Not since the 1960s folk scene have the lines been so brilliantly blurred between music, art and literature. From the extraordinary lyricism of Australian indie rock gods The Drones to the extravagant avant-garde persona of Kanye West, to be a musician is to be a songwriter is to be an artist once again.
And the upside of this? Not only do we get to listen to great music, but also read books from musicians who double as incredibly talented writers. From gritty memoirs to musical anthologies, here’s a collection of great books by great songwriters written in the last few years.
And of course, we play DJ a little bit as well!
by Bob Stanley
Bob Stanley is the driving force behind Pop-Indie-Progressive group Saint-Etienne, and possibly the only person both qualified and crazy enough to have written a detailed history of modern pop music, the magnificently titled Yeah Yeah Yeah. Stanley drifts between artist, critic and casual observer with incredible ease. Obviously, as an account of modern pop music, it’s a big fat book, but that’s what makes it so appealing.
Like pop music, there’s something for everyone. You can read it from the start piously or flick through it again and again, extracting another brilliant nugget from its pages. From The Velvet Underground to ABBA, Yeah Yeah Yeah is the perfect way to start your pop journey with a bang, or continue it with a boom.
Read while listening to … Saint Etienne – Heart Failed in the Back of a Taxi
Fact: Saint Etienne have commissioned LP sleevenotes from the likes of Douglas Coupland, Jeremy Deller and Jon Savage.
by Bob Dylan
Okay, so it’s not exactly a surprise that Bob Dylan would be a phenomenal writer. He’s, in my opinion, the greatest songwriter to ever live and would be a worthy recipient of The Nobel Prize for Literature. But what makes Chronicles: Volume 1 so great? It’s that his voice is different. It’s not the sarcastic and acerbic voice that has dominated much of his work, nor the whiskey tinged croak of regret that has mesmerised us over the last decade. He’s warm, open, and honest.
So many of his finest songs are filled with regret, and yet Chronicles doesn’t so much dwell on his successes and mistakes, but cites them as each a brushstroke in the giant mural of his early life. A beautiful book, with Volume 2 hopefully on the way soon.
Read while listening to … Bob Dylan – Desolation Row
Lyric: And Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot/Fighting in the captain’s tower/While calypso singers laugh at them/And fishermen hold flowers
by Ben Watt
Ben Watt was one half of Everything But The Girl. Commonly referred to as one-hit-wonders, they were much, much more than that, a worthy stablemate of Portishead and Massive Attack in the UK’s mid-nineties musical resurgence. This is just a beautiful, beautiful book. Anyone with aging parents will both adore and be haunted by Romany and Tom for the same reasons. It’s so poignant, raw, real and full of love. Watt’s reflections of his parents as they battle to ‘make it work’ are incredibly bittersweet.
He describes a childhood filled with British-Bohemian eccentricities and a love for his parents that perhaps they never shared with eachother. Romany and Tom is a book that will stay with you for days after finishing it, such gorgeous honesty from a wonderful writer.
Read while listening to … Everything But The Girl – Missing
Fact: Ben Watt chose to study at Hull University because Philip Larkin was a librarian there
by Patti Smith
Patti Smith has me, as she would say somewhat more explicitly, by the you-know-whats. The first time I listened to her seminal album Horses, it knocked my socks off. And in a strange way Just Kids has the exact opposite effect. There’s something warm in her voice, the glow of nostalgia.
Patti Smith came to New York to be a writer, and in the village scene she discovered her true calling, to be a singer-songwriter. Just Kids gives me goosebumps when I read it, it’s so warm and unpretentious, you completely forget that this is Patti Smith writing, the Queen of Punk. Deeply personal and at points riotously funny, Just Kids is a masterpiece.
Read while listening to … Patti Smith – Gloria
Lyric: Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine
by Nick Cave
Again, like Dylan, it’s not breaking news that Nick Cave is a great writer. His first novel And The Ass Saw The Angel was proof of that. But it feels as though The Death of Bunny Munro was the novel he was born to write.
Mixing pop culture references (he apologises to his friend Kylie Minogue in the acknowledgements, for good reason), stunning imagery and a view of the world only Nick Cave could manufacture, The Death of Bunny Munro is a bit of everything. Witty and blunt, dark and light, funny and tragic. It’s a great book you won’t forget in a hurry.
Read while listening to … Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds – There She Goes my Beautiful World
Lyric: John Willmot penned his poetry/Riddled with the pox/Nabakov wrote on index cards/At a lectern in his socks
With flourishes Oscar Wilde would be proud of, Morrissey’s Autobiography is everything I hoped it would be. One of the most innovative lyricists of his generation, Morrissey, both as a solo artist and with The Smiths, were the driving force behind the resurgence of British music in the 1990’s, with his rich lyrics juxtaposed perfectly with the jangling blue collar sounds of Johnny Marr’s guitar.
Autobiography is full of wonderful lines about growing up in the dank, dark world of working-class Manchester, with razor-sharp wit on every page and some scores settled gracefully along the way.
Read while listening to … The Smiths – Cemetry Gates
Lyric: A dreaded sunny day/So I meet you at the cemetry gates/Keats and Yeats are on your side/While Wilde is on mine
Andrew is a contributor to The Booktopia Blog and has been shortlisted for The Age Short Story Prize. His lack of musical ability continues to disappoint his mother.
You can follow his ramblings on twitter at @andrew__cat