No one brought up “The Worm in Philly”—there will be few band names that ever beat the fictional “The Annihilation of the Soft Left”—but Sam Lipsyte moderated a discussion about rock and roll, the alpha male novel and literature with the same gritty humor that permeates his fiction. On Friday night at Housing Works, in front of an intimate crowd, Lipsyte spoke with Walter Martin from the Walkmen about his upcoming children’s album, We’re All Young Together, as well as with Wesley Stace, the British folk singer known as John Wesley Harding, regarding his new novel, Wonderkid. All three men drank Brooklyn Lagers on stage.
Lipstye opened the hour-long gathering with an anecdote about PBR, recalling an evening in his twenties when he asked a salesman for P-B-R, and the guy replied, “I don’t think we have any C-O-L-D.” He spelt out “cold,” get it? I guess you had to be there.
Some laughs to Lipsyte’s opener were loud, others muffled, and I think that’s an appropriate way to summarize the event as a whole: Stace was boisterous, hysterical, and engaging, reading a passage from his novel in which the Wunderkids, newly remodeled as a band to appeal to toddlers, readies to perform; Martin was, in contrast, reserved, strumming his guitar and speaking only when prompted by Lipsyte. The dichotomy felt jarring at first, but Lipsyte’s dry cynicism led the talk towards a relative balance between the artists.
Along with Lipsyte’s easing guidance, questions and comments from the audience centered the conversation mainly on fatherhood and children’s relation to music. Did having kids affect any of their work schedules as writers and musicians? For Lipsyte and Martin, of course. Stace admitted he pulled the “early morning shift” (his wife likes to sleep late), so after he drives the kids to school in the morning, he has the rest of the day to himself. Sounds like a fellowship.
The main question, though—the one all three mulled over with some real reflection—concerned introducing music to children.
Will children hate the songs their parents love simply because they were forced to like them and didn’t? Will singing classic songs to boys and girls before bed, say, ruin the discovery of that ballad in the future? Stace offered an answer by sharing a humorous story about his young son, who mistakenly thought the Iron Man theme song was “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath. Now, they head bang on the way to school. Stace had never liked Ozzy and the gang before that accidental discovery.
To little surprise, I suppose, Don Dellilo’s Great Jones Street was also mentioned multiple times. Stace said it wasn’t the best “rock” novel, but he couldn’t offer an alternative. He noted that he wanted to write Wonderkid, in part, because of the lack of “rock” fiction. The stories that already existed, he thought, were by authors who had gotten it all wrong (you can purchase his book now to see if he has gotten it right).
The night may have felt like a bit of competition at times—Stace’s enthusiasm and Englishness dominated the discussion—but the soft-spoken Martin did explain his first solo venture.
“Why for children?” Lipsyte asked.
I thought of Lipsyte’s narrator in “The Worm in Philly” (included in his newest collection, The Fun Parts), who’s trying to write a children’s book on the boxer, the Marvelous Martin Hagler.
“Why for children?” The narrator also asks.
Because “children,” he relays, “were people you could reach. You could really reach out and reach them.”
In a rambling and sincere monologue (or what felt like a monologue), Martin said that this solo album wasn’t quite that: he didn’t write We’re All Young Together, that is, with “reaching” in mind. His record, he admitted, was simply the logical progression for his music—he has two young children, the oldest nineteen months old—and he didn’t set out, then, to necessarily appeal to kids. He does, however, consider this venture to be a “family record,” perhaps even falling under the developing genre of “kid indie.” I’m still not entirely sure what this term means, but apparently there’s enough mainstream children’s music in the present to necessitate a differentiation. I guess the “cool” kids will buy the album, while those with less sophisticated tastes will stick with the Teletubbies.
Martin played two of his songs, one about rattlesnakes, the other about a first school yard crush. If those sound childish and cliché, that’s because they are, but Martin’s guitar playing and unpolished vocals are far from unsophisticated or immature. Ignoring the lyrics (we all do, at times), Martin’s album, which comes out in May, would be hard to differentiate between any adult-oriented one with a folky and pop-like feel (think something like Stace’s own work, perhaps).
Responding to Martin’s songs, Stace performed tunes of his characters’ inventions, made-up Wunderkids’ songs of which he wrote the lyrics, and his friend sent to music. Inspired by Dellilo in Great Jones Street, Stace has also included the words to his songs in the back of the novel.
Between his fictional melodies, and nearing the end of the hour, Stace revealed that his motivation, his initial insight into writing a book about a band with a toddler demographic, occurred when he read an interview with the manager of The Wiggles in The New York Times (“your New York Times,” he emphasized to the New York crowd, in his piercing English accent). He recalled that the man responded, when asked why The Wiggles always do their dance when signing autograph, with a frank remark, which Stace remembered as, “That way, you can always see their hands.”
“There was a novel in that one line,” he said. “Anyone could have found it.”
He paused, offering a smirk.
“But I’m the one that did.”