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Songsmiths and Scribes

By Terry Fleming • January 03, 2018

Many famous writers, in an example of what might be called artistic rivalry (or perhaps simple snark), have claimed that musicians bang on instruments as their principal means of self-expression because they're, well, something less than coherent in their thoughts (or as Quentin Crisp once implied, because they’re barking halfwits). That they settle for making noises because they couldn't articulate an idea on the page if they tried. I believe, however, that there are many examples of musicians proving themselves to be downright lucid and even eloquent in their bandying about of the written word. Here are some of my favorite examples.

The Real Frank Zappa Book

Frank Zappa's music is the aural equivalent of a circus parade being sucked into a sinkhole. It steps on the smug face of convention while simultaneously crushing genres together in the sort of gasping-brass doom machine you'd expect to find in a Guillermo del Toro movie. His songs are so rich with wild tangents and mind-bending excursions that they've had the eerie effect of inspiring intellectuals to write ranting and bizarre tomes about their secret meanings. But if you want to discover the true inspiration behind Zappa's impressive body of work, why not hear it from the horse's mouth? The Real Frank Zappa Book is the only book written by Zappa himself, and in it, you'll discover key Zappaesque factoids like:

  • Why his parents poured hot olive oil into his ear
  • Why the American government conducted experiments on his father
  • Marriage as a Dada concept
  • What an unintentional laugh-riot it is to be charged with obscenity in England (and apropos of same, the true meaning behind the term "provocative squats")
  • The full history and meaning of his legendary statement: "Information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom, wisdom is not truth, truth is not beauty, beauty is not love, love is not music. Music is the best."

Highly recommended for people who've been called weird all their lives, but secretly know that they're the sane ones (the only sane ones).

Anything By or About Tom Waits...

...but especially Innocent When You Dream: The Tom Waits Reader and Tom Waits on Tom Waits: Interviews and Encounters

For those who don't know, Tom Waits is a gravelly-voiced singer/songwriter who makes bluesy operatic epics out of instruments more than likely cobbled together from old radiators, long-abandoned iron lungs, and torn parachutes and lingerie. He is a wandering poet of boxcars and junkyards, who waxes philosophic about everything from the disposition of memory:

"My memory isn't a source of pain. Parts of it are like a pawnshop, other parts are like an aquarium, and other parts are like a closet. I think there's a place where your memory becomes distorted like a fun-house mirror and that's the area I'm interested in."

to the lively inspiration for his instrumental "Dave the Butcher":

"I wanted that carnival feeling on it. Kind of a Nightmare Alley with Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell. Kind of a monkey on wood alcohol… I was trying to imagine what was going on in his head while he cut up a load of pork loin and got completely out of his mind with a meat cleaver."

Never has the macabre seemed so merry! Waits is like the Ancient Mariner if he'd decided to ride the rails rather than sail the salty seas. A definite new kind of national treasure, that one.

The Dirt, Confessions of the World's Most Notorious Rock Band

And speaking of barking halfwits, yes, we have MÖTLEY CRÜE. But even here I don't think Crisp was on point, implying that said bellowing blockheads couldn't be solid storytellers. Though transcribed and edited by Neil Strauss, the distinct voices of Tommy Lee, Mick Mars, Nikki Sixx, and Vince Neil come through clear as a banshee wail. There's a reason why Netflix is considering adapting it into a film—it is simply the most sublimely ridiculous rock and roll tale ever told. It is so chock-full of precious gems of absurdity, in fact, that I can open to any page and find a passage that makes Spinal Tap look like the P.T.A. Let me give you a little taste of the glory:

  • From page 71: "Then, with the whole room watching, I hammered a nail straight through his earlobe and into the table…"
  • From page 78: "I went to jail that night covered in smeared makeup, fingernail polish, and blood. They charged me with assault with a deadly weapon…"
  • From page 100: "I tried to hitch a ride, but a sharp pain raced from my elbow to my shoulder. I walked to Coldwater Canyon, where an older couple picked me up and, without saying a word about the fact I was butt-naked, drove me to the hospital…"
  • From page 119: "There must have been a butcher shop or something nearby because, throughout the show, fans kept catapulting leg bones and animal heads and strange sausages at us. We took it as a compliment till Tommy's drum tech, Clyde Duncan, collapsed to the ground. We looked over, and he had a dart sticking out of his back. Tommy, with one hand, pulled the dart out while playing. Minutes after that, the dry-ice machine blew up…"

Netflix had better make it into a mini-series. No way one mere movie could capture all the moronic magic The Dirt has to offer.

Honorable Mentions:

About the Author: Terry Fleming is an Email Marketing Manager at ThriftBooks. In a previous gig as an Associate Editor for the national music magazine Seconds, Terry became an avid fan of the often absurd (and/or downright deformed) thought processes of musicians.

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