When Lou (Reed) Met Edgar (Allan Poe) – Music Meets Literature

There was time when being a writer and being a musician were two completely separate things. Writers were solitary, reclusive individuals who shuffled around in their pyjamas mumbling to themselves, while musicians were rock gods who strutted the stage, ingested massive quantities of illegal substances, and … well, shall we say, got better acquainted with their fans. No more. Now writers are rock stars and rock stars are writers.

Some examples of musicians-turned-writers include Bob Dylan, Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen and Patti Smith. On the flip side, there aren’t as many examples of writers-turned-musicians, but there are a few, such as Michel Houellebecq and Neal Pollack. (And, there was a also a band called the “Rock Bottom Remainders”, that featured Stephen King, Amy Tan and Rick Moody, amongst others).

The same applies when it comes to music inspired by literature, and vice versa. Literature has inspired many songs and even entire albums. Led Zeppelin wrote a number of songs inspired by Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings; Peter Gabriel’s “Mercy Street” is based around the work of the poet Anne Sexton; and then, there’s the most obvious example, Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights”. Not to mention the wonderfully-titled song by the late Warren Zevon, “Lord Byron’s Luggage”.

Another writer who has been a great source of inspiration to musicians is Edgar Allen Poe. Lou Reed released a double CD concept album called The Raven in 2003 that featured a number of musical and spoken-word interpretations of Poe. And, unsurprisingly, many heavy metal bands have made reference to Gothic Horror-writer Poe in their recordings, including Iron Maiden and the wonderfully-named Agathodaimon.

But again, on the flip side, there aren’t as many novels inspired by a specific piece of music. There are many books about music in general, Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity being one great example. There are, however, plenty of novel titles inspired by songs: everything from Douglas Copeland’s Girlfriend in a Coma and Eleanor Rigby to Bret Easton Ellis’s Less than Zero (an Elvis Costello song). (And, disclaimer: I do it too. I stole the name of my blog – “Rant, with Occasional Music” – from Jonathan Lethem’s first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music)

Of course, many people would say that performers such as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen are songwriters and poets, musicians and writers. Others – mostly poets – take great umbrage with the idea that a mere pop song could be considered poetry. And while this may be the case with a song like Jedward’s ‘Lipstick’, what about the staggering oeuvre of someone like Dylan?

So, there is certainly a cross-fertilisation between music and literature, and this is becoming increasingly more so. Kurt Cobain and William Burroughs made an album together; writer Alan Moore has performed spoken-word pieces live on stage with musical accompaniment, as has writer Neil Gaiman, with the added accompaniment of illustrations by artist Eddie Campbell projected on the wall behind him.

With the increasingly easy access to recording equipment and the ability to self-publish or put your writing on the internet, this is only likely to increase. There are plans to release e-books with soundtracks, and authors have started compiling “soundtracks” to their novels – the songs that inspired their novels or even original music – and posting them on their websites. It is an exciting time for both music and literature. It has been said many times in recent years that albums and books are dead; they’re not dead, they’re just evolving.

If you have any thoughts on this subject or any suggestions of other writing/music combos, please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you.

(Images: Click the pics for credits)

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13 comments on “When Lou (Reed) Met Edgar (Allan Poe) – Music Meets Literature

  1. lizamartz says:

    Derek, I know two song/story writers. You and my little brother, Peter, @skwirboi, who writes story-songs, which led him to write a children’s book. Okay, so neither one of you are as famous as Dylan or Poe but it’s early days yet!

  2. Rory says:

    Slight error in the article – Leonard Cohen was a published poet before he was a writer, not the other way round. 🙂

    • Derek Flynn says:

      Indeed you’re right Rory, although I meant the phrase “singers-turned-songwriters” in the sense that they do both. But thanks for keeping me on my toes 😉

  3. JonnyMac says:

    There was never a time where music and the written word were two completely separate things, and back in the days of ballads such as Beowulf they were the same thing entirely. Things such as Operas have been inspired by stories and books for as long as there have been Operas, and I would wager that many poets, novelists and etc were inspired by music. It is possible that the source of inspiration in music (when it does inspire writers) is a lot harder to pin down to specific artists for writers, and it is also certain that people usually do not ask.

    All mediums of art bleed into each other, for example Rock Operas E.G. The Protomen albums that have been inspired by both books and video games, and games such as Bioshock that have been inspired by books as well.

    • Derek Flynn says:

      Absolutely Jonny. The bards of old would wander around singing their story-songs, which were often satires of the rich and powerful. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. James Peters says:

    Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” is a reference to the main character in the novel “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck. Springsteen channels the same humanistic concern for the down and out, the dispossessed, and those marginalized into the shadows that Steinbeck did for the ‘Okies’.

    • Derek Flynn says:

      I’m a big Springsteen fan also, James, so I’m very familiar with that album. Springsteen has always been heavily influenced by books, going back to Woody Guthrie’s “Bound for Glory”. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Beeswax says:

    Pardon my redundancy, but I also disagree with the notion that writers and musicians are two worlds apart. Both mediums are inextricably connected, the shift to poetic themes revealed in pop lyrics was the inevitable move, since musical arrangements can further elucidate the underlying meaning to the words; it adds a different dimension. Leonard Cohen was a poet before he was a musician, its just that his musical career overshadowed his writing one. Sound brings words to a higher plane; words paints the image, the sound of music make that world all encompassing. One aspect complements the other.

  6. amyeyrie says:

    Great article. I would love to read your take on the difference between poetry and writing lyrics 🙂

  7. You missed out my favourite literary-influenced song; track 7 of ‘Sunshine on Leith’, Despite the catastrophic misspellling on the credits (and elsewhere), the boys are clearly singing ‘Come On Nietzsche’…

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