Morrissey’s recent announcement that he is midway through his first novel came with a blunt rationale. Last year’s Autobiography, Morrissey noted, “was more successful than any record I have ever released.” His heroine Patti Smith, meanwhile, is also writing a novel. The fact that people still buy books on a scale which is a fond memory in the record industry may explain the current cascade of rock memoirs, from Rod Stewart to Tim Burgess. But attempting a novel is a rarer, riskier business. The list of songwriters who have written fiction, and of novelists who have attempted lyrics, is short and sometimes inglorious, tempting talents as great as Bob Dylan and Salman Rushdie out of their comfort zone, where they’ve often fallen flat on their faces.
The hardback publication of John Lennon’s In His Own Write in 1964 was rock’s first bid for literary respectability. As with the following year’s A Spaniard in the Works, it saw Lennon collating short stories, poems and illustrations heavily indebted to English nonsense, from Edward Lear to the Goons. Though his books bear no comparison to his music, their very existence declared a new, intellectual ambition for pop. But few were too distressed, either, when he wrote no more.
In America in the 1960s the Beat generation of writers and Bob Dylan’s iconoclastic songwriting were inextricably entwined. But though the pointless debate about whether Dylan’s lyrics stand comparison to the poetry of Keats or Eliot is regularly revived, no such claims are made for his sole novel. His publisher hyped Tarantula ahead of its much-delayed 1971 publication as the work of a “young James Joyce”. But this impenetrably surreal and unstructured book was his first resounding failure. By contrast, Dylan’s example inspired Leonard Cohen to abandon a career as an acclaimed novelist and poet and become a rock songwriter. Cohen rightly reasoned he’d stand a better chance of earning a living. His second and last novel, the densely allusive Beautiful Losers (1966), was critically controversial but little-read on publication. After Cohen became rock’s bedsit laureate, it sold three million copies.
Dylan’s disastrous example made rock musicians steer nervously clear of novel-writing for decades. The Beat writers who had inspired him, though, followed Cohen in the opposite, more lucrative direction. Allen Ginsberg was always hustling for record deals, and in the last year of his life, 1996, actually got on MTV rotation. His sung-spoken “The Ballad of the Skeletons” benefited from Paul McCartney’s multi-instrumental presence. In 1993, at the height of Nirvana’s fame, Kurt Cobain’s abrasive guitar atmospherics also backed William Burroughs’ reading of “The ‘Priest’ They Called Him”.
Away from the Beats, Salman Rushdie’s novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999) included a lyric for its rock-star lead character which U2 used for their 2000 song of the same name. His fellow Booker-winner Kazuo Ishiguro has explored lyric-writing much more deeply, collaborating on several songs for the jazz singer Stacey Kent. The title track of her latest album, The Changing Lights, an elegant study of adult compromise over time, shows what happens when a fine novelist truly commits to songwriting.
“I felt as if he really understood me,” Kent tells me, “and wrote for me as if I were a fully conceived character. When we met, we talked about specific things, like what kinds of words would sound right coming out of my mouth. I get to sing what is absolutely my song.” Ishiguro, who Kent discovered had been a keen amateur singer-songwriter at college, was equally delighted to visit her world.
Until Morrissey and Patti Smith, Nick Cave was almost alone among high-profile rock songwriters in risking a sideline in novels, eventually following the southern-gothic fantasia And the Ass Saw the Angel (1989) with The Death of Bunny Munro (2009), the depraved tale of a Kylie Minogue-obsessed travelling salesman. But Cave believes these are “infinitely easier” achievements than his songs, and has no doubt of his true vocation.
The field of Americana, whose character-driven, narrative songs often feel like American literature by other means anyway, is where the only rock songwriter to have become more successful as a novelist operates. Willy Vlautin’s band Richmond Fontaine have achieved great acclaim for albums such as Post to Wire. But it is his four novels, from The Motel Life (2005), recently filmed with Stephen Dorff, to his latest, The Free, which are truly making his name. As with his songs, these books are populated by bruised working-class characters, desperately trying to survive in a heartbreaking America.
Vlautin’s late blooming as a published novelist in his mid-thirties is testament to a subtle, democratising effect of Dylan and Lennon and McCartney on writing, irrespective of their own fiction efforts. In encouraging anyone who could pick up a guitar to write songs, they let Vlautin, a cripplingly shy young man in redneck Reno, Nevada, start to express himself. Thanks to the freeing effect of playing in a rock’n’roll band, he has become a truly fine American novelist.
“I just came from an average town,” he remembers. “I’d never assumed that a guy where I came from could write stories. So I got into a band, because anybody can get into a band who has a few friends.” Vlautin then wrote novels in secret from the age of 20. But it was being a musician that led to his books being published. “My band helped me get the courage, and then I had the band to lean on in case the books weren’t well-received,” he explains. “I make most of my living writing now. But they take the pressure off each other. Mostly, the books start as songs, and then the story just doesn’t quit. They’re kinda married.”
Whether or not Morrissey’s sudden desire to be a novelist results in a book fit for comparison with any song by The Smiths, it will do well to equal Vlautin’s genuine literature, born from a rock’n’roll life.
‘The Free’ is published by Faber. ‘The Changing Lights’ by Stacey Kent is out now on Parlophone