09/06/2012 11:22 am ET Updated Nov 06, 2012

Authors Talk Musicians Talk Authors: What Happens When Writers Listen and Musical Artists Read

Singer/Songwriter Cass McCombs on Things He’s Been Meaning to Read

Even when I travel, I always carry around too many books. Eventually, I find the time or the reason, but there’s never any pressure because generally I read for pleasure. Which means the list of things I’m interested in has a tendency to grow.
Last month in New York City, friends had me come away with a stack of things to read. Fortunately, these people know me so well I can bet they wouldn’t throw nonsense my way. Wish I never did read Pynchon, McCarthy, Henry Miller, etc. or any of the dozens of new age and self-help books, long-winded crime and sci-fi novels or near-sighted art theory essays that made their way into my hands. Maybe that’s what it is to be young — reading bad. Although it probably made me a stronger reader, I’ll never get back those hours. Now if the thing flinches in the first chapter I cut it off and send it to the thrift store. Maybe that’s what it is to get older — reading lazy.

A friend at Sequence Press gave me The Number and the Siren — a decipherment of Mallarmé’s Coup de Des. I was glad to take a break from Twain and move to poetry, especially Mallarmé, who’s always a mystery to me. Which reminds me, add to the list — back to Poe and Hamlet. And find later Mallarmé. Another friend gave me Ferdydurke and Reader’s Block. Says the former is the only book banned by Nazis, Stalinists and Polish communists — good sell.

Now I will add these to what I had:
Finish The Decameron
Ronald Firbank
Voodoo and magic pamphlets
Find more Spanish Picaresque novels
Religious stuff
Finish all Twain, London, Hemingway, Fitzgerald,
Willeford, etc.
Music: Interviews by Ornette Coleman; Schoenberg;
English and Scottish ballads
And last but not least: reread all my favorite books.

Cass McCombs is a singer-songwriter and storyteller who resides in San Francisco. His most recent album is Humor Risk.

The Antlers’ Frontman Peter Silberman on Returning to Earth With Kurt Vonnegut

It’s easy to lose perspective. When writing, I tend to get caught up in life’s specific frustrations and push them to their extremes. I think overreactions are some of the truest expressions of real human feeling, like little alarms that let us know that something’s important. Acknowledging, exploring and verbalizing these issues helps me understand them.
But the fundamental limitation of this approach is that it’s an almost entirely inward investigation, a scrutiny of memories and relationships as they relate to me. It’s a solar system with people as planets, memories as moons and me as the sun. It’s a tactic that works, but largely by ignoring what I believe to be a pretty fundamental truth — the Universe is infinitely huge and mysterious, and none of these said frustrations and overreactions are really that important.

In turbulent times, that reminder has been a reliable comfort, and it’s been a useful boundary in determining what’s worth writing about and what’s petty, narcissistic bullshit. But that line frequently needs the dust swept off it, as it fades in the face of unanticipated problems and real emotions.

In the past year or so, I’ve come to understand this distinction much better through Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s The
Sirens of Titan
. By crediting all of human evolution and history to something seemingly inconsequential, ridiculous, yet entirely logical, Vonnegut has completely transformed my notion of significance. He’s made it nearly impossible to think of my daily concerns as more than the microscopic byproduct of an elaborate cosmic joke. But rather than allow that notion to render everything meaningless, it’s helped me develop a better perspective, to approach writing with patience instead of urgency, and to seek out meaning in the massive as well as the minute.

Peter Silberman sings and plays guitar in Brooklyn-based band The Antlers. Their most recent album is Undersea.

Author Jim Shepard on the Albums That Blew His Mind

The Yardbirds Featuring Performances by Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page

My lifelong connection to the British Wave began when I awoke one morning after a sleepout with a friend (we were on the cement floor of my screened-in back porch) to my older brother having cranked up The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” in his bedroom over my head. I was flattened by it, like so many other people were. It was 1964. I was seven. The Kinks became my soundtrack for anarchic release, as did The Dave Clark Five, with their cheerfully unsubtle and headlong string of hits, as well as The Beatles, of course. Within a year or two, I had, again through my brother, discovered The Yardbirds, through their 45s, and by 1967, when album (as opposed to singles) buying really took off, we owned The Yardbirds’ Greatest Hits and Five Live Yardbirds. But it was The Yardbirds Featuring Performances by Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, a U.S. compilation on Epic featuring the best tracks from all three of the band’s Guitar God lineups, released in 1970, that locked me into a lifetime of listening to mostly blues-based and virtuosic electric guitar. Emotions expressed in shockingly visceral and slightly inchoate ways: what could be more appealing than that, when I was thirteen?

Who’s Next by The Who

The early British Wave seemed to me all about anarchic joy, but being the sad figure I was, I was soon attracted to the darker elements driving the adolescent fascination with rock, especially to The Who, who seemed to have cornered the market on rage in the service of self-pity. I played Tommy so often and so obsessively I wore out two copies of the double album and the one I have now is the third I bought. Live at Leeds has to be one of the two or three best live albums ever made. But Who’s Next features that synthesized organ in “Baba O’Riley” that constitutes one of the most electrifying openings in pop music, and, of course, “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” If you don’t understand the greatness of that song’s achievement, then you and I have nothing more to talk about.

Fathers and Sons by Muddy Waters

Speaking of the blues: Brits like Clapton and John Mayall drove their fans back to listening to the real deal — the guys they were sometimes so palely imitating — and by 1968 my brother and I were driving my father out of the house with albums like B.B. King: Live and Well, The Late Fantastically Great Elmore James, and Taj Mahal’s The Natch’l Blues, but Muddy Waters’ Fathers and Sons in 1969 was a blow-off-the-roof revelation of just how much passionate exultation could be added to the amount of pain the blues were intended to express: one studio disc and one live with an all-star band including Michael Bloomfield and Otis Spann and Paul Butterfield and Duck Dunn and Sam Lay and Buddy Miles. The live half, the album cover informed us, was recorded at The Super Cosmic Joy-Scout Jamboree and featured a two-part forest fire of a version of “Got My Mojo Working” that I might cite on a short list of reasons to live.

A 25th Anniversary Show Business Salute to Ray Charles

I’d grown up listening to Ray Charles — my father and his best friend were both fans, so that at any point during my childhood I might go from hearing The Music Man to Earl Wrightson to “Hit the Road, Jack” — but it was only when I came across this ABC/Atlantic compilation double album from 1971 that I realized he was the greatest and most influential vocalist in pop history. If you imagine a spectrum on which you locate somewhere everything from country to easy listening to gospel to rhythm and blues to soul to the various species of jazz, the 36 tracks on that album seem like effortless apogees in each and every category. It’s like the best sort of aesthetic primer on the importance of the empathetic imagination.

69 Love Songs by The Magnetic Fields

I’d heard The Magnetic Fields before but it was my friend Charlie Baxter who turned me on to 69 Love Songs in 1999 as we tooled around Asheville, North Carolina, during one of our rare afternoons off from teaching in the Warren Wilson MFA program. That nearly three-hour boxed set shoulders aside a regiment of other amazing and deserving albums for the last spot on my list. There’s nothing quite like it: a three-volume concept album originally conceived as a music revue that simultaneously sends up and celebrates a kaleidoscopic array of theatrical and pop songs as well as the notions of love — with all its follies, ardors, ironies, and anxieties — as well as the love song itself at the same time. What else, finally, needs to be said in support of an album that features a Marxophone, a tremoloa and Chicken-shakes, and offers you Stephin Merritt’s impossibly deep and comically depressive bass vocals, and lonesome-cowboy lyrics like “Home was anywhere with diesel gas/love was a trucker’s hand/never stuck around long enough for a one-night stand”?

Jim Shepard is the author of six novels, including most recently Project X, and four story collections, including most recently You Think That’s Bad.

Author Rick Moody Lists Five Albums for Five Decades

Here’s a chronological list, one album for each decade of my life. Because my taste has changed so much over the years it seems sort of inaccurate to indicate where I am now and nothing more. This is perhaps another way of saying that music is always about change. It’s always moving, and so are you.

Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkel

My mom was afflicted with Simon and Garfunkel in the sixties — I’m pretty sure we had every note they had recorded in our house — and those albums had a great impact on me. Not only because the harmonies were extraordinary, but also because the lyrics were ambitious. There are some incredibly sophisticated songs on this particular album, but almost anyone can understand what’s happening in the title song. Art Garfunkel’s voice in “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is so impossibly beautiful that it’s hard to fathom. It sounds so American, and so young, as if it carries all the burdens of those days in it — the war, the youth movement, the despair, the faith. Everyone knows now: it took Garfunkel something like a hundred takes to do his vocal. Until he had driven Paul Simon and everyone else crazy. It was all worth it. And here’s some advice for future music aspirants on American Idol and The Voice: stop singing this song. You cannot compete.

Armed Forces by Elvis Costello and the Attractions

The seventies were the decade when I started to pay attention to music, instead of just hearing it on the radio, and therefore there were many, many albums that had significance for me: Roxy Music, Led Zeppelin IV, One Size Fits All by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Station to Station by David Bowie, Foxtrot by Genesis. But those were all things that I heard before punk happened. One day at the high school radio station (where I worked) I was meant to play Armed Forces as part of a show on new releases we broadcast. I knew nothing about this record. I thought it was kind of adorable at first, not much more, until “Green Shirt” came on. Wow. Not the usual thing, not the usual love song, not the usual rock-and-roll posture: “You can please yourself but somebody’s gonna get it.” Tuneful, strange, futuristic, ominous and played with great style by the band. The Attractions, probably road-weary from incessant touring, sound like they are attached to one very complicated brain. A truly amazing record, and one that changed the way I thought about the popular song ever after.

New Day Rising by Hüsker Dü

This record was released in 1985, on SST Records, and I was in graduate school at the time, at Columbia, and drinking too much. This album, therefore, was a great tonic in bad days. The track that made the deepest mark was “Celebrated Summer,” which featured: “Getting drunk out on the beach, or playing in a band / And getting out of school meant getting out of hand.” Beside the nostalgia of this thought, the tenderness of it, which was not something we associated with Midwestern hardcore in those days, there was an acoustic guitar break in “Celebrated Summer.” I got it, the loud and fast part and the quiet part, and falling in love with this track then led to their great cover of “Eight Miles High,” originally by The Byrds, which led to their masterpiece Zen Arcade. Bob Mould, who wrote 51 percent of the songs, made some great music later, but no one who was in Hüsker Dü ever again scaled these heights — of tenderness, nostalgia, vulnerability, and rage. I was never quite that way again, either.

Anthology of American Folk Music
Various Artists

I guess if I’d had especially hip parents, I might have heard about this recording in the sixties, but I didn’t have hip parents. So I was primed for the CD re-release by Smithsonian Folkways in 1997. I had started gravitating toward quieter things by then, things that preceded digital recording, things that had traditional arrangements (where banjo and fiddle were especially relevant). I also loved (and love still) the lyrics of old folk songs. Those songs were all murder and union halls and disconsolation. This was the music I was listening to, and most moved by, when I started playing music myself in my thirties and forties. This particular anthology, assembled by a lunatic genius called Harry Smith, re-engineered American popular music twice over (both on vinyl and on the occasion of the CD re-release), in the process reminding us how unimportant ornament and musical pretension are. These are some of the best songs ever produced in the American musical tradition. And some of the simplest too.

Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy
by Sun Ra

In my forties, I began to like music that didn’t sound like everything else. I liked music that was casual about genre. I liked music that prized its ability to express emotion above all else. By this I do not mean songs about teenagers in love, but rather music that expressed the complexity of feelings. Jazz, it turns out, does this better than almost anything else. Who knows where Sun Ra came from? He says he came from Saturn, I believe, though he probably came more from the racially segregated South. He had some strange ideas, some sci-fi obscurantisms, but these ideas did not keep him from being one of the very greatest bandleaders in the history of the jazz idiom. Players stayed with him forever; some of them stayed after he died, because what he did was so singular, so unusual, so exuberant. I didn’t quite get Sun Ra until my forties, but once I did, I found him inexhaustible, especially in this period in the mid-60s in which he was experimenting with the free jazz approach. This
is really what beauty sounds like to me now.

Rick Moody’s acclaimed books include The Ice Storm, The Four Fingers of Death, and most recently, On Celestial Music.

This story originally appeared in Huffington, in the iTunes App store.