Arts: It's only words 'n' all but I like it

You're a Bavarian social worker with a movie running in your head. It started after reading a Cormac McCarthy novel. What to do? Why, make a Cormac McCarthy concept album, of course, and add a footnote to the epic story that is Lit-Rock.
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It was the practical criticism paper, and the last of my Eng lit finals. The academic ref blew his whistle and we all turned over the paper to find that the unseen text was Bob Dylan's "Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall", with the whined words from the record transcribed into the formal conventions of proper poetry. It just wasn't fair. You realised that the examiners wanted an earnest analysis of all those images piled up together in a Littlewoods catalogue of poetic symbols, along with a critical nod to the historical context of the Cuban missile crisis. But you also knew in your bones that Bob Dylan had tossed the song off as carelessly as his old surname, and that he really wanted to be Little Richard, whose own "Awop bop aloobop alop bam boom" was as close to poetry as rock'n'roll would ever get.

Whenever someone talks about the poetry of rock lyrics (and in moments of weakness we've all done it), you want to reach for your gun, and then your instrumentals. If the lyrics are "poetic", it usually means you can't understand them; that the words have given up the task of communication as a bad job, favouring instead some sloppy attempt to make use of pure sound over sense. There are exceptions, of course: odd bits of Van Morrison (among reams of gibberish), a few lines by Leonard Cohen (a poet and novelist long before he became a singer-songwriter), and Bob Marley's "No Woman No Cry", which would look good in any anthology of Caribbean verse. But two words shall suffice to prove the sonic-gibberish rule: Marc Bolan. Although the Afro'd elf once published a volume of poetry, Warlock of Love, his lyrics are a case study in the fallacy of sound over sense.

The history of rock's run-ins with literature in general is not very distinguished, either. Yes, there was once an album named after Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal, but it was by a dreadful pre-metal boogie act called Mountain. "Wuthering Heights" was memorably warbled into the charts by Kate Bush ("Cathee-a-come-home-a-now"), and Nick Cave has made a career as a one-man Gothic novel, but at least you felt they have actually read a few books and, in Cave's case, even written them. Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs have inspired so many bad lyrics about drugs and driving that you begin to doubt their worth. Pete Townsend of The Who may have written a couple of books, but you'd happily swap them - and his rock operas - for just one more three-minute masterpiece like "Substitute". The lyrics of rock or pop, it seems, attain true art only when they're not aiming at achieving it, and attempts to "adapt" works of literature into albums (usually 1984, or other sixth-form classics) are doomed from the start.

But when you hear of an album inspired by the brilliant American writer Cormac McCarthy's novel Suttree - his most dense and forbidding work - the project sounds strangely promising. When you discover that Buddy and the Huddle, the group whose name is on the record, is in fact two Bavarian social workers, this only adds a pleasing note of eccentricity to what is already a rather odd undertaking.

The album, Music for a Still Undone Movie Maybe Called "Suttree", may not have the catchiest of titles, but it's in fact rather good: an impressionistic mix of old-timey country, rockabilly and blues that fits the Fifties Knoxville, Tennessee, setting of the novel like a glove. It's less an attempt to put the novel to music (which, in any case, McCarthy's copyright wouldn't permit) than a compendium of the kind of tunes that could have been playing in the various low-life dives that the hero, Cornelius "Buddy" Suttree - a scion of a famous family gone to the bad, and then some - visits in his daily search for drink and money for more drink.

For Roland Kopp, who along with his fellow children's care-home worker, Michael Stroll, is Buddy and the Huddle (although they also call on the services of a number of other musicians for the album), the project was a true labour of love.

After reading Suttree in 1995, Kopp recalls that, "a movie began to run in my head". After sharing his visions with Stroll, they decided to make a record inspired by the novel. "I said, `Let's go to Knoxville and prove whether we can really do this.' My buddy said yes and we booked the flights. We spent a lot of money but I talked to my wife and said, `I have to do this. If I don't I will be angry some day.' It was a mission. I ordered city maps from the Knoxville tourist bureau, and in our luggage we had a tape recorder and some cameras. We flew to Memphis and then to Knoxville. Next day we rented a car and went on safari. We had the book with us and we went to all the places Suttree went."

Like many anthropologists and ethnographers in the past, Kopp and Stroll found that the natives cared less about their heritage than they did themselves. "The novel is completely unknown there," Kopp says sadly. "They don't know about it, and they are really stupid people."

Despite a lack of understanding from the inhabitants of Knoxville, they discovered a number of models for settings in the book, and met various street people who could have been characters from it. They also did some recording on location, but before they could complete the album at home in Neumarkt, near Nuremburg, they first had to build their own studio. "The construction of the novel is episodic, so each of us would take an episode and then we would decide on what instruments to use, and on the mood, and then we tried to get the right musicians."

The album was originally released in Germany as two separate LPs. "We ourselves only produce vinyl," Kopp says. "It's the philosophy of our work, and vinyl is the medium from the time that the story took place." What Cormac McCarthy thinks of the album isn't known. "The record is only inspired by the novel, so it's not forbidden, but if it used words from Suttree it would be difficult. But McCarthy has a website and Suttree is often discussed on it." It would be nice to think of the novelist at home in El Paso giving the LP a spin, and getting a kick from the high fidelity of such an odd homage. As Lit-Rock goes, he could do an awful lot worse.

`Music For a Still Undone Movie, Maybe Called "Suttree"' is out this week on Glitterhouse Records