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Issue 481, 7 May 2002

Text, drugs and rock and roll – making the creative connections between pop and poetry

David Bowie in the same breath as Evelyn Waugh? Bob Dylan perusing a well-worn copy of Les Fleurs du Mal? Just as artistic movements have fired the imaginations of some of our greatest writers across the centuries, so a more recent cultural phenomenon – rock music – has fertilised, and itself been inspired by, literature. Senior teaching fellow in popular and world musics Simon Warner is looking at what happens when two worlds collide.

From Bob Dylan to Nirvana, the Beatles to U2, rock artists over the last forty years have had literary connections. Literature has influenced the style and content of their songs, song writers have used similar writing techniques as poets and novelists, or even written their own original works of literature. This influence hasn't all been one-way: since the 1960s a number of literary figures have been interested in the world of music, using it as a source of inspiration, and getting involved in album recordings, concerts and the concepts behind them.

While unwilling to place both forms on the same level, Simon Warner (pictured left) believes you can’t discount the cross-fertilisation that has taken place: "There is a tendency to consider literature as a high cultural form, and rock music as a low cultural form. Where they meet, however, there are elements of literature, and poetry in particular, which enters the music lyric, and elements of popular culture which have infiltrated the literary world. Developments in music through the 50s, 60s and beyond have parallels in the worlds of poetry, prose and visual art, proving that the chasm between popular music and 'higher' forms of culture is not so deep as is sometimes supposed."

In the 1960s, some rock stars stopped writing the sentimental cliches, and the clever but contrived lyrics which had characterised the popular song in the 1950s, and began to take on political, social and personal issues. With artists such as Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Jim Morrison, pop lyrics began to show similar characteristics to poetry in their content, style and form.

Simon Warner said: "This change in popular music was a reflection of what had been taking place in  poetry itself, during the 1940s and 50s. Poetic style had become more informal, as the Beat writers in particular took language and exploded it."

The Beat writers and the rock musicians had another thing in common  – drugs – which were an integral part of the changes taking place in literature and music at the time. Yet taking substances to change the mind’s vision and inspire writing is not new to literature: in the 19th century the Romantic poets used opium for much the same ends.

Rock music is not the only strand of popular music to have a literary connection. There is also a strong tradition in Black culture from the 1940s onwards, with the growth of jazz. A pioneer in this crossover was Slim Gaillard, who, in the 1940s and 50s, used verbal dexterity set to music to present improvised poetry.

Throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s, poetry inspired and influenced Black music, with writer-musicians, such as Gil Scott Heron, setting their words to music. Poetry and reggae, with artists such as Lynton Kwesi Johnson, also have a strong connection.

Rap music is now being dubbed the 'street poetry' of the 1990s. In the US, there are events called poetry ‘slams’, where poets recite their work, often in rap, like performers in a comedy or folk club.

The last decade has seen the emergence of so-called cult fiction – the work of novelists like Irvine Welsh, Douglas Rushkoff and Jeff Noon – which has drawn heavily on experiences of club culture and the dance music which drives it, providing a literary mirror to a mass youth movement.

Simon Warner finds examples of connections between musicians and literature, not through literary analysis, but in biographical information about the musicians themselves, other writings, and interviews:

"In his 'nonsense songs', such as I Am the Walrus and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, John Lennon admits he was directly influenced by poetry of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Bob Dylan cites various people as shaping his writing, especially the Beat writers of the 1950s, such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and the 19th century French symbolist poets, Rimbaud and Baudelaire.

"Two albums by David Bowie, Diamond Dogs and Aladdin Sane, were directly inspired by novels. In the first, Bowie wanted to make a soundtrack of the world Orwell had created in 1984;  in the second he was inspired by  Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies. Bowie even used a writing technique, called cut-up, devised by the writer William Burroughs. Burroughs would take a text he’d written, cut it up and then reassemble the words in another order and Bowie used this technique to create lyrics during the 1970s."

William Burroughs was also one of a number of writers whose interest in popular music led them to collaborate with a string of major rock stars, including Laurie Anderson, U2 and Kurt Cobain. Poets Jim Carroll, Michael McLure and Adrian Henri, novelists Kathy Acker and Salman Rushdie, have also worked closely with the rock fraternity.

Song writers who themselves became published authors include Bob Dylan – who wrote a stream of consciousness novel Tarantula – and John Lennon – who wrote two volumes of poetry, In his own Write and Spaniard in the Works. Two other artists, Leonard Cohen and Patti Smith, tried to make their way as poets before entering the music business.

Simon Warner believes that the commercial success which the music world can offer is one of the reasons for such crossovers: "This is a direct example of the mix of 'low' and 'high' culture, as artists start out as poets, then use music to put their work in a new context. The financial benefits are important, but these artists also choose to use music to give their work wider appeal. Poetry still commands a fairly élite and limited audience, whereas rock music is heard by millions."

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