Will Layman is a writer, teacher and musician living in the Washington, D.C. area.
My friend Jacki recently asked me, "Are you one of those folks who prefers music to people?"
I had no idea she knew me so well. For a music fanatic, getting lost in the vibrations is as easy as letting a riptide drag you out to sea.
The power of music is similar to the power of books — but books are notoriously poor at describing the abstraction and subtlety of a melody. Still, authors keep trying to bottle the magic. Here are three books — one about a fan, one about a critic, and one about an unlikely musician — that sing like the real thing.
'Growing Up Dead'
Growing Up Dead: The Hallucinated Confessions of a Teenage Deadhead by Peter Conners, paperback, 288 pages
No music fan is more invested than a follower of the Grateful Dead. Peter Conners' new memoir, Growing Up Dead, chronicles the exhilaration of falling in love with music as if nothing else in life even remotely matters. Conners was an aimless 16 year old when he first heard the whirling, improvised rock of his heroes. He describes guitar runs that send "sparkler streams across the arena" and writes that the sound of a keyboard "swirls down your cochlea, expanding into warm chocolate behind your eyes." Music fans will understand: That's not LSD imagery but just the way music sounds when your surrender has no limit.
'Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung'
Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs, paperback, 416 pages
Ecstasy is rare in music critics, which is why Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung makes such an impact. It is a collection of album reviews and music essays by the erratic, thrilling Lester Bangs. Unafraid of investing his sentences with the distortion of a punk guitarist, Bangs makes other rock journalism sound like a set of Ikea instructions. He describes Van Morrison's Astral Weeks as "a record about people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins, their ages and selves, paralyzed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend." Bangs reminds us that great music — and great music writing — has lightning in it.
'The Bear Comes Home'
The Bear Comes Home by Rafi Zabor, paperback, 480 pages
The Bear Comes Home may be the only novel to capture the electrical flash that flies through the mind of a great jazz improviser. And though the book is dead serious, its hero is a talking bear who plays the alto saxophone. Rafi Zabor has created the ultimate jazz musician, an outsider by virtue not of race but of genus. Though the Bear lives in our world, his essence thinks and breathes and dreams — and hibernates — music. "The Bear," Zabor writes, "wanted what he had always wanted: music that ate life and death for breakfast and drank down time and space like morning coffee." The Bear's passion for music, of course, reflects the mad gamut of his other passions — his humanity.
As for me, I do play the alto sax, but I do not sleep all winter — and I do not prefer music to people. But three books like these that capture the spark of a great song? That may be another story.
Three Books ... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Bridget Bentz.