Richard Hell, Colin Meloy And Greg Kihn Are Among The Writers Who Rock
Music history is full of countless outrageous stories that seem stranger than fiction. But for some musicians, the stories that count most are complete, unabashed works of fiction. And so, a small but growing number of recording artists have established second careers as novelists.
These musicians turned novelists spring from a broad range of genres — while Steve Earle, Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen might make for an incongruous tour bill, all have novels to their name. Jimmy Buffett has had three novels place on The New York Times' Best Sellers list, and Rick Springfield will make his first foray onto the fiction shelves in May 2014. Whether their writing is a coda to a music career, or simply another way to reach fans and express their creativity, musicians with a fictional story to tell share both a respect for the craft of writing and a legitimate desire to be taken at their word.
As a rock musician, Greg Kihn is best known for such '80s hits as "The Breakup Song (They Don't Write 'Em)" and "Jeopardy," but on Sept. 3 he'll release his fifth novel, Rubber Soul, the story of a fictional character who's life becomes entwined with the Beatles' during the group's pre-fame Cavern Club years. Kihn says his writing career took off when his music career quieted down.
"By the mid-'90s, I'd finally gotten off the road and started working as a radio DJ," says Kihn. "I was home more, so I had the time and the mindset to get some writing done. That wasn't possible when my life was just sex, drugs [and] rock and roll, and it was a long time before I was ready to give up any of those."
Recently, Kihn has been taking the stage again with a reunited Greg Kihn Band, but he's also already at work on a Rubber Soul sequel. He says there's equal inspiration and satisfaction, whether he's strumming a guitar or polishing a chapter.
"A song or a novel comes from the same creative process: there's nothing there, and then suddenly you've got the spark of an idea that you bring to life," adds Kihn. "The nice thing about writing novels is that you're God — you create the universe. But I get the same buzz from creating a three-minute song or a 300-page book. They're both perfect forms of escapism."
In 2012 Decemberists' frontman Colin Meloy published Under Wildwood, a fantasy adventure novel for children featuring illustrations by his wife, Carson Ellis. The book was a follow-up to 2011's New York Times best seller Wildwood, but the series might be quite a bit further along if the band hadn't been so successful over the last decade.
"Writing was my first focus," explains Meloy. "I got a degree in creative writing, and when the band started I thought of it as a way to get some life experience before I went back for my masters. But things took off. Writing was always the plan, but music got in the way."
For Meloy, music and writing are distinct endeavors.
"There's some cross-pollination of themes," he says. "[But] I think of the books and the Decemberists' music as being very separate. When I was writing the book I loved just being in the book world and having it exist on its own. That said, when you finish writing a chapter or even a good sentence, you do get the same jolt of dopamine you get from a great song idea."
Punk pioneer Richard Hell was a catalyst and mainstay of the New York music scene in the late '70s, performing with such seminal bands as Television, the Heartbreakers and the Voidoids. These days, Hell leads a quieter writer's life and has received kudos for his recently published memoir, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp: An Autobiography. In the last 20 years, Hell has also published three novels, including 1997's Go Now, a fictionalized account of his experiences as a narcotics addict.
"My musical past is something I can exploit for gain at times," he says with a laugh. "But now I think of myself as a writer and novelist. I've got my daily regimen. I start early in the morning with a strong cup of coffee, wait for the fog to clear, and then get a few hours of writing done."
Aside from releasing Destiny Street Repaired (a reboot to his 1982 album Destiny Street) in 2009, Hell last recorded and performed in the early '90s with the Dim Stars. But says he doesn't miss being onstage.
"For me, the live playing was always frustrating," he says. "I enjoyed the songwriting and recording a lot more. Now I get as much from writing as I ever got from music, though I will say I start getting antsy if I haven't done anything in public for a while."
Perhaps the most prolific musician novelist is Texas-based, iconoclastic country artist Kinky Friedman, who has written more than 20 novels since his authorial debut in 1986.
"My motivation for getting into writing was desperation," says Friedman, who still writes using a typewriter. "That turned out to be just fine, because I think you have to be pretty miserable to be a decent writer."
Friedman's work is distinctive for its wild sense of humor and reliance on real-world names and details; the protagonist of most in his novels is a hard-drinking detective named Kinky Friedman.
"Well, if you've got a name like Kinky Friedman, you may as well run with it," he says. "The bits of real life serve as guideposts for the stories I want to tell, and I've always felt the best fiction is a great vehicle for truth — often better than actually trying to tell the truth."
(Chuck Crisafulli is an L.A.-based journalist and author whose most recent works include Go To Hell: A Heated History Of The Underworld, Me And A Guy Named Elvis and Elvis: My Best Man.)