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Readings and rock, together at the Guggenheim

August 13, 2009 | 11:48 am

On Friday night, writer Colson Whitehead ("Sag Harbor") will read selections by Walt Whitman at the Guggenheim in New York as part of its 50th anniversary. But this is not your standard literary reading. He'll be sharing the stage -- er, rotunda -- with the rock band the Walkmen and a youth marching band, with steppers. It's part of a new series, It Came From Brooklyn, in which musicians and writers perform together for a night of rowdier-than-usual museum fun. Co-organizer Sam Brumbaugh, a novelist and filmmaker, has put musicians and rock bands together but sees them as different animals: for example, musicians can get away with a "suggestive ambivalence" in their lyrics that writers can't. He answered our questions about books, music and Brooklyn via e-mail.

Jacket Copy: What compelled you to put rock bands and writers on the same bill?

Sam Brumbaugh:
People in NY don't really dance at rock shows, they just stand and stare. It's not too different from a reading, where you are sitting and staring. Also, more and more, readings drawing crowds seem to be endangered events. Bands are selling less but drawing better. So, you know, get one in for the writers. The rotunda is a good size crowd for a writer, but sort of a tricky arena. You have to rise to the occasion a bit. It's a grand room. But you are reading other people's work, which takes some of the heat off.

JC: The Walkmen and the Brooklyn Steppers Marching Band are among Friday's performers. How will you balance the energy of 120 performing students and a rock band with the writers reading alone on stage?

SB: Colson will be fine. He's reading Whitman. Which isn't so tough between bands because Whitman on the page is very musical, you know, reads like hymns. Also, the Steppers are doing a pared down thing, 25 marchers -- or whatever the word is. The Walkmen are doing some songs with an eight-piece horn section, which will nicely echo the Steppers. We did try to get some of the Steppers to play with the Walkmen, but they couldn't. They have a curfew.

JC: How do you see literature and music informing each other?

SB: I don't. Not really with rock music. The fans overlap some and so do cover concepts. Some lyrics, sung, sound good enough. But drop out the music and, usually, no, nothing near a C.K. Williams level. Anyway, to me, most lyrics shouldn't make too much direct sense. Writers have to, but musicians can get by with a kind of suggestive ambivalence. A lot of the lyrics I thought were so good when I was young are so dissectable now. And then things usually go really bad when they are consciously literary. I mean, the guys in Emerson Lake and Palmer wrote Spencerian sonnets. What does that tell you? Nothing, really.

I've never really read a a good novel by a rock 'n' roll musician. Did you ever try to read "Tarantula"? Or Nick Cave's books? And then most writers in bands are in terrible bands (with the exception maybe of Chuck Kinder).

I've never read, in a novel, an effective portrait of a successful rock 'n' roller. The weakest part of [DeLillo's] "Great Jones Street" was the actual rocker-related stuff. I was very aware of that doing "Restoration Ruin," the novel I just finished. One of the main characters put out one record in 1973 and then just disappeared. There are dozens of those guys from the early '70s on Electra/Asylum alone. Coiled blond hair and grim smiles. And most of those records are just terrible and a few of them are pretty good. Just tackling a singer-songwriter who did a pretty good record in 1973 and then disappeared was tricky enough. When writers go for the big tent rock 'n' roll atmosphere, it never seems to work out. I mean, if DeLillo screwed it up, it can't be too easy.

That said, David Gates had great scenes in his novel, "Preston Falls," about hip dads getting together for Saturday night jam sessions, doing lines off amps, drinking beer, staying up playing "Brown Sugar" in the basement till 1 a.m. I've hit 40 and have kids, so that was informative.

JC: Brooklyn is chock-full of writers. How did you select these?

Just writers I like. You know, no big deal. I don't know any Brooklyn writers really, except David Grande, so I don't have any log-rolling debts there. Like Colson Whitehead wrote in that essay about the cliches of being a Brooklyn writer -- about how there's a lot less of a communal scene than supposed: "Don't confuse a geographical and economic accident with an aesthetic movement."

I loved Rivka Galchen's book, so I contacted her. She said she wanted to read Jane Bowles, that Jane lived in Park Slope for a few years with a circus acrobat and Auden. I spoke to Jonathan Lethem about maybe reading from L.J. Davis "A Meaningful Life" -- he wrote the introduction for the recent NYRB re-issue. Rachel Sherman has her first novel coming out in October. She'd be great. I heard Celine Curiol was living in Long Island City. No one seems to be sure, even the French Consulate, and I don't even know if she speaks much English. She's not what you'd expect as the quintessential Brooklyn writer, but if she is living there, I'd love to have her read.

JC: In planning the events, have you found any overlap between the authors and musicians -- do they know each other?

SB: Not really. It's kind of irrelevant to your question, but a lot of the Walkmen went to my high school in D.C. But they are younger and I only knew one of the guys' older sister, whose yearbook quote was the Sisters of Mercy or the Damned, something like that. Although actually I think Paul Banks from Interpol -- who is doing the September show as Julian Plenti, knows Gary Shteyngart. Was thinking of Gary for a show. He's probably in Rome though, or someplace like that.

JC: Is there any theme that ties their work together?

SB: The title is theme-y enough. It was more putting together shows that have a kind of cabaret kind of breadth. You know, so you can come and have a good night out in one place.

JC:  Do you imagine that attending this music and books event will inspire new ways of perceiving the art at the Guggenheim, or the Guggenheim as an institution?

SB: That's a good question, because what's most important to me is the perceptions of the people at the shows. There's no other space like the totunda, anywhere, and to do readings and live music there, to do it in a way that meets the standards of the room itself, makes for, you know, a potentially high wire experience. There's a kind of lovely vibe there, the ramps winding up around the stage, the rising, circular sense of space that encompasses both the audience and the performer.

JC: Two events have been announced. Will the series continue?

SB: It's five shows, one a month through to December. The title kind of leaves the series open to the future. It could continue as a sort of travelogue of American art scenes. "It Came From Baltimore." "It Came From the Canyons" (as a way to begin to define L.A.). Or we could just do "It Came Back From Brooklyn."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: The Guggenheim rotunda, at the time the museum exhibited "RUSSIA!" in 2005. Photo: David M. Heald © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York. Used with permission.