LIT RIFFS by Matthew Miele


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Writers try to spin literary interpretations of pop songs, with some rather catchy results.

Although probably not as revolutionary as the publisher would like to think—Nick Hornby did his own take on this idea not so long ago for McSweeney’s—this is a noble effort to marry pop music to pop writing. The idea is that two dozen contributed short pieces that were inspired by particular songs. The volume begins on a high, albeit raggedy note, with an unpublished slice of down-and-out boozer life by late great rock critic Lester Bangs, inspired by Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May.” Bangs is an undisciplined storyteller—no surprise—but there’s an impressive amount of insight in his lowdown recounting of a man’s hapless encounter with an older whore. Jonathan Lethem contributes a story based on “The National Anthem” that’s good enough as far as it goes but occasionally sounds like a cast-off from one of his recent Brooklyn novels (one does occasionally wish Lethem would return to the schizoid SF he wrote years ago). Much of the collection is taken up by inconsequential riffs from the likes of Lisa Tucker (Pearl Jam), Touré (Bob Marley) and Julianna Baggot (Bruce Springsteen), many of them trying too hard to marry their subject matter to the music: sometimes you can hear the glue tearing loose. Better is a Neal Pollack item that uses a Merle Haggard song for predictably deadpan and hilarious satire on the Chicago alt-country scene, or Judy Budnitz’s “The System,” a perfectly dark fantasia, inspired by Tom Waits’s “Way Down in the Hole,” about a small-town population’s shocking plan to save themselves when their primary business (a prison) seems likely to shut down; it’s akin to something Waits would have written himself, or Shirley Jackson.

Like a mix tape from a friend: some lackluster patches but also a few bits of magic that you’d never have heard otherwise.

Pub Date: June 15th, 2004
ISBN: 0-7434-7026-5
Page count: 432pp
Publisher: MTV/Pocket
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 2004