped up in his artistic and romantic dreams that he did not realise he was living through a great crisis in British history.”   (‘An Interview with Jonathan Coe—Looking Backwards and Forwards’)  

The title of the book is based on the experimental rock band Hatfield and the North album “The Rotters Club” (1975) and, apparently, the punk band The Rotters named themselves after the novel. Truth be told, this book got the fifteen year old me into a searching frenzy for more 70s music, reading about music scenes, and especially about progressive rock music (Gentle Giant, Yes, King Crimson, etc.), Canterbury scene, and more.

Erika - "Even Trash Has a Place" by James Alex

James Alex's Even Trash Has a Place is half poetry book, half diary and my top choice when it comes to music themed summer reads. Written by the front man of punk rock band Beach Slang, the tiny book is filled with revelations of a fortysomething "misfit wallflower" navigating a midlife coming of age of sorts. Alex’s story is that of a man who comes dangerously close to conforming to the comforts of a full-time job, only to turn around and give his music passion one last shot; a risk that comes to pay off, and set him on a path of world tours and diehard fans known for tattooing the frontman’s words on their bodies.

Alex’s voice is above all optimistic (“And it’s brave to be polite and to wear fake leather”), but it stands on a crippling lack of self-esteem showcased by lyrics like “Dirty cigarettes and a dirty soul. / Tell me I’m enough. / I’m dying to know what it’s like”.  This dichotomy gives the writing a sense of deep introspection, which in turn makes it effortless to resonate with Alex. In the end, Even Trash Has A Place is an ode to the underdog - 51 pages of raw honesty and wonderment at the power of chasing your dream unapologetically.

If you need that gentle kick in the backside to get you out of your comfort zone, this is the book for you.

Mihaela - "Just Kids" by Patti Smith

Just Kids is part diary, part first-person account of a fascinating period of time in arguably the most interesting city in the Western world – New York city in the late 60s and early 70s. Bob Dylan was growing into the significance that is Bob Dylan today, the punk rock scene was on the horizon, CBGB was soon to be opened and Andy Warhol was ruling the town.

I continue to be mesmerized by Patti Smith’s persona, but one thing that really stayed with me after reading this book, was a “suspicion” that the way creativity seems to work for/through her is different in some way. For many musicians, music is the goal, the holy grail. A lot of them often tell stories of growing up dreaming of creating music. While, as I was reading, it felt as if for Patti Smith, music was more of a vessel for her creativity than a result of it. While struggling to make ends meet at a dull job, she was doing so many things - writing poems, acting in plays, doing spoken word, drawing and busking. Her creativuty; almost like a hot spring simmering under the surface, trying to find a crack to spill over. And music was just one of those cracks. She clearly had something to get out and put into the world, but it wasn't necessarily in the form of music. Of course, later on she built a career in it, but I still find myself wondering; was her desire to express her creativity curbed towards music by the milieu she was navigating?

After all Smith was part of a vibrant underground music scene that came to be defining for an entire generation. It’s not a big stretch to assume that she was affected by it. Which, by the way, only highlights the importance of fostering musicians’ communities (shameless plug)

Delia — "Feel Free" by Zadie Smith

Almost nothing seems out of place in Zadie Smith's collection of essays, Feel Free. Thoughts seem to align to the page in the easy fashion of a conversation with a (very eloquent) old friend. In Feel Free, Smith navigates disparate musical universes with ease and purpose, moving from the defense of rap to discussing Justin Bieber or speaking of sneaking in CDs of Blackstreet and Aaliyah at parties. Smith spends time rediscovering meaning by exploring old opinions, feelings and experiences — a way of revisiting her former heart — in essays that are clearly a hungry and willful attempt at consuming the world.

This must be why it all seemed to come to a screeching halt in Some Notes on Attunement, when faced with Smith's disdain for Joni Mitchell. "I could not even really recognize her piping as 'singing'. It was just noise", she writes. While her early dislike of Mitchell had the excuse of youth, it held little water at a time when she was "the same age as Christ when he died."

"What is wrong with you?" The question popped into my head just as Smith's husband was uttering it on page. How do you even dislike Joni? This had to be a tale of retribution, where Smith learns more about music, accepts her mistake and gives Mitchell what is rightfully hers: appreciation. Love. Even a bit of gratefulness. And retribution it is. Smith does end up loving Mitchell's music. There is no academicism to the change, though, no learning process that can be followed to give anyone the gift of musical enlightenment. It’s rather the story of a drastic switch from misunderstanding, to being ready to hear. "I hated Joni Mitchell – and then I loved her. Her voice did nothing for me – until the day it undid me completely." Some Notes on Attunement looks at our ties to music as a profound, renascent relationship in which knowledge plays a smaller part than vulnerability. More than a tale of gaining knowledge, it is one about making ourselves available, of becoming defenseless again and again in the face of emotion so that we can meet the right music at the right time.

Jana - "Rokupacija" by Uldis Rudaks

I thought long and hard about whether including this book would make sense to anyone that doesn’t speak Latvian, but in the end I couldn’t imagine any other book about music that had moved me more than Rokupācija (roughly translates to Roccupation). This pink-covered bible about Latvian underground music was written by one of the most known music critics in Latvia - Uldis Rudaks - and guides the readers through the history and development of the Latvian alternative music scene. For a kid who grew up listening explicitly to foreign music,this book opened my eyes to the whimsy and beautiful music that had existed in my home country for years. I just hadn’t discovered it properly. The read was also very appealing because it was written through the personal lens of Rudaks, who often had personal connections with these musicians and therefore knew more ins and outs of the underground scene than your usual music critic. From quirky bands like Yellow Postmen, Yards Full of Pigeons, NSRD a.k.a. Restoration Workshop of Unprecedented Feelings to Latvian reggae, this book has it all and is a real treasure for melomaniacs.


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