Cover image for Lit riffs : a collection of original stories inspired by songs
Lit riffs : a collection of original stories inspired by songs
Miele, Matthew.
Publication Information:
New York : Pocket Books, 2004.
Physical Description:
x, 420 pages ; 18 cm
Maggie May (1981) / Lester Bangs -- The National Anthem / Jonathan Lethem -- Blue Guitar / Amanda Davis -- Untitled / JT LeRoy -- Dirty Mouth / Tom Perrotta -- Hallelujah / Tanker Dane -- Why Go / Lisa Tucker -- All the Security Guards By Name / Aimee Bender -- She Once Had Me / Anthony DeCurtis -- Milestones / Hannah Tinti -- Death in the Alt-Country / Neal Pollack -- I Shot the Sheriff / Toure -- A Simple Explanation of the Afterlife / Victor LaValle -- The Eternal Helen / Heidi Julavits -- Swampthroat / Arthur Bradford -- Bouncing / Jennifer Belle -- Graffiti Monk / Ernesto Quinonez -- Smoking Inside / Darin Strauss -- The System / Judy Budnitz -- Four Last Songs / David Ebershoff -- Dying on the Vine / Elissa Shappell -- Rio / Zev Borow -- King Heroin / Nelson George -- The Bodies of Boys / Julianna Baggott.
Added Author:
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Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PS648.M87 L58 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



Following in the footsteps of the late great Lester Bangs -- the most revered and irreverent of rock 'n' roll critics -- twenty-four celebrated writers have penned stories inspired by great songs. Just as Bangs cast new light on a Rod Stewart classic with his story "Maggie May," about a wholly unexpected connection between an impressionable young man and an aging, alcoholic hooker, the diverse, electrifying stories here use songs as a springboard for a form dubbed the lit riff.
Alongside Bangs's classic work, you'll find stories by J.T. LeRoy, who puts a recovering teenage drug abuser in a dentist's chair with nothing but the Foo Fighters's "Everlong" -- blaring through the P.A. -- to fight the pain; Jonathan Lethem, whose narrator looks back on his lost innocence just as an extramarital affair careens to an end -- this to the tune "Speeding Motorcycle" as recorded by Yo La Tengo; and Jennifer Belle, who envisions a prequel to Paul Simon's "Graceland" -- one that takes place at a children's birthday party replete with a real live kangaroo.
With original contributions from Tom Perrotta, Nelson George, Amanda Davis, Lisa Tucker, Aimee Bender, Darin Strauss, and many more -- riffing on everyone from Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen to the White Stripes, Cat Power, and Bob Marley -- this is both an astounding collection of short stories and an extraordinary experiment in words and music.
Soundtrack available from Saturation Acres Music & Recording Co.

Author Notes

Jonathan Lethem was born in Brooklyn, New York on February 19, 1964. His first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music was published in 1994. His other works include As She Climbed across the Table (1997), Amnesia Moon (1995), The Fortress of Solitude (2003), You Don't Love Me Yet (2007), Chronic City (2009), and Dissident Gardens (2013). He won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Motherless Brooklyn (1999). He also writes short stories, comics and essays. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, Rolling Stone, Esquire, The New York Times, The Paris Review, McSweeney's and other periodicals and anthologies.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Thematic anthologies can be a mixed bag. The short stories collected here, based on popular songs and featuring some of the trendier authors of the day (most of them seem to have some affiliation with Dave Eggers), range from inspired to mediocre and tackle songs by such artists as Jeff Buckley, Tom Waits, and the Foo Fighters. Acclaimed late rock critic Lester Bangs, dead two decades now, launches the compilation with a found work that probably should have remained lost. Based on Rod Stewart's Maggie Mae, this opener leaves a bad taste marring much of the work that follows. Heidi Julavitz sets the bar much higher with her comical take on Cat Power's cover of I Found a Reason, and Neal Pollack uses Merle Haggard's Mama Tried to reveal posers in the alt-country scene. Contributor Zev Borow's comment on this venture hits the nail on the head: I always thought Dylan songs were short stories, only better. Also included are stories by Jonathan Lethem, Aimee Bender, and J. T. Leroy. --Benjamin Segedin Copyright 2004 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

Writers pay homage to rockers in Lit Riffs, a collection of 24 stories inspired by songs. Edited by Matthew Miele, the book features a familiar list of hip young literary lights offering good-but perhaps not their best-work. Jonathan Letham, inspired by Daniel Johnston's "Speeding Motorcycle," offers a mannered consideration of love and adultery; Elissa Schappell tells of a writer's loving (and exploitative) feelings toward an old flame, after John Cale's "Dying on the Vine"; and Heidi Julavitz, riffing on Cat Power's cover of "I Found a Reason" by the Velvet Underground, serves up a story with characters inspired by Chan Marshall and Lou Reed. A CD from Manhattan Records will be released simultaneously. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

School Library Journal Review

Adult/High School-This book reinterprets songs, using the words, structure, and/or mood to create works that are influenced by the source but are wholly unique. Lester Bangs, famed critic of '70s and '80s rock music, opens with "Maggie May," a story spun out from the Rod Stewart hit of the same name. Through inflamed Kerouac-tinged prose, this tale of an up-and-coming rock star having a relationship with an older woman is an interesting commentary on the life of a music idol. The anthology continues with many different approaches, 24 in all. Tour?'s "I Shot the Sheriff" transforms the Bob Marley anthem into a wonderful fable about standing up for oneself. Neal Pollack's "Death in the Alt-Country," inspired by Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried," is about a musician's wake, but also criticizes much of the country and alt-country music of today. "The National Anthem" by Jonathan Lethem is written as a letter to a friend describing a failing love life and is based more on the general mood of Yo La Tengo's "Speeding Motorcycle" than on anything specifically mentioned in the lyrics. This literate, highly readable collection creates wonderful experiences for music lovers.-Matthew L. Moffett, Northern Virginia Community College, Annandale (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



INTRODUCTION neil strauss There is a beautiful album from the '60s called Odessey and Oracle. Recorded by the Zombies, it is one of the most meticulously arranged and stunningly executed albums of the rock era. It unfolds like a paper rose, each song twisted together by themes of memory, loss, love, and the changing of the seasons. For years, I wondered what wondrous tale held all the songs together, what feat of conceptual derring-do lay behind the music. And then, one day, my chance to unravel the mysteries of the album came: I would be interviewing the Zombies for The New York Times. And so I asked the question: "What ties all these songs together?" The band's answer: nothing. They are just songs, the members said, unrelated in any way. I was stunned. I grappled with their answer for days afterward, until I came to a conclusion: They were wrong. Sure, they may have written and recorded the songs. But I had listened to them. I had the pictures in my head. They were mine now. And so, as I continued to listen to the songs, I wove them together into a fifty-page musical, a tale of murder and intrigue, heartbreak and betrayal. Zombies be damned. There are some songwriters who don't like to discuss the meanings of their lyrics or the intention behind them. They don't want to interfere with the interpretations their fans have imposed on the music, they say. When I heard this answer in interviews, I used to think that it was a cop-out. But the beauty of music is that it is, as Marshall McLuhan would say, a hot medium. It occupies only the ears, leaving the imagination free to wander (unlike films or the Internet). The closest equivalent is literature, which occupies only the eyes. The intent may belong to the artist, but the significance is the property of the beholder. Lit Riffs then are the synesthetic experience that occurs when the senses cross, when sound becomes text. The converse experience is far from a rarity: books have led to countless classic songs and albums. Some of the best work of David Bowie and Pink Floyd was inspired by George Orwell; Bruce Springsteen based a song on Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me; U2 brought Salman Rushdie to musical life with "The Ground Beneath Her Feet"; the Cure made Albert Camus a goth icon with "Killing a Stranger"; Metallica brought "One" into focus with Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun. Cribbing from everything from the Bible to Yeats is a time-honored tradition among songwriters, as much a staple of the art as coffee and cigarettes. Though there are exceptions (from Haruki Murakami to James Joyce), far fewer writers look to music as the jumping-off point for a story or novel. Yet the simple act of listening to most songs, even nonnarrative ones, triggers a narrative or imaginary video in the mind. For example, many can't help but imagine a fist connecting with Britney Spears when she sings "Hit Me Baby One More Time," even though that's not even what the song's about. It's simply their personal interpretation (or perhaps, for some, it's wish fulfillment). Thus, twenty-four writers -- from leading novelists to top music critics -- were asked to riff on a piece of music. The authors included here were instructed only to choose a song, write a story inspired by it, and provide an explanation of their choice. They were free to choose whatever music they wanted -- even if, as in the case of Darin Strauss's Black Crowes-derived be-careful-what-you-wish-for tale, it wasn't a song they necessarily loved. And they were free to interpret in any way they saw fit, even if, as in the case of Victor Lavalle's story, a droning, lyric-less song by the White Stripes reminded him of Iceland, which made him think of ice cubes, leading to a haunting fable of death and decomposition that is far from simple White Stripes homage. Some stories here, like the Lester Bangs piece that begins (and in fact inspired) this collection, and Neal Pollack's dissection of alt-country posers, are music criticism disguised as narrative. Others, like Toure's Biblical Bob Marley parable, take the lyrics literally and tell the story of a song in prose form. Many, like Elissa Shappell's John Cale tale, riff on the metaphor, mood, and message of a song. Tom Perrotta mixes both the Tom Petty original and the Johnny Cash cover of "I Won't Back Down" into a vignette capturing the strange, mixed-up feelings that arise in grade school when social and parental pressures collide. In her wonderful tale of Vietnam vets and the misfit obsessed with them, Lisa Tucker takes not just a song -- "Why Go" by Pearl Jam -- but also the album, the genre, and the period of the music, and rolls it all into one memorable story. In the process, her tale manages to capture the reason why a sad song can actually be uplifting to listen to -- because it lets listeners know that they are not alone in their feelings, that there is someone else in this world who understands them. Elsewhere, Anthony DeCurtis places the music of the Beatles squarely in his story, as a backdrop to the narrative. Julianna Baggott flips the script on Bruce Springsteen, exploring the point of view of one of the female characters, Crazy Janie, who tramps through his songs. Jennifer Belle writes a prequel to Paul Simon's "Graceland." Tanker Dane finds his "Hallelujah" not just in the version by Jeff Buckley, but in his tragic death. And Ernesto Quiñonez finds his inspiration the furthest afield, basing his elegy to the heyday of tagging on the aura of the video for "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. While rock fans tend to be obsessed with lyrics, basing their stories on words, Hannah Tinti looked to the music -- the modal interplay, the harmonic innovation, the high-flying solos -- of a Miles Davis composition in order to structure a poignant moment intertwining a man falling with a man ascending. Taken together, all these stories, interpretations, and points of view make up the greatest compilation album you can't listen to. Of course, all of the above story analysis is my own, and has nothing to do with the actual intent of the author (just as their interpretations have nothing to do with the intent of the actual songwriter or performer). Perhaps I would have been better off writing a song based on these lit riffs and completing the circle. Of course, due to greedy music publishers, the lyrics to each song could not be printed in their entirety, which is an advantage in many ways because you should be experiencing the original inspiration as music (instead of text) anyway. In fact, just download the songs and, if so inspired, come up with your own lit riff. And if you ever happen to run into a former member of the Zombies, remember to tell him that he was wrong. Those songs do mean something. Copyright (c) neil strauss Excerpted from Lit Riffs by MTV Staff, Jonathan Lethem, Tom Perrotta, Lester Bangs, Aimee Bender, Amanda Davis All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.