Brooklyn author Jennifer Egan had a story called “Ask Me If I Care” in the New Yorker this past March. It’s about, among other things, a group of teenagers making their way through the Bay Area punk scene in the late ’70s/early ’80s. Two of the characters are in a fictional act called the Flaming Dildos, who play a disastrous show-turned-brawl later in the story. Egan has some brilliant asides in here (“When does a fake Mohawk become a real Mohawk?”), but that’s something we expect from good fiction. The reason I wanted to talk to her was a feeling I got when reading that story, namely that Egan might be better than every music critic ever at describing both how music is made and what listening to music feels like.
Her new novel, A Visit From The Goon Squad, isn’t “rock and roll fiction,” but many of her characters have intense relationships with music and the industry, and one of them, Bennie Salazar, is an aging record executive. Last week, Egan and I talked on the phone about the research she did, the difficulty of working music into fiction, and her own musical history.
Riff City: In the second story, you write, “Bennie is listening for muddiness, the sense of actual musicians playing actual instruments in an actual room.” What kind of research did you do to write the character?
Jennifer Egan: I spent a lot of time on the phone with a guy named Chuck Zwicky. He’s a producer/mixer, as I understand it. He had to explain things as basic as the difference between analog and digital. I think I knew intuitively what I was going for, what it was that Bennie was so dissatisfied with. I knew that the industry was having lots of problems with piracy, et cetera, as a result of digitization. But the actual technology I didn’t have enough nuts and bolts to write about.
I did a fair amount of reading as well. One was Jacob Slichter’s book So You Wanna Be A Rock and Rock Star. He’s from Semisonic. It’s the story of what it feels like to be lifted out of obscurity with a mega hit — their song “Closing Time” was ubiquitous — and, in a way, to be dashed down from that height back into a struggling band.
As with most topics that I take on, my research was a combination of interactions with people, really reporting, combined with reading. I feel like the combination works so well. The reporting, the talking to people, and the seeing stuff is what brings it to life. All of the book stuff just supplements it.
RC: One of the gripes people can have about music writing is when the writer just lists band names as reference points rather than describing the music itself. But you somehow make both approaches work — the lists of bands, the parts when you go in and describe the music.
JE: As far as describing the music, I didn’t have a rule with myself about when to do that. I do most things very instinctively, and often will question them later and need to have an answer to satisfy the question, but won’t come at it from a theoretical standpoint. I think there were periods in “The Gold Cure”, which was probably the most researched story in there — it’s about a record producer at work, so I have to know what I’m talking about — I think there may have been moments when my research showed its face too much. This is a common trap fiction writers fall into. I was eager to display my knowledge and it got a little cross-eyed with detail. It has to be flushed away. The time to describe music it seemd to me was when the quality and the texture mattered a lot to the character whose mind we were in. That’s always the reason to expand on something in fiction.
In writing about Bennie, who feels this urgency about the industry’s decline, and is really on the warpath in a certain way, writing about the experience of his listening to music seemed really important. There was a moment that I struggled with for years of working on this book, when he first starts to listen to the Stop/Go sisters, and he has this ecstatic reaction to just hearing the music happen. Finding the words to describe that moment was really hard. Writing about music must have some of the same problems of writing about wine. The earthy undertones, the barnyard finish or whatever it is. Come on? Can’t you think of something better? But it’s actually hard. I wanted to capture what the excitement of listening to any music was for Bennie. That was tough. It’s a tall order.
“Hearing the music get made, that was the thing. People and instruments and beaten looking equipment aligning into a single structure of sound, flexible and live.”
That was the sentence that almost killed me. But a sentence that does more for some reason came effortlessly, and that was the feeling of Bennie listening to this music:
“These sensations met with a faculty deeper in Bennie than judgment or even pleasure; they communed directly with his body, whose shivering bursting reply made him dizzy.”
That happened instantaneously. But that other sentence, summing up what it’s like to watch or to listen to a band start to play, that was so hard. I did struggle with this stuff.
RC: One of your chapters is written in Power Point slides, about the history of pauses in rock songs.
JE: That Power Point chapter was extremely hard to do. I cannot overplay the technical difficulties of trying to make that work. There was a point when I had some of it, but I didn’t really have an arc that worked, and I was really running out of time, I had already sold the book. How can I make this thing work? And then my husband put on this new CD he had gotten from a group called Let’s Go Sailing. It’s a song called “Sideways”. Now there’s no pause in the song. Thematically it is literally no overlap with that chapter. But I listened to that song and I thought, that’s what I’m going for. There was this feeling that I had from the song that made me think that I could make the story work if I could capture that feeling, which I still can’t name.
If I’m walking, it’s really helpful if I’m struggling with something, I’ll just walk and walk and walk. Somehow being in physical motion let’s my mind move a little more freely instead of just turning circles. I copied “Sideways” onto my iPod, I put it on repeat and, I’m not kidding you, for like five hours I walked around Brooklyn listening to that one song. It’s not like I cracked the chapter in that period but it was a critical part of the process.
RC: You grew up in the Bay Area of course, but walk me through your musical history, the different bands you’ve liked over time.
JE: I went to hear the Dead Kennedys all the time. I remember Jello Biafra vividly. Eye Protection, a guy in my high school was in the band. The Sleepers I knew the producer. Flipper, a friend of mine dated the bassist. I say this as someone who was a complete non-entity in that world. I was invisible. But I did have these connections to it. In a way, I tried to use the bands that felt close to me. There was just sort of an integrity to that. I wanted to invoke them. I wanted to invoke that moment as I remembered it.
I was a gigantic Who freak. If I could pick one band that I loved more than any other in my life, it was The Who. I recognized that the Stones had a greater range and had more excellent songs, but there was just no substitute for the way I felt about the Who.
Nothing I’m going to say is going to seem surprising or sharply defining as a point of view. I was pretty much in the mainstream. Except in general my taste is toward a little bit harder stuff. I don’t like things that are really soft. One group my husband and I really bicker on is Belle and Sebastian. I just find them too soft. It’s like a big fluffy pillow that I just get lost in.
RC: What is it about the window between ages 12 and 18, do you think, that makes people so susceptible to music, and why do you think people kind of close themselves off after that?
JE: So much of my experience as a teenager was trying to imagine what sort of life I was going to have. I think I grabbed onto music that helped me answer that question. What the answer was, I could not tell you. What answer did Iggy Pop have for me? But when I listen to those songs, like “Lust for Life” or “The Passenger”, I would think I’m going to grow up and have an interesting life. That’s sort of what it was about.
At that point in our lives we have no personal experience to go on in terms of how we’re going to function out in the world. We’re just flailing around in high school, fighting with our parents, struggling with acne and eating disorders. The music seems to come like a signal from a spaceship to tell us that, from this faraway perspective, it’s all gonna be okay — or to narrate our misery and unease.
I think that once we exit from that particular window and get jobs and start to put down roots, our identity is never hanging in the balance in that way again. Then we’re looking for music often the way people are looking for art to match their couch. Fitting into a structure we’ve already created.
My son, who is nine, is wild for Eminem. When I first listened to Eminem I hated him. I really hated his message. My son would listen to this and storm around with a frown on his face grumbling Eminem lyrics to himself, and I thought, God, can someone just get rid of this guy? He’s ruining our family life.
But then my son said I was not considering his greatness carefully enough. And I started listening to his — really, his acrobatics. I became really interested in him. He’s pretty amazing. His message is limited but his technique is incredible.
RC: I like that your son pushed you on this one.
He’s been reading biographies of Eminem. I still feel it. I know what he’s going through, I remember it so vividly. He said — he lifted up a finger and he said, “Mom, there’s a lot in these books that’s counter to what you think about Eminem.” We now walk down the street with one ear bud in each of our ears, listening to Eminem, holding hands. This is meaningful to him. If it’s meaningful to him, it’s meaningful to me. I guess I’m depriving him of the rebellious experience we all crave, but he seems to really want to share it with me. I’m grateful. There’s this thing that Eminem does with the word “coroner” and “corner” in his song “3AM” that takes my breath away.