Despite the superficial similarities between pop lyrics and poems, rock stars don't have an impressive literary track record. Jim Morrison's poetry isn't good, and Bob Dylan's isn't much better. But from John Lennon to Jewel, successful songwriters keep suspecting they have a book in them, and publishers keep egging them on. Now some locals are stepping up to take their turn: Billy Corgan's as-yet-untitled volume is due from Faber & Faber in the fall, and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy is reading his poetry at this week's annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference and book fair at the Palmer House Hilton. A few days later Omaha-based Zoo Press will release Tweedy's first collection, Adult Head.
Adult Head is also the first volume in the press's new Nightingale Editions series. Future releases tentatively include a compendium of annotated lyrics by a major hip-hop group (negotiations are pending) and books by Silos front man Walter Salas-Humara and Cat Power's Chan Marshall. "The idea of the project is to try to explore the relationship between words and music," says editor Neil Azevedo. "We didn't want to do the typical 'rock poetry' book. We wanted to see how Jeff's natural utterance could be formulated so that he would become a poet writing for the page as opposed to a poet writing for song."
Tweedy started out cannibalizing his songwriting notebook, then later began writing from scratch. Two of the poems in Adult Head, "I'm a Wheel" and "Hell," appear as songs on the forthcoming Wilco album, but phrases and ideas from the record turn up in many of the 41 other pieces. It's easy to imagine the straightforward descriptive language of "Capital City" set to music: "in a capital city skyline photo / skyscrapers shine with sun / low in the blue sky / but the secretaries and the hot dog vendors / and the car horns honking at bicycle messengers / make no reply." But it'd be tough to hear Tweedy sing "Yachting?": "I have never been yachting / or on a boat / but / I imagine it / a passionate bath / with an older brother / gentle then turning / competitive / as he studies / for the bar."
Azevedo thinks that good songwriters often have potential as poets, but they need to be developed rather than indulged: "I think that's why a lot of books [by musicians] have failed in the past. It may have been the publishing company's desire to exploit the popularity of an artist's name and allowing that person to put anything down--not editing it or offering advice and good judgment that would've benefited the work."
One of the few who've succeeded is David Berman of the Silver Jews, who like Tweedy is appearing at the AWP conference. His poetry collection, Actual Air, published by Open City in 1999 and printed in a limited hardcover edition by Drag City last year, got good reviews in both Spin and the New Yorker and has sold more than 10,000 copies. The standards for literature, Berman suggests, are simply higher than for rock. "One of the interesting things about music is that you can work yourself into a situation where you never get criticized," he says. "I mean, you're never going to read a negative critique of Hank Williams or Johnny Cash, although their counterparts in the literary world, like Faulkner or James Joyce, get criticized all the time."
Tweedy says he wanted to write words without music in part to get himself out from over that safety net. "I really don't have anything to gain by putting out a volume of poetry," he says. "I can only lose. I'm only opening myself up to ridicule. But that's actually appealing to me....I think it's good to put yourself in situations where you face that fear again."
Plus, for better or worse, poetry can seem miraculously unrestrictive to a songwriter. "Rock lyrics are constantly subservient to the beat," says Billy Corgan. "There are certain words that don't sound good in a rock song, there are certain things you can't sing, certain things that have to fit into the structure of verses and choruses. But poetry doesn't have any rules....Poetry's probably a lot more rock 'n' roll than rock 'n' roll is."
Neither Tweedy nor Corgan went to college (Berman's got a master's in English), but both say they're heavy readers and consider their outsider status an asset. "It's one of the reasons I was really interested in talking to Zoo Press, because [they were] eager to work with somebody who wasn't in an MFA program," says Tweedy. "If anything, that's probably what'll end up being unique about a book of poetry by me--that I'm influenced as much by Thurston Moore as I am by William Carlos Williams."
"I'm not a poetry reader, which I know pisses some people off," says Corgan. "But that's what I really like about my entrance into this world. When I entered into music I had a lot of preconceptions about what it was going to be like--most of which turned out to be false--and I came in with a lot of attitude. With poetry I have none of those opinions or notions about what it could or should be like."
But he may be developing some: A reference to the pounding he took in local lit circles after a brief reading at the Poetry Center of Chicago last fall provokes him to compare the poetry scene to the indie-rock scene. "With both," he says, "there's an agenda among the few to keep it to the few."
Most of the AWP conference isn't open to the public. But on Thursday, March 25, Berman headlines Aquacade I, a lit-and-music program at the Empty Bottle presented by Drag City and a group of other small presses (see Calendar in Section One). He'll preview material from the follow-up to Actual Air, now in the works. Other readers include Smog's Bill Callahan, who's assembling a fiction collection for Drag City, and filmmaker Harmony Korine (Kids, Gummo); Drag City all-star cover band Chestnut Station and new signee White Magic, featuring Quix*o*tic's Mira Billotte (see Spot Check), will play sets as well.
Dates have been announced for two shows to benefit the Chris Saathoff Foundation, which is raising money to build a music and arts center. Saathoff, a local musician who played bass in Chin Up Chin Up and drums with Miss Alex White, was killed last month in a hit-and-run accident while crossing Division Street after leaving the Empty Bottle. The concerts, scheduled for Friday, March 19, at the Bottle and Saturday, April 24, at the Fireside Bowl, will both be headlined by Chin Up Chin Up, with Saathoff's friend and former roommate Quinn Goodwillie filling in. This week's bill also includes the New Black, Rollo Tomasi, and Paletazo, a Pinebender side project; the Ghost, Alex White's band the Hot Machines, Mt. St. Helens, and M.O.T.O. will round out the Fireside lineup.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Peter Buchanan-Smith.