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PM: Do you have any desire to write a book that uses music as a structural element?
RM: I’m sort of less interested now in writing about music than I am in just being inherently musical to some extent. I sort of said everything about music in a fictional context that I have to say. But I have been writing essays about music, and at some point I might make a book out of those.
PM: You’ve written quite a few essays—I know you have a few in Tin House and also, I just saw the most recent one in the latest issue of Black Clock, where you write about your involvement with the Brooklyn Record Club. And specifically, about one meeting where each member had to bring in and play his or her top two guilty pleasures, and yours were Frank Zappa’s “Regyptian Strut” and Jethro Tull’s “For Michael Collins” and “Jefferey and Me”. So in this vein, off the top of your head, what are your two favorite songs and the two songs you hate most? ... Or if you want to omit the hate part, you can.
RM: No, I can do that. I mean the problem is that the list-making thing is a rude strategy and it will only reflect my thinking at 9:30 am on this particular day. You know what’s interesting about this is that a song that you really hate you sort of secretly love in a way, there’s a way that you prize the things that you detest. So a song like “Margaritaville,” by Jimmy Buffett, which I really, really hate—I heard it just the other day because Amy, my wife, and I were in Florida for Thanksgiving going to her parents’ place and we got hopelessly lost trying to get home from the airport and went twice over this stunning bridge right between Sarasota and Tampa, this big, long skyway kind of thing, and somewhere on there “Margaritaville” came on, and I remembered that what I always hated about it was that weird little steel drum vibraphone melody that comes in at the chorus, you know, I hated that friggin’ steel drum sound, it drove me crazy. So on this particular ride I was thinking, would this song be any better if you took out the froufrou arrangement and just made it an acoustic guitar song? Actually, the lyrics are still execrable, so I don’t know if that would save it.
What else do I really hate? Well, you know, many times in print I’m on the record of detesting the Eagles and thinking that they’re the worst band ever. So, a lot of Don Henley solo material is incredibly hateful to me. Like that one that goes [sings] “Forgiveness, forgiveness, even if, even if you don’t love me anymore.” You know that one?
RM: I hate that thing.
PM: For good reason.
RM: And two songs that I really like right now? Well, I really love, I’m in the spirit of being just absolutely besotted with the great blues singer Skip James and he has a rather famous blues song that many people have covered, but I think the original recording from the thirties is just one of the most sublime recordings ever made, and that’s the song called “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues.” So that would be one, and then I would say that I’ve often contended that the best pop song ever written is “The Tears of a Clown” by Smokey Robinson.
PM: Really? What do you love about it?
RM: For one, that opening snippet of melody that’s played on that kind of little marching band ensemble, that’s just a beautiful, really simple great melody. And then the guitar comes in really big with that cycle of four-chord progression. And the lyrics are really great just as love song lyrics, but I don’t think they are love song lyrics. I think that they’re race relation lyrics that a lot of those late, great Motown songs doubled as, songs about the kind of racial difficulties in America in the sixties. I think it’s a really beautiful, graceful, and gentle but defiant song about black culture.
PM: Who would you name as your musical influences?
RM: They’re always changing, so again the list is a snapshot of today. But you know what’s not doing it for me—I mean I’ve said this elsewhere now and I’ve gotten in a tremendous amount of trouble for saying it, but I’ll say it again—what’s not doing it for me right now is rock music. I mean I loved and lived by rock music for 25 years and then I just kind of hit the wall on it now, and to me it’s just not doing what it used to do. I’m really more interested in older things and things that have endured for long, long periods of time. So the old acoustic blues guys like Skip James and really early Muddy Waters, Fred MacDowell, and Son House, those records seem to me really sublime. But also Leonard Cohen, and I really am totally in love with that Dylan 1962 bootleg that you can unfortunately only get at Starbucks.
So a lot of stuff like that, stuff that has primitiveness and simplicity as its motive. I’m tired of double kick-drumming and death-metal guitar tunings and guys yelling about how much trouble they’re having with their girlfriends.
PM: Well then, if there were a soundtrack to The Diviners, and the prologue is entitled “Opening Credits and Theme Music,” what type of music would you envision on it? Or, what were you listening to when you were writing it?
RM: Most of what I listen to when I write is really drony experimental music, like La Monte Young or Morton Feldman or some Brian Eno—usually instrumental music. I like this band the Clogs right now and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and the various spin-off bands like Silver Mt. Zion, so it would be stuff like that in terms of soundtrack music for The Diviners, stuff that’s attempting to be sublime. And most kinds of music that most people find incredibly dull is the kind of stuff that I like to write to.
PM: You’ve also collaborated with various musicians before, notably One Ring Zero for whom you’ve written song lyrics, and you also wrote an essay that’s included in the liner notes for the Burnside Project album The Networks, The Circuits, The Streams, The Harmonies, which came out in 2003. And you wrote the essay under a nom de plume, Tyrone Duffy, who coincidentally is one of the main characters in The Diviners. There he’s a bipolar bike messenger who had a brief encounter with fame as an artist years ago. Which existence of Tyrone Duffy came first, the nom de plume or the character in The Diviners? And is he a doppelganger of sorts for yourself, or do you identify with him in some way?
RM: Well, you’re the first person to ask that question.
RM: Yup, nobody seems to have noticed that Tyrone wrote some liner notes. And actually, you would have gotten the million-dollar prize if you had also noticed that Tyrone is a character in a story in Demonology, too [see end note]. Nobody has noticed that. But anyway, this represents his third appearance in The Diviners, and I might not even be done with him yet. So it’s possible that Tyrone Duffy is my Kilgore Trout. If you remember from Vonnegut, Kilgore Trout was the wasted science fiction writer that Vonnegut kept rehabilitating for various books. I love Tyrone and I worked really hard on him in The Diviners, and yes, he’s kind of my alter ego, my alter ego if I were an African-American, bipolar bike messenger.
There’s an even further appearance—at one point I tried to make some of Tyrone’s visual works. There was a period where you could actually see Tyrone’s resume and some of his photo collages on the Web. [He looks on the Web] Aha, it can still be done! If you go to www.waxpoetic.org, you’ll see a black field with a bunch of moons on it. And if you move your cursor over various moons, each moon gives you something else. And one of the moons will say “Tyrone Duffy,” and then you will get Tyrone’s pictures and also some poems that he wrote.
PM: A totally different question, but which musicians, dead or alive, would you collaborate with if you had the chance?
RM: You know, one of the absolute highpoints of my life in the past five years is that I managed to collaborate on something with Meredith Monk, a big hero of mine. And she’s someone I would like to work with again at any point. I mean, for my money of musicians working today, she’s probably the most consistently amazing and fascinating and just someone I really admire. So it would probably be someone along those lines. I would love to collaborate with Captain Beefheart, who’s retired from playing now, and John Cage would be amazing in some respects, in every respect in fact. Or, David Thomas of Pere Ubu, that’s a guy I would like to do something with.
PM: And do you ever collaborate with writers on projects?
RM: I tried once to write a short story with Chris Offutt, but it didn’t go that well because Chris tried to imitate me and I tried to imitate Chris and it was like a really bad story that both of us had written. I sort of feel like that’s the one place where I’m no good at collaborating. I mean I can do cross-medium collaborations without too much difficulty at all, and in those contexts I just let go of everything and let the collaboration rule, I don’t get territorial about it. But my own writing is the one place that I’m allowed to be completely territorial, so it’s a little hard for me to give up that turf. Once I’ve claimed ownership, I don’t want to give it up.
PM: Do you have any musical aspirations left unfulfilled? I know you dislike opera, so I imagine there aren’t any librettos in your future—but is there anything else that you haven’t tried that you would like to attempt?
RM: Well, actually, Hannah’s been trying to talk me into working on a musical with her for a long time. And the irony is that in addition to opera, I detest musical theater. I just can’t stand it. But we actually are proceeding as though it might happen. I picked out a book that I might want to adapt, perhaps, if we feel like we can make a nice story structure for this musical. And Hannah’s really good at those high period Rogers and Hart musical theater kind of melodies. She can really play that stuff on piano and it sounds like the real thing. So, who knows?
PM: And are you working on any new books, stories, or any new songs right now?
RM: Yeah, the book of stories is already done. That comes out in 2007. And Hannah and I have a bunch of new songs. We have probably almost an album’s worth of songs almost done already. And so it just means we’ve got to try and get Professor Grubbs, as he’s now known, out of the classroom a little bit and into the rehearsal studio to work on them.
PM: And go back into the studio?
RM: Yeah, that would be the plan, ultimately. It’s all going to go a bit slower now because Dave’s wife had a baby last year, so they’ve got the baby, and he’s got this tenure track teaching job now at Brooklyn College. But I think that’s the goal, is to work towards recording new songs.
Note: When Moody asked me to list two songs I most despise, I responded with anything by Korn and “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” by Jimmy Buffett. While Moody’s mention of his aversion to Buffett’s “Margaritaville” brought the singer to mind, I stand by my choice, as I was unwillingly and painfully subjected to it countless times in high school. And if I have to pick a second, specific song that I detest, it is “If I Had a Million Dollars ” by the Barenaked Ladies.
Tyrone Duffy makes a brief appearance in “Surplus Volume Books: Catalogue Number 13,” where three of his works of art—defaced copies of books by Norman Mailer—are listed along with a short bio under the subheading, “A Run of Defaced Mailers.”