I suppose it was inevitable that Rush wrote a book. To move from long-form albums with intricate plot-lines and involved character development to a multi-hundred-page novel with the same isn't really much of a leap, after all, and prog has always been at least a bit about bombast. What could be more bombastic than expecting a fan to sit through 66 minutes of music and 300 pages of the same story?
While it seems silly at first blush, it got me thinking about the nature of song. If you think about it, songs were stories first. The literary tradition arguably began with song, its melodies and rhyming verses acting as an aid to the re-telling of myth and history. Memorizing 600 words of prose? Painful. Memorizing a three minute song? I'm guessing you know how that goes.
With that in mind, it's clear that Rush just reversed the process, or turned it into a circle, with a story begetting a song begetting a story. If they can do it, certainly others can too. If you mix and match song writers and authors, I'm pretty sure you can come up with some pretty compelling work. Take these, for example:
5. The Mike Gunn, A Dream About Jim
I've known Jim Brown, the album's inspiration, for more than a decade. If you shopped regularly at the Alabama Theater Bookstop, you know Jim too. He's the guy with one eye, though you may not know it. He wears a pair of sunglasses with one lens popped out (over his good eye), though he used to wear an eye patch. That's him on the cover of the album up there, an album put out by my friend and former Bookstop coworker John Cramer's former band.
The album is so drenched in the fuzz of cosmic radiation that it's actually difficult to pick out much in the way of lyrics, but there are a few tidbits along the way that point me in a narrative direction. From the possessed cyborg vocals of the almost-title track, demanding "Jim. Jim Brown Now," to the trippy freak out of "Jim Brown's eye staring through my missing mind," I think the saga of Jim Brown would work well under the pen of the late, great Philip K. Dick.
With Dick's penchant for drug-addled fever dreams, quasi-mystical encounters, and general inquiries into the fucked-up, I see A Dream About Jim as the lost chapter of the VALIS trilogy. Jim Brown as emissary of a benign cosmic force. Dreams that become a reality that is just a dream. Jim Brown's eye, Eastern Religions, drugs, paranoia. I'm thrilled and terrified just thinking about it. Maybe it's all just a Chew-Z hallucination, offered up from the hand of Palmer Eldritch, Jim Brown's eye staring up from his palm as you take the proffered pill.
4. The Mountain Goats, Tallahassee
John Darnielle's tale of love, loss, fury, and resignation deserves a novelist equally capable of harnessing the confounding emotions of a man lost in the tide of his own life. The weight of a world, thrown behind the tangled web of one couple's failing romance. The grand and the mundane appropriately entwined, as life refuses to do anything so simple as let you go. Wanting a thing, or perhaps, at least, its end, so desperately.
The sense of inevitability pervades the album, even with its momentary detours through glimpses of the fleeting happiness that set this tragedy in motion, made more poignant by their placement throughout the album. "Yes," we think, "I could have made the same mistakes." Found our lives unraveling similarly, struggling to make sense of the loose ends and knots that can't be undone, nor worked fluidly back into the life from which they came.
The scope and scale of Darnielle's tragedy, like all those that really speak to us, is at once limitless and infinitely intimate. We can see it in ourselves. We can see it overlaid against everything around us. We can feel it consume. Phillip Roth would have a field day with Darnielle's doom.
3. Janelle Monae, The ArchAndroid
If we're going to talk science-fiction albums, we have to talk about Janelle Monae. Essentially a fully realized SF world unto itself, her Metropolis suite is like a 96-minute tour de force through the mind of a sci-fi geek: Time travel, messianic cyborgs, oppressive regimes of the future, genorape, rebellion, robot love.
Even without delving too deeply into the world of Cindi Mayweather, it's clear that Monae has put a lot of thought into her characters and backstory. It wouldn't surprise me to find out that she's invented several fully functioning languages to accompany her cast, like Tolkein's Elvish or Trekkies' Klingon.
For the novelization, I'd like to see Heinlein and Bradbury team up to take a crack at it (remember, it's science fiction). Their deft handling of themes of repression and rebellion seem well suited to Mayweather's story. Few people deal as comfortably in themes of futurist sexuality as Heinlein, and Bradbury's gift for lyrical prose seems a great way to spin lyrics in the other direction.
2. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
I'll admit a bit of bias in this one. Houston, with its colossal sprawl, easy sense of forgotten spaces and discarded history, and position as a sort of 21st-century cultural crossroads, would make a heck of a backdrop for a certain kind of story. Win and William Butler's story seems ready-made for Houston's outer districts, and with good cause.
Boredom infuses the album, equally met with a fondness for the ingenuity that comes from it. There's a reason much of the album spins its tale from the back seat of a moving vehicle, as its characters look, quite simply, for something to do. That's part of the certain kind of life that is only possible living on the fringes of a metropolis. Not close enough to be fully a part of it, yet not far enough flung as to be a thing wholly apart. The album touches on this sense of otherness, sending its tendrils into the cracks that form between the edges of society, searching for meaning in the gaps it creates.
The most fascinating part of all of this is the voice. Told at once through the eyes of youth and experience, it's more than nostalgia. It's an acknowledgment that adults are more than refined versions of their childhood selves, that riding around in cars wasn't just something we all did before we grew into actual lives.
It's a search for meaning in both directions. It's a refusal to rest easily on the notion of the innocence of earlier days, a refusal to imbue anything with more meaning than is deserved, a refusal to strip that meaning away. It's a recognition that you, living your tedious life outside of some town somewhere, are living a life just the same, and you might as well go ahead and live it.
A tale so deeply involved in the lives of the young must be carefully considered, especially when it's equally told from the arm's-length perspective of age. Early in his career, horror-cum-science fiction author Dan Simmons showed about as deft a hand as I've ever encountered in conjuring up the minds and mentalities of bored but resourceful youth, later retelling the same tale through the fog of years.
Clearly, this album needs a more straightforward telling. It's not Simmons the genre writer I'm looking for, here. It's his ability to make me believe that his teenage characters are in fact, and that their adult counterparts are as much older versions of themselves as I am an older version of the boy who broke into abandoned suburban houses in search of adventure.
To spin both sides of that tale is a delicate act, taking the here and now, merging it with the never was, and making it utterly believable in both tenses. Arcade Fire does it admirably in song, and Simmons would do it admirably on the page.
1. David Bowie, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
If this one comes as a surprise, I'm not sure what to say. Few musicians have been as conscious of character as David Bowie, and Ziggy Stardust is arguably the most iconic figure to emerge from the annals of concept album history. In interesting ways, Ziggy Stardust is full of pinwheeling fractals of intertwining meaning, connecting the arc of the story to the arc of Bowie's career, to the nature of rock music, and back again.
As a concept, it falters, but this is not necessarily a weakness. Defined as it is by bombast, it is a perfect macrocosm to the story of Ziggy, himself, torn apart (literally, as it were) by his own ambition. There's so much backstory to the thing that it creates its own built in fan fiction, if one can create one's own fan fiction (Ziggy would, no doubt), but very little of this actually bears out in the album. Grand, slightly misunderstood plans wrest the creation from the grasp of its maker, spiraling it out of control in blindingly confusing yet brilliant fashion.
If you look at all that backstory (start with this amazing Rolling Stone interview between Bowie and William S. Burroughs), it's easy to see how the fact that the story doesn't pan out plays perfectly into the story itself. Paranoid, floundering, lost, its characters want so desperately to hold onto something that they'll grasp at any sign of meaning. It's like a glimpse of the schizophrenic zeitgeist, rendered terribly cohesive in its utter lack of cohesion.
Given the story's (and, naturally, the album's) fractured nature and innate fixation on style as substance, Ziggy Stardust belongs in a graphic novel. As my brother Zack so aptly put it, "I always wondered why someone hasn't made this into some super trippy anime bullshit." Picture Ziggy, his "screwed-up eyes and screwed-down hairdo," staring out at you from glossy-paged panels.
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"Well hung and snow white tan," a voice-bubbled sex symbol, prophesying first the end of days, then a salvation that never comes. The grit, glamor, and grandiosity would never come across in text alone, but would shine, gaudy and wonderful, in comic form. I have no doubt the Starman would approve, right before he tore the pages from their binding, incorporated them into his incorporeal self, and disappeared from our universe.