Animated celebrity and noted philosopher Homer Simpson once mused, “Rock stars. Is there anything they don’t know?” Although many musicians parlay their stage success onto the printed page with memoirs, few make the foray into fiction. Last week, news broke that Bob Dylan signed a six-book deal, set to include two follow up volumes to his 2004 autobiography Chronicles as well as three other books of undetermined content. Dylan crossed over early in his career with the experimental novel/stream-of-consciousness liner notes/poem Tarantula in 1966, placing him among a small group of musical chameleons who — like their academia-inclined and thespian colleagues — have jumped artistic genres. While we wait to see if Tarantula 2 is among Dylan’s new literary offerings, here’s a list of stand-out works of fiction by other rock stars. Missed your favorite? Let us know in the comments section.
As the ship’s captain at the helm of the Decemberists, Colin Meloy is best known for writing songs about whales and other esoterica. But for his first literary foray, he’ll publish a series of books aimed at a young adult audience. Wildwood, which will debut in the fall, is a collaboration between Meloy and his illustrator wife, Carson Ellis, whose art adorns the covers of several Decemberists records. Last year, Meloy told NPR the books were “a classic tale of adventure, magic, and danger, set in an alternate version of modern-day Portland, Oregon.” Isn’t that what Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein are up to on the IFC Channel?
Long celebrated for his songwriting, cult country rebel Steve Earle put down his guitar in 2001 and picked up a pen to try his hand at short-story writing. The result is Doghouse Roses, a collection of tales that sounded, well, a lot like his songs. The stories take us to many of the places Earle has traveled — lonely hotel rooms, smoky bars — and introduce us to characters, who, like the author, have made bad choices or been unlucky in love. Here we meet drug addicts, Vietnam vets, and hitchhikers. A decade on, Earle’s still best known for his music (and perhaps his guest stints on The Wire), but the tales of Doghouse Roses remain a testament to his immense talent as a storyteller, whether in song or on the page.
Before he was extolling the virtues of tremendous brunettes in a duet with Dave Matthews, Mike Doughty was the leader of the idiosyncratic slacker jazz band Soul Coughing. Known for its ample use of samples and Doughty’s spoken word lyrics (as well as his aversion to walking around in circles), Soul Coughing was ardently loved by its fans, despite only moderate success. After the band split up in 2000, Doughty embarked on a solo career and released this book of poems in 2003. For a guy whose lyrics were already deeply poetic (“Screenwriter’s Blues,” anyone?), these poems are as witty and in love with the possibilities of language as his songs.
Two-time novelist Nick Cave (his first was 1989’s And the Ass Saw the Angel) returned to fiction in 2009 with The Death of Bunny Munro, the story of a sex-obsessed door-to-door salesman and his relationship to his son. The playwright Neil LaBute remarked that “Cave writes novels like he does lyrics, with strokes of blood and sulphur and lightning.” The book was also released as an iPhone/iPod app, which featured sounds created by the author/musician as well as narration in his distinctive voice.
The Godmother of punk stunned the literary world in 2010 when her loving chronicle of her long friendship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, won the National Book Award. The disjointed and dreamy narrative of passion, ambition, and eventual success was poetic and musical, and celebrated, above all else, her love of language and literature. Patti Smith has been writing poetry for decades, and this collection, which was published in 2005, wears the influence of William Blake in its title (and owes a little to Rimbaud, too). Beloved and barrier-breaking, Smith has found success in literature, music, visual art, and performance, but this collection shows why she’s so enduring.
Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer is Wesley Stace’s (aka singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding) third novel, after his 2005 debut Misfortune and 2007’s By George. Set to debut in the US in February (it was published in the UK in 2010), this oddly titled book centers on a young and gifted composer, who takes his life after he murders his wife and her lover on the eve of the premier of his opera. Check out Eugene Mirman in conversation with Harding as they discuss, among other things, the death of the book.
Canada’s best known and most prolific singer-songwriter/musician/poet/novelist, Leonard Cohen published his first book of poems Let Us Compare Mythologies while still an undergraduate at McGill University in 1956. His first novel, The Favorite Game, was published in 1963. An autobiographical coming of age tale, it is less well known than Cohen’s Beautiful Losers, an experimental novel that has sold hundreds of thousands of copies since its publication in 1966. Nevertheless, The Favorite Game reveals the talented voice of a young writer who went on to become one of the world’s great songwriters.
Tom Waits once claimed: “I don’t like the stigma that comes with being called a poet.” But this spring, that’s exactly what he’ll be called, when Hard Ground, a collaboration with photojournalist Michael O’Brien, debuts in March. A searing portrayal of homelessness, the book combines portraits and poems to chronicle the lives of outsiders and castoffs — themes that Waits has revisited throughout his four decade songwriting career. By asking us to look at those from whom we’d rather turn away, Waits makes the invisible visible and, like his music, deepens our understanding of what it means to be human.