News Flash: If you enjoyed me interviewing Jack McDevitt, you might enjoy him interviewing me.
Now back to the writers who do double duty as musicians…
JANE: Last time, Alan, you brought up Michael Moorcock’s involvement with Hawkwind and other bands. This got me thinking about other writers who are more than casually involved with music.
One writer whose musical involvement won’t surprise anyone familiar with his work is Charles de Lint. Along with his wife, MaryAnn Harris, he has written many songs – some of which allude to characters in his novels (like the Crow Girls).
I haven’t been to a World Fantasy Convention for some years now. When I did attend, I stumbled upon Music Night. The first time I went was by accident – I was avoiding being dragged into a bridge game – but, after that, Jim and I always marked it as a “don’t miss” on our calendar.
That’s where we first heard Charles and MaryAnn. When they were guests at Bubonicon, we encouraged them to perform there, too, and they were great.
ALAN: Skill in one artistic area often implies skill in another. Writer/Musicians are not uncommon, particularly in the SF field where, as we’ve discovered, there’s already a large overlap. Joe Haldeman, for example, is a very skilful guitar player. And Stephen King, who never does things by halves, plays rhythm guitar in a group called The Rock Bottom Remainders. All the members of the group are writers and artists. There’s a book about them – it’s called Hard Listening and it’s a collection of essays by the band members, full of anecdotes about what it’s like being a rock star!
JANE: I may need to look at that collection. However, I’ve heard from someone who has heard the band play that the members should stick to writing!
Another writer/musician is Emma Bull. Along with Lorraine Garland (who for quite a long time was Neil Gaiman’s personal assistant), they performed as The Flash Girls. I heard them perform at a Renn Faire and really enjoyed. One of my favorites of their songs is “Amaryllis” – a joyful celebration of the unexpected.
Jim and I have an amaryllis bulb that we’ve nursed through at least five years now (we need to split it this year). When it starts blooming, I wander around doing my best with the song. Sadly, I can’t manage Emma Bull’s high notes, and need to transpose down.
ALAN: I can’t manage any notes at all, high or low. I love music, but I can’t play an instrument and I can’t sing a note.
What’s a Renn Faire? I’m guessing here, but is Renn a contraction of Renaissance? If so then I’d imagine a Renn Faire involves lots of dressing up, eating, drinking and singing in a medieval manner. That’s a very folkie thing to do, and indeed, “Amaryllis” sounds just like the title of a folk song…
JANE: Yep. You’ve guessed right. Renn Faires have gotten very popular here. My understanding is that there are crafters, performers, and cooks who make a full-time living working the rounds of various faires.
Emma Bull also performed with SF/F writer Steven Brust in a band called Cats Laughing. Among others, the band included Adam Stemple, the son of writer Jane Yolen, and now (although I do not believe then) a writer in his own right.
Geography played a role in these interactions, as all the participants then resided in the Minneapolis area. I know Neil Gaiman supplied lyrics for some of The Flash Girls’ songs. This geographic proximity led to an interesting crossover to Neil Gaiman’s seminal graphic novel, Sandman.
ALAN: Really? In what way?
JANE: In one volume, some of the scenes are set at a Renn Faire. If you look carefully, you’ll see Emma Bull, Lorraine, Garland, and Steve Brust all pictured as some of the background musicians.
I happened to be there the day that artist Mike Zulli was being taken around by Neil so they could discuss scenes and setting. It was very interesting to see that side of the visual story being developed.
ALAN: I’m jealous – I’ve never seen or been involved in anything like that.
JANE: It was cool… Speaking of Neil Gaiman, he’s another writer with an interest in music. He wrote several of The Flash Girls’ songs: “Banshee,” “A Girl Needs a Knife,” and “Yeti.” My understanding – although I haven’t witnessed this myself – is that he’s now performing as well, both with and without his wife, Amanda Palmer.
ALAN: That should be impressive! I think he’s a bit of a late comer to performing though – probably it’s Amanda’s encouragement that has got him onto the stage. In the days when I knew him, he wasn’t a performer.
JANE: Well, to musical performing. He’s always given a great reading. Now, you take a turn.
ALAN: The late English writer Mick Farren produced a lot of very good and very dark SF and fantasy. He was also a rock musician and he played with a band that was generally called The Deviants – though the name did sometimes vary a bit (sometimes they were The Social Deviants and at one point in their lives they were The Pink Fairies). He had a wicked sense of humour which was often reflected in the lyrics of his songs and the titles of his albums. Who could resist buying an album called Mona – The Carnivorous Circus or Eating Jello With A Heated Fork or (my favourite title of all time) Vampires Stole My Lunch Money?
JANE: Great titles… I really like Eating Jello With a Heated Fork.
ALAN: I find it interesting that, apart from Michael Moorcock and Mick Farren (and a little bit of Neil Gaiman), all of the writer/musicians that we’ve discussed are American. I really can’t think of any other British, Australian or New Zealand equivalents. (Can any of our readers help here?)
I also find it interesting that both Moorcock and Farren lived in America for many years. Furthermore both of them are called Michael. I wonder if this is a statistical anomaly, or is there something in the American water?
Do you have any other writer/musician examples?
JANE: You bet… John Shirley, who writes both prose and screenplays, has fronted several bands. I was interested to learn that he also writes songs, and has written lyrics for many of Blue Oyster Cult’s songs.
One year, when Jim and I attended Armadillocon in Texas, we came back from dinner to hear some very good rock music coming out of the largest ballroom. We later learned that the band features a good number of writers among its members, including David Lee Anderson, Warren Spector, Caroline Spector, Brad Denton, Steve Gould, and Rory Harper.
I asked Steve Gould about how permanent the band was and he told me that there were multiple bands over the years. The early on one was Los Blues Guys whose regular members were writers Rory Harper, Brad Denton, Martha Wells, Steve Gould, and cartoonist Scott McCullar. Several other writers sat in including Emma Bull, Tappan King, and (Tor editor) Patrick Nielsen Hayden.
There was a later incarnation called Two Headed Baby, with some overlap. Brad Denton apparently does a solo gig called Bland Lemon Denton, with occasional guest Lemonettes.
In case anyone wants to pursue this further, here’s a link to some recordings: http://eatourbrains.com/EoB/2008/11/28/thb-for-the-masses/
Have you ever encountered anything like this at British or New Zealand conventions?
ALAN: Apart from “proper” bands like Hawkwind, I don’t recall anything like this at British conventions that I attended – though having said that, I did once see an incarnation of Moorcock’s Deep Fix without Moorcock, so I’m not sure how authentic they were. But they gave a good show anyway, so I don’t suppose it matters.
JANE: I agree…
Writers aren’t the only people in the publishing industry who make music on the side. Tor editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden has played guitar (both electric and acoustic) for forty-four years, but he says he’d only consider himself anything other than a “living room guitarist” for the last fourteen.
He plays in an intermittent band called Whisperado. They have an EP called Some Other Place and a full-length album called I’m Not the Road, both of which are on iTunes, Spotify, CD Baby, etc. Patrick said that he plays “…electric guitar and sings occasional lead and frequent backup. Most of our songs are written by our bass player and fearless leader Jon Sobel, but we do some covers and there’s even a song written by me on the EP.”
So here we have an editor becoming a writer – with music as the midwife. I love it!
ALAN: I was right. It is something in the water. That’s quite a wide ranging set of SF/Musical talent. I’m amazed and impressed.
JANE: When I was talking with Patrick about his music, he offered information about the NYC area writers who rock.
“I’m far from the most interesting musician even in the small cohort of NYC science-fiction publishing people, of course. Betsy Wollheim’s husband Peter Stampfel was in the super-influential 1960s folk band the Holy Modal Rounders and has done lots of recording since, including with They Might be Giants, Loudon Wainwright III, and other acts you may have heard of. I’ve never actually met Stampfel, mind you, but I understand he works for DAW in some capacity that includes editorial work. Even at Tor, I’m far outshone by the our director of publicity, Patty Garcia, who plays bass in a punk band called The Rats which does things like tour clubs in Portugal and on the West Coast.”
ALAN: I’m very familiar with They Might be Giants. They are a marvellously eccentric band and I have several of their albums.
JANE: One thing I discovered as we put this together is that the music scene and writing/publishing overlap a lot more than I ever realized.
Maybe after Christmas we can talk about that elephant in the SF closet… Filk music!