SXSW Music has officially started, and however you’re planning to spend it, there will be plenty of time for reading. (Unless of course you are a musician playing 11 gigs in three days. In that case, save these for the ride to the next tour stop.)
For Austinites, SXSW is, among many other things, a grown-up spring break for the entire town. So whether you’re playing hooky to stake out your spot in line for a hot show or just heading to West Texas to avoid the craziness, save that precious phone battery and spend your SXSW downtime off your iPhone and with your nose in a book.
In that spirit, here’s what we’re reading to get our minds in a musical state. Fiction, nonfiction and autobiographical, all of these reads come from a musician's mind and mouth, and we can’t think of a better time of year in Austin to enjoy them.
Letters to Emma Bowlcut, Bill Callahan
Artist Bill Callahan, one of our (adopted) fellow Austinites, has such a striking narrative voice in his songs and videos, it’s not a surprise his literary musicality carries into his fiction. With 62 letters from a nameless protagonist to a woman he sees at a party named Emma, the novel is, like Callahan's songs, defined by lyrical brevity. It's full of loose details of daily life and filled with images that stick. Fans of Callahan looking to find revelations about his personal life — or his famously private romances with women like Joanna Newsom and Cat Power — will be disappointed. That being said, there is certainly something more vulnerable here than you find on his records.
Petal Pusher: A Rock and Roll Cinderella Story, Laurie Lindeen
Set in the indie-rock world of the 1980s and 1990s, Lindeen — co-founder of all-girl rock band ZuZu’s Petals — writes candidly, sharply and often hilariously about launching her rock 'n' roll dreams in a male-dominated arena, all while struggling with a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. Lindeen takes us along the exhilarating path of living her rock-star fantasy life, which includes DIY-style tours and meeting (and ultimately marrying) The Replacements rocker Paul Westerberg. Her illness gives the memoir a deepness and sensitivity, and reading about Lindeen’s disillusionment with the indie-rock scene is just as compelling as her passion for it.
Wolf in White Van, John Darnielle
Back in 2012, someone launched a petition to name The Mountain Goats’ vocalist John Darnielle the United States Poet Laureate, calling him “an American institution ... a unique voice in modern word and music,” and we kind of loved it because come on, it’s true — the guy can seriously write. Though he is not yet Poet Laureate (the petition sadly expired), Darnielle did release a debut novel last year to critical praise, including being long-listed for the 2014 National Book Award in fiction. Wolf in White Van is a brilliantly constructed, impressive feat of storytelling about a deeply injured teenage boy inventing and playing a post-apocalyptic role playing game. Most of us already knew about Darnielle’s masterful imagination and talent for powerfully capturing a wide range of human emotions, but it’s a total treat to see those skills on display in this new-to-him art form.
Life, Keith Richards
“This is the life,” Keith Richards writes on the cover flap of his hefty, 500-page autobiography, “Believe it or not, I haven’t forgotten any of it.” And while celebrity autobiographies can be disappointing, Life is honest, electrifying and remarkable. It’s a portrait of a particular man, band and era, but it also connects across generations and speaks to the timelessness and raw energy of live music.
Woolgathering, Patti Smith
Yes, we know we just recommended Smith's book Just Kids to you (and you know what, we’re going to recommend it again because it’s that damn good), but it felt wrong to leave the rock/literary/poetic goddess off this list. Woolgathering is, like pretty much anything Smith touches, a total gem. It’s full of ethereal, radiant prose, weaving together childhood truths and memories to paint a beautiful, autobiographical picture of what it feels like to become an artist. "The writing of it drew me from my strange torpor," Smith writes in a new introduction (the book was first published in 1992), "and I hope that in some measure it will fill the reader with a vague and curious joy."
How Music Works, David Byrne
You probably recognize the eccentric David Byrne as the Talking Heads front man. But you might not know him as an author (or as a poet, photographer, filmmaker or record producer). In this sprawling celebration of music, Byrne gives us part memoir, part personal ode to the power of music. “We don’t make music — it makes us,” he writes, “Which is maybe the point of this whole book.”