Writers act. Dancers write. Painters occasionally dabble in all of those professions. Despite the apparent affinity between music and literature, the relationship of those two art forms has remained relatively ambiguous over the years.
There are exceptions, to be sure, and there always have been. Many of the 19th century’s great operas and ballets were based on literary works, with composers as diverse as Wagner and Puccini all drawing from novels and stories for inspiration. Indeed, classical music remained closely linked to the written word far into the 20th century, with American classical luminaries like Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein penning legendary works about “what to listen for in music.”
But rock musicians – despite the deep similarities between their songwriting and literary authors’ story writing – seem to have steered surprisingly clear of literary success. Sure, there are Bob Dylan’s somewhat uninspiring literary output, Leonard Cohen’s poetry and an upcoming torrent of literary output from Ryan Adams. But really, rock musicians don’t make great authors.
Take Jim Morrison, for instance: a rock legend perhaps more literary than many of his contemporaries or followers. The Doors’ name, after all, packed a double-literary wallop – it was an allusion to the title of an Aldous Huxley book, which was an allusion to a William Blake poem. Moreover, Morrison was a published poet, and his lyrics are avowedly poetic in nature.
Yet, Morrison’s poetry does not stand up in the same way the Doors’ music has. In fact, Morrison’s poetry is almost unreadable today (once, in a fit of high-school pretension, I composed a semi-epic poem that echoed – and perhaps even surpassed – Morrison’s style; that should give you a fair idea of his poetry’s quality). Minus the music, Morrison sounds like a hack. “This is the end / my only friend / the end” doesn’t, after all, look half as impressive as it sounds with the rest of the Doors’ powerful musicality behind it.
No, musicians don’t make great writers (and it’s somewhat unfair of me to single Morrison out; he’s not the only legendary rock star to pen some atrocious text) any more than writers make great musicians, but that hasn’t stopped some level of cross-fertilization from taking place between the two art forms.
Where rock musicians and songwriters seem at home is in paying homage to their favorite authors, through song. Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On,” for instance, permanently wed the classic rock and epic fantasy subcultures with its distinct Lord of the Rings overtones.
The literary references don’t stop with Plant, Page and Co., however. The Police make a surprising number of literary references in its music, with the Lolita shout-out in “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” perhaps being the most obvious (You know: “Like the old man in / That book by Nabokov”).
More surprising? Freddie Mercury from Queen was totally into canonical English poetry, Shakespeare and Wordsworth, in particular. Less surprising? Despite his own failures as an author, Bob Dylan perhaps perfected the art of the rock musical literary allusion. In more recent years, the Beastie Boys may have recorded the finest of all on Paul’s Boutique, with the immortal proclamation in “Shadrach” that it has “got more stories than J.D.’s got Salinger.”
Nor do lyrics provide rock musicians with the only opportunity for literary allusion, as the Doors’ name demonstrates. Contemporary groups like the Airborne Toxic Event (Don DeLillo’s White Noise) and the Straylight Run (William Gibson’s Neuromancer) demonstrate an emerging affinity for allusions to highbrow, early-1980s science fiction, a bandwagon that soon will lead to “Grotto of the Dancing Dear,” a 1980 Hugo and Nebula Award-winning short story by Clifford D. Simak, getting significant airtime on WXPN.
Allusive band names and song lyrics, however, are only so much musical name-dropping. If the rock scene really wants to establish its literary chops, it’s going to have to do quite a bit better than Ray Davies’s Waterloo Sunset story collection. More than half a century after Elvis Presley’s appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, rock music should have a lot more to show for itself than Led Zeppelin II’s permanent enshrinement as the album of choice for Dungeons and Dragons tournaments worldwide.
Peter Chomko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.