Last week’s release of an album from spielgusher, the long-in-the-works collaboration between rock critic/novelist Richard Meltzer and punk icon Mike Watt, got us thinking about other writers who have crossed over into the realm of lyricists. The names that follow make a varied list, and that isn’t even touching the way certain lines have blurred, whether it’s Jay-Z drawing acclaim for his collected lyrics, Gerard Way writing a surreal take on superheroes, or the likes of Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, and Gil Scott-Heron being acclaimed writers before they made their mark on music. (One could also write about musicians whose lyrics take their cues from works of fiction, from the myriad artists (Earth, Lucero’s Ben Nichols) looking towards Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian to Mos Def’s citation of Victor LaValle’s The Ecstatic as an influence on his album of the same name, but that’s a list for another day.)
Billy Bragg’s 1996 album William Bloke is a triumph, one of the smartest reflections on uneasy political decisions ever recorded, and full of top-notch songcraft to boot. And the one number on it that sounds like a throwback to his stark, furious early work has lyrics supplied by an unexpected source: the late Rudyard Kipling. Bragg’s version would also be covered by the Floridian punk band Discount (whose vocalist, Alison Mosshart, has gone on to The Kills) on their Love Billy EP.
That Rick Moody knows music is no surprise: his introduction to his first novel, Garden State, is a love note to The Feelies. He’s also written passionately about the likes of John Lurie and Danielson, and writes regularly about music for The Rumpus. In 2002, he contributed lyrics to David Grubbs’s Rickets & Scurvy, the beginning of a collaboration involving Moody, Grubbs, and Hannah Marcus that would eventually begat the folk- and country-influenced Wingdale Community Singers.
When avant-garde heroes collide: the 1996 album Pussy, King of the Pirates found long-running punks The Mekons working with the experimental writer Kathy Acker. Based on Acker’s novel of the same name, Mekon Jon Langford calls the album “a short story version of the book put to music.”
Much like Rick Moody, Jonathan Lethem is a novelist fond of expounding upon his musical obsessions, real and otherwise. (His novel The Fortress of Solitude features detailed chronicles of fictional bands.) In 2008, he teamed with Walter Salas-Humera of The Silos to release an album of understated, deftly-played pop under the name I’m Not Jim.
William S. Burroughs
In 1992, The “Priest” They Called Him made its way into the world, an EP-length collaboration between Burroughs and Kurt Cobain. As Burroughs recounts a story of severed limbs and desperation, Cobain’s guitar rattles and roars, occasionally breaking into one of the most sinister versions of “Silent Night” you’re ever likely to hear.
Mitch Albom, perhaps best-known for his book Tuesdays With Morrie, is also the lyricist behind one of the few musical odes to hockey violence not found in the Slapshot discography. The unlikely protagonist of “Hit Somebody!” is, for lack of a better phrase, something of a goon. And yet, to hear Albom tell it, the song has endured, including an appearance at a Detroit Red Wings playoff game. Kevin Smith has also announced plans to adapt the song as a film.