Tommy Wallach Talks the Immense Difficulty of Writing About Fictional Bands

The only thing that this novelist-musician knows for sure is that writing fiction about music is fucking hard.

I came to writing novels by way of making music: competing as a classical pianist as a kid (full disclosure: I only competed once. And I lost. Badly. So I quit), performing professionally in musical theater in middle school and high school and, finally, writing and performing my own songs. With such names as “How Ugly People Fall in Love” and “Goddamn Little Slut,” a lot of my early songs were pretty stupid. But, hey, everybody’s gotta start somewhere.

From there, it wasn’t so far a jump from songwriting to fiction-writing (see: fellow crossover acts Leonard CohenColin Meloy and Nick Cave). I was drawn to writing because I’m an introvert, and although music composition can be a solitary activity, the recording and performance of it is usually collaborative. I discovered that I really enjoyed the monastic, almost masochistic lifestyle of the novelist. It gave me an excuse not to go to the parties I didn’t want to go to anyway.

Fast-forward fourteen years, past six unpublished (and likely unpublishable) novels, to this last March, when my debut novel, We All Looked Up, was published by Simon & Schuster. It tells the story of four Seattle-area high schoolers and an asteroid with a sixty-six percent chance of colliding with the Earth. Two of those high schoolers, Andy and Anita, happen to be musicians.

Andy’s thin voice reached for the high falsetto harmonies, so tight it sometimes felt to Anita as if she were singing both parts. She didn’t speak between songs, while Andy moved from piano to guitar and back again…[she] was seeking a communion beyond words.

That’s a section from near the end of the book, where Andy and Anita are playing the songs that they’ve written at a big end-of-the-world party. Is it any good? Eh. I can’t really tell anymore. The only thing I know for sure is that writing about music is fucking hard.

It’s easy to write about writing, which is why there are so many great novels about novelists: Philip Roth’s Zuckerman books, Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, Martin Amis’ The Information. These books work so well because the medium matches the message: well-chosen words do a bang-up job of describing other well-chosen words. But things get a lot more complicated when authors attempt to write about other art forms. The writer has to perform a synesthetic sort of translation — from image or sound into language. Film can plausibly be described in prose, because both forms unfold over the passage of time. Paintings, photographs, and sculptures are more difficult, since they’re interpreted more or less instantaneously. But despite the fact that music also unfolds over time, it manages to be the most difficult artistic form to translate into words. Some part of this has to be the relative obscurity of musical vocabulary (much of which is in Italian), but I think it’s more than that. For most people, one of the primary appeals of music is how it transcends language. Trying to explain to someone why your favorite song is your favorite song — particularly if it doesn’t have any lyrics — often ends with the throwing up of hands and the resigned phrase, “It just is.”

The development of music is complex, but it seems most likely that rhythm came first. (Side note: “rhythm” is the best word to use when playing Hangman — trust me). Then came melody, then harmony. Words came last, of course, when they came at all. Even pop music, at its heart, remains a wordless sort of art form. As described in a recent New Yorker piece about mega-producer Max Martin, pop songwriters “are more inclined to fit the syllables to the sound…and not worry too much about whether the resulting lines make sense.” So if so much of the music we engage with is either entirely wordless or semantic gibberish, how is a writer supposed to use words to describe it?

I spent the past week reading through some recent novels about musicians, and what I found was pretty depressing (or encouraging, if you’re also struggling to write about music). Even the best authors have trouble describing musicians and the music they make. Some of them oversimplify and fall back on stereotypes. Others just have no fucking idea what they’re talking about.

Take Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 modern epic, Freedom, in which rock star Richard Katz becomes famous first as the frontman of a punk band called the Traumatics, then again (decades later, because that happens all the time) with a band called Walnut Surprise. Katz bemoans “the major and minor power chords” of current-day pop music — strange, because a power chord is, by definition, made up only of the root and fifth of a chord, and thus can’t be major or minor (a quality determined by the placement of the third). You could argue that details like this don’t matter much, but they do reveal that Franzen neither knows nor cares enough to effectively describe Katz’s music. Instead, the book concerns itself with the man, who just so happens to be a dull rock-star cliché: depressed, perpetually struggling with drugs, incurably promiscuous, etc.

Even worse is Tucker Crowe, from Nick Hornby’s 2009 novel Juliet, Naked. Crowe is a Dylanesque singer-songwriter who disappeared after the release of his “masterwork” album, Juliet. Like Franzen, Hornby ignores the music entirely, aside from occasionally reminding us that Crowe is a genius (“[Juliet] was a darker, deeper, more fully realized collection of songs than the overrated Blood on the Tracks”). When we finally get some lyrics, they sound like something Weird Al Yankovic would come up with: “They told me that talking to you/Would be chewing barbed wire with a mouth ulcer.” Worse than this, Crowe is yet another damaged, alcoholic genius: “in Cologne, Germany, he leaped into the crowd to punch a fan.”

It’s frustrating to see authors subscribing to the old crotchet that it’s impossible for a musician to be simultaneously successful and happy, or at the very least, successful and sane. Hornby and Franzen should know better: they’re both wildly popular and, as far as I know, emotionally stable. But there’s something about music that authors seem to see as fundamentally unique, as if songwriting requires the musician to have regular access to some well of primal emotion that will eventually shatter his or her fragile psyche. Which, of course, is a fat load of bullshit.

In all my searching, I only found one book that really got both musician and music right: Roddy Doyle’s 1987 book The Commitments, which tells the story of the rise and fall of an unlikely soul band in Dublin, Ireland. Here are a couple of the band members listening to James Brown for the first time (it’s long, but worth it):

Then the horns started, the same note repeated (—DUH DUH DUH DUH DUH DUH DUH) seven times and then James Brown began to sing. He sang like he spoke, a great voice that he seemed to be holding back, hanging onto because it was dangerous. The lads (in Jimmy’s bedroom) smiled at each other. This was it.

—‘GET UP AH,’ sang James.

A guitar clicked, like a full stop.

—‘GET ON UP,’ someone else sang, no mean voice either.

Then there was a piano break and at the end of it James went: —‘HUH. ‘It was the best ‘Huh’ they’d ever heard. Then the piano got going again.

The guitar clicked away.

And the bass was busy too, padding along. You could actually make it out; notes. This worried Derek a bit. He’d chosen the bass because he’d thought there was nothing to it. There was something to this one. It was busier than all the other instruments.

Damned if that doesn’t nail what it’s really like for a normal person to listen to music. The one metaphor Doyle uses is strong and clear, comprehensible by anyone: the guitar clicks like a full stop (i.e., a period at the end of a sentence). No surprise, then, that the book’s descriptions of playing music are spot-on too.

Doyle on drums: “Jimmy told him not to bother too much with cymbals and to use the butts of the sticks as well as the tips. What he was after was a steady, uncomplicated beat: — a thumping backbeat.”

Doyle on bass: “Derek found out that you could get away with concentrating on one string. You made up for the lack of variety by thumping the string more often and by taking your hand off the neck and putting it back a lot to make it look like you were involved in complicated work.”

Doyle on guitar: “Jimmy gave him Motown compilations to listen to. Chord changes were scarce. It was just a matter of making yourself loose enough to follow the rhythm.”

 In short, if you’re a musician, or a person who writes about music, or just a person who really cares about music, you owe it to yourself to read this thing. It’s pretty much the only book I could find that foregoes both the cliché of “the rock star” and that of the disembodied, spiritual “artist.” Doyle instead presents music as a real-world craft involving hard work, quite a lot of bullshit, and, now and then, some communal joy. (When you’re done reading the book, watch the film adaptation, which also happens to be one of the best movies about music-making. The band’s rendition of “Treat Her Right” — featuring a young, shaggy Glen Hansard of the Frames and the Swell Season — is feckin’ deadly.)

As for me, I’ll admit that when push came to shove, I wasn’t at all confident I’d be able to do justice to my musicians in We All Looked Up. I decided to write and record an album to go along with the book, an album that would include all of the songs mentioned in the text. I still had to use words to describe music, but at least it was music that actually existed, instead of music I was only imagining. Here’s another segment of the book, in which the musician characters are playing music while tripping on hallucinogenic tea. You can hear the corresponding song here:

The notes of the piano rang out louder and fuller and more pres­ent than any music Eliza had ever heard. Anita sang, and her voice was everything Andy had said it would be, full of bite and ache and despair. For a while, Eliza floated along with just the sound, until a few of the lyrics clarified in her conscious mind — something about the number of lovers someone would get in a lifetime, followed by a countdown: Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one — and you’re on your own.

Basically, I cheated. I love to write, and I love to play music, but when it comes to writing fiction about music, I’m not convinced anybody’s figured out how to do it well. Except Roddy Doyle. Damn you, Roddy Doyle. Damn you.

Tommy Wallach is the author of the New York Times-bestselling YA novel We All Looked Up (which features a companion album of original songs) as well as the forthcoming Thanks for the Trouble (February 2016). As a musician, he was signed to Decca Records, and his homemade music videos have over half a million views on YouTube. Learn more at his website.


(photo credit: Ellen Epley)