Monday, February 19, 2007

33 1/3: a conversation with jim fusilli

Jim Fusilli is a rock and pop critic for The Wall Street Journal, as well as the author of a series of mystery novels which center on fictional private investigator Terry Orr.
We spoke by phone on August 20, 2005, just after the Rolling Stones kicked off their Bigger Bang Tour in Boston, Massachusetts and just before the debut of Martin Scorsese’s Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back.

How long have you been at The Journal and how did that come about?

It’s been going on for 24 years and I was at Dow Jones when the Leisure and Arts page started. And I went to the editor at the time and I told him I had written a rock column for a small paper in New Jersey, and I told him that since I was approaching 30 I was probably too old to be a rock critic. Could I be a jazz critic? And he said, Well, you know, we’d like to accommodate you but we’re going to be using Nat Hentoff for jazz. So I said, Well, okay. I understand. Keep me at rock, please. And that’s been it. I’ve been with the paper ever since.

What’s the most gratifying piece that you’ve done for The Journal?

Boy, this is really going to date me, but I was very happy that the full weight of the paper came out behind Paul Simon when he made the Graceland album. We stood up to the African National Congress and to world opinion and just stood with this guy. And the paper ran my piece on the Op/Ed page rather than on the Arts page. But there’s been smaller pieces, like profiles of people who, you know, are so far behind the scenes that nobody knows who they are. Like a guy like Phil Schaap who runs a radio program on the Columbia University radio station for Charlie Parker, and makes a living, such as it is, cleaning up old jazz recordings and making them suitable for release on CD.
But you know, just recently for example, I did a piece on the Rickie Lee Jones anthology, and we were able to contextualize it in such a way that people who may have lost track of her were able to understand that she’s been a major influence on the pop charts even if she’s not on them herself. And yet her body of work is really substantial, and that from our point of view it’s better to do a substantial body of work than to have a couple of hit singles.
Part of the pleasure of writing for the Journal is the position we take, which is not that what’s hip and what’s commercial is important. That’s not our point of view. Our point of view is that rock music sits under the umbrella of the arts and it should approached as an art form, and therefore work that’s substantial is worth celebrating.

When you talk about your work at The Journal, you use the first-person plural.

I’ve been with the paper for a long time. I know the editors and I’m comfortable with the philosophy. I’m not empowered to speak on behalf of the paper, though I think you’d find a similar approach in the other arts coverage.

So there’s truly an editorial philosophy for The Journal’s arts coverage rather than four or five arts writers who generally maintain the same approach.

That would be my perception of it. I take my cues from the page. I mean, I read the page. I think the Journal’s Leisure and Arts page is an unrecognized gem. You know, when I do book tours people will say to me, I didn’t know The Wall Street Journal had a rock critic. But the readers that we have, they know and it’s a pleasure to write for them because they’re smart people.

And while we’re on the subject, what’s your favorite Rickie Lee Jones album?

It’s probably Pirates. But this anthology is brilliant because of the way that it is tracked. There’s no sort of sense of anything other than “let’s put one song next to the song that sounds best next to it.” There’s no attempt to build a chronology or a commercial sweep to it, or to put her most poppy songs on the first CD. It just flows endlessly. And because her songs are filled with time changes and key changes, these songs just flow into each other and it’s like a ten-song suite on each CD.

So she sequenced the anthology as if all of the material was new.

That’s right. I mean, for example, “Chuck E’s In Love” is not the first song on the CD. There’s really an attempt to make an artistic statement on this CD and that’s exactly the kind of thing that I would like and I’d want to tell the Journal readers about.

When you wrote about this, did you talk to her or was this just a straight review?

This was a straight review, but I heard from her through her publicist.

And she’s pleased, I hope.

Well, yeah. I mean, we’re reaching a reader that should be important to people in rock. I don’t know anybody who reaches this reader as well as we do. And you know, rock tends to forget about people once they go outside the 18 to 49 demographic, which is totally stupid because these are people who love music, who grew up thinking music is important, have disposable income, are eager to stay current, and the record industry shouldn’t be pushing Rod Stewart’s Standards, Volume 8 at us. They should be pushing The Magic Numbers and stellastarr and an anthology like Rickie Lee Jones’ that is a sample of excellent work by somebody who may have slipped out of the mainstream. But they don’t.

So I assume that you’ve rethought your opinion of twenty-four years ago, that you might be too old to be a rock critic.

Oh yeah. I mean, I’m really delighted that I did it. To be honest with you, part of it was that I was a father - a new father - and I had a baby and I wanted to be active in her upbringing, so I didn’t want to be out every night, late, you know, traveling with bands and things of that nature. This is off the top of my head, but I might’ve been dismayed at the state of rock back then too.

Let’s see. 24 years ago would’ve been 1981. That’s not the best of times.

I mean, the Joy Division had just busted up and New Order was there. The Cure hadn’t come along yet. The Smiths hadn’t come along yet.

The Smiths and R.E.M. were right around the corner.

And, you know, the sort of institutionalizing of punk was going on.

But what about being too old for the job? If you thought that 30 might be too old twenty-four years ago, then you’ve rethought that end of it as well.

Um, yes. But, you know, age isn’t the deciding factor. It’s attitude.

But age can be a deciding factor. I think certain papers might take age into consideration when they’re hiring a rock critic.

They may. I’m unaware of that. I mean, I don’t have a sense that. I just don’t know if my readers know how old I am. By the way, I’m not 54. I’m 52. I was approaching 30. I guess they must figure I’ve been around for a long time, and I have a bias in favor of some of the components of music that were more popular long ago. You know, I’m a big fan of melody. I’m a big fan of lyrics. I like interplay between musicians. I like a band that has depth, meaning that it might be the second guitar player who plays the most interesting thing on that track. I was just listening to a band called Kingsbury Manx, and they have two drummers and then they play this sort of Gomez-like folk rock, but the fact that they have two drummers is fascinating. These guys really create a really nice texture, so maybe people say, Jim doesn’t review a lot of rap, and he prefers melody, and maybe that indicates how old I am, but you know I’ve never really had a comment from anybody that I’m too old or something like that. I’m pretty youthful in my world view anyway.

And you’re not anywhere close to feeling too old for it.

No, but the industry makes it difficult. They really do make it difficult for me to bring our readership into the experience. You know, when I was 18 I was much more up for standing in a club for the 2 a.m. set. I still do it now and then. It’s not something I can recommend to our readers. And I once had a conversation about this with Van Morrison. I envy the first-rate jazz club. There have always been rock musicians that I thought if they could just show up with their instrument and sit in a room full of people who were attentive they would really show the quality of their work. But they’re compelled to go out into this raucous environment. They’re almost compelled to be less musical than they can be.
I had a conversation with Keith Richards about two weeks ago, and he was telling me about how it stays special, because he and Charlie and Woody and Darryl Jones sort of play with each other and for each other. They’re aware of the spectacle around them, but they try to do something to confound each other, see if the other guy can pick up on it, and take it to a little bit different place while staying within the structure of the song. And I saw them in Boston and I paid attention, and that is exactly what they did. And I said to Keith, You know, I’m not sure that a lot of people are aware you do this. And he said to me, You’re probably right, but I think people are aware, at some level, that there’s quality at work. And that there’s a reason why this music’s substantial. I’m paraphrasing. And I understood completely what he meant.
And that’s what kept the Stones fresh and, you know, as a member of the audience that thrilled me, because as much as I like the spectacle, at the end of the day I just want to hear music. You know, I’m not interested in much more than the music. The celebrity doesn’t matter. Whether they’re fashionable doesn’t matter to me. I just care about the music at the moment, and you know I’ve seen a lot of big bands do bad shows and I’ve seen a lot of unknown bands do good shows. You know, I’m doing a piece right now about three bands that I’m not sure that any members of the Journal readership knows about, but these bands are great and I’m confident that the readership will give them a try.

And they are?

The Magic Numbers, which I think is the album of the year. I probably shouldn’t say that but I do. The Kingsbury Manx.

I just got that one yesterday. I haven’t opened it yet.

It’s going to remind you of early Kinks. Not early Kinks, you know, sort of Village Green Kinks, and Belle & Sebastian and Elliott Smith, but you know, as I said, they’ve got two drummers and they do this music with a lot of confidence, and it shouldn’t be ignored. And then there’s a band called stellastarr which I love. They’re from Brooklyn. They just did their second album. There’s another band that I might do - I don’t know if I can fit it in the piece - called the Eames Era, but I may run out of space.

What’s the usual word count for a piece?

It’s generally around 800 words, but the Journal’s starting a new Saturday edition so there may be more opportunities.

Three bands in 800 words is a tough assignment, let alone four.

The Journal reader is not turning to us for music. They’re busy people who are thoroughly engaged in their lives. And the arts coverage is not the primary reason they come to the paper. At least this was always the philosophy, to make it clear and distinctive and understand that these are very busy people. You know, it’s just sort of discipline of doing it, and respecting the reader’s time. I have tremendous respect for the intelligence of the reader, but I don’t presume they know anything about what I’m writing about, so I try to be as helpful as I can. I don’t use jargon. I don’t presume knowledge of the subject. And when you’re writing at that fundamental level, you stick pretty close to the core of the story. And if somebody said to me, Jim, you can fill the entire paper, you know, I wouldn’t know how to do that, but I do know how to turn in 800 words for grown-ups to read about rock.
Now my Keith Richards piece ran about 1000 words, but we had a long discussion about his relationship with Brian Jones, Mick Taylor and Ron Wood, and I thought it was fascinating. And it’s certainly the kind of thing historians would want to know about because it was fascinating, his perception of what he had to do to accommodate three different types of guitar players. But there wasn’t room for it.

So what do you do with all of that material? Is it burning a hole in your pocket?

I may use it in the future. I had conversation with Miles Davis many, many, many years ago. I’m talking about 22 years ago, and I’ve written about that conversation many times. In fact, I just mentioned it the other day to Keith because back then Darryl Jones had just joined Miles’ band as the bass player and Miles was explaining to me why he was so great. So you know I hold onto these things and I use them when I can.
You know, part of the experience of talking to people like Keith Richards or Lou Reed or Elvis Costello or people of that caliber is that there’s life lessons being communicated as well. They may give me everything I need for my story pretty quickly, but I’m trying to learn how to manage my career as an artist also, as a novelist. And when these people who have worked at the highest level for decades start talking about a subject that may be off-track, you know, I just soak it all in and I try to make it part of my philosophy on being a novelist.

How do you come to the 33 1/3 series?

At first, I just wasn’t interested in doing it. I mean, my career as a novelist was taking off and I had a four book deal. I had to do a book a year. And I really didn’t, you know, want to do a 150 page album review. But then I had a conversation with the publisher, David Barker, who’s a terrific publisher and knows tons about music. And I said, You know, I had a personal experience with Pet Sounds when I was a kid, and it really changed my life. How would you feel about me writing this book, but bringing elements of the novel to it? Not writing it as a sort of linear album review, but show how a single work of art can change a life? And David, to his credit, was up for it, and so the book is about me as much as it’s about Brian or the album even. But the hope is that people who read the book will either say, Yes, that’s exactly what Pet Sounds did for me, or they may say, Nah, Pet Sounds didn’t do it for me, but this other piece of art did. And you know, the book has quite a few elements of the novel in it. I think it’s written by a novelist rather than a music critic. I mean, it’s got music in it, but by and large you have this character of Jim who’s basically writing in the voice of an amazed teenager, who is timid and a little concerned about his place in world and doesn’t really have the courage of his opinions, but he sort of floats them out there anyway. And you know, there are some people that just catch on to that instantly and they go along with it and they understand the voice. It’s an idealized voice. So I mean it was a big pleasure to do it. It’s been far more successful than I thought it was going to be. I just thought it was going to be a project between books and I thought maybe I could do something interesting here and I really did want to be associated with 33 1/3, but it just has taken on a little bit of a life of its own.

When you start talking to David, there’s absolutely no question in your mind what album is in your sights.

If the standard was that it had to be great and influential, my thought would’ve been Pet Sounds. You know, there’s others I could’ve picked. I could’ve picked something by Monk maybe, or something by Jaco or Joni Mitchell but, you know, they would’ve been second choices. No album ever hit me like Pet Sounds did.

Is that the same thing as Pet Sounds being your favorite album? Or is it just the most influential?

It’s the most influential on my life. It had almost no influence on me as a musician. It wasn’t until last year that I even bothered to sit down and figure out how to play the songs. And I can’t listen to it for fun. I don’t even list it in my Desert Island Discs because it’s too specific and too painful. But I do think it’s the best rock album. Or let me say this another way. I do think it is the best album of the rock era. It is absolutely a realization of what the artist intended and it connects on an emotional and intellectual level. You know, there’s not a lot of work that does that. In fact, I think it’d be difficult and name 10 from the rock era that do that.

But you do have reservations about particular songs on the album. I think the word you use is “annoying.”

Yeah, I don’t think it’s a perfect album. I mean, it’s perfect in that it’s a reflection of a very troubled man, but I think that musically, you know, it’s a creation of its time, where you had very tight deadlines and you had to produce work quickly. You just didn’t have a year to work on something. You know, for example, “Sloop John B.” It doesn’t really have a place on that album. The instrumentals, particularly the title track, “Pet Sounds,” you know, this he wrote for a James Bond film. So as I speculate in the book, you can probably go back to the album before Pet Sounds and find a couple of better songs for the overarching theme. But again, one thing we have a tendency to forget, as critics and as fans, is that these are products of human endeavor and, you know, they’re not perfect, even if the artist becomes iconic in our mind. We forget that they’re just like a regular guy like we are and they had to go to work to do this. You know, sometimes when you have those imperfections they remind you of that. I’ve tried to listen to Pet Sounds by programming out the instrumentals, but it just doesn’t work.

You mentioned “Sloop John B” and the instrumental “Pet Sounds” as material that really doesn’t belong.

Well, I think “Sloop John B” doesn’t belong thematically. In terms of the quality of Brian’s production and the voices and the band’s performance, I think it fits.

So why was “Sloop John B” included and “Good Vibrations” wasn’t?

I think it just didn’t fit thematically. “Sloop John B” was the single that appeared between the two albums and, as it was at the time, that single just automatically went on the next album. This was still a transition period from when people were largely buying singles to starting to buy albums. So you would entice people by releasing the single, and you’d try to get them to buy the single and then you would try to get them to buy the album that included the single.

You mentioned presenting voice of the 13 year old. Basically your narrator is Jim the Boy.


Is that approach already in your head before you sit down at the keyboard?

Yeah. I think, as a writer, choosing a voice is something that you have to consider. I mean, when you choose subject, you’re choosing voice. I mean, this is something that good novelists know. A pretty good sign of whether a novel’s going to be of quality is if the writer has chosen the right voice for the story.

There are nine elements of fiction, and obviously there’s overlap between them, but does your voice, your point of view dictate your structure? You take what I’m going to call a running start into the album. It’s similar to a long jumper at a track meet, or when Evel Knievel would ride his motorcycle to the top of the ramp in order to visualize where he was going to go before backing all the way down to make his approach.

Yeah, that’s really good.

Is that a fair analogy?

Yes it is. I thought the book’s foreword could set the tone for what was going to follow. And I did want to have a certain scattershot approach to it. I did want to have a sense of disorientation to the writing, but you know I’m too disciplined by experience to make individual sentences or individual paragraphs disorienting. The only thing I could do would be to string a bunch of very lucid sentences and lucid paragraphs together in an unusual way.

In the book you speak directly to the reader quite a bit. Is that a conscious choice, or is that an overflow of the voice? When I say conscious I probably mean calculated, though it’s hard to use the word calculated and make it sound nice.

I’m totally with you and my novels are like that. My novels are all in first person and they have a level of intimacy with the reader. My principal character, Terry Orr, shares information with the reader that he shares with no one else in his life, so I’m familiar with that. That is not in my journalism, by and large. With my journalism there’s a bit of distance because I’m pushing the work out in front, not myself.

But again, you’re approaching Pet Sounds as a more fictional endeavor than a journalistic music review.

Right. I think you want to give the reader a chance to be as intimate with you as you’re trying to be with them, so you want the reader to react viscerally rather than intellectually to what you’re doing. It’s the only way I know to create intimacy between author and reader, to be forthcoming and give the reader space to be forthcoming in return.

As an interviewer, when you’re talking to someone like Keith Richards or Miles Davis, do you find yourself needing to reach out, somehow sharing in order have them open up?

First of all, I probably should say that when I met Miles I was terrified of him, and he knew it. And at the time I didn’t know how to bring the weight of the newspaper into the room. But Miles was very kind to me and very understanding, and he knew I was basically a kid who loved him so much that I couldn’t, you know, meet him as an equal, and I’m always grateful for that experience because he was wonderful with me.

That could’ve gone another way.

Yeah, you know, I just think that I approached him in the proper way even though I was frightened of him. I think he saw that I respected him very much, and that I wasn’t looking to become his pal. With somebody like Keith, you know, he’s 10 years older than me, but we’re more or less the same age. I play music, he plays music and so there’s common ground right away. He’s knows I’m a serious guy. I’m not there to fawn all over him. We’re both doing a job. But you know, musicians are interesting people. They love music, and if they sense that you love music, you’re usually going to get along. And I do love it, and I think that these guys sense that fashion and celebrity and commercial success is not part of my thinking. You know, we just get along. I don’t prepare questions generally. I pretty much have an idea of what I want to say, but what I’ll usually say to them is, I have a premise. Let me run this by you and tell me if it makes any sense. And they’ll say, Yes, that’s great, or No, that’s not quite it. And then we’re off and running.

What do you do when you get, No, that’s not quite it.

I’ll just say to them, Would you give me a minute and show me where I misunderstood? For example, I said to Keith, I get a sense, Keith, that you’re just standing around listening, and that the rhythm section is strong enough that you don’t have to be a constant presence, that you can accent and add filigrees and enrich the music that way. And you know, he could’ve easily said, Absolutely not. Without me, Charlie falls part. Woody wouldn’t know what to play. But he said, No, that’s exactly right. But that was a sort of an informed opinion, because first of all I love the Stones and I know their stuff, and secondly I had seen them play with just the five guys, and I couldn’t believe how much rhythm Charlie, Darryl Jones and Woody made together, and how Keith came in and out of the music and how the other guys were sensitive to when he was drifting away intentionally to fill up that space. I mean, the communication among those guys is fabulous. But my first meeting with Lou Reed, for example, we didn’t start off on the same page, and it wasn’t until we started discussing poetry that we found common ground. You know, the point of this is to get the story for the reader. It’s not necessarily for the writer to have a pleasant experience.

You seem extremely, maybe even extraordinarily, protective of Brian in the book.


When you mention that he took LSD, you take a moment to mention that it was legal at the time.


You also talk about being backstage with him and having the desire to give him a big hug. Has that been there since the beginning? Or is that something that as his problems, his struggles have become more public, the desire to protect grows?

We must remember that this book was written by a fan. My journalism about Brian over the years is not so forgiving. I don’t respect anyone who surrendered their gifts to drugs. I don’t like people who forsake the ability to create art to do other things. I have a huge sympathy for Brian and I think that of all the troubled rock stars I’ve met over the years he’s the one that I look at and see the root causes of his problems more clearly than others. But that book is a fan’s perspective. If somebody gave me the opportunity to write a full-fledged biography of Brian Wilson, that certainly wouldn’t be the perspective.

So the fan is protective of Brian.

I think so. It’s very funny. You know, Steve Earle has this very funny comment about Dylan. He says, When did people start calling him Bob? And he says, I hear this all the time now. Bob. Bob. And you know, the name denotes a lot, and the way that people refer to Brian. You know, Brian is like a child’s name. And the way people say it. Oh Brian. There’s sort of this built in affection for him. And being with him in a controlled environment, I just simply decided to look at it through that perspective. I wrote about this on my website and it’s not as fawning, but you know I just think that he’s had just a terrible life, and yet he’s given us such joy.

You use Brian’s quote to David Leaf: “I wanted people to know it was more a Brian Wilson album than a Beach Boys album.” That sounds more self-assured than one might expect from someone who seems to need the protection that you’re willing to give him.

Well, I don’t believe that any rock star has achieved his or her fame without a bit of ruthlessness and calculation. And I think what Brian probably felt at that time was that it was time for the world to know that he was the man behind the Beach Boys.
Wait until you see the Scorsese documentary on Dylan. Scorsese leaves no doubt that Dylan was ruthless in pursuit of fame, and that he would’ve trampled anyone to get it. Look, I used to play music in Greenwich Village. I used to go to the coffeehouses and play, and the people who made it were the people who were relentless. They weren’t the most talented people. They were the people who were relentless. And part of that relentlessness came from a desperation. You rarely found people doing well who had happy home lives, lots of career choices, and change in their pocket. It was always the back against the wall situation. And this is one of life’s hard lessons. You know, for somebody like me who had options, who had, you know, a variety of career paths available to him, to go up against somebody who was absolutely desperate to succeed, there was no way I was going to be able to defeat them. Unless I had overwhelming talent, which I didn’t.

So does that mean that people who didn’t have the dysfunctional upbringing with a drunk father managing their career and hitting them hard enough to cause hearing loss, does that mean that those people are destined for something less than greatness?

No, they’re just going to achieve it in a field that doesn’t require such desperate maneuvers. You know, my childhood experiences are nothing compared to Brian’s, but nonetheless they were painful to me. And one of the things I like about this Pet Sounds book is, if you read it before you read any of my novels, you will say, Okay, now I understand what parts of Jim are in this character Terry Orr.
Our lives are our own, and it’s not until much later that we begin to understand whether we’ve had a good time or a bad time comparatively. You know, you don’t really know if your family’s dysfunctional until you start interacting with other families. I grew up in a pretty rowdy neighborhood where families were always yelling at each other and my family shouted at each other. It was not mean-spirited. It was just the way of communicating. And I remember in high school I went over to this friend’s house, and the way he and his father spoke to each other, with affection and love, complete respect, I couldn’t believe it. I mean, they were speaking like equals. I just thought, Wow, this is something different. I think one thing parents try to do is they try to put their kids in situations where they see the world in a little bit different way, so my parents had sent me off to another high school and that was a way for me to get out of the sort of insular world in which I lived.

Let me go back Brian’s quote. He says, “I wanted people to know if was more of a Brian Wilson album than a Beach Boys album.” Does he need Tony Asher? He needs the other voices in the band, but does he need Tony Asher as a co-writer?

Actually, if I may say so, he doesn’t need the voices. For example, the ending of “God Only Knows,” it’s just he and Carl and Bruce.

You’re saying Brian could’ve done all of the vocals.

He could’ve done all the voices. I mean, this is where he was really savvy. He knew that the sweetness in Carl’s voice was better for “God Only Knows” than his own voice. His voice was just too brassy. But he needed Asher. Asher was an advertising copywriter, and Brian chose an advertising copywriter because Brian knew that advertising copywriters are supposed to write what you tell them in an elegant way. And I suspect that that was Brian’s thinking at the time. Asher really captured naivete about matters of the heart, and I think he did a wonderful job. And I wish he had more opportunities to write. I even wish he had opportunities to write today because I think, you know, some of those lyrics are just really wonderful. At these little gigs I’ve been doing I always play “I Wasn’t Made For These Times” as a folk song. And people can’t believe the lyrics. They can’t believe how penetrating they are, and that’s to Brian and Asher’s credit.

Let me ask you about the logistics of writing the book. You decide on the voice of Jim the Boy, but you have other responsibilities – a novel a year plus your work for The Journal. Do you have to go back and do more research, or has this album so enthralled you that you’ve pretty much got the music and the books by Timothy White and David Leaf already ingrained and you just have to check the quote to make sure you’ve got it right?

Yeah, the White book I’ve read a number of times over the years. I think it’s wonderful.

So you really didn’t have to budget research time.

No, I knew the story. But what I did is I decided to try to learn the music of the album, to try to be able to play all the songs. So I took the Granata book, which is very helpful in that way. I actually tried to get the sheet music and I couldn’t get it. And I played all the music which revealed even more to me about the chaos in Brian’s mind and the ingeniousness of his arranging abilities.

And the process of discovery, even if it’s just the chord changes, has got to help the writer.

Yeah, it did. It really did.

What song gave you the most trouble?

To figure out or to play?

Either one you want. I realize they’re two different things.

“God Only Knows” is problematic. I mean, he has really written himself into a dead end that he arranged himself out of. I mean, the bridge just doesn’t resolve itself properly. And there’s recorded versions of it, earlier takes of it where it just falls apart, but he was such a strong arranger of voices that he was able to overcome his shortcomings as a composer at that point. Yeah, “God Only Knows.” It’s a very simple song to play but it’s really difficult to make it high art.

And what was the one that’s the most difficult to play?

Well, I’m not trying to dodge the question, but you have to understand, I’m trying to play these songs by myself. For example, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” no matter how I tried to arrange it, I could not come up with evocative enough chords to give a sense of harmony. Brian would occasionally write folk chords and then suddenly add these incredible augmentations that created a groundswell of harmony, so if you’re playing “Caroline No,” for example, you’re playing like it’s a folk song and then suddenly these chords come in that create a harmony with your vocal. It’s pretty amazing.

When you’re writing the Terry Orr novels, what do you listen to?

I don’t listen to anything. In the first couple books, whenever you come across a piece of classical music, that’s probably what I was listening to at that moment, but recently I’ve not been listening to anything while I’ve been writing.

What if you’re writing 800 words on the Rickie Lee Jones anthology? I imagine that it’s either nothing or you’re writing to the anthology.

It’s probably nothing. What I generally do is download the album onto my computer, I’ll listen to it just straight through a couple of times, probably the first time while I’m doing like my bills or something like that, and then I’ll let it wash over me and I’ll start to get a sense of it. I’ll start to memorize it a little bit. And then when I’m writing I’ll just pick and choose things I wanted to highlight and emphasize.

You talk about the pain of listening to Pet Sounds. Were you listening to Pet Sounds when you were writing the book?

No. I was really in a good space then for an artist. It was almost a sort of Stanislavski approach to writing. I had completely transported myself back to the pain of my childhood.

And how long, start to finish, does it take to write?

I think I wrote that book in three weeks, and then David asked me to put a little bit more music criticism in it, and then we cleaned it up a little bit.

But you got the whole draft in three weeks’ time.

Very fast, because it had to be like that. It had to be visceral. It couldn’t be intellectual. I should probably try to do that with my novels. Be a bit more free.

You used the term “good space,” but that’s for writing. How are you as a person during those three weeks?

Pretty painful. I didn’t enjoy it at all. Yeah, I wouldn’t want to do that again.

Did you take it out on co-workers, family members?

No, it stripped my confidence and made me sad. But I’ll tell you what, I wrote the foreword to Hard, Hard City, the Terry Orr book after I wrote the first draft of Pet Sounds 33 1/3, and you can see the influence of having that experience, because for the first time I write about Terry’s childhood.

Was the experience worth it?

The book? Yeah. Definitely. It’s created new opportunities for me. It’s created new fans for my fiction. It’s giving me a chance to play music again and connect with a different audience. But the best part about it was it made me very close again to this lovely and wonderful album.

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