Novelists writing ballads? Song-writers dashing off novels? What does it all mean?

Does success in one genre guarantee it in another?

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

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015